I often joke that Asian churches are around 5-10 years behind white churches when it comes to picking up Christian trends. Christian folk music? I think that began around 2010, but Asian churches are just now incorporating them into their praise sets. Tim Keller? He's been around since the '90s, but I'm pretty sure most Asians hadn't heard of him until 2008. Rustic wood stage sets and warehouse-looking ceilings? Asian church planters are starting to catch on.
I say this in jest, but I think this is generally true. Therefore it's unsurprising that Asian churches are now focusing on a topic that's been garnering a lot of attention in anglo-Christian circles: leadership. I'm sure books and conferences that focus on leadership have been around for a while, but I feel like it's only been the past five years that Asian pastors are catching on. And like anything new, it's being met with polarizing opinions.
So how should churches view this focus on leadership? More specifically, how should Asian pastors view it? Should we drink the kool-aid that our white Christian forefathers are offering? Or should we be skeptical of it altogether?
A (Very) Brief & General Overview of the Church Growth Movement
This interest in leadership seemed to spawn from the "church growth movement" that began in the 1950s. Generally speaking, this movement called churches to break out of their holy huddles and re-embrace the Great Commission. However as churches grew, pastors found themselves overwhelmed by the complexities that come with a growing church. Therefore, pastors began to realize they needed to further develop an oft-neglected area of their ministry: leadership.
The problem though is in Christian circles, no one really talked about how to be a leader. If they did, it would be from a shepherding standpoint - not an organizational one. And this is where the secular leaders (e.g. Collins, Covey, etc.) come in. CEOs and business entrepreneurs offered so much wisdom on how to lead large organizations. As a result, we now have guys like Andy Stanley and Larry Osborne who help us plebeians know how to lead - but within a Christian context.
And now we have conferences and books focusing on Christian leadership. Is this a good thing? Depends who you ask. Conservative pastors often view this emphasis with disdain. They think these guys run the church too much like a business and prioritize numerical growth over spiritual growth. However others think conservative pastors are just ignorant. After all, there's a lot of overlap between churches and businesses. Why not gain from such wisdom?
Personally, I see the benefits and but I also have concerns. Let me explain.
The Benefits in Learning About Leadership
1. Healthy Organization. Apologies to my conservative friends, but pastors who only know doctrine often suck at running a church. Whether you like it or not, there are organizational elements in a church. Hiring staff. Firing staff. Salary. Meetings. Vision-casting. So much of this is messy not because of a pastor's soteriology or eschatology; it's because they don't know how to manage people or create structure. These are things that pastors need to know about but aren't being properly trained in.
2. Self-Awareness. Some churches commend themselves for being "spiritual" and not worrying about this "secular" leadership stuff. However pastors need to realize they are organizing their churches with a certain management style. It's ignorant to think we're just being "biblical." We're more likely leading a certain way because of our culture, upbringing, and past experiences. I think pastors need to at least be aware of their leadership style and then compare it to biblical teachings.
3. Common Grace Wisdom. Just like we borrow musical techniques and literary ideas from the secular world, why can't pastors adopt leadership principles from secular sources? I don't see why churches can't learn from companies like Google and Apple since God dispenses common grace wisdom to all - believers and unbelievers alike. I know the church is not a business and I can see how some pastors may confuse the two. However this danger doesn't seem like a good reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
4. Missional Focus. Generally speaking, most church leaders who emphasize church growth and healthy leadership have one thing in common: It's about the mission. Though doctrinal purity is important, it's not the goal. We need to go out and make disciples - and this doesn't happen naturally. Being missional myself, I really appreciate the intentionality and contextualizing that comes from these circles of churches.
The Concerns in Learning About Leadership
1. Western Culture Practices. In the leadership conferences I attend, I can't help but think that a lot of these leadership principles come from a very Western perspective. However most of these principles are often presented as universal ones that transcend all cultures. But if Asian pastors apply a lot of these principles into their churches, they'll likely run into problems because some things that are acceptable in white churches come off as douchey in Asian circles.
For example, I often hear Christian leaders tell pastors to "hire slowly and fire quickly." I actually agree with this statement; however I know it would be insane to practice this in an Asian context that prioritizes relationships over efficiency. To fire someone purely on job performance makes sense in business, but it will get you flack in an Asian church. Not saying this is right or wrong - it's just reality.
2. Entrepreneurial Spirit. I think it's important for pastors to adopt entrepreneurial skills, but I'm weary when pastors seem to also adopt an entrepreneurial spirit. They call it networking. I detect self-promoting. They call it church campuses. I see enfranchising. They call it God's kingdom. I suspect man's kingdom. After all, the heart is deceitful and I wish they could tell me how they discern between God's calling and the selfish ambition that secretly lies deep within our hearts.
3. Arrogant Attitude. This isn't always true, but generally speaking when I attend conferences or read books about leadership, I detect a spirit of arrogance that's kind of off-putting. There's often an attitude of "we're doing it right" and "you guys have no idea what you're doing" that wears on me. Maybe I'm being judgmental, but I wonder if some pastors give more credit to their skills in their church's growth rather than simply the grace of God that just happened to use them.
4. True Success. Every Christian leader guru tells me that it's not about the numbers - it's about making disciples. However I can't help but walk away from leadership conferences thinking, "It's all about the numbers." After all, how many articles have I read explaining how to break the 200 barrier? How many speakers are platformed because of the size of their churches? "He grew his church from 100 to 10,000!" Though the message is supposedly about making disciples, that message often gets diluted.
If I were talking to a conservative pastor who was worried about the church growth movement and leadership conferences, I'd probably tell them to reconsider their stance. I know they worry about the trajectory of some of these pastors, but let's not go Salem-witch-trial on people. Please read Jim Collins before you call them sell-outs.
If I were talking to a church growth pastor who was drinking in all this stuff, I'd probably share my concerns about the spirit of such teachings. For me, going to a Christian leadership conference is often like watching Shark Tank. For some reason, they make me want to be an entrepreneur and use the church as a means to build my empire - but under the spiritual banner of "for the kingdom."
I have a hard time discerning when it's for me vs. when it's for the Lord. And I sometimes wonder if other pastors share the same struggles.