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Rob Thomas On Leadership

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1242074935.50407.redrocks2Friedman told us years ago that the World is Flat. Having been overseas 10 of the last 15 years, I have repeatedly been made aware that this global flattening is being expressed in its totality in a city near you. This is true both in the U.S. as well as in urban centers throughout Europe. At its most basic and observable level, there are people from a host of countries with a palette of colors and a symphonic cacophony of languages making a global urban move. As an example, just yesterday I got my hair cut by a Moroccan lady while a Chinese lady waited for the next customer. After this I grabbed a sandwich at Subway where an Arab woman and African-American young man were making the sandwiches. Other stops for the day included Target, Best Buy, and the airport…lots more nations represented.

So what does your city look like? What does your church staff/leadership look like? What do your disciples look like?

Rob Thomas’ band included 3 caucasians (including Rob), 4 African-Americans, and a hispanic guitarist. Each thoroughly and uniquely gifted. Together, they form one tight band…and look like a slice of America.

Categories : church, leadership, trends
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Spiritual SAT Scores?

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iStock_000005776090XSmallA few weeks ago my wife and I were visiting a weekly Bible study group for the first time. Everyone was kind and welcoming of us and the lost friends accompanying us. The teacher was both humble and prepared. The group responded to a ministry opportunity that was presented. And then it happened….

One regular in the group shared that she had brought a friend of hers to the group several weeks ago. This friend, she relayed, was someone that she had been praying would come to Christ for a long time. So excited to have her coming for the first time, the group participant conveyed that she could barely wait to find out what her friend thought. In the debrief between friends, the visitor shared that she did not feel that she could be a part of the group because she did not know enough about the Bible. She was convinced, probably accurately, that the other participants knew so much more about their Bibles. Sadly, she has not been with the group again, nor does it seem that she plans to do so.

Challenged with a charge of being too heady in the disciple-making process, the group shared their surprise and disbelief for maybe a full 60 seconds. Then it was back to trying to mine truths out of the passage being studied that day.

This seems to be in stark contrast with the gospel narratives. “Come and see” is an invitation to encounter the Savior. I can only think of one time where Jesus questions how much the disciples know–though this examination is more a challenge to their beliefs rather than their academic acumen. “Who do men say that I am…Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:13-20) Even at this point, Jesus provides grace in deficiency. Just before Jesus returns to heaven, we read that “they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt. 28:17). In response, Jesus commissions them to make disciples as they go. He does not mention or encourage academic emphasis or testing. Jesus’ instructions are to teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. Sounds like it could be turning academic, maybe. Perhaps this would be a good time to review how Jesus teaches, or better yet how he models, obedience to his disciples.

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Seeking Context

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  1. “Days went by, and I couldn’t seem to get over it. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t cry. I was all empty inside, but hurting. Hurting worse than I’d ever hurt in my life. Hurting with a sickness there didn’t seem to be any cure for.”
  2. “This is Saint Peter. The rock on which Jesus built His Church.”
  3. “We learn best in community. Our minds are sharpened and our consciences are deepened through conversation.”

iStock_000002303606XSmallBefore you read further in this blog post, let me challenge you to take time to consider each of the three quotes above. Each is from a different, well-known book that you very possibly have read. Answer these two questions: 1) What book is it from? and 2) What is the story that surrounds this excerpt?

The answers are coming, but what if we didn’t have the answers? What if this is all there was for us to read from these three works? These famous books would have been nothing but a Tweet. Our effort in seeking to understand them would have boiled down to seconds instead of the hours we invested in learning these writings.

A holistic approach to presenting / studying Scripture is more than helpful when discipling pre-believers or young believers (while the same is true for mature believers, this is another discussion for another day). Examination of a single verse or passage, word studies, and topical teachings all have a time and place. Deserving, in my opinion, of an even loftier and more constant place in the discipleship process is Bible study that is in its full context.

To understand that Jesus could die on the cross, it is helpful to have examined Jesus’ humanity in John 1 and Philippians 2. All gospel accounts of the birth of Christ as the Son of God are helpful when considering the resurrection. Understanding the need for the Savior is greatly facilitated by studying Genesis through Deuteronomy as well as the history chronicles of the Jewish people and the books of prophecy. The Old Testament books combined with Hebrews, etc. prove helpful again when seeking to gain insight on the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ as outlined in the gospels. And so on and so forth.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.                           John 3:16

As a stand-alone, John 3:16 is powerful. In context with verse 17, the love of God becomes clearer still for the reader as we learn why Jesus did and did not come into the world. Put into the context of the story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John, we understand better the heart of Christ. When adding John 19:38-42 for consideration, the reader sees yet a fuller understanding of the transformational power of the gospel and the deity of Christ. Placed into context of the whole of the gospel of John, the disciple gains tremendous insight into the unity and constancy of purpose of the triune God. Still greater understanding comes when John 3:16 is examined as a part of the New Testament and then of the whole Bible.

Whether discipling, teaching or preaching, examination of context is at least important. We would all do well to examine our methods and effectiveness as accountability for those that teach the Word of God requires us to do it well. The Great Commission Jesus entrusted to us holds disciple-making as the measuring line for efficacy.

As for the above quotes, the first comes from the last chapter in the children’s classic Old Yeller. The second is from chapter 58 of The DaVinci Code. And the last quote is from Day 39 of The Purpose Driven Life. How did you do? Does knowing the context make the quote more meaningful?


Diapers and Missions

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iStock_000002517780XSmallI’ll readily confess that “Diapers and Missions” was not the original title of this post, but that title just takes the…(on to missions). This week I have had the privilege of meeting a number of church leaders in the Nashville area and beyond while working with The Upstream Collective founders. Each of these encounters have helped me get a little better understanding of the shifts that are underway at present in U.S. church and the actual or possible implications. All of the churches and leaders that we had the privilege of meeting were serious about being missional in the local and/or overseas contexts. Some things that were quite encouraging for me include:

  • The community that Michael Carpenter is cultivating along with a number of other key people at Matthew’s Table, a church in Lebanon, TN. There are so many great stories here including one couple, Dwayne and Megan, that were recently married in the coffee house which also is where the church meets on Sundays and throughout the week. Lots of challenging and exciting things are happening in their lives right now like a lost job in the former category and, in the latter category, a sweet baby girl; a new business selling cloth diapers to feed a family and, Lord-willing, to provide future overseas mission funds and flexibility; a new part-time job at Java Joe’s for Megan; and awaiting baptism in a couple weeks for Dwayne. This family is just one of the stories of how God is showing his saving grace in this missional church plant.
  • Meeting Gary Morgan and learning about Mosaic in Nashville–a church that is seeking to be sent missionally to the urbanites in the heart of the city. Like Matthew’s Table–the daughter church of Mosaic–they are living out throughout the week a level of honest discipleship that is guiding both believers and pre-believers to better understand and live what it means to follow Christ. He also shared with me about another church in the area, Christ Presbyterian Church, which is impacting the urban center through an arts school–Salama.  It is my understanding that a number of families involved with the church moved from the suburbs into the urban / inner-city areas of Nashville in order to live incarnationally. That is cross-cultural missions in such a healthy way.
  • The guys at The Journey Church are impacting lives in the Lebanon and Mt. Juliet areas while also sharing their facilities to advance the Kingdom of God for the glory of God. Running multiple sites, they are allowing Matthew’s Table to set up a coffee shop with an effort to have a church that can engage another cross-section of the population at the adjacent university. Simultaneously, they are exploring partnership opportunities in a couple different parts of the world. That’s cool. That’s missional. That’s encouraging!
  • LifePoint Church in Smyrna is stepping-up to pioneer some new ground in having the church serve as missionary. Prepping two teams of multiple families from LifePoint to go and live in Bangkok and Belgium, the church is sending from the church body to plant churches overseas. More on this in the future, but this is advancing the development or the evolution of missions significantly. Press on PatKyleTim, and so many others. Continue on course as the sending church.

The sizes of the above churches are different. The personalities involved are all over the map. The peoples they are working with both in the U.S. and overseas vary, but through all of this Christ is exalted. I look forward to seeing some of what God will do through His church as it is expressed in so many ways in central Tennessee and to the nations. We read the words of Christ: “I came to seek and to save that which was lost.” As His people and as His church, may we always be about His mission.

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In the last post I expounded on five pitfalls that preclude effectiveness even after the requisite 10,000 hours have been invested. Here are six takeaways that we can benefit from in missions. (Obviously seven would be more spiritual, but….) Once again, much of this will apply to missional communities and living as well as church planting.

Start – Get experience. If it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain some level of mastery, then starting in mission activity today is acceptable if you did not do so yesterday or last week. The clock is ticking, or rather it should be ticking. Practical ways for doing this in a cross-cultural setting include language acquisition, reading literature and history from your people group, and networking with people from the people group either with pockets of people around where you live and/or electronically via Craigslist, Twitter, FaceBook, blogs, etc.

Speed up – One very practical way to gain experience much faster is to learn from others. Personally, I have experienced failure a number of times in different mission attempts. However, there are so many things that I did not have to experience through my own personal failure because others had already put in the time and energy to fail ahead of me. Learning from them saved me time, energy, and resources (including the emotional investment). Thank God for these people and their willingness to be transparent!

Evaluate regularly – According to Socrates, the great philosopher of yesteryear, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To restate Mr. Socrates as a missiologist, one might conclude that the unexamined missional endeavor is not worth doing. An experienced coach will prove invaluable at this point. This person must balance an adequate cultural examination and the merit of a strategy based on a number of criteria while allowing for what the Spirit is directing to be done in a particular situation. (Remember that Jesus did at times direct for the nets to be thrown back out where there had been no success for hours…to a great result.) At times a coach may be able to identify strategies that are uncertain that will end in either success or a reasonably small failure. However, where a coach can see that the outcome based on the present course will end up far off base, then redesigning the missional endeavor to promote alignment between the time invested and the desired outcomes will prove invaluable.

Recalibrate expectations – No one plans to take on a huge venture for the purpose of failing. To do so would be ridiculous and a guaranteed waste of all resources. Almost as foolhardy would be expecting immediate, overwhelming success. Though no one is likely to complain if it does occur, when a person makes the impossible their expectation, discouragement is likely to set in early in the process. Returning to the 10,000 hour rule, it will be helpful to remember that the violinist with 4,000 hours did not perform as well as the one with 8,000 hours experience, who did not perform as well as the one with 10,000 hours of experience. There is a variable parabolic effect where the time continuum moves at a constant while the effectiveness grows from imperceptible to having significant jumps in growth. It will be helpful for the missionary, missional community, et al to recalibrate expectations of what is normal while praying for God to bless in even greater ways.

See it through – Don’t stop in the process at 2,000 hours of experience. Be faithful to the process and see what the Lord will do as you near the 10,000 hour quota.

Take it with you – Look for areas of crossover where experience can be transferred to new situations, missional pursuits, etc. Language, cultural understanding, one’s ability to dissect what is important in a culture, contacts and relationships, lessons in contextualization, cross-cultural survival skills, missions and/or church planting life practicum, leadership, working with people, etc. may be areas that will benefit you in other contexts. Do rigorous evaluations personally. Also, consider pursuing input from trusted others about your experience which may indicate transferable skills or learning to embrace.

Categories : leadership, missiology
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With a strong correlation between mission results and fulfillment of the 10,000 hour rule, the reality begs the question, “Why does the correlation not hold true in all cases?”  Five reasons are given in the previous post. Unpacking each a little may prove helpful. Throughout the following, it relates to a cross-cultural mission context. Additionally, all of this also relates to missional communities in the U.S. or other settings.

Moral (spiritual) failure – moral failure is commonly understood as someone being disqualified for sexual or lifestyle behaviors that are inconsistent with a mission organization’s interpretation of Scripture. Combined with this, there are times when people are choked out by the cares of this world, the difficulties of their context, etc. An event or just a stretch of time in a different context causes some to rethink their beliefs. This area covers a vast range of issues, all of which are real. This category entombs too many making them leave a mission field literally or figuratively. The individual who has put in their 10,000 hours but is struggling in this area will be unlikely to see meaningful results.

Living out or seeking to promote an ethnocentric worldview – when the bearer of the good news views the place and/or time where they came from as intrinsically better than the place and/or time where they land there are difficulties ahead. The ideal disciples and churches for the ethnocentric M will look like the place and/or time that is utterly foreign to their new context. This will limit result potential even after passing the normal time prescribed for a level of mastery.

Not investing in nationals – this category fits in many ways with the previous item in that it stems from an ethnocentric perspective. In a foreign missionary context where there are other foreign missionaries, it can be a struggle to not place primary emphasis or more on relating to other missionaries. Chances are, however, that these missionaries are already disciples of Christ. It seems to me that there are limited returns in discipling the discipled. Another challenge in this area can be relating primarily to expats that are on assignment with an embassy, international non-profit, or work assignment. A third challenge in this area includes working with nationals that are not the peoples to which one is seeking to minister. If an individual’s goal is to impact Swedes living in Stockholm, it may not be a success to have a Bible study with a Cambodian guy and Chinese lady. The person / missional community praying and working for success as they pursue their 10,000 hour level of proficiency will be honest in their evaluations and objectives or minimize their potential level of mastery that comes with experience.

Not pursuing relationships with either non-believers or with nationals that are heavily involved in the lives of non-believers – this happens too often in supposed missional endeavors. Most readers that have been involved in the evangelical church for some time have probably been in a situation before where the informal question is asked how many non-believing friends each member has. It is too easy for us to get so involved in the church that we don’t have time for those that Christ came to plant the church in the first place. So the next jump is that if we are not going to work with lost people at least we will work with believers that are going to work with lost people. (I think there are some challenges with this line of thinking, but that’s not the purpose of today’s post.) If we are going to pursue this path, then integrity requires that we do due diligence to find that the disciples we are discipling are reaching the lost. If not, a 10,000 hour investment will not have a meaningful impact on that individual’s / missional community’s level of proficiency or mastery of being missional.

Placing emphasis on supervisory responsibilities – reaching the 10,000 hours of proficiency in supervising missional endeavors is well and fine, but it is not a guarantee that the same level of mastery has been reached at doing missional activities. Ideally supervisors will have done mission in the same context in which they are supervising. However, when this is not the case, it will be helpful for the supervisor to be an encourager that is mindful and honest about his or her limitations.

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An Experiential Outlier (part 1)

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iStock_000006875088XSmallIn Outliers, Gladwell writes that “researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” That is 10,000 hours of practice to get at some mastery level of proficiency. The author continues to share that this roughly breaks down to 10 years of experience. Some of his examples as well as simple calculations demonstrate that the experiential quota is viable in 5 to 6 years.

When considering missions, the 10,000 hour rule makes a lot of sense. Working in a cross-cultural context begins slow most of the time. The first year or years are usually spent in language and cultural acquisition. Being a student of language and culture is not over at that time, but it is well-advanced. Then more mission learning and experience are logged through a series of trials that are often associated with failure. Throughout all of this process relationships are being formed, history and trust are being built. Disciples are being made. Then after some period of time, those that have stuck it out will often begin to see some ways to advance their efforts have a foundation of key, healthy relationships, and have built requisite levels of trust to see healthy results.

In thinking through a number of relationships with M’s throughout Europe and beyond, I see that the 10,000 hour rule has a strong correlation with impact. With a range of paradigms and approaches, missionaries that have some 10 years of experience that is relevant to their culture and context are generally seeing greater results than those that do not have this level of experience.

Investing 10,000 hours in anything is not a guarantee for success, however. Some limiting factors seem to include:

  1. Moral (spiritual) failure;
  2. Living out or seeking to promote an ethnocentric worldview;
  3. Not investing in nationals;
  4. Not pursuing relationships with either non-believers or with nationals that are heavily involved in the lives of non-believers; and
  5. Placing emphasis on supervisory responsibilities.

There is more to come on this in some future posts, but I wanted to go ahead and throw the idea out there for stimulation and discussion.

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Exilic Living

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It was my privilege to participate in an international church planting conference in 2007 where Michael Frost was the keynote speaker. Unfortunately his first talk is not recorded here. However, it is important to know that he began the conference with a talk on the post-Christian reality that: had already come about in Australia; was a functioning reality in Europe; and was in the process of becoming reality in North America. (Note: these talks were delivered almost two years ago. During that time, trends have not, in my estimation, slowed or reversed course.)

In this follow-up talk he covers material from a book he coauthored with Hirsch–Exiles. Frost borrows some ideas from Brueggemann about the Hebrews living in Babylon and the resulting exilic literature. This may serve as a roadmap for how we can live a radical faith in our postmodern, post-Christian context.

The content shared here may disturb and disorient some. For others, it may begin or advance a process of reorientation that leads to meaningful change. I would encourage you to invite your spouse, your friend(s), and/or the team with whom you are seeking to share your journey of faith to watch the hour-long video with you. Grab some pastries, doughnuts, bagels, ramen, and/or something else to fit your palate and budget, fix enough coffee or tea to let them know you are serious about this activity as you have prepared in advance in order to honor them. Then view the video and set aside at least another hour to discuss it. Below the video are some possible discussion questions.

BTW – If given serious consideration, this is not easy material. Also, parts of the presentation are NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN.

Some questions for discussion. (Don’t wimp out and do these solo!)

  1. In what ways does our context merge with post-Christendom?
  2. If we were to view ourselves as exiles, how would that change our praxis? How might it change our living out the Great Commission?
  3. What aspects that Frost shares do we consider implementing now? What does that look like?
  4. What do we need to revisit in the future? When do we plan to come back to this?
  5. Would the lost community around us agree with our discussion / conclusions to the above questions? How could we verify this? Is that a conversation we are willing to begin?
  6. What other questions should we be asking right now?
  7. How serious about this are we? Honestly?

Pursuing Demonstration

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iStock_000002292914XSmallOne of my kids reminded me recently of a phrase I learned years ago from a previous colleague. Speaking of sales, he would share, “Presentation without demonstration is just conversation.” While I found this to be true in sales, I also believe it to be true when communicating our faith.

Some months ago some long-time friends joined us for a celebration. After everyone else had left, they remained to talk about parenting. They wanted to know how they could get their children to obey and show respect like our children. We were honored by the question which gave us an open door to share with the self-proclaimed atheist husband that what we have learned about how to rear children is all from the Bible. He continued to express interest in learning how to be a better parent and was willing to participate knowing that the information would be from the Bible. We have met together weekly for several months now and discussed at length both marriage and parenting. This week they proudly shared with us about a recent trip to visit family. They received praise from grandparents, parents, and siblings for their children’s behavior. They also enjoyed a peace in their relationship that they had not experienced on a vacation trip in some time. They have begun to see the tranformational power of the gospel even though he has yet to embrace the One who transforms.

Paul writes that we are to “be imitators of God.” This is consistent with his letters where we derive much of our theology and praxis. Usually in his letters he will devote a significant amount of space to understanding who God is and the supremacy of Christ. Then the second portion of each letter deals with how we are to practically live our lives because of our proper thinking about God. Understanding our Lord is key to being transformed as we set our “hearts on things above…and set our minds on things above.” The demonstration of the truth of God’s Word is that we are different from the world internally, in how we react to others, in our relationship with our spouse, with our children, and in our work relationships. Paul even ups the stakes stating more than once that others should, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” While this does seem daunting, the reality is that if we are followers of Christ we should look more and more like Him. His transformation of our lives should allow the world to see a radical difference in us. We are to be walking demonstrations of the transformational power of Christ that is consistent with the presentation we are anxious to share. If people do not see a changed life, then our presentation is just conversation–theory rather than practice.  (Eph 5:1; Col 3:1-2; 1 Cor. 11:1, Phil. 3:17; Rom. 12:1-2)

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Confidently Un-oriented (part 3)

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Disorientation -> Reorientation -> Meaningful change


The intensity of a disorientating experience may vary significantly. Some may be confronted with a near-death encounter, others may be captured anew by a sunset. The intensity of the disorientation is not the determining factor to dictate the extent or lack of the change. Reorientation is the process that will determine change.

A contrast in disorientation intensity may be found when considering Lydia and the Philippian jailer. Lydia believes while hearing Paul the first time. We read that “the Lord opened her heart.” On the other side of the spectrum, the jailer is ready to take his own life thinking that the prisoners had escaped following the earthquake. Upon learning that all are still present he runs in and falls to the ground shaking. His next response is then the same as Lydia’s. He believes. (Acts 16)

For both characters mentioned above, their reorientation was a complete paradigm shift. A radical worldview adjustment. They would never see things the same again. Not long after that we see Paul writing one of his most encouraging letters to the church that had been planted in the city of Philippi by most likely Lydia and/or the jailer. Here the reorientation was radical, the change was substantive and lasting, but the disorientation experiences could not have been more different.

When Paul addresses the sages in Athens, the responses are multiple. There is change for all: some sneer; some believe; some want to hear more. Paul offers a message that is completely unfamiliar to them. The disorientation is equal for all in the story, but the reorientation and the resulting change has eternity as the variance. (Acts 17)

These three posts on disorientation have strong correlations to someone’s understanding of  and response to the gospel. And church. And mission. And missiology. And life. And…?

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