More Disciples, Fewer Leaders, Please

kinnon —  December 8, 2010 — 31 Comments

As some of you are aware, Imbi has been producing a documentary on church leadership – a multi-year project. It is stuck, right now, in the editing stage – for which I am wholly to blame.

One of the final interviews for the doc (we have a few left to get) was earlier in November with Chris Wright.

One of the questions Imbi asked him was what he thought leadership training needed to look like in the 21st Century. His response hit us both between the eyes.

"I wouldn't start out with training leaders, I'd start out with making disciples." (Imbi's question begins @ 3:40 in this video.)

Yesterday, Scot McKnight pointed his faithful readers (of which I am one) at his response to the Slant 33 asked question, "What three books do you recommend on the subject of leadership development and why?"

I loved his response. Here's an excerpt,

…I want to put my idea on the line and see where it leads us. We have one leader, and his name is Jesus. I want to bang this home with a quotation from Jesus from Matthew 23, where he seems to be staring at the glow of leadership in the eyes of his disciples, and he does nothing short of deconstructing the glow:

But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Instead of seeing myself as a leader, I see myself as a follower. Instead of plotting how to lead, I plot how to follow Jesus with others. Instead of seeing myself at the helm of some boat—and mine is small compared to many others—I see myself in the boat, with Jesus at the helm.

Now at the beginning of Scot's response he identifies what, for me, appears to be cognitive dissonance on his part.

I have a confession to offer: I neither look forward to reading nor do I even like leadership books. I’ve read a few, like Seth Godin’s Tribes and Nancy Beach’s Gifted to Lead. And, yes, I’ve read a few others, but I don’t like them and don’t get much out of them, and I say this as one whose pastor, Bill Hybels, is a leadership guru.

I would strongly suggest that Hybels is more than a leadership guru. He is probably one of the greatest proponents of CEO-style leadership in the Church – with influence on thousands of churches around the world. His Global Leadership Summit "exists to transform Christian Leaders around the world with an injection of vision, skill development, and inspiration for the sake of the local church." The GLS homepage proudly points to the Fast Company article about the event.

Fast Company says this about WC,

Evangelical Christianity proudly has no pope, and given its predilection for splintering, it can hardly be considered a single church. But if evangelicalism does have a global power center, it would have to be Willow Creek, thanks largely to the summit. According to cable-TV pioneer and venture philanthropist Bob Buford, who played a key role in the summit's development, "Willow Creek is the most influential Protestant church in the world — one might even say the most influential church in the world save for the Vatican."

Fast Company describes the people who speak at the event,

The summit taps speakers from a wide range of fields: experienced executives like Welch and W.L. Gore CEO Terri Kelly; management theorists such as Collins and Marcus Buckingham (First, Break All the Rules); politicians including Tony Blair and Jimmy Carter; cultural leaders turned do-gooders like Bono and Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter Richard Curtis; and sports figures such as Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt.

A number of years ago, when I held the director of communications role in a megachurch, I was intimately involved in promoting and staging a simulcast of this event. I write this with a degree of understanding.

The GLS is not promoting leadership in the manner of that which Scot describes in his response at Slant33. Willow Creek promotes a CEO-leadership style that I believe is actually antithetical to what Scot articulates from Scripture.

The church is not a business. Nor do I believe that it should it be run as a one. It is not a top-down organization, yet that is actually what Willow Creek both models and promotes.

Scot nails it, in my not humble opinion, when he says this,

…leadership too often places the pastor or some person in the front and having others be guided (and following) that person, and that, I dare say, distorts the entire gospel. Jesus was willing to say that his followers didn’t have a rabbi of their own, didn’t have a human father in a position of ultimate authority, and they didn’t have an instructor who was their teacher. They had one rabbi and one instructor, and his name was Jesus, and he was Messiah. They had one father, and he was Creator of all. They were to see themselves as brothers, not leaders. That’s straight from the lips of Jesus. [Emphasis Added]

Which appears to put Scot at odds with his pastor, Bill Hybels. Or am I missing something?

Let me finish by returning to Chris Wright when he says, "I wouldn't start out with training leaders, I'd start out with making disciples."

How did Jesus make disciples – he lived with them for three years, through thick and thin, through their thick headedness and their moments of great clarity, through their closeness and their rejection of him. He didn't set up a training school for leaders, or preach from an elevated pulpit or bring in Roman business and political leaders to advise his disciples how to lead.

Jesus lived in the midst of his disciples and the impact of that still resonates. Globally.

UPDATE: Please read Doc Todd here and Alan Knox here.

UPDATE 2: My Toronto buddy, Darryl Dash responds with his post, Imagine There's No Leader – and Dave Fitch has a very good comment there. There's great conversation in the comments below, but you simply must read this one from Brad "FuturistGuy" Sargent.

ASIDE: Though not on exactly the same bent as this post, Chaplain Mike's "Disney-ization of Faith" fits well with this discussion. Particularly when he writes,

I could write a long book about all the examples of this across our land, from the many ways we market Jesus in books, music, and media, to the kistchy excess of the televangelists and the corporate “excellence” of the megachurches, to iconic monuments like the Crystal Cathedral. So much of it represents the “Magic Kingdom” mentality.

In the cartoon world of contemporary American evangelicalism, it’s all about bigger, better, and simpler. Help folks think their dreams can come true. Create “moments” for people in the congregation that they will never forget, that will “bless” families in safe and sanitized settings. Remove the messiness and reality of day to day life. Instead, put a sentimental, heart-tugging version of life up on the screen and make people feel it. Embrace the possibilities.

Evangelicalism has become “Disney-ized.”



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

31 responses to More Disciples, Fewer Leaders, Please

  1. Good stuff, Bill. I continue to be struck by the way the mega church looks to the rich and powerful to build the church, which was called to care for the marginalized and the poor.

    In the spirit of discipleship, I want to invite you to the Wild Goose Festival here in our neighborhood next spring. It will be right up your alley — in fact, I’m going to pass your name on to be one of the presenters — and it will mean we can hang out together.


  2. Milton,
    Thanks. And it would be fabulous to be able to hang with you. Geese, or otherwise, we should make it happen.

  3. Yeah, I was hanging around that conversation at JC myself, Bill.

    As I read your post, I was reminded of a line from Max DuPree’s “Leadership is an Art” where he talks about roving leaders: everyone, at one time or another, is a leader — all it takes is seeing something that needs to be done and doing it.

    That sounds a bit like discipleship to me. Except that we are to see with the eyes of Jesus and join Jesus in what he and our Father and the Spirit are doing.

    …wouldn’t flying that that flock of Geese be lovely. Sigh….

  4. It seems Bill, that we humans have this built-in bent towards leadership.

    Why is that?

    God tells us in Gen. 1:26 “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish… the birds…the cattle… and over all the earth… ”

    Right from the beginning we are told to rule and in vs 31 we read, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”

    Down through history we see examples of the good, the bad and the ugly leadership styles.

    The good came from those who listened to God while the bad and the ugly came from those who, perverted by sin and the fall, took upon themselves the leadership style of the father of lies.

    In examining this question, I am torn between calling out those who, with possible false humility, decry leadership, and commending those who call us to servant leadership. A proper analysis would require several thousand words (which I will spare you).

    I would also take issue with Scot when he says “…leadership too often places the pastor or some person in the front and having others be guided (and following) that person, and that, I dare say, distorts the entire gospel.”

    The essence of the Gospel is not about leadership (style or substance) but that God is no longer angry with us and His wrath has been forever satisfied by the blood of His Son.

    When the heavenly host praised God in Luke 2 they said “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill TOWARD men.”

    God’s peace and goodwill is now directed toward men. That’s the essence of the gospel.

    As we share THAT with our friends and neighbours, leadership views and styles will take a back seat to the good news of our redemption.

    Sometimes I wonder if we are straining at gnats when we spend so much effort and energy in deliberating the non-essentials.

    Are we telling our household (oikos) and extended family about God’s redemptive plan utilizing the power of the Holy Spirit residing in us?

    Have a look at what Tom Mercer, the pastor of High Desert Church in California, suggests we can do to change the world.

    link to

    I watch that video almost every day on my iPhone. I need to be reminded of the essence of the gospel.

    I’m one person who needs the power of the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus’ plan to reach my oikos.

    Will you and your readers join me?

  5. Well said, Bill. This fits with my recent post about making disciples NOT volunteers, the other product of this kind of leadership focus. A good challenge.

  6. And you can find Jamie’s post here.

    And here’s my post on volunteers from five years ago.

  7. I think, for me at least, it’s important to say that I’m not suggesting no leaders. What I am saying is that their primary focus needs to be on discipling those who are following them – who then disciple others and so on.

    We’ve gotten things completely out of whack in the “assembling of the saints” when our primary focus becomes the Sunday morning service – with preaching being it’s pinnacle. Especially when this preaching is often the only form of “discipleship” people in the pews receive.

  8. Crazy timing here. We had a meeting on Monday evening w/ some ministry lead… I mean, people who have various amounts of responsibility for the care of others at Life on the Vine. We were discussing something of a focused strategy for disciple-making in our community and there was a clear hesitation as we began to talk about people as leaders. As with any local church community, there are things which make us unique, one of which, I sense, is that a healthy number of our people have been wounded by authoritarian, dictatorial kinds of leaders. I sense that the great need, at least for us and possibly many others, is not to circumvent the notion and role of leadership (it is after all noted as one of the specific ways that God gifts people in the Body), but to redeem them in favor of the larger purposes of discipleship.

  9. Having seen the CEO style of leadership in churches, denominational head offices, and even within mission orgs like YWAM, I can tell you from experience: it’s just plain evil.

  10. Bill, in all seriousness, you’ve eerily anticipated one of the reflections I’ll be making regarding the failure of Ikon – and I’m tempted to just point people here instead.

    Nicely done.

  11. Well said Bill and I really like what Scot had to say. I’m currently helping our faith communities leadership work through many of these same issues. They are moving from a CEO/business/top-down style of leadership to what we are calling an equipping model (with a flat organization) where pastors/elders see their role more as discipler/equipper/shepherd and not business managers. Exciting times.

  12. Amen. Scot is right on, in my opinion. A big thanks from my corner of the world to anyone who is vocally DE-emphasizing leadership to emphasize discipleship.

  13. Win, I think what Scot’s getting at is that the Church’s conception of Christ’s sufficiency and lordship are at stake when a leadership style that produces a two-tier system of authority. With the “big-awesome-leader-guy” model, what ends up happening is that people begin thinking of him as a mediator between the Head and the rest of the body. This definitely wears away at the essence of the Gospel pretty quickly.

  14. Bill –

    Wow! I am glad your recent pain subsided enough to get this one on the interwebs! Thanks for the HT. But, I believe you put some things together in this post that are musts!

  15. It’s significant to me that many of the early church fathers were absolutely terrified when they found they were being called into leadership. Now it seems that all too often it’s something that young Christians run towards with an eagerness that belies the notion that they comprehend what they are undertaking.

  16. Just what I’ve been saying for years … but you say it better 🙂

    If you go to Wild Goose, I will … I’ve been tempted for some time now.

  17. Looking at the list of who's speaking at Wild Goose, I doubt that anyone other than Milton (who is a gem – but not because he wants me there – he's just one of the best writers on these here interwebs) would want me there, other than to sit quietly and learn. 🙂

  18. And I was one of those young Christians who did exactly that two decades ago. Perhaps if I had been better discipled, I wouldn't have, eh!

    Good comment, Dan. As usual.

  19. I really love how many of us seem to weave our thoughts together to perhaps give a little hint of what the Spirit might be saying. (I couldn't find anymore qualifiers to put in there – as even saying that is presumptuous on my part.)

  20. Well said, Nate. 

  21. I think maybe the Spirit is saying something to and through a lot of us, Jason. (Though as I said to Todd, I don't want to be presumptuous.)

  22. But I do think the ‘gators need to get together in 2011. Maybe somewhere in the mid-west, eh!

  23. I look forward to you writing more about this Rick. I think it will be important for us to read. And I’m reminded of Alan Hirsch working with a number of megachurch leaders who want to transition to true incarnational ministry. (I can’t find the link right now.)

  24. This is incredibly timely for me right now on a personal level, Bill. Thank you for writing it. As someone that “came of age” in evangelicalism in the 80s and 90s when it was all about Being A Big Hero, it’s a hard mentality to shake. We cut our teeth on the idea that we had to be Big for God, Special and always the Head and Not the Tail.

    There was something inherently shameful about not being the Hero of the World. it’s a difficult thing to shake that off and we are still struggling with it. If you aren’t the big hero (read: in successful vocational ministry), you are left feeling like a failure. And it’s a new paradigm to embrace – the one of the servant, the one of being small, of decreasing so that he may increase and all that.

    Thank you for this! You’ve put some meat on a few bones for us.

  25. Sarah,
    As one of my favourite writers on these interwebs, that means a lot.

    And we sure got burdened down with a lot of nonsense in those years, didn’t we.

  26. I’m spending an increasing amount of time walking with the homeless and under-employed these days. Every week, a friend of mine “shepherds” a large group of these individuals. Most gather at the downtown library, and hang out on the street corners nearby. We spend the week interacting with them as much as possible, and on Wednesdays they’re invited to the park for pizza and conversation and sharing of God’s word. On the weekends, some meet at his house for more “discipleship”. We are looked down upon by many because we are not doing this as an official “Church” under the authority of official leaders, and because we pretty much look like the people we are serving(because we are are all pretty much in the same boat or close to it) but we’re the only “leaders” out there and that park is the only church these people have. We preach in the open air to the least of these, feeding soul and body, and they choose to follow or they do not – unless we model Jesus, they do not. We recieve no perks or income, but I look forward to serving and find great sense of joy serving as one of the people. As for leadership – whatever positive influence we have, or service we perform in their lives is in the name of Jesus, thats all that matters. This may soon become my only Church and parish.

  27. Timely, vulnerable, and what they heck are yuh gonna do next with that documentary? I can hardly wait … and hope that there’s an opportunity for Imbi and you to revisit earlier interviewees for some cross-comment to gain their current views on this topic of “the re-disciplization of the church.”

    For what it’s worth, I believe this recent leadership VERSUS discipleship insight that you summarized for us is very very important. In my opinion, this comes at the crossroads of multiple streams nearing convergence — and no, I’m not talking about the same old streams of emerging, emergent, missional, etceteral. For some time, there has been a growing network of interconnections among people who have been working through the damage they received from unqualified “leaders” of churches, ministries, and non-profits — and seem to be preparing to “call out” spiritually abusive practices and people in the Church.

    At the same time, there has been a stream of movement toward organic-organizational modes that are more sustainable (which cannot happen without the feature of reproducing disciples). At the same time, there has been a stream of movement toward social change through a “fourth bottom line” of personal and community spiritual transformation, which requires a kind of collaboration beyond conventional CEO/hierarchy apporaches. It may well be that these various streams converge at the critique of CEO and other organizational/leadership models of dubious bibliosity outside of Old Testament hierarchies for the nation of Israel, which we are not.

    It seems that so much of evangelicalism and seminary training and church planting and yadda-yadda has been hijacked by evangelists who turn church into a baby factory and daycare and never get anyone through spiritual puberty as it were, and by pseudo-business “leaders” who hijack church to reproduce CEOs and house-elf subordinates to Do Their Bidding instead of disciples who are responsible to do God’s bidding.

    And from my observations and series of unfortunate experiences, it seems to me that most CEO-model pastors would fail spectacularly and quickly as CEOs of real businesses. Do they know how to listen to the ideas or constructive suggestions of subordinates, and implement them? Do they know how how to conduct strategic planning for sustainability, and then not hijack the process for personal goals? Do they know how to supervise people, equip them, empower them, collaborate with them? Did/do their “training programs”/seminaries/leadership development program include such practical skills for having a Discipleship-Driven[TM] organic organization? (If so, I suspect they didn’t get that at The Typical Seminary!)

    And who made the rule that says you can be a “leader” before you are a proven disciple? Umm … I simply don’t recall that being in the Scriptures anywhere, red letters of Jesus or otherwise. And for the record, I am not against leadership. But I/we should not endorse forms, models, strategies for “leadership” which fail to equip every disciple for spiritual disciples, spiritual gift and ministry development, and reproducing other disciples. Just sayin’…

    Along this line, just this week I had a conversation with a woman who has worked at an apple packing and processing company for over 20 years. She’s now in QC – quality control – and has to examine, peel, and taste a certain number of samples per hour. If the demonstrated quality of the apples gets below a certain percentage (e.g., due to damaged peel, bad taste, mealy texture) then she is responsible to pull the chain that stops the entire line in that section of the factory until they get the quality issues resolved and the percentage of rightness and ripeness back to the required standard.

    Look — in evaluating “leadership” development models, we’re just doing our jobs as fruit inspectors. If a “leader” or method shows no fruit (i.e., little or no demonstrated development of disciples and their disciplines, gifts/ministries, character) or if there is bad fruit (spiritually abusive, controlling, self-gratifying behaviors), then by calling them out, we’re just doing what the Scriptures require of us. We are to ensure that our leaders have the core spiritual disciplines and discernment and humility required of good fruit, despite how appealing (or unappealing) the peel may appear.

    Sadly, unlike my friend from the apple processing plant who can “read” fruit quickly because she has so many years of seeing beyond the peel, I’m not sure North American Christians have “trained ourselves by way of practice to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). I think a time is coming soon, though, with the convergence of those movements I mentioned plus others, to reveal what’s truly in our “leaders” and the pro-discipleship or anti-discipleship methods they are attempting to instill or install. What’s being done in the name of “leadership” is not always sin, but I have to wonder if, many times, the models and leaders teeter on the border of evil and the destruction of disciples and discipleship …

    Anyway, Bill, thanks for your willingness to be the occasional enlightening rod who takes a hit so that others don’t have to. Blessings to you and Imbi in completing this labor of love …

  28. Brad,
    This is worthy of a post on its own. Wow. Well said.

  29. Bravo, Bill! Can’t wait to see the whole documentary! Chris Wright has become my #3 hero, right there under you and TOM Wright!

    In the GO MAKE DISCIPLES vein, I’m all over that. (Shameless plug coming…) The premise of my book Why God Thinks He Can Use You is that God wants to use everybody all the time everywhere to advance His Kingdom and do good! Discipleship is the intentional transfer of the Faith.

    And if you get South for the GooseFest, let me know. I’m thinking about being there myself and would like to hang out with you again.


    Also, I miss Brad’s postings since he retired his blog… Great to hear from him again

  30. My goodness Brad, so much good stuff in your comment!!!

  31. Glenn, good news from Brad yesterday. He is blogging again here: link to


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