the post-american church

skye jethani penned a fascinating essay recently (on that boldly proclaims, “third culture leaders are the future of the church.”

provocative.  let us investigate.

it seems that mr. jethani visited spain to speak to (and, apparently, learn from) missions workers from different regions of western europe.  he made some intriguing obversations about the direction of future church and, if i may be so bold, these observations tend to corroborate what i’ve been writing about in this space (see my lengthy and “relatively incoherent” review of the book the abundant community).

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.

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.

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.

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 start 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.

i recall being deeply moved by a quote by alan hirsch.  he said, “we (the church) need to raise up young leaders who are able to think in ways we have never thought, and then empower them to do so.”

hirsch illustrated this powerfully.

“it’s as if we were digging a hole and someone said, ‘hey, we need a hole over here’ so we dig our current hole deeper.  we cannot continue to do what we’ve always done.  it is clearly not working.”

i am seeing a move away from “one size fits all” ministry toward a much more contextualized (or “customized” if you will) model.

and it gives me hope.


2 thoughts on “the post-american church

  1. I’ve served for many years in culturally diverse churches and I see exactly what he means. Even other cultures just keep doing things the way they’ve always done them in ‘traditional’ church. Jesus taught sitting on a hillside and fed everybody in the process. Not a traditional setting at all to the Pharisees. He taught standing on the bow of a boat. He taught walking down the road. Just because the ‘setting’ isn’t ‘traditional’ doesn’t mean the message is compromised AT ALL!

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