How are churches led? The answer matters greatly—to you, to me, and to God’s Kingdom agenda.
One of the narrators in the Sheep Among Wolves movie (see previous blog) described leadership in the Iranian church as “decentralized” and “distributed.” Since viewing that film, I’ve been mulling over that word distributed. In a church with distributed leadership, what would keep it from sinking into everyone doing what is right in their own eyes?
Growing up with a Dad who fixed every engine on the farm, I soon learned the role of the distributor. It was that strange-looking little contraption with all the wires sprouting from its topside. Its main function? To send a high-voltage current to all the spark plugs—and to make certain each plug gets its jolt of electricity in the proper sequence and at just the right instant.
While young I also learned that God is a Distributor. He parceled out the Promised Land to his people, the Israelites. Jesus took the fish-and-bread lunch of a boy, multiplied it, and distributed the servings to the crowd. Reflecting this characteristic of the distributing God, Christians in the early church brought the proceeds from property sales and divvied them up among those who needed financial aid.
It’s easy to picture how electrical current, real estate, food, and money can be distributed. But leadership? How can it be shared around without inviting chaos? Conditioned by the way the world works, we expect top-down, concentrated leadership—with slang terms to match: head honcho, big cheese, top dog, and so on. Those in such power positions maintain control. They work to keep people—and the things we humans do—from getting out of line.
But the church in Iran operates with decentralized and distributed leadership. Who keeps the train on the rails?
Watch the Birds
While I was pondering all this, an article came to my attention—on swarming. Many of God’s creatures swarm. Birds do (see photo of starlings). Bees do (Deut. 1:44). Locusts do (Ex. 10:12). Fish do (I’ve seen them while snorkeling). But rather than displaying bedlam and confusion, such swarming creatures can form dynamic and free-as-the-wind patterns of great beauty—as in this YouTube example.
These stunning displays by starlings have, for centuries, led to speculation on how they do it. Is it extrasensory perception? Biological radio? Group soul? Groupthink?. Whatever the answer to the “How?” puzzle, an Audubon Magazine article says, “any [bird] member can initiate a movement that others will follow.” Many birds—operating as one body.
An Ephesians 4 Approach
But back to church leadership in Iran. In Sheep Among Wolves, Dalton Thomas says leadership there is “not based around a particular individual or skill set or gifting. It’s built around an Ephesians 4 framework of empowering everyone in the body.” Their experience, then, suggests that the God who made many animal creatures able to practice distributed leadership can also enable his reborn human creatures to do so.
Jesus himself invites us to learn about life in God’s Kingdom by birdwatching (Matt. 6:26). Even though not made in God’s image, such creatures can teach us vital lessons. Among us image-bearers, of course, we should expect the practice of distributed leadership to work from a completely different source of power.
Behind Distributed Church Leadership.
That word power, it seems to me, points us to the how of distributed church leadership. Jesus had promised those first disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). And the Holy Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is a Distributor. Paul, after listing a number of gifts, explains, “It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts” (I Cor. 12:11, NLT).
The Holy Spirit, the Distributor, is also a Leader. It is “those who are led by the Spirit [who] are the children of God” (Rom. 8:14). So if all in a church allow God’s Spirit to lead them, they have the power to practice distributed leadership—each one responding to the impulses of the unseen Leader within. Only this can explain how the New Testament church was able to do what it did. In Acts 4:31, 32, they were “all filled with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” No human leader was urging or compelling them to act this way. Distributed leadership. Shared-church leadership.
On the other hand, if those in the church fail to follow the Holy Spirit’s internal leading, distributed leadership won’t work. In that case, our only alternative is to fall back on centralized, human leadership that is forceful enough, persuasive enough, loud enough, to keep us all in line. The world counts on hierarchies to control its armies, its politics, its businesses, and so on. But Jesus taught his disciples not to settle for that kind of leadership among themselves: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you” (Matt. 20:25-26).
A Leadership Alert
The New Testament reflects Jesus’s caution about dominant leadership. In church-related contexts, the NIV mentions “leaders” only five times. Always plural, never singular. Paul does not address his letters to church leaders. Rather, each is addressed to the whole church body itself—“To the church in . . .,” “To the saints in . . .,” and so on. Today, the focus has shifted. By googling just now on “church leadership,” I got well over 6 million hits.
If we Christians are capable of practicing distributed leadership, why does the New Testament speak of human church leaders at all—elders, shepherds, overseers, etc.? Why would we have any need for recognized leaders? Because members of Christ’s body have not yet arrived. God knows we will need some seasoned folks among us who are able, as needed, to keep us—or call us back—on course.
In the New Testament, we find non-dominant leaders serving in various helpful ways. For instance, because they have matured through testing, they are able to lead by setting examples for us (I Pet. 5:3). We can see the Jesus-life reflected in their marriages. In how they raise their children. In how they relate to non-Christians. In how they handle money. God also gives leaders the gift of being able to grasp a wide-angle view of the church body. They are to oversee it, to watch it with care. They help others discern their callings, find their faith-voices, and exercise their grace-gifts in the church and in the world. They create and maintain a setting in which members of Christ’s body may serve each other with those grace-gifts. Such leaders guard the church from false teachers, encourage it to push on through rough patches, and correct it when necessary.
But—returning to the bird-swarming analogy—we dare not let leaders do our “flying” for us. If they do, we will soon be content to sit back and enjoy the show as they perform their flying acts. Then our wing-muscles will become flabby. We may even forget we have wings. And when that happens, we will become dependent on the kind of overly prominent, run-the-show kind of leadership Jesus warns us against.
How our churches are led matters greatly to God’s Kingdom agenda.