The future of evangelical leadership doesn’t belong to the chosen few

Last week, Tony Jones offered his predictions for Christianity in 2013.

His lighthearted list includes “sea changes in the personnel of evangelicalism”:

Evangelicals are looking for new leading voices. As the founding generation of the evangelical insurgency passes into dementia-induced incoherence, to whom will they turn? …

Tony says “it seems doubtful that bloggers will lead the way,” but he also mentions that someone like Rachel Held Evans could be among the new voices that emerge as evangelical leaders.

I think he may be a little late with that prediction, because I think Evans already is an important leader among evangelicals. That fact has gone under the radar somewhat because she doesn’t fit the model of what American evangelicalism expects its “leaders” to look like. Or, at least, she’s leading in a way that many of the established “leaders” in evangelicalism don’t recognize as “leadership.”

She’s not the president, founder and CEO of any institution. She doesn’t seem to seek or to wield much in the way of power. And yet it seems to me that she’s influenced as many people as deeply as any of the magazine-cover-profile type president/founder/CEO/senior pastor celebrities of the evangelical world.

My “Bonfire” list of Christian women bloggers is up over 1,100 now. Evans is just one name in that list, yet her influence, encouragement and generosity is reflected in scores of other voices represented there. Her influence reminds me of that famous quote from (maybe) Brian Eno, about the Velvet Underground: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

This hasn’t gotten the full attention of the evangelical powers that be partly because those voices are women’s voices, and partly because Evans doesn’t seem interested in becoming one of the powers that be herself. She’s leading quietly, without trying to acquire power and fame. And since the powers that be regard the acquisition of power and fame as the definition of leadership, I think they have a hard time recognizing what she’s been doing as “leadership” at all.

I’m guessing that when Rachel reads this, it will make her immensely uncomfortable. She’ll squirm a bit at being singled out and she’ll want to insist that it’s wrong to praise her for such alleged leadership without also praising many, many others — Kristen Howerton, Sarah Bessey, Addie Zierman, Krista Dalton … and many, many more. And she’d be right about that. Rachel Held Evans isn’t alone.

That’s really at the heart of the kind of “leadership” I think she represents. It’s not about amassing power for oneself, it’s about sharing it to empower others. It’s a walking-with rather than a standing-above kind of leadership. It’s a kind of power that people who seek power don’t even recognize as power.

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Rachel Held Evans is the chosen one of her generation who will stand alone against the forces of darkness. I think she’s chosen something better than that. Something really … nifty.

I look at the effect that she and all those other women are having as they empower one another and I’m reminded of this:

 

And of this:

And that’s my prediction for the future leadership of evangelicalism. Everyone who could have the power will have the power; can stand up, will stand up.

Maybe 2013 is too soon, but eventually this will happen. Right now you’re asking yourself, “What makes this different?” But Tony is right — the old generation of leaders is dying out and the old model of leadership is dying with them. The days of competing fiefdoms and tribal gatekeepers are finally ending. It’s time to try something new.

So here’s the part where you make a choice: Are you ready to be strong?

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    Nice use of the final ep of Buffy.

    This hasn’t gotten the full attention of the evangelical powers that be partly because those voices are women’s voices, and partly because Evans doesn’t seem interested in becoming one of the powers that be herself. She’s leading quietly, without trying to acquire power and fame. And since the powers that be regard the acquisition of power and fame as the definition of leadership, I think they have a hard time recognizing what she’s been doing as “leadership” at all.

    WORD. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Riastlin-Lovecraft/100000678992705 Riastlin Lovecraft

    Ditto

  • Eric B

    Yeah, I think she might feel singled out since Fred Clark of Slacktivist was the other blogger mentioned right beside Rachel. Maybe she will do a post about why you are already an evangelical leader.

  • http://twitter.com/MAGuyton Morgan Guyton

    I just wish that the concept of celebrity would disappear from Christian culture. Leadership should be a local phenomenon. I partly say that because I’m trying to unlearn the need to become somebody famous and important. Had the privilege of meeting Rachel at a Methodist youth retreat this fall. Her synchroblog on Christian unity during the Rob Bell drama a year and a half ago was part of my decision to start blogging.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    But please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Rachel Held Evans is the chosen one of her generation who will stand alone against the forces of darkness. I think she’s chosen something better than that. Something really … nifty.

    The moment I started reading this paragraph, I thought “And cue Buffy reference in three… two… one.”

    :)

  • Shayna

    I don’t mind the local thing, but sometimes you can’t find what you are looking for locally.  I live in South Texas, and haven’t had much luck finding kindred spirits in the church in my area.  People like Rachel and Fred are why I decided to give Christianity a chance in the first place, and they remind me that I am not alone in my worldview.

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    Rachel Held Evans has influenced me in so many ways. The thing is, the evangelicals of the past had a need for just a few key leaders, but we are more about equality now. We’re not following just one person. Glad to see so many influential people out there.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    It’s not about amassing power for oneself, it’s about sharing it to
    empower others. It’s a walking-with rather than a standing-above kind of
    leadership. It’s a kind of power that people who seek power don’t even
    recognize as power.

    Huh. You’d think she was copying that crazy man who thought the way to be most important was to serve everybody else. And we know what happened to him.

  • Michael Pullmann

    “Passes into dementia-induced incoherence”? Where does he think they were before?

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com/ Addie Zierman

    Thanks so much for the mention here. I feel humbled to be mentioned. And also, I agree with you. I think it’s a mistake for Tony Jones to discount bloggers. I think blogs are the springboard from which many of the compelling voices of Christianity will launch books and speaking careers, much as Rachel has. And if those people will model Rachel’s version of leadership (which you described spot-on as empowering), things can only get better. Thanks again.

  • patter

    My influence is vast, unstoppable and retroactive.

    Beware, Rachel!  Once you’re in the Slacktivist’s sites, you’re bound for the top.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Incoherence induced by other things.

  • lovecomesfromlife

    Love the Buffy.  Love it to pieces.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    “Passes into dementia-induced incoherence”? Where does he think they were before?

    Ignorance-induced incoherence.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    My influence is vast, unstoppable and retroactive.

    Beware, Rachel!  Once you’re in the Slacktivist’s sites, you’re bound for the top.

    Damn it.  I called next.  I want to win the Iowa caucuses more than ten years ago.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Is it still a double post if the two are separated by over an hour?

    Honestly I’ve never much liked that sequence from Buffy and I’ve been struggling how best to articulate that and why I think Rachel Held Evans comes off better than Buffy in the comparison.

    -

    What Buffy did was to inflict unasked for superpowers (from a demonic source, but that’s not important right now) on girls and young women the world over and, with the exception of the small handful of potentials near her when she explained the plan, without their knowledge or consent.

    Buffy had been subject to the same thing, as had Faith, and both know how it affected their lives.  (Not really for the better.)  And, to a lesser extent, their sanity.

    It was the democratization of power in the same way the Smothers Brothers described the democratization of nuclear power* which isn’t accurate but pretend for a moment it is.  What if those two fisherman in Spain and the three natives in Greenland don’t want to be nuclear powers?  What if they’re not ready for it?  What if their psyche can’t handle it?  What if they were happy how they were?

    What Buffy left out of the equation was choice.  Consent.  She’s had to deal with the fact that that was left out for her, but now she’s doing the same thing to people all over the world.  That never sat right with me.  (Also that the two slayers we know the most about are Buffy and Faith, and Faith had to hit suicidal rock bottom before she turned from evil to good, so I’m not convinced that this does anything to increase the good in the world.)

    Which brings me to Rachel Held Evans back here in the real world.  You know what exists in her form of leadership?  Choice.  Consent.  She didn’t just inflict blogs on random Christian women and say, “You don’t want to be a blogger?  Too bad, you are one now.”  She inspired people to follow her example and everyone who did had a choice in the matter.  They could consider their options, decide whether or not they wanted to take that road, and do whatever they chose to do.

    That’s something Buffy never gave to those girls and young women.  Control over their own destinies.

    Rachel Held Evans vs. Buffy, Rachel Held Evans wins.  At least on this count.  If vampires were attacking my home town I’d probably want Buffy.  Or Faith.  Or Angel.  

    -

    *Transcript I found online, no idea how accurate it is:

    Dick: We lost another airplane–crashed in Greenland–and we lost four hydrogen bombs in the Arctic Snow.  That’s disturbing to me. Very.  Seriously.

    Tom: Not to me.

    Dick: What do you mean?

    Tom: Well, I think that just simply reflects another change in the hydrogen bomb policy.  I mean, we’re losing them in the snow in Greenland now instead of in the waters of Spain like we used to…I feel like it’s a step in the right direction in order to spread democracy.

    Dick: Spread democracy?…Don’t you realize that losing hydrogen bombs disturbs all the …nuclear powers who control world politics?

    Tom:  Maybe they need to be disturbed.

    Dick: Here are the powers that control world politics, that have the bomb, right?  The U.S., right?  Russia, Red China, England, and France.

    Tom: Yeah, but now they’ve added two fishermen in Spain and three Eskimos in Greenland.

    In reality when we lose nuclear weapons we usually get them back.  Usually.

  • http://rachelheldevans.com Rachel Held Evans

    Hi Fred! I just want to thank you for this article, not just because you are too kind, but because I think you are absolutely right about the important role that blogging has played for evangelical women in particular. For example, I am forbidden from speaking at the church I grew up in down the street because I am a woman, but, believe it or not, more people visit my blog in a day than will visit that church over the course of the next two years! I have a voice in evangelicalism now, thanks primarily to blogging. 

    This post served as a really great reminder to me to take this leadership role seriously and try to do some good with it. So thanks for that. And thanks for your consistent, generous support. 

  • Carstonio

     Thanks so much for visiting. Although I’m not religious and my family’s religious background doesn’t include evangelicalism, I enjoy both Fred’s perspective and yours. I continue to be astounded and saddened that anyone would view a rule against women speaking in church as a good thing. I might understand if they viewed it as an onerous requirement that they disagree with, but follow under protest anyway. My hope is that as women such as yourself make their voices heard through blogging, such sexist notions will end up in the dustbin of history where they belong.


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