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Beyond Courageous Leadership and Servant Leadership

What Does Leadership Failure in the West Teach the Chinese Church?

In Pastor Bill Hybels’ seminal work Courageous Leadership, he states that a complete leader should not only develop his spiritual gift “downwards” (to lead those below) but also “sideways,” to impact one’s peers. Furthermore, one should learn how to cultivate one’s gifts “upwards” to influence those in higher positions in order to gain better resources and bring on board those with wider influence.

Pastor Hybels has, himself, trodden this road. Under his “courageous leadership,” Willow Creek Community Church not only grew quickly; it also served the community and initiated the Global Leadership Summit. The Global Leadership Summit takes “effective administration and strong leadership” as its specialty, attracting numerous people with international influence to share their experiences and network together. Using media and localized organizations for promotion, this summit has not only attained a name but has become a global leadership summit—a platform with important and proactive influence in the church, in society, for government, for careers, and for personal growth.

This platform, which is situated above denominations and religions, is Willow Creek Community Church’s greatest outreach activity and also a promotion of its brand; it has won the church a great reputation. In mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and so on, the world of Chinese churches has also been impacted. A great many churches seek to learn from Willow Creek. Willow Creek Community Church is often given awards for best workplace[1] and best employer, which shows its institution, management mechanisms, and professional culture are distinguished. If one compared many churches and organizations—whether in America or among the Chinese—on the level of management, I believe Willow Creek Community Church would be found to be excellent, if not the best.

Another mark of leadership is how this church responds to the challenges of the present day. From the 1970s onwards, Willow Creek Community Church has stood in opposition to the impression held by people of that era that the traditional church is “preachy,” “boring,” and “all about people donating money.” It has stratified itself to treat people depending on their degree of faith, focusing particularly on “seekers” and newcomers, offering them an altogether new and cozy “theatrical experience.” Even in its understanding of “expectations for members” and “service,” there is great opposition to the “modus operandi” of the traditional church and to any renewal of it. In all areas, churches of the present day, great or small, directly or indirectly, have been influenced by this way of thinking.

Because of the above mentioned excellence of Willow Creek Community Church, people are extremely grieved by Hybels’ sexual assault scandal and Willow Creek Community Church’s failures in dealing with his case. It has caused them to deeply ponder the matter.

During the past twelve years, the churches of mainland China have gradually become more visible. With each passing day they have become more open-minded and more middle-class. Christians and churches hope for society’s approval, acceptance, and affirmation. They also hope to greatly influence society. Willow Creek Community Church has, therefore, become a model and an encouragement to the Chinese church. Seen from another perspective, Hybels’ strong leadership style has made the Chinese church, already accustomed to paternalistic leaders, want to emulate him as China’s churches are still universally accustomed to, and even worship, authority and authoritarian leaders.

At more or less the same time, the principle of “servant leadership” has also been introduced to China’s churches and become a subject of study. If one can say courageous leadership is “upwards-oriented,” then servant leadership is “downwards-oriented.” Its core idea is that the leader should be a servant, wholeheartedly serving those being led, caring for their needs, resolving their difficulties, expending utmost strength to satisfy their requests and thereby bringing about the goals of the whole body.

However, the fact that “servant leadership” in Western society, and particularly in America, can succeed in pushing itself forward stems from its own cultural “soil” and context. It is not simply a kind of “spirit,” but also a system and culture. However, in an Asian society with a culture of authoritarian leaders, servant leadership easily degenerates into a mere slogan or item of propaganda. It is difficult to really put into practice. It can even be taken as a method of control. Or people can use “servanthood” as a pathway to leadership. Servant leaders also become “servant leaders with Chinese characteristics” with all the “selflessness” of a master in servant’s clothing.

Apart from cultural differences and the various aspects of the way society has developed, I personally think that this situation arises because the principles of “servant leadership” are actually more a kind of attitude or aspiration. If one wishes to be a leader with a “servant attitude,” one must prepare by developing a rigorous motivation to study and a resolution to change. One must train for and practice a servant attitude, create a nurturing and fitting culture for this, imperceptibly change, and finally become a person with distinctive servant leadership characteristics and life. This is a relatively inward-facing “cultivation of moral character” that is difficult to quantify. In that sense, it is rather idealistic.

The greatest challenge in being a leader is that with increasing experience and maturity of character comes an increased spread of influence and esteem from those around. Gradually, this renders individuals unable to form a sober view of themselves and causes them to develop an overly-high view of themselves. If you feel that you are able to resist temptation, you may put yourself into inappropriate situations. When you think you are able to solve difficult problems, you may allow problems to escalate until they become serious. When you think you are strong, you may use your influence to cover up mistakes. Individuals are like this; churches are also like this—even when there is spiritual maturity and organizational excellence.

People need to thoroughly accept this truth: we are all sinners; furthermore, churches are gatherings of sinners. In China, the traditional political culture and societal restrictions frequently influence us in ways that exceed our self-knowledge and expectations. The renewal of individual life and collective culture is a slow process. It needs patience and humility. As far as the general life of Chinese Christians and the Christian culture of China’s churches are concerned (and both are shallow), this is even more so.

Again, we need to be clear that the “good and bad” of Christians and churches are not prevaricated on “our goodness,” but conversely, are always revealed by how we face “our badness.” No matter whether it is courageous leadership or servant leadership, true bravery is facing one’s own weaknesses. True servants are deeply aware of their own unconscionable flaws.

In line with this comes taking the initiative to establish one’s own system of accountability, fostering a culture of equality and fairness, humbly accepting and even welcoming outside scrutiny, and bravely shouldering responsibility for the outcomes of this course of action.  For Chinese society, “shutting authority in the cage” is a fresh, new concept, seldom seen. For the Chinese church, this is also true. Particularly nowadays, China’s churches are approaching a time of increased coercion and pressure. In the normal course of things, this will mean churches’ activities will be more hidden. It will be easy for them to lack supervision. Congregations will feel drawn to strong and courageous-style leaders. Church leaders need to expend even more effort and thought into making breakthroughs and changes in the areas of accountability, transparency, and humility.

During the past few years, the government has been strongly pushing the “Five Improvements and Five Changes” to mark the “Sinification of Christianity” movement. In addition, the new Religious Bureau regulations have placed the responsibility for regulating religious activities at a base level, such as neighborhood committees. Most recently, in Guangzhou, rewards for reporting “illegal religious activities” have been handed out. These “persecutions” make it essential for churches to urgently advance the grounding of Christianity in Chinese culture, becoming rooted in society, and wisely working out their relationships with their “neighbors.” Willow Creek Community Church is a classic example of a “community church”; from it, China’s churches can learn how to serve their communities better.

Today, we find ourselves in an era that is being transformed by a fourth industrial revolution. New media, artificial intelligence (AI), genetic programming, and so on are developing quickly, and have already reached a critical breakthrough point. The extensive use of 5G,[2] AI, and so on will, in the foreseeable future, not only change how people communicate but also how people live, think, and perceive the world. They will also massively impact, even to the point of capsizing, the church and evangelism, theology, and ethics. Facing these cultural changes, the greatest temptation for church leaders is to insulate their members from society by brainwashing them with separatist ideals.

One thing we can be certain of is that if we wish to see an effective response to these challenges, a paternalistic-style leadership is unsuitable. “Paternalistic leaders with servant attitudes” are also not enough. Even servant leadership is not satisfactory. On this point, China’s churches need to engage in more exploration and creativity. If we can say that the government’s duty is, in essence, to restrain evil and promote goodness, then the duty of leadership is to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Only in this way can one become a “faithful,” “good,” and “shrewd” leader.

Translation is by ChinaSource


  1. ^ Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Certified Best Christian Workplaces – U.S. 2018,
  2. ^ 5G denotes the fifth generation cellular network technology that provides broadband access.
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Jerry An

Jerry An

Pastor Jerry An has worked in media ministry since 2001, and now serves as the Chinese Team Leader at ReFrame Ministries (formerly Back to God Ministries International). Under his vision and leadership, the Chinese language ministry of ReFrame has become a pioneer, think tank, and partner in new media ministry. Pastor …View Full Bio