Healthy Leaders


How to Nurture a Christian Way of Life

Dave OdomDave Odom

How do Christians learn how to live a God-inspired life? Sixty years ago, the answer was clear: Actively participate in the worship, study and missions life of a local congregation led by a seminary-trained pastor using literature developed by the denomination. This system for nurturing faith worked pretty well as recently as 30 years ago. Some of the remnants still work today.

But how to form Christians today is less clear. This is not so much because the programs of a congregation and the resources that support them ‒ including denominations, seminaries and publishing houses ‒ have broken down. The challenge is that the basic patterns of life have shifted in an increasingly digital and networked world. The new patterns have not fully emerged, but the shifts are as profound as the move from farm to factory in earlier generations.

We know that most Christians don’t participate in a congregation in the same way they did in earlier eras. When I was growing up, we recorded on contribution envelopes the number of times we attended church each week. My family was active, so usually it was three times ‒ a week. Now even board members don’t necessarily attend once a week. Congregations are smaller and struggle to have enough people to sponsor different programs.

Even megachurches that have the talent and scale to offer the kinds of formational opportunities typical of the “old days” have a version of this attendance problem. Their folks pick and choose opportunities as if selecting from a restaurant menu. As a result, programs don’t work together to shape the attendees’ lives as they did in the old system.

Congregations are experimenting with many different ways of nurturing faith, such as the Fresh Expressions movement and the Parish Collective. In their book Divergent Church, Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris at the Center for Congregations have written about 12 congregations that are organized around ancient practices of the church in new and surprising ways.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity encourages the development of systems to support congregations as they experiment and figure out how to nurture faith and shape a way of life. We suspect that these new systems will be more “networked” than “industrial” and will tend to develop from the ground up rather than official task forces.

What kinds of leaders are needed for these new systems to thrive? In the last 10 years of working with institutions that support congregations, we have seen that new and emerging communities benefit from the collaboration of adventurers, investors and catalysts. When leaders with these mindsets intersect, supportive systems seem to emerge.

Adventurers start things. They take risks to try something new, sometimes borrowing ideas and trying them in their own contexts. They might fail, but they know they can learn from failure. Notably hopeful and motivated to make a difference, they rally others as well. Adventurers might run a new program in an existing organization or start a new enterprise. Occasionally, adventurers might be perceived by supervisors as stubborn because of their single-minded sense of purpose.

Many adventurers have expansive visions and struggle to overcome significant obstacles ‒ including financial support. The most interesting ones don’t just ask for money but assume that a new economic imagination is part of what needs to be created. They think about how their projects will contribute to the flourishing of all the participants, through fair wages and opportunities for work and meaning. They think about how the work can shape a Christian way of life and understand that nurturing faith is a community affair.

It can be difficult for traditional institutions to recognize the efforts of adventurers. Leadership Education has been on the hunt for exemplars, giving eight Traditioned Innovation Awards in the past two years to ministry initiatives that include a jobs program and worship for the unhoused.

Investors direct resources to encourage, support, advise and sustain adventurers. They look for talented people with ideas that have the potential to transform communities. They ask questions about impact. They both exhibit patience and expect signs of progress and positive results.

Investors might be individual philanthropists or leaders within an established institution. Investors have power in the relationship with people in a given system. They seek to exercise that power by setting expectations and creating space for experimentation.

Catalysts are often behind the scenes when something good is happening. They have an eye for talented people and can envision how people with a diversity of gifts can accomplish significant work together. Catalysts often have considerable intellectual or organizational savvy that they use for the benefit of others.

Like investors, catalysts might conceive initiatives or recognize the potential in other people’s ideas. Catalysts’ default is to encourage, connect and release. They spark activity and then typically step away. After their projects become successful and begin to scale, it is often difficult to recognize that they have been there.

Some people move between working as investors and as catalysts. They invest in certain key projects, giving significant attention and exerting ongoing influence. But for projects of merit that are not central to their institutions or strategy, they might function instead as catalysts. In those cases, they provide connections and support but do not maintain a substantial ongoing presence. By working in this way, they can strategically focus their impact while supporting a wider field of significant work.

In order to expand their work and sustain it across time, adventurers need networks and connections with investors and catalysts. Adventurers often report feeling isolated, but they have little time and few resources to develop relationships. Those fortunate enough to work in strong institutions can flourish when their senior leaders know how to create structures of support for the experiments adventurers create. Many more adventurers don’t find such support.

The ways in which adventurers, investors and catalysts think and work are interrelated. Adventurers are interested in the impact “on the ground.” Investors look for people and projects where their contributions can bring scale. Catalysts focus on networks that can strengthen efforts and make an impact.

The adventurers, investors and catalysts I know have found ways to operate on the edges of their systems or institutions. They don’t focus on reforming but rather on impact. Those of us who don’t operate on the edges would do well to learn from our colleagues who do. What are they discovering that could help us shape our work differently? We don’t have to wait until a new system is fully formed to participate in it.

In an age of networks, the systems that nourish the Christian life are not likely to be designed and implemented by big institutions or dreamed up by think tanks. They will be formed in specific contexts, and the experiments with the most promise will spread through social media and friendships. Such a groundswell will require more than just adventurers who experiment. It will also require investors and catalysts who support, encourage and connect.

This was first published in Faith & Leadership.

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Dave Odom