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Leadership through the Lens of the Gospel, Part 1

by | Jul 17, 2023 | Articles, Faith and Work, Resources

I’m going to say something that may initially sound crazy and counterproductive, but hang with me.

I’m suspect of our obsession with leadership development in Christian circles today.

This may seem strange since I serve on the board of the Sagamore Leadership Initiative and on the board of regents for North Central University. What kind of destructive weirdo doesn’t think leadership development is a good thing?

So let me clear something up. I absolutely believe in leadership development. If you don’t think leadership development is important, just try serving under a bad leader for awhile. Look around at the dysfunctional status of so many of our cultural institutions today and tell me we don’t need a new generation of high capacity and high character leaders.

What I fear is not leadership development, but that Christian leaders are defining leadership and influence same way the world defines leadership influence. We can certainly learn from the common grace leadership attributes of high capacity non-Christian leaders, but the driving force of leadership development for followers of Jesus should be rooted in the Gospel before it starts drawing insight from the Organization Leadership section at Barnes and Noble.

Jesus didn’t call us to go and raise up great leaders, he called us to go and make disciples. And disciples are followers before they are leaders. So I think it’s important that we talk about this concept of leadership and influence through the lens of the Gospel, with Gospel words and Gospel terminology.

God made everything good. Sin broke everything God created. And the finished work of Jesus is putting everything right again. Colossians 1:19-20 tells us:

“For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through Him God reconciled everything to himself, He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”

I’ve used this verse to talk about the redeemed reality of business and the marketplace, but it’s true for leadership as well. The Gospel redeems and resurrects all things, including human leadership and influence. I’m going to unpack what I hope are some gospel perspectives on this idea of leadership in a multi-part article. How do we leverage our influence as God intended?

I spoke on this recently at a church here in Indianapolis, so if you would prefer to watch than read you can click here.

Let’s start here:

Don’t confuse fame and following with influence.

We long to be known, celebrated, loved, and cherished. This isn’t a wrong emotion. I believe it’s actually how God designed us. It’s just that we were made to find all of these things in our Creator. But because of sin, we our hearts go searching for them in everything except our Creator.

This fallen imposter of our God-made desire to be known and celebrated has created a fascination with building fame and notoriety. And so we confused leadership and influence with the characteristics and gifts that build fame and notoriety:

Drawing crowds.

Charisma.

Public speaking.

Content creation.

Creating a following.

None of these things are wrong in and of themselves. I speak publicly all the time. The Stone Table creates all kinds of content. I’m writing this article to share on our online platforms with the hopes that a growing number of people will read it. But we confuse these skills with leadership. Our sin-clouded imaginations swap fame and following with godly influence.

Now I know people with large social media followers are called “online influencers.” These are people who use their charisma, popularity, or good looks to get people to do things and buy things. But that’s not the kind of influence Jesus called us to is it? We’ve been called to something so much greater.

The Siren Song of Celebrity

Let’s be honest, platform and notoriety is destroying a lot of people, too. Following the very public fall of a devastating rash of prominent leaders in recent years, author and speaker Beth Moore posted the following thread on her Twitter account:

Every Christian leader should heed this warning. Don’t confuse fame and following with godly influence! Those words do not mean the same thing! Fame means lots of people know you, godly influence means someone is closer to Jesus because they know you.

Less is More

Before Jesus public ministry began, his cousin John the Baptist was just about as famous as you could be in first century Israel. John had a huge following. The crowds would flock to find him and he would preach and baptize multitudes. But when Jesus arrived on the scene, the crowds began leaving John and moving to Jesus.

This bothered John’s closest friends. He was losing his platform! But look how John responds in John 3:26-30:

“They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him. To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

You and I have been called to faithful obedience, not fame and notoriety. Being anonymous and faithful is incalculably greater than chasing fame and notoriety in God’s economy. I wonder how much of God’s Kingdom is advancing through steady, long-suffering people and initiatives we can’t see and will never know about. Lord, help us to be satisfied with faithful obedience to you, even if no one else ever sees or celebrates it.

Everything you need – all the notoriety, and celebration, and validation your heart longs for – in Christ, you already have! You are seen, you are known, and you are cherished. So today you are free to use your influence for steady, faithful (even anonymous) sacrifice and service.

If we want to leverage our influence the way God designed, through the redemptive reality of the Gospel, we must stop confusing godly influence with fame and following.

In part 2 of this article we will unpack more ways to leverage our leadership and influence the way God intended.

Erik Cooper

After starting his career in the business world, Erik spent 12 years in full-time ministry, both on staff at a large suburban church and as a church planter in a downtown urban context. In addition to his role at The Stone Table, he also serves as the Vice President of Community Reinvestment Foundation, a nonprofit real estate company that provides high-quality affordable housing all over Indiana while investing its profits into missions through The Stone Table.

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