Top 10 Resources for Pastors & Church Planters

I was recently asked by a pastor friend to recommend my top 10 most influential resources for pastors, church planters, or those aspiring to high-level ministry leadership.

He wasn’t looking for explicitly theological resources as much as tools that explore ministry design, pastoral leadership, and developing a disciple-making ministry. While a number of these resources flow out of rich theological reflection, they aren’t the kind of tools most pastors would get from seminary. Thus, I’m making the (somewhat dangerous) assumption that a pastor is grounded in the gospel, the Scriptures, and a robust theological understanding.

So, with that caveat, here’s what I would recommend (in no particular order):

The Trellis and the Vine - Kindle edition by Marshall, Colin, Payne, Tony.  Religion & Spirituality Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.The Trellis and The Vine (Collin Marshall & Tony Payne) – Beautiful vision for equipping and multiplying ministry through making disciples and training people. Chapters 2-3 are on a short list of must-read resources for all our new staff.

Move: What 1, 000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth: Hawkins, Greg L.,  Parkinson, Cally, Bill Hybels: 9780310529941: Amazon.com: Books

Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth (Greg Hawkins & Cally Parkinson) – I’ve never talked to another pastor who read this book, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in the last few years. It explores how people actually grow in their faith. You can read my lessons from it here.

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Tim Keller) – Keller has greatly influenced my approach to preaching, even though his context and personality are so different from mine. Tons to be learned here.

The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller: C. John Miller,  Barbara Miller Juliani: 9780875527154: Amazon.com: Books

The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (C. John Miller) – Collection of letters from a mature, wise, prayerful pastor. So much is modeled through these letters, especially about prayer, family, love for non-Christians, courage to confront tough issues, and how the gospel actually changes you.

Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs: Hybels, Bill, Henry Cloud,  PhD: 0025986495961: Amazon.com: Books

Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Bill Hybels) – Short, practical, wise nuggets from one of the sharpest leaders in modern church history (despite his recent downfall). Each chapter is only a few pages, which makes it easy to read and easy to remember. I guess that’s the point of an axiom, eh?

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City -  Kindle edition by Keller, Timothy. Religion & Spirituality Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Tim Keller) – One of the highlights of this past year was working through this book with a cohort of pastors from across the country, guided by the staff of Redeemer City to City. It’s most of Keller’s thinking on gospel, culture, theological vision, and evangelism all in one place.

Amazon.com: The Advantage, Enhanced Edition: Why Organizational Health  Trumps Everything Else In Business (J-B Lencioni Series) eBook: Lencioni,  Patrick M.: Kindle StoreThe Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything in Business (Patrick Lencioni) – Most of Lencioni’s books are short fables designed to teach crucial lessons in organizational life. The Advantage is his non-fiction magnum opus, an all-in-one book on the importance of organizational culture.

Breathing Room • Part 4┃"Choosing to Cheat" - YouTube

Choosing to Cheat sermon by Andy Stanley) – This a game changer for prioritizing family and keeping things in perspective. In fact, when I heard Stanley present this content at a leadership conference, he said it was “the most important leadership decision he ever made.” What was it? Choosing not to cheat his family in the name of ministry.

What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done:  Perman, Matt, John Piper: 9780310533986: Amazon.com: Books

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Matt Perman) – I’ve read many books on productivity and time management. This one contains all the best-of thinking found in those other books, yet comes from a gospel-centered perspective. Here’s my review of it.

Amazon.com: Innovating Discipleship: Four Paths to Real Discipleship  Results (Church Unique Intentional Leader Series) (Volume 1)  (9781491039670): Mancini, Will: Books

Innovating Discipleship: Four Paths to Real Discipleship Results (Will Mancini) – I read everything I can by Will Mancini and love the way he thinks. This is a little known read-in-one-sitting book that helps leaders identify their approach and strategy for disciple-making. I desperately wish I had read it before planting a church.

BONUS: The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast – every episode is interesting, helpful, and chock-full of thought-provoking ideas (See other podcasts I recommend here).

What would you add?

10 Lesser-Known Apps That Improve Productivity for Ministry

I love learning from other people, and I especially like getting behind-the-scenes looks at how they do what they do.

I have a folder on my computer where I’ve kept examples of people’s weekly schedules.

I love asking other pastors about how they do sermon prep.

It’s fascinating to ask people what their typical day is like.

We all have tools that help us be more effective at our craft, and most of my tools tend to be software apps. There are all kinds of better-known apps I use (Evernote, Logos Bible Software, Google Apps, Dropbox, Spotify, Hootsuite, etc), but for this post I want to share 10 surprising, lesser-known apps and tools that have improved my productivity and ministry. (For reference, my hardware is a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and a Kindle Paperwhite)

Todoist I don’t know how well-known Todoist is, but since there are so many to-do list apps, it’s worth mentioning the one I use. I’ve struggled for years to find a productivity / to-do list app that I enjoy using. I read Do More Better around the new year, where Tim Challies suggested Todoist. It’s free, simple, and smart. For example, you can type in “Fill out: Expense report on the first Monday” and it will automatically create a recurring task called “Fill out: Expense report” that appears every first Monday of the month.

Achieve More, Every Day: Todoist's New Logo & Brand

PrayerMate This app is my digital prayer list. It creates sets of “prayer cards” where you can edit what you want to pray for, add photos of who you want to pray for, and much more. It costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it.

PrayerMate - Apps on Google Play

Coffitivity This is a funny app that plays background noise that sounds like a coffee shop. If you sometimes get distracted by too much quiet, having ambient noise like this can really help.

Coffitivity - 80amps

Overdrive This app works with my local library to give me access to borrow their Kindle books. The highlights still get saved, and it’s wonderful to read books I don’t want to buy (especially Jack Reacher novels).

eContent | DeKalb County Public Library

Pomodoro Tracker The Pomodoro technique is a helpful approach to productivity: do 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a 5 minute break. And keep doing it. This app provides a simple timer that leverages this technique. When I have a larger chunk of time to work on what’s important (not just urgent), it’s an extremely helpful way to stay focused.

The 3 Best Online Pomodoro Applications

BetterSnapTool Oddly enough, this is a tool I can’t imagine living without. It easily helps you arrange the open windows on your laptop, ‘snapping’ them into a clean side or corner of the screen. Since I use my computer for sermon prep and often need multiple apps going at a time, this helps me quickly get setup without a cluttered ‘desktop.’

BetterSnapTool 1.8 – Easily manage window positions and sizes. | download  |AppKed

YouCanBook.Me I use this when people request to meet with me. It integrates with my calendar, and allows people to schedule a phone or in-person meeting based on my availability.

YouCanBook.me Reviews: Pricing & Software Features 2020 - Financesonline.com

Doodle.com This free tool lessens the pain of trying to schedule a group meeting. You know the kind when there are a bunch of people and there’s endless email back-and-forth about what works for everybody. Ugh. Doodle takes a poll of people’s available times and helps you more easily select what works.

Doodle: The One-Step Solution to Scheduling Meetings - TechArk Solutions

IFTTT IFTTT stands for If This, Then That and is a free automation tool. You can set up all sorts of “recipes” that help simplify your life. Among my favorites:

  • If rain is in tomorrow’s forecast, send me a text message notifying me
  • If I favorite a tweet, automatically save it in my Evernote “Quotes/Illustrations” notebook
  • If Tim Challies’ feed says ‘carte,’ send me the post via email (this allows me to receive Challies’ ‘A-La-Carte’ posts without subscribing to ALL the content he creates)

What's going to happen with IFTTT? - Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things  news and analysis

Scannable Scannable is a mobile scanner that can turn your photos into PDFs. When somebody gives a paper handout, I use this to create a simple PDF and import it into Evernote.

Scannable by Evernote – A Must Have App - Apple Tech Talk

Do you have a surprising app I should hear about? Let me know!

How Do People Really Grow Spiritually? (Lessons from Move)

Every pastor wonders how much difference he is making. I’m no different. I want to know to what degree my personal ministry, as well as our church’s ministry, is really helping people grow in their faith. I ask questions like:

  • Are we truly making disciples or are we just keeping people active?
  • Does activity/participation = growth?
  • Which of our ministries is most effective/ineffective at helping people grow?
  • How do we help all these people that are in such different places?

This summer I read Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, and I realized I’m not the only one who asks those kinds of questions. Move is about the lessons from a research project that studied over 1,000 churches by surveying over 200,000 congregants about their spiritual life and development.

As a pastor committed to helping people grow spiritually, I loved the book. It confirmed some of my convictions, surprised me about some of my false assumptions, and challenged me in a few crucial areas.

Confirmation of Convictions

Move affirmed a few of my convictions about ministry. I’ll list these confirmations and provide a quote for each one. PLEASE read the quotes. They’re excellent.

1. People want to be challenged. I’ve seen people respond to challenge time and again.

“Nothing is more indicative of high-impact, discipling churches than a ‘go-for-broke’ challenge factor.” 

2. The Bible is hugely important for spiritual growth. Duh. But, I guess, it’s amazing how many churches don’t really engage people with the Bible. The authors write:

“The most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement.”

3. People need different things at different stages of their spiritual life. As nice as one-size-fits-all approaches are for church leadership, they aren’t good for people.

What people need in order to grow closer to Christ depends on where they are now in their relationship with him.” 

4. Christians must have personal time with God in order to grow. Great church programs make little difference if a person isn’t spending time with Jesus.

“Nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than reflection on Scripture. If churches could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice is clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible—specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives.”

Surprises (Refuting My Assumptions)

Move also surprised me in a few key areas and refuted my assumptions. Again, please read the quotes.

1. Participation in church activities does not necessarily lead to increased spiritual maturity. Most church leaders assume that if we just get people active, they’ll grow. But, in reality, they’ll only grow to the degree that these activities help them develop a personal relationship with Jesus.

All of our findings are derived from one essential fact: that spiritual growth—defined as an increase in love of God and for others—is not a product of growing participation in church activities or changes in lifestyle or the result of our natural aging process. Rather, spiritual growth advances in lockstep with a growing personal relationship with Christ.” 

2. Organized small groups are more catalytic for people early on and less so later on. This shocked me philosophically, but not experientially. The longer you walk with Jesus, the less you need the organized small group because you have meaningful Christian relationships in real life.

“When we apply our context of human relationships to these findings, it makes perfect sense that organized activities become less important. The closer you are to someone—the more likely you are to depend on them to process your life issues—the less important organized settings tend to be. While you may have formed the relationship in a structured experience—in the workplace, perhaps, or at a neighborhood gathering—that setting is typically a springboard for the relationship, not something required to sustain it.”

3. Serving is the only organized church activity that moves people across all stages of their development. I wasn’t surprised that serving grows people. I was surprised that it was the only organized thing that helped everybody.

Interestingly, serving experiences appear to be even more significant to spiritual development than organized small groups…The implication for church leaders is that we must encourage people to serve—in any capacity, in whatever valid opportunity their gifts and interests lead them to.”

4. Churches need to promote and provide a high-expectation, non-negotiable, senior-pastor-owned pathway of first-steps designed to jumpstart people’s spiritual growth. Rather than just throwing people in the game, churches need to have some basic introductory experience that gets people moving in the right direction.

The military uses boot camp to turn civilians into soldiers. Baseball uses spring training to test new players and try them out in different positions. Many colleges require freshmen to attend orientation week so they can become familiar with their new environment and a new set of expectations. These short-term launching pads into life experiences are analogous to the first best practice found among the most spiritually effective churches in the REVEAL database. They get people moving by providing a high-challenge, nonnegotiable path of first steps to engage people in a process of spiritual growth—a process that will ultimately lead them to become followers of Jesus Christ.”

Challenges I Needed

Finally, Move challenged me in a few key areas. These were things that I knew were important but, for various reasons, had forgotten how crucial they were.

1. The #1 priority of the senior leader(s) must be to make disciples. More than attendance, numerical growth, personal platform, cultural influence, or anything else. This seems obvious, but it’s not. After leading a church for 5+ years, many other things compete for #1 priority. Move challenged me to refocus on what church is all about — making disciples.

Five years of research findings point us to one singular conclusion—that the most essential decision a church leader makes is not what kind of worship service to offer or what kind of small-group system to build. It’s the decision to lead his or her church with an unyielding and unequivocal commitment to a very easy-to-say, very hard-to-accomplish goal—which is, to do whatever is humanly possible to move people’s hearts toward Christ.”

2. The senior leader(s) must have a white-hot relationship with Jesus. Duh, again. But it was a challenge I needed to hear. Nothing would serve our church more than me having a vibrant relationship with Christ.

You cannot reproduce in others what you are not producing in yourself. The main thing you need to do—the one thing you must do—is fully within your reach. You must surrender all.”

You can try other paths, find a new strategy, perhaps, or hire some really talented staff members. But in the end, if your church is not led by people completely devoted to Jesus—people who prioritize their relationship with him above everything else—it will not work. It will not produce life. It will not change the world.”

Conclusion

I thank God for Move. It came just at the right time with a number of fresh insights and important reminders. It will bear fruit in my life and the church. While it’s probably not the kind of book that most Christians will find too interesting, it’s a must-read for senior leaders in a local church.

5 Steps to the Personal Retreat Day You Need

Do you ever feel like the urgent is crowding out the important? Like there’s so many things that have to be kept up with that you just can’t seem to get ahead?

I do. Everybody does.

I often talk with other pastors about how ministry is a “black hole” where there’s always more you could do. Over time, I’ve concluded that ministry isn’t unique — all kinds of people have demanding roles that seem to require being “on” all the time. Just ask a mom.

I’m not sure how it started but a few years ago I began a practice that has made a significant difference in helping me not just work in the ministry, but on the ministry: The Personal Retreat Day.

A Personal Retreat Day is a day set aside to recalibrate and refocus on what is important, big-picture, and vision-oriented.

Everyone needs a day like that every so often. If you’re a leader, you especially need a day like this. And it’s more doable than you think.

Over time, I’ve identified five simple steps that can help make a Personal Retreat Day a refreshing reality.

1. Put a firm day on the calendar.

This is the most important step, because without it a Personal Retreat Day will not happen. The urgent things of life will always give you a reason to do something else.

It can also be the most difficult step because you have to find a day that you can afford to be unavailable and other logistics have to be factored in. I want to schedule a day like this about every six weeks or so, but it’s hard to do it that frequently without some real intentionality.

2. Find a new location.

Personal Retreat Days happen best in a change of scenery, because it puts you in a different frame of mind that allows you to have a different focus. If you go to the typical places you work, you’ll end up doing typical work.

I typically try to get 45 minutes – 2 ½ hours away because that puts me out of my typical radius and it allows me enough time to enjoy the drive. The drive is a huge part of the experience for me, because I typically listen to something thought-provoking on the way there and then listen to my favorite playlist of worship music (while I sing along loudly) on the way back.

3. Take a personal inventory.

The first thing I do when I arrive to my destination is some kind of personal reflection. In this time, I’m asking the question, “How am I doing…really?” I cannot lead where I am not going and I can’t call people to have a thing with God that I don’t have. So reflection and inventory are crucial.

One of my favorite inventories is a series of questions I adapted from a talk I heard years ago by Bill Hybels on “The Art of Self-Leadership” (turned into an article here):

  1. Is my calling sure?
  2. Is my vision clear?
  3. Is my passion hot?
  4. Is my character submitted?
  5. Is my pride subdued?
  6. Are my fears at bay?
  7. Is my pace sustainable?
  8. Are my physical and spiritual practices healthy?
  9. Are my ears open to the whispers of the Spirit?
  10. Are my gifts developing?
  11. Is my heart for God increasing?
  12. Is my capacity for loving deepening?

Journaling through these questions has proven helpful every time.

4. Enjoy some extra time with God.

As a follower of Jesus, I love spending time with him. But the demands of life make it hard to spend generous stretches of unhurried time with God. So use a portion of the day to spend some extra time with God. For me, this often looks like taking a long prayer walk, usually related to things that emerged from taking inventory. Other times, it means studying a portion of scripture that I’ve wanted to examine, reading a book that I’ve wanted to get to, or listening to a sermon.

5. Work “on” your work.

The E-Myth Revisited helpfully explains how leaders cannot just work in their work, but must work on it too. Spend the balance of the day stepping back from the daily grind of tasks, and think about the big picture.

What is your organization’s mission? What’s your role in it? What are the top few things that you bring that nobody else can or is responsible to do? Are you doing enough of those things to keep things moving in the right direction?

Think through the next 30, 60, or 90 days and ask two questions: What is already coming that needs my attention? What can I proactively do to move the mission forward?

Consider doing a 6×6 plan, where you identify the six most important priorities over the next six weeks. If you have an annual plan, spend some time reviewing it.

This space can also be used to work on a bigger project that you’ve had a hard time getting to in the typical routine of work life. I find that I often make bigger progress in shorter time when I do it on a day like this.

It’s Worth It

This practice has been so valuable to my personal life and ministry leadership that my wife often will gently and encouragingly ask if I have a retreat day on the calendar. She’s not just trying to get rid of me for a day–in fact, it’s often a little harder on her when I take these days. But she’s seen the value so much that she encourages me to do it anyway.

Tweak Away…But Do Something

These steps are what I’ve used and enjoyed, but they surely won’t be best for everybody. So tweak them as necessary and find what works for you. But don’t let your tweaks be an excuse not to do it. The practice of getting away is so helpful that I’d hate for it to be lost in the paralysis of seeking perfection.

[A Note to Those Who Don’t Have Much Freedom]

I wrote this post primarily for the staff I lead at Redemption Gateway, for those who lead at high levels, and for many other pastors who I have relationships with. I realize that many people don’t have the kind of job with the freedom to have a day like this “count” for work. A few thoughts:

  1. The more of a leadership role you have, the more important a Personal Retreat Day is. If you’re working in a job more as a doer than a leader, you probably don’t need this kind of day as much.
  2. If you have a boss, ask about the possibility of doing a Personal Retreat Day from time to time. Explain why you think it would be valuable not just to you, but the organization. Ask to experiment with it quarterly and test the results.
  3. If you are a leader and can’t get time away from your boss, use personal time for it. Take a vacation day or set up an occasional weekend day. Sure, that can be costly, but it will probably be worth the cost.
  4. If you are a mom (household CEO), see what kind of support you can get from your husband or others in a way that would allow you to do a version of this from time to time. Just a few Personal Retreat Days per year could work wonders for your soul and your home.
  5. If you just can’t do something like a Personal Retreat Day, then don’t. This post isn’t designed to make anyone feel bad or carry extra guilt. Rather, it’s attempting to share a helpful practice for those who can benefit from it.

Have you done a Personal Retreat Day? What has been helpful for you?

8 Lessons for Pastors on Christmas Eve Services

Christmas Eve is one week away. I have the privilege of coaching four of our Redemption church planters on a regular basis, and I recently shared with them some of the key lessons I’ve learned from doing Christmas Eve services. They gave encouraging feedback, so I thought I’d share it more broadly.

1. Evaluation. Soon after Christmas Eve, make a list of what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to be adjusted next year. Make this list within a week of the services. Otherwise next year when you’re planning you won’t remember. Keep in mind everything from service times, service flow, kids, environment, etc.

2. Feel. Personally, I want Christmas Eve to feel special yet similar enough to what we do that guests get a flavor of the church.

3. Preaching. Preach a simple gospel message. I’ve often been frustrated by Christmas Eve because, as a teacher, I’m always looking for people to have an ‘aha’ moment and I often try to get too clever on Christmas Eve. But the environment of Christmas Eve isn’t really designed for this. It’s more designed for inspiration, motivation, and something simple. Think about your sermon more like a YoungLife talk than normal.

4. Guests. Thank guests for coming and invite them to come back. Communicate when your normal Sunday services are. Have the graphic for your next series ready so that you can invite people to it.

5. Offering. Don’t apologize for taking the Christmas Offering. Instead say something like, “We have a generous church and we care about a number of needs in our church and community. If you’re a guest, feel free to participate or don’t, but know that this is a beautiful picture of what our church is about.”

6. Kids. Having kids under 5 years-old in the service is really difficult because they are not used to sitting still — even for just an hour. If you can have childcare up to age 5, people will enjoy it a lot more. (Though this is tough with only one service). OrientalTrading.com also has some good, inexpensive kids give-away stuff that can keep them occupied a bit (coloring, bendables, etc)

7. Touch. Work the room like crazy. It’s a great opportunity before the service to visit with people. They come early and you can make a big impact by working the room and meeting people’s families and friends.

8. Planning. By the end of January, make a Christmas checklist for next year that details what needs to be done and when next year. It’s a bit of work, but you’ll be happy you did. Here’s an example from ours this year, and it made a big difference in reducing our overall stress this year.

How to Determine the Best Way to Do Something

the best wayWhat’s the best way to exercise?

What’s the best way to read the Bible?

What’s the best way to teach your children about Jesus?

What’s the best way to keep track of your diet?

What’s the best way to show appreciation to the volunteers in your ministry?

What’s the best way to plan your week?

What’s the best way to invest quality time with your kids?

What’s the best way to keep track of your personal budget?

What’s the best way to manage your tasks and projects?

What’s the best way to spend time in prayer?

What’s the best way to improve my effectiveness at work?

What’s the best way to measure spiritual growth in your church?

In most cases, the best way is the one you’ll actually do.

Don’t get paralyzed in trying to do something the perfect way — you’ll end up doing nothing.
Don’t let unrealistic plans keep you from doing something.

Figure out what you’ll actually do consistently over time. Then do it. That’s usually the best way.

5 Lessons From Touring the Amazon Fulfillment Center

Recently I took our staff to tour the Amazon Fulfillment Center (it’s named “Phoenix 6”). “Fulfillment Center” sounds like a place where all your dreams would come true, but it’s really just a giant warehouse where Amazon orders are processed and shipped (maybe the same thing if you like shopping online).

It was amazing.

The first thing you notice is the size of the place. Ginormous.

Amazon warehouse NJ accident shines light on company's safety record

We later learned that this center is 1.2 million square feet (just over 27 acres), stocks over 19 million items and has over 8 miles of conveyor belt zipping items around to be handled by the 1,500 “associates” who work there. This is one of 50 fulfillment centers Amazon has around the world and specializes in small to medium sized items (no big appliances or electronics here).

Our team loved it and would highly recommend you schedule a tour.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Communication and good signage are crucial. A warehouse that size is complicated and dangerous. To help people, there are signs everywhere. There’s even a whole section devoted to “team development,” which is largely focused on communication and creating signage. There are signs for everything: safety reminders, cultural values, right and wrong ways to do things, and wild statistics about the company.

Keeping people on the same page requires having good communication and visual cues that remind people about what’s important.

2. Sometimes efficiency requires disorganization. Besides the scope of the building, the most jaw-dropping part of the tour was seeing how items are stored in the warehouse. There is literally zero organization to it. Items are not arranged by kind, name, or category. One compartment I looked at had a chocolate fountain, a cat toy, a Minecraft board game, and a few of the same book about American history — all next to each other.

Why? Well, Amazon has realized that the time it would take to organize all their incoming products would not be worth it and would actually slow them down. So the “stockers” just put stuff wherever it fits on the shelf and their computer system tracks where it is.

I’m still processing what the implications are for leadership in the church, but I think it means that sometimes we can get paralyzed by being organized and it actually slows down our effectiveness.

3. Well-designed systems are essential for growing organizations. Our tour demonstrated a profound achievement of computer programming. These systems track items, tell “pickers” where to find them, move items to the “packers,” and ensure that items get to the right place. Without these systems, Amazon could not process a fraction of the orders they do.

Similarly, growing churches need to be able to develop intentional processes to help ministry get done more effectively by more people.

4. People are always essential. The computer systems are impressive and allow many things to get done well. But the Amazon warehouse demonstrated that you can’t replace people. Even in some of the other warehouses that have robots do some of the “picking,” they need humans to make intelligent decisions about what is needed.

In the same way, churches can never rely on systems and processes entirely. People are the glue that truly make things happen.

5. Good leadership invites everyone in the organization to take ownership. Many of the company culture signs I saw related to taking ownership. From day one, every full-time Amazon employee is given stock. Through Amazon’s Kaizen program, employees at all levels are invited to make suggestions on how to improve things.

If every good idea has to come from the top, an organization will be limited. But good leadership invites input and shaping from everyone.

Which of these lessons stands out to you the most? Why?

Life Through Death: Jesus, the Gospels and Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood Sings The 'Gran Torino' Theme Song, No Really

As the year ends, I’m marking the end of my first semester of seminary through the Missional Training Center. One of my assignments has been to pick a movie, and reflect on its strengths and weaknesses as a metaphor of the role and character of Jesus in the story of the Gospels. I picked Gran Torino.

I enjoyed Gran Torino the first time I saw it and now I enjoy it even more. Walt Kowalski is a kind of (surprising) Christ-figure and I got a kick out of analyzing him.

Here’s my 9-page paper, in case you want to read my analysis. The thesis is that Gran Torino thoughtfully explores a number of themes that also emerge in the Gospels like:

  1. true righteousness
  2. standing up for justice
  3. disciple-making
  4. sacrificial death
  5. resurrection
  6. the meaning of life and death.

Click here to read more.

Sermon Notes & Preparing to Preach

I’ve been teaching a Preaching Lab this summer, where a bunch of men and women are learning the basics of preaching and then preaching a practice sermon. This week one of the participants asked me a good question about the sermon prep process and sermon notes, and I thought I’d share my answer.

Q: When you prepare your sermon, do you rehearse it, if so, how many times, and what does that look like? Is it a “full dress rehearsal”? Do you record or time yourself to make sure you hit all points in allotted time? Or is it more like a rough rehearsal and run through of your outline with guesstimations and or experienced gauging of each point? I think I struggle with this most, because if I just use outline as a backbone, I tend to go over time, but if I stick to notes, I feel stifled and like I’m reading cue cards. Just wondering what your prep looks like.

A: What I do now is very different from where I started and I don’t think I could do what I do now without starting how I started.

When I first got into preaching, I was expected by those who trained me to write out a full manuscript of the message. I didn’t necessarily have to preach from the manuscript, but I had to write it out. This was helpful because it forced me to organize my thoughts, see if they were clear, and think through smooth transitions. It was also helpful because I could read it out loud and gauge how long the sermon would be.

The challenge, however, was that I would often read big chunks from the manuscript during the sermon itself, which is disengaging.

I’ve always admired guys who can preach without notes (Robert Gelinas is one of my favorites). I think it’s more engaging and feels more authoritative, like you really know what you’re talking about.

So one time, about 7-8 years ago, I decided I wanted to try giving a message with zero notes. I figured I would either bomb or it would go well. The fear of bombing and freezing on stage with nothing to say drove me to really get to know the message. So I read the manuscript out loud multiple times, with an almost preaching voice. I created a simple, memorable outline and spent a lot of time learning it. Not memorizing words (I didn’t want to just recite it), but getting so familiar with the content that I could just talk about it.

Thankfully, I didn’t bomb and a number of close friends said it was the best sermon I had given to that point. The lessons were (a) the fewer notes the better and (b) I needed to get to know the content better if I was going to be effective.

When I started preaching weekly in 2009, I tried to do this same basic approach. However, I found that with the other time demands of church planting, getting to zero notes was really hard. So I would write out a manuscript and then turn it into a short, 1 page preaching outline. Over time, I stopped writing out the manuscript and just develop a preaching outline, typically anywhere between 1-3 pages (see an example here). I still work to know the big points and illustrations well so that I don’t have to be too tied to notes. Some messages are better than others.

As far as time and rehearsal, this also has adapted over time. I’ve had times when I’ve “preached to the empty seats” as a way to run things through ahead of time. Nelson Searcy says this “doubles the effectiveness of your preaching.” I still do this sometimes, but usually only if it’s a message that I don’t feel as comfortable with either because I think it’s going to be too long and I need to gauge what to cut or if it’s a particularly tricky message that I want to be sure to get right. For instance, when I preached on homosexuality last year I did a full run-through on stage with the staff in the room to practice and get feedback.

Time is one of those things that I have a feel for from lots of repetition. I can usually gauge about how long it will be from my notes. For somebody without as much experience, the best way to gauge time is to either read the manuscript or practice the sermon.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that I do still struggle to stay within the time (our worship leader could tell you, since we sometimes have to cut a song). Also, I tend to go longer on the second sermon than the first, partly because I think of more things to say and also because there’s a little more flexibility without another service coming. That said, I think around 35-40 minutes is a sweeter spot for me. My favorite preachers usually go about 35 minutes and I’m not as good as them. As Justin Anderson has said, “Sermons are not measured in minutes. They are measured in minutes beyond interest.” I’d rather go shorter and really pack a punch than ramble on. But sometimes I like to hear myself talk.

Hope this helps.

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Think-Pair-Share: How to Lead Engaging Discussions

think pair shareLeaders must lead engaging discussions. Rallying people always involves conversations that elicit their feedback and encourage their participation. Whether you’re a pastor, a kids ministry teacher or a small group leader, you must lead engaging discussions. One of the most helpful tools for this is “think-pair-share.”

First a story…

About 11 years ago I was helping lead a college ministry and throughout the summer we had a number of events called “summer gatherings” (creative, huh?). Our topic related to Christian Hedonism and the glory of God and I was in charge of leading one of the first gatherings.

We were talking about some BIG things. Deep things. And I just dove in, asking the group of 30-40 collegians right off the bat what they thought about why God created everything, where we find our greatest joy and a bunch of other stuff.

Crickets. Nobody spoke. Well, except for one guy who was the smartest in the room, had been high school valedictorian and went on to earn a theological degree. He was happy to participate, but his participation only made everyone else feel stupid and they withdrew even more. It was a rough night.

Fortunately, my mom was visiting and was in attendance. She’s an experienced school teacher and trainer with The Write Tools, and she said, “I think I have something that will help you: think-pair-share.”

She was right. We used think-pair-share the next week and it was shockingly different. Everyone engaged. Even the timid folks got involved. It was a game-changer. I’ve used it ever since.

How does think-pair-share work?

1. Think. The leader asks a question and gives everyone a few moments to quietly think about their answer. They may even want to write some thoughts down. Few people are instant processors, so this gives them time to gather their thoughts. This is crucial because often the leader has spent hours, days or weeks thinking of an answer to the question and then expects people to engage after thinking about it for two seconds. This stage also gets everyone involved rather than people disengaging because they know the over-eager person in the group will do the thinking for them.

2. Pair. The leader then instructs everyone to turn to a partner and share their thoughts. Sharing with one person is a much easier first step than sharing with the group. This gives them a chance to compare ideas as well as builds confidence that their thoughts are not crazy.

3. Share. Now the leader invites the entire group to share their answers. By this time, everyone has had multiple opportunities to process and confidence is strong. Many good ideas emerge rather than just one quick-thinking person dominating the conversation.

I have found think-pair-share to be crazy simple and shockingly effective. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.