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Tim Challies

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3 years 11 months ago
We are definitely not facing a shortage of books on leadership. These titles have sections all their own in the big bookstores, they line the airport bookstalls, and they appear on the bestseller lists with predictable regularity. Much like books on prayer or books on parenting and a select handful of other topics, it appears that there simply cannot be too many of them. Every leader wants to lead better just as every prayer wants to pray better. Readers could be forgiven if they feel skeptical that there is anything much left to say about leadership.

And yet, as Albert Mohler proves in The Conviction to Lead, not every trail has been pursued to its end. He begins this book with a warning to the reader that is equally a challenge to himself as author: “My goal is to change the way you think about leadership. I do not aim merely to add one more voice to the conversation; I want to fundamentally change the way leadership is understood and practiced.” No one can accuse him of aiming too low! Remarkably, at least in my assessment, he achieves what he sets out to do, making The Conviction to Lead a uniquely important book.

In the opening pages Mohler surveys the vast leadership industry and points out that in all the useful things that have been said about leadership, the central problem “is a lack of attention to what leaders believe and why this is central.” His burden is “to redefine Christian leadership so that it is inseparable from passionately held beliefs, and to motivate those who are deeply committed to truth to be ready for leadership. I want to see a generation arise that is simultaneously leading with conviction and driven by the conviction to lead. The generation that accomplishes this will set the world on fire.”

At the heart of the kind of leadership Mohler advocates is what he calls “convictional intelligence.” This is not an innate kind of intelligence, but one that must be developed by diving deeply into the truth of the Bible and learning to think like a Christian. It is, in its essence, Christian maturity. “For the Christian leaders, those convictions must be drawn from the Bible and must take the shape of the gospel. Our ultimate conviction is that everything we do is dignified and magnified by the fact that we were created for the glory of God. We were made for his glory, and this means that each one of us has a divine purpose. The Christian leader finds passion in the great truths of the Christian faith, and especially in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The leader must be relentless in his pursuit of truth and the application of truth to his life and his organization. Through twenty-five short chapters Mohler describes the kind of character that ought to mark the leader and looks at specific skills, habits and intellectual exercises that can make all the difference between a mediocre leader and a great one. He writes about the importance of gaining and maintaining credibility, of developing the intellect, of making wise decisions, and even of facing the new realities of a digital world.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Conviction to Lead is its semi-biographical nature, which is exactly as it ought to be. Mohler has faced great leadership challenges, the greatest of which was undoubtedly being called—while he was only in his young thirties—to lead one of America’s most important seminaries. While he draws many examples from history, and especially British history, he also draws many lessons from his own successes and failures.

But what I appreciate most is that Mohler takes the massive amount of scholarship and popular-level writing on leadership, extracts what is most valuable, and then sets it all in the context of Scripture. From the first page to the last, he is applying Scripture to leadership, crafting an understanding that is thoroughly and completely biblical. This book is truly gospel-centered; the gospel is not appended to the book, but at its heart.

I have read all of Mohler’s books and I am convinced that this is his best. Each of his previous books has been helpful in its own way, but they have generally been repurposed sermons or blog posts and have carried the weight of mixed media. The Conviction to Lead has all the marks of an original work, oozing with wisdom and dripping with passion. This is Mohler in his most natural habitat, doing what he does best. If you are a pastor or elder, if you are an owner or CEO, if you are in any form of leadership, I am convinced that this book will transform the way you lead. I highly recommend that you read it.

11 years 1 month ago

This is the fourth article in a series about Mark Driscoll’s book The Radical Reformission. You can find the first article here and the second here and the third here. We are progressing through the book and have arrived at a chapter in which Driscoll begins to apply his understanding of culture and reformission. This chapter, entitled “going to seminary at the grocery store” has the more helpful subtitle, “connecting with culture in reformission.” Driscoll begins by providing an example of a cultural disconnect, recounting a time he went to India and was unable to communicate with the people from that culture, not because they are deaf or stupid, but because they speak a different language.

The discussion inevitably turns to Paul at Mars Hill in Athens. Driscoll explains how Paul courageously stood before the Areopagus to proclaim the gospel, “beginning by respectfully establishing common ground with his hearers so he could work from their culture to the Scriptures” (page 119). Using the altar to the unknown God as his metaphor, Paul shared the gospel with these men. He also took spiritual concepts from popular poetry and showed how concepts had been applied to Zeus that in reality needed to be applied to Jesus. “In our day, this would be akin to unearthing partial truths about God from a culture’s film, music, comedy, sports, literature, theatre, philosophy, economics, medicine or politics, and working from those truths to the truth of Jesus as the ultimate answer to all human questions and cultural problems” (page 121).

Driscoll moves on to repent of bad theology, stating that “while some Christians lament the condition of our spiritual but post-Christian nation, reformission sees our day as a great opportunity for the gospel” (page 122). But errors in Christian theology keep people from seeing the bountiful opportunities presented in popular music, film and other cultural outlets. Driscoll provides three common myths that hinder reformission.

Culture and worldiness - Wordliness, according to Driscoll, is “the collective sinfulness that flows from human hearts to pollute God’s good creation” (page 123). Christians, of course, are commanded throughout the New Testament to flee worldiness. “Tragically, I have seen many young pastors undertake reformission without a wise understanding of worldliness, pastors who, rather than converting lost people, were themselves converted and are no longer pastors but instead are adulterers, divorcees, alcoholics, perverts, homosexuals, feminists and nut jobs. Most frightening of all are the pastors who have become worldy but remain pastors who preach a gospel that cannot save because it is little more than the hollow echo of a cursed world” (page 124). While worldliness is to be avoided, we must not make it synonymous with culture, for this is a sure-fire way of killing reformission. Every culture has within it those good bits of creation and we must seek those out in order to reach lost people.

Garbage in, Garbage out - I assume all Christians have heard this little phrase which supposedly was coined by computer programmers. It is used most often with music to explain to young people that what they put into their minds will inevitably effect what comes out of their lives. However, says Driscoll, this has several problems. First, no culture is untainted by sin and sinners, including Christian culture. Second, there is no clear division between Christian and secular entertainment. Third, it assumes that what Christians see and hear, they will want to participate in. All of these, says Driscoll, show that we cannot adhere to a “garbage in, garbage out” mentality. As we engage culture we must use discernment, but still “watch films, listen to music, read books, watch television, shop at stores, and engage in other activies as theologians and missionaries filled with wisdom and discernment, seeking to better grasp life in our Mars Hill” (page 127).

Builders, Boomers, and Busters - Driscoll objects to dividing people into generations as if we can make rash assumptions about people based on age. He objects to churches that reach out to “booomers,” for examples, assuming that all boomers are the same.

He wraps up this section by stating, “Now that we have some of our theology of culture in order, we are ready to follow in Paul’s footsteps and walk around our Athens searching for reformission clues” (page 129). He begins this work by recounting the story of Daniel, who seemed to participate in Babylonian culture, yet remained distinct and strong in his beliefs. Like Daniel, we are in cultural captivity. “Do you spot the parallels to our situation? God desires to bless all nations and cultures of the earth through us, and so he has sent us into exile in places and among peoples no less strange or lost than the Babylonians” (page 131).


It is clear that Driscoll has been building towards this chapter. Without having read beyond this point, I am assuming that in the following chapters he will continue to build his case for cultural immersion. I am glad that Driscoll sees the challenge presented by worldliness. Further, he sees the danger of it, not only for what it can do to an individual, but what it can do to the gospel. A worldly gospel, as Driscoll shows, is no gospel at all.

But where I still have a disconnect from Driscoll is in his neat line dividing worldiness (which he says is bad) from culture (which he feels is inherently good but has been corrupted by humans). While he has done much to provide a theology of culture, his theology of worldliness leaves much to be desired. His definition of worldliness, “the collective sinfulness that flows from human hearts to pollute God’s good creation,” seems incomplete. Joel Beeke defines it as follows: “Worldiness, then, is human nature without God. Someone who is of the world is controlled by worldly pursuits: the quest for pleasure, profit and position. A worldly man yields to the spirit of fallen mankind - the spirit of self-seeking and self-indulgence - without regard for God. Each one of us, by nature, was born worldly. We belong to this world; it is our natural habitat” (Overcoming the World, page 16). The spirit of self-indulgence in Beeke’s definition seems absent from Driscoll’s, and in fact, seems to be a part of his pursuit of cultural relevance. I believe Beeke is also correct when he says, “Overcoming also doesn’t mean sanctifying everything in the world for Christ. Some parts of the world may be redeemed for Christ, but sinful activities can never be sanctified” (page 17). Again, this seems absent from Driscoll’s definition, and indeed it must be, since he insists that culture is good in and of itself.

It is almost as if Driscoll believes that any cultural pursuit is permissible unless I allow it to impact me in a negative, ungodly way. Hence Driscoll can visit a gay bar with a friend. Because he does not condone the activities within that bar and does not participate in the revelry, it is a neutral and even a good pursuit for him. The same can be said of film and music. Watching movies and television shows, even if they dishonor God, is a useful pursuit as it allows the Christian to pick out the redeeming aspects and use those to build bridges to the culture. But I do not find this in Scripture. Jesus was a friend to sinners, but he never participated in their sin. Jesus spoke to prositututes, but He did not visit brothels. Jesus may have befriended homosexuals, but I doubt he would have walked into a bathhouse.

And what of the people within a culture? Do they not laugh at Christians who willingly participate in their sinful activities? Unbelievers are adept at noticing and proclaiming the inconsistencies between what Christians believe and what they do - between the talk and the walk. When we watch movies filled with despicable content, do they not notice this and marvel that we would set foot in a theatre to watch such things? While we may do it under the banner of understanding culture, they see it and understand it as being inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.

To summarize, I have a growing concern that Driscoll’s reformission is built, at least in part, on a permissive spirit that will eventually lead to the very thing it is supposed to avoid. Could it be that those pastors who were led into all manner of worldliness were led there not by poor discernment, but by immersing themselves in cultural pursuits that stand at odds with God’s standards?

This series will continue soon.