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The Need for Culturally Agile Leaders in Church Planting

We’re in one of the best times in history to start globally-minded churches in North America—churches that are rooted in North American cities, but effectively minister to and minister through global citizens. This isn’t just for cities like New York or Chicago. Immigration and the rise of the information-based economy are turning cities like Tulsa and Minneapolis into globalized cities.

Leaders of church planting organizations and networks are realizing that the global reality is changing how they should now lead and develop church planting strategies for North America.

In business and economy, we’ve seen global organizations work towards increasing the cultural-competency of their corporate leadership. As the CQ (cultural IQ) of corporate leadership rises, so will the need for cultural-competency among next-tier leadership. These organizations want leaders who can effectively and efficiently produce consistent results whether in Boston, Brussels, or Beijing. They want leaders who have high cultural agility, the ability to quickly, comfortably, and effectively work in different cultures and with people from different cultures.

Today in North America, we need church planting leaders with high cultural agility who will lead church planters to plant churches with high cultural agility.

This is because Boston, Brussels, and Beijing have come together in North America.

Cultural agility in church planting isn’t just the ability to share the Gospel across cultures. It’s the ability to transmit the mission of God from one context to another. It’s the ability to create a missionary people from what once used to be unreached, disparate groups of people. And while some Christians may find the cultural shifts happening in North America to be challenging and even disheartening, culturally agile leaders see these changes as a re-positioning for new ways of thinking and new kinds of churches.

Today, we need these kinds of leaders to help rethink church planting in light of a globalized generation. We need them to help transfer missional leadership and responsibility from this generation to the next. And our organizations need these leaders to help re-tool rigid forms of leadership towards a more malleable and fluid form of leadership, much like what we see in the New Testament—navigating simultaneously through both Jewish and Hellenistic cultures.

Here are four ways culturally agile leaders are changing the way we think about church planting and Kingdom engagement in North America.

1. Culturally agile leaders challenge church planters to think beyond the label of “multi-ethnic church planting” in order to start truly multi-ethnic churches.

Much of what we think about in multi-ethnic church planting is defined not so much by the cultural competency of its leaders, but by the racial composition of a worship service or quota of certain ethnicities. While multi-ethnic church planting is certainly not less than that, it’s so much more. Churches that don’t have leaders who genuinely prefer others over themselves will have an impossible time at becoming multi-ethnic.

Culturally agile leaders probe church planters to think beyond assimilation and more about incarnation and self-sacrificial leadership. They root the foundation of leadership and the identity of a leader in the Gospel so that, like Jesus, leaders can put away their personal preferences and be comfortable in preferring others over themselves. This is a crucial leadership prerequisite of any multi-ethnic church (1 Corinthians 9:22-23, Philippians 2:3).

2. Culturally agile leaders challenge church planters to address issues of diversity with greater precision.

Those who are planting churches in global cities realize that diversity isn’t limited to just issues of race and ethnicity. Some of the most difficult barriers to overcome in church planting are socio-economic, class, and gender. The temptation for North American church planters is to take its cues from popular culture for how to talk about these issues. But there’s another way.

Culturally agile leaders help church planters understand how issues of diversity are socially constructed (and at times sinfully constructed) as to avoid giving naive and blanket solutions. They help church planters hear the problems of our day both in the way the culture hears it, but also in the way that God hears it. They don’t accept answers wholesale from culture, but they’re also skeptical about easy answers that are often given by established church tradition. They help church planters think theologically about issues of diversity and contextually about unique solutions. Their applications are usually both profound and practical (Galatians 3, Acts 6:1-7).

3. Culturally agile leaders help “minority” church planters to stop thinking like “minorities.”

The temptation of any minority group (however you want to define the term) is to protect themselves and to preserve their own uniqueness. It’s an understandable survival mechanism and what’s most natural to our human nature. But it’s also the mentality that Israel carried out of Egypt and into the wilderness.

Culturally agile leaders help minority church planters see God’s sovereignty in the midst of their disadvantage. Minority church planters must think outside themselves and their situation. Culturally agile leaders acknowledge disadvantages of minority church planters, but they don’t allow disadvantages (or even injustices) to be an excuse for minorities not to lead and not to have influence. Unleashing the potential of minority and non-typical church planters may be one of the greatest keys to building the church leadership pipeline (Acts 6:5-6).

4. Culturally agile leaders help “majority” leaders lead through mentoring and opening doors.

The temptation of any majority group (however you want to define the term) is to protect the history of their tradition and their perspective of the world. The greatest threat to change and adaptation is a long-standing tradition of success. In large families, older siblings usually have the most experience and credibility. But experience and credibility are always meant to be stewarded and transferred.

Culturally agile leaders acknowledge and honor the leadership of majority groups, but also challenge them to become door-holders and mentors for the next generation of leaders. Majority leaders should see their privilege as being “first” among equals, much like how the Gospel came first to the Jew and then to the Greek. But they must not let their birth order prevent them from stewarding and transferring leadership to emerging leaders. Their greatest privilege in the Kingdom might be to empower “Greeks” for greater ministry and influence (Romans 1:16, 2 Timothy 1:6-7).

Culturally agile leadership isn’t a recent business or organizational principle. The Apostles were the New Testament examples of culturally agile leadership. The book of Acts records how the Apostles transmitted the mission of God from a Jewish culture into a Hellenistic one. It also reminds us today that a well-nuanced Gospel is effective at addressing issues of ethnicity, diversity, and justice because of its power to save.

In that transmission, the mission of God knew no cultural boundaries whether Jerusalem, Samaria, or Rome. And still today, the mission of God continues to know no cultural boundaries whether Boston, Brussels, or Beijing.

The article first appeared on The Exchange at Christianity Today.