Review: Wisdom From Babylon

Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Considers what it means to live in a secular age, different ways of responding as churches, what may learned from sources ancient and modern, and the competencies of church leadership we need.

I grew up thinking that secular was the opposite of Christian and therefore must be bad. Gordon T. Smith, in this work offers a much more nuanced view. He begins by looking at the secular through historic, sociological and philosophical lenses. What he traces is a transition from Christianity as a “public square” faith to a public square that does not privilege any faith, where religious expression is privately allowed but must publicly tolerate all other ideas, and where in fact, we are all have become secular to some greater or lesser extent. How then is a vibrant Christianity which constructively engages its culture to survive? And what kind of leadership is needed within our churches in such a context. It is to this that Smith addresses himself in this work.

He begins with four responses that might be observed:

  1. The “go along to get along” response.
  2. The monastic response.
  3. The culture wars response.
  4. The response of “faithful presence.”

There are things to be said and critiques to be made for each and Smith will argue that each, for its problems, also has elements which might be drawn upon in living in a secular age as a disestablished churched. But first, he considers several sources from which the church may draw wisdom.

The first is the scriptures of exile, from which the book draws its title. Babylon teaches us to remember God’s glory, our identity as his people, and to hope amid lament. He invites us to learn from Ambrose and Augustine, two church fathers writing amid Rome’s decline. These teach us how to engage in the public square, how to form distinctive communities of Christians, and to embrace a trinitarian spirituality. Smith then turns to historic minority churches: how they related to other religions, affirming the uniqueness of Christianity in ways that speak to cultural aspirations. We learn about political witness without privilege, and the ever present reality of suffering for that witness. Then Smith turns to three recent European Christians who engaged European secularity: Bonhoeffer with religionless Christianity, Ellul, who was keenly aware of the discontinuities between the secular order and the kingdom, and Newbigin, who affirmed the church as a powerful sign of the kingdom. We may bemoan the loss of Christendom, but Smith sees fresh opportunity for the gospel in its true and powerful nature to be revealed through the church.

He contends that for this to take place, the church needs to be a liturgical, a catechetical, and missional body and considers what kind of leadership this requires. Liturgical leadership is marked by theological integrity; real encounter with the risen Christ through word, song, and sacrament; hope amid lament; and valuing liturgical art and space. Catechetical leadership embraces the importance of careful instruction of believers in the faith. Missional leadership calls for preaching that speaks to Monday mornings, to political and civic engagement, and peacemaking and conflict resolution. Smith addresses three further tasks of such leadership in the concluding chapters. They must be ecumenical in character, affirming the unity of the whole church rather than fostering divisions. They must be people who cultivate spiritual practices of interiority, leading from within, able to be present to others without distraction. And they must wrap all this in hospitality.

In a time where many seem to be trying to hang on to what they once securely held that seems to be slipping from their grasp, Smith invites us to accept our status as exiles in a secular age. He reminds us of the rich heritage from biblical forebears to recent contemporaries who have recognized the opportunities of exiles. His summaries of their teaching invite us to delve more deeply and listen at their feet and he offers an essential reading list. His prescriptions for leadership have an ancient-future character, mixing liturgy and catechesis with preaching for Monday and for civic engagement–very different from the strategist-celebrity model that has dominated church leadership discussions. What I most appreciated here was the combination of urgency and hope calling upon us both to glimpse the dangers, and to see the possibilities of our secular age.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Canoeing the Mountains

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Canoeing the MountainsTod Bolsinger. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Praxis, 2015.

Summary: Using the story of Lewis and Clark, Bolsinger explores the kind of leadership needed in the uncharted territory of our rapidly changing cultural landscape.

“Seminary didn’t train me for this.” “Our church is dying and I have no clue what to do.” Over and over, Tod Bolsinger encountered these statements in his consulting work. Pastors are trained in teaching, liturgics, and pastoral care, and often, those tools just don’t seem enough in our changing world. Bolsinger likens this to the moment Lewis and Clark climbed the Lemhi Pass, having canoed up the Missouri River, and instead of expecting to find a river on the other side of the mountain that would carry them to the Pacific, they found…mountains. The needed to exchange canoes for horses, and adapt to an “off the map” situation. In this book, Bolsinger considers the adaptive leadership of Lewis and Clark, and applies it to Christian leaders often tempted to try to “canoe the mountains,” because they don’t know any other way to lead. Often, they may be the greatest obstacle to transformative change in their churches or organizations. The choice they face is between adventure and organizational death.  All of this is part of understanding the “uncharted territory” that calls for a new kind of leadership.

Part Two makes the contention that there are critical “on the map” skills that leaders must demonstrate in order for people to follow them “off the map.” These include competence and credibility in stewarding Scripture and tradition, souls and communities, and teams and tasks. It means leadership that develops “relational congruence” in which one builds trust by showing the ability to be the same person with the same values in every relationship. And it means clarity and embodiment of the core values one hopes to see manifest in the church.

“Leading off the Map” is the focus of Part Three and critical to this is the adaptive capacity of the leader. Leaders must be able to look at systems rather than react to symptoms, to calmly face loss and the challenge of the unknown, leading a learning process expressed in asking questions rather than giving answers. Sometimes rather than doing something, it first means standing still…and then doing something through a process of observation, interpretation, and intervention. In the process, understanding the DNA of the church and not violating that is critical. Interventions should start out modesty and playfully–lots of experiments, and resistance can be expected. In facing resistance, leaders must be absolutely clear and convicted about the mission, which for Bolsinger, “trumps all” and ready to press into mission even when no one else is.

Part Four goes deeper into the issue of “Relationships and Resistance.” Leaders cultivate relationships with six groups of people:

  1. Allies, aligned and in agreement with the mission.
  2. Confidants, who are outside the organization and can give honest feedback.
  3. Opponents who are not enemies but have a different perspective that must be heard and engaged.
  4. Senior authorities, those above one with whom connection and relationship are critical to support one through a change process. Think of Jefferson’s role with Lewis and Clark.
  5. Casualties, those who stand to lose in a change process for whom leaders assume responsibility.
  6. Dissenters who ask the tough questions that need to be asked and responded to without defensiveness because it is not about the leader but the mission.

The real challenge though is recognizing and persisting through sabotage, which Bolsinger believes can be expected when leading in uncharted territory. That was an eye-opener.

Finally, in Part Five, Bolsinger writes about the “transformation” that occurs with adaptive leadership. He observes the leadership transformation in the Lewis and Clark party, where the two share equally in command, where a woman, Sacajawea, leads, where both she and a slave vote, and a soldier is released from regular duty for discovery–long before such practices would be widely accepted in the culture. Bolsinger proposes that just as the most significant blockage may be the leader, so also, the most important transformation to occur in an adaptive leadership process is in the leader.

This seems to me to be a critically important book for leadership teams and pastors. So often our approach when things are not working is simply to double down and try harder, which, as someone has pointed out, is a definition of insanity. The willingness to leave the canoes behind, and learn new skills, to get up on the balcony, and then try new interventions rooted in careful observation and interpretation and not reaction, and to stay relentlessly focused on mission separated Lewis and Clark from other explorers.

I would have liked to see this leadership model rooted in scripture. Lewis and Clark certainly were singular leaders, and the book invokes good leadership theory. I can’t help but wonder what one might draw from the leadership of Moses, of David, of Jesus, and of Paul, each who in some sense led in uncharted territory. The conflict situation of Acts 6 strikes me as a marvelous example of a system that wasn’t working, and of leadership that exhibited relational, and spiritual competence linked to clear missional focus while adapting to problems associated with expansion, resulting in a transformed, rapidly growing church and an enlarged and diversified leadership nucleus.

Nevertheless, there is much of profit here. If leaders can simply stop and realize they are trying to “canoe the mountains” that is probably worth the price of admission. To move from a speaking to a collaborating ministry that leads, not with answers, but is open to questions and learning is an important leadership transformation. It could make all the difference between catalyzing the giftedness within our organizations and churches, and losing it.