The Next Faithful Step

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Christian Leaders Transform Mental Models

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

The best leaders change the way that we see the world. And they change the way we see the world by changing what are called “mental models.” Mental Models are the categories we use to make sense of the world. We take them for granted. For example, picture an automobile. Go ahead, conjure up the image in your head. Some of you may picture a Volvo and others a Buick. But no matter what make and model you picked, it’s likely you each of you pictured it having four wheels. Why? Because a car should have four wheels. If I showed you one of those concept cars with only one front wheel, you would likely say to yourself, “That’s not how a car should look.” Your mental model of a car includes it having four wheels.

That’s a rather innocuous example. So let’s consider a different one. What’s your mental model of a preacher? Ask a group of seminary students about what a preacher should be and you’ll likely get many answers. One might say, “A man standing in the middle of a stage with a black Bible open in his left hand as he talks through a passage verse by verse.” That’s one way of being a preacher. It’s probably not the way you would preach. But think about that student. If all she has ever seen is an open-Bible guy, she is likely to think that all other ways of preaching are as strange as a three-wheeled car.

In a moment, I’m going to argue that the essence of Christian leadership is to transform people’s mental models so that God’s People use Christian categories to make sense of their lives. But before I do that, I want to give a more concrete example. Let’s look at Jesus (it’s always a good idea to bring in Jesus as the primary example). Look at Mark 8.

The center of Mark’s gospel turns on Jesus’ reconfiguring the disciples’ mental models and then showing how that reconfigured understanding changed the way that they acted in the world. Starting at Mark 8:27, Jesus talks to the disciples about the mental models that the crowds used when they tried to make sense of Jesus. “Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” They were not sure what to make of Jesus. So they reached back into history to look for precedents. They looked for a mental model that would fit their understanding of Jesus. And the best model they could find was the idea of a ‘prophet.’ So that is how the crowds interpreted Jesus.

Then Jesus became more personal and asked what mental models the disciples themselves used when they interpreted Jesus. “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’” The disciples had decided that Jesus was more than a prophet. They decided that “Messiah” was the best mental model to use in interpreting Jesus’ ministry. They had the right mental model for interpreting Jesus. Or so they thought. It turns out that the next step of growth for the disciples required Jesus to transform the meaning of this mental model.

Jesus knew that what the disciples had the wrong mental model; what they understood by a Messiah was not what he intended to be. They expected him to be a king who would sweep away the Romans and set up a kingdom that would conquer its neighbors. But Jesus did not intend to be the king that the disciples hoped for him to be. So he explained to them what he meant by a Messiah. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” Jesus offered a new mental model for interpreting this fundamental identity called Messiah. He described the Messiah as one who suffers. And the disciples did not react well to Jesus’ attempt to teach them. Peter found this new mental model so offensive that he tried to correct Jesus. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Jesus pushed Peter and the disciples to accept this new mental model. He wanted them to see the Messiah as one who suffers in order to redeem rather than one who conquers in order to reign.  

But Jesus was not done transforming their mental models. He explained that this new understanding of Messiah carried with it a new understanding of what it meant to be a ‘disciple.’ “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’” Jesus not only asked the disciples to change the most important mental model that they used to interpret Jesus (i.e. the Messiah). But he also asked them to change the mental model that they used to interpret themselves (i.e. the Messiah’s disciples). The Gospel of Mark pivots on this passage. Once Jesus announces this new mental model, the entire story becomes about living out the new meanings of Messiah and disciple. The disciples do not fully understand the implications of these new mental models until the Spirit comes at Pentecost. But the faithfulness of their actions after Mark 8 depends on their coming to grips with these new mental models. Jesus, then, is our model of what it means to lead by transforming people’s mental models.

Transforming mental models is so powerful because the new mental models change the way people act in the world. When the disciples thought that the Messiah was sent to reign, it was appropriate (for example) for the mother of a pair of disciples to ask that her sons might sit on Jesus’ right and left hand. And it was appropriate to expect that the last thing a Messiah would do is to experience the public shame of a scandalous death on a Roman cross. But, if a Messiah has come to suffer in order to redeem, then it makes sense that a disciple of that Messiah would also live a life of service on behalf of others. In other words, changing the mental models the disciples used to make sense of Jesus and the mental models they used to make sense of themselves transformed the actions that the disciples attempted to achieve in society. If a Christian leader transforms people’s mental models, then the people’s actions will change as well.

What would this look like in a contemporary church? There are a number of youth ministers who want to change the mental model of youth ministry. They no longer see it as a segregated ministry that takes place at a segregated time (Wednesday night) in a segregated place (the youth room) with a segregated group (teenagers). They see it as part of an intergenerational ministry that is part of integrated Sunday worship in the common worship space with the whole congregation. So what is the first obstacle these innovative youth ministers face as they try to enact intergenerational ministry? It does not fit the mental model people have of youth ministry. It does not have legitimacy. It seems wrong – as wrong as a three-wheeled car or a Messiah shamed on a cross.

How then do we go about changing mental models? Perhaps the best way to illustrate this kind of meaning-making leadership is to look back to Jesus, especially at the way that Jesus constructed new meaning in the Sermon on the Mount.