Let’s be honest. It is not easy to be a leader in the church during times of massive societal and theological change. For example, the congregation in which I serve is currently engaged in a series of Holy Conversations to discern whether we should perform same-sex marriages. This is uncharted territory for me as a leader, and I honestly don’t know where we will end up.
My research in the social Trinity is another example of societal and theological change. It is not nearly as emotionally or politically charged as sexuality issues, but it is equally foreign to the people in the congregation. I often find it very difficult to engage in theological and biblical conversations with church members about topics like these. More often than not they lead to a frustrating impasse that leaves those of us in the conversation emotionally drained.
Why is this true? How do we, as church leaders, help our congregations navigate these changing and turbulent waters? There is one thing that I think is important to understand. Most people in the church have no frame of reference to process these new ideas that seem, to them, to have come out of left field. They don’t have mental pegs on which to hang these seemingly new ideas, nor should we expect them to.
I have spent most of my adult life taking classes, reading books, and writing papers about these things. It has been a slow and gradual evolution in my theological imagination. When I talk to people in the church about these topics, and crack open the way that I understand God and the Bible, I usually receive either bewildered stares, or agitated discomfort.
There is a reason why these changes seem like a surprise to our church members. The reason has to do with how society changes. We need to understand that these apparently new ideas are actually several generations old. Thomas Kuhn discussed this process of change and called it a paragdigm shift. Kuhn was referring specifically to shifts in scientific theories, but his concept has been helpful to understand social and theological shifts as well.
Here is how the process of cultural change works, as I understand it. This sketch is my attempt to visualize the process. Below it I try to explain how this works.1
The paradigm shift begins when a few intellectual elites who operate on the fringe of the academy are willing to challenge the status quo. These brilliant minds notice inconsistencies in the standard theoretical models and write about new ways to imagine them. They reveal data that contradicts the conventional wisdom. These intellectuals are often ridiculed by the academy. Some are silenced and/or executed for their heresy.
The next generation of intellectuals reads their work and it sparks their imagination. They further the research and compile more compelling data.
Two parallel tracks of intellectual pursuit run over the course of the next one or two generations. One track is the conventional wisdom, the other is the challenging/alternative perspective. As the alternative camp gathers data, the conventional camp begins to divide between strong, conservative resistors, and curious adaptors and interlocutors.
The resistors invest massive amounts of energy to disprove the new theories, while the adaptors are willing to listen and engage in cautious conversation. A raucous debate happens in the academy, behind the closed doors of the ivory tower.
Eventually, something happens—whether a world event or a watershed academic discovery—that creates a tipping point in the academy. The alternative perspective now becomes at least an equal, if not a majority, voice in the academy. The next generation of intellectuals are then trained in the new perspective and sent out into the academy to be the teachers of the next generation of world leaders. The Presidents, Congress people, senators, and CEO’s are trained in the elite academies–e.g. Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, etc.–where the alternative perspective is presented as the correct alternative to the traditional perspective of the previous generation.
Once the public leaders are indoctrinated in the alternative perspective it becomes the new paradigm in which all public policy and business affairs are developed and implemented. This is where it “hits the ground” and starts actually changing society.
The average citizen (and church member) has no idea that this conversation has been happening in the ivory tower for decades and generations. When it finally hits the ground it appears as if it is coming out of thin air and it rocks their world. They have been operating on the conventional wisdom their entire life. It is the air they breathe and they know no other.
When a paradigm shift happens and society hits the tipping point and the alternative perspective hits the ground, it is like an atomic bomb. The academic arguments of two generations earlier now become town hall debates. Fear and anger flares up and good people do terrible things.
So, how do we, as church leaders, handle this? If we have been tuned into this larger conversation we find ourselves stuck in a difficult situation. I will speak, now, for myself. Perhaps you can relate. I feel torn between my mind and heart—and body—as well. My mind understands the academic evolution and the new perspective makes sense to me, intellectually. My heart and body, however, live “on the ground” with the congregation in the day-to-day world that is unaware and ill-equipped to process the new paradigm. I love the congregation and never, ever want to hurt them. I am called to be a shepherd of God’s precious flock. And yet, I also know that the paradigm has shifted and I breathe different air than many people in the flock.
How does one lead under these circumstances? We, as church leaders, find ourselves in the riptide, caught between the changing currents. Christians on one side condemn us for being stuck in the past. Christians on the other side condemn us for selling out to the “ways of the world.”
As I reflect on these things, the words of two teachers come to mind. The first teacher was the senior pastor of the Baptist church I attended in my formative years. He would often warn us not to pursue higher education. He said, “Seminary is a cemetery, where good pastors go to die.” According to his paradigm, that has been true in my life. I went to Seminary—one was Baptist, the other one Lutheran—and, in both places, I died to the paradigm that he taught me.
The other teacher that comes to mind is Jesus. He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus was teaching radical, paradigm-shifting things to his Jewish family. Some of them were ready to hear it. Most of them were not. He loved them all. They killed him. He forgave them. He rose from the dead. The Spirit came, and the disruptive process continued.
This is the reality of church leadership is the nexus of the paradigm shift. This post has not provided a slick method to navigate these waters. I have simply named one explanation for why the tension exists. It is not easy, nor even enjoyable, to lead the church in this context, but it is an important calling. The only solid advice I can offer is that we are called to follow the Holy Spirit with humility and courage. And above all else, we are called to bear the face of love that our congregation needs most in their current understanding. We should never needlessly scandalize their paradigm, nor should we allow them to entrench themselves in unreflective dogma. That’s probably the topic of another post…