Traits Over Trends: The 4 Essential Church Leadership Qualities for 2021, Part 4
Traits Over Trends: The 4 Essential Church Leadership Qualities for 2021, Part 4
Effective leaders are simple but not simplistic.
This the fourth post of the new year on how effective leaders cultivate traits instead of chasing trends. Today’s leadership trait is simplicity. In a distracted, complicated world, you can’t lead anyone anywhere if you don’t make your communication simple. The message may be a truth, a priority, or a goal. When you lead with a brilliantly simple idea it cannot be ignored, misunderstood, or forgotten. It will have staying power and spreading power. Effective leaders cut through the noise and static interference with their staffs, leaders, volunteers, and attenders by expressing big ideas with the right few words.
But a leader can’t speak the simple idea without knowing it first, and many get stuck right here. Why? Most of the time, it’s because leaders don’t take the time to ideate, collaborate, concentrate, and articulate the message. In my consulting, this is called “landing the plane” after navigating “the tunnel of chaos.” These metaphors reflect the intentional journey it takes to get to simple.
If the message is not simple, it is either complicated or simplistic.
If the message is complicated, it has too many intermingled words, a mixture of great, good, and semi-good ideas. It tells us the five things that are important, rather than one. It tells us to look here, there, and over there to gauge our progress, rather than giving us one score to know we are winning. Smart leaders make this mistake all of the time. A bright pastor is able to juggle too many ideas in front of the congregation. The pastor may be trying to give people all the information they need—at worst maybe just to impress them—but the result is that church attenders don’t know how to meaningfully act. The truth, priority, or goal being communicated wasn’t heated up in the refinement process to separate the gold from the dross.
The greatest barrier to simple thinking is simplistic thinking.
Over the years, I’ve often admonished leaders to narrow focus and communicate singularity with specificity when articulating a mission, a goal, or a dream. I’ve probably spoken a little less often about the ditch on the other side of the road—the danger of communicating a simplistic message. If the message is simplistic, the idea is one-dimensional or trite; it didn’t actually require much thought. This is what happens when a communicator merely grabs a prevailing opinion or parrots a genericism that didn’t demand discernment in decision-making or development in communication.
At the outset of 2021, I have a hunch that simplistic communication is a greater danger than complicated communication. For sure, some people just by their personality prefer complicated messages and others simplistic ones. But I suspect that a complicated message like “Five Steps to (Whatever)” is more appealing when people crave a recipe to improve a pretty stable (even stuck) situation. On the other hand, I think that a simplistic message appeals more when the bottom has dropped out and people are desperately groping for something solid to cling to.
That’s where we are today. Right now, your great temptations as a leader are to deliver a simplistic message to people yearning for an answer and to fasten on some expert’s simplistic message yourself, because you too are yearning for an answer.
A simplistic message is appealing when the bottom has dropped out and people are desperately groping for something solid to cling to.
You know you’ve fallen into simplistic thinking when you begin a sentence with these six fatal words: all we need to do is . . . . It doesn’t matter how good the end of the sentence is—the beginning of the sentence takes a fatal turn.
Here’s my list of the top ten expressions of simplistic thinking in the church.
#10 – “All we need to do is what that church is doing.”
There’s nothing more simplistic than hitting the green button on a copy machine. If something is succeeding in another church, it’s due to its unique people in its unique context and the unique passion of its leaders. Those are not transferable. I’m all for thoughtful imitation, to observe models and adapt them to your ministry context. But don’t squander the opportunity to do as a church what God uniquely designed you to do.
#9 – “All we need to do is do ministry with excellence.”
“Excellence” is often a code word for a top-notch stage performance and stellar customer service on Sunday morning. You can find plenty of that on the Vegas Strip, where they’re entertaining people, not discipling them.
#8 – “All we need to do is pray.”
Imagine your child gets a challenging math assignment, and she feels overwhelmed. She says, “All I need to do is ask Mom or Dad for help. They’re great at math, so they’ll make sure it gets done.” Any parent would be pleased to be asked for help. But they won’t do the child’s assignment for them, because their goal is the child’s growth. Instead, they’ll teach the child how to do it and then do it together. We certainly need more prayer in the church, but maybe when we do pray, we’re asking God to do our homework for us instead of taking the difficult path of learning from Him how to do it.
We certainly need more prayer in the church, but maybe when we do pray, we’re asking God to do our homework for us instead of taking the difficult path of learning from Him how to do it.
#7 – “All we need to do is stay true to the Bible.”
One modern translation contains over 757,000 words. That’s a good deal more than the number of words hanging on your church’s walls, posted on your website, and making up your doctrinal statement. It’s more than any individual can contain in their mind and fully appreciate. Anyone who thinks that staying true to the Bible is straightforward has already drastically reduced the Bible’s depth and complexity to a few manageable ideas, probably without knowing it. What they’re really staying true to might be some simplistic mottoes, not the wild, blazing spectrum of Scripture.
#6 – “All we need to do is meet the needs of people in our community.”
No one met people’s needs better than Jesus did. It helps when you can heal all diseases with a word and can feed thousands of people at a moment’s notice. But He spent a lot more time and care training the few who became disciples than meeting the needs of the many who didn’t.
#5 – “All we need to do is be healthy.”
Health—especially emotional and spiritual health—is essential for organized disciple making, but it isn’t the whole enchilada. The proverb that “healthy things grow” from the new permission era of church growth (ca. 1980–2000)—which at its crudest meant that if you operate well, people will show up—doesn’t work anymore in an unchurched, post-Christian generation.
The proverb that “healthy things grow” doesn’t work anymore in an unchurched, post-Christian generation.
There’s more than one way to be outward-focused. “Outward-focused” can mean refining the brand, leaning into online church, and getting the church’s name in the paper for a community service event. But it can also mean equipping each individual in your church to live out their unique calling from God in the crowd around them where they live, work, and play. What does “outward-focused” mean to you?
#3 – “All we need to do is love on people.”
Once again, no one ever loved like Jesus. It won Him huge crowds of listeners. But “love on”—meaning to show affection, compassion, and care—is only one piece of how Jesus made a movement of disciple-making disciples. He also taught them how to obey everything He commanded.
#2 – “All we need to do is preach the gospel.”
When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, he didn’t say, “Okay, boys, you know the gospel; go say it.” Instead, he gave them detailed, tactical instructions of which we probably only have top-level summaries (see Matt. 9:35–11:1; Luke 10:1–15). The gospel is only one half of a gospel movement; the other half is the movement. It’s simplistic not to discern and define specifically what it means for your unique people to deliver the gospel to their crowd in their place and day.
It’s simplistic not to discern and define specifically what it means for your unique people to deliver the gospel to their crowd in their place and day.
This is the most simplistic statement of all. Over more than two decades and thousands of hours working with churches, I’ve seen countless leaders get better and better at articulating the supreme importance of making disciples without their churches getting any better at actually making them. If merely stating the priority was enough, there would be a lot more disciples in the world.
But I’ve also met many, many leaders who are hungry for more than the Sunday School answer. They want disciple making to flow through their church like a life-giving river. They want to see disciple making become people’s top reason they love their church. These leaders want to go beyond simplistic thinking, but they know they have to make it simple if the people they lead will absorb it, embody it, and transmit it to others.
I’ve long loved a statement by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., popularly paraphrased this way: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side.”
True simplicity—the kind of simplicity a leader would give their life for—isn’t obvious. It isn’t a no-brainer. To get to that simplicity, leaders have to pass through complexity. In the tunnel of chaos, assumptions are uncovered and deconstructed, new perspectives are layered in, and things get a lot messier. But eventually, leaders break through to new clarity, a new articulation of God’s mission right here, right now, and moving into the future. This is the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
To cultivate the trait of simplicity, I’ve found that leaders need two things:
A process. Arriving at a simple statement of the complex truth doesn’t happen at random. Leaders need a process to take them through the tunnel of chaos and out the other side.
A partner. I’m convinced that the most important empty seat at every team’s table is the one for the strategic outsider, who can see what insiders can’t see from their embedded perspectives.
At the outset of a new year, where are you tempted by simplistic thinking? What is your process and who is your partner to get you to the other side? One option is to take advantage of the Future Church Online Course. It’s packed with video teaching and practical, downloadable tools to use with your team as you pursue simplicity together.
By chasing the trait of simplicity, not the next trend, you can deliver the right ideas that not only stick and spread but make a meaningful difference for God’s mission in people’s lives.
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