In 2015, I attended City to City Asia Pacific’s Intensive, an international church planting training delivered in three cities. During that time, one of the trainers instilled in us a picture of discipleship. It was so compelling that it captivates my imagination to this day.
The teaching was based on the passage where Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). It was particularly humbling for me to hear how this passage presents unique challenges to Asians like me. Only Jesus is fit to lead in the many ways that I am not. But the fact that leaders will be equal in leadership when they are raised up (provided we believe in the plurality of elders) really provoked my heart on discipleship in an Asian context. While time and maturity will play the most important role in developing leaders, there are also cultural and personal barriers throughout Asia that must be overcome.
The Cultural Idols of a Hierarchical Society
In egalitarian societies, people tend to idolize the equality of individuals. While hierarchical societies (i.e., Asian and Eastern cultures) are becoming individualistic, people still respect authority figures.
For instance, in Tokyo, there is a unique blend of traditionalism and modernity. While younger generations are increasingly individualistic, they are also still bound by traditional values that place the interests of the group ahead of their individual interests. In many places, how people relate to authority figures in the workplace or schools is still informed by long-standing traditions. In Japanese companies, the layers of honorific language you use to address your superiors are different from how you address your co-workers and people below you. Even in the church, pastors are traditionally addressed as “sensei” (as in teacher or rabbi) and rarely by their first names (which is more common in the West and egalitarian societies). In this kind of context, a fully-trained disciple will be equal to his sensei. This places responsibility on the leaders to raise up others who will take their place — and not merely fill in roles below them.
The Personal Heart Struggles for Power
But underneath these cultural barriers are layers of personal heart idols. Easterners, perhaps more than westerners, tend to emphasize respect and honor. Like King Herod becoming “troubled” when he heard about the search for a newborn King, the idea that someone might take our place can be troubling because of the deep idols of power (Matt. 2:2–3). As soon as Herod heard there was a search for the new King of the Jews, he felt threatened because he wanted to remain on his throne. Personally, I try to listen to how my heart responds to someone more gifted and capable than me. My formal theology (in the head) is quick to acknowledge that there is a need for raising up leaders who will surpass me. But what about the functional theology of my heart?
Everyone can see that there is power idolatry among leaders in the marketplace and in the government. It is readily and publicly admitted. As Robert Green Ingersoll (“The Great Agnostic”) said, “Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test.” In simple words, the power struggle is very real in the heart — even from the bottom-up, not just at the top of the leadership ladder.
Besides, the pressures of leadership have a way of pushing the idols of power to the surface like a volcano that has been waiting to erupt for years. This is why when we hear of leaders erupting in the face of temptations and pressures, the battle has usually been lost in the heart for years. But the great news of the gospel is that we have the leader of all leaders, who has never succumbed to pressures, perfectly able to raise up leaders like Jesus.
The Way Jesus Used His Power
In the gospel, Jesus did not come to accrue power even though he was a King. He emptied himself to give away power. Herod wanted to keep his throne and control others in his kingdom, but Jesus left his heavenly throne to lift up others in his Kingdom. Herod wanted to build his own kingdom and massacred babies in the process. Jesus left his throne to build his Kingdom and came to give life by giving up his own. He used his power to serve and empowered the very least of his disciples. He took a handful of people, some of whom were least likely to succeed in the eyes of the Greco-Roman elites that idolized honor and power. The great irony is this: the greatest King came to be the greatest servant (Mark 10:45), to take up a cross instead of a throne.
This sacrifice stands in stark contrast to someone eagerly waiting to seize power when the opportunity arises. Jesus wasn’t an opportunist seeking to grab or usurp power, position, and prestige. He chose the weakest and stooped down to wash their feet, and washed them clean inside-out (John 13:1–12). He chose the weak to lead the strong in a culture that honored the strong and despised the weak (1 Cor. 1: 27). He trained them up to be just like him and sent them out for his Kingdom work. In the survival of the fittest society, leadership is taken by the strong and powerful. In Jesus’ Kingdom, leadership is given — not taken.
Empowering Leaders for Gospel Movement
Leadership in the city is, therefore, first and foremost the giving up of the idolatry of power. This is easier said than done (at least for me) because it requires an ongoing, daily renewal of the gospel in our hearts. The humble, self-emptying nature of Christ in Philippians 2 is fuel for gospel mission in our cities. This means a generous sharing of vision, resources, and leadership, from the bottom-up — not just from the top to bottom. This also means a willingness to give up power and position so that others can grow in leadership. Tim Keller, for example, said that in movements,
The accomplishment of the vision is more important than power and position. So people are willing to make allies, be flexible, and cooperate with anyone sharing the basic vision and values….Institutions are organized more vertically, where ideas from “below” are unwelcome. Movements are flatter because the commonly shared vision unifies and empowers. The vision is what matters — so anyone with a good idea about how to accomplish it is welcome to give it. Ideas flow out of the whole organization, top to bottom, which leads to greater creativity (Tim Keller).
In order for ideas to literally flow from “top to bottom,” leaders can stoop down to listen well because Jesus came down to listen to us. They can identify, train, and develop others because they are less troubled about protecting their own kingdom and more peaceful about building God’s Kingdom. Jesus and his Kingdom have become their chief aim. What this means for us then, in hierarchical societies, is that instead of competing with others for position, power, and reputation, we can seek to build up others. In other words, Jesus can redeem our Eastern/Asian group identities and enable us to put the interests of the larger group (his Kingdom) ahead of both our individual and tribal interests — our cultural and our personal barriers.
Questions for Reflection:
a) What are some of the cultural barriers to leadership development in your church planting context?
b) In what ways have you personally struggled to develop leaders at the heart level?
c) How can we collaborate to overcome the unique contextual challenges to seeing a gospel movement in our cities?
About the Author
Joey Zorina is a cross-cultural church planter/pastor of The Bridge Fellowship in Tokyo, Japan.
Joey has lived with his wife in Japan for 16 years, and likes to write on Christian living centered on the gospel of grace.