The Western world is tribalizing at lightning speed. And while I believe the disruption to previously normal patterns of church is from God and for our good, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one casualty of this season of isolation has been the dignifying doctrine of the imago Dei.
As a large swath of our lives became digitalized, and as we were disconnected from face-to-face conversations, an already outrage-addicted online culture went nuclear—and continues to do so over every possible point of contention. Unless we want this hostility to infiltrate our church plants, we must be leaders who adopt a different approach.
We need a new posture. Or more accurately, we need a renewed posture. A way to become anti-tribal in increasingly hostile times. A disposition committed to being as winsome as it is courageous. To be sure (and to our shame), it should have always been this way. But it certainly must become so now.
Gentleness, or kindness, might be the most underrated leadership quality in the Western church. If we’re going to navigate the stormy waters of mission and ministry, we need to learn how to walk out biblical convictions with a posture of pastoral gentleness, refusing any suggestions of divorce between the two.
Biblical Convictions with Gentleness
Church planters are traversing through unprecedented terrain. Whether we’re pastoring people through much-needed discipleship around racial tensions, political uncertainties, public-health concerns, or conspiracy theories, we’re walking through a web of ideological tripwires that can explode with the slightest nudge.
Gentleness, or kindness, might be the most underrated leadership quality in the Western church.
Solomon gives wisdom to our angry age: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). There’s an art to speaking truth that many of us are perhaps still learning. Yes, sound doctrine matters. Biblical literacy matters. The category of truth where “right versus wrong” is explored is essential and must never be minimized for the sake of postmodern epistemological convenience. But while this category is essential, it’s not solitary. We’re to be full of truth and grace (John 1:14).
As Ray Ortlund points out, “The gospel expands the range of our concerns to include beautiful versus ugly. . . . This awareness should matter to us profoundly, because it is easy to be right and ugly at the same time.” Brothers, it’s entirely possible for us to be right in ways that are very, very wrong. We set the tone in our church plants. Let’s set it well.
Biblical Convictions with Love
We’re living in a time when our world needs to see that the gospel story is attractive before they’ll consider whether it’s accurate. According to Jesus, our most potent apologetic is displayed in the way we speak to each other online and approach each other in our gatherings. On the eve of his crucifixion he told his followers, “Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).
Did you catch that? Jesus connects the believability of our message with the beauty of our relationships. Notice that our Lord didn’t say we’ll be known by the magnificence of our miracles, by the excellence of our programs, or even by the precision of our doctrine (as important as that is), but by our evident and mutual love.
So biblical non-negotiables like humility, gentleness, patience, and love validate our gospel message. Conversely, the absence of relational beauty in a church vandalizes the truth with an anti-gospel ugliness. In our age of perpetual outrage and theological tribalism, never has this been more important for our church plants.
Possibilities of a Renewed Posture
What if we took Paul’s charge seriously to watch closely not just our doctrine, but also our lives (1 Tim. 4:16) because we value relational beauty as highly as doctrinal accuracy? What if we became convinced that possessing all miraculous power and theological mystery—devoid of love—results in a negative in God’s math (1 Cor. 13:2)?
It’s entirely possible for us to be right in ways that are very, very wrong.
What if those of us who hold to the doctrines of grace were as dogmatic about the presence of graciousness in our churches? What if God’s people gave themselves to relearning the difficult lessons of not only loving our neighbors, but loving our enemies (Matt. 5:44)?
As my father taught me throughout childhood, “Adam, it’s not just what you say that matters; it’s how you say it.” I’m still learning this lesson. Church planters, join me in praying for a renewed posture that highlights our submission in all things to the risen Christ. Let’s take our cues from Jesus, who drew people to himself through his gentle nature (Matt. 11:29).
Our increasingly angry world will know our good news is true news when beauty shows up in the way we treat one another, especially in our disagreements, and when we cling to our convictions with a spirit of unyielding gentleness.