Losing Power Is Painful (an interview with Bill Henson)

Bill Henson, founder and president of Lead Them Home, discusses mission and witness from a position of weakness.

In this Episode
  • Bill Henson is the founder and president of Lead Them Home, a missionary organization equipping clergy to care for and cultivate faith identity in people who identify as LGBT+.

  • As Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, Rick helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

CONTENTS

00:00-09:15 Introduction, terms of conversation, power.
09:20-27:45 Interview
27:55-32:30 A foreign country
32:32-35:15 Prayer
35:17-37:46 Bonus episode, endnotes

Interview Transcript

(Transcript has been lightly edited and abridged for clarity and length.)

Rick: I’m really excited to have the chance to sit down and talk to you. So let me start by asking: You’ve worked with something like 45,000 pastors over the last 10 or 12 years, and the bulk of them have been in the past five years. As we’re in this period where, not just about sexuality but about a whole host of issues, the U.S. Is really going through a major conversation about what our cultural priorities are, as we go through this period of conversation where Christians think it might be important to be involved in the conversation, but we might not necessarily have the critical mass—or even the agreement within the church!—to establish terms of debate that we think are healthier than what the majority of people are using, how have you seen pastors respond to that difficult circumstance?

Bill: Sure. I think that a tremendous amount of change has occurred in culture and in the church in the last 15 years, with the bulk of that change occurring in the last really seven or eight years. In the founding of Lead Them Home, there was a realization as early as 2003 that what we might term “the culture war” is not working. This may be doomed for defeat. This model, even if it was successful, it might not actually achieve gospel gospel principles—if a religious majority actually does achieve power, will we use that in a generous way? Or will we mistreat people?

So as early as 2003, there are deep convictions that the conversation has to be recaptured through the gospel not through debate. Not through a particular ideology, but through the revelation of the presence of Christ in people’s lives who we may have different views [from].

At that time, from about 2003 to 2006, it became increasingly apparent that the culture war was lost. Our country, cultural norms shifting at such a rapid pace. We’re so far behind the curve. There’s no way to really stop that. Now what was interesting is, we were realizing that, starting to form a missionary organization that would be able to operate well in that context, but much of the Evangelical Church really not recognizing that there was a loss to the culture war until about the years 2010 through 2013. There’s a huge gap in that timeframe where culture is winning and is going to win on certain laws around the country at the state level, at the federal level. The culture is going to win. The church with its “conservative” view, if you will, is going to lose. But it hasn’t played out yet.

So in that time period, Lead Them Home decided to establish a missionary organization that would be beyond the debate and would focus on equipping the church to be prepared to operate possibly as a minority voice in culture rather than a majority voice.

Now, shifting from a majority voice to minority voice, that’s not just something we easily accept. Usually, the power has to be stripped out of your hands before we’ll let go of it. And indeed it feels like power has kind of been stripped out of the hands of evangelical leaders in this area. And there’s a backlash against evangelicals. There’s a sense in which we have not treated people so well. There’s a sense in which the way we express what we call God’s love is done in a way that makes people feel rejected or excluded or hateful, that kind of thing.

So, the first step in this process is realizing that, what if what if we didn’t just lose by the world’s standards? What if we didn’t just lose power out of happenstance? What if God had bigger plans for us than to win a debate or to win in regards to a regulation or law? What if there was something much deeper he wanted to accomplish, but he could not accomplish it if we held Earthly power? What if he could only accomplish it if we actually lost all Earthly power?

So Lead Them Home was founded on a principle of laying down our lives for people that we may have a difference of opinion with. We were founded on the principle of laying down our lives for people no matter what, dying a thousand deaths to contextualize the presence of Christ to people where they are as they are, beyond or transcending these issues of debate and who’s the majority voice who’s the minority voice?

That’s a painful process. They don’t call it “dying a thousand deaths” for nothing. To die a thousand deaths, to lose power, to have nothing left, is actually a very painful process. The great thing is God can resurrect something from that. So whereas many evangelicals might bemoan the idea that we have lost cultural power, from a gospel/kingdom perspective, it could be a tremendous work of God that is about to unfold. And I think God’s people losing their power is the beginning of God being able to do something amazing.

If you look in the Old Testament, there’s this trajectory of God’s people (1) being close to him, and then (2) being close to him and comfortable, and then (3) being comfortable and moving away from him, and then (4) remaining to be comfortable and away from him, that then (5) suddenly Devastation starts to occur in their lives, but they (6) still don’t return to him. They keep persisting. They keep pushing forward. Until finally (7) they get to a place where they are such a minority voice—so persecuted, so oppressed, so attacked—that they actually get desperate enough maybe not even to repent of their own sins! They get desperate enough initially to cry out to God.

And every time that they cry out to God, God’s voice returns, “For my name’s sake, I heard them.” “For my name’s sake, I heard them.” Not, “Because they were good, I heard them.” “For my name’s sake, I heard my people cry out and I will answer their prayer.”

So as we’ve navigated this, Lead Them Home has cultivated a desperation of crying out to God for solutions rather than looking for Earthly Solutions. Now, in the Earthly realm we have to live in the here and now, and do things that will cultivate a gospel witness in our world. But we need to desperately cling to him and depend upon him to do things that we don’t have the power to do.

Rick: If the church loses cultural authority and loses cultural power, it might actually make our church communities less attractive to the power-hungry  and more attractive to people who are desperate for salvation.

Bill: Oh, I just think that that’s a great point! I think it’s kind of like the refining fire. Maybe God takes away false forms of power we rely upon to cleanse—maybe not initially culture, [but] to cleanse us, his people. And those that remain are those that are faithful and willing to go through that process. And not that others that walk away won’t eventually have a born-again experience or come back to God or whatever that looks like, but maybe it will be a certain refining fire. If God ultimately wants his power to be perfected in our weakness, we can expect to be put in situations where we will be the weak or the minority or the persecuted or the oppressed.

And in the history of God’s people, our brothers and sisters in Christ have fallen into those categories over and over again. We’re the exception, not the rule. I don’t want persecution. I don’t want oppression. I kind of like having power, to be quite honest. But there’s something very beautiful that I’ve experienced in losing my power. The kind of power that I lost was not at the corporate/systemic level of society, although I felt the pain of those things, too. It was more in the work with individuals, watching how little impact I had to be able to change what people believe.

Now, I gave up trying to “change what people believe” a long time ago, but in the early days of the ministry, I kind of thought that’s what it was about. And I quickly was learning that the more that I attempted to try to change what people believe, the more that absolutely nothing was accomplished. There was no fruit of the work. When I had to let go of that idea, there were days when I was in a fetal position under my desk, just wondering, “What else do I have to offer? If I can’t seem to accomplish change in people’s lives, what else do I have left?”

And guess what? At that time, early in my work, I had nothing left.

And it was in the nothing left that I became desperate. “What on Earth am I here for, then?” “Why on Earth did I leave this nice corporate job that was so comfortable?” “What is this mission about?” And it’s in that nothing place, that desperate place, that crying-out-to-God place, that he raised up a calling that was entrusted to Lead Them Home that has become beautiful.

In other words, losing power is painful. But on the other side of losing power, if God lifts us up and perfects his strength in our weakness, there’s something amazingly beautiful that rises out of those ashes.

Rick: One of the things we’re called to do as Christians is follow in the pattern of Jesus, run the race set before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. We tend to—and I say “we!”—I frequently tend to forget that following in the footsteps of Jesus means  being rejected, marginalized and still pouring myself out for the people who rejected and marginalized me to make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.

That was the pattern for his life, but it’s also been the pattern for, in a lot of cases, his church after him. The church gained ground and grew in Rome as they were rejected and marginalized but still kept serving Rome’s  poor, Rome’s destitute, Rome’s sick. A lot of the most vibrant churches I know similarly started with a small remnant of people seeing a community that was not served at all and praying. It’s always, “A group of 15 to 20 people who prayed for 20 or 30 years for a church in this town or in this neighborhood to start!” And looking back to the Old Testament, there’s constantly that pattern God works out in his people, in Israel, of, like you were saying, the desolation but a faithful remnant that then rebuilds the—I don’t want to use the phrase “spiritual dynasty”—rebuilds the community of faith. God works through them to make his name known and his character understood again. And then when it’s time to  spread his word and make himself known in a new empire or in a new region or in a new country, he sends one person out with his family or the whole community gets devastated and brought in as refugees and rebuilds again.

I don’t know if I’ve ever really in any kind of formal way been asked to wrestle with what that pattern of a faithful remnant means for life in a country that has been largely Christianized.

Bill: I want to be careful that no one feels criticized, because it hurts to lose power. But, oh, do we have to manage our heart attitude as we’re in that unexpected place! So imagine what it looks like to a secularized world that kind of views us as the oppressors. In the context of my ministry, the people group we seek to reach is, are, LGBT people. So clearly for years LGBT people would assign a lot of the reason for why they’ve been persecuted to religion; and Christianity, in particular; evangelicals even more specifically.

So imagine in a world that now sees this power dynamic shift in a very rapid amount of time—although we can’t under-estimate the decades that LGBT activists worked for their human rights. From their perspective, it might not seem like the culture shift happened so rapidly! But from an even evangelical or conservative perspective, it seemed to happen very rapidly. To have that happen so quickly leaves us very prone to acting out or expressing attitudes or saying words that are not so helpful.

If God is the one who possibly even stripped Earthly power from us, then we need to be submitting to the idea that he may be wanting to do something deeper of a work in the church. But it’s not easy to lose power. So it’s easy to complain. It’s easy to to whine—and some of the language that we use as evangelicals as this cultural shift has changed so rapidly is we whine. And it does not come across good. If we want to have an active witness of Christ, if that’s our primary purpose, we need to be the last people that are whining at the loss of our cultural power. I’m not saying that every listener is a whiner. I’m saying in all of us, the process of losing power can trigger us to act with emotion and with attitude and with words that are not so helpful.

So I think that it starts with humility. A humility of acceptance of the reality of what’s happened. I think we need to live in the humility of accepting the current circumstances and asking the forward question: “Where do we go from here?” “How do we carry forward the gospel from here?” “How do we reach this culture from this point forward?”

In other words, we always need to be re-centered, surrendered to Christ at the cross. Oh, he has an invitation for us! “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest for your soul.” So when we are burdened and we are grieving the loss of all these shifts in our culture, well, we have an invitation to come to Christ in that. And if we come to Christ in that, he will empower us to have the right attitude, the right ideas, and the right words to say to accomplish his kingdom. Because it may not look like it, but his kingdom is forcefully advancing into this world. And that mission that he pronounced thousands of years ago is still occurring today. And we have to place our hope, our entire faith, in that. God does not need our cultural power to accomplish the kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven.

Rick: Every Christian is called informally to be a missionary, to be a witness for Christ in the time and the place God has put them. If you’re looking around at the time and place around you and you’re complaining about it, it could be honest lamentation. There’s a difference between honest lamentation and whining. But if you’re complaining about the direction it’s going in, or wishing that it was more like it was earlier in your life or for a previous generation, that seems to me almost like wasted energy. It seems to me tantamount to—and I think this is something I might have said on the podcast before—tantamount to complaining about the mission field god has given you.

Bill: Yes. Yeah, to put this in context, we’ve thought of America as a Christian nation. That makes it distinct from foreign mission lands. But compared to the Kingdom of God, America is not a Christian nation. It is a foreign land. So we are foreign missionaries in a foreign land. And  missionaries trying to reach people in foreign lands—whether they’re unreached, unengaged or marginalized in some way—missionaries understand that to reach people you have to get to know them. It’s not about only having something to tell people, it’s about posturing yourself as a listener and a learner of people’s history, culture and language. And learning from that. And making modifications, optimizations, improvements in how I speak to people, how I engage them, how I serve them, because now I know the love language by which they speak, the culture by which they speak, what language means to them or doesn’t mean.

So in this question about history. It’s really important if we want to be effective missionaries to all the people in our world…

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