Cultivating Leaders for a Digital Age

This article first appeared on Church Anew.

Photo by Matthias Neufeld on Unsplash

Physics teaches us an important lesson about the challenge of being church in a digital culture. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that, in any system, disorder increases over time. Disorder never diminishes, and if we wait long enough, we will inevitably observe greater unpredictability in a system.

Physics also tells us that we can increase the disorder of a system by speeding it up. When we accelerate the speed of a system’s constituent parts, the more volatility, and even collisions, we observe.

In physics, increasing the heat of a closed system increases entropy. In culture, increasing the pace of lived experience hastens the arrival of volatility. Volatility, a result of acceleration, is increasingly prevalent in countless cultural systems: from political upheavals to disruption in the marketplace, from organizational chaos to interpersonal conflict.

Much of this acceleration can be attributed to technology. The rapid emergence of artificial intelligence represents a once-in-a-generation acceleration of our digital tools. Is it any surprise, then, that those who developed these technologies seem to be the most beholden to volatility?

OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, recently triggered a tumultuous news cycle as their board ousted Sam Altman, their founder and CEO - only to change their minds days later. Altman returned to OpenAI along with a reconstituted board of directors. The company’s revamped leadership is now even more committed to accelerating commercial adoption of AI. It was a messy reversal for one of the world’s most quickly-innovating and influential companies - the result being that more technological acceleration is on the horizon.

OpenAI’s predicament revealed the inevitability of disorder in an accelerating system. As an organization, even if we create innovative governance structures, even if we write an altruistic charter, even if we staff our board with directors inclined towards ethical reflection - disorder finds a way in. And as the development of technology accelerates, entropy arrives faster and faster. OpenAI’s early technological successes planted the seeds for future disorder at their company. Their influential technologies will implicitly and explicitly influence countless other organizations to innovate, accelerate, and by extension, to experience chaos.

The digital age has created many opportunities for ministry. It’s given us new ways of proclaiming the Word, introduced us to new styles of worship, and given us the ability to collaborate with those who expand our theological imagination. Recently, AI tools have given us the capacity to work with greater efficiency, to communicate with increased ease, to create digital content, and to give our communities the tools to tell their faith stories.

But just as important as improving or increasing our adoption of technologies is the church’s call to cultivate leadership for an accelerating world.

Our cultural context will only continue to accelerate, producing ever greater levels of entropy. Part of the reason why entropy increases with cultural acceleration is that trust still forms at a slow and deliberate pace. In this moment of acceleration, our culture doesn’t have the time or patience for the development of trust. Thus, one of the self-perpetuating cycles associated with this cultural acceleration is the difficulty of knowing one another’s stories.

We are increasingly connected at great breadth but at little depth. Filtered Instagram photos and truncated small talk at the start of a Zoom meeting give us a superficial sense of connection. But this shallow communication is insufficient to form meaningful levels of trust - and without trust, there is only more disorder. As we speed up the pace of our interactions, communications will become even more superficial, creating a vicious cycle.

Still, the church is called to witness the story of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. More specifically, we are called to form disciples, to cultivate leaders, who can give witness to the new life that emerges from even the most chaotic systems. To give witness to the grace of God in a specific context is to articulate real experiences through personal stories. It’s never been so difficult to meaningfully listen to the articulated experiences of our connections. It’s also never been so important.

Cultivating leadership for a digital age involves modeling how to deepen interpersonal connections. And we can only deepen interpersonal connections through the slow and deliberate telling of stories: stories that reveal our values, demonstrate our character, and show how God reaches into the brokenness around us to speak a word of redemption.

An effective leader in today’s culture understands the value of sharing one another’s stories. A leader creates the spaces in which stories can be shared and heard at meaningful depth. An effective Christian leader today recognizes that it is through stories that we recognize God’s active and redeeming hand at work. Christian leadership in a digital age involves standing with our neighbor in the swift moving current of our time. It involves resisting the pull to be swept forward by the increasing demands on our time and energy. It requires moving deeper into our stories, choosing depth over breadth.

Digital age leadership is about deepening the interpersonal connections that create trust. In our congregations we ought to be asking how we might carve out more opportunities for stories of our lives, for stories that form our faith. The more we create spaces to exchange these stories, the more we model how to bring this practice beyond the walls of the church. And that, more than any promotion of self care, more than passionate calls to slow down, more than any leadership development program, is how we will cultivate Christian leaders for a digital age.

Recently, my congregation in Madison, WI launched a new program called “Conversation Sundays.” It’s a simple premise: twice a year, we run a sermon series on a topic that is meaningful to the conversation. But within each sermon, we provide a three minute pause for the congregation to talk to their neighbor about a shared discussion question - to tell a story of faith in action. We then go to the small groups in our congregation to provide another opportunity for members to tell and hear one another’s stories. So far, we’ve carved out spaces for conversations on hospitality, vocation, and servant leadership.

I like to imagine that, in some small way, these conversations are cultivating the types of leaders our world needs today: curious, empathetic, and compassionate leaders supported by trusted connections, called to bear witness to the redemptive work of an eternal God.

As we turn the pages of the calendar to another year, let’s continue discerning how to use digital tools for the sake of creativity and faithful collaboration. Let’s continue to experiment with AI and new technologies for the sake of promoting theological curiosity. Most importantly, let’s carve out spaces where we can step aside from acceleration and volatility, to articulate the very real ways that God shows up. If we learn to do this well, we will inspire leaders willing to step into an accelerating world to create trust, where today there is only volatility.