Sunday, February 26, 2012

What is the church?

In the Bible the church is not defined but instead is described with pictures: a flock, a field, a family, a body, a bride, a branch, a building made of living stones. Never is it described by the pictures we typically have today: a building, a business, a school or a hospital. We have replaced an organic and life producing view with an institutional one that does not produce life but at best simply tries to preserve it and contain it. 
The predominate way of seeing the church today contains, conforms and controls the people. The biblical pictures of the NT are all about releasing and reproducing the life of the church, not managing and controlling financial interests.
Inorganic things can produce, but not reproduce. As Christian Schwartz points out so eloquently, “A coffee maker can make coffee (praise God), but it cannot make more coffee makers.” Jesus intends for his bride and body to be fertile and for his branches to bear fruit. Jesus didn’t use images of an institution, nor should we.
With much study, research, experience and time spent seeking wisdom from smarter men than us, we have come to understand church by this simple yet profound description: “The church is the presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family, to pursue His mission on this planet.”
While the bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the nature of the church, these metaphors have one very striking thing in common. They all imply that the church is a living thing. What about the building you might ask? Remember, it’s built with living stones and is a dwelling place for the Living God.
The church is alive, and Jesus in her midst is her life. What is a body without a Head? A corpse. What is a bride without a groom? A widow. What is a branch without a vine? Firewood. What is a building without a foundation? Rubble. What is a flock without a shepherd? A wolf’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Every New Testament picture of the church points to the living connection with Jesus as the most essential component of its being.
God’s presence is not only a necessary part of the definition of church, it is the most essential one. It is the starting place and the one thing that separates the church from any other organization or institution on the planet. In Acts chapter one the believers were together, they had been instructed to pray, worship, practice the ordinances and they had appointed leadership, but they were instructed not to leave the upper room. Church was born in Acts chapter 2. What’s the only ingredient added in chapter two to establish the church? It is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in each follower that was the breath of life that animated the body of Christ in Acts 2. The threatened demise of the church in Revelation 2:1-7 is to be removed from the presence of Jesus.
If the church is a living thing, then it has to be treated differently than your run of the mill organization.  Living things are organized differently than non-living things.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Journeys to Significance Wins an Award

Journeys to Significance was a very personal work of mine that took me 16 years to write. I just found out this week that it has won an award from Outreach Magazine as one of their top resources of the year in the field of outreach, specifically under the category of leadership.

Here is how the awards are decided:

About 170 resources published between Nov. 1, 2010, and Oct. 31, 2011, were submitted to Outreach for consideration—the most submissions in the last four years. Outreach editors narrowed the field to 122 and placed them in categories.

The magazine then enlisted the help of an expert in each category to consider the resources. 
"Each year, we are humbled by the involvement of so many people at the top of their fields who volunteer their time to evaluate the resources and choose the best,” Orme said. “We are truly grateful for the participation of the expert panelists.”
Each panelist independently evaluated the resources in his or her area of expertise and selected what he or she thought were the best. The experts chose how many resources to recognize in their respective categories.

I was very pleased that Bill Easum chose Journeys as one of the best. As many of you know I have written several books and each one is important to me, but this one is very personal and different from all the others. That it was selected means much to me. 

If you have not read it because you are not interested in house church, than you are misjudging the book (its not about house church, though it does touch on catalyzing missional movements). If you thought that you had figured out Neil Cole and his "stuff" you may be pleasantly surprised by this book. If you chose not to read it because you thought it was simply a book on Acts or on Paul than you are not completely right. As others have found, the book has as much to do with YOU and your journey as it does with Paul. 

Here are the kind words that Easum used to describe the book:

“Journeys to Significance is one of the more interesting books to come along in a long time. Based on the life of the apostle Paul and his journeys, Neil Cole’s book explores the various stages in life a leader has to pass through and how each stage affects the next stage until the leader reaches a point of maturity in which ministry is maximized and contentment with oneself is achieved (unless the leader gives up along the way). There are two reasons to buy this book: one is to read a new and creative interpretation of the life of Paul; the other is to compare the lessons Paul learned on this journeys to how God is working in your own life.”
—Bill Easum, from the March/April 2012 issue of Outreach magazine

I think you will find the book surprising and helpful for any of you struggling through life in the midst of your own journeys. It is easy to read because it has a narrative story throughout. It is also one of the shortest books I've written. Even my family agrees that it is their favorite book of mine. 

Thanks to Outreach Magazine, Bill Easum and all the  members of the academy. Ah shucks.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reading & Writing Habits

The following is from a Leadership Network Blog. I've been asked these types of questions a lot the last couple years, so I thought I would just post an interview already done to answer some of the queries. I am sorry for the lack of blog posts in recent weeks, but I have been hard at work on a book that is to come out this Fall. Here is the interview...

When you hear the word "organic" where does your mind head?  To that tasty snack from Whole Foods marketplace? Or perhaps you immediately begin to think about the gardening that needs to be done in your yard.  Well, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear "organic" is the Organic Church authored by Neil Cole in our Leadership Network Series with Jossey Bass.  Neil's "claim to fame" (better stated as his deep calling for those of you who know him personally) is a call to help people know how to "plant the seeds of the kingdom where life happens and where culture is formed - restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, parks, locker rooms and neighborhoods."  That's organic church.  Key to the success of any endeavor, Kingdom or otherwise, is the strength of leadership.  In Neil's latest book, Journeys to Significance, Neil charts a leadership course for organic church leaders from a look at the life of Paul.  Enjoy the following insights from the life of the author.

Why is reading important to you, and how do you find or make time to read books and blogs?
We must always be learning and growing. You cannot lead people where you do not go, so if I wish to lead I must learn. I usually read in spurts. Certain seasons I get more reading done than others. Summer is a big reading time for me. It is usually the summer months where I read some novels, which is also important to me because reading needs to be fun if you want to engage in it. Usually the 3-4 months where I am writing a book is full of reading as well but that reading is very specific addressing literature that is current and relevant to the specific topic I am writing about. I have a pretty strong conviction that if the book I am reading doesn’t grab me in the first chapter I will not read the whole thing. Some books are research oriented and I do not need to read every page, but even then I will scan the whole book because context supplies meaning and then I focus on what is pertinent to my own needs. I usually read about 25 books a year, but I do not read in a very disciplined manner, so I may read 10 or 12 books in two months and then scatter the rest over the year.

What books are you currently reading that you would recommend to our readers?
The Faith of Leap is a good read by my friends Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost. I also really liked Skye Jethani’s new book With: Reimagining the Way you Relate to God. Tim Chester who co-wrote Total Church has a great little book that just came out on what seems like an obscure subject, but as you read the book you begin to realize how important it really is. The book is called A Meal with Jesus. My friend and co-worker, Ross Rohde has a new book coming out called Viral Jesus which is quite good. And my friend Jon Zens recently came out with a very profound work on the clergy myth called The Pastor has No Clothes. I read Love Wins to see what the fuss is all about. Those books I read in the last 3-4 months. Last summer I read the Hunger Games Trilogy and enjoyed it. I’m still looking for what fiction to read this summer…any ideas? Please no vampires or teenage love triangles; I’ve had enough of that!

How do you make time to write books or blog?
Wow, that is a hard question because I do not really do it very systematically. I have a family, travel two to three times a month, lead our non-profit organization ( and coach a handful of church planters at any given  time. Writing works around all of that. I am not a driven personality, I can accomplish a lot, but I am not living a driven life to get things done. I will throw a few things at you that address the question, but the reality is I just do what I need to do…today (and it all gets done if it is supposed to). First, I usually do not blog in the months I am writing my book. The day I released the pressure to blog every day was a good day! It usually takes me 3-4 months to write a book that can be acceptable to the publisher. That is usually full time writing yet still interrupted with travel for training that I do all over the world. I can’t write on a trip (except occasionally on the flight out when I am more rested). I see myself as an artist and always have (my undergrad degree is in art and I have illustrated some books), so I see writing as a creative outlet. I am a person that is more creative with a deadline, so I like deadlines…I also like editors, so I may be a little weird to some people. One weird habit that I may need to break at some point is that I cannot write a second book in the same location that I wrote a previous one in. Why? I don’t know. It’s just a weird quirky thing with me. My wife turned our daughter’s bedroom when she moved out and into a home office for me to write in. I wrote Church 3.0 in it. Now I can’t write another book in there! This is not a good habit. When I am in that space that book is what comes to mind, and I need to get to a new place to free my creative focus on a new work.

What is the “big idea” of your latest book in a Leadership Network book series?
Journeys to Significance is different from all my previous works; it is more narrative and tells the story of the apostle Paul’s life and mission. There are many breakthrough observations of how Paul did mission and how he continued to learn, adapt and improve with each missionary journey until he turned the world upside down and finished strong.

If leaders only had time right now to read one chapter of your book, which one would your recommend... and why?
Well, because the book tells a story it is hard to isolate one chapter. I am an author who actually puts a lot of creative thought into the preface and introduction of a book, so if you tend to skip them you are missing some of the best writing in my books. I would suggest you start there, and if that doesn’t grab you the book isn’t worth reading.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Heaven Must Be More Than This!

I fell into a dream. I found myself in the heavens. A voice was speaking all around me. Clouds surrounded me. Was this what heaven will be like?

Much to my surprise I found myself sitting in a seat that was not meant for a man my size. In the back of the seat in front of me was a pocket with literature explaining a plan of salvation, and an envelope in the event I wish to cough up anything.

We were all seated in rows staring at the heads in front of us as someone up front was delivering a message that was of life and death importance. But as I looked few were paying attention. Some people were nodding off while others were conversing to themselves in hushed voices. Still others were sneaking a peak at their phones even though they’d been told to turn them off. The speaker went on with a well-rehearsed message with compelling hand gestures speaking of escaping an impending doom by following the light that beckoned us to our salvation but everyone seemed inoculated to the message having heard it so many times and never actually needing it.

The leader of this group assured all of us that he had received the correct direction and would get us all where we were supposed to be. He would do all the hard work while we just go along for the ride, because that’s what he’s paid to do–he’s a professional. Everyone seemed to trust this man implicitly and put the well being of their souls in his care.

There was an intense amount of scrutiny for all those allowed to be part of this group–all had to pass through a narrow way one at a time. Some were more important than others and received preferential treatment. They had been coming to this place for a long time and more frequently than most and had special reserved seats up in the front.

There were strange rules in this place that we all had to conform to with blind obedience. The rules seemed to carry a life or death importance, but about things that really didn’t seem that dangerous. In fact, I think these rules were made up a long time ago and just passed along in a system that is easy to add new rules to, but near impossible to eliminate any old ones. Many of the rules were outdated but we all kept them just the same. All of us were just waiting for the guy in charge to finally stop circling around and just bring this thing down for a landing so we could go home.

Suddenly I heard a voice coming from above my head, all of us heard it at once. It spoke with authority and said, “Bring your seat backs and tray tables up to their full and upright position. Please fasten your seatbelt low and tight across your lap. Turn off all your portable electronics and anything that has an on or off switch.”

I sure hope the real heaven is not like this.