In between the pervasive news about the lost Malaysian airliner, we have had snippets of information about what is unfolding in the Ukraine. It’s pretty fascinating to me that the Crimean people would vote to detach themselves from their country and reattach to another country. (This particular country, oddly enough, has had a long history of abuse and repression of the Ukrainian people.) It’s like the state of Washington suddenly deciding they don’t want to be part of America any more and joining Canada, or Hawaii deciding they want to be Japanese. It’s a big deal! So how does this happen?
Interestingly enough, the majority of Crimeans have (apparently) Russian ancestry. These folks, even though they have lived as part of the Ukraine for generations, have maintained a Russian identity. (Crimea has been part of the Ukraine before, after, and during Soviet rule) They maintained a Russian culture, even though they are now Ukrainian nationals. Just because we join a new country doesn’t automatically mean we have a new cultural identity. America’s major cities are full of Chinatowns, Greek neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, and the list goes on.
My husband is an Aussie living in America. There are certain parts of American culture that he had to choose to adopt when he married me. Australians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s a major family get-together holiday in America. In the early years of our marriage, he scheduled himself to be away once for a Thanksgiving, not even registering that it was a big deal for him to miss it. However, Thanksgiving was a big deal to me. It’s my culture; it’s family time. Because he loves me and he is committed to me, he made a decision to take on a value for that American holiday. He hasn’t missed one since.
The same is true in church. We may join a church or a leadership team, but it doesn’t mean that we have automatically adopted its new culture as our own. We have to learn a new culture, and then decide to adopt it. Adopting new culture is a journey of changing attitudes, values, language, and habits. We are born into a culture. Our early environments, parents and mentors, and life lessons shape this. We have to cultivate our ability to read the requirements of our leadership culture, see how it diverges from what is familiar and comfortable to us, and then take on that new culture.
I travel quite a bit. When I get to vacation in a beach resort its just amazing. It’s super comfy and the temptation for me is to move between the pool, the spa, and the room service. If I just stay in the resort, I have no chance of connecting to this new culture. It’s a little scary and risky to get out there, but I download the guidebook, get out and eat the weird food (ignoring the potential consequences). I talk to locals about what they do; learn some history, what’s important and what makes things tick in that place. The same is true in church. It’s a little scary and risky, but we aren’t really connected until we have immersed ourselves in learning the culture. That’s how we learn to love what’s different and unique, and learn the language. If we wrinkle our noses at parts of the leadership culture of our church that is foreign and refuse to engage, then we will feel stuck as an outsider and a guest in our own church.
“‘Look,’ Naomi said to her, ‘your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods. You should do the same.’ But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:15-16 NLT)
Ruth made a decision to abandon the culture of her birth and adopt a new one. She attached herself to Naomi as her leader with fierce loyalty. What’s interesting to me is that Ruth could have kept her own language, religion, and traditions, but she didn’t. She didn’t keep her own identity and culture in Naomi’s land. She left behind her old value system and adopted Naomi’s culture, even though it was foreign to her. This is next level loyalty! She made a choice to follow Naomi. To Ruth, following Naomi was a choice to realign herself with the people Naomi loved, Naomi’s language and culture and faith. This meant she redefined herself fundamentally. In the end, Ruth didn’t lose out; she wound up on top, better off. The fruit of this decision was her marriage to a strong and wealthy man, and ultimately her inclusion in lineage of Jesus. Pretty good deal!
If we will make the same kind of choice to fully immerse ourselves in the culture and heart of our house, we will find a place where we belong, a new family. This kind of leadership loyalty is an adoption of a new set of values, even when it’s different. Unity is not about agreement; it’s about alignment. We may not always agree, but I make a choice to align myself with your values. Unity is achieved not through harmony and compromise, but through deliberate decisions to align to our senior leader’s expectations, standards, and goals. The reality is that the things that unite us are far more significant than the things that divide us. Too often, leaders divide over the small things that don’t really matter.
What matters is not so much what we personally prefer, but what Jesus is calling us to be as a church. Pastors have to lead according to the direction they get from the Holy Spirit, not the vast mosaic of personal values found in his church. Leaders who attempt to satisfy everyone else’s personal values wind up chasing their tails and going nowhere. The most effective number two level leaders recognize where personal values differ from the values of our house and make a decision to embrace these new values over our own.
Everyone loves the idea of harmony and world peace. In all my lifetime and in all my travels, I have never met one person who told me that they love war and division. So if everyone wants unity, why is it so hard? Why is the Ukraine on the razor’s edge of unraveling into civil war? Why has Syria been pulling itself apart for three years? These nations share culture and language, but they cannot find a place of agreement. The truth is that unity is far easier in ideals than it is in real life.
UNITY HAPPENS WHEN WE DISAGREE
Fundamentally, we all want to fit in because we want social acceptance, but we also want to stand out. There is something wired deep into our humanity that wants to be distinguished, to be special. There is something deep in us that wants to make our mark on the world around us, to be noticed and remembered. The rebel gets remembered. The dissident is a singular voice in the crowd, standing out. The Bible tells us that the place for us to do this is letting our light shine in the darkness, reaching out to people who are far from God. We don’t need to be doing this inside our church, but outside.
The thing about vision is that it requires unified efforts behind it to actually happen. What’s tricky about this is that it needs all of us who are wired to desire uniqueness to come together, against our nature, into the same purpose. People have to let go of their desire to do whatever else they could be doing and choose unified vision and values. Just like Ruth, saying yes to new a culture and vision is saying no to something else.
If we will bring a heart and an attitude that says yes unconditionally to vision, amazing things can happen. Unity actually happens when I disagree. My leader may have decided to go one way after I suggested another. My attitude in that moment determines true unity. If I am sulky and irritated, I am producing division. If I maintain a life-giving spirit, staying full engaged with the direction I suggested against, that’s true unity.
People are far more willing to do this when there is proven fruitfulness. It’s easier to say yes when you have some kind of guarantee that your time and efforts are going to pay off for something good. It’s human to hesitate when we have seen problems or to distrust what’s new. Even if there are issues, let’s put the strength and the health of our church first. Sometimes leaders who have had these hesitations will start to build a sub-culture inside their church. Their teams speak differently, and value different things than the rest of the church. These ministries become isolated, separated from the body of their church. They think they are building something more spiritual or better, but they are actually weakening the fabric of their church. None of us want to be caught in that trap and say or do anything that will weaken or hurt the church. Let’s be leaders that build teams that value the house over our own area.
Sometimes leaders will join a team that they look down on, thinking that they will “fix” what’s wrong in their house. This attitude always ends badly, with hurt and frustration. Choose to adopt the values of your house, and you will avoid a world of ugly. If you are in this trap, trying to grow areas of your church that aren’t part of the vision, don’t be surprised when your ministry isn’t growing or you don’t find your opportunities and influence expanding.
Leave those areas in God’s hands. Ultimately, he has a unique assignment for every church. We reach different facets of the world, and no one church will be strong in every area. Focus on what your church values and does well, and be happy, loving it for what God has called your house to be. When we choose to adopt this new culture as our own, we become sons and daughters of the house. The church is strong when we know who we are and what our mission is, and we love it!