Every Good Leader is Built for War
Your identity and the language of military might: An introduction
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The Retreating Church
I am a pastor. It’s part of who I am. In many ways, it is my identity. I’ve spent nearly 50 years in some sort of leadership role in a church and/or ministry setting, and what I am seeing today alarms me. My Built for War Leadership Journal is for leaders in all kinds of environments, but I want to start this article by sharing my perspective about the Church. Even if you are not a churchgoer, stay with me, because I promise these lessons will apply to you and your team.
In the United States, local church congregations are struggling. The potential impact for our nation has me concerned. Consider these alarming facts:
Around 3,500 churches close their doors permanently each year.
Four out of five churches in America have either plateaued or are declining, with only 20 percent experiencing growth.
Approximately 200 million people do not attend church on a regular basis, making the United States one of the four largest “unchurched” nations in the world, believe it or not.
That’s not all. Here are six additional facts about the steady decline church attendance in America:
Less than 20 percent of Americans regularly attend church.
Church attendance in only one state, Hawaii, is outpacing its population growth.
Mid-sized churches are shrinking, though the smallest and largest churches are growing slowly.
Established churches—those between 40 to 190 years old—are generally declining.
The increase in churches is far from sufficient to keep up with population growth.
By 2050, the percentage of the US population attending church is predicted to be about half of what it was in 1990.
In 2007, there were 227 million adults in the United States, and a little more than 78% of them—or roughly 178 million—identified as Christians. Between 2007 and 2014, the overall size of the U.S. adult population grew by about 18 million people, to nearly 245 million. But the share of adults who identify as Christians fell to just under 71%, or approximately 173 million Americans, a net decline of about 5 million. This decline is larger than the combined margins of sampling error in the twin surveys conducted seven years apart. Using the margins of error to calculate a probable range of estimates, it appears that the number of Christian adults in the U.S. has shrunk by somewhere between 2.8 million and 7.8 million.
Keep in mind that these are 2014 numbers. The 2014 study was the last in a series of surveys of more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states about their faith, beliefs and practices. These are not the latest statistics. This doesn’t account for the so-called rise of the nones, the decline in church attendance due to the pandemic, the chaos in major denominations like the United Methodist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, and other post-pandemic struggles by our religious institutions.
The 2014 numbers are alarming, and things have only gotten worse.
Losing the Battle
If I were to put these statistics into the context of the business world, I would call this a pretty negative performance appraisal. The Church is failing. It is not meeting expectations. It is not delivering wins or contributing up to its potential. It has so, so many areas that need improvement.
As a senior pastor and leader of an international marriage ministry, one of the things I’ve often found myself discussing in employee performance reviews or team evaluations is the idea of identity. The best employees know who they are. Their roles within a company, organization or team are spelled out distinctly, so these employees understand exactly what is expected of them. They have a purpose and they work hard to fulfill that purpose on a team.
You have to know who you are in order to fulfill your role.
The core issue facing the Church right now lies in its identity. It is failing not because it lacks the ability to succeed, but because it has forgotten who it is. The Church is acting outside God’s purposes. As a result, it’s not growing. It’s losing relevance. God’s promised blessings seem distant. The Church has lost influence and the public has lost interest.
If the Church were a business, it would be nearing acquisition and restructuring at best, and total bankruptcy at worst.
And yet, the Bible promises victory in Christ. In the war between good and evil, God wins. That’s the message of the Book of Revelation, and you can find the language of warfare, battles and victory all over the Bible. Ultimate victory may belong to God, but right now, in the United States, the Church is far from winning. It is retreating. We’re losing the battle.
The Language of War
You’ll notice the language in the previous paragraph is wrapped up in the language of war. Previous cultures placed great value on valor, courage, war and warfare. From the ancient Greeks and Romans and warrior cultures like the Vikings to the knights of medieval Europe and the samurais of the East, military prowess has for centuries been considered a significant virtue. We love heroes and we glorify excellence in battle.
That was then. This is now. And in this day and age, we don’t attach such positive descriptions to the idea of armed conflict. Peace and diplomacy have replaced war as desirable outcomes.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. War is terrible. Ask any U.S. veteran about the violence of war and you’ll likely hear some version of how horrific it is (if they answer you at all). Many soldiers still carry literal and virtual scars with them due to that violence. War is nothing to praise mindlessly.
But it also occurs to me that the language the Bible uses in describing the Church and its role in the world is profoundly based on wartime concepts. You can’t avoid the theme of violence and militancy in these descriptions. Like it or not, if the Church needs to rediscover its identity—who we are and God’s created purpose for us—then that identity can be found in a military mindset.
That leads me to a theological concept called the Law of First Mention.
The Law of First Mention
In the world of biblical interpretation, the Law of First Mention suggests that the first occurrence of a word, phrase, or concept in the Bible sets the tone for that term throughout the rest of Scripture. In other words, it establishes the primary meaning of the concept. The idea is that the initial appearance of a word in the Bible contains foundational principles or insights that help us interpret it throughout all the Bible.
Much of this language falls into the category of warfare. Here are a few examples:
The First Man (John the Baptist): John the Baptist was the first man of the New Testament era, whose birth separated the Old Testament from the New. As described in Scripture, he initiated a spiritual invasion from heaven to reclaim the earth from the devil’s dominion and restore it under God’s authority. The Church of today must embrace this military mindset to combat the enemy’s attacks.
The First Mention (Building the Church): The first mention of the Church is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16. Here’s what He says:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”—Matthew 16:18-19
Again, look at the military language. The words of Jesus emphasize the Church’s nature as an invasive force against the “gates of Hades,” or hell. The Church is meant to destroy his strongholds and set people free from bondage.
The First Mission (Seventy Disciples): In Luke 10, Jesus appoints 70 of His disciples and sends them out ahead of Him to spread His message. To these missionaries, He granted authority “to trample on serpents and scorpions” (Luke 10:19), symbolizing the power they possess to confront the enemy and overcome the power of evil. Again, this is not the language of diplomacy or peace but of aggression.
The First Mandate (Count the Cost): In Luke 14, as great multitudes began to follow Jesus, he challenged them with the truth that discipleship isn’t easy. Specifically, He tells them that following Him requires a military mentality:
“Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?”—Luke 14:31
The Church must hate the enemy while loving people with great compassion. Armed with the authority and power given by Jesus, the people of God become an invasive force. Instead of waiting for them to walk in the doors, the Church brings the battle to them.
What Does This Mean for Leaders?
If the Church is failing in today’s society, it can reclaim its birthright of victory by embracing its true warrior identity. It must see evil for what it is and hate the enemy. It must set free the lost and hurting. Under the victorious banner of Jesus, it must claim His authority and power. And it must go out in battle with as a strategic, invading force, equipping believers to minister within their communities and therefore expand the influence of the Church.
Like any good general, the leaders of the Church—today’s pastors—must inspire, equip and lead their congregations into action. The Church is not a set of buildings but a gathering of committed people, and only when those people refuse passivity and take action can the Church influence its culture and community for good.
We are built for war, and only when we embrace who we are as warriors will we see the transformation and growth that could be ours.
How to Achieve Victory
That’s a message for the Church. But it’s also a message for today’s leaders in business, charity, education and politics.
Do you know who you are? Are you secure in your identity?
Do you know what is expected of you? Do your team leaders and employees know what you expect of them?
Does your organization or company understand its purpose?
Do you have a strategy or vision toward which you are all moving as a cohesive unit?
Today’s leaders may not always view it in the context of military might, but we are built for war. We succeed when we use our weapons and tactics to our advantage. We achieve great things when we know who we are, where we are going, and what it takes to achieve victory—whatever that victory might look like.
This mindset applies to the flailing Church today, and I believe it also applies to leaders of every business, charity, team and workplace. Successful leaders almost always have a military mentality.
If you’re losing the battle…
If your business or organization seems to be retreating…
If you’re struggling with passive team members…
If you find yourself hiding in a defensive crouch rather than surging forward in an invasion…
…then this is the newsletter for you.
You are built for war. To be a successful leader, you have to understand this part of your identity. Subscribe to this newsletter and I’ll help you do just that.~ Jimmy Evans
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