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I’m a Pastor. Do I Lead as One “Ahead” or as One “Among”?

I’m a pastor. Is my job to:

a.) lead everyone individually into the Christian life that I am already living? or

b.) to lead everyone into joining in life with God and His Mission wherever that might lead?

If it is a.) I am in trouble. Because I now have the pressure to have a perfect life so that having achieved that I can now give it to someone else. Here I am. Take a look at me. Here’s how to do it.

If it is b.) then I take an altogether different posture. I can reject the posture of “I am ahead of you.” Instead, I lead not as one who is “ahead” but as one who is “among.” We are in this together and, out of my gifts, I am inviting you to join in a journey together into the depths of life with God and His Mission. Let us journey together and along the way, there will be things you learn from me and there will be things I learn from you.  It is true, I have been walking along this way for a while. I am embedded in a direction. This however does not mean I will always be perfect. It does mean that I have been put on course in an unswerving direction.  I have been walking this direction and God has proven Himself again and again as Lord in and through Jesus Christ. But I cannot be everything to you and I will not be perfect in this endeavor. We must be in this together. God has found me in Christ and God has found you too in the same way. Yes? Then let us join in this journey together.

To continue on with model b.), We each have gifts. I don’t have everything. I cannot do everything. I am very limited actually. I may have been given certain gifts for leading, and teaching (let’s say). To the extent they are recognized in the community and given authority by the Holy Spirit out of my submission to Christ, I offer these gifts to my community (I think ordination recognizes, tests, and facilitates the gifts within the history of Christ). But you have been given gifts as well. I need you as much as you need me. The church body needs you as much as it needs me. We, and I emphasize “we” are the body. And God will use “us” to build up His Kingdom visibly in this place until He returns.

This model of leading (model b.)) requires character and direction. In this way I guess you could say I am leading from “ahead.” But I must grow too in my character. I must receive constructive truth-telling into my life. If I can’t do that, then I should expect no one else to either. Because I am growing too.  Because leading “among” requires modeling “growth.” It requires growing into new territory. The minute I stop growing is the minute I am disqualified for ministry. Likewise, if I take a different direction, a direction of rebellion against God, a refusal to repent when in sin, or if I fall having given myself over to sin in a way that reveals I have lost my direction in Christ, then these things as well disqualify me to lead in my respective gifting. This model of leadership requires character and direction. Part of that character is the posture of leading humbling as one “among.”

Applying this to Preaching

In a recent conversation with a pastor/leader of a missional community we were talking about the struggle of preaching regularly. Here the pastor (I use the title “pastor” as applied to those recognized to lead in N American church whatever gifting they might have) discussed how he struggled with his interior life (not to be confused with his thought life). He found himself asking “Am I measuring up?” “Am I in sync with God?” “Am I living the life I am calling other people to?” To me, this pastor was revealing the leading from “ahead” model of leadership (articulated above) so often embodied by American church. This is the temptation to preach from the posture from above the congregation, as one with all the answers. We all fall into this temptation. It forces us to be somebody we are not in the pulpit and elsewhere. The temptation is to put on a front. And you do this every week, and you’re killing yourself to try to come up with some original insight each weekend for the sermon. This, I assure everyone reading this post, is the death of leadership in Mission.

But following the leading “among” model our job is to listen to what is going on each day in the lives of people around us and in our communities and then to reflect theologically, out of Scripture so as to interpret for our gathering what God is calling us to as a people. This is the gift of preaching! We are given a text to preach within the lectionary. Study of this text is important for preaching (it goes without saying). But meeting with one, two or three people every week, listening carefully to what is happening and reflecting with them about what God is doing in their lives and in their neighborhoods, will be the source material for the sermon. It provides the material from which to reflect on via Scripture. Yes, preaching is about understanding the text well. But it is also listening to God and discerning through the text what God is calling us into as a people. This is leading from among, missional preaching, or contextual theology. It is one of the leadership tasks so essential for the birthing of communities in mission.

Many pastors would disagree with this approach. Mark Driscoll for one has said (in this video here) he’s an introvert and therefore doesn’t want to know anyone is his congregation, just let the Spirit lead and guide him to say what needs to be said in his sermon. This I contend is leading from ahead versus leading from among. This kind of preaching, I contend, will tend to draw a crowd of people who are like you and already get your language and style. This kind of preaching, I contend, tends to decontextualize. The attempts to contextualize from ‘above” always lead to efforts to be more “relevant.” Thus it’s really more marketing than embedding in a context.

So here is what I suggest. If you’re struggling in your teaching/preaching ministry to “come up with” a sermon for this week, have a cup of coffee with people in your community and listen carefully. Take someone out in your neigborhood to a bar or coffee shop and listen carefully. Read the text from Scripture before and after, do the work of study. But it’s that cup of coffee that the Holy Spirit will use to give context and energy for the sermon.  and you’ll have a sermon. Make it a weekly, monthly rhythm!

Agree? Disagree? Am I wrong about leading “from ahead” decontextualizing  preaching?

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.