A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the need for leaders alert to dangers that threaten the church from more than one direction. We are trained in sword fights wielded in only one direction. As a result, we never turn around to get a fuller picture of the battle. What we need are leaders who can identify problems, engage with challenges, and oppose dangers that come from multiple points.
I pointed to John Stott as an example of the kind of leader (all-too-rare these days) who recognized and warned about dangers that come to the church from multiple directions. In 1968, he chastised the World Council of Churches for their prioritizing of social ministry to the exclusion of verbal evangelism. At Lausanne a few years later, he insisted on social ministry as part of the church’s mission, pushing back against an “evangelism only” approach. In one assembly, Stott could push hard against a reductionist social gospel, and in another assembly, he could push hard against a reductionist fundamentalism.
Whether or not you agree with Stott on the particulars of his position (I don’t on all points), I hope you agree with me that we need leaders who can throw elbows to the right, not just the left, or to the left, and not just the right. But why is this kind of leadership, what I describe as “multi-directional,” so rare these days?
Is the Internet to Blame?
A friend told me he believed the environment created by social media and online availability of resources may hinder leaders from demonstrating multi-directional skills when addressing specific audiences. Here’s why . . .
In the past, when a ministry leader was invited to address a particular group of people, he or she assumed that the message would be tailored specifically for that group in that context. The content of the message would focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the audience, and the speaker’s commendation or warning would be limited to the people present.
(That’s why, in the pre-internet age, Stott could sound like a fiery fundamentalist when addressing the World Council of Churches and like a social-ministry-championing evangelical when addressing Lausanne. He knew his audience, and so he tailored his remarks to the group before him.)
Everyone’s Listening Now
The world is different today. Because of the accessibility of conference talks and the live-streaming of panel discussions and the rapid spread of social media reports even when there is no broadcast, anything a leader says can be taken from one context and planted in another, leading to bizarre conclusions or assumptions.
Imagine a leader known for speaking to matters of justice and race at a conference devoted to this issue, where he or she issues a warning about extreme theories and unbiblical ideologies that many of the conference attendees may be most susceptible to. A qualified, targeted warning to this leader’s “tribe” could be taken out of context online and used as evidence by people who want to maintain a strong distinction between “the gospel” and “social justice.” Suddenly the leader must issue clarifications and explain the nature of the original warning, while preventing a new narrative on his or her position from hardening online in the midst of a social media storm.
Imagine the same thing happening on the other side. A leader who is known for always pointing out threats to the left, or the dangers of social ministry in supplanting the gospel, stands before an audience of likeminded individuals and warns about perils from the right—a resurgent white nationalism or an apathetic social conscience where we try to limit the application of Jesus’s instruction to love our neighbors.
What is likely to happen in these cases?
Process of Discrediting a Leader
Since everything that gets said (regardless of intended audience) has the potential of being overheard online, all our words can be stripped of context and passed along through Twitter or Facebook. Sadly, many who quote leaders in these settings would point to examples of multi-directional leadership as a way of discrediting everything they say.
As soon as a leader demonstrates the ability and the desire to fight off threats from multiple directions, the people who were once sympathetic to the leader feel betrayed and then seize the leader’s statements and marshal evidence to show that the leader now belongs to the “opposing side.” (After all, if you fight a threat to your right, you must be a closet liberal. Or if you fight a threat to your left, you must be a racist fundamentalist.) What follows is the process of discrediting, where the type of leader we need most is the type of leader we will no longer listen to.
Adapting to Polarization
In the end, we can’t blame all of this on social media. I mentioned in the earlier article that many evangelicals prefer to listen to leaders who only oppose threats coming from one direction. We lift up as “prophets” those who confirm our biases and don’t challenge our presuppositions. We write off people, even leaders whose ministries we’ve benefited from in the past, as soon as their words challenge us. We’d rather dismiss their credibility than receive their counsel.
What is the effect for many of our leaders? Public statements become more “generic” than they might be otherwise. Leaders don’t target messages to particular audiences because they know that everyone might be listening all the time.
Furthermore, leaders know they are on safer ground when they avoid misunderstandings, and the only way to avoid being misunderstood is to only say whatever they’d be expected to say. In other words, if they’re known for fighting off threats in one direction only (and if they’re celebrated for their skill in one-directional battles), then the temptation is strong to stay in that lane, to keep issuing one-directional warnings, and avoid speaking to specific pitfalls most likely to trip up their followers.
In this way, we all play according to the rules of polarization we’ve inherited. We accept these new constraints, adopt worldly categories, and satisfy ourselves with the applause of those who agree with our assessment of threats from one direction only. Sadly, our adaptation to polarization only increases its power, and we make it even harder for leaders to emerge with the skills and courage necessary to fend off threats to the church from multiple directions.
What can be done about this problem? I’ve got some ideas. I’ll follow up with some suggestions in future columns.