O for a Thousand Tongues of Fire

The Spirit’s descent at Pentecost is a model for diverse and distributed leadership.

The modern church in the West has a suspicious relationship with power. When it serves our interests or protects our privilege, we justify evil in many forms—from denying racism to protecting sexual predators.

The problem is not new, nor is it distinctly Western, but modern projects like investigative journalism and social media have increasingly exposed it as our problem nonetheless. No denomination is blameless. No theological tribe or form of church governance is immune to corruption. Our track record of protecting the powerful makes us look like any other institution.

Along with hurting our witness in the world, the church’s perverse relationship with power has created a crisis among believers. In recent years, young Christians in particular have felt betrayed and disillusioned by their leaders’ loyalties to the status quo.

“When it comes to faith, [Gen Z Christians] are open to Jesus and his teachings but skeptical about institutions and leaders putting on a façade,” writes Liz Lykins, reporting on recent data from the Barna Group. Their desire for authentic relationships “stems from struggles with skepticism and hypocrisy in leadership.”

Even younger church leaders like me feel jaded and ambivalent. To us, “power” feels like an enemy to avoid—or at least to distrust.

The story of Pentecost is an antidote to our pessimism. It reminds us that the church’s original relationship to power was not for evil but for good. It was the reception of God’s gift for the sake of his mission. In his last promise to his disciples, Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses …

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