Learning How to Lead in New Ways
Q. What are the most significant challenges that Executive Leaders of church systems are currently facing?
There are a multitude of things that the Executive Leaders of church denominations are dealing with, many of which are new to the American church. I would summarize the biggest issues in three ways. Pew Research titles one of the main dilemmas as “The Rise of the Nones”; in other words, by the largest margin in American history, about one-third of those under age 30 say they have no religion. This is significant for the church in that we are no longer working from commonly shared cultural values and assumptions. Many young people are either leaving the church, or never had a significant relationship to begin with.
Furthermore, the phenomenal growth of various ethnic communities (especially Latinos and Asians) have created fascinating new dynamics. Latino Americans are converting to evangelical Christianity in record numbers, which offers up huge potential for denominational growth. But the intricacies of multi-lingual and multi-generational dynamics within each ethnic group requires discernment and expertise, and some denominations have limited experience in those arenas.
Lastly, denominations continue to face the unchanging problem of younger generations living in tension with the expectations of older generations, all of whom need to live together within the church. And we are not talking cosmetic issues like style of music or clothing worn in church. It’s much more a question of substance over style. Millennials have expressed that Christianity is gaining a reputation for touting shallow, anti-science, and sexually repressive teachings. They want to engage in deep and complex dialogue over these issues, refusing to accept “evidence that demands a verdict” sort of answers.
I sum up all the challenges with this simple statement: “In many ways, the Church is answering questions that people are not asking.”
Q. What are the ways in which you are experimenting and learning how to lead in new ways in order to address these challenges?
Free Methodists emerge out of Wesleyan and Anglican traditions. As such, we have a parochial history, and for our churches in Southern California, we are encouraging our leaders to fight against the freeway culture of our region, and instead build tight-knit church communities in the heart of the neighborhoods in which their churches live and exist. As the world gets bigger and more complex through globalization and technology, we are finding that people want authentic connections that a parish-minded approach can offer.
To reach the “Nones” and disaffected Christian Millennials, we started a robust internship program in 2011. Drawing from local Christian colleges, we have had twenty-five interns in the last three summers, twenty-two of whom were completely unfamiliar with our Free Methodist denomination. Almost every single one has since joined us. They tell us that our five essential freedoms (the reasons we call ourselves Free Methodists) were the main reasons they are staying. The more we function like a movement, and less like an institution, the more we connect with the Millennial generation.
Based on what we are learning from The Missional Network, among others, we have started some new ministry initiatives built around the concepts of Luke 10, where Jesus sent the disciples to enter towns and villages, but wait to be invited in. Rather than coming with a strategic plan or an agenda, we are seeking to understand “the art of neighboring,” especially as we enter ethnic communities. We hope to craft new expressions of the church together.
Reflections from Kelly Soifer
Director of Recruiting & Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California and the Center for Transformational Leadership at Azusa Pacific University