06 Leading with Humility, Discernment & Courage

Leading with Humility, Discernment & Courage



As we look to the future of faith in the United States, effective faith leadership requires humility, discernment and courage. We need humility to see our own blind spots and the experience of others, discernment to know how to think and act, and courage to bring faith into the public square—but also courage to accommodate others’ religious freedom.

The late pastor and missionary Francis Schaeffer once preached a sermon called “No Little People.” There he argued that Christians often mistakenly see their work as small and insignificant and, because of this wrong perception, end up chasing after stations in life that are actually unhelpful to them and unhelpful to the advancement of the gospel.

Jesus commands Christians to seek consciously the lowest room. All of us—pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and non-professional included— are tempted to say, “I will take the larger place because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ.” Both individual Christians and Christian organizations fall prey to the temptation of rationalizing this way as we build bigger and bigger empires. But according to scripture, this is backward: We should consciously take the lowest place unless the Lord himself extrudes us into a greater one.8

There is something here that relates to the religious liberty debates. The temptation for Christian leaders is to say that religious liberty must be upheld chiefly for our own benefit. This may merely come from a self-preservation mindset—to ensure one’s individual church or religion can be kept safe, with less regard for other religions. At worst, such temptations lead people of faith to approach the religious freedom question in a way that actually deepens partisan divides in America. But if we see religious liberty as a blessing not only for Christians but for society as a whole, then we may be on our way toward a healthier relationship to this issue in particular and to society more generally.

In the Gospels, Christ says that those who wish to be great in God’s kingdom will be servants—and not merely servants of great lords, but servants of all people. The debate about religious practice and common life in the United States must be seen, then, not chiefly as a debate about how a shrinking church can stage a rear-guard action to protect its social standing. It must rather be framed in terms of how Christians can advocate for policies that allow Americans to freely offer their talents, time and service to one another in keeping with their conscience. If we can make the appeal on this ground, then we may not only achieve a narrow political victory, but will also honor the God whom Christians worship—a God who, after all, poured out his own life for the sake of the world.

To make this more practical, we might return to the idea of the five lenses—five ways we can embody humility, discernment and courage—and ask what specific actions Christians should be taking on each front in this particular cultural moment. To review, the five lenses are:

  • Theology: What do God’s word and the church’s wisdom reveal about this?
  • Ministry: What is the proper pastoral response to people living in a fallen world?
  • Relationships: How should I engage friends and neighbors with whom I disagree?
  • Politics: What government policies, however imperfect, best empower human flourishing?
  • Public Square: What is the appropriate relationship between personal conviction and day-to-day interactions with those who hold different beliefs?

Theology: What does God’s word
and the Church’s wisdom reveal about this?

The first lens is theological, reflecting Christians’ perpetual need to return both to the truths of the faith handed down in scripture and to a basic delight in God’s goodness and the joy of centering ourselves upon these truths; to know and contemplate truth is a good thing in itself. Yet today, many issues that are front and center in the public conversation have exposed deep theological differences, which is one reason the debates cause such angst both within the Christian community and outside of it. Interpretations of scripture differ from church to church and from denomination to denomination.

This is, of course, why religious liberty exists: to protect the rights of people with varying religious beliefs to practice those beliefs. People of faith can look through a theological lens to view any manner of public and private activity: from abortion, to immigration, to capital punishment, to same-sex marriage. And they should continue to probe scripture for guidance on every issue, to seek theological discernment from Church history and governing church bodies, to meet in community with other believers and faith leaders to weigh these matters together. Living peacefully in a pluralistic society does not require unpopular theology to be abandoned. Rather, it demands continuing, prayerful investigation into the issues people are questioning most. Barna’s research shows that Christians generally desire thoughtful exegesis and sound theology to help them parse the overwhelming onslaught of opinions and information they face, from social media to political forces. While theological discernment may lead to socially unpopular opinions, pastors and spiritual leaders are called to help those they lead live effectively as countercultural examples.

Yet Barna’s studies have also revealed that “judgmentalism” and “hypocrisy” are among the top negative perceptions of the American church. Such perceptions often arise from Christians’ attempt to focus a theological lens onto any and all interactions with non-Christians. We know as Christians that conviction to follow God’s laws—and the will to do so—come from the grace of the Holy Spirit. To demand that nonbelievers conform to those laws without a conversion to Christianity and the transforming work of the Spirit is to violate their religious freedom.

Ministry: What is the proper pastoral response
to people living in a fallen world?

Perhaps you have heard the quote (attributed to various people), “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” For faith leaders, this is perhaps at the heart of one’s calling to ministry: to faithfully walk alongside people through crisis and orient them toward the God of healing, redemption and love.

Viewing religious liberty issues through the ministry lens, therefore, requires a level of empathy and attunement to the personal battles people are fighting. Stating the “correct orthodox thinking” may do little to comfort a young man struggling with his sexuality who is wondering if God really loves him or if he will ever be able to have love in his lifetime. To truthfully cite the biblical reasons for being pro-life without discernment or humility may ring hollow in the ears of the expectant single mother with a minimum-wage job and no family support. In other words, our theological convictions must be tethered to a compassionate understanding of the real-world people to whom we hope to minister.

The on-the-ground view pastors have on these issues is invaluable; personal encounters take “issues” out of the abstract and into the embodied. Theology centers our belief on the historical and orthodox, but ministry channels those beliefs through empathy and love as we confront a flesh-and-blood person, as we interact with fellow image-bearers around us.

Christian leaders understand the issues facing their congregants: depression, heartache, economic uncertainty, questions of sexuality, loneliness, and so on. As we’ve seen in this report, such personal issues are at the forefront of pastors’ concerns. At its core, being a faith leader is to care for people. Religious liberty issues may often seem structural, systemic, institutional—not the sort of thing that occupies the reality of shepherding real people. But many of the concerns central to religious liberty do have an impact on the lives of individuals: from parents to school teachers to nonprofit and business leaders. The ministry lens allows you to help individuals, families and communities wrestle with systemic issues that affect their lives.

Relationships: How should I engage friends
and neighbors with whom I disagree?

Relationally, there are two temptations Christians are likely to face in this cultural moment. The first is to point people to facts about an issue without taking time to ask questions, empathize and understand their neighbor. At a minimum, this approach will come off as indifferent and cold.

The other temptation is the opposite error, which is to work so hard to show compassion and to listen that we never get around to offering people hope found in Christ. The need, then, is for Christians to be mature, wise neighbors who can both express sincere interest in and affection for others while also being secure enough to communicate the gospel with respectful confidence.

At Barna, recent research shows a growing discomfort with spiritual conversations. A fear of offense or of coming across as judgmental often drives such discomfort. In a pluralistic society, tolerance and a “you do you” perspective can put a wet blanket on difficult conversations. These may be valuable postures when speaking with strangers or mere acquaintances—people with whom we have not built the trust necessary for more vulnerable or complex conversations.

Cultivating the right mix of loving boldness and countercultural kindness lies at the heart of relationally vibrant Christian witness. For spiritual leaders, and for Christians in general, the aim must be to build deeper friendships with those who are different from us. There is little value in shouting from a soapbox to those who do not trust our voice, but there is equally little value in simply “preaching to the choir” and only having difficult conversations with those who think just as we do. As this report shows, evangelicals in particular struggle to make friends with and talk to those who are different from them. Yet fostering relationships with those outside our tribe is essential and can lead to more empathy (on both sides) and to opportunity for gracefully and gently sharing our perspectives on contentious issues. The research shows clearly that Christians—and faith leaders, too—are hungry for this kind of conversational, relational preparedness.

Politics: What government policies, however imperfect,
best empower human flourishing?

Politically, the biggest need is to make sure our arguments for religious liberty do not collapse into an argument for privatizing religious faith in the same way other sources of meaning or conviction have become privatized in recent years. If we argue for religious liberty purely on grounds that we need to be left alone, then we’re just another party in the fragmentation of the United States—another tribal group wanting to protect its right to pull away from other tribal groups. On the other hand, if we can make the case for religious liberty as a positive social value for all people, then we are on the right track.

In part, this requires a true reckoning with what laws are “those of the land” and which are specific to our religious context. At times this distinction may seem clear. Religious observance of diet, for instance, has not become a cultural fracture. Yet so often those lines are blurred. When spiritual leaders consider which political issues to speak out on, it’s important to be certain those issues are a universal good for human flourishing and not a matter of personal discipline, spiritual transformation or church community.

Humility is a vital political virtue in such times. Christians have not always gotten it right when it comes to politics; we have often been wrong. We see only through a mirror darkly, this side of heaven. We must be willing to listen closely to those who disagree with us, consider their political opinions seriously and take our uncertainties to God when they arise.

Public Square: What is the appropriate relationship between personal conviction and day-to-day interactions with those who hold a different set of beliefs?

Finally, as faith plays itself out in the public square—matters of institutions and businesses, neighborhoods and communities, and public discourse—we must enter these arenas with an awareness of the cultural landscape. The isolation brought about by tribalism causes members of one tribe to find it very hard to believe in the goodwill of another. But this must not be an excuse for people of faith who exercise humility, discernment and courage. Christians should be, in the words of Jesus, innocent as doves and wise as serpents, alert to both the need for kindness in the public square and also the rhetorical challenges involved in working for a revitalization of the good in our public square.

The pressure to satisfy everyone on all sides, and to avoid offense, is very real today, especially in the digital era. The public nature of social media allows for all to see our slip-ups and inconsistencies. The “outrage machine” devours many organizations for what often seem like minor missteps—and this policing happens on both sides of the political aisle and in all facets of the theological spectrum. The stakes are high in the public square.

As the research reveals, the issues pastors feel most pressured to speak out on are the same ones they feel limited to speak on. The pressure squeezes from all corners: those demanding that the church take a stand and those outraged when it does (or outraged when that stance is other than what they’d hoped). As challenging as it may be, faith leaders must be committed for the long haul, educating and equipping their people to respond with love and conviction, in word and deed. This, after all, is the essence of discipleship.

The fabric of our social conversation about religion may be breaking apart—in fact, that’s the image our designers meant to convey on the cover of the report you’re reading! Yet, this fragmentation provides opportunities for people of faith in contemporary America. Faith leadership in a divided culture is complex and challenging but affords many opportunities for the cause of the gospel.

In every facet of that leadership, humility, discernment and courage are key. Humility to learn from others, to know when to speak and what to speak. Discerning how to minister to those who are facing real difficulties. The right kind of courage that connects empathy to difference-making conviction. Yet these practices do not happen in a vacuum—that is to say, they do not happen alone. To discern our way forward, Christian leaders can talk to one another about the tough issues, seek historical and contemporary guidance, fall on our knees in prayer together, and seek God’s heart and the direction of the Holy Spirit.

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Appendix A - Methodology

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