5 ‘Ocean Buoys’ We Need – When No Norm Is the New Norm

(EDITOR’S NOTE) A few months ago, our Vibrant Faith Team retreated together at a lakeshore Air BnB in North Carolina. In advance, we all read Australian pastor and culture expert Mark Sayers’ new book A Non-Anxious Presence. Our team spent two days exploring the book’s insights and, in tandem with dependent practices that invited the Spirit’s perspective, spotlighted important takeaways for Vibrant Faith and the church at large… Sayers makes the case that we’re no longer navigating on land, with solid ground under our feet. We’re more like sailors getting used to a foundation that dips and pitches and slides under our feet. In this second of a five-part series I highlight another guiding buoy on our ocean path… 

As ministry leaders we acclimate to the norms of what we know, the norms of our training and education, and the norms of our experiences. But when we leave dry land for the perils of ocean navigation, our norms not only shift, they disappear… And this is a good thing. When we’re forced to release our controlling grip on our plans and strategies we naturally open ourselves to greater dependence of the Spirit of God. We have unwittingly extracted the “spiritual” from “spiritual leadership” as we have borrowed the mindset and practices of the business world. We crave results, and the promises of strategic planning scratch that itch.

But spiritual leadership focuses on fruit over strategy. It is intentionally and persistently practicing dependence on Jesus over performance goals. We create environments that are conducive for growth by setting the stage for it. We give people spaces and opportunities to practice their own dependent relationship with Jesus. We recognize that what Jesus has to offer is repair—and this is what a ministry mindset that values accompaniment looks like.

The disciples of Jesus expect Him to pursue their default expectations of a Messiah—platforming and performing His way to authority, power, and influence. But Jesus intentionally avoids this path. In John 6, when “a huge crowd kept following him wherever he went, because they saw his miraculous signs as he healed the sick,” Jesus purposely dismantles His platform and ruins His performance after He crosses the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. Eleven times in 25 verses, Jesus tells the gathered crowd, already rabid for what He has to give, that they need to “eat My body and drink My blood” if they want to continue to follow Him. When the confused and disoriented masses ask what He means, Jesus doesn’t explain Himself. Instead, He repeats Himself, over and over. And in the end the entire crowd, likely ten thousand people, desert Him in anger. Only His handful of close disciples are left, and Jesus asks, “Are you also going to leave?

It would be hard to concoct a strategy that is more diametrically opposed to our conventional expectations for competent ministry leadership. And it’s all on purpose; Jesus is intent on undermining His followers’ expectations of conventional influence and impact in the world. He is planting the Kingdom of God on Earth, but not in the way we typically expect to catalyze a movement. In what is now called the “2023 Asbury Awakening,” students at Kentucky’s Asbury University lingered in the school’s chapel one February day after a normal weekly service to pray and worship. Somehow this mustard seed grew into a tree, almost overnight—scores of students joined those first few in the chapel, praying and worshiping 24 hours a day for more than two weeks. News of this “outpouring of the Spirit” spread around the world, with more than 100,000 people making a pilgrimage to Asbury to join the experience. When 24/7 Prayer founder Pete Greig arrived, he found an anti-platforming determination in the students:

“I had the privilege of meeting with the leaders who are at the heart of this thing… People think of this as a leader-less thing—it’s not, it’s being very strongly led. But it’s being led by humble leaders. And we are so used to narcissistic leaders that when we see humble leadership we assume there’s no leadership… Inside [the chapel] is just this very gentle analog experience… A very loving, gentle atmosphere. The guys leading worship are making it up as they go along, they’ll sing one song for a half an hour. There’s no words on the screen, there are zero production values. But the sense of the Spirit of the Lord is strong in there… With no advertising other than organic social media… There’s no hype… 

“Everything that we think is necessary to gather a crowd is not happening, it is breaking all the rules. One of the leaders said… ‘The only celebrity is Jesus.’ Fox News wanted to come and film, and [the student leaders] said ‘no.’ And the anchorman on Fox News actually said, ‘Fair play.’ He said: ‘You have no idea how rare it is to find anything in the modern world that doesn’t want TV cameras. When people don’t want TV cameras there’s only two reasons—mostly, it’s because they’re trying to hide something. But very occasionally it’s because they just don’t need the TV cameras. And what we’ve got here is something that doesn’t seem to need the TV cameras.’”

Humility stands out in a culture that is defined by normalized narcissism—that’s why a student-led movement that refuses to cave-in to the pressure of conventional leadership norms inspires something like awe. We are weary of the preening that defines our culture and our churches, and when we encounter people who prefer vulnerability and authenticity in their leadership over marketing-driven expectations, it feels like a long drink of mountain-spring water. Fresh. Bracing. Thirst-quenching. It’s no surprise that the meek and lowly attract the Spirit of Jesus, not the confident and influential. “Learn of Me,” He says, “for I am meek and lowly in heart…” (Matthew 11:29, NKJV).

The student leaders of the Asbury awakening would shy away from this description—they led, but in the spirit of followers. Fellow travelers. And this is what accompaniment leadership looks like. It’s modeling a relational culture that elevates “practicing the presence of God” above all. So here are six key questions for ministry leaders who have lost their norms and are seasick behind the wheel of their church-schooner, trying to find their feet again…

  1. What spiritual authority am I operating under, and where does it come from?
  2. Where is God in proximity to me?
  3. Am I leaning into Jesus, desperate for His guidance, or am I working my strategic plan?
  4. Am I focused on the journey I’m on with those in my congregation, or am I obsessed with our destination?
  5. Am I focused on what matters, or only on what can be measured?
  6. Am I living nearly-blind in the future, or living wide-eyes-open in the present?
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In June 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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