Why your church leader matters less than you think

I started reading Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life on the train yesterday, because I thought I should. I'm not liking it much. He's a great writer, but the first chapter – which is as far as I've got – is all about dominance and heirarchies, exemplied in the world of lobsters. Be a winner, he says, in advice that seems to be levelled at aspiring contestants on The Apprentice.

More on JP when I've finished the book. But what struck me yesterday was the contrast between that approach to life and the one epitomised in the event to which I was travelling. It was a lunch given by Ecclesiastical Insurance for winners of its competition celebrating church volunteers, Little Deeds, Big Difference.

Winners from various churches were celebrated.Ecclesiastical/Twitter

It was lovely. We were introduced to people who were profoundly committed to others, in all sorts of ways. Some were organisers, some were practical types, some were befrienders. All of them had the quality of caring more than others than they did about themselves, and of being personally nurtured and upbuilt by giving rather than receiving. They were happy and fulfilled, not by beating people (Peterson) but by caring about them.

It felt surprisingly like an important occasion – surprisingly, because these are not people who would usually make headines. They are certainly not the stuff of hard news – no schisms, heresies, politics or scandals here. They don't provide the normal raw material of journalism; they just get on with being the church.

And in today's fervid climate of opinion about everything, that seems to be worth saying. So much church news seems to be about the doings of alpha males and females intent on imposing their will on others, or exposing their theological laxity or carelessness, or calling out their complicity in the latest sin against received opinion. Whether it's Orthodox shennanigans in Ukraine, terrifying US Republican ideologues on Twitter or GAFCON sympathisers intent on undermining the Church of England, it's all about winning. Stand up straight with your shoulders back, says Dr Peterson: good Boy Scout advice, until you realise it's so you can heroically smash and humiliate your enemy.

Church isn't meant to be like that, and it's to our shame that far too often it is. What do we think we're doing? Didn't Jesus say, 'whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant '? Why, yes he did.

I'm the last person to undervalue the need for sound scholarship, clear thinking and wide reading and conversation. If we neglect to keep the church's theological walls in good repair, it will crumble. But for many of us, that pursuit can become fatally seductive. Our opinions outrun our expertise, and before we know it we are tweeting horribly.

The ones who will sit at the right and left hand of Christ in his glory are the ones who don't care very much whether other people agree with them, but do care a great deal about whether they have food, clothes and shelter; whether they are happy and fulfilled, and whether they are loved. They won't generally make headlines or be invited to conferences have their opinions about this and that sought after. But they will have a highly-developed instinct to care, without much counting the cost to themselves. And that is what most of the church really does look like, in its day-to-day life, and generally speaking, always has. It's this buried life that nourishes the whole body. The froth and bubble of the news cycle is, generally speaking, not nearly as important; 'leaders', opinion-formers and noise-makers matter far less than we think. 

What we saw outlined at our lunch yesterday were examples of simple kindness. It is not, thank God, as rare as we sometimes think, and it is a more convincing argument for faith than that of any apologist.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods