Monday, December 22, 2014

Trust Jesus To Speak and Lead

Last week I was in a room discussing established church structures and change. The meeting was in another state. These were good discussions that could result in some very revolutionary influence. I was the “purist” organic church leader in the meetings; at least that is how others described me.

At one point someone was drawing on the white board, designing a potentially hierarchical structure of leadership. Because I know the man and the context of our discussions, I was confident it wasn’t actually a hierarchy, but it was sounding a bit like it. I'm confident that anything that can be construed that way will be abused that way in a traditional church environment, so I mentioned that this cannot ever be a command and control structure. The reaction of the others was to be expected. They saw Neil Cole being the “Organic Purist” and resisting any semblance to a leadership structure. Who knows, maybe that is exactly what was happening and I have likely earned that reputation.

As we continued the discussion, they mentioned that some degree of oversight is necessary and that if we let it all go without any leadership it will fall apart. That is a common concern and often the reason (or excuse) people use to enforce some leadership oversight and accountability. My response is that it will not fall apart if a healthy DNA is intact and Jesus is indeed the one who is leading. The fear is that people will not be motivated to continue on without leaders holding them to it. There is also a fear that they will compromise truth if there is not some degree of leadership looking in on them to make sure that they don’t.

I said, as I often do, that we can in fact trust Jesus to lead. If the goal is a movement that spreads beyond driving distance to your church and beyond your eulogy we must trust that people with Jesus will carry it forward without us. I asked if it was at all possible for people to carry the life force of the church forward without someone looking over their shoulder?

Everyone smiled and obliged my rant and we went on. That was a fairly typical discussion for me. I understand that people are all in a process and I no longer expect everyone to have the same way of thinking immediately.

Later that evening something remarkable occurred. We all went out to dinner and went back to the host’s home for cake, coffee and conversation. He had two sons in their early twenties who joined us as well as one of their best friends. All three young men went to different universities and were part of different church ministries near their schools. Because of the holidays everyone was back together and enjoying this discussion with some “famous” Christian authors in comfy sofas around a fireplace.

As we were talking it became clear that all three of the young men were involved in Life Transformation Groups (LTGs) even though they were at different churches and universities. The boys had no idea that I had been the one who innovated the strategy many years ago. When they found out it was quite a surprise. I love it when that happens.

An LTG is a simple way of being and making disciples that needs no oversight or tracking. It is two or three people meeting weekly in a gender specific group. They commit to do three things together: read the same portion of Scripture repetitively during the week, confess sins to one another when they meet using some character conversation questions, and pray for the souls of friends that need to know Jesus. It is simple, non-hierarchical and establishes a healthy DNA in the smallest unit of life in the church. It is a group that doesn’t need a leader, because everyone is benefiting from the group and the accountability is mutual. Each disciple is responsible to hear God’s voice in the Scripture and to be vulnerable, authentic and transparent in relationship to one another and to keep the needs of hurting people around them foremost in their hearts and minds. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and still value it for my own spiritual life. I don’t do it to just make better disciples but to be a better disciple. [You can read more about LTGs in my book Cultivating a Life for God or Ordinary Hero).

You couldn’t have orchestrated a better way to demonstrate that we can trust the DNA and let Jesus lead in a movement that spreads far away from the source and yet maintains a pure DNA. These young men were far removed from the original source that created the LTG system, nevertheless it still held together and it still worked. They had no idea where it came from or who developed the idea, and didn’t need to know. The evening meeting had something to say to the one earlier in the day. 

The very man who sketched the potentially hierarchical diagram was the one who made the observation later that evening about the LTG and its author to the young men. I didn't need to connect the dots because the One who actually leads such meetings had already done so.

Is it feasible that we can trust Jesus to speak to us directly in his church? Can the Head be the director of the body? I believe it is not just possible but preferable. I have seen it work spreading many generations removed. I’ve even had people try to convince me that LTGs are great and that I should try it, with no clue that I originated the idea. I love that! It requires that we not get credit or have our own control of everything. It also requires that we not get rich in the process. But I believe the rewards of such a movement are far greater than fame or fortune.

I could never have been able to provide leadership and oversight so far removed, but Jesus is capable, and He has done it. Trust him. In fact, trust him more than you trust yourself. He will not disappoint you. 

Note: This blog post is dedicated to my friend and co-laborer Jim Rutz who recently went to be with our Lord. He was a pioneer in Open Church meetings and he will be missed.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Syrian Circle

"Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence."
—Martin Tupper

My friend and mentor, Carol Davis, has launched a new initiative to provide prayer for the crisis in Syria. Half the population has been forced out of their homeland.Her new initiative is called the Syrian Circle and is an opportunity to move the hand of God through prayer on behalf of millions of people.

Here are Carol's words about this urgent opportunity...

I am writing to you because you and I, together with believers from around the world, have an incredible opportunity to literally change the physical and spiritual future for millions this December. 

The Syrian Refugee situation is being called the greatest and most complex humanitarian emergency of our lifetime. Yet I talk with believers everyday that are unaware of the magnitude and significance of what is happening, with half of Syria’s population having fled their homes for safety.

A sustainable breakthrough for the Syrian people will not come through bombs or negotiations.  It will only come through a consistent, real, and focused movement of prayer.

I am reminded that prayer is the one absolute thing I can do to release the powerful hand of God into this situation.  God has heard the cry of these dads, moms and children for safety and hope – and in response he is calling us to prayGod is their hope.  Our prayers can shape Syria’s future.

Will you take action with me today? 

If so, please visit The Syrian Circle website.  Register to receive daily prayer points, beginning December 1 and be part of an intense, urgent and focused intercession, encircling the Syrian people in prayer for 31 days in December.

Why December -- our busiest month, celebrating our Lord’s birth in our churches and with family?  Because their situation is urgent!
I hope you will choose to join me. Even though it’s an inconvenient season, sacrifice a few moments each day to pray the way you would want to be prayed for if you were in a similar situation and see what God will do. 

Start circling with me in prayer for the Syrian people. Click here or visit 

Our prayer is Syria’s HOPE, 

Carol Davis

The month is still early. Get on board and be counted as one who made a difference in this urgent opportunity.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Engineering APEST Gifts Doesn't Usually Work

The CMA APEST team has learned from experience that the APEST gifts are organically formed, not engineered by mortal humans. We have tried, more than once, to recruit and slot people into assignments based on their perceived gifts. This has rarely worked well for us. Occasionally it did, but rarely.

Simply having strengths that others need does not form a team. Humility and love toward one another are the glue that binds us together as we pursue mission together. Gifts do not bind us together. I would rather have a team that loved each other and was willing to defer and submit to one another, even if we lacked the right gifts, than to have a team with all the right gifts but no unity.

Focusing on your strengths actually divides us because we can easily devalue the strengths of others. We have found that when you focus on your weaknesses you become stronger because you begin to value everyone else's gifts. Let everyone else notice your strength, while you value the strengths of everyone else.

Jesus gives us the gifts; we do not scout for them and recruit them to our team. We do not scout for and hire the gifts. We do not suggest holding a spot open and searching for someone with the gift to plug in. Start with relationships, not gifts. On our CMA team, we were friends first and discovered our gifts later. We have found this makes for a far better approach.

Rather than looking for people with all the right gifts, we suggest you look for the qualities of Christ that the gifts represent and allow them to take root and grow. The difference between this approach and most spiritual gifts discovery systems is that the focus remains on Christ and what He brings to the table, rather than on the attributes of individuals. As Christ works in and through us, we believe the gifts will naturally emerge.

This series of blog posts are from my latest book Primal Fire.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

How do I Discover my APEST Gift?, Part 3

Most of the methods available for determining spiritual gifts can easily turn into a self-focused search for personal identity and a special place in the church. Often they begin with the premise that we can simply decide what we want to do and identify gifts based on our personal preferences. Do you see the contradiction in that? Determining how we want to serve based on our own personal preferences? Do slaves typically choose their areas of service? As slaves to Christ, why would expect to choose our own gifts? The gifts are given to each one as the Spirit desires (1 Corinthians 12:11)

Approaching the APEST gifts based on our personal preferences starts us off on the wrong trajectory. And once the rocket has left the launch pad, it is nearly impossible to adjust our course to reach the right target. We must start with a right understanding of the gifts if we hope to see them develop as God intended.

The gifts are not determined by surveys or interviews or personal preferences. They are discovered through hard work, failure, practice, and God’s calling and verification through others. This may not be as simple as taking a test, but in the long run it is far better because it not only reveals our gifting, but develops our gifting as well, which is something a test can never do.

We believe that if you will simply focus on Jesus, love other people and serve them, the gifts will naturally come to the surface, and in time you and others will recognize them. The church is far better off when we just love Jesus and love one another, rather than worrying about how specially gifted we each and all might be.  If we focus on loving Jesus and one another, the gifts will manifest themselves. But as the Corinthians learned, if we pursue the gifts in the absence of love, we leave the most important thing behind. But if we pursue love, the gifts will come naturally.
Of course, we can have both.

This post is adapted from my book Primal Fire

Friday, October 31, 2014

How Do I discover My APEST Gift?, Part 2

Each of the gifts is motivated by an aspect of Christ’s character. This “image of Christ” is at the center of what drives the gifted person to do what he or she does. It is far better to focus on Christ and serving others than to delve into our own psyche in search of our own unique and special place.

The apostolic gift is rooted in the missio dei, the mission of God. The prophetic gift is rooted in the will of God. The evangelistic gift is rooted in the compassion of God. The pastoral gift is rooted in the oneness of the Triune God. The teaching gift is rooted in the knowledge of God. All of these aspects of God must be fully present and functioning for the church to be whole and healthy. The gifts are given so that we can all mature..."to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." In our experience, it is far better to focus on the qualities of Christ, rather than on the people and their gifts—because, ultimately, it is Christ that we want at the center of the church.

So, how do we discover what sort of vessel we are for the flow of God’s work? One of the struggles we have had over the years of serving Christ in the church is that the idea of spiritual gifts easily becomes egocentric. Of course, that is never the intent, but what happens is that we so easily turn our attention to ourselves. The problem is that the gifts were never given to us for introspection and a sense of personal importance. In fact, the gifts aren’t given to us but through us!

As we have pointed out, every passage in the New Testament that mentions spiritual gifts either starts or ends with love or puts love right in the middle of the discussion. This is not an accident. The gifts are not given to make us feel more special, but to make others more special in our sight. Paul says that we should not view our gifts as if they are something we deserve (1 Corinthians 4:6-8). He says, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” The very fact that we are given gifts exposes our complete inadequacy. Because we can’t find these good qualities inherent within us, we need a supernatural infusion of power and ability just to make us useful at all.

Most of the methods available for determining spiritual gifts can easily turn into a self-focused search for personal identity and a special place in the church. Often they begin with the premise that we can simply decide what we want to do and identify gifts based on our personal preferences. Do you see the contradiction in that? Determining how we want to serve based on our own personal preferences? Do slaves typically choose their areas of service? As slaves to Christ, why would expect to choose our own gifts? The gifts are given to each one as the Spirit desires (1 Corinthians 12:11)

Approaching the APEST gifts based on our personal preferences starts us off on the wrong trajectory. And once the rocket has left the launch pad, it is nearly impossible to adjust our course to reach the right target. We must start with a right understanding of the gifts if we hope to see them develop as God intended.

The gifts are not determined by surveys or interviews or personal preferences. They are discovered through hard work, failure, practice, and God’s calling and verification through others. This may not be as simple as taking a test, but in the long run it is far better because it not only reveals our gifting, but develops our gifting as well, which is something a test can never do.
This article is adapted form my book Primal Fire

How Do I Discover My APEST Gift?, Part 1

Some things in life are discovered more easily in hindsight than in foresight. That doesn’t mean that foresight is out of the question, or unhelpful. Nothing, however, is as certain as looking back over much of your life to see clearly what kind of conduit you are for God’s gift to work through.

Paul was able to become a mature expression of three of the roles of Ephesians 4:11: apostle, evangelist (herald) and teacher (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11). Yet even in Paul’s case, while he functioned as a teacher at times (Acts 13:1) and an evangelist at other times (Acts 9:19-22, 26-29), as he grew into his destiny it became clear that he was indeed an apostle above all other roles.

There are many factors that can confirm a calling associated with a gift in someone, and in Paul’s case we see five that are helpful:

  1. His calling was confirmed by God’s voice (Acts 26:12-18). Sometimes God grants to us a glimpse at our destiny even before we are far along. This is not universally true, but most people can discover some hints if they look closely at their life experience. Look for the fingerprints of God on the way you were formed from the beginning of your new life and you may find a pattern that speaks to a destiny. For some, however, God does speak up and reveal a chosen path before it even makes sense, and such was the case with Paul.
  2. His call was confirmed by his internal spiritual drive, which he could not ignore (1 Corinthians 9:16-18; Romans 15:14-29). There are some things about ourselves that we can deny, but others, which we cannot. For Paul, his desire to preach the gospel to places where it has not been heard was a driving passion he could not ignore. He felt like his unique calling was something that he had to steward. Most spiritual gift tests rely completely on preferences, and as we see here, that is part of the puzzle, but only a small part. In Paul’s case, calling it a preference is not enough; it was an internal compulsion that drove his whole life. In fact, you could say that he even had to surrender his own preferences to this stronger internal impulse.
  3. The church’s testimony confirmed his gift (Galatians 2:6-10). The leadership of the church confirmed publicly that Paul was indeed an apostle. This is based upon a proven track record that was obvious for all to witness. There is no substitute for the confirmation of the body that you should be doing the things that you are doing. Without this confirmation, you should be plagued with doubts about your calling. Not that you are driven by the opinions or prejudices of others, but that over the time you serve Jesus if the body is not better off in obvious ways, than you likely are not functioning in your sweet spot.
  4. The price that he paid for the sake of the role verifies his gift (Galatians 6:17; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33). When pressed to prove he was indeed an apostle, Paul pointed most to the price that he had paid to live out his apostolic calling. This is a confirmation that we should look for more often, because it not only verifies your calling, but the commitment level you have to that calling. Like many of these confirmations, it takes time and experience to verify them.
  5. The fruitfulness of his ministry confirms his gift (1 Corinthians 9:1-3; 2 Corinthians 3:1-3; 12:11-13). Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” There is nothing that substantiates a gift more completely than pointing out the fruit left behind as a result of your gifts and calling. If your energy and efforts are not producing any results then it is likely that you do not have that gift. If you can demonstrate that lives have been changed and ministries ignited by others because of your investment of time and abilities, then you likely have a gift in that area. This is one confirmation that no one can really argue with, but again, it takes time and experience to verify.
I would recommend you look for all five of the above to confirm what sort of conduit for God’s blessing to the body you are meant to fulfill. If you are younger, however, perhaps 3 out of 5 of the factors can at least send you in a reasonable direction. To be content with only two of the above factors may not be enough to claim any of the roles for yourself. The more confirmations you have the greater confidence you have in your gift and calling, and the greater confidence others can have as well.

There is nothing like serving others in the Body to discover our own unique calling. Even failure is a great instructor, but it tends to cost a bit more than the typical survey.
This is adapted from my book Primal Fire.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Shortcomings of Spiritual Gift Inventories

The discovery of spiritual gifts is a prolific subejct these days. While I believe we should pursue our gifts (and wrote a book about it), I do not believe spiritual gift tests are a good idea. I believe they tend to produce negative results that outweigh the positive. Here are six reasons why I do not like using gift inventories:

1. They peg people for life. We don’t need the “I don’t have that gift” excuse anymore.

2. They carry undue authority. A survey doesn’t tell us our gifts. The Holy Spirit working through the body of Christ does. The Spiritual enablements are given by the Holy Spirit, and the APEST gifts are given by Jesus, a gift inventory should have no say in the matter whatsoever.

3. They have an inherent bias that slants the questions and produces tainted results. Whoever develops the tests has a bias in some way and therefore the questions and the results reflect that bias.

4. They take the focus away from the collective body of Christ and place it on the individual. We are already prone to self-absorption; these tests encourage us to look in on ourselves and make spiritual gift discovery about fulfilling our own needs . . . the opposite of what the gifts are about.

5. They make gift discovery a matter of personal preference rather than true effectiveness. Most of these surveys identify what we prefer, rather than what we actually do. The spiritual life is not driven by personal preference; in fact it begins with dying to yourself and all your own preferences (Galatians 2:20).

6. They suggest that gift usage is a matter of job placement rather than Holy Spirit-led effectiveness. Churches that are already organized along hierarchical lines tend to define roles for the gifts that fit the system and limit creative expression. The APEST gifts are useful in many more ways than a typical church allows.

7. They reduce service to what takes place between the hours of 10 AM and Noon on Sunday mornings, and some gifts should not even be there.

This post is adapted from Primal Fire. In the next week or so I will be posting some excerpts from my book Primal Fire addressing gift discovery and usage.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Fire That Does Not Consume: From The Introduction to Primal Fire

I remember the bus ride home from San Pedro High School to our own Palisades High School in 1978. We had just beaten our cross-town rivals  in water polo on our way to another championship for the third year in a row. We were full of excitement and ready to celebrate our victory. 

Photo (from year book) by teammate Bob Baker

From twenty or so miles away, we saw smoke rising on the hills in the direction of our hometown, but we didn’t think much of it . . . until we got closer. Pulling into the school lot we witnessed a long line (ten miles) of fire descending from the ridge above our neighborhood. All celebration ceased.

I grew up in the canyons of Southern California, where each fall the winds shift from the cool, moist Pacific Ocean to blow in from the hot, scorched deserts to the east. These “Santa Ana winds” come after the warm, dry summer months have killed all the underbrush in the canyons, leaving plenty of dead, dry grass. Any fire up in the hills will soon be raging out of control—and often several fires at once.

What makes these wildfires so challenging is the “perfect storm” of conditions. The dry chaparral makes excellent kindling, and the steep hillsides of the many canyons form wind channels that accelerate the already fierce gusts exploding off the desert. The narrow stretches of the canyons also bring acres of tinder that much closer to the ravenous reach of the flames that skip from ridge to ridge as if dancing in the glowing inferno. The fire spreads rapidly, whipped by the strong winds, with no regard for whatever lies in its path. The sight is wondrous and devastating at the same time.

It’s strange that we can know why these fires happen, where the vulnerabilities lie, and even when they will start, and yet we’re powerless to stop them. There is a force of nature that simply laughs at our vain attempts to control its fickle fury.

Photo of 1978 fire taken from Venice by Jeffery Stanton
As a young man, my father fought to save his home from the Malibu fire of 1956. Though Dad was not a small man—standing 6’3” with a trim, athletic build from years of swimming and surfing—he nevertheless felt small and weak as the flames roared above his head on their way toward his house. The intense heat and deafening roar left a scar on his soul he would not soon forget. It was as if the flames were taunting his seemingly futile efforts to stop them. During the Mandeville Canyon fire, in 1978, I remember standing side by side with my dad, hosing down the roof of our house instead of celebrating my water polo victory. Our home barely escaped the destruction.

After the fire was out, I went for a hike through the hills above our neighborhood and felt like I was in another world. For miles in every direction, all I could see was scorched, black earth, with the charcoal skeletons of dead trees reaching up in petrified agony. Not a single green leaf, blade of grass, or smallest of insect could be found. And not a solitary bird ventured over this wasteland. It was like being on the moon.

In 2008, after battling canyon fires for more than fifty years, my father lost his home, his lifetime of artwork, and most of his pets in the Sylmar fire. The flames that had taunted him as a young man, and haunted him throughout his adult life, had returned to claim their final victory. My dad passed away in 2011 at the age of 81. His drawings and paintings of fire are some of his most memorable work. all fires are destructive, of course. Fire is also a gift to humanity—for warmth, illumination, nourishment, energy, purification, and the forging of tools that make human culture possible. In the Bible, fire often symbolizes the holy presence of God. It is this latter fire—the primal fire of God—that we will consider throughout this book.

For some, the word primal may conjure up images of unshaven men in loincloths gathered around a bonfire, beating drums. But primal simply means “original” or “first in importance.” When applied to the fire of God, it speaks of a fire older than time itself, yet always fresh; an eternal flame that is both ancient and immediate. The primal fire of God flares up throughout the Bible, often bringing with it dramatic, world-altering changes.

The first time God appears to Abraham, it is as a smoking firepot and a flaming torch. (Genesis 15:17). It is the same fire that later appears to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), descends on Mount Sinai after the Exodus (Exodus 19:18), and settles on the heads of the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). And on the eventual judgment day, it is the primal fire that will burn away all the chaff, leaving only what is pure and valuable enough to be in God’s presence (1 Corinthians 3:13).

Although the Bible describes God as “a consuming fire” in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Hebrews, there are several remarkable occasions when the fire burns but does not destroy what it rests upon. Whether it is the bush that Moses encountered in the desert; the flames that tested Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Babylonian furnace; the hot coal applied to the unclean lips of the prophet Isaiah; or the tongues of fire and rushing wind that descended on the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, the fire of God brought healing rather than destruction, freedom instead of bondage, and illumination, purification, and divine revelation that were desperately needed.  

Of course, if we step outside the will of God, all bets are off. Let us not forget that the same flames that warmed the feet of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego consumed the men who had tossed them into the furnace. The fire that fell from heaven on Mount Carmel destroyed the prophets of Baal but left Elijah unharmed. And I doubt that anyone wants an up-close encounter with the flaming sword the angel wields to protect the Garden of Eden.

So, the fire of God is at once terrifying and beautiful; all-consuming and yet restorative; deserving of our love and our reverent fear. What seems to make the difference—and this will be important when we get to the topic of the lost gifts of Jesus—is that we remain within God’s purpose as He applies the fire to vessels that are both set apart and willing to be used.

To be clear, it’s not that the receptacles God chooses must somehow make themselves worthy. It wasn’t the bush that made the Moses encounter so special. When you think about it, any old shrub would have sufficed. No, it’s always the fire that is special, and we must not lose sight of that.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three young Hebrew lads living in exile. The prophet Isaiah confessed his own unworthiness and was mortified by his “unclean lips.” The disciples waiting in the upper room were the same guys who, just weeks before, had been arguing about who among them was the greatest, then hiding in fear from the authorities. But what these otherwise flawed and ordinary people all had in common was that they were available and willing to be used by God.

Such is the kindling that can catch fire if the spark is ignited. When the wind of the Holy Spirit blows, the flame will spread. But first we must recognize and acknowledge that the primal fire of God is still with us today—that the fire that Moses encountered and that came upon the first disciples is available to us all. The flame that was in the burning bush was the presence of Christ, just as the flame that fell on the disciples at Pentecost was the presence of Christ’s Spirit. The same person whom Nebuchadnezzar saw standing amid the flames with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is with us now and wants to energize us with the flames of His primal fire. Let him cleanse our unclean lips and replace our own words with a holy message: “Here am I, send me.”
This is an excerpt from the Introduction to my book Primal Fire.

Friday, May 16, 2014

What You Can Expect From A Book By Neil Cole, Part 2: The Positive Remarks

I am blogging about the consistent themes and questions that emerge from those who have read my books over the years. I'm not doing this as a defense or to bolster my self-esteem, but simply to let you in on some of the philosophy behind why I do what I do the way I do it.

In the last post I looked at the negative remarks that typically are raised. They do not bother me. I've been a published author for almost 20 years now, trust me, I can handle criticism...I actually like learning from it and hope I am becoming a better writer as years go by because of it.

In this post I want to highlight some of the positive observations that consistently emerge. Now, I didn't do the last post so that people feel sorry for me and stroke my fragile ego, and I am not doing this one to boast. These articles are strictly to lift up the hood and let you see what is going on inside my writing process a bit.

"Cole is not some ivory tower theoretician. He is a practitioner." Strangely enough, the actual words "not an ivory tower theoretician" come up a lot when people remark about my books. Weird huh? I made a commitment a long time ago that I would not publish something that I didn't prove to work out in my own life first. In fact, I go further than that. It needs to have worked in other people's lives for a few generations before we publish it. I distinctly remember reading a specific book about cell-based church model that was drawn from the expertise of leaders in another nation and culture. It was not the experience of the author and was never proven to work in a US context. While the book was enjoyable to read, and sounded great, it was not doable in a Western postmoden world. I decided, then that I would first do the work and then write on it after I had the chance of proving the ideas. I have held that core value ever since.

This value causes a few things to be evident in my writing:

1. It takes longer to write. I have often had sound ideas and known that I needed to write "that book" but couldn't for many years. Journeys to Significance took 15 years to write so that it had substance behind its theories. Primal Fire was attempted twice with other co-authors before it eventually was published. Frankly it is a better book because of the extra time. Sometimes this means my book is not the first to hit the market on a subject, which is admittedly the downside to this core value.

2. The content is better. There is no substitute for trial by error. Something that is a good idea on paper may not work in real life, but you can't even know this until you put the ideas to work in real life. Unfortunately many books are built on ideas that have never been proven. Because I only write on things that we have actually done, and proven to work, the content has more depth and a sense of reality to it. There are also examples and stories to make the writing more human.

The insights that emerge from experience cannot be manufactured in a study or by reading books. For example, many books describe movements from an outside perspective listing characteristics viewed about them. Church 3.0 however asks questions and puts forward content you can only discover having been in the midst of a real movement. Until you are doing the actual foot to ground work, you don't even know what the right questions are. You learn what is truly important and, perhaps more significantly, what is not, when you actually do the work on the ground with real flawed human beings.

3. The content is practical and proven, and not bound to only one culture. We actually value seeing our ideas work in more than one context before we publish, so the books also translate well into other languages and cultures. Recently a highly respected thought leader, when comparing the genre of missional church books available, mentioned that mine are more cross cultural than most of the others. That is high praise indeed, and not an accident. 

We test ideas in other cultures around the world before we publish them. For us, if what we do works in California, but not in Calcutta than we go back to the drawing board. For every good idea we publish there are ten that didn't work out. We've had a "shelf of shame" that holds the products that we have developed over the years that do not multiply, or work in other cultures and languages. They collect dust and nothing more.

When we have a product that has a restricted cultural application, we will say so in the publication. TruthQuest, our theological learning system, is like that. It only works in literate cultures with theological textbooks available in that nation, but it works incredibly well in those places. We say upfront that this product has limited usage around the world, but we still produce it because there are enough people groups that can still benefit from it. We also have adaptations to some tools so that they work in oral societies and among people who are unable to read.

"Where others are philosophical, Cole's work is very biblical." It is true that the word "biblical" gets thrown around too often to verify one's ideas with Scriptural authority. I hope I am not doing that. But honestly, I think the Bible is the only real authority to change lives and so I want it to speak for itself. I also find that most of the real good ideas can be discovered in the Bible if you look at it with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I once had a rather conservative Bible teacher (who viewed me as "liberal" if you want the right context) say to me privately: "I'll never admit it publicly, and will probably deny it if you ask me later, but I think you are more of a biblicist than I am." This was one of the best complements I have ever received.

My strange little anabaptist/reformed/dispensational denomination (is it possible to be all of these? Probably not, just look at our denomination...if you can find us) did one thing for me, it planted the love of Scripture in me, and for that I am grateful. I remember when I was heading off to seminary a mentor of mine, Randy Creswell, said, "If you spent the same amount of time that you will give to seminary (class time and homework), in simply reading the bible over and over you will probably learn more and save a lot of money." I didn't listen and spent a lot of money and went to seminary. I do not regret it. After I graduated, however, I realized I spent 5 years studying about the Bible and little of that time actually studying the Bible itself. With my mentors words in mind, I then devoted the rest of my life to just studying the Bible itself. I have made it my habit to read 20 to 30 chapters of Bible reading weekly, reading entire books in context and repetitively and that has set my whole life on a certain trajectory, and I believe it comes out in my writing.

"Cole's books look at common ideas with fresh eyes and reveal things we have all missed." This is a passion of mine. I was raised by an artist and received my degree in art as well. I still think of myself as an artist.

For me there is a difference between an artist and a craftsman. A craftsman has a skill to produce or reproduce something. A painter who paints something that looks exactly like a photograph is exhibiting a craftsman's talent. But the photographer who took the picture––who saw the composition, colors and beauty––is the artist. I think imagination and creativity is the difference between a craftsman and an artist (the best artists are both).

I look at life through the eyes of an artist. I do not just want to reproduce what is obvious, I want to see what is not obvious and then bring that to light. I feel that we have been created to create. God delights in His image within us. So while I respect the intelligence of those who have gone before me, I am not content to simply accept their thinking, I want to look beyond that. I want to view things from a new perspective. In my opinion, if my thoughts are not fresh they are not worth publishing. I have stopped writing a book simply because someone else published a good book on the subject and said what I would have said.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What You Can Expect From A Book By Neil Cole, Part One: The Negative Criticisms

I often get the same questions and comments on my books, both positive and negative. There are reasons for this. In these next blog posts I want to explain why my books tend to draw similar critiques and reviews. Let me start with the negatives:

"Cole's books always say the same thing." Honestly, you'll find repetition in my books, though I wouldn't write a book unless it had something unique to say. Why the repetition? Its simple, I have to assume that the person who is reading a book has never read any of my other books. With that assumption comes the need to explain some of the important information that other books contain. I try to state it in a different way related to theme of each book.

I want every book to be able to stand alone if need be, but also contribute to the growing message of our movement. Some things you will find in every one of my books, such as what I believe to be the DNA of Christ's body. Its important enough that it bears repeating. Jesus and Paul repeated themselves often, so I'm not ashamed of it. Each book has fresh material on an important subject, so if you read all my books you will find each one has something unique to say. That said, if you start reading a new book and early on find that you are experiencing a little déjà vu don't give up on the book. Feel free to skim over those parts until you get to the new material. Often the repetition is found early in a book because I am building on those previous thoughts. Let me say up front that this will not change, it is necessary for the movement we are trying to ignite.

Now there are two books with similar content but they were written with different audiences in mind: Cultivating a Life for God (written for pastors and missionaries) and Search & Rescue/Ordinary Hero (written for someone unengaged, sitting in the pews...bored with Christianity). In this case I do not recommend that you read both, one is sufficient. The latter was written a decade after the former so it is more updated, but is a longer book because of it.

NOTE: Ordinary Hero and Search & Rescue are the same book! The publisher re-released it as a paperback with a new title. Do not buy the same book twice! [You heard it from me]  If you read both of them and think I am repeating myself, well then, guilty as charged. Other than the title, the books are completely identical. It is ironic that something as simple as a Life Transformation Group (LTG) has three book titles released to explain it. Yikes!

"Cole's writing is too popular for a serious academic student or scholar." I usually take this type of critique as a complement. It actually means I am doing my job right. I have a calling to empower ordinary people to do the extraordinary work of representing Christ's kingdom in this world. In my view, my primary audience is the common person, which is where movements are ignited and carried. You'll not find a good movement that started in the hallowed halls of academia. Even an idea discovered in those halls didn't launch into a movement until it left the academic world and communicated into the common language of the day. That doesn't mean that I do not do my homework. My writing style will include stories and practical ideas because I am wanting to communicate with people who are not inclined to read academic work.

Simple is not simplistic. I believe that simplicity is actually a step beyond complexity. To truly understand something well you should be able to communicate it simply. If you are unable to say it in a simple and understandable way, then you likely do not fully understand it yet. That is how I see the learning and creation process and I view all my writing, speaking and ministry development with that core value. Others may say things with greater complexity, but that does not mean they are smarter or know the subject better. Just because the water is muddy doesn't mean its deep. Likewise, just because the water is clear enough to see the bottom doesn't mean the pool is shallow.
"The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologians to swim in without ever touching the bottom." ~Jerome
There are a few books in which I have attempted to address both types of audiences (deep thinker and common "Jane/Joe" Christian), which is a challenge but not impossible. Church 3.0, Journeys to Significance, Church Transfusion and Primal Fire all need to communicate ideas to both thought leaders as well as ordinary church goers. Those books will have more notes and research behind them. You will need to visit the back of the book more often to discover the depth of thinking behind the content found in those books if you are a thought leader. Even in those, I will still communicate complex ideas with simple stories and analogies and try to explain things so that it empowers the regular Christian. Other books I've written almost exclusively with the common Christian in mind, such as Search & Rescue (re-released in paperback as Ordinary Hero) or Organic Church. Those books will tell lots of stories and have memorable sayings throughout that summarize important ideas so that the workers carry the movement forward.

"Cole's hermenuetic is sometimes questionable." "Hermeneutic" is a ten dollar theological word that really means one's method of interpreting the bible. I usually get this critique when I am saying something from the Scriptures that doesn't match what people have already been taught (or more likely, they've already taught to people). In other words, I disagree with their teaching so they question my interpretation. I get it. It isn't so much that they have actually checked my interpretation against the Scriptures. Granted, I am often proposing radical new ways of viewing an old text, that's part of my calling. If what I am saying is a new theoretical view of a passage in Scripture and not the only way of seeing it, I will communicate the idea in a more suggestive tone as a potential option and will be much less dogmatic.

I actually view my role as someone who should make you think for yourself, not just tell you what to think, so I will often present alternate options. That said, just because an interpretation is unique does not make it wrong or faulty. There are many things passed down through the ages and given to us through the filter of our experience. When the lenses of tradition are removed we see the biblical texts in new light. There is always more to learn and discover. Don't let the geniuses of previous generations do all the thinking for us. They would want you to learn beyond their teaching.