What does leadership look like in the emergent generation?

July 10, 2006 | By Angie Ward

Steve is the thirty-something founding pastor of a midtown church. During his six-year tenure, his church has grown spiritually, numerically, and financially. He is articulate, well-liked, and well-respected, not only in his congregation but also in his community. He has trained other pastors, served in several denominational roles, and been published in several forums, including a blog that is read by several hundred of his peers around the country.

Yet Steve hesitates to call himself a leader.

Why? To Steve, a “leader” is a lone ranger, an outspoken general who calls the shots from an insular position at the top of an organizational hierarchy. Instead, Steve would prefer to call himself an “influencer.” As such, he is an integral member of a network of relationships, and he considers those relationships infinitely more important than successfully achieving any particular organizational post or three-year plan.

But not everyone shares Steve’s definition. A generation ahead in ministry, a cohort of Baby Boomers is growing increasingly frustrated by what they view as a serious lack of leadership among Steve and his peers.

Steve is not a real person, but neither is he entirely fictitious; rather, he is a composite of the characteristics shared by a significant contingent of Generation X, the generation typically classified as born between 1962 and 1981.

Now between 25 and 43 years old, the members of Generation X are supposed to be the future leaders in the church—except that, in the eyes of some of their exasperated forebears, many members of this “lost generation” don’t seem in any hurry to step up to the plate.

In one church, an associate pastor continues to criticize his supervisors for their church’s lack of postmodern awareness and ministries, but then flatly declines the offer to pastor a more innovative church plant in the area. In another, a young staff member insists that all “pre-packaged” material, such as worship songs and curriculum, are automatically inferior and should never be used in his church, arguing for “authenticity” and “originality” rather than “effectiveness in reaching the widest audience.”

Examples like these have some Boomers grumbling that Gen-Xers have spent too much time in philosophical conversation, and not enough time accomplishing; they are tired of waiting for emerging leadership to, well, emerge. As one Boomer-aged pastor was overhead to say at a national ministry conference, “Do something, then write the book.”

But are those descriptions accurate? Is leadership absent among Gen-Xers? Is it not even sought? Has the spiritual gift of leadership fallen victim to “neo-cessationism:” seen as a useful gift in its time, but not for the postmodern world? Is the emergent generation really as anti-leadership, or as ineffective, as some of their elders portray them? Or does leadership just look different?

The answers, of course, depend on who you ask.

A generation skipped?

Bob Chandler spent 13 years as a campus staff worker for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in North Carolina. Chandler always had plenty of students lining up for leadership roles within the group each year, but in the early 1990s he began to notice a shift.

“Students stopped aspiring to leadership,” he said. Instead, Chandler found he now had to work hard to recruit students to these positions. Where did he first observe this shift? In students who had been born in the late 1960s and early 1970s—the heart of Generation X.

Ray Johnston, senior pastor of fast-growing Bayside Church in Roseville, California, finds an explanation for this in “generational theory,” the idea that there are recognizable patterns to generational cycles.

“Leadership skips a generation,” Johnston contends. “It happens with presidents, and I think it happens with Christian ministries.”

Johnston’s view reflects the work of scholars William Strauss and Neil Howe, who are considered pioneers of generational theory. According to their research, the “Boomer” generation (born between 1943 and 1960) demonstrates the traits of a “dominant” generation, which manifests itself in visionary, activist leadership.

Gen-Xers, on the other hand, are part of a “recessive” generation, which also happens to be a generation of latchkey kids, children of divorce, and blended families, not to mention the most-aborted generation in history. The result, according to Strauss and Howe, is a “reactive” mindset that values independence and eschews institutionalism.

“The emergent movement as a whole is characterized by a general suspicion of traditional forms of authority. This suspicion of authority has a profound impact on how leadership is carried out,” says Justin Irving, professor at the Center for Transformational Leadership at Bethel Seminary in Minnesota.

Feeling that traditional institutions such as families, government, the church, and big business have failed, many Xers want no part of the system. To them, “Following Boomers…is like entering a theme park after a mob has trashed the place and some distant CEO has turned every idea into a commercial logo,” write Strauss and Howe.

Different definitions

Members of Generation X, however, counter that they do exhibit leadership, just in an entirely different style than their Boomer predecessors. To the emergent generation, leadership is defined in terms of influence rather than authority or position.

Chad Hall, 34-year-old senior coach with the Lake Hickory Leadership Center in North Carolina, expands on the concept of leadership-as-influence. Based on that definition, “I do believe there are strong leaders in the postmodern church,” he says. “Some are leaders of churches and movements, such as Rob Bell and Ron Martoia, while others are thought and idea leaders, such as Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, and Donald Miller.”

“I don’t think leadership in the emergent generation is dead. It’s just dressed in different clothes,” concurs Tony Morgan, the 37-year-old executive director of WiredChurches.com and a member of the senior management team at Granger Community Church in South Bend, Indiana. “It’s less about personality and position and authority. Instead it’s more relational. It’s more vulnerable. It’s more about helping people take their next steps in a journey.”

Using the same imagery, Spencer Burke, former megachurch teaching pastor and founder of the emergent website theooze.com, posits that the previous, modern metaphor for leadership was that of a tour guide, where “one person finds the way and tells someone else how to get there.” By contrast, the postmodern metaphor is that of a fellow traveler, joining others on their journey.

“Does being a traveler mean I never take the initiative with a group?” Burke writes in his book, Making Sense of Church. “Not at all. But it means I don’t have to sit behind the wheel all the time.”

Mark Driscoll, the 35-year-old founding pastor of Mars Hill Fellowship in Seattle, has a slightly different take. From Driscoll’s perspective, many of his peers are more frustrated with hierarchy than with leadership.

“You can have leadership without hierarchy,” he explains. “The way I define it, leadership is nothing more than trust built on character. You see someone’s character, so you trust that character, and because you trust that person, you follow them.

“The church needs leaders who are humble, accountable, working in a team, and accessible to the average person in the church,” he continues. “You don’t need to have hierarchy for that.”

Danger signs

Still, Johnston remains concerned by what he calls leadership “danger signs” in the emerging generation, including a propensity toward deconstruction of the church in its existing forms.

“I think a leadership danger sign—in anybody, of any age—is when they feel like they have to reinvent the whole wheel,” he warns. “To me, that says that a person is usually not teachable, not humble, and all the things that the Bible values in leaders.

“Immature leaders react; that provides a lot of energy at first, but the problem is that it’s toxic fuel. Mature leaders don’t react; they respond. For me, [the primary thing is] absolutely an attitude issue, one of teachability and maturity.”

Although he is a preeminent member of the emergent ministry cohort, Driscoll agrees wholeheartedly. “Saying we don’t believe in leadership is saying we don’t believe there’s anyone who can teach us anything,” he charges. “It sounds really humble, but in the end it’s really proud—because it’s saying there’s no one who has the right to tell me what to do or show me how to live.”

As the baby-boomer pastor of a fast-growing megachurch that has already planted five other thriving churches, Johnston also resents the accusation he’s heard from emergent…um, leaders, that churches like his are no longer relevant. To him, such statements are foolish.

“The spirit of God is doing stunning things through churches like Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Bayside,” he said. “They’re mobilizing people for AIDS ministry, for missions, for compassion ministries, and for evangelizing their entire regions. And I believe we’re just in the first inning with all this. There’s so much more of the game yet to be played.”

Johnston also objects to suggestions that large churches are ineffective at reaching the postmodern generation. “Just looking at the numbers, Saddleback is the largest Gen-X church in America,” he points out. “At Bayside, we probably have 800 to 1,000 in that age group worshiping in one of our services.”

Where from here?

It is important to acknowledge that not everyone in the emergent demographic reflects this mindset. As with any age group, leaders of this generation exemplify a variety of styles along the modern-postmodern continuum. But there are a number of applications that can be taken from the discussion.

First, leaders (or influencers) of both generations acknowledge that leadership can take varying forms. A person with the gift of teaching may be better suited for one-on-one or small group roles rather than an upfront, congregational position.

In the same way, leadership can also be demonstrated in a number of contexts, whether as the head of an organization, or as the unassuming Everyman (or Woman) who may not have an official title but who still wields tremendous influence through relationships.

For Boomers, this means being open to more fluid systemic models. “Emergents tend to emphasize organic process over linear organization, and relational networks or webs over hierarchies,” Irving notes. And Bruce Butterfield, CEO of the Forbes Group, agrees. “Leadership ladders have to give way to leadership bridges.” In ministry, this is currently reflected in the greater use of “strengths-based” job descriptions (à la Marcus Buckingham) rather than static hierarchical roles, and the preference for ministry coaching instead of consulting.

On the other hand, some members of the emergent cohort need to remember that both the gift of leadership (Romans 12:8) and the office of leadership (1 Timothy 3:1) are biblical concepts. There is no evidence that the need for strong leadership has ceased, even though leadership may have been misused or abused.

In addition, the Bible does not speak against formal authority structures. A group of people, by definition, becomes an organization, and the structure and culture of that organization can be shaped by those in positions of authority. But neither the organization nor authority are inherently wrong constructs.

In their disdain for formal authority and leadership-as-celebrity, some Gen-Xers echo the sentiments of the late management guru, Peter Drucker, who observed: “The three greatest leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. If that’s leadership, I want no part of it.” But obviously there’s more to the picture. Leaders such as Winston Churchill leveraged the authority of his office for even greater positive influence.

And while Gen-Xers reject the concept that a leader is someone who has “arrived,” there seems to be room in the traveler metaphor for someone who’s walking ahead on the path and helping point out and clear the way for those behind.

Different leaders, one Body

The most important consideration, of course, is the Kingdom of God, and the role that leaders of all types play in advancing it.

Just as the commercial world is being increasingly divided into a land of big-box retailers and niche marketers, the church seems to be undergoing a similar movement to either end of the continuum: either one-stop megachurches, or niche congregations.

“Lyle Schaller was right a few years ago,” Johnston observes. “Churches are becoming one of two things: large, multiple-staff, full-service churches; or niche churches. Both kinds of churches are needed, both are valuable, both are going to be used by God, and both are going to meet needs. The more we have of each, the better.

“By and large, the emergent church movement is a niche church movement at this time. And that’s a very good thing,” Johnston emphasizes. “There’s a segment of every society that will be reached by a niche church, that won’t be reached by a large church.…Maybe we ought to stop shooting at each other and just realize we’re called to different ministries.”

Driscoll agrees. “Our church is young, hip, arty, cool, whatever, but if people love Jesus, and people are meeting Jesus, then that’s a good church.”

An uneasy partnership?

Gen-Xers value design as much as functionality, process as much as product, and relationships as much as results. Sometimes, however, this generation has overcompensated in these areas, resulting in a lot of motion but little movement.

Boomers, on the other hand, are characterized by the power of organizations, and seem therefore to believe that the gathered church as an organization has a unique opportunity to impact its community. Sadly, however, examples abound of Baby Boomer leadership “superstars” who have grown large churches, but have left the path littered with wounded individual souls trampled on the road to “bigger and better,” sometimes even in the name of evangelism.

Last December, Time magazine featured its “Persons of the Year” for 2005: Bill and Melinda Gates, and Bono. One man heads a multi-billion-dollar business that impacts the global economy, and is now using a portion of those profits to impact the fields of education and healthcare through his charitable foundation. The other man is a rock star who is using his personal influence and platform to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the need for debt relief, and to challenge individuals toward greater personal social action.

Gates typifies the Boomer mindset: build a powerful organization, then use it for positive impact. Bono, on the other hand, exemplifies more of a Gen-X approach: leverage personal influence to spur others toward “love and good deeds.” But no matter the definition, both men are leaders, and both are having an impact. Is it unrealistic to assume that there is also room for both styles in the Church?