“Leaders Make the Future” by Bob Johansen

Bob Johansen, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009). $26.95, 224 pages.

The message of Bob Johansen’s Leaders Make the Future is simple: Our world is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (negative VUCA). In order for this state of affairs to give way to vision, understanding, clarity, and agility (positive VUCA), leaders need to develop ten skills:

    1. Maker instinct: ability to exploit the inner drive to grow things
    2. Clarity: ability to see a future others cannot yet see
    3. Dilemma flipping: ability to turn dilemmas into opportunities
    4. Immersive learning ability: ability to learn in a first-person way
    5. Bio-empathy: ability to learn from nature’s patterns
    6. Constructive depolarizing: ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down
    7. Quiet transparency: ability to be authentic without advertising yourself
    8. Rapid prototyping: ability to succeed through early failures
    9. Smart mob organizing: ability to create purposeful networks through media
    10. Commons creating: ability to grow shared assets that can benefit others

Every reader has a definite point of view. Mine is that of the pastor of a growing Pentecostal church on California’s central coast. Although this is not a book on religious leadership, its message nevertheless resonated with me on several levels.

First, I feel the negative VUCA that Johansen writes about. Our culture is changing. Its composition, values, and mores are evolving—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. And this evolution is hard to predict.

Second, I want to be characterized by positive VUCA. My task as a pastor is to lead people spiritually through troubled times. This requires vision, understanding, clarity, and agility—alongside of faith, hope, and love.

Third, I see the value of the skills Johansen describes. Let me focus on just three. Dilemma flipping is different than problem solving. A problem presupposes a solution that is either right or wrong. A dilemma presupposes a choice that can be made to one’s advantage or disadvantage. Pastors face some problems for which there are right and wrong answers—whether in theology or ethics. Many of the problems we face are really dilemmas, however, where we must make a choice to create the best possible outcome. Example: Given the limited amount of money churches have, should we invest in already-existing ministries or in developing new ministries? There is no obvious right or wrong answer to this question, only a choice that is better or worse based on context.

Quiet transparency is also an important pastoral skill. How does the real me preach to my congregation every Sunday without it becoming a venue for either self-promotion (or self-deflation)? No one wants to listen to me drone on and on about myself every Sunday. On the other hand, no one wants to listen to me if they don’t think it’s the real me preaching. Parishioners hate phonies and hypocrites.

Finally, smart mob organizing is a useful networking skill. Media such as personal blogs, social networking sites, podcasts, and websites allow contemporary pastors to communicate with their parishioners and lead them into action outside of the Sunday morning service. They should be taken advantage of—although they should never replace face-to-face communication.

I do not agree with every point Johansen makes or every illustration he uses. No reader ever totally agrees with an author. But I do think Leaders Make the Future is an interesting and thought-provoking read for people who lead other people, including pastors.

“The Next Evangelicalism” by Soong-Chan Rah

Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009). $15.00, 228 pages.

While reading The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah, my emotions went through three stages: anger, acceptance, and ambivalence.

First, anger: The thesis of Rah’s book is that the evangelical church in America must be liberated from its “Western, white cultural captivity” and replaced by “the next evangelicalism,” which is multicultural. According to Rah, Western, white culture is individualistic, consumerist, materialistic, and racist. And it pervades Anglo evangelicalism, both in America and wherever Anglo evangelical influence has spread. The Anglo evangelical church focuses on buildings, bucks, and butts in the pew rather than on the holistic, transformative power of the gospel. To be perfectly frank, as a middle-aged, American, white male, I was none too pleased to see my church, my country, and my culture run down in this way.

Then again, as a pastor, I’m used to taking vociferous criticism in stride. I always try to hear the truth behind my critics’ words, not matter how much they’re making me angry. And that brings me to the second stage my emotions ran through: acceptance.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that Rah—to a significant degree—is right. The American evangelical church is declining, or at least its Anglo component is. David T. Olson documents this fact in The American Church in Crisis. But as Rah points out, the non-Anglo component of the American evangelical church is thriving. This is true in my own denomination, the Assemblies of God. Our anemic growth as a denomination is largely explained by the explosive growth of the Hispanic churches within our denomination.

Not only is the Anglo evangelical church in America declining, it is guilty—in various parts and to varying degrees—of practicing an individualistic, consumerist, materialistic, and racist form of Christianity. Why do we focus on personal evangelism rather than also on social transformation? Why do we think the three B’s—buildings, bucks, and butts in the pew—are indicators of a church’s success, if that’s even an appropriate word for a church to use? And why do we presume that non-white culture is a mission field that needs our contributions and competence, rather than the other way around?

Third, ambivalence: The Next Evangelicalism piqued my anger, at least in part, precisely because it hit so close to home. But if I could take off my middle-aged white guy hat for a moment, and remove my pastoral collar too, I’d like to put on my academic robes and point out three flaws in Rah’s analysis. It is overbroad, tendentious, and inconsistent.

Overbroad: Here’s a joke that makes a serious point:

An older Jewish man and a younger Chinese man are sitting in lounge chairs on the deck of their cruise ship. The Jewish man rolls up his newspaper, gets out of his chair, walks over to the Chinese man, and proceeds to repeatedly hit him over the head with the newspaper. Triumphantly he proclaims, “That’s for Pearl Harbor!” The younger man angrily asks, “Why did you do that? I’m Chinese!” But the older man replies: Chinese, Japanese—they’re all the same.” A few minutes later, the younger man rolls up his newspaper, gets out of his chair, walks over to the older man, and proceeds to repeatedly hit him over the head with the newspaper. Triumphantly he proclaims, “That’s for the Titanic!” Bewildered, the older man angrily asks, “Why did you do that? I’m Jewish.” To which the younger man replies, “Iceberg, Goldberg—they’re all the same.”

Rah speaks of “Western, white culture” as if the various histories, cultures, and traditions of the historical epochs, people groups, and nation states within it are all the same. Is there a direct line of descent between Plato and Britney Spears, between high culture and popular culture? Are there no differences between the French, the Greek, and the English, let alone among the British, Scottish, and Irish? Is traditional Southern agrarianism the same thing as traditional Yankee industry? If I wrote a book describing, let alone critiquing, “Asian” culture with such overbroadness and lack of historical nuance, my guess is that Rah would cite me as an example of Western, white insensitivity.

But icebergs and Goldbergs are not the same.

Tendentious: Rah identifies the harmful aspects of Western, white culture with the culture itself. Are individualism, consumerism, materialism, and racism part of Western, white culture? Sure. So are socialism, volunteerism, asceticism, and egalitarianism. Why doesn’t Rah mention these countervailing tendencies within Western, white culture? Why is the picture of that culture unrelievedly negative? Would Rah accept an unrelievedly negative portrayal of African culture, of Asian culture, or of First Nations culture?

Furthermore, haven’t some goods arisen out of Western individualism, consumerism, and materialism? (You’ll notice I leave racism off this list.) Critique individualism all you want, but if you’re going to be overbroad, don’t fail to mention that human rights is a Western preoccupation. Critique consumerism all you want, but if you’re going to be overbroad, don’t fail to mention that the number one food crisis of the American poor is obesity, not starvation. Critique materialism all you want, but if you’re going to be overbroad, don’t fail to mention that Western culture has elevated the living standards of the poor to historically unheard-of levels.

In my opinion, this doesn’t come up in Rah’s analysis. If it did, it would significantly change the picture he is drawing of Western, white culture.

Inconsistent: Rah’s portrait of Western, white culture is overbroad and tendentious. It’s also inconsistent.

At the end of the book, Rah implores White, western evangelicals to listen to African American, Native American, and immigrant Christians. I think this is both reasonable and right. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, and they are increasingly the face of evangelical Christianity in America. We have much to learn from them about holistic ministry and the inequities of the American experience. They also can teach us about how to practice church as a community, not just as a gathering of individuals on Sunday morning.

So, on the one hand, I again agree with Rah. But on the other hand, why is the portrait of Western, white culture unrelievedly negative while the portrait of these other cultures is unrelentingly positive? Perhaps it is because Anglo evangelicalism is the dominant partner in the American evangelical enterprise, and as the dominant partner, needs the greatest correction. But correction does not mean the total negation of the one culture nor the total affirmation of the others. It requires a balancing off of weaknesses and strengths.

Speaking of imbalance, I haven’t been balanced in my criticism of Rah, have I? I dedicated a far greater proportion of this review to critique rather than concurrence. So, for the record, I do concur with Soong-Chan Rah. American evangelicalism is changing. And that can be a good thing, if we experience liberation from cultural captivity and walk freely in the paths of Jesus—humbly, openly, and together.

Abusing Scripture by Manfred T. Brauch

Manfred T. Brauch, Abusing Scripture: The Consequences of Misreading the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $18.00, 293 pages.

The first article of the Assemblies of God’s Statement of Fundamental Truths concerns Scripture: “The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.” This “high” view of Scripture is a hallmark of theological conservatism and unites the Assemblies of God with the larger evangelical community. It also differentiates the Assemblies from the mainline Protestant community, which—under the influence of biblical criticism—often has a “low” view of Scripture as the culturally relative and fallible record of human spiritual longing.

Unfortunately, a “high” view of Scripture in theory does not guarantee the correct interpretation of Scripture in practice. In Abusing Scripture, Manfred T. Brauch examines “the consequences of misreading the Bible,” in the words of the subtitle. His intended readers are not mainline Protestants, however, but theologically conservative evangelicals—including those of us in the Assemblies of God. We routinely critique the “speck of sawdust” in mainline misinterpretations of the Bible, while wholly ignoring the “plank” in our own. Brauch refuses to ignore the plank.

Brauch is past professor and president of Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary), as well as the author of Set Free to Be and Hard Sayings of Paul. The seminary has been described as “conservative, yet progressive” because of its combination of theological orthodoxy and social activism. The primary example of this conservative progressivism is undoubtedly Ron Sider, Palmer’s best-known professor. Brauch is also an able exponent of that tradition.

Abusing Scripture offers a sixfold taxonomy of ways evangelicals (including us Pentecostals) are guilty of “doing violence to” Scripture:

The abuse of the whole gospel through a failure to address human need for salvation in both “personal and social dimensions”

The abuse of selectivity, which “is not an outright distortion of the meaning of given texts” but rather entails “ignoring or rejecting…other parts or passages of Scripture that support a different teaching, or present an alternative perspective, or advocate an opposing view”

The abuse of biblical balance by means of “emphasizing certain biblical doctrines, perspectives, teachings, themes or mandates, while ignoring or minimizing the equal, or even greater, importance of complementary ones”

The abuse of words, “when words and expressions are decoded (by teachers or readers) in ways that are not in keeping with the original encoding [by the biblical authors]”

The abuse of literary and theological context, in which the meanings of specific passages are not derived from “the immediate textual materials that surround them” or from “the overarching theological concepts in broader literary contexts”

The abuse of historical situation and cultural reality, which is really a failure to discern between “those things in Scripture that are culturally or historically relative, and, therefore, limited in their inspired authority to the people and situations addressed at that time, and the things that are transcultural and transhistorical, where the authoritative Word of God ins binding for all Christians at all times and in all cultures”

Throughout his discussion of this taxonomy, Brauch returns to three illustrations of these kinds of abuses in practice: “(1) the use and justification of force and violence in human affairs; (2) the relationship between men and women in home, church and society; and (3) the concern for justice and the sanctity of life in all areas of human relationships, institutions and culture.”

Brauch avoids low-hanging fruit with his choice of examples. He easily could have written a multi-volume account of, inter alia, the abuses of Scripture by dispensational premillennialism, the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” and Christian Zionism. Instead, he focuses on attitudes and practices that are deeply entrenched in the evangelical community: its reflexive patriotism and knee-jerk support for America’s wars, its still-too-common defense of patriarchy, and its privileging of evangelism over social concern.

The Assemblies of God has a slightly better, though still mixed, track record on these very same issues. As Paul J. Alexander documents in Peace to War, the Assemblies of God moved from being a pacifist church to a card-carrying member of the so-called “religious right” for patriotic rather than biblical reasons. (As an advocate of just-war doctrine, I think the Assemblies made the right decision but for the wrong reason, but that’s an argument for another day.) The Assemblies has ordained women to the ministry since its founding, but it still has local churches that refuse to let women preach to men (and because of our practice of local church sovereignty, there’s no way for district councils or the general council to force the issue). Finally, some in the Assemblies are reluctant to address social issues other than abortion and gay marriage, lest we fall prey to the theological errors of the Social Gospel Movement.

Although I do not agree with every reading of Scripture Brauch offers in this book, I do think his sixfold taxonomy and three illustrations of abuse identify real problems within evangelicalism generally and the Assemblies particularly. But read this book, and decide for yourself!

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