Let’s Talk About What God Is Doing

Despite grim pronouncements about the church’s future, the opportunities for Christian mission are greater than ever before.

A conversation with Leith Anderson and Gary Walter.

If you’ve ever wondered, ‘Where have all the Christian statespersons gone?’ tonight you’re going to meet one of them,” said Covenant president Gary Walter as he introduced Leith Anderson in June at Gather ’14 in Chicago. A statesperson, in its most basic definition, is a wise, skillful, respected leader. In the Christian context, it additionally suggests a champion of the church who thrives on bringing Christians together rather than emphasizing their divisions. A longtime friend and admirer of Anderson’s, Walter spoke of Anderson’s unique ability to combine a seamless focus on the local church, evangelism, and a commitment to social mission, all while bringing various groups of people together. It’s an ability that has served him well the past eight years as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an organization that seeks both to connect and represent evangelical Christians. In addition to his role with the NAE, Anderson is the author of several books, former president of Denver Seminary, and retired pastor of Wooddale Church in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where he served for thirty-five years. Recently, in between sessions at the Annual Meeting, Anderson sat down with Walter to talk about, among other things, what it means to be evangelical, the future of denominations, and church planting.

Gary: Leith, your background is in the Baptist General Conference, a cousin denomination to ours. Our denominations share a common spiritual heritage. We’re Pietists who have a deep commitment to personal relationship with Christ. But we don’t believe in the privatization of faith. We believe that when God calls us to himself, he also calls us to join him in his mission — so we’re missional Pietists. How does Pietism, the heritage that we both come from, shape you in your faith?

Leith: My father was a pastor in the same church outside New York City in northern New Jersey for thirtythree years. I grew up in a tradition of emphasizing Pietism and holiness with a measure of fundamentalism. There was also a very strong emphasis on evangelism and missions. A right relationship with God, sharing that relationship, and living it out is a key part to what I’ve come to value about the Christian life.

Gary: The word “evangelical” is often misunderstood today, yet it is very important to our traditions — it’s integral to both our names. How can we reclaim a proper understanding of this word?

Leith: It is a word that has a lot of different meanings. In Europe it means Protestant, which is a different meaning than it is here. It has a different meaning to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America than it does to the Evangelical Free Church of America.

The NAE is working with a major research company to develop a research definition of “evangelical.” Some definitions say that 7 percent of the American population is evangelical, and others say that nearly 50 percent of the American population is evangelical. It depends on your definition. We think we can help recapture the meaning, but it’s not an easy thing to do. If we have too broad a definition, it may include people who don’t belong. There are a couple of definitions that I thought excluded me. I think they’re a little too narrow. So we’re working on this.

Some years ago someone stole bottles of Tylenol and put potassium cyanide inside them. People said that the Tylenol brand was forever tainted. But the company stuck with the brand, and eventually they got past it. Because whatever new title or new word comes along, it can also be compromised in the future. Do I deeply care about this specific word? I really don’t. But it’s the best we’ve got for right now. And if the word is

Gary: The NAE helps denominations find common ground and common voice, and you have just joined the board of World Vision, who is an important partner for us as we are involved in a huge project together in DR Congo. Can you talk a little bit about kingdom partnerships and kingdom-mindedness?

Leith: I have a degree in sociology, so I have a tilt to interpret things sociologically.

We are in a time of significant change, if not chaotic disruption, and that frightens people. When there’s a lot of change, people have a tendency to revert to their roots, which in the broadest sense is fundamentalism. So whether it’s Islamic or Christian or Hindu fundamentalism, the tendency is to go back to wherever we came from because we’re fearful of the changes that are taking place.

I think that what we need to do — and this is one of the roles of NAE — is to say that you can be faithful to who you are, including different evangelical traditions and practices. But at the same time you can engage the opportunities that come in times of significant change and even chaos. That’s the story of the church in the first century. It was a chaotic time in Palestine. Jesus and his disciples seized the moment by honoring those who wanted to hold to their Jewish roots but also by engaging the changing times.

Gary: What encourages you about the missional context we’re in now, with all of its challenges? And what challenges do you think the church hasn’t really addressed or acknowledged?

Leith: The best-selling book originally written in English is A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. We all know the opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I think that there are some within the religious community who get satisfaction and even do fundraising based on talking about the worst of times. To me that is theologically equivalent to saying that there’s a competition going on between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, and we’re mostly going to talk about the successes of the kingdom of Satan. The foolishness — if not the heterodoxy — of that is troubling.

Instead, let’s talk about what God is doing. God is doing extraordinary things today! The gospel has reached just about everywhere. I remember when there were thousands of languages that did not have a translation of the Bible. A newsletter from Wycliffe recently said the translator of the last language has been born. For 2,000 years nothing was ever close to that!

We have one of the greatest opportunities of any generation. The growth of the church is greater today than it has ever been in history. In the early part of the last century, evangelicals were significantly marginalized and set up their own schools, their own Bible conferences, their own publishing houses, their own everything. Now evangelicals have become mainstream, and with that comes responsibility.

Gary: What does that responsibility look like?

Leith: The New Testament calls us to engage our generation and our culture, as well as our theology. We find more and more people turning to us and saying, “What are the issues in which we should engage?”

The president recently made an announcement concerning land mines. One hundred sixty-one nations have endorsed a treaty that the United States has largely abided by, but it has never been signed by the president or sent to the Senate for ratification. Land mines cause enormous civilian casualties. So we anticipate releasing a statement supporting the elimination of land mines.

That grows out of the fact that we care about people. We’re pro-life, we’re pro-peace — that’s who evangelicals are. I think that the more we recognize the wholeness of the gospel, the more we see opportunities to live out the gospel.

Gary: You pastored Wooddale Church in the Twin Cities area for many years, and you started a series of daughter churches. In fact, you were doing church planting before it was cool. Could you talk a little bit about your commitment to church planting and why you believe in it so strongly?

Leith: If you go back to the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, there was a mentality in most denominations that we had enough churches already, they just needed to do a better job at what they were doing. And if you started a new church, you’d step into somebody else’s territory.

I had kind of an epiphany moment. In addition to serving Wooddale Church, I was teaching at Bethel Seminary. I walked into the classroom, and the previous class had left large sheets of paper stuck on the wall with comments written on them. I was cleaning up the room and read what was written on one of those sheets: “The most effective way to reach people for Jesus Christ is starting new churches.”

In the following weeks I could not get that out of my head. I thought, “If that’s really the most effective way of reaching people for Jesus Christ, and we’re not doing it, well, we’re wrong.” At the time our church was building a new building. The costs were rising far above the original budget and there were concerns about future attendance and income. I proposed that, since we were spending a lot of money on our new building, we should start a new church the day we moved into the building. You know how you love it when you have unanimity in church leadership? They unanimously thought this was a bad idea. But eventually they came around.

It’s not that we knew what we were doing — we largely didn’t, although we got some outside help that was wonderful. We observed that many new churches have low birth weights, and this leads to long-term health and survival challenges. So we decided we would invest heavily at the beginning. We would hire a new pastor who could recruit as many people from Wooddale as he could get. We would provide substantial financial support at the front end, but it wouldn’t last very long. The first church plant had more than 400 people their first Sunday. That number fell a bit, but now it’s a church of a couple of thousand that has started many other churches.

People left Wooddale Church to go to the new church, but our attendance didn’t go down and our offerings weren’t any less. And now there was another church. Suddenly it was an okay thing to do. And then there was another church and another and another — until there were ten churches. Starting new churches is the most significant and lasting part of my ministry.

Gary: When I was first doing denominational service, I came as director of church planting. But I’d never planted a church before. I didn’t know what was going on. Leighton Ford sent an invitation to a directors of church planting conference to Lon Allison, who was the director of evangelism for the denomination at the time. He had nothing to do with church planting, so he threw it into the waste basket. I happened to walk into Lon’s office, and he reached in and pulled out the invitation and said, “This is probably better for you.” He literally pulled it out of the garbage can. It was like salve to see that there was an opportunity, that I could meet some people who might know something.

Leith: There is that organizational part of church planting. When my in-laws died, they left us some money. So we bought a cabin in Minnesota, which was a luxury for us. We met our next-door neighbors and invited them to have a Bible study with us on Memorial Day weekend. They invited another couple, so there were six of us who met in their living room.

By Labor Day we had 126 in our Bible study. Meetings continued on Sunday nights in the local community center, and the following Easter we launched it as a church. Today they have seventeen acres, multiple services, and they average more than 1,000 people in a town of 1,900. So I think it’s crucially important to say this is not just for mega-churches in metropolitan areas. Starting new churches is about starting new churches. It’s not about resources or population or so many of the other things that if you don’t have them, then somehow it’s an excuse not to do it.

Gary: NAE is a fellowship of denominations. If you were to listen to some quarters, denominations are dinosaurs. Certainly some are in decline. But there are many others, and I’d humbly include the Covenant in this group, who have momentum and vitality and are making a difference.

Leith: The denominations that have a future are the ones that are starting new churches now. If they’re not, they are in serious trouble for the next generation. Recently someone asked me, “What is the future of denominations?” I said, “It depends on what the denomination does. The denomination that serves the churches rather than expecting the churches to serve the denomination is the one that is going to grow and has a great future.”

I was speaking at a large denominational conference for youth pastors. I went into a conference room and asked, “What are you doing?” They said, “We’re praying that next year there will be seventy-six Sundays.” When I asked them why, they said, “Because that way we can take all the offerings that headquarters requires us to take.”

Gary: Actually that’s a pretty good line — we only have twelve! (Laughter.)

Leith: The point is they perceived the denomination as only taking from them — not giving to them. Churches and pastors want to be part of a denomination where they’re helped and they’re praised and they’re encouraged and they get things they cannot get when they’re out there by themselves.

I often point to denominations that are doing things right. The Missionary Church is a great example. They’ve done something that you’ve done in the Covenant: they’ve opened the door for those who did not come from their heritage and background. That’s not an easy thing to do. And they started new churches. I think it is just so obvious who has a good future and who doesn’t.

The Evangelical Covenant Church not only has a great future but is a model for other denominations to study and follow.

Gary: What are important leadership principles that you would want to pass on to younger leaders?

Leith: We have a tendency to apply what is called trait theory, which in the academic study of leadership was disavowed in 1948. But it has a way of hanging on in the religious community. The theory says if you have certain traits, then you will be an effective leader. Yet the documentation says you cannot predict future leadership success based on a list of traits.

When you look through the Bible, you say, okay, what are the traits you need? Well, you certainly need to be articulate, you certainly need to be moral, you need to get along with people. But, Moses was inarticulate, David was immoral, and Paul couldn’t get along with a lot of people — maybe that’s why he started traveling and starting new churches! When you fire someone the way Paul fired John Mark and that person ends up writing one of the New Testament Gospels, it’s an indication that there’s a relational problem going on somewhere! You just can’t predict these things.

I think one of the key elements is to free people from trait theory and say that effective leaders are simply those who figure out what needs to be done and then do whatever that is. Say I’m a pastor of a church and we need better worship music. I took piano lessons for eight years but never even finished the second instruction book. I can’t clap with everybody else; I can’t carry a tune. But leadership doesn’t mean I’ve got to become a good musician. Leadership means I’ve got to figure out what I have to do to get good worship music. That transcends job descriptions. It’s true for denominational leaders, church planters, CPAs, lawyers — leadership is figuring out what you need to do and doing it.

Gary: As a leader, how do you stay centered, and live with accountability? How have you worked with the leaders in your churches to help guide you, to help you stay on track?

Leith: When I first started teaching seminary students they challenged a lot of what I said. It was discouraging! Now I teach only doctoral students. They don’t argue with me about much at all. I don’t think either one of those extremes is very healthy.

At Wooddale Church we established certain guidelines that were helpful. One was that we don’t reward dysfunction. Unfortunately churches often reward dysfunction. That’s not a good thing to do. It isn’t that we should ever be cruel or unkind or lack compassion, but if somebody misbehaves or is dysfunctional and we allow that to continue, it perpetuates through the entire organization. Dealing with dysfunction is always something we should try to do before sunset. If there’s an extraordinary circumstance that requires it to wait a day or a week, then do that, but otherwise we need to deal with dysfunctional behavior here and now.

One of the marvels at Wooddale Church was that no vote has ever failed. I think that’s because we went through an appropriate process to get to that change.

Gary: So you’re saying as a leader you welcome people testing and probing because it makes you think things through.

Leith: I don’t like it! But I think it’s good and right. I was invited once to go to Tehran and meet with the leadership of Iran. I ran it by our church board, and they said, “We don’t want you to do it.” I thought it was a really good idea to do it. But I didn’t go. We all need to be subject to one another — not just to organizational authority but to each other. Leadership is collaborative. We need one another.

Gary: I just want to close by saying that you are a leader whom I have always respected. You have influenced me at a distance through your leadership, the values that you have held, and the pathways you have opened for the Covenant in a variety of ways. You’ve personally influenced me, but you have also had significant influence upon the Covenant and we are better because of it.

Leith: When people ask me what denominations are doing things right, I always cite the Covenant. It’s not just what you’re doing — but what you’re doing is influencing other denominations. That’s as good as it gets.

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