Religious Freedom and Righteousness in 21st Century America: How Justice Comes in our Present Hour

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Something has changed in the atmosphere in the United States.  We feel it in our politics, we sense it in our schools and neighborhoods, and even experience it in our churches.  Polarization and demonization are now so commonplace in the politics and social media exchange of our day so as to be normative.  It appears we are in a social cul-de-sac from which escape seems unlikely.

Decades ago, in light of another season of quickly changing social values and practices, Francis Schaeffer asked a prescient question about the decline of Western culture and civilization, “How Should We Then Live?”.  That question later became a movie and a movement.  I have been increasingly of the belief that our present age is not just an extension of the 1970’s in which Schaeffer wrote, but that we actually have much in common with the late 1930’s of Hitler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Maybe these historical references mean little to you.  But, I think you can agree that when a Jewish rabbi (Daniel Lapin) posts a significant warning to Christians about the dangers he believes US culture is facing due to intolerance and religious persecution against Christians here in the US (see here for the article: , original article was posted in 2007!), you know something is emerging in the atmosphere.  It is into this cultural swirl of events that I would like to wade with the remainder of this article.

I have a theory.  I believe religious liberty, righteousness and justice are intertwined.  Jesus is the giver of life, righteousness and peace and Satan is the stealer and destroyer of life and hope and peace (Romans 10:13, John 10:10).  I believe the events of at least the last 50 years in the US have demonstrated that the enemy of our soul longs for us to lose the religious freedom foundation of America’s heritage and therefore create a society where the foundations of justice crumble.  Righteousness is a bountiful tree of the good soil of religious liberty from which the fruit of justice can be abundantly produced.  Where religious liberty is not foundational, righteousness must break through both the hard soil and toxic elements of its surrounding atmosphere.

Believers in a host of places in our world today, and throughout history and the pages of Scripture have lived in harsh conditions where religious liberty has been absent.  Like you, I am drawn to the Biblical stories of bravery of Joseph, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah.  I find myself often praying and wondering if I (we) are living in times where women and men of faith are being called to live out their relationship with Christ in challenging and new ways that have not been well tried in our recent history, especially here in the US.

The psalmist has said, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.”(Ps. 89:14).   We are struggling to see the Lord at work in the midst of the multiple pandemics of our present reality.  But, I remain convinced that when we see the fingerprints of the enemy (stealing, killing, destroying), we are more strongly in a moment where we know the heart of the Father is to bring about life, abundant and free.  I’m praying for the flourishing of religious liberty, righteousness, and justice.  Now more than ever.

When Normal Stops Being the Goal….

“I just want things to go back to normal….” We all want a return to our favorite activities from our pre-Covid19 world.  But think returning to normal is actually not the goal.

God is doing a new thing, and part of that is to reveal the truth about our lives.  Revelation leads to reset and then there will be a season of reentry that leads to revival and reformation (see below for recent articles I wrote on these words).

One of the areas the Lord has been revealing to me is the importance of strengthening our foundations.  For me, that is found in “my Psalms”: Psalm 23, 91, and 103 have been the source of such great comfort over the years.  I have found them to be such great friends when my heart and spirit are troubled.  In fact, as my “normal” has been disrupted, I found myself strengthened with the life-giving heartbeat of those Holy Spirit inspired words.

So, I have stopped praying for “things to go back to normal”.  I want my new normal to be full of the presence of God in unprecedented ways.  I want my new normal to be full of expectation of God working in me and in Jessup in ways beyond anything I could have imagined before.  I want His word and His Spirit to be richly directing me every step of the way.  I pray that your normal is never the same as well!

New Season Christians and Shifting Atmospheres

I believe we are in a new season.  The men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32) “understood the times and knew what to do”.  Ours is a time that calls for that wisdom.

For the past 15-20 years, I have been increasingly burdened that we have entered into a new season and yet churches I led and the general church in America were missing the wind of our moment.  Now, I am certain of it.  The Body of Christ simply must understand our assignment in this present hour.  Here, in short, is my conviction:

“The church in America, in its desire to be relevant and reach people, has exchanged message for methodology and presence for programs.  Our present hour calls us to shift the atmosphere in culture and in our churches so that the life of Jesus is manifested in all we do.  This season demands that we demonstrate the grace and truth of Jesus in every sphere of society as Spirit empowered sons and daughters of the Most High God”.

In this short article, I do not have time to unpack all of what that means for us in everyday life, but let me at least establish an outline of sorts for your consideration:

  1. The Kingdom of God touches every sphere of society and beyond.  The universe is His.  The church has often limited itself to the building and to its activities as an organization.  We are called to be the church and the church is both gathered for worship and teaching and fellowship and scattered for witness and ministry.
  2. Those of us who are in the Protestant stream have said we believed in the priesthood of all believers.  But we have not practiced that very well.  We have allowed ourselves to maintain a very structured system.  Ephesians 4 calls us all to do the work of the ministry and for the five fold ministry to equip the Body to do that work
  3. There is no sacred/secular divide.  All of life is sacred (see #1 above).  Because all of life is sacred, every follower of Jesus is “on mission” and “fully employed” when they are at home, at work, in the community, or doing recreation.  The life of Jesus in us and through us is a 24-7 experience (Colossians 3:23)
  4. North American society is desperate not for “what works”, but for what is “real”.  Real men and women who have experienced the power of life change by an encounter with Jesus Christ will live such transformed lives (not perfect, but transforming!) that the power of their testimony is compelling. 

I can think of no greater reality of this shifting season in our present reality than the need for followers of Jesus to engage in the “public square”.  Our society desperately needs deeply devoted followers of Jesus in the classroom, in government, in arts/media and entertainment, in health care, in church, and in families.  When we see Spirit empowered men and women living out their daily relationship with Jesus, speaking and loving people full of grace and truth, then atmospheres shift and life begins to flow.

Four passages of Scripture have been particularly compelling to me of late:  We are in a Matthew 5 (being salt and light in the world so that people glorify our Father) and Matthew 25 (meeting needs in the name of Jesus and serving Him as we serve them) season.  Further, we are in an Acts 2 calling time for the church (God was adding to their number daily those who were being saved, signs and wonders were taking place, and they were having favor with all the people) and we live in an Ephesians 6 world (we are in a spiritual battle and we do not fight against flesh and blood; people are not our enemies, but the spiritual forces are).

In my role as a College President, I am regularly called upon to be in relationship with, speak to and write about, people and causes that are oppositional and often divisive.  I regularly pray for the Spirit of God to live in and through me in such a way that people are won by the grace and truth of Jesus.  Will you join me in this new season, both by engaging in the public square in whatever assignment He has given you, and live in a Spirit empowered way so that the grace and truth of Jesus might shift the atmosphere of every room and setting in which you are involved?

I’m convinced we are in a new season and the time for shifting atmospheres for His glory has come!

The Redemptive Quality of Disequilibrium

Virtually no pundits or prognosticators believed in a Donald Trump victory.  And yet in November of 2016, President-Elect Donald Trump not only won the election, shocked the political class and destabilized the mainstream media, he has also moved to calm tensions and recently met with President Obama to generally positive reviews.   Appointments of the President elect have encouraged and enraged and the political class is full of shocked and delighted responses.  Disequilibrium is now the norm for the electorate and the political elite.  Left and right continue to polarize and demonize the other “side”.  Disequilibrium, even if temporary, is the shared lot of all.

Are we entering into a new era in American life or are going to see further polarization and demonization in accelerated fashion?  In the 1970’s, Francis Schafer asked the question, “How Should We Then Live?”, in response to the challenges of that era.  Now, some 4 decades later, many followers of Jesus Christ are grappling with how to respond to a world in transition and people in pain or uncertainty.

I am convinced that followers of Christ are faced with the single greatest opportunity of my lifetime.   American society is filled with yet another election where the outcome is disappointing or frightening to almost 50% of the voting electorate, and exhilarating or encouraging to the remaining voters.  However, regardless of where you are on the spectrum, this election season and election result has brought about disequilibrium for everyone.  Street and campus demonstrations are matched with workplace, home, and church discussions that are challenging.  Followers of Jesus are grappling with how to respond with certainty in uncertain times.

So far in this article, I have not referenced Scripture.  But the time is right for me to ask, “How do we thrive in disequilibrium?”  The answer is both clear and simple:

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). 

Jesus tells us to center our lives on the Reign of the King, to live in alignment with Him and His purposes.  When we live in alignment with the King, our lives are safe, secure, and full of hope.  Instead of singing, “don’t worry, be happy”, we sing, “Worthy is the Lamb, the Lamb who was slain”.  We honor Jesus and place Him at the center of our lives and all heaven breaks loose!  Centering on lives on Jesus affects not only how we live our lives, but how we engage in relationships and encounter the cultural waves of our present reality.

Scripture tells us in Ephesians 5 that our speech should be “seasoned with grace”.  I often say that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.  BUT, you can give him salt to make him thirsty!  If we want to thrive in a world full of disequilibrium, we need to know that we are carrying around the presence, person, and purposes of Jesus in our every day lives in such a way that people become thirsty to know the One who brings life and hope.  American religious life, despite the growth of mega-churches in the past 40 years, has seen a relatively consistent decline in church attendance and the rise of “NONES” in our society, those disclaiming any formal religious affiliation.  For many in church leadership, this has led to confusion about how to reach and impact the community and culture in which we are called to live and serve.

Many of us in the Body of Christ have lost our way in the world.  We no longer know how to share the love of Jesus in tangible ways.  When we read in Matthew 5:12-16 that we are the “salt” and “light” of the world, it means little to us in tangible direction of how we lead our lives.  My friend, Dr. Ed Silvoso, says we should PRAY-CONNECT-BLESS-SHARE.   What Ed means is that before we ever share Christ with our neighbors or community, we should have prayed with them, connected with them, blessed them in some way, and then we can share with them on the basis of our loving relationship with them.   I believe that Jesus centered witness is all the more critical in our time of disequilibrium; the Good News must be demonstrated in the presence, power, and purposes of Jesus.

We know that we should pray for those in leadership above us (1 Timothy 2:1ff), even if we do not share their political persuasion.  For many American Christians, the idea of praying and interceding for a Democrat or Republican political leader is very difficult.  I want us to imagine the Apostle Paul in the day he wrote it; he was actually urging prayer for Roman officials who were likely conspiring at the very moment of writing to bring about persecution and loss of liberty to those early followers of Jesus.  Imagine praying for the Caesar who was going to order the conditions that would bring pain to your life!

I believe we are in a time of great cultural shifting here in America.  But during this recent election, I felt certain that the Lord was speaking to me specifically about fear and cynicism.  I felt like the Holy Spirit was impressing on me not to spend one day in fear—because I know that perfect love casts out fear (and perfect love is named Jesus!).  I also felt like the Holy Spirit was telling me not to spend one day in cynicism, because I know the source of Hope (and his name is Jesus!).  Today is the best day of our lives to know the Living and Risen King!  Today is the best day in our lives to share the life and love of Jesus with whomever He places in your path.  Let’s agree together that we are going to shift every atmosphere in which He places us.  We can shift atmospheres to His glory by living with grace and kindness and demonstrating love and life in all we do.

Disequilibrium could be the worst condition you have ever faced.  Or disequilibrium could be the greatest opportunity a follower of Jesus has ever experienced.  I think our cultural disequilibrium is a set-up.  It sets up the people of God to live and testify to His certainty and grace regardless of the context of our lives.  “God is good-better than we think”(Bill Johnson).  The time is now to help our unstable world see the deep and rich reservoir of love and grace and truth found only in Jesus.  Let’s do this for His glory!

“Upstream Living in a Downstream World”

When it comes to how Christians relate to their culture, there are several options which have been articulated by theologians, most notably 5 specific approaches articulated by Reinhold Niehbuhr in his classic work, Christ & Culture

Christ in culture

Christ above culture

Christ against culture

Christ outside of culture

Christ transforming culture

I suspect that most of us, regardless of your political persuasion or feelings about the future, would say that our culture has gone through GI-NORMOUS changes these past many years.  It is tempting, in view of the present realities, to determine that Christianity has failed in the American experience.  However, that quick assessment seems to me to be terribly off the mark.  I think Os Guinness was right when he said,

“The problem with Christians in America is not that Christians aren’t where they should be; the problem is that they’re not what they should be right where they are.”

The church in America is, or should be, in a time of deep questioning.   Many believers who speak to me are wondering about how they should live out their faith in this world of ours.  I want to take a bit of time to develop a line of questions about what we should do as Christ followers in a culture gone astray.  What is the mission of the church and what is the responsibility of those who follow Jesus? Should we simply pray, preach, be pious and let God sort it out at the end?  Should we preach, pray, politic, and pressure our world to become a Christian nation? Or, is there something else we should be doing?

       Like much else that we have heard, this is not a new issue to those familiar with what the Bible teaches. For you to really engage the study though, you’ll need to dig further on your own; to that end, I’ll provide some additional resources for your personal study.   I pray that we will become like these men:

“men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (I Chronicles 12:32). 

Today, we need men and women like those of Issachar who existed in ancient Israel.  We need to understand our times and know what to do.  Let’s start with 4 basic assumptions for directing Christian behavior.

Basic Assumptions for Directing Christian Behavior

1.  God is Holy

“Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”(Leviticus 20:7-8)


2. God invites us to know Him

“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”(John 17:3)


3. God’s people are transformed by knowing Him

Knowing Christ is not simply a “slice” of your time or your life.  When we enter into a relationship with God, it literally transforms the way we live out our existence.

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)


4.  We are accountable to God for our behaviors

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)

Because God is Holy, and we are in relationship with Him, we are accountable to Him for how we behave in this world.  We are not left as orphans however; we are given His Spirit within us to make us like Christ.  To the extent that we allow God to work in us through His Spirit, we are able to become more and more like Christ.

How then should we live in the world as followers of Christ?  How should we engage a culture gone contrary to Christianity?  LOOK AT ONE OF THE MOST INTIMATE MOMENTS IN ALL OF THE BIBLE…Jesus was in the garden, just hours before his ultimate betrayal by Judas, one of His followers.  In those moments, knowing what was to come, He spent some private and powerful moments in prayer.  That prayer has come to be known as the High Priestly Prayer because in it He interceeded for you and for me.  Here is a portion of what He said:

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (John 17:13-19)

Let me pick out Jesus’ main declarations within this prayer:

This world is not our home

Jesus did not pray for our removal from the world

He prayed for our protection from evil

God’s truth is our protection against evil

So, what is the problem?  The problem is that we live in a world system that acts aggressively our protection from evil.  Let me articulate 3 REALITIES REGARDING our protection as God’s children in this world:

1)  The world system wants our heart, our head, and our homes

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world”(1 John 2:15-16)

“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)

World =earth(Acts 17:24), people(John 3:16), 1 John 2:15-17(system)

World-cosmos(space, material universe), aeon(time, ages)

2)  Overcoming the world is a battle only won by followers of Christ

“This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (1 John 5:3-5)

3)  Christians must be strategic in the way we live our lives in the world

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”(Colossians 4:5-6)

 “You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

What Now..4 FIRST STEPS…

  1. Understand where you stand with God…BOLDNESS
  2. Discern your protection from evil on the basis of God’s Word…DISCERNMENT
  3. Pray for wisdom in your speech and actions towards unbelievers….WISDOM…
  4. Live in such a way as to glorify God with your life…LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE!

Suggested Resources (Partial List Only, Not all Christian Authors)

Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians:  The Good News About the End of Christian America

William Bennett, The De-Valuing of America

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

Robert H. Bork Slouching Towards Gomorrah

Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief

Chuck Colson, How Now Shall We Live?

Chuck Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict

Colonel Doner, The Samaritan Strategy

Scot McKnight, The Kingdom Conspiracy

Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?

Simplicity & Complexity for our Troubled Times

Former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have said “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity”.  That thought has been rolling around in my mind as I think about transformational leadership for our troubled times.

         Tension threatens to overwhelm us with the shocking murders in Charleston and San Bernardino, fast moving changes in US sexual mores, rioting in various US cities amid racial tensions, and perpetual and instantaneous reporting of all of it by the media We long for simplicity in the midst of the complexity of our world.    

         As a leader, I feel the tension of insuring my leadership is appropriately complex (robust enough to withstand the reality of our times) and appropriately modeling simplicity (so that it can be catalytic and transferable). Here are some thoughts regarding the challenge that I think may be helpful to you as you consider those same tensions:

Simplicity becomes simplistic when we fail to recognize complexity.  This can be dangerous (and shallow).   Our world calls for a robust and meaningful faith. The rise of the“nones”in recent religious affiliation surveys surveys as reported by the Pew Research Center    ( and the increasing plurality of the American landscape call for a recognition of the underlying principles of freedom of religion we hold sacred in the American founding documents.          Religious freedom in a pluralistic present given a Judaeo Christian dominant past is a complex exercise and we do well to acknowledge that fact.  People of faith in the United States (still over 90% of the population!) carry a special burden of advocating for religious freedom for others, even those who do not share their specific faith perspective. 

Real faith moves towards simplicity when it is lived out in a loving and redemptive fashion, even in the face of undeniable evil.   While some continue to deny the presence of evil in our world, most of us see tragic evidences of it every day.  This world, this beautiful and evil world of ours, needs faith that is understandable, transferable, and experienced in our everyday reality.  As a Christian, I am called to testify to my faith in ways that are understandable and compelling to the culture around me.  The recent tragic events in Charleston and San Bernardino saw yet another redemptive and loving act as Charleston family members offered forgiveness to the gunman even as they were in the midst of their pain.  In 2006, the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA demonstrated complex and simple faith when they forgave and loved the family members of the murderer who killed 10 of their young girls.

Our times call for faith that is personally, organizationally, and culturally transformative That faith will be both complex and simple; it will call forth love into action.  Movements occur when complexity is translated into simplicity.  Helping others to understand, grasp, apply, and reproduce complex and simple faith is a powerful calling.  This is catalytic.  I need to make sure I am daily translating my faith into simplicity in love and action.  The people of  Emmanuel AME in Charleston and the Amish in PA have given us good models that are both complex and simple.

Created to Create the Future”

         I’m a leadership guy so I’m always looking ahead to the future.  Dr. John Richardson said when it came to the future; there were 3 types of people:

“Those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened”. 

         In a world as fast changing as ours, it is tempting to wonder, “What happened?” or merely be a bystander on the road simply “letting it happen”.   But I believe that people of faith actually have a mandate to create the future because of their hope in God.  I believe that people of faith, and particularly followers of Jesus, are called to carry hope in the world and help to create a God-honoring future for their world. 

         People of faith are believers in the future.  In the midst of present reality, people of faith are by definition those who believe in “things we hope for yet have not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).   Because of our hope in the future, we lean in when others lean away.   The early Christians in plague stricken Rome were those who stayed when others fled, those who rescued the children left on the garbage heaps of the community.  The life and safety personnel at 9-11 who ran up the stairs when everyone else was running down were a testament to this greater hope.  Belief in the power of God to change a heart, a home, an organization and a culture is the core conviction of people of faith. Hope is so central to leadership; I have long believed that a defining role of leaders is that they traffic in hope.

         Our belief in the future also engenders a creative capacity within the faith community. The community is creative as an expression of hope in the future and the faith to see beauty in the midst of pain.  God created the first human beings, and each successive generation, with unique and redemptive potential so that the world might see His love and grace.   Sir Ken Robinson does a glorious work in lifting up the creative capacities of children in his TED talk (delivered in 2006, now having been seen by over 33 million people! Churches, schools, hospitals, and all social service organizations began when people of faith determined to create a future full of compassion and support.

         Ray Johnston, author of the book Hope Quotient, says, “Nobody ever gets a dream without hope. I know of many leaders around the world, some blessed with great resources and others who have almost nothing, which have made major impacts on their communities. They all have the one thing that nobody can do without—hope.”(  

There are certainly areas of contemporary American society that are cause for great despair (racial injustice, economic and educational disparities, global hotspots of terrorism and conflict just to name a few), but none of those despair magnets can overcome the resolute capacity of people of faith to hope for the future and create new life giving environments.  I’m praying and advocating for leaders of faith to keep on hoping in the future and creating a world both worth living and sacrificing for.

“Communicating Your Story with Style”

Have you ever started telling the story of you and your camp and recognized that you were being “turned off” or “shut down” before you ever got to the exciting part?  Ever feel like if people could only “see” or “feel” what happens at your camp they would become supporters, but you can’t seem to break through their disinterested gaze?  If you have had these experiences, you are not alone.  Learning to tell your story well is central to greater effectiveness in your ministry—and every area of your life.

I want to equip you to tell your story, whether you’re talking with a camper, staff member, supplier, or your spouse in a way that  connects with the heart of your hearers, because when your communication is effective you will be heard, build healthy relationships, establish common ground with other people about their story and you may even increase support for your ministry! 

Each person you share your story with has a particular style to how they like to talk AND how they like to listen; if you learn your communication style and the preferred communication style of your listeners, you will become more successful in connecting with them and developing friends and partners in life and ministry.  My co-author Lorraine-Bosse-Smith and I wrote the book, Leveraging Your Communication Style (Abingdon, 2008) as part of our toolkit to equip communicators and leaders to connect with various personality styles.  In the book we identify 4 communication styles, 3 key types of communication content and 3 points of engagement. 

Before explaining the communication styles, let me give some background on the communication content of your story.  Your story contains facts, feelings and figures.  Facts are the data and details that we all are either trying to share or get agreement upon with our audience.  Feelings are the emotions we are either experiencing or want our audience to experience.  Figures are the symbols or images that help us to connect with our audience. 

Understanding how to tell your story with style has to do with the ability to connect your heart and passions to those of your hearers.  We have all experienced speeches or presentations where the speaker appeared to have some level of mastery of the material and seemed to genuinely believe the material had some importance to him and to us.  However, we left the presentation frustrated and bored because the presenter never connected with us.  I believe that an effective communicator must address three primary engagement targets.  Unless a speaker engages the head (the thinking place), the heart (the feeling place), and the hands (the action place), the presenter has missed the mark.  Understanding those 3 points of engagement will equip you to shape how your think about both your informal and formal communication with people.

         Years ago, I was fortunate to have a fantastic experience in a series of college communications class.  That professor often trained corporate presenters, and I will forever be in debt to him for his excellent training.  He was always clear about the importance of connecting at a cognitive (mind), affective (heart) and behavioral (action) level with your audience.  Based on the professor’s advice and the advice of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I always try to “begin with the end in mind”.  What do I want this person to do or what difference should this conversation make?  By starting from that perspective, I am able to arrange the three elements (facts, feelings, figures) and the three points of engagement (head, heart, hands) as I outline my presentation.

         Regardless of whether you are speaking to a person one to one, or to a small group, or to a large audience, recognize that there are four different basic communication styles.  For purposes of this article, think about how these people like to HEAR your story; that will shape how you SHARE it.  Most people have a primary style and secondary style (both in how they like to speak and how they like to listen); these definitions below will give you a very simple framework to utilize as you think about those who are hearing your story:

  1. Assertive listeners like declarative sentences, with clear and focused intent.  These folks are used to bringing the future into the present with strength and clarity.  Speaking with passion and humor but not being clear and decisive is death to this group.
  2. Animated listeners love stories.  Make me laugh, make me cry, make me feel.  Do not bore me with facts and figures, and don’t go “linear” on me.  Tell me about “we” not about “you” or about “me”.
  3. Attentive listeners are watching for one thing:  do you care.  You have heard it said, “I don’t care you much you know until I know how much you care”.  That saying was invented for attentive listeners.  Do you care about people and do you care about me?
  4. Accurate listeners are looking for data.  Clear, concise, and yes, accurate!  If you tell a great story, and demonstrate great vision, and communicate clear passion BUT have no solid data or clear structure and plan (or worse yet, you use bad data!), I won’t follow you.

So the big question is, how do you tell your story so people will listen, and so your words will be effective?   Simply put, you must become proactive and intentional in the context of positive relationships.   Once you know your style, think hard about the person, small group, or audience you are addressing.  Realize in advance that you will be speaking with all 4 styles if you are in a larger audience.  Present your story with passion and clarity to Assertives, with humor and emotion to Animateds, with personal care and empathy to Attentives, and with detail and consistent data to Accurates (in our book we have a test instrument that will help you discern your style and the style of others).

   Learning to know your communication style—and your listener’s  will require you to rehearse the facts, feelings, and figures of your story—whether it’s training a staffer, sharing Christ with a camper, talking to your family, or communicating with your spouse.  Rehearse in advance the parts of your story that engage with the head, the heart, and the hands (the components will change over time, but the sections will not).  Then, as you consider who you are sharing with, you will likely have more than one of the communication styles listening to you; if you know the person, know their style and speak their language!  When you say things in a way that your listener will receive—and relate to— it will improve communications, productivity, and personal satisfaction. Everyone wins.  So practice it and do it!


© Dr. John Jackson for The Clergy Journal, 09/02/08

Everyone has a unique personality.  No problem.  Every personality in leadership interacts with other personalities. Now that can be a big problem!  In my roughly 30 years of vocational ministry, I have heard (and said!) it many times….”Ministry would be no problem if it weren’t for the people!”  I’m sure you are like me in that you’ve had experiences where you have wondered why people didn’t “get it”, or why they did things a certain way.  I used to get frustrated with church members and leadership team folks when I discovered that they were different than I am.  Now I just try to laugh and enjoy the differences!  What has made the change for me is that I’ve learned to appreciate the variety and I have learned to draw from the respective strengths of various leadership styles.

I recently wrote a book with my co-author Lorraine Bosse’ Smith called, Leveraging Your Leadership Style (Abingdon Press, 2007).  The goal of the book, similar to 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, was to help leaders understand their personal leadership style and the leadership style of their team members.  Using a customized leadership assessment tool, we have helped hundreds of leaders identify their specific leadership style and the styles of their team members.  In this article, I’ll try to help you understand the four leadership styles:  Commanders, Coaches, Counselors, and Conductors.  Each has specific strengths and weakness and understanding them as they apply to you or the people you work with will help you be more effective in your leadership role.

A Little Background

         When I became a leader, I assumed that my position alone would guarantee my success. I quickly learned that positional authority guarantees you blame but does not guarantee you success! I spent my first couple of years in leadership learning quickly that leadership was about relational influence more than positional influence. Further, most of the things I had learned in my formal training, I would have to unlearn now that I was in actual leadership roles!

When we wrote our book, our purpose was to equip present and future leaders to understand how they can be most effective in their leadership roles by operating from their strengths and connecting with the strengths of others. My experiences is that the best leaders are those whom we choose to follow because of who they are rather than what they do or what position on the organizational chart they occupy.

In our work, we identified four basic leadership styles:  Commander, Coach, Counselor and Conductor.  Each of the leadership styles has a different approach to being on the team and leading the team.   For you as team leader or team participant, your challenge is to understand the “why,” the “how,” and the “who” of people’s participation in and leadership of teams.  The more you can understand yourself and others as well as the interaction between them, the more you’ll leverage your leadership! 

A Trip Down Memory Lane

When I was a kid, my parents never liked owning a home.  In fact, they have only ever owned one home.  It had a pool and was really nice.  But, it took a lot of work, and it kept them from the one thing they loved for us to do together…travel!  I can’t tell you how many “road trips” we took when I was a kid.  In fact, one of the luxuries of my dad’s 24-7 job was that we got 3 to 4 weeks of vacation every year.  I complained terribly (mostly about riding in a cramped backseat with my three siblings), but as an adult, those trip memories are some of my greatest childhood treasures.

         So, I thought we’d take a short road trip together.  I’ve become convinced that every team and every leader are a little bit like drivers and passengers on the road trips of my childhood.  In fact, each trip is different based on what the driver is like.  Think about the teams you serve on or perhaps the teams you lead.  Do any of these road trip descriptions sound familiar to you?

Road Trip!

Road Trips with a Commander:  Commanders are about achieving the goal.  Finishing the journey is the most important thing.  Well, not exactly.  Finishing the trip is close to being the only thing! Getting there ahead of schedule, ahead of others and ahead of projected personal calculations are the primary objectives.   If you are a passenger with a Commander, DO NOT drink any water.  Bathroom stops are highly discouraged!  Side trips will only happen for this group if they are a short cut!  A passenger traveling with a Commander driver will finish the journey before anyone else.  But, unless this group is full of Commanders, it is probably not the happiest carload of people.

Road Trips with a Coach:  Coaches are about the team.  Making sure that all the passengers in the vehicle are happy with each other is a key concern.  Coaches develop a game plan that will help them complete the journey, but they are also very concerned that the team members are fulfilled on the journey.  If you are a passenger with a Coach, be prepared for frequent rest stops to make sure everyone is “on-board”.  In fact, a side trip might even happen if EVERYONE agrees that it would be fun.  Passengers traveling with good Coach drivers will finish the journey-TOGETHER.

Road Trips with a Counselor:  Counselors are about the health of the individual.  Counselors want to know that each person is fulfilled, living a life of purpose and meaning and also fulfilling their potential.  Taking a road trip with a Counselor?  Expect frequent probing, supportive, and penetrating questions about how you are experiencing the journey.  Side trips for this group could happen if the driver is convinced that it would be personally enriching to each passenger.  You will probably arrive at your destination later than most, but you will have a great deal more understanding of the journey you’ve traveled.

Road Trips with a Conductor:  Conductors are about the strategy and the structure of the trip.  Conductors will want to ensure that the trip is well planned, researched, and executed.  Mileage markers (and bathroom stops!) will be known in advance and calculated.  Conductors will start later than others because of the preparation time involved, but the overall efficiency of the trip should far surpass any other driving type…and if it doesn’t, expect pressure!  Passengers traveling with Conductors can rightly expect an on-time arrival with the most direct route planned in advance.  Don’t expect time for side trips on this bus; they don’t fit into the efficient schedule the Conductor has planned.

So, have you taken a road trip with one of these drivers?  Have you BEEN one of these drivers?  I hope you are smiling…because I bet you recognize yourself in these drivers. I know I do (and I’m sure my poor family recognizes me as well!).  Self-awareness is a key to leadership.

Strengths & Weaknesses

         Each of the leadership styles has strengths and weaknesses.  We need every one of the leadership styles.  As you are speaking and working with various other styles, it might be helpful for you to consider the chart shown in the sidebar.

         In my working with the various styles, I have discovered that part of what distinguishes each style is that each person starts with a different vision and that determines how they respond to specific circumstances

Commanders start with the vision of the future

Coaches start with the vision of the team

Counselors start with the vision of the individual

Conductors start with the vision of the system

         If we become more effective in our leadership, then we learn to be both self AND others aware.  Leading ourselves and our teams to fulfill God’s purpose and vision is a grand “road trip” that God wants each of us to experience!  It is my hope that you will leverage your leadership style and faithfully lead those that God has entrusted to you.  END OF ARTICLE.

Dr. John Jackson is the Founding Pastor of Carson Valley Christian Center ( and the Executive Director of Thriving Churches (  John is the author of several books, including Leveraging Your Leadership Style and Pastorpreneur.  You can find more information about John and his leadership resources at




Positive Characteristics: 

connect the known of today to the unexplored of tomorrow

responsibility for results

move forward aggressively


Negotiating with other styles

Task and Personality Equilibrium

Freedom to fail; failure not fatal

High desire to succeed may lead to compromising integrity


Positive Characteristics:

gifted with people, team oriented

high energy, persuasive

outgoing and social


not detail oriented

sometimes lacks finishing power

high desire to be liked may lead to compromises

talking instead of listening


Positive Characteristics:

vision for the individual        

create positive environments for people to fulfill potential

most flexible of leadership styles


may neglect organizational concerns

connecting people and outcomes


Positive Characteristics:

strategic thinkers

detail and structure oriented


lack of patience

rigidity and inflexibility


“Discipleship: Teach or Train?”

Should we or shouldn’t we?  Which is better?  Can you prove that?  All those questions are reasonable about a critical issue in the life and ministry of a healthy church.  When we are trying to disciple people, should we teach or should we train?

The Miracle of “And”

         I believe in the miracle of and.  We in the church are much too quick to dichotomize our solutions to the troubling questions of church leadership and ministry.  We are prone to quickly fall subject to the belief that the issue we are facing has a singular answer in the form of either x or y. 

Discipleship is about teaching AND training.  There is both a content aspect to our faith and a conduct dimension to our faith.  Healthy churches and leaders want to see both evidenced in the lives of those who come into relationship with Christ.

Discipleship is about Teaching

         Discipleship is about forming Christ in the life of a believer through the spiritual transformation of the mind (Romans 12:1-2).  Obviously the Holy Spirit is the only one who produces genuine growth for a young man or woman, but the “seedbed” of that growth is an increasing understanding and application of God’s Word into their thinking and living.  At the church we established in NV ( we have grappled these last ten years with how to teach, transmit, and reproduce the content aspect of our faith.  We are coming to the conclusion, after ten years of experimenting, that there is no “silver bullet” to the teaching aspect of the faith.  So, we use:

  •  One on One Relationships
  • Small Groups
  • Classes
  • Seminars

We use all of these methods and yet still find ourselves struggling in this arena.  Willow Creek’s recent study (of which our church was a secondary participant) called REVEAL ( suggests that our church is not alone in this regard.  I think one of the most helpful tools from Reveal is the understanding that discipleship is a journey.  Identifying where a person is on the journey and customizing the resources and tools available may help undergird their growth.

 Discipleship is about Training

         Discipleship is about forming Christ in the life of a believer through continual surrender of our will to His will (Colossians 2:6-7).  Most parents know Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it”.  Study of that text reveals that one of the meanings of the word “train” is to “make narrow”.  Discipleship is about training in that we are helping men and women to become more and more like Christ in the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we live.  The Apostle John is clear that if we know Him (Jesus), then we “must walk as Jesus did” (I John 2:3-6).

         Discipleship training is the aspect of spiritual formation where we cultivate surrender of our will to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit and learn to follow God with our mind and with our heart, and with our feet.  In my experience, this never happens until we are in relationship with others where we allow genuine and grace filled accountability; in essence, that we allow other people to speak truth into our lives.  At CVC, we operate with these primary values in view as we live out “Friends Helping Friends Follow Christ”….

  •  People Matter to God
  • God’s Word Changes Lives
  • Spiritual Growth Happens in Relationships

The End Result

Our prayer is that Christ is shaped into our hearts and we progressively learn to surrender to His Spirit as we learn to speak the truth to one another and grow up to maturity as a disciple of Jesus (Ephesians 4:29-32).  When we think like and act like Jesus as the result of teaching and training that comes from organic and healthy relationships, we will reproduce health in the lives of those we are able to impact for the sake of His kingdom.

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