Monday, June 6, 2011

"Third culture" leaders are the future of the church.

May 24, 2011

The Post-American Church (Part Uno)

"Third culture" leaders are the future of the church.
A week ago I returned from a trip to Spain where I was speaking with a team of missionaries working in different regions of the country. Yes, I was suffering for the Lord on a Mediterranean beach. Apart from the breathtaking beauty of Peñíscola, Spain, I was blessed to share time with some spectacular people engaged in very good work.
When many Americans think about missionaries they picture a team of Western, Anglo, people doing evangelism and church planting among dark-skinned “natives.” Perhaps that image was true at one time, but it’s definitely not anymore. As someone has recently remarked, missions today is “from everywhere to everywhere.”
The team of missionaries I spoke with in Spain included people from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Netherlands. And they were serving among Spaniards, Portuguese, Chinese, Moroccans, Latin Americans, and Arabs. In many cases they reported greater receptivity to the gospel among immigrant populations in Spain rather than among native Spaniards. It was a striking example of how globalization has radically “flattened” our planet.
And the nature of the ministries engaged by these workers was just as diverse as their passports. Some were planting churches, others had started a mission to rescue women from human trafficking, another team was doing marriage and family counseling, and others were helping immigrants from North Africa learn Spanish and find jobs. In other words, despite having a shared denominational background this team was not limited to a single missions playbook.
I came way from my time in Spain with two observations that may have some relevancy to the church on this side of “the pond.”
OBSERVATION ONE: The future leadership of the church belongs to “third culture” kids.
With only a few exceptions, nearly every missionary on the Spanish team was raised in a culturally diverse context. Some were missionary kids themselves who grew up in Southeast Asia or Latin America. Others were the product of diverse communities or multi-ethnic homes.
One couple from the U.S., for example, were both children of Chinese immigrants. They grew up having to navigate both American culture and the Chinese language and culture of their families. This equipped them with the skills necessary for cross-cultural ministry. Now they serve in Spain among Chinese immigrants in Madrid. And their children are taking it a degree further. They are ethnically Asian, fluent in Spanish language and culture, but carry American passports.
The examples are endless. I met 10-year-old Puerto Rican kids who spoke Spanish, English, and Arabic. Families from the Netherlands fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. And one leader responsible for church planting in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia was the son of Dutch immigrants to Canada. He’s spent his adult life in Africa and Europe and speaks French, English, German, Dutch, and who knows what else.
What’s my point? As demographics shift and populations continue to mix, it won’t be enough for us to master the leadership dynamics of our small community. We will need the skills to move between and among diverse groups and draw them together--often utilizing very different leadership values in the process. Kids with diverse cultural backgrounds who do not find such accommodation threatening, even second-nature, are going to be better equipped for this task. But many American churches, and the homogeneous unit principle they’ve been built upon, will not be the incubators for this kind of leadership.
Dave Gibbons has spent the last several years talking about the importance of “third culture” leadership which he defines as “the mindset and will to love, learn, and serve in any culture, even in the midst of pain and discomfort.” And while folks in the American church have been willing to listen to his exhortation, I’m wondering how seriously they’re taking it. It seems like most of what I read concerning “leadership principles” in the church are really “upper/middle-class Anglo-American leadership principles.” While such ideas are helpful and legitimate, they are often blind to the rapidly changing reality both overseas and right here in the U.S. (I remember being blindsided by African-American and Latino church leaders explaining why small groups are only effective among white people.)
If the dominant Anglo-American church doesn’t starting opening it’s ears, minds, conferences, books, magazines, and blogs to more global voices, it will quickly find itself unprepared for life in the post-American church world. But allowing diverse and divergent voices into the conversation is not only challenging, it’s messy. That is why we also need to begin cultivating church leadership environments that are not predicated upon uniformity and efficiency.
What to I mean by that? Most of what I’ve read/heard about church leadership says we should fight tenaciously to maintain clear purpose, vision, and values within our organization. And recruiting other leaders who conform to these is vital. Allow too many people inside who hold divergent ideas and you’ll derail the organization. But this mindset assumes that efficiency is the ultimate value to which all others must surrender. The best organizations, this view teaches, run like well-oiled machines with high capacity and high output. But in many cultures efficiency is not the highest good. And third culture leaders understand that in many cases clinical efficiency simply is not possible when seeking to lead diverse populations.
The future, as I saw in Spain, is both beautiful and complicated. It is marvelous and messy. If the Anglo-American church remains enamored with institutional corporate values and efficiency, we will not be positioned either to lead within or benefit from the changing world.
Stay tuned for Skye’s second observation concerning the post-American church.
Skye Jethani is senior editor of Leadership Journal, Out of Ur, and Catalyst Leadership. He also serves as the senior producer of This is Our City, a new project for Christianity Today. He is the author of The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, and he blogs regularly at The Huffington Post and
Skye's new book, WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, will be released in August by Thomas Nelson. Read the first chapter online now.

June 1, 2011

The Post-American Church (Part Dos)

Despite our problems the church in the U.S. still has enormous influence.
Read Part One of Skye Jethani's article, "The Post-American Church."
OBSERVATION TWO: The American Church still has a vital role to play as the global church rises.
In 2008, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote the best-selling book The Post-American World from which I borrowed the title for this blog post. In his book Zakaria refuses to join the “America is in decline” bandwagon. Instead he uses the term “Post-American” to describe the emergence of new economic super-powers into the zone previously occupied by America alone. China and India are the two most obvious nations in this category with Brazil increasingly being added to the conversation. To paraphrase Zakaria’s argument, it’s not about the decline of the West, but rather the rise of the rest.
Like the doomsday prophets that have nothing positive to say about the American economy, there seem to be no shortage of doomsday prophets surrounding the American church. (Remember the “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America” released by James Dobson’s political group in 2008?) Reading too many of these dire predictions about the American church would lead one to believe that everyone under 30 has abandoned the faith, every pastor is a closeted bi-sexual, and Muslims are salivating at the chance to convert abandoned mega-churches into mosques.
Well, I hate to disappoint the “prophets” profiting from this fear-mongering, but the evidence suggests the American church is far from dead. Sure, we have problems and many of them are significant, but the Christian religion in America is actually more robust today than it was two centuries ago. (Only between 10 and 20 percent of Americans belonged to a church in 1776. See more here.) And the idea that the U.S. is just one generation behind the secular and Islamic forces influencing Europe is like comparing Lady Bird with Lady Gaga.
My time with the missionary team in Spain in May, as well as my time at the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization in Cape Town last October, revealed that the American church still has a very important and influential role throughout the world. Consider just three areas: money, resources, and ideas.
Money is a no-brainer. The majority of the funds needed to assemble 4,000 global church leaders in Cape Town, South Africa, last year came from North America. And the United States remains the largest funder of international missions. While giving among Christians has been declining in the U.S., it would be tragic if we abandoned this very significant area of missional responsibility. Of course there is a danger with being the wallet of the Body of Christ. At times we can be tempted to use that role to micro-manage or control. These colonial instincts are hard to reprogram.
The second area is resources. My presence in Spain last month was to teach and encourage the international missionary team there. I was sent, with funds from the U.S by the way, as a resource to the growing Spanish church. The American church’s large infrastructure of ministries, schools, and publishers means a great many of the resources utilized by the global church have their origins here. (Check out this video just posted by Dave Ferguson showing church planters in Siberia using his book, Exponential. Siberia!) I’m proud that Christianity Today and Leadership Journal are part of the American church’s attempts to resource our sisters and brothers around the world.
With these resources and money, of course, come influence. Many of the ideas that begin in the American church find their way around the world. One missionary in Spain was explaining how his home church in another country had been heavily influenced by American values--both practically and theologically. And, according to his view, that was not always a positive thing. On the flip side, my week with the missionaries included a lot of Q&A time about trends I’m observing in the U.S. church. They were very eager to know what the American church is learning, trying, and utilizing. They very much believed that what is happening here matters over there. And they’re right.
My time overseas, which has not been nearly as extensive as some of my colleagues, has shown me that the global church is shifting. New values and leadership qualities are likely to emerge as a result. We may find that some of the highly celebrated values within the American church begin to lose favor as new values ascend. But we shouldn’t assume that America’s influence in missions is over. Far from it. We may be entering an age when the role of the American church is more critical than ever. But it means learning to cooperate with, and not just control, the rising global church.
Skye Jethani is senior editor of Leadership Journal, Out of Ur, and Catalyst Leadership. He also serves as the senior producer of This is Our City, a new project for Christianity Today. He is the author of The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, and he blogs regularly at The Huffington Post and
Skye's new book, WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, will be released in August by Thomas Nelson. Read the first chapter online now.

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