Monday, November 14, 2011

Church: No Longer "Business" As Usual!

Earlier this week I was asked what I think about the upswing in the trend of church mergers. I first responded with a question of my own: Do you want the real answer or the nice one? To his credit he asked for the real one and I gave it. You didn't ask, but here is my real answer...

"Merger" is a business term where two separate corporations consolidate all their assets to form one single and larger organization. Usually, this strategy is driven by greed–for money, influence and greater control of a market.

I mentioned to him that this is actually a symptom of a very serious affliction in the kingdom of God–the view of church as a business. The thinking behind a merger is that the church is a business with assets, employees, a board of directors and a commodity it offers to its constituents. This understanding of church is so prevalent that I imagine right now many are reading that last sentence and thinking it is a true description of what their church is today. Friends, that is how far removed we are from the New Testament.

Delving further into a false paradigm in an attempt to do it better is a bad idea. Why would you want to do something wrong better? I believe many of the new trends in church are just that. Franchising your church brand via multisite is a similar idea. Oops, sorry I just offended a bunch of my friends, didn't I?

But seriously, the idea of multisite is that we have a single church that meets in different locations. Some claim that this is very much like the New Testament. Yeah, that is very New Testament, in fact that is the body of Christ in general, isn't it? "One Lord, one faith one baptism..."

But multisite carries more to it than this. It puts a single brand on the church, usually tied to a dynamic teacher or methodology (usually it's the teacher) and appeals to Christians as consumers looking for that brand of worship service. Sometimes they offer the same preacher but with a different style of music to appeal to a variety of consumers. This again is a symptom of a bigger problem–our view of church is screwed up. In many ways, this is a microcosm of denominationalism which brands a certain form of church and functions as a corporation. Of course denominationalism is not biblical either. Wherever competition exists for a market share we are in business not Kingdom work, and I'm afraid much of what is taking place today is more of the latter than the former.

What I said to the person who asked me about church mergers is that church is not a business, nor a building. It's not a weekly event to attend, nor just an organization or corporation.

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 (w/ and address made of the non-living stones with stained glass a steeple and a sign with a logo), a business, a school or a hospital. We have substituted an organic and life producing view for an institutional one that does not produce life but at best simply tries to preserve it and contain it.

Jesus faced a this same problem. Lets look at his response to a similar situation in Mark 11:15-18:
Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’? But you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.
While examining this passage, my good friend and ministry co-laborer, Paul Kaak suggests we ask, "Why were they so fearful and so murderously angry?" Paul points out that Jesus' words were a double edged indictment. They had substituted their true calling for a false identity. They had become distributors of religious goods and services and had abandoned their true missional identity. Becoming takers rather than givers, rather than propagating the freedom of truth to all people without prejudice, they were now focused on preserving the institution financially and culturally at all costs.

We must be careful to not do the same thing. 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.

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 branch to bear fruit. He could have used the pictures of a business or academic institution but he didn't, nor should we.

Jesus has great patience and shows much grace. I believe there is hope for our churches today. I am not suggesting that the vast majority of churches today are all wrong and need to shut down. I am simply stating that we need to stop seeing church through faulty lenses that corrupt our church practices. Lets not function like a business and start relating to one another like a body. Lets move beyond being an academic institution and start becoming a disciple making and reproducing movement. See church as a family on mission together rather than a once-a-week religious event to make me feel better for the week ahead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Paul's Final Journey: an excerpt from Journeys to Significance

The apostle Paul’s last arrest landed him in a damp and cold dungeon in Rome where he wrote his final letter, which we call 2 Timothy. In 67 AD Paul was executed by beheading, which launched him on his final journey home.

After traveling 15,000 miles (8700 by land) [1], enduring four shipwrecks [2], starting churches in seven or eight people groups (perhaps as many as ten) [3], writing 15 letters that we know of (13 of which are in the New Testament) [4], enduring multiple imprisonments and uncounted beatings, he ended his life almost alone. According to 2 Timothy, his last days were spent short on time (4:9), Cold (4:13), Lonely (4:11), rejected by his own spiritual children (1:15), abandoned by his son’s in the faith (4:10) and betrayed by someone he trusted (4:14). Nevertheless, in spite of so few that stood with him in the end, he was a success (4: 6-8). 

The Mamertine Prison in Rome
My oldest daughter, Heather, and I visited Rome a few years ago. We landed early in the morning and knew we needed to stay awake all day if we had any hope of adjusting to the time zone.  We dropped off our luggage and took a train into the city looking for one place: the Mamertine prison. This is where it is believed that Paul wrote 2 Timothy at the end of his life, hidden among some of the most famous ruins in the world. In preparation, we decided to read 2 Timothy every day while on the trip, which made the experience and the Scriptures come alive for us. 

Looking up at the entrance and exit to Paul's prison in Rome
We descended into the Mamertine prison, also called Paul’s Prison. At one point, my head could touch the ceiling while I was standing on flat feet. I am just a little taller than 6’1” with shoes on. It is most often in places like these that God's real heroes are found.

Ironically, we visited the Vatican later that same day. Wow, what a difference a few hundred years can make for Christian leaders. Great riches of history adorned this palace, this religious city. The ceilings were way too high to touch, but they wouldn’t let you anyway as some are original Michelangelo masterpieces (the Sistine Chapel as well as the famous Dome of St Peter's Cathedral).  

Both sites are impressive. My art background drew me to the Vatican, but my heart never left the cave. Being there and trying to imagine Paul in such a place at the end of such a heroic life changed me forever. 

Heather and I looked at each other in the dim light with the smell of mildew and realized that this is the very rock where God inspired one of my favorite books of the Bible! Paul agonized over his few remaining days and the lasting impact of his life in this tiny place.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Neil, which place would you prefer as a Christian leader?” I am afraid too many of us choose the elegance and posh atmosphere of privilege before the cold, hard and unforgiving stone of Mamertine. But as I think of real heroes throughout history, most have lived their days in dark, marginalized places. 

We, however, have taken to exalting those who make the most money and are the most famous, whether they be actors, musicians, athletes, or preachers regardless of their character. Real heroes, however, do not emerge from places of comfort, elegance and privilege, but are born from pain, hardship and trials. It is under the pressure of great conflict, conviction and challenge that heroes are forged. May we all choose the dark cave of obscurity over the posh privilege of the Vatican. 

Paul’s Influence is found today, on the very screen you are viewing right now!!! He finished well.

“I have fought the good fight,” Paul says, “I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). As I serve the Lord I am finding that there are fewer people than you would imagine who are able to say at the end of their life words like this. As I mentioned at the start of my book Journeys to Significance, “the only applause that really counts is at the finish line.” A true hero faces the finish line with strength, nobility, courage and faith. Though he may not have been celebrated at the end of his life, he was a success, and he would die the champion that he truly was. He would have no shame at the end of his final journey.

[1] Schnabel, Eckhard, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, p. 122. This is an outstanding resource as is the authors two volume work on early Christian mission.
[2] It is usually agreed that 2 Corinthians, where he mentions three shipwrecks (2 Cor. 11: 25), was written prior to the shipwreck mentioned in Acts, therefore Paul experienced at least 4 shipwrecks.
[3] Besides 1) Cyprus, Paul left behind indigenous church movements in the 2) Galatian region, 3) Macedonia, 4) Achaia, 5) Asia Minor, and 6) Illyricum (Rom. 15:19) in just ten years time. He also likely started works in 7) Arabia, 8) Tarsus, 9) Crete, and 10) Spain.
[4] Not in the New Testament are his actual first letter to the Corinthians which he mentions in the letter we now call 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9) and also his letter to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Don't follow the Piper with this Tune

Last week John Piper put up a post on his blog Desiring God with a very energized attack of a statement from Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost's book The Faith of Leap. He readily admits to having not read the book but only the few sentences that bothered him. He never attempted to clarify with Mike and Alan and didn't bother to even read the entire chapter (let alone book) for context. He just rambled on in a doctrinal discussion, complete with a video statement as well, all based on his impression of one paragraph removed from any context.

The passage in question is below:
It seems correct to say that God took something of a risk in handing over his mission to the all-too-sinful human beings who were his original disciples—and all the sinful disciples beyond them. We wonder what Jesus must have been thinking on the cross, when all but a few powerless women had completely abandoned him. Did he wonder if love alone was enough to draw them back to discipleship? The noncoercive love of the cross necessitated a genuinely human response of willing obedience from his disciples. Given our predispositions to rebellion and idolatry, it is entirely conceivable that history could have gone in a completely different, indeed totally disastrous, direction if the original disciples hadn’t plucked up the internal courage to follow Jesus no matter where. (The Faith of Leap, pp. 36–37)
There were four things that Piper said were wrong about these sentences, each point filled with much content. They were...
  1. false to the Scriptures;
  2. built on a false philosophical presupposition;
  3. damaging to the mission of Christ in the world;
  4. and belittling to the glory of God. 
Taken out of context one can see these points as perhaps a valid opinion, but I think that attacking them online without knowing the context and intent of the statement that is scrutinized is irresponsible.
From this point on I want to address Piper directly in my language…

Frankly, John, I believe a public apology is in order and anything less is weak. Not just an apology to Al and Mike, but to your readers who trust you to do the right thing and set a good example of how we are to communicate in the body of Christ. Surely you do not want a person of your caliber to take two or three sentences of your book out of context and without having read your complete thoughts then slam your theology onstage for all to read. That wouldn't be fair to you. Show your true leadership in this by taking responsibility for speaking out publicly before thinking. We've all done this at some point so I am sure you will receive a good response to such courage. I have admired you for years in the past and would respect you greatly for boldly taking the lead in this.

John, we need to do better. Next time, give Mike and Alan (or whoever is next) a call before you slam them in public. When Jesus said to go to your brother “in private” we can assume he didn't mean to blog it publicly. Read the book for crying out loud! If you find something wrong with what they believe ask them to clarify it. If it is a concern about how the flock will be led astray, ask them to do a dialogue online together and present both sides so that the people can learn to Think for themselves. There are better ways to do this than to post a public rebuke on a blog without even so much as an opportunity for comments on it. 

I do not intend this to be a theological defense of The Faith of Leap, but I want to mention that there are other possible thoughts behind what Hirsch and Frost wrote. 

There are places where the Bible describes God in humanistic manner to demonstrate something of His character that would normally be beyond our ability to grasp (one can argue the entirety of Scripture is this way–language is finite, God is not). This is not a slight on God or his attributes but on our limited cognitive capacity. This is different than Anthropomorphism where we reduce God and his attributes to our level. God does not have chicken wings (unless its for dinner), but He has the sort of protective heart that gathers his people much like a mother hen does her chicks under her wings. That is finite and poetic communication of an infinite being, not heresy. Moses describes God as changing His mind…is God indecisive, or are we unable to fully comprehend His being and so the author uses language to help us understand and relate?

There is a sense that because we have the godly capacity to choose to dare something even when the consequences can be harmful that this reflects something of God’s image–in which we are designed. Call it sacrifice, call it faith, call it a dare, but it is certainly a godly characteristic reflected in our finite perspective of the moment. Of course God is not weak, but then again, daring something is NOT weak but godly. Yes, God is sovereign and eternal and knows the end from the beginning…but he is also capable of fully living in the moment regardless of how he understands the future. That is why “Jesus wept” with those who were hurting at the loss of their brother and friend in John 11–even though he also knew that he would be having dinner with Lazarus that evening! In a circumstance where I–in my limited and selfish humanity–would be smiling, Jesus was weeping. Why? Because even though He is aware of the future, He is fully engaged in the emotions of the moment. We should all be more like this, not less.

All of this could very well be what Hirsch and Frost had in mind when they said, “it seems correct to say that God took something of a risk…” Notice that even the authors knew that it was not absolutely true so they clarified their description as something seen from our weak and human point of view. The language was not adamantly presented in absolute authority, but tentative and suggestive, reflecting that this is a possibility seen from our human point of view so that we can relate more to the concept that being daring is indeed godly (or Godlike). If from our viewpoint God can change His mind, certainly He can take a risk. From this perspective, such doesn’t take anything away from his attributes, but makes them more accessible and doable.

Give more grace and allow for more opinions. At the very least do a review of the entirety of the book and then add the critique in the midst of your review if it still stands, which would be more kind and ethical if you ask me. That is very much like Jesus if you read his "critique" of the Ephesian church... “I know your deeds…I have this against you.”

Note: I did attempt to contact John Piper’s ministry before posting this on my blog. I sent a copy of these comments, requested a response and indicated that if there was no response that I would then  post this online to address a very public mistake. I was told that Dr. Piper would not be able to respond. I believe that this should be addressed and could not delay long as the internet world has a very short memory and the damage is immediate. As I mentioned above, Piper's blog does not allow for public comments (even screened ones) so this is what I was left to do after no personal response to my email. I felt it would be far better for Piper to first address the mistake himself but it doesn't appear that will happen.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A painting of a real organic church in action

The following post is taken off of a friend's blog. Lindsay Ellyson is an organic church planter in Kansas City. You can check out her blog here.
Let’s paint a picture.

Let’s paint a Puerto Rican single mom and her toddling half-Mexican daughter.  Let’s add a teenage black boy.  And his two sisters, one twelve years old, the other seventeen.  Let’s paint a Nigerian doctor, and a white nurse who was raised in Hawaii.  Let’s paint a white college student studying fashion, and a black one studying audiology.  A Brazilian soccer coach, and his newly wedded dancer wife.  A Colombian railroad worker.  A black rapper.  A white guy who owns his own computer business.  A black teen mom who has been separated from her daughter.  Let’s paint a half-Argentinean guy from California and his roommate from Kansas.  And let’s add one more white girl into that mix.

Stroke that brush and depict them sharing a meal.  Someone makes some soup.  Someone brings some bread and cheese.  Sandwiches are made. A pretty cake appears, and someone else traipses through the door with homemade mint tea in hand.

Let’s paint this small crowd sharing this meal in the living room of a two-bedroom triplex located on the border of the impoverished and crime-ridden part of the city.  Let’s paint a scene where the fifteen-year-old black kid leads the whole group in remembering Jesus’ great sacrifice by offering them a broken piece of a pita chip dipped in glass of Coca-Cola.  Stories are told from the week, stories of how the God who upholds the universe by the word of His Power invades each of their own little worlds.

Paint a book with words of life, and everyones hands held open on their laps.  Paint understanding pouring out in the form of simplicity off the lips of the twelve-year-old.  Paint tears in a few eyes.  Paint light dancing in many hearts.  Let’s be sure to paint smiles. And great sobs. And uncontrollable laughter.

Let’s paint the picture of these beautiful people praying for the sick in their midst.  Show how some are healed immediately.  Let’s not forget to add the scene where one girl’s leg is shorter than the other and grown miraculously on the spot.  Paint the prophetic words that fly around the room, and the ones that fly across the city via phones and laptops.  Depict the teenagers helping the single mom distract her little one, so she can have a twenty-minute break.

Paint that picture in such a way that we know that a few of those individuals have not yet made decisions to follow Jesus.  And several just started following Him a few months ago.  A handful more have known Him for just a couple of years.  Only a few have really known Him long.

In the middle of the painting, show the highschool students breaking up fights at their strife-ridden schools.  Show the Nigerian doctor sharing the good news of Jesus to a pregnant girl in his clinic.  Paint the nurse praying fearlessly over each of her ill patients, at the risk of losing her job.  Paint a few of the crowd driving their dear friend to the emergency room and taking her tiny kids home for the weekend.  By the way, their friend is a stripper & addict with sickness ravaging her body.  Let’s paint a scene where the computer business owner takes flowers to the eighteen-year-old while she recovers in the hospital after being shot in a drive-by shooting.

Paint these beautiful people crowded around a fountain nearby, as someone who just experienced the forgiveness of Jesus gets baptized by someone who has never baptized anyone before.

I wanted to paint a picture.  I suppose we painted a mural.  I suppose if we painted all this it would take up the whole side of one of these dilapidated buildings I can see out the back window that faces Troost Avenue.  If we paint with broad strokes it might cover a few.

What shall we name this lovely mural?

Let’s call it church.

(Note:  This is not a far-off dream.  This is not a bunch of nice ideas.  This is my present reality.  I have personally experienced all of these things happening within the last month, both here with my local spiritual family and as I have spent time with spiritual families on the other side of the nation.  I am in awe of what can happen when people begin to encounter the love of God for them.  I’ve tasted the miracle that Jesus called “church.”  And all I want is MORE.  This times a million, doused with even greater hope, greater faith, greater compassion.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kingdom Causes (one of our Associate Ministries) is Changing its Name

This just in from Kingdom Causes (one of CMA's associated kingdom ministries): Kingdom Causes, the So CA regional association of city transforming works, is becoming City Net. Our new name/logo represents our role as bridge builders among catalytic leaders and collaborative movements in cities throughout Southern California. The net is a web of connectivity, care and concern. Local congregations and other related ministries, organizations, leaders and neighbors are the knots. Our role at City Net is to connect and strengthen the relationships between the knots so that through collaboration and leadership development, community transformation deepens. We share God's heart for cities and our vision is to see a growing number of cities flourishing because together its' residents are building a better community for everyone.  As an association of cities and catalytic partners, City Net has created a support network that allows city-level mobilization and partnership to develop and flourish. Our network of cities provides opportunities for shared learning, greater leverage and overall care and support.

For more information visit: CityNet

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Threading Needles with Two Humped Camels

Most church planting enterprise is focused in areas of higher education, income and status. One can speculate why that is. Perhaps it is because we need to find self-support for the church planter and the ministry quickly. Another reason could be that the church planter who chooses the location wants to raise his/her family in a nice neighborhood with good schools. It could be because we are trying to reach people that are most like us and the majority of church planting groups are white middle-class Christians.

I am not calling these motives into question in this post, but I do wish to question the strategy itself. You see, I believe that we focus a good deal of our resources and efforts to reach the least reachable, rather than the least reached. I believe that the self-sufficient nature of people in wealthy neighborhoods works directly against the influence of the gospel to spread from life to life.

One of the sayings in our movement is: Bad people make good soil...there's a lot of fertilizer in their lives. It is proven time and again that those who are hurting and broken are more receptive than those who are well off. It is also a whole lot cheaper to start churches in lower income areas.

Jesus said that it is harder for a camel (and he meant a literal camel) to fit through the eye of a needle (yes, he meant a literal needle too) than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why then do we continue to spend billions of dollars trying to thread that needle with yet another two humped camel instead of bringing the gospel to people who know they need it?

I suggest that we should stop trying to force camels through needles and just look for those who actually need the redemptive atonement of Jesus. The gospel is always meant to be a choice. Jesus said "It is not the well who call a physician but the sick, I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

Can wealthy people come to Christ? Yes, of course...with God all things are possible. But the response will be less frequent and less contagious in wealthy neighborhoods. This is just a fact folks. You will be hard pressed to find any fast spreading movement among the wealthy. You will be equally hard pressed to find a fast spreading movement that didn't start with lower income people.

Is it wrong for some to reach out to wealthier neighborhoods? No I am not saying that. You will also find wealthy people involved with most of the movements in history. Often times, they are even the catalyst to get it rolling. There is indication that Paul and Barnabas were wealthy in the early days of Christianity, not the end. Count Zinzendorf, who is the apostolic leader that ignited the Moravian missional movement, was certainly well off, at the start. It is common to find wealthy people in the start of a movement, but not a lot of them. They may start wealthy, they usually do not die wealthy.

If you are called to the nice suburbs, is it possible to find good soil there? Yes it is. Believe it or not there is sin in the suburbs. Here are some practical ideas to find good soil for the seed of the gospel even in the suburbs:

  • Go for a ride-along with the local law enforcement officer...they are paid by your tax dollars to know where the good soil is. They know which homes have the domestic abuse cases, where the drugs are dealt, which bars have the most fights and which corner the disgruntled youth tend to hang out at.
  • Look for the signs of good soil. Yes there are signs...literally. A Going out of Business Sale sign may mean a good deal for you, but its a shattered dream for someone else. A foreclosure on a home is also some one's nightmare come true. A bankruptcy is a sign of some one's life turned upside down. If you pay attention you can find people that are hurting everywhere. 
  • Twelve step recovery groups are filled with people who recognize they are enslaved to sin and are powerless to overcome it. They are asking a higher power for help. If you are an addict yourself, this is a great place to find people that are responsive to the good news of Jesus. You are welcome and considered family and you are encouraged to share your story with the group. If you are not an addict, this idea is not open for you.

Now an important word is necessary at this point. I am not advocating any sort of manipulative maneuver to take advantage of weak people. If that is what you are looking for I STRONGLY suggest you repent and change your whole outlook (Okay, now I am addressing motives).

What then am I suggesting? I am simply suggesting that you look for people that are in pain and love them as you would want others to love you. Sound familiar? That's Jesus. Don't go looking for a project for your church outreach program, look for someone who needs love...and love them. Even if they never attend your church–love them!

You see the idea is that we bring the powerful, life-saving presence of Christ to the very places where it is most needed. Does that sound like a radical strategy? Well, it shouldn't, it should be an obvious conclusion. Jesus died and rose again so that the hopeless can find hope and the helpless can find help. "If you love those who are like you, what reward do you have?" Find someone who needs help and love them the way you would want to be loved. Simple.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Our Logo's Symbolism Explained

CMA is not about image. We are "anti-slick" as Ed Stetzer once called us. But I do want to say a little something about our logo. Why? Because symbols are important things in a movement. Whether it is a flag with stars and stripes, a single fist in the air, a stenciled image of a revolutionary on a wall or T-shirt, or even a swastika–a symbol can convey more than an idea or identity, it can provoke an emotive response. 
For 13 years our logo has been on our resources but I've never taken a moment to explain its symbolism, this is that moment. I designed it years ago and just moved on. It has been with us this whole time and come to represent our movement, but I have not been sure everyone understood its complete symbolism.
The X is a symbol for multiplication (duh, okay you probably got that). In the negative space are dark arrows coming in. They fall into the background and form a cross and then produce arrows of light going out to the four corners (of the earth). The logo symbolizes transformation and multiplication by the power of the gospel and then going out on mission to the ends of the earth. It says a lot in such a simple image doesn't it?
We adjust our logo a little when we are addressing our training which we call Greenhouse. The bottom dark arrow becomes a house, a green house. It reminds me of Monopoly (we're not always playing games...but often are). Most of our organic churches meet in homes and Greenhouse is the name of our organic church training. If a life doesn't change at home it will never change the world. One of our sayings is: personal transformation precedes community transformation. It all comes together in a a symbolic image. We lightened the darks to accentuate the green house image.
I was trained as an artist and appreciate the simplicity and yet boldness of our logo. Many logos are bound to a time because of the style of the time in which it was created. I wanted a logo that would transcend the immediate and be relevant for a long time to come. 
Black and white are not only bold and representative of light and darkness, but always are relevant, whereas color choices often reflect a style that may go out as quickly as it came in (remember Miami Vice?). 
This logo symbolizes well the values of our movement–changed lives and homes multiplied to the ends of the earth by the power of Christ's atoning work on the cross. It is simple, bold and clean. Hopefully, now you will always see the symbolism when you see this logo and remember what our movement is all about.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Church Transfusion: Releasing Organic Life Into Established Churches

My newest project is called Church Transfusion: Releasing Organic Life into Established Churches. We are offering a two day training, much like our Greenhouse, for those who lead an established church but would like to see more vital health and reproduction from organic church principles. There will also be a book forthcoming, published by Jossey-Bass in the Leadership Network series written by myself and Phil Helfer.

The Authors:

Phil is one of my oldest friends and the co-founder of CMA. One of the most radical organic thinkers on our CMA leadership team, Phil also happens to pastor a well established church of between 300-400 people. Because he is a Shepherd on our APEST (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher) team he will stay with his flock and has been a catalyst for much change. This one church has sent off four networks of organic churches over the last 15 years. He has learned in the trenches and paid the price to function organically in a traditional church climate.

Many might ask why I, a church planter, would write to established churches. Prior to starting churches, I led a well established church for almost a decade. During that time we raised up leaders from within and sent out church planters. I learned a lot in that context of what to do, and not to do, which not only informed my church planting, but will be pertinent to this book.

The Book's Content:

The first part of the book puts forth the idea that change is impossible with men, but possible with God. While there are many books available on church transition, we believe that it takes more than a assessment of where you're at, a new direction, a better set of bigger goals, a refined mission statement and a new logo and building campaign to truly change a church from within. As any who have read our material already know, the key to health, life and reproduction is in the DNA. If your church is already established and it obviously does not have a complete DNA is it possible to change? How do you change someone's DNA? Well, that is truly the realm of science fiction today...but so is the resurrection. With men these things are impossible, but with God all things are possible. This sort of change, however, is more than a church transition, it is a church transfusion. Healthy DNA must be released into the body to replicate, influence and even replace the unhealthy DNA from the inside out. The first part of this book examines what it takes to do this and presents several real examples of such churches that are each very different in their journeys to transfusion.

The second part of the book is about how to implement successful transfusion. Chapters cover practical subjects such as
  • Dying to live
  • The leadershift necessary
  • Detox from dependency issues 
  • Releasing and empowering people
  • The price a healthy church must be willing to pay
  • Healthy disciple-making
  • How to pilot change in a "skunk-works" type project
  • How to reproduce rather than simply clone
  • New ways of measuring success
  • How to equip people for influence in the world (not just the church). 
Like all our resources, this book will be chock full of real life stories and examples as well as the type of ideas that can only be forged in the flames of true experience. We will pull no punches. The book will tell the glory stories right next to the gory ones.

Church Transfusion should be released in 2012 from Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network.

Our first training opportunity will be Friday and Saturday, Sep 23-24, 2012 at Los Altos Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach CA. You can find detailed info and register for it here. There is still room available.

There will also be a half day workshop in Singapore Friday October 28th for those in S. Asia.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Many Churches Did the Apostle Paul Start?

Some have said that Paul only started 14 churches in his lifetime. If so that is a remarkable thing, but I tend to think there are more than 14.

I would assume that there are some churches started that were not necessarily mentioned as churches in the NT. For instance there is no mention of a church started in Athens, but there are households that began to follow Christ there, so we can assume that a church was born there. In Philippi there were two households that surrendered to the gospel (Lydia’s and the Jailer’s), so there could be two organic churches there. Some say that there is just one church in Philippi because Paul wrote a letter to them, but it is actually to the saints in Christ who are in Philippi. He wrote a letter to the churches of Galatia, how many of them is not mentioned. So numbering the churches Paul started is a challenge.

While he only started the Ephesian church in Asia, this one in turn started so many others that every person who lived in Asia heard the message of the Gospel. Does that count as only one church? How many churches were started in Cyprus on the first missionary journey? We know it is more than one. How many were left in Crete?

There are places we have no mention of a church but we know he was there preaching such as Illyricum (Rom. 15:9). Did Paul start churches while in Damascus? Well someone already did because he was on his way there to arrest them, so probably not. But when he went to Arabia he may have started churches. Some assume he was just on retreat listening to the Lord, but he was chased out by the officials, so we can assume he did some preaching (meditating on a rock is not usually that threatening to people).

Did he start churches while he was in Tarsus? Acts does mention churches in Syria (Acts 15:40-41) could it be that some of these started before he was sent from Antioch? Did Paul go to Spain? If so then perhaps he started churches there as well, but we do not know. He did go to Crete and started some churches and left Titus there to further establish the work.

He probably started close to 20 churches himself, with many more born out of those by his apprentice leaders. In Asia alone the NT mentions Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae, and Hieropolis. Ephesus was really a city full of churches meeting in homes and from that work all the others were started. So while starting upwards of 20 churches in one’s life is impressive, what is far more impressive is how many daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters were birthed from those. When Paul left earth in the end of his life he not only left some church plants, he left the DNA of a movement that would eventually spread to the extent that even the Roman Empire itself would surrender to Christianity (for better or worse). History was changed in dramatic fashion through this one man’s obedience.

I am discovering that simple obedience is a powerful thing in one's life. More powerful than spiritual gifts or personalities. Certainly more powerful than any program or strategy. In a day where we Christians are already educated beyond obedience, I find that what we need is not more education but simple obedience to what we already know. Follow Jesus today. Take one step at a time and leave the results and the destination up to the one you are following.

Every one reading this blog can also obey the same God as Paul and leave behind a lasting and vital work for the Lord of the harvest. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Lasting Lesson from a Notorious Atheist

Today I turned 51. Most of the major transitional boundaries of my own life occur the first year of a new decade and this year seems to be as much. As I am reflecting on my own life and the journeys it has taken I felt that a lesson learned from the man who tried to declare that God is dead was in order. The following is from the last chapter of my book Journeys to Significance which came out last Spring.
Eugene Peterson who gave us TheMessage, has a book curiously named after a quote by the famous atheist, Friedrich Nietzshe, who declared that God is dead. The name of the book is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. The quote, from Beyond Good and Evil says this: 
“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
I have fought the good fight,” Paul says, “I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). As I serve the Lord I am finding that there are fewer people than you would imagine who are able to say at the end of their life words like this. As I mentioned at the start of my book Journeys to Significance, “the only applause that really counts is at the finish line.”
My hope, prayer and passion is to remain faithfully obedient in the same direction and to finish well or die trying.

Pressing on,

Neil Cole

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Toys are Illegal, Shoes & Shirts Required...Pants are Optional?

San Francisco continues to astound me with their bizarre politics. They are not afraid to intrude with legislature even into the sacred relationship of parent and child. Last year they outlawed happy meal toys at McDonald's because a parent is not responsible enough to care for their child's diet so the government must step in. Now they are once again considering passing a law. This one says people that are nude in public must place a towel down before they place their naked butt down in public. Huh?

Yes, that is right, being completely nude in public is not something worthy of a law, just making sure that they don't put their naked cheeks on a public bench without a towel between. Does anyone else think this is a little absurd? Why does the city feel that it is fine to take toys from children but it's okay to expose children to their neighbors genitalia? How does a legislature get to the point where they make such extreme laws–on one side there is no freedom and on the other side too much? Can anyone seriously trust such a government?

In the LA Times article I read this morning they interviewed two guys smoking "medicinal" marijuana (perhaps they are nauseous because of the naked guy across the boardwalk). One said he doesn't go naked in public because he doesn't want to scare the horses...the horses! Yes, lets protect the horses.

"You'd think customers would have to have pants too!" says one citizen in response to a sign that reads: shirts and shoes required in a restaurant window.

In the legislature they have actually proposed that one could no longer go into a restaurant without clothing (or a Happy meal toy). I guess there are limits to even their excesses.

I have lived my whole life in California and I get a little frustrated as I travel around the country by the way people in the Midwest stereotype us Californians, so I'm a bit apprehensive about putting this out there where it can actually fuel such prejudice. But there it all its glory. Yuck.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mike Kim's Review of Oganic Leadership

I thought this nice review would be of interest to some of you. I can say that Mr. Kim was able to understand the heart of why I wrote the book. 

Neil, as a Church Planting Movements guy, has always been about simplicity and reproducibility. These values, to no surprise, come out here in Organic Leadership as well; but he uniquely directs them to the topic of Christian leadership. The result is a book unlike the run-of-the-mill, 10 steps book on leadership. He doesn't come across as a John Maxwell does where you feel like you have to buy more of his stuff or be like him or else fail. Nor does he come across as a typical Christian preacher talking about leadership with perfectly alliterated points that sound good but lack authenticity and personal stories of provenness in the real world. Instead, when you read Organic Leadership, it feels like he REALLY wants and needs you to be the leader God made you to be, so he'll tell you about the passing of his father-in-law, tell you about his "low point" of being a pastor AND a paper boy, and other things that a true spiritual parent would roll up his sleeves and tell you over breakfast. There is a different level of weight or authority that you will sense in this book, and I suspect it has to do with the fact that these are not just ideas, but the communication of a way of life learned over the years -- a way of life that he wants us to grasp for the times ahead.

The first section (120 some pages) is incredibly convicting and offers a prophetic critique of the way leadership is understood and practiced in the West. This is the underbrush that needs to be cleared away to go further in the organic leadership journey. We must get through this before we talk about tools and new paradigms. But be warned! Neil pulls the veil off the truth that most of us, leaders, have never contemplated: WE are part of the problem! Since many of us have never gone there before, I anticipate a feeling of discomfort during this section. Like me, you may have to stop reading at points in the book to pray, to repent or to contemplate further. Neil courageously asks us what most parishioners would never dare say to us. And for that reason, we need to listen all the more. Neil, coming from the organic point of view, asks new questions like: have you ever considered that the content, setting, frequency and manner of our "teaching" is actually having the opposite effect of what we want: stunting the church's growth?! Traditions like these go unquestioned in our evangelical cultures, but if they were indeed true, would we listen and change course? The whole section has a feel of a heavier and more radical version of J. Oswald Sanders' Spiritual Leadership where he asks such important questions like are you spiritually plateaued? are you acting more like Jesus or the Pharisees? But it's not coming from self-righteousnes or anger but out of a burden to see the world reached for Christ through leaders like us.

Once you get through these hard questions and topics, you will find an illuminating section on paradigms and perspectives that cause us to lead off center: like the unnecessary and unbiblical separation between secular and sacred or between clergy and laity. There is also a great section on starting leadership development with not-yet-Christian folks instead of with the usual more mature Christians we recruit. This part is worth paying attention to because it links leadership development to MISSION instead of to the shepherding of the local church where we develop or recruit existing leaders to our programs -- thereby creating no new leaders in the net cause! Neil humorously mentions that some of the best leaders of tomorrow are waking up with a hangover and in the wrong bed today! The playing field significantly widens without separating "evangelism" from leadership development; they become part of the same disciple-making activity. Sounds biblical, doesn't it?

After that is my favorite part, there is a fantastic section on mentoring. I think the price of the book is found here. It is filled with profundity and experience... and, again, elegant simplicity. I have "discipled" my share of people over the last 20 years, but never did I think to do it as he recommends -- with an eye towards obedience and multiplication over content. Neil gives advice like:

  • don't teach them anything new until they followed through on the last thing.
  • never teach a skill unless there is a felt need for it.
  • a skill is never learned until it is taught to another person

He simultaneously lowers the bar on mentoring while also raising it by taking us back to the way of Jesus and Paul. After reading this section, I immediately made changes in the way I was relating to a not-yet-Christian I am doing a Life Transformation Group with.

I also like the concluding section where Neil offers examples of new kinds of leaders in the movement who have given up traditional structures and roles for the sake of mission. Real life examples always help flesh out the multi-faceted look of what the author is describing and help open up our imagination to what the future holds for a new breed of leaders.

One final thing that I like about this book (and about Neil on the whole) is that he is not a mission deconstructionist who is just saying everything is broken. We don't need more of those! Neil Cole is very much a reconstructionist who is showing us a better way that 1.) he has lived out and seen reproduce internationally, and 2.) is actually rooted in Scripture. I think this is why he has been so readily embraced by people across the world as an ambassador of a more missional way. This reconstructionist orientation shows up in Organic Leadership quite often as he recommends [here it comes] simple and reproducible tools like the Seven Signs of Jesus from John's gospel, or Mentoring sheets that are profoundly simple, or Life Transformation Groups that are leaderless and multiply, or Truth Quest which teaches theology in community and with different points of view. Not a lot of Simple Church people are recommending alternative ways, but Neil is -- and churches across the world are multiplying as a result.

If you, like me, have long thought that something is off on the way that we "lead" in the church and long to know God's natural design for leadership that can truly transform the world, then I heartily recommend Organic Leadership for direction in this new way for a new time.

Monday, September 5, 2011

It's the Water that's Important...not the Pipes

As a home owner, pipes have taken a more significant place in my life. A broken pipe is bad news. It has occurred to me, however, that the reason pipes are so important to me is that water is important to me. In fact, we don’t really think much about pipes until they break, but we think about water every day.

I am coming to see that much of what we give attention to in church leadership these days are pipes. Most of the programs, principles and practices of church growth and mission are really just pipes–conduits of living water. Whether they be small groups or Sunday school; seeker services or traditional services, mega-church or micro-church–they are really just different pipes.

Ministry pipes are of great significance, for without them we would have no way of bringing the life-giving water to a thirsty world. Some pipes are better than others. Some are stronger, some are more resistant to corrosion, some have a greater capacity for increased volume, but all pipes basically serve the same function–channeling water. All our methods are basically for one function–getting God’s word into people’s lives. We may disagree on which pipes are better, but we must agree on the purpose of the pipes.

A bad pipe can be very damaging. When a particular pipe is leaking you need to patch it or replace it. A rusty pipe can even pollute its contents, and so can a method of ministry that begins to take on the authority and permanence of God’s word itself. The water can be clouded by the faulty pipes and can cause sickness. My friend Wolf Simson says, "Programs are what the church does when it no longer has the Holy Spirit." A pipe is really good or bad based upon whether or not it connects people directly to Jesus rather than some other person's expertise.

My problem is that I tend to see the pipes as an end in themselves. Our methods are often seen as the needed ingredient to bring success to our churches. However, pipes are never an end in themselves. Water is the main thing, the pipes are to facilitate the getting of water. What would be the point of pipes that never tap into a water source? Often we design a ministry system thinking that it is going to be the final ingredient to prosperity for our church, but pipes don’t satisfy thirst…water does. In the same way, we can’t see our great strategies and plans to be the solution to our ministry, only a channel for the solution. 

Someone once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” People need pipes because people need water. We can’t live for more than a few days without water, but people have lived lifetimes without pipes. The power is in the wine, not the wine skins.

For example, meeting in a home rather than a church building is not the solution for the western church. It may be the best conduit for the solution–the longest lasting, greatest volume and cleanest–but it is not the solution.
“If any man is thirsty,
let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the scripture said, From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.”
--John 7:37-38

If I were designing a new system of pipes, I would start at the water source. Is our method connected to the source of God’s blessing? If when you turn the valve on nothing comes out, there is a good chance that the pipes themselves are fine, they simply aren’t tapping into the water source. Are we guilty of believing in the pipes rather than in Jesus–the source?

There is a very critical relationship between pipes and water. With perfectly good water and bad pipes, the water is wasted and even damaging. Likewise, perfectly good pipes are useless without water.

When the plumbing system of your church is working properly thirst is quenched and souls are cleansed. What is fascinating about having good pipes is that they go unnoticed, and even unappreciated. When a thirsty soul comes to your door for a glass of water and you give him the clearest, coldest most refreshing glass of water he has ever downed, it is doubtful he will remark, “My what nice pipes you have!” One test of good pipes is that they go unnoticed.

In fact if your pipes are drawing attention to themselves chances are there is something wrong with them. Pipes are designed to go unnoticed, they are not the main thing but a channel for the main thing. Pipes are hidden under floor boards and behind drywall. They are best if they are forgotten, useful, but forgotten none the less.

Too many of us are investing ourselves on celebrating our new and shiny pipes instead of using the water they were meant to bring. We go to seminars on how to break the 200 gallon barrier, read books on joints and valves, or listen to tapes about the benefits of copper over lead. We even advertise our pipes (as though anyone would choose a house because it has pretty pipes). We often need a reminder that pipes, while of great importance, never satisfied our thirst or washed our hands, only God’s precious gift of water can do that.
“Everyone who drinks of this water (H2O) shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I (Jesus) shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
John 4:13-14

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Leadership Network Author Notes with Neil Cole

This is an interview posted on 8/11/2011 by Greg Ligon in the Learnings Blog of Leadership Network's Website.
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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learn from the Ant

ANTS!!! It seems that no matter what I do they become more. They are in the kitchen, the bathroom, the dining room, the living room, outside, inside, upstairs, downstairs…they’re omnipresent!

The Bible says that we should “Go to the ant, (Prov. 6:6)” but I don’t really have to–they keep coming to me! It seems to me that I have a lot more than just patience to learn from these little pests. 

Solomon tells us that we can learn a lot about hard work and diligence from the ant. This is true. I must have seen 10 billion ants in my life, but I have never seen one taking a coffee break (though I have seen them take coffee). I’ve never seen them throwing a Frisbee, watching a sitcom, or laying out getting a tan (though I once toasted a few with a magnifying glass). I suspect their life span reflects this workaholic attitude (and all that caffeine and sugar can’t be good for them)–but you got to admit they work hard and accomplish a lot. 

The ant is able to carry something ten times its weight, but nevertheless, “they are not a strong folk (Prov. 30:25).” It isn’t hard to beat an ant. One on one, I will always win! An ant is nothing. I have single-handedly swooped down, and, without mercy, wiped out an entire population of ants simply with a wave of a Black Flag. Pure, raw, power! For a moment, I feel omnipotent…until I take out the next day’s trash. In spite of my superior, high-tech, 20th century, rose-scented chemical warfare…their baaaacck! I may pay the rent, the bank may have the deed, but there is no mistaking the fact that the ants own the land! Scientists have even predicted that a nuclear holocaust big enough to destroy all mankind would not put an end to these insects. So don’t believe anything Raid tries to tell you. 

What is it that makes this huge little army so invincible? Are they smarter than us? No. Are they stronger than us? No. Do they have superior weapons? No. Do they have a more astute strategy than us? Well, maybe. They have a very simple (with the size of their brains it would have to be) yet unbeatable strategy. I see two things that make them invincible.

First, they multiply. “They prepare their food in the summer” (Prov. 30:25) and they multiply all year. For every two hundred I destroy, ten thousand are being hatched. 

Second, they cooperate. A single ant is nothing, but as a corporate, cooperating and communicating colony they are undefeated. 

We can learn a lot from the ant. If we cooperate we can accomplish more together than alone. If we multiply ourselves and our effort, we can also be undefeated. It seems to me this is God’s plan. We can each make a commitment this year to make one more reproducing disciple. Every pastor can have a Timothy. Each church can make plans to plant another church within the year. We can begin to prepare our missionaries now, in the nest, so that in the future we can unleash an army of disciples on an unsuspecting world. We can cooperate as a team, multiply our influence, and accomplish more together than we ever could as individuals. We too can infiltrate and influence this whole planet. If an ant can do it, why can’t we?
“Go to the ant…observe her ways and be wise.”
Proverbs 6:6