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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The Kind of Leadership The Church Needs

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be. 

My father, who recently died at age 92, often said: “The older we get, the better we were.”

This expression is a succinct, if folksy, way of describing the common practice of historical revisionism. Those of us who are conservatives often (and rightly) revile historical revisionists who look at history through Marxist, or feminist, or “queer theory,” or other ideological lenses.

But Christians tend to engage in revisionism, too. If progressives denigrate the past, many Christians and conservatives sentimentalize the past. We remember ourselves (as my father suggested above) as more virtuous and heroic than we really were, and we remember the past as simpler, nobler, more innocent. We remember the 1950s as the era in which all families looked like the Cleavers of “Leave It To Beaver.” We remember the era of America’s founding as a time when giants walked the earth.

We may not succumb to leftist revisionism, but our sentimentalizing of the past is a no less dangerous revisionism. After all, the Left’s revisionism is dangerous not primarily because it is progressive or liberal in a relative political sense. Wilberforce’s abolitionism was, in its time, “progressive.” The American experiment in democracy was progressive in the age of monarchs and aristocrats. No, modern progressivism’s chief sin is that it is false. It perpetuates a false narrative of the world.

But those who disdain the Left should take care that they do not become what they so vigorously fight against. The truth sets us free, and “bearing false witness,” whether those bearers of false witness come at us from the left or the right, are equally destructive to the truth.

That’s why it is particularly distressing to see Christian ministries and conservative political leaders often use this kind of fear-based message in their fundraising. That message often sounds like this: “Things are bad and getting worse. But with your help, we can make the [the church, America, our schools, journalism…take your pick] great again.

Donald Trump has been the most successful recent purveyor of this revisionist message, of course. But he is not the originator of this kind of fear-based populism. Evangelicalism has, in some ways, provided him with the playbook. The separatism of early 20th century fundamentalists and the “end times” eschatology of late 20th century evangelicals blazed the trail for 21st century populism. That may be why the evangelical church has responded hungrily to its message.

But the time has come for Christian leaders to take a step back and, with a “sound mind” (as Paul exhorted Timothy) to take a good look at what’s going on in the church and the world.

That’s why, when I feel the temptation to “bear false witness” regarding the past, or when I get discouraged about the current political environment – or the state of the church and the world – I ask myself this question: would I rather live today, or 100 years ago? Before you answer too glibly, consider the following:

  • In 1920, the average lifespan of an American male was 54 years. For women, it was 55.
  • We had just completed a devastating World War that left Europe in ruins and a generation of Americans shell-shocked.
  • Cocaine was legal.
  • Virulent forms of racism were socially acceptable, and Jim Crow was the law of the land.
  • The Communist Revolution, which destroyed 150-million people in death camps and gulags during the 20th century, was just gearing up.
  • Polio was on the rise and would soon reach pandemic proportions in America and Europe.
  • The world was slowly recovering from The Spanish Flu, which infected 500 million people killed as many as 100 million – that at a time when global population was less than 2 billion.

We survived them all. We triumphed over them all.

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We’ve got problems today, that’s for sure, but I think we’d be better off if we had a little historical perspective, learned from our ancestors, and faced our problems like adults – rather than like Chicken Little, crying that the sky is falling every time we encounter something we don’t like.

And for those of you in leadership of Christian ministries, think about your fundraising and other messages. Are you contributing to the fear, or pointing people towards the “love [that] casts out all fear”?

The hardest thing about living in a chaotic time is deciding not to participate in the chaos, and then figuring out how not to participate. A certain kind of populist demagogue thrives on the chaos. He will find a riot, call it a parade, and declare himself its drum major. Then, when the riot spins out of control, he says, “Don’t look at me!” Or “That’s not what I meant!”

That’s not the kind of leadership the church needs now. We need leaders who will resist the temptation to say the world is going to hell on a bobsled merely because that message will inflame passions and fill coffers. Rather, we need leaders who embrace the biblical narrative that we live in a beautiful, if broken, world, and God – in His sovereignty and grace – has entrusted us with a ministry of reconciliation and restoration.

Let us be about that work.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.