Mark Batterson: Dwelling in Possibility

Through civility, service and innovation the church faces one of its greatest opportunities.

Mark Batterson serves as lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., which has seven campuses focused on reaching emerging generations. He is The New York Times bestselling author of 18 books including The Circle Maker, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day and Wild Goose Chase. His new book, Win the Day: 7 Daily Habits to Help You Stress Less and Accomplish More (Multnomah), releases at the end of December.

Here, from his perspective in the nation’s capital, he discusses the unique challenges and transferrable concepts of living and leading amid fevered political turmoil and the opportunities afforded by the restriction of pandemic.

We have members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle who attend our church. We try to remain nonpartisan, but it really tests unity. The temptation is a knee-jerk reaction to what is currently trending on Twitter. A leader must be about the long-haul discipline of building a community of believers where there is a keen and shared understanding that our primary citizenship is in heaven. We are sons and daughters living in service to the eternal king.

There’s an overwhelming amount of political polarization and tension. I pastor a church that’s incredibly diverse. We might be approaching 100 ethnicities/nationalities, and we are a few miles from the White House. We’re trying to stand in the gap as peacemakers, which is easier said than done. I think leadership starts in many ways with tone and posture. If you begin with a humble posture and gentle tone, your voice has a better chance of being heard. Humility is where we must start.

Hashtags are not going to get us where we need to go. We live in a culture with a lot of people shouting at one another, especially on social media. Political ideology is driving a lot of the hate. We lead the church by flipping the script and reminding our people we are informed by our theology and not our political ideology.

As citizens of the United States, we have a civic duty to exercise our rights and responsibilities with civility. Civility means expressing a public grace in the public square—and there’s not enough of that right now. We often find ourselves in a cancel culture that is antithetical to the gospel itself. Leaders must understand the need for tremendous empathy right now for those who are hurting. We need an extra measure of grace and an extra measure of wisdom. Our affinity has to be to the cross of Christ first—that expression of love that gives itself away instead of insists on rights.

If we are honest about it, we are often far more evangelistic about our ideology than our theology. Many Christians would rather be right than righteous. We argue over points of doctrine and political ideology instead of showing love that is irresistible. Love that springs from truth and grace.

Job 11:6 states that true wisdom has two sides. The founding fathers designed two parties in the realization that truth was somewhere in the middle. I say to our leadership team all the time, “Truth is found between two opposites.” That makes leadership difficult because there is a great tension there. But the tension is where truth resides. We have way too much binary thinking going on right now. In John 9, before healing the man born blind, Jesus is asked, “Whose sin is this—the man’s or his parents’?” In his answer, Jesus offers an alternative: “This has happened so the glory of God can be revealed.” Instead of insisting on either A or B, we need to be looking for the alternate kingdom language of C. It’s a much truer way to live and speak.

We need to experience life through story. We are storytelling creatures. We need a story to live in—and realize that we are born into the stories of others. God is writing history (his story), a story of redemption. If you don’t know where you fit in that story, it’s like walking into a movie 15 minutes late or starting a book on Page 87. You are lost. In an age of hashtags, tweets and social media that are focused on the latest thing trending, it’s hard to enter into an engaging, sustainable narrative. We need to teach our people to zoom out to the larger narrative God is writing.

C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and others remind us, “If we fail to engage our world, it will be because of a failure of imagination.” Lewis claimed: “We’re suffering from imaginative malnutrition.” We need to rediscover the power of right-brain thinking and speaking. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, didn’t just rationally list all the wrongs. He said, “I have a dream” and then painted a picture of what it might look like to be judged by character not skin color. We need more visionary leaders with great imaginations to paint for us life in the kingdom. We need to better see what we work toward rather than stand against.

God’s story involves great diversity. There were at least 15 different ethnicities involved on the day of Pentecost, so the church was multicultural from the start. Revelation tells us that we will be people from every nation, culture, language and race around the throne of God in a never-ending story. When we understand how deep the theme of diversity is in God’s story, woven in unity, it helps us lead with context.

My job as pastor is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With the racial unrest on the news, it’s easy to change the channel if you are white, but if you are Black, it often triggers and traumatizes. We need to lead lament for those who hurt. It often means afflicting the comfortable so they can extend comfort.

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In leading our church in support of Black Lives Matter, I like to start with the metaphor of inflammation. When someone is experiencing acute pain from an injury, there is tremendous inflammation around that injury, which causes pain. You have to bring the inflammation down before you can solve it. I think some of us are getting stuck on semantics and language before we make the first step of empathy. When you start with a desire to relieve the pain, stop the inflammation, you can then step back, make a diagnosis and work together for healing.

We are, after all, Protest-ants, so protest has to be part of the job. Leadership means helping people nuance what biblical protest is. We need to see how Jesus went about it. There is the moment when he violently turned over some tables in the temple, wielding a whip he made himself, so you have that. At the same time, Jesus also understood that a gentle answer turns away wrath. Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. We need to learn to wrap a towel around our waists and serve our city to fight injustice. We have to make sure that we are not trying to win an argument but love people the way Jesus did.

We need a supernatural demonstration of love and power right now. When I say power, I don’t mean political power, but an activation of the gifts of the Spirit where God is actually moving in supernatural love. When I say supernatural love, I think of the Sermon on the Mount: We love our enemies; we pray for those who persecute us; we bless those who curse us. If we learn to do so, we possess an unparalleled opportunity to be countercultural and revolutionary.

Service begins through the art of listening. A few years ago we resettled about 65% of the refugees in the D.C. area and then helped in the process of acclimation. We started doing something called Listen and Learn. We would have refugees share their stories over a meal of their cuisine. When some of the racial unrest started rising to the surface with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, we did another Listen and Learn series. We started conversations around restorative justice. We suspended judgments, set aside politics and listened to those who were wrestling with this and hurting. When we go through that process, we can have a conversation where it is much easier to agree to disagree. That’s where our culture is losing it. We aren’t able to disagree with one another very well.

The Greek word kairos is defined as both time and opportunity. This current moment is the church’s kairos. We are here for a such a time and such a place as this. We are designed to step in. There has never been more of a willingness to acknowledge that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and to pray for supernatural solutions. I think of Ephesians 3: The church is the manifold wisdom of God to a world desperately in need of him. What does that look like in a time of a pandemic? Our church has served more than 50,000 meals and given away tons of fresh produce and supplies. We are loving people day in, day out. In this moment when the world is depressed and anxious, we live in this alternate reality where our hope is in the person of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead on the third day. It’s a story of really good news we can share during a time of such terrible news.

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Charles Spurgeon wrestled with depression. He said it taught him to “kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” Sooner or later, all of us will experience that tsunami. You can either ignore it, deny it or find a way to lean into it. Our family went through a crisis a few years ago. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. That’s when she shared with me these words from Spurgeon and began to live them out. Laura is now cancer free; she’s a better and stronger person. We wouldn’t want to go through it again, but suffering offers us a unique opportunity to know Christ in deeper ways and become more like him in the process.

Recently, I read one study that said only 18% of pastors feel qualified to lead right now. I’m wondering who those 18% are. This entire moment can be summed up in Hebrews 12:27, which says that everything that can be shaken will be shaken so the unshakeable things will remain. Crisis offers the church a reset moment. I think God is shaking out the lies of this world—false securities, false narratives, false identities and false idols. Speaking as a pastor of one church in one corner of God’s kingdom, I believe God is shifting his people from a weekend mindset to a daily mindset. It used to be so easy to go to church on Sunday, check the box and check out the rest of the week. With dependency shifting to an ongoing rhythm, intimacy with God grows through a rediscovery of daily disciplines.

In the depth of winter, with snow on the ground, the Tarahumara hunter, with nothing on but his rawhide sandals and a breechclout, will start in pursuit of a deer and run it down after a chase of hours. I get into the science of how this is possible because it’s fascinating. Animals can run faster than us, but they can’t run continuously because they’re not able to perspire and recalibrate body temperature the way we can. As members of the tribe of Christ, we are called and uniquely equipped to sweat it out.

Past-tense guilt and future-tense anxiety are the two greatest thieves of living a full life. It’s easy to get trapped in the past or the future and waste our time and energy there. What leaders need to model is living in the eternal now. So many of us think of heaven as a future-tense possibility as opposed to a present-tense reality. We get it backward. Heaven is invading earth; eternity is invading time right here, right now. All that is required of us to experience it is our presence.

Are people going to come back to church? That’s a legitimate question. It’s my sense, though, God is raising up a remnant and is purifying his church in a way that is going to change the world. Especially in a time of COVID-19, we see God’s love and grace and goodness even in the darkest moments. There is so much evidence of God breaking through. I’ve never had a greater daily dependence on the Holy Spirit in my life. Every day, I know I need to be Spirit-led. I have this holy confidence in his will being done. It’s painful and won’t be without some collateral damage, but I believe God will pour out his grace in unprecedented ways.

All that stands between you and your best unborn tomorrows is the adjacent possible. The concept of the adjacent possible, which comes from evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman, is the elevator between what is and what could be. It’s the something that makes something else possible. For example, the elevator is what made the skyscraper possible. In our lives, simple things like obedience create this adjacent possible. It’s at the heart of the gospel. If Jesus walked out of the tomb on the third day, all things are possible. Jesus is the adjacent possible. With him, nothing is impossible. That’s not pie in the sky but a daily reality we live in, and it should affect the way we lead, live and love, day in and day out, especially in a crisis like this.

There’s a line from an Emily Dickinson poem in my office: “I dwell in Possibility.” It’s not just poetic, it’s theological. It’s the idea that we are a people who believe in the resurrection and that adjacent reality changes everything.