By Robert Neely
Who is the best teacher you ever had? The best leader? The best mentor?
No matter whether you’re thinking about a teacher, a coach, a conductor, a parent, a youth-group leader, or some other guide in your life, chances are that the person who sprung to mind when you read those first three questions did two key things:
1) He or she gave you access to his/her knowledge, expertise, experience – and maybe even life.
2) He or she called you to be better than you were at a specific skill, talent, task – and maybe even life.
To put it another way, the best teachers and leaders and mentors both invite us and challenge us. Both are necessary to truly help a person grow.
This is true for music teachers, volleyball coaches, dance instructors, and head chefs, and it’s also true for people who disciple others to become followers of Jesus. As in all of these other areas, invitation and challenge are necessary to truly help a person become like Jesus was and to do what Jesus did.
So how do we calibrate invitation and challenge? Our team uses a matrix to help us evaluate what our culture is.
Failing to provide either invitation or challenge leads to a bored culture. We all know what this is like from our days in high school. The teachers who were disinterested (low invitation) and who let students skate by (low challenge) were the ones whose classes seemed to last forever. Even worse, it would take a herculean effort for a student to learn or develop in such a class.
None of us wants a bored culture, and most leaders who are leading by choice won’t fall into this trap. That’s as true in secular arenas as it is with those who are seeking to disciple others.
But often, we fall into the trap of emphasizing either invitation or challenge at the expense of the other.
When leaders are high on invitation but lacking in challenge, they create a cozy culture. This is a pretty pleasant place to be, quite honestly. Everyone feels good about being loved and cared for and included.
The problem is that a cozy culture doesn’t develop people. Again, think back to high school. The teacher who was a friend to all the students may have been popular, but you didn’t want that teacher for certain subjects. A cozy pre-calculus class, for example, leads to a miserable experience in calculus, because you weren’t challenged enough to learn the basics to succeed at the next level.
Obviously, this is a huge problem when we’re trying to develop followers of Jesus. The goal when we’re discipling isn’t only to make everyone feel included or loved – it’s to help people become more like Jesus. At some point, this will require challenge that a cozy culture simply fails to provide.
On the other hand, leaders who are high on challenge but lacking in invitation create a stressed culture. This is a culture where people can develop, but only if they have enough mettle and fortitude to survive the leader’s constant pushing.
In my hometown, one of the big inner-city high schools had a football coach who was this way. He was extremely successful, winning four state championships and turning the team into a nationally recognized powerhouse. But eventually, his rules started to wear on the players. Each year, his teams had fewer and fewer students sign up to play. Before long, his team was half the size of the football teams at other schools with similar enrollment, and he was pushed out of his job.
This coach knew how to challenge players to get better, but the level of invitation didn’t match the challenge. So kids just bailed. That’s a disturbing trend with a football team, but it’s downright catastrophic when it’s true of the people we’re trying to develop into followers of Jesus.
Ironically, a leader in a stressed culture often looks at dropouts and thinks about how they didn’t have what it takes. Too often we hear this kind of talk from fellow church or youth leaders. The truth is that the one who didn’t have what it takes was the leader, because the invitation was so lacking.
Instead of emphasizing either invitation or challenge, we need to calibrate both in order to develop a discipling culture. In this kind of culture, learners feel welcomed and gain a sense of belonging from invitation, and they also grow because they are challenged when it’s appropriate and necessary.
So how are you in terms of invitation and challenge? Here are a few diagnostic questions:
- Are the people I’m leading too cozy? If so, what are the first steps of challenge that I need to begin to introduce?
- Are the people I’m leading too stressed? If so, what steps can I take to add invitation into these relationships?