building community leadership
A large dining table set for dinner. Personal photo.

A table set for dinner is a table set for family, friends and guests to sit down together to enjoy an evening of good food and friendship. It is a place for people to share what they’re thinking about and exchange ideas. The table represents community.

I’m inviting you to come and take your place at a metaphorical table set for the Evangelical ministry community. Set aside your own ministry for a while and talk with your peers about the community as a whole. How healthy is it? How is it doing from a mission perspective? What are your suggestions? What might you and your table mates do together for the good of the whole community? Will you take your place at the table?

I read a book this summer that was so encouraging I was beside myself with excitement about the possibilities. This post is drawn from that book: Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement

The Evangelical church needs ministry leaders who will work together to provide collegial, informal leadership to the community of ministries. We need people who will think about the welfare and mission success of the Evangelical community as a whole, the same way they do about their own individual ministries. Without any centralized leadership to do for the community what we do for our ministries, it’s up to us — ministry leaders, academics, thought leaders and practitioners — to volunteer to perform that function for the community.

Invitation to Community

You’ll enjoy your time at the table and make a great contribution to the community if you can put the church overall first and your own ministry second. Your ministry, as important as it is, is just one of the thousands of churches and specialized ministries in Canada supporting the church’s mission and as Christians, the church’s mission takes priority and provides context for the specialized parts of the mission which our individual ministries may work at.

Adopting such a perspective may be challenging for some leaders given that ministry leaders are hired to lead specific organizations, and their longevity depends on their organization’s success. They have to think about their own organization’s welfare and achievements, and that makes it more difficult to think bigger than just their ministry’s interests.

But it gets even more challenging when a scarcity mentality is thrown into the mix. Then you get a spirit of competition. It comes down to money. Doesn’t it always! If we get caught in the trap of needing to take credit or control of a community project to support our fundraising efforts, we’ll lose the spirit of being together in one body, one community. Every Christian leader needs to deal with this fundamental issue of God’s ability to provide. Answer the question, Regardless of what we say we believe, do we act as though God will provide for all our needs? As I wrote in my book, The Church At Work:

[Some ministry leaders believe] there is only so much money to go around….If your share of pie is bigger than average, then theirs must be smaller than average.

Others believe that God will provide as much as is needed, and will expand the provision to encompass the range of activity undertaken by his people….God will simply bake another pie.

In my leadership at CCCC, I figure that as long as we do what God has called us to do, and we do it in a godly way, God will provide our ministry’s needs. Once you get past the fear of loss or the need for gain, and place your ministry in God’s care, then you can accept the invitation to dinner and start thinking about us and how we can better accomplish our shared mission.

Inspiration from the Past

So what got me so excited while reading that book? It was the BIG thinking of a small group of ministry leaders and scholars who got together informally in the 1940s to talk about the health and mission of the new Evangelical movement, and the HUGE impact they made which we still benefit from today.

I got a glimpse reading that book of how God could use you and me to do something like that in our time. We don’t want to copy what they did, that’s already been done, but we do want to take the principles they followed and see where they might lead us today. Could you imagine what it would be like to shape a movement for the next fifty years because we generously shared ourselves, our experiences, wisdom, insights, and perspectives, to give the community fresh vision for our times? Wow!

I don’t have any projects or particular processes to promote. I don’t know where we would end up or how we would get there. But I do know God has given us places of influence and that it is only good stewardship to use that influence for the benefit of the entire movement. Things will happen when we do that!

So here are just a few principles I gleaned from the collaboration between Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Charles Fuller, Carl Henry, and others.

They Developed People for the Future Community

In the early 1900s, a student of Princeton Theological Seminary, Gresham Machen, had his doubts about Christianity, but the faculty saw his potential and after a lot of wooing, hired him in 1906 to teach New Testament. He later resolved his doubts and, in turn, looked for other young people of promise. It’s been said that if Machen took an interest in a young scholar or future pastor, he had the ability to launch his career and give it a high trajectory. Note that he had to be very well-connected with ministry leaders to be able to do this.

One very successful career he helped launch was that of Harold Ockenga. In 1934 Machen was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and he and others saw the potential in Ockenga, who was studying to be a pastor. They knew that Ockenga’s gifts called for a very special church that would allow him to make the most of his gifts, and they made sure he was offered a position at a prominent church that gave him the prestigious platform he needed. But Ockenga went far beyond their expectations to become not simply a leading pastor, but the premier builder of Evangelical institutions of his era.1

In turn, Ockenga kept his eye out for promising young people to promote just as he had been. He found a young man he thought could provide the intellectual foundation for the Evangelical movement, Edward Carnell, and promoted his career. Carnell eventually followed Ockenga as president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

So today, you can think about our community’s future human resource needs. Think about building the next generation (or two) of leaders, thought leaders, academics, and so on. Keep your eyes open for promising young people who have the capacity to become significant contributors to our cause. Get behind them, open doors for them, give them training and development opportunities. Do everything you can to promote their careers. Hire them if possible, or introduce them to people who can hire them. Mentor them (regardless of who employs them), and help them navigate through their careers.

And there are many individuals, many bloggers and scholars, who are writing or speaking about our movement’s health and mission, and they could use our help to amplify their message so that more people in the community hear their contributions. Look for opportunities to lend them your audience.

This is not the “old boys’ network” come back to life because this career help is based on merit and potential, rather than personal connections and quid pro quo.

They Brought People Together

The best example of bringing people together is the one I’ve mentioned, Billy Graham and his cohort, which developed both vision and infrastructure for the community. But there’s another great example of bringing a small group of people together for a different purpose — to develop its younger members and advance their careers. This group was initiated by Harold Ockenga. He assembled academics at a small conference he designed – the Plymouth Scholars’ Conferences. He wanted to stimulate the development of Evangelical scholarship. Ockenga invited young scholars such as George Eldon Ladd, Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Merrill Tenney, and Terrelle Crum to attend. Each of these doctoral students came and gave papers for a prestigious group of Christian theologians.

The goal, Ockenga recalled was “to discuss the need for the writing of a new evangelical literature.”2 That’s a big goal – a whole new literature! And you probably recognized at least some of those students’ names because you’ve read one of their books. They did indeed go on to become major Evangelical scholars and theologians. So in one stroke, Ockenga both encouraged creativity and furthered their careers.

Imagine the creative ideas that could be sparked when people from different fields get together to share their wisdom, knowledge, dreams and ideas. When the small group of Evangelical leaders met in the 1940s, they cross-fertilized their ideas and out of that came the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, Billy Graham’s crusades, many Christian agencies that are still well known today, graduate schools, publishers, and on and on.

So today, we need to develop our networks and create opportunities for pastors, scholars, agency leaders, and other thought leaders to come together to think big thoughts in today’s ministry environment. Who knows who might develop a bold vision which will carry us forward for maybe another fifty to seventy years?

We need to use our networks to bring people together for their own professional development so they can do even greater things in the future. What can we do to help each other become better leaders, pastors, scholars and thought leaders?

Newsflash 9/14/16: I just read about the Network of Christian Scholars. Bravo! We need more networks like this.

They Volunteered Themselves

Charles Fuller was a radio evangelist whose 1940s radio show was the most popular radio show of any kind in that era. With his broadcast airing on 650 radio stations and a mailing list of more than 300,000 people, he had a platform which made him one of the key statesmen of the Neo-Evangelical movement.

Although he was a preacher and not a scholar, he caught the vision promoted by Ockenga, Graham, and the others for a new Evangelicalism in distinction to Fundamentalism. He badly wanted a new seminary with the ability to defend the faith and add intellectual horsepower to the still fledgling Evangelical movement. It’s important that this had nothing to do with his ministry! It was just something he thought had to be done.

He put time into developing the seminary idea. There was no benefit to himself or his ministry for giving his time. And he didn’t just invest time. He was extremely wealthy from his family business (“filthy rich” is how one author puts it) and could basically make something happen all by himself if he wanted to do it. He recruited Ockenga to be the first president and together they founded Fuller Theological Seminary.

So today, wouldn’t it be great if a group of leaders could structure their organizations such that maybe 10% of their time could be spent volunteering with other ministry leaders as informal community leaders helping make things happen? Some businesses allow their staff to spend up to 10% of their paid work time volunteering in the community as a way of being a good corporate citizen. What a great idea! Could we dedicate some time to working for the welfare of the entire church in Canada? Think of the benefit to the community to have such capable people caring for its welfare.

They Thought Big

I’ve already mentioned about thinking big, but it bears repeating because it was so crucial to the success of the Neo-Evangelicals of the 1940s. They had a well thought out comprehensive strategy that included creating schools and writing books that inspired future generations of scholars and leaders. The strategy led them to emerge from fundamentalism and re-engage culture. They spoke prophetically to their times in terms of ethics and philosophy.

So today, we need to do the same sort of thing to re-engage with our culture. Can we create or reinvigorate institutions that will strengthen the Evangelical church’s intellectual life, engagement with our culture, and shared witness as a community?

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Failure Is Okay

Some people may wonder if what I’m suggesting is too pie in the sky to be pursued seriously. Well, sometimes the group from the 1940s was successful and sometimes not. They never did get a research university going in spite of a huge investment in developing a proposal. They wanted a Christian university that would be up to the standards of the secular Ivy-League research universities. It never happened. But the point is, they aimed high and got a lot more done than most people would have imagined possible. They had a big vision and a lot of faith, and that is what mattered.


You are invited to lead beyond your ministry for the good of the whole Evangelical community. I’d like to see ministry leaders across Canada connect with each other and seed our community with great proposals. Who knows what great initiatives will arise for wider adoption? Small groups are fine. What counts is that the groups are action-oriented.

Will you accept the invitation and come to the table?

  1. Owen Strachan. Awakening the Evangelical Mind. p 49.
  2. Owen Strachan. Awakening the Evangelical Mind. p 96.

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