We Need New Leaders: Responding to the cry of the 21st century

Christlike Leaders for Every Church and Sector 101

Tim Tucker 01 Jul 2024

I live in South Africa, and, at the time of writing, we are preparing for a general election. Amidst all the campaigning, there was one party advert that grabbed my attention. It simply said, We Need New Leaders!

Much is written, spoken, and taught about leadership, but there is a notable lack of leadership excellence. If we want a generation of Christlike leaders in our churches and society, we need to unlearn a secular perspective of leadership, and recover Jesus’ model. Our priority is to be Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20) in a world that acknowledges, we need new leaders.

I believe five paradigm shifts are needed if we are going to deconstruct 21st century leadership paradigms and reconstruct a perspective on leadership centred upon biblical priorities in every church and sector.[1]

Followers First

To be Christlike leaders, our primary identity is not as a leader, but a follower. The greatest Christian leaders are the greatest followers.

After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus teaches us: ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’ (John 13:15). He’s not saying that we must literally go to work with buckets of water to wash our coworkers’ feet! He’s illustrating how he modelled humility by washing the grimy feet of his bemused disciples.[2] Elsewhere, Jesus talks about the upside-down nature of being a kingdom leader:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mtt 20:25–28).

Here Jesus is dismantling the contemporary leadership style, and revealing through his own example, a counter-cultural model. As German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘The call to follow means . . . adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and fellowship with him. The life of discipleship is not the hero-worship we would pay to a good master, but obedience to the Son of God.[3]

I propose we focus more on being great followers, rather than leaders. Our effectiveness as leaders will be directly proportional to being Spirit-led followers of the master-leader, Jesus Christ.[4]

Our effectiveness as leaders will be directly proportional to being Spirit-led followers of the master-leader, Jesus Christ.

We see this principle embodied in the Apostle Paul who exhorted the Corinthian church to, ‘Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1). Paul became arguably the greatest ever Christian leader because he was the greatest follower in Christian history. As Afrika Mhlophe concludes, ‘an effective Christian leader is someone who publicly mimics the life of Jesus.’[5]

Character before Charisma, Competence and Credentials

U2 frontman, Bono, understands success. His band has sold 175 million records worldwide over five decades. In his autobiography, Surrender, Bono cautions, ‘Success should come with a health warning – for the workaholic and for those around them.’[6] The danger of success is that it can corrupt character and may lead to compromises that jeopardise our witness as Christ-followers.[7]

Characterless leaders are rampant in today’s world, both outside and inside the church. An increasingly connected world combined with the growing popularity of reality-style entertainment have fostered a celebrity culture. Sadly, celebrity culture has infiltrated the church, with leaders gaining followers through their public profile without being held accountable for their private lives.[8]

I believe character remains the number one priority for leaders:

Character before Charisma: charisma can build a following, but without character, people can get hurt by leaders pursuing their own selfish ambitions.

Character before Competence: leaders should seek to grow across multiple areas of competence, however, competence without character can lead to pride, the most destructive influence upon a leader.

Character before Credentials: qualifications, and titles can all establish credibility, but they remain secondary to Christ-like character where leaders depend on God, not their credentials.[9]

I love how Yaw Perbi & Sam Ngugi expound on what this means practically, ‘It’s time to be utterly and unquestionably dependable, accountable, reliable, and trustworthy with time, resources, and responsibilities. Integrity will transform our ministries, our societies, and accelerate the gospel among the nations.’[10]

Perseverance not Platform

Francis Chan recently opened a conference talk by saying, ‘This is such a dangerous place to be . . . seriously, I’m talking about a stage’. He says that whenever he steps on a stage it’s like drinking a little bit of poison.[11]

He’s right! Nothing can endanger character more than the adulation of fans. Whether standing on a stage before thousands, or a social-media platform where we can influence millions. It can be toxic, addictive, and dangerous. If we focus on the platform, it’s unlikely we will go the distance as Christian leaders. ‘The challenge as a Christian leader is to know that you are not the main attraction, Jesus is.’[12]

[Francis Chan] says that whenever he steps on a stage it’s like drinking a little bit of poison. . . .   the adulation of fans can be toxic, addictive, and dangerous.

Christ-centred leaders should not focus on popularity and worldly acclaim, but on faithfully persevering through all seasons of life. Jesus modelled this faithfulness in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God to remove the burden of the cross, but still had the faith to say, ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42). Submission to God is essential to become faithful leaders who endure. Jesus looked beyond the pain and suffering, focusing on the prize: our salvation and restoration to God.[13]

Platforms come and go, popularity waxes and wanes, but the work of the Lord remains. [14] The challenge is, will we persevere in faithfulness when no one is watching? Will we be able to say with Paul, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Tim 4:7)?

Interdependence not Independence

During a safari through a game park just outside Nairobi, my Kenyan friends spotted a solitary buffalo. They warned me that a lone buffalo is very dangerous. I read later that lone buffalos are more likely to attack hunters than retreat, as they lack the safety in numbers of the herd.

The solitary leader who stands alone fighting for their cause is a myth. In reality, a lone leader is a dangerous leader. Independence is not a virtue to covet. Christlike leaders need to be accountable, transparent and interdependent. If we lead from an ivory tower, then we are a danger to ourselves, those we lead and the Gospel itself.

Part of leadership is knowing when to follow. You have to know when to get out of the way.

Integral to Christlike leadership is recognising we also need to follow others. We must intentionally foster a willingness to forgo a position of leadership to follow someone better suited to leading in a particular situation. Christian leadership shouldn’t be about hierarchy or titles. It’s about having a humble heart. Paul simply writes, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21).

I have benefited greatly from Stacey Rinehart’s book, Upside Down. He writes,

‘We practice mutual submission and are quick to defer to one another . . . Each person has a function, and when that function is needed, that person becomes our leader . . . In this sense, each believer can be a leader in the arena of his or her particular gifting. Conversely, every believer and leader is a follower as well.’[15]

Another author simply says, ‘Part of leadership is knowing when to follow. You have to know when to get out of the way.’[16]

Others not Self

‘Too much of our world is about seeking comfort instead of providing it. We can easily get so caught up in pursuing our own happiness that we miss out one of God’s primary teachings: true happiness comes in serving Him and His children.’[17]

In essence, Christlike leadership is not about you![18] The great evangelist, Luis Palau puts it this way, ‘The degree to which we serve is the degree to which we are great in God’s eyes.’ [19]

That’s the key! We serve others not to be seen as great. We serve because we follow the greatest servant of all. Ultimately, this is worship. ‘Ministry is not a task, program, or production. It is an act of worship by people who acknowledge that God’s great mercy has redeemed them for the purpose of relationship with Him, for sacrifice, and for service to others.’ [20]

Selfish ambition opposes Christlike leadership. We should strive to please our Master through sacrificially serving others. I believe this is the pathway to fruitful leadership, one that will be blessed by God and bring him much glory.

In summary, Christlike leaders should strive to be Jesus-followers who seek to develop godly character, persevere despite worldly opposition, pursue interdependence with like-minded believers and advocate for the needs of others above their own. I trust you ambitiously seek to be that kind of leader, and to pray for those kinds of leaders to emerge in every church and sector.


  1. Many of these lessons I’ve learned as I’ve served with The Message Trust as we raise up transformational leaders who are not in the public spotlight but are serving Christ in the margins, see
  2. Cf Phil 2:3–8.
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London, United Kingdom: SCM Press, 1959), 66.
  4. I appreciate how Dallas Willard affirms the uniqueness of Jesus: ‘He is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.’ Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York, NY: Harper Collins,2009), 110.
  5. Afrika Mhlophe, A Passion for Position (Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Christian Media, 2018), 216. 
  6. Bono, Surrender (New York City, NY: Knopf, 2022), 4.
  7. See Philippians 2:5–11 for Paul’s classic poem extolling the virtues of Christ’s humility. Also note Romans 5:3–5 and Hebrews 12:4–11 that clearly show that Christian character is formed in the school of hard knocks.
  8. John Wooden famously said, ‘Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.’ Quoted in Brian D Biro, Beyond Success (New York City, NY: Berkley Publishing Group, 1977), xviii. 
  9. I’ve written further on the marks of Christian character: 
  10. Yaw Perbi & Sam Ngugi, Africa to the Rest (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2022), 91.
  11. The Power of a Quiet Life | Francis Chan ( 
  12. Afrika Mhlophe, A Passion for Position (Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Christian Media, 2018), 216 and see Colossians 3:17.
  13. See Hebrews 12:2. ‘Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever.’ (The Message translation)
  14. Jesus knew the fickle nature of the crowds, compare John 12:12–13 and John 19:15.
  15. Stacy T. Rinehart, Upside Down (Carol Stream, IL: Navpress, 1998) 93, 106.
  16. In George Barna, Master Leaders (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 88.
  17. Nick Vujicic, Unstoppable (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2012), 208.
  18. To adapt the phrase from Rick Warren’s best seller, The Purpose Driven Life.(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002)
  19. Luis Palau and Paul J. Pastor, A Life on Fire (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 111.
  20. Rinehart 1998:118