Protestantism is in decline and the “nones,” people with no religious preference or no religion at all, number upwards of 46 million. In this atmosphere I have to wonder: what kind of leadership does the church need in the future? Clearly there is a need for adaptive change: how are we to live, worship, and serve our neighbor when the church has little claim to the influence we once possessed?
Much attention is being given to the “nones.” As a former college president and teacher I have known thousands of college students for whom the church had no place in their lives. And they are fine with that. The young people in my classes were certainly not bad people. On the contrary. They were caring and sensitive individuals often filled with an idealism that surpassed anything my generation exhibited. But they are more interested in deeds than theological pronouncements, and most of what we debate in the church simply does not matter to them. College students have a significant interest in organizations like Teach For America, volunteer service programs, and movements to save the environment. They are comfortable with non-religious programs as well as interfaith programs that place service to others above individual beliefs–much more interested in belonging to groups that help people than in institutions that teach “right belief.” These young people may be speaking to us in prophetic ways.
I do not know what the church of the future will look like, but I do know we are swamped with lots of voices telling us how to lead in the future. I have studied many of these leadership theories–some good, some bad–and some we examined in our gathering in Ponte Vedra. What I believe is that in the midst of so much noise about leadership two characteristics remain relevant for future leaders–solitude and hope.
I am no enemy of the advances in instant communication, but I fear the potential loss of solitude. Leaders need quality time uninterrupted by Facebook, Twitter, iPods, and YouTube. Quality time, not thinking about how we compete with other faiths but how we cooperate to change lives for the better. Time to reflect on what we as individuals are doing to change the world and what concretely we are doing to serve our brothers and sisters. Time to be in touch with our genuine selves and quietly seek what God is calling us to do. Howard Thurman said this well in his 1980 address to the graduating class of Spelman College:
There is something in every one of you that waits, listening for the genuine in yourself—and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching…and if you cannot hear the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days at the end of strings that someone else pulls.
Leadership for tomorrow demands we identify the genuine in ourselves and then act on our core beliefs. What business are we in, anyway? It may just be that this question is best answered in prayer and solitude.
Solitude? Yes, and hope. While history offers no guarantee that religious institutions in America will survive as we have known them, history also confirms that love abides. As Christians we bet our lives on this truth and this belief is enough to move us as leaders into the future. Leaders know that we need not accept predictions about Christianity’s demise as a given. As leaders we know that we can influence the future, and we must address this future without being overwhelmed by the present. I am excited and hopeful about the future. I know our low membership numbers are a concern to many. I also realize that the church’s influence has been dramatically diminished. Yet leaders know opportunities come from chaos. Compare today with the early church. It certainly had no dominance. It was no major player at all. Yet it was a thorn in the flesh of a society that did not care for its sisters and brothers. And look what the Spirit accomplished!
So let us step back and observe what goes on around us. We dare not run from the facts and long wistfully for days that will not return again. Let us not worry too much about the “nones.” They may be more about service than we, and they may be a prophetic voice to us. Let us use our time in solitude to focus and remain genuine in the midst of continued change. And let us move forward with assurance that while our futures will always be in flux, love will abide. You can bet on it.