Leading Christ's Church

As we end the season of Easter, the season of resurrection, the church is now faced with the issue of leadership. Christ has entrusted his church to us, his followers. And as we look to the New Testament for guidance on how we lead the church, we turn to the book of Acts.

In Acts we discover one of the major New Testament functions of Christian leadership is to ensure continuity.

So in today's scripture it's important for the apostles to select a person to replace the betrayer Judas. That replacement, they said, must be someone who "accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us . . . a witness with us to his resurrection" (1:21-22).

The text reminds us that leadership, in the body of Christ, has as one of its responsibilities to ensure that there is continuity between the gospel preached today and the gospel as it has always been proclaimed since the time of the first apostles.

In order to be a replacement apostle, Matthias needed to be among those who were with Jesus from the first, a "witness . . . to his resurrection."

Yet there is some irony behind this interpretation of the selection of Matthias. Is this a story about the church's dire need for continuity, a link with tradition and with the past, or is this also a story about the church's need for innovation, for modification and adaptation in order to meet new challenges? Or perhaps it's a story of both continuity and innovation.

The disciples of Jesus have come to a crossroads. One of the Twelve, the inner circle, has betrayed Jesus. The risen Christ, in these days after Easter, has left his disciples. What now? The good news of today's reading from Acts is that, in answer to the apostles' prayer, Christ gives a new person to share in "this ministry and apostleship."

Most of church leadership, in my experience, is a constant struggle between continuity (linking to the past) and innovation (the desire to do something new and perhaps more relevant to our current context).

Church leaders, like pastors, are called to insure that the church continues to preach the gospel that has been delivered to the saints.

Yet the church is also called courageously to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit into new areas of ministry and witness. In order to do that, we need church leaders who are transformative, leaders who enable us to innovate.

For me the challenge to church leadership is being able to innovate while keeping our linkage to tradition and the past in tact. In other words we don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water as we try new things.

There is an abiding conviction, in places like Acts, that God graciously, and sometimes quite surprisingly, provides the leadership needed by the church at the time it is needed.

Now as we look at leadership it's true that not everyone in the congregation is called to be a leader in the church. Folks not gifted for leadership are gifted in other important ways, and are called to some other form of ministry.

But on the other hand all in the church have a stake in leadership; all of us have a responsibility to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. The church needs leaders who follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to help us to meet the challenges of discipleship in our time and place.

The Acts of the Apostles begins rather dramatically with the ascension of the risen Christ into heaven (1:6-11). But then the very next episode is a rather routine description of the election of Matthias as a replacement apostle (1:15-26). This strikes me as somewhat interesting.

Here we have Christ ascending up into heaven, in the clouds, and the church responds with a council meeting!

It's anticlimactic don't you think, this council meeting so soon after Christ's resurrection and ascension. Yet no matter how dramatic and "spiritual" the event - even a resurrection or ascension - at some time we must return to our place here on this earth.

Jesus is in heaven, but we, the followers of Jesus, live here, where there are tasks to be accomplished, and jobs to be filled, and someone has to keep things going from day to day between Christ's first coming and his next. This is the job of church leadership. And I think this story is placed here, in Acts, toward the end of Eastertide, just before Pentecost, the birthday of the church and the descent of the Holy Spirit, to remind us that Jesus cares about where we live, how we run his church, and how we work together to do his work.

Here is testimony that there is no church without leadership. No people of the Spirit without Spirit-filled leaders. From the beginning, human beings were needed in order for the church to be faithful to its divine vocation to be "Christ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8).

Now I know people who say that the church shouldn't bother itself with routine human matters. They feel that the church is mostly about spiritual and religious matters. They get exasperated with church budgets, and church council meetings, politics, elections of leaders for the church, and so on. "When can we be done with all this administrative stuff and get on to the real business of the church?" they ask. And admittedly, I too feel this way sometimes. But doing the administration or business of the church is a form of ministry. After all the root word in the word administration is minister.

I have found that there is no way to get on with the spiritual business of the church without taking care of this other business too. In order to serve Christ, we must become the body of Christ, we must be organized, and we must have structure and continuity. Thus God graciously gives the church leaders, leaders like Matthias, to help us to do God's work in the world.

Imagine how those apostles felt in the first days of the church. Jesus had ascended. He had left them. Had he left the church to it's own devices, leaving the church to fend for itself.

What was to be done about the betrayal and failure of Judas? They prayed, "Lord, show us what to do next. Tell us who ought to lead us." And the election of Matthias was an answer to their prayer. The church was not left void of guidance. A new apostle was chosen for a new age.

The church is not forced to live in the past, when confronted by new challenges, endlessly to repeat the mantra, "We never did it that way before." Christ intends to go with us into the future. His Holy Spirit encourages us to move forward. To this end, sometimes a major way of encouraging us is by providing us with leaders who keep challenging our thinking.

As a church we need to continue moving forward, embracing divine change without compromising the Gospel. If we don't the church will be left behind. And when the church falls behind it eventually dies.

Thus the story of Matthias is a story about God-given transformation. I agree with those who say that the greatest need for the church in our age is for transformative leaders and for congregations who are willing, under their leadership, to be transformed.

Pastor Anthony Robinson helpfully lists some "rules of leadership" that I believe are particularly applicable for our congregation at our time and place. (Anthony B. Robinson, "Lessons in Leadership," Christian Century [December 15, 1999], pp. 1230-1231.) As you listen to these, think about our church and how God may be calling us to be transformed:

Give responsibility back. When somebody in the church says, "Somebody ought to be doing this," Robinson says he learned, as a pastor, to say, "That sounds like just the thing God may be calling you to do." We must, in our leadership roles, restore our baptismally given ministry. We are all to be in ministry. Not the few, but the many.

Expect tension. Tension and conversion is inherently part of the Christian faith. The giving up of one belief and the embracing of another can produce tension. Sometimes, a congregation needs its leaders to ignite needed changes within the congregation. Some tension is healthy because it promotes growth. But as with most things too much of a good thing is not good, and this can be said of tension. Too much tension can develop into conflict, which than can cause us to stop growing and becoming inward focused.

To grow we need to take risks, we need to experience tension, we need to be challenged, and we need to stumble and fall sometimes. But most of all we need to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

Value small steps. It is a virtue to have a long-range vision, but it is essential for us to realize that we will get there only by a series of many small steps. There appears to be something inherent within the nature of the gospel that values small things - the widow's coin, and the few seeds that fell upon good soil - small things that the world doesn't regard as much.

Remember, as you are having one-to-one conversations, as you are teaching the only two children who showed up for Sunday school, or as you are visiting the one sick person, that the Exodus from slavery began with one step toward the Promised Land.

Although small steps, everyone is important and leads us down the path to the Promised Land.

Be persistent. Change, no matter how obviously needed or how strongly God driven, inevitably provokes resistance. Resistance, particularly where the issue relates directly to our devotion to and service of God, can be deep and unrelenting. Constancy is one of the essential virtues for Christian ministry.

But we must consider this question, are we growing roots or developing ruts? Roots allow us to grow, ruts are a result of spinning our wheels doing the same old thing because it's comfortable.

It's said that one of the reasons the red wood trees in California grow so tall is because they interlock their roots with one another causing them to help and depend on one another.

This is what Christ asks us to do, to interlock our lives and gifts with him, and to depend on one another to live as true followers of Christ.

I share these thoughts with you on church leadership because of its importance to the future of Christ's church, the importance to us as Christ's church. Leadership is not simply about attending meetings, it's about God, it's about doing, it's about taking risk, it's about doing God's will, it's about trusting God even when we stumble and fall. After all no challenge the church must face, no difficult new turn in the road, is impossible for the church to meet because of the gracious gifts of God. On Easter, Jesus was raised from the dead. He intends to bring us along with him to new life, now. There is no way for us to follow him without being transformed, without being willing to be part of a church that is always on the move, adapting, and changing.

Not all of us are called by Christ to be leaders of the church. Yet we are all called to be Easter people, people who are always ready for new life in Christ. Will we follow when our leaders call us toward that new life? Or will we retreat to what we know and find comfortable. Behind today's reading in the Book of Acts is a promise. When Christ rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, he didn't leave us alone. In the election of Matthias as a fresh, new leader of the church, Christ showed that he would continue to be with us. He is with us in many ways - as that "still small voice," in the words of scripture, in the hymns and worship of the church, and in prayer.

He is also with us in the everyday life of the church. He is with us in our leaders of the church. He is with us in our church meetings.

In every age, Christ gives us the leaders we need in order to fulfill his mandate to be his presence in the world, his body, the church. Are we ready to Lead Christ's Church?


Read other messages by Pastor Wade