EVANGELICAL LEADERS ARE FREQUENTLY ACCUSED of hypocrisy, seeming more reverent in rhetoric than in reality. That accusation is often unfair-many do walk the talk-but one way to guard against that is to begin emphasizing what Texans call low-pocrisy, downplaying virtues and noting weaknesses.
The warrant for doing this is biblical. We're told that the last shall be first. We're instructed to take the lowest seat at the table (far better to be moved up than to be moved down). We're also given examples throughout Scripture of low-pocrisy. Abraham, hosting angels in chapter 18 of Genesis, says he will offer them "a morsel of bread" but in reality provides curds, milk, cakes from fine flour, and a calf "tender and good." Prophets regularly proclaim their unworthiness.
I had a funny experience with this during the last presidential campaign. Not intentionally practicing low-pocrisy, but just trying to be accurate, I repeatedly asked reporters to see me as only a very occasional, very informal adviser to then-Gov. George Bush. As I truthfully denied influence, reporters upgraded me to "close policy adviser" (Washington Post), "the revered intellectual guru of Governor Bush" (New York Times) and "closest domestic adviser and soul mate" (Moscow Times).
It took a while for me to realize what was going on. George Stephanopoulos and many others have written about the ardent competition to have access to a president or major presidential candidate. An office inches closer, a few extra minutes of face time, a press mention of soulmatedness: That's the definition of adviser power. So reporters reasoned this way: "The game is access. Olasky downplays his access. Thus, he must have huge access."
My attempts misfired, but the outcome does suggest a cynical lesson for those who want to grab it: Less can lead to more. Machiavellians should note that those who truly do have influence, if they want to be talked about, are best off downplaying it. Sit at the lowest seat and someone in the press will notice and be inclined to produce a supposed scoop about behind-the-scenes string-pullers.
Some evangelical organizations, often because of fundraising concerns, disregard both the Bible and the cynics. Some promise big, accomplish little, and exaggerate sparse results. Some describe leaders as walking books of virtue. In doing so they become sitting ducks for press hunters eager to learn that paragons have fallen prey to the sin that, as God warned Cain, is always crouching at our door. Every time one of the mighty falls, not just an organization but Christianity as a whole takes a hit.
We all share in the lie. We buy a book "written" by the leader of an evangelical organization and bask in his purported brilliance-but the book actually came from a ghostwriter. Should we be surprised? God sometimes dispenses talents lavishly, but it's rare that top managerial talent and top writing talent reside in the same person. It's even rarer for God to make the sun stand still so that an executive who combines those disparate abilities has enough time both to run the show and to write about it.
We often push leaders to overshoot rhetorically. Some think that more volume means more effectiveness, but Teddy Roosevelt had it right: Speak softly and carry a big stick. God spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19) not through "a great and strong wind," nor through an earthquake, nor through a fire: "And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him."
We all need to listen for the low whisper, and leaders need to learn when not to shout. One old rabbinical saying goes something like this: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Sadly, when a crowd is waiting not for a teacher but for a demigod, such a person will appear-but woe to those who receive obeisance yet are too proud to say, as did Paul and Barnabas at Lystra (Acts 14), "We also are men of like nature with you."
The comments of those two evangelists are instructive: Instead of smiling and accepting praise and even sacrifice from crowds who saw them as gods, they instructed their fans to "turn from these vain things to a living God."