The Book I Chose

I chose to bring Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis. That's the book I brought to the Reader's Retreat last weekend.

I don't know that anyone has had as large an impact on my imagination as Lewis. He got ahold of me before Jesus ever did. I was a Narnian before I was a Christian. And the Christian tree of life that was planted in me was planted on Narnian soil.

As I got older, I found myself fascinated by Lewis' more apologetic writings: first The Screwtape Letters, then Mere Christianity and then the rest (Four Loves, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, Miracles, and the ironically titled Surprised by Joy). Somewhere in there I read his letters and The Joyful Christian and his book on MacDonald.

My mind was becoming mechanical. Christianity was becoming a set of propositional truths. Right answers abounded left and right. Lewis started to bend me and make me cold.

But then he straightened me out. The Great Divorce thawed the ice and the Space Trilogy cracked it. A Grief Observed rolled me back into the land of the lively. Stories washed over me.

And that's when I discovered Lewis the professor. His preface writings to Paradise Lost and to De Incarnatione Verbi Dei. The Discarded Image. He was a postmodern before postmodernity was a thing.

And then Till We Have Faces.

I've never read another book like it.

I almost missed it

Tonight, God did something amazing.

A student asked "What must I do to be saved?" and really wanted to know. He left and brought 5 friends back with him to the Bible Study. They stayed for an hour and a half, talking about God and the Bible. In the end, we prayed.

And I almost missed it.

I showed up at 7:00 and no one else was there. I waited 5 minutes, then prayed. I tapped my feet and my hands, checked Twitter and email and Facebook, stretched my legs. At 7:15, I started packing.

I thought to myself "Will was crying when I left. I hate leaving him, even when it's to go to work. Amy's sick and I'm not feeling well either. No one showed up. My time is valuable. This is embarrassing." These thoughts clanked from my brain to my legs, preparing me to get up and walk away.

And then the student showed up. And God did something amazing.

I'm so glad I didn't miss it.

Chastity versus Virginity

Over dinner the other night, this question popped up: How do you help young people pursue lives of sexual holiness?

The conversation ranged all over the place. Condoms and birth control. Marriage and abstinence. God's purpose of sexuality.

The most interesting thread was probably how life-stage interacts with sexual holiness. Holiness has a different texture for a young single than it does for a married man or an older man who has lost his wife. I mention this as an aside, unsure how to crack the door of this conversation to you.

We touched on one thread that might be familiar to you if you've been in student ministry or around a college campus. That's the title thread. Chastity versus Virginity.

Much of the conversation around sexuality orbits around Virginity. True love waits. Promise rings. Save it. For most kids growing up in the church, they've been hammered with the real-world consequences of sex: STDs, ripped hearts, and less-than-optimal future marriages. But that's all they've heard.

Our emphasis on virginity is problematic for three reasons:

  1. It focuses on a point rather than a path.
  2. It focuses on a negative rather than a positive.
  3. It focuses on threats rather than grace.
Why should a young person stop having sex? If they engage sexually once and lose their virginity, they also lose their motivation to pursue sexual holiness. Sexual holiness is now out of reach, lost in the shadow of their past. Why should a student withhold from a second boyfriend what she gave to a first? Why should he say "No" to a girlfriend when she attempts to do what they've already done twice? Virginity is no help once you've crossed that line. If anything, it makes it harder to stop.

On top of this, the conversation around virginity fails to grapple with the complexity of our world. At what point do you officially lose your virginity? How far is too far? Does what happens in the mind matter? And what about someone who shares your gender: do you lose your virginity if you sleep with another man or another woman? And what if the sexual encounter is non-consentual: rape and molestation? And what if you're widowed or divorced? Virginity is no help in these complex conversations. If anything, it makes it easier to justify your behavior.

Contrast virginity to chastity. The concepts seem interchangeable, but they're not. 

Chastity applies to everyone, not just the virginal. The concept sinks its roots down into dark earth of God's view of bodies and his positive purpose for sexuality. The single man remains chaste through abstinence. The married man remains chaste through fidelity to one woman. Both honor their bodies and the marriage bed and the bodies of their potential sexual partners.

The concept of chastity is full to the brim with grace. Chastity is a discipline, a form of indirect effort that we utilize because the direct effort of living a holy and pure life is too much for us. We will fail. Chastity allows you back on the path toward holiness when you've wandered away.

The best writing on chastity that I know comes from Lauren Winner and her book Real Sex. She's a theologian at Duke div and manages to speak both conceptually and practically. Check out her book if this conversation interests you.

What do you think? Is chastity a better focus than virginity?

Reflecting on the Readers' Retreat

I was a part of something special this weekend.

My friend Joe organized a Readers' Retreat. He started talking about it in the Fall. He started making phone calls and sending emails, talking to men across the city and around the country. And he struck a vein.

Maybe Readers are lonely.

Men often have trouble making friendships, close friendships at least. And if we do find friends, the chances of finding fellow-readers are pretty slim. This experience echoed throughout our group.

I drove an hour each way to get to the retreat. Guys flew in from Columbus and Chicago and from Boston. Some of the local guys stayed and talked until they were closer to dawn than dusk. We were hungry for something like this.

We each brought a book to share. Each book became a spark for a conversation. The conversation burned until it burned out. And then we would move on to the next book. Conversations ranged from literature to history to quantum physics. We talked about life and about ministry. Some guys took notes. Everyone shared.

We were a very diverse group in a lot of ways. Our ages ranged from the 20's to the early, early 60's. We had academics and professors, but we also had businessmen and pastors and even an awkward missionary. Single. Married. Grandparents. White. Latino. Bi-racial. A broad spectrum of religious belief.

That diversity helped the conversation. We each used unique paths as we climbed the mountain of ideas that emerged in the conversation. We disagreed and argued. We learned.

But we shared a common love for books and ideas. We respected each other and gave each other the benefit of the doubt. And it all worked out well.

In the next few days, I'm hoping to write more about the experience and the ideas we talked about.

Have you ever done something like this? What would you think if you were invited to a Readers' Retreat?

Book Review: The African Memory of Mark

Thomas Oden writes books that invite me into a wild old world. He grapples with church history and patristic theology in a way that's rich and fresh and vibrant.

I picked up The African Memory of Mark at the Urbana bookstore. I only had a few minutes to browse the bookstore at Urbana. This book called my name. I've very glad it did.

The ancient church in Africa has been telling stories about John Mark for millennia. We know him as the author of the Gospel of Mark. The African church knows him as a Libyian church planter: born in Cyrene to Jewish exiles, returned to Jerusalem, folded into the early church through his relatives. They talk about how Mark traveled with Peter, founded the church in Alexandria and died a martyr's death.

The African Memory of Mark is, on the surface, an exercise in post-critical theology. Oden dismantles the Western critics of the Markan narrative. Western critics dismiss the African stories about Mark as folk stories and point to the lack of physical evidence to back it up. But Oden points out that the stories must have originated somewhere, that they originated early, that they originated in unexpected places. And he points out that these stories have inspired faithfulness for generations in the African church. We should pay attention to them.

Reading this book did two things for me:

The African Memory of Mark energized and inspired me. It includes the biography of this brilliant man who loved to tell stories and was completely convinced that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God. Though he lived thousands of years ago, I see something special in his ministry. He passed along stories about Jesus to people who needed to hear them. He cared deeply about the people God placed in his life. He used his education in creative and unexpected ways. I would love to be like Mark.

Inspiration is easy to explain and understand. The second benefit I received from reading this book is a little more difficult to quantify.

The temptation, when you're in ministry and are reading books, is to select books that equip and arm you for ministry. Books on strategy. Books on teamwork. Even books on theology. Piles and piles of books can fill a pastor's shelf and a missionary's bedside table. A stack of utility reaching for the ceiling.

The African Memory of Mark provided me with very little tangible utility. There was no direction on preaching. No ministry innovation. No new nugget of theology. Just mental exercise. Good arguments laid out clearly. Food for the learner in me.

Do you ever read just to learn?

Focused Coaching

When you’re leading from a distance, you need to become adept at coaching.

Your team will hit roadblocks and you need to help them hurdle over them. You need to be able to do this in a way that both guides and motivates. The wrong kind of coaching can provide the right answers in a way that isn’t useful to the person being coached.

Here are some things I try to do when I’m coaching my team:

1. Listen and understand

Listening is one of my main leadership skills. It’s one I’ve cultivated carefully over time and am constantly working on improving. I want to listen to what is said as well as to what is not said. I want to listen to what is said as well as how it is said. I want to listen to words and body language.

I have two motivations for listening like this.

First, I want to really understand the roadblock that my team is encountering. I want to understand all the details of it and around it. I want to gather all of the data I can. It doesn’t do anyone any good if I solve the wrong problem. (This is also a major skill in apologetics and evangelism)

Secondly, I want my team member to feel heard. When they feel heard and understood, they are more receptive to my coaching. And, often, there is a pastoral need that surfaces at the same moment as the roadblock. Listening well positions me to really help.

2. Offer and explain solutions

Once I understand the problem and have made a relational connection that positions me so that my coaching will be well-received, I start to dig in.

Here’s what I would do. Here’s why I would do it.

The Why matters so much here.

Without it, you’re just a boss telling an employee what to do. They may not do what you recommend. They may do it, but without confidence that it will work. And they will have transmission problems when they try to pass on your ideas to someone else. Without the Why stuff gets lost as it gets passed down the chain.

On top of this, digging into the Why is an investment in the person you’re leading. Once they understand why you are recommending they do what you are recommending, they will be able to solve problems like this themselves in the future. They might also be able to coach others in the future.

3. Provide accountability and follow-up

Come up with a plan and let them know that you’ll follow-up with them. This communicates two things:

First, follow-up communicates that they aren’t in this by themselves. You aren’t the oracle sitting atop the mountain. You are with them. You are helping. And they aren’t in it by themselves.

Second, follow-up communicates that you think that your recommendation will make a meaningful difference. This isn’t just some random idea you’re throwing out there. You really believe it will help. You think it matters that they do what you’re telling them to do.

What’s your system as a coach? What do you do when you’re coaching?

Flexible Systems

My thinking about systems has been turned on it’s head over the years.

I used to think that a great leader builds solid, indestructible systems. Build a good system and your people will thrive. I used to think that systems were like lattice-work that allow vines to grow. Stability.

But stability can backfire.

A stable system forces people to focus on execution. It’s a script. They read the script, memorize the script, perform the script. Everything gets focused on the script. But what happens when the script is no longer relevant? What happens when the script doesn’t apply? What happens when the ministry attempts to jump beyond the context for which the script was written?

Stable systems are fine. But stable systems require you to be constantly present, constantly creating and constantly making corrections. The stability of the system can serve as an anchor if God opens up a narrow-window opportunity.

No, the systems I want to build need to be flexible. They need to be able to bend and twist and leap as the situation demands. They need to fit around the shoulders of my teammates like a cloak, to fit them perfectly and well even though they’re different from each other and different from me.

Here’s what this looks like in the real world. I have 8 Groups that I’m responsible for at Crossway Church. Now, I know that there are a ton of Group curriculums out there, written by professionals and packaged in shiny packages. But what would a Leader do with a shiny curriculum? Execute. They would feel like they needed to get through the curriculum. They wouldn’t feel confident to adapt and tweak and customize. They would miss opportunities.

So, how did I build a flexible system? I wrote my own curriculum. I’m an InterVarsity guy and we love writing our own stuff (for good or for ill). But what this allowed me to do was to downgrade and break up the packaging. The get a print out, not in a folder or anything. They also get a copy over email. And every week I send them notes reflecting on when I led this session, showing them how I adapted and customized it.

My leaders feel tremendous freedom to adapt the curriculum. The system is flexible and it’s working. They lean into their unique gifts. They shift things so that they better serve the group of people who gather in their Groups. They take advantage of the opportunities that God gives them. And I couldn’t be more proud.

In order to make flexible systems work, you need two things:
  •  Leaders you can trust
  • A clear, compelling vision

The drive toward stable, rather than flexible, systems often comes from a distrust in the team. The stability movement allowed people with little training or gifting to accomplish great things. Execution is easy. But couldn’t we accomplish something more?

Stable systems also make sure the work happens even if the team isn’t motivated. The stability itself removes the need to be compelled by the vision. The vision becomes “to execute the system.” And a good leader can make sure that execution happens. Carrots and sticks make sure the job gets done. But could we accomplish something more?

Leaders who trust their teams, admire their teams, have great confidence in their teams can set them free to become leaders themselves. Flexible systems reflect this confidence. When I build a flexible system, I’m communicating to my team members that I trust them to know when to adapt and contextualize and leap. And I’m blessed to have a team that I trust.

And vision, vision clarifies the What and the Why but doesn’t necessarily clarify the How. We will plant ministry at these community colleges because we want every student to have access to the gospel and to a thriving Christian community and because they don’t currently have access on campus and because we think that Jesus cares about these students. I have no idea how we will do it. No one has done it before. Not like this.

That’s why we need flexible systems. I need to create space for the team that I trust to figure out answers to the questions I don’t even need to know yet. If I create too much stability and solidity, they won’t be able to flex as we learn more about the environment. And if they can’t flex, we’ll fail.

What has been your experience with systems? Do you prefer stable or flexible systems? How do you build them?

Compelling Vision-Casting

Do you want to help your team stay motivated when you aren’t around?

Practice compelling vision casting.

Andy Stanley defines vision as “a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be.” The vision has to be clear enough that your team understands what they are trying to accomplish. But clarity isn’t enough.

When you lead over a distance, you have to have a vision that compels people. Your people have to feel in their guts that this HAS to happen.

If your team is compelled by the vision, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are even there. Your presence helps, sure. You need to show up. You need to put boots on the ground. But you also need the work to keep rolling if you’re not around.

Leaders leave. They move on. They die. A compelling vision outlasts the leader.

I am, by no means, a world-class vision caster. John Maxwell says that a leader without followers is just a person out for a walk. And that’s me so much of the time. But here is what I know …

I am compelled by vision. Vision drives me. I have a vision for my family, a clear mental picture of what could be and a conviction that it should be. I have a vision for my job, for the South Florida Area and for LaFe. I have a vision for my relationship with God. I know what I want it to look like.

The first step to creating a compelling vision for your team is to understand what vision is compelling you.

When it comes to my work, the vision that compels me has to do with “access.” I want every student to have access to the gospel and to a thriving Christian community. If there’s a corner of campus without access to the gospel or to a thriving Christian community, I want to do something about it.

This is why we transformed our chapter at W&L into a Greek-friendly chapter. Huge fraternity and sorority houses, 80% of the campus, didn’t have meaningful access to the gospel or to the Christian community. Sure, they could come to us. But no one was going to them. We had to change that. We went from being a 20% Greek chapter at an 80% Greek school to being an 80% Greek chapter at an 80% Greek school.

And this is why we’re digging into community colleges now. When I look at these schools, I see thousands of students without access. An entire campus without access to the gospel or to a thriving Christian community? Inconceivable. Real. Unacceptable. Motivating.

This is also why I’m passionate about focused ministry. There are corners of our campuses that have no access to what we have to offer. Students in these corners of campus will never get a meaningful invitation to join a Small Group. They will never have a conversation about the gospel with a close friend. They are cut off. Isolated. And somebody, somewhere has got to do something about it. Someone has to give them access.

Access is a simple vision. But it compels my heart. And it compels my team.

What vision compels you? How are you sharing this with your team?

Bonuses, Surprises and Motivation

Supposed you have $50 to spend on one of the people you lead. You want to bless them and help them stay motivated through the grind of the semester or the year.

What do you do with that money?

You could add it to their pay. They would appreciate it. A bonus.

But bonuses have a negligible impact on motivation. Small bonuses have an even smaller impact. Think about the past year. The federal government cut the payroll tax back a bit and we all had a little extra coming home in our pay. Did you notice it? Were you grateful? Did it make an impact for you?

Bonuses can actually have the opposite effect. They can become the new normal. People begin to anticipate them. Count on them. They make plans. Vacation or a new pool. They get angry if they don’t get a bonus. Remember Clark Griswold and his reaction to the “Jelly of the Month Club” bonus?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do bonuses. Go for it.

I just think there’s something better you can do with $50, something that will produce more motivation and less entitlement.

Consider surprising your people. Take them out to a ridiculously nice lunch. Buy them crazy socks. Or their favorite hard-to-find movie. Or a really nice Bible. Create a memory. Manufacture a touchstone.

The science of human motivation tells us that people feel motivated at work when they feel known and appreciated. If you get one $50 bullet, try to hit that target.

What would you do to bless and motivate an employee if you had $50? Give me some ideas!