I took some time yesterday to cut back my orange tree.

It wasn't difficult to cut back the dead branches. The thin ones snapped. The thicker ones needed the pruning shears but they fell away. Easy, easy.

The dead branches were easy choices for cutting. They had to go.

It's relatively easy to get rid the dry, dead, useless stuff. It shouts to us "Let me go!"

For me, the hardest part of pruning is cutting away the stuff that's still alive. Pruning involves choosing winners and losers. Living leaves fall lightly on the lawn. Cut too little and there's no fruit. Cut too much and the tree dies.

I struggle so deeply to give up the Good for the Better. When opportunities pass by, I feel the loss. Each living leaf might lend life to the tree.

In the end, it's a comfort that we are not the Gardener in the biblical story. We aren't even the vine. We are just the branches. Powerless. Dependent. Full of life and possibility.

And, though our first inclination may be toward que-será-será drifting, our vulnerability before the pruning shears becomes an opportunity to trust, an invitation to lean into a relationship of confianza.

How will we respond to the invitation to confianza?

Photo courtesy of Cathy Cole

Book Review: Multiplying Missional Leaders by Mike Breen

Pastor Jon from Crossway and I are reading this book together. We're continuing to work on transforming the Groups at Crossway and the ideas and tools that Mike Breen gives sound pretty good.

Multiplying Missional Leaders is the second in a (currently) three part series of books by Mike Breen and the folks at 3DM. The books are focused on discipleship and missional communities. They have the reputation for being some of the best books out there if you want to develop a ministry network.

In InterVarsity, we've been working on this for a while. A decade ago we started asking our Small Groups to consider strategically placing themselves in particular corners of campus. Some Small Groups picked dorms. Others focused on specific ethnic or affinity groups on campus. Before we knew it, we found ourselves reaching out to people who no one was reaching out to at all.

Eventually, we realized that we needed to equip students with new skill sets if they were going to plant these strategically placed Small Groups (which we started to call "Missional Small Groups"). These students needed to know how to do more than lead a Bible Study. And so we started asking questions about missional leadership. What does a missional leader need to know how to do? What makes someone a missional leader? How do we create missional leaders in our community?

Multiplying Missional Leaders resonates a lot with what we've experienced over the years. It feels great to see our campus missions discoveries are also being discovered by people in the local-church-world.

Mike Breen writes about the need for missional leaders and about why churches often struggle to create them. He writes convictingly about church cultures that are rife with consumerism and celebrity and competitiveness. And, if we're honest, we can see echoes of those trends in our own ministries. I was particularly struck by this idea: "The means you use to attract people to you are usually the means you must use to keep them" (Kindle Loc 901).

Breen then goes on to write about the character and the competencies needed for people to be missional leaders. These sections left me wishing for more. I'd love to hear more about how Breen develops character and how he trains his missional leaders in the necessary competencies. This was a real strength in Steve Saccone's book Protégé. Perhaps this is something that Breen will write more about in the future.

The most challenging and, for me, most helpful section of the book was the 5 Capitals section. In it, Breen writes about 5 forms of capital that missional leaders need:
   Spiritual capital
   Relational capital
   Physical capital
   Intellectual capital
   Financial capital

Breen argues convincingly that all 5 are important and that the list goes down in descending importance. In other words, physical capital is more important that intellectual capital. All of your intellectual resources will do you know good if you are burned out and exhausted. In my experience, most of the leadership training given to potential missional leaders trends heavy on increasing their intellectual capital and hardly ever touches on the other forms of capital. What will it profit a movement if we raise up leaders who know what do do but lack the strength and depth to do it?

One last thing: throughout the book, Breen asks phenomenal and searching questions. I'll be reflecting on these questions for a while. They alone are worth the price of the book.

I would definitely recommend reading Multiplying Missional Leaders, but would caution you: read this book only if you are willing to act on what you learn. It's all too easy to read books like these and do nothing with them, to feel like reading is the same as doing. Don't do it!

Assessing Apologetics Volunteers for Campus

Many college students love apologetics. They have big questions and are looking to have meaningful conversations as they try to sort things out.

We've had a lot of success talking apologetics with students over the years. From Apologetics Moments at Large Group gatherings to Apologetics Small Groups, we've seen students enjoy digging into the conversations.

Lately, I've found apologetics to be an easy on-ramp for potential volunteers. Interested people can train themselves in apologetics by reading books and watching lectures on-line. I've also discovered that several local churches have taken the time and money to train church members to have apologetic conversations. So, how do we figure out if they're ready to engage students?

Here are the questions I ask potential apologetics volunteers:

What have you read? Who are some of your favorite apologetics writers?

This is one way to surface which tribe of apologists the potential volunteer belongs to. Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, Greg Bahnsen, Amy Orr-Ewing, David Kinnaman, Ken Ham and Thomas Aquinas belong to different tribes. They each offer something unique to the conversation.

I need to know where my volunteers are coming from before I toss them into life on campus. Some will fit in great with what we're doing. Others will really struggle. And still others will make me want to pull my hair out.

And for the ones who will fit in well with what we want to see happen on campus, different apologetic tribes work better in different arenas. A Zacharias person would fit well with philosophy majors. A McDowell person will fit great with new believers. An Orr-Ewing person would fit with a student raised in a Christian home asking questions as they consider making their parents' faith their own.

It's important to get the right volunteers on campus.
It's important to get your volunteers in the right place.

What apologetics topics do you expect to come up more often on campus?

This is a way to check my profile from the previous question. I may expect a Bahnsen fan to angle toward presuppositional questions, but they may talk about hypocrisy (something that I would profile as a Kinnaman topic). Tribes aren't absolute and stereotypes aren't always right. We use stereotyping to help us efficiently navigate a complex world, but we frequently need to check our stereotypes to see if they hold true in specific cases (this is also a great principle for cross-cultural ministry).

This question also gives me a gauge on the potential volunteer's experience with this generation of college students. Some questions were really popular in the 90's and aren't being asked on campus anymore. Churches are still training people to answer these questions (and perhaps they're being asked in some circles, even if not on campus). If a volunteer has current experience and extensive experience, it will show up in this question.

How would you tackle that topic?

I usually pick one of the topics they mention in the previous question. Listening to them work gives me a gauge for how they would do with students. Is their answer combative? vague? abstract? narrow? sensitive? relevant? focused?

I had a conversation this week with a potential volunteer about the problem of evil. Though he was a McDowell fan, he didn't shift the conversation to Jesus. Instead, he launched into the free will theodicy (which is a fancy way of saying that God isn't to blame for evil because he just gave us free will and we abused it). His answer was great and true. I'd be happy to have him give it in a Q&A session. But it needed some work. It didn't account for natural evils, like floods and earthquakes (an important conversation with Haitian students). And it didn't account for the pastoral angle on the question (there's small comfort in theodicy).

I recommended some additional books to read (Evil and the Cross and How Long, O Lord?) and explained how I think they would help.

Asking this question does two things:

  • It helps me get a feel for their level of competency
  • It helps me identify developmental areas
One of the best things about working with volunteers is that we get to help them do what they love even better. 

What sort of students do you think would benefit from apologetics on campus?

This opens the door for the expectations conversation.

A lot of people expect hard-core atheists to be attracted to apologetics on campus. And I've met a few. But atheists are rare on college campuses nowadays. More often than not, the sort of student who comes to an apologetics event or Small Group is a Christian student wrestling with questions. If volunteers aren't prepared to receive Christian students, disappointment and conflict will flare up. And if the expectations are really off, students can get hurt.

We have to confront expectations early. This will help volunteers have a great experience on campus.


There are, of course, more questions that we use to screen and position volunteers for campus. But I've found these questions to be really, really helpful. I've been impressed by the quality of the volunteers God's sent our way and really grateful for their service on campus.

If you were assessing apologetics volunteers, what questions would you add?

Book Review: The World Is Not Ours to Save

Activism is extremely popular with college students: sex trafficking, AIDS, workers' rights, abortion, immigration ... cause after cause captures the attention of our students.

There's something beautiful about this generation's passion to make a difference in the world. But students often struggle to connect passion for activism with belief about God.

I deeply appreciated the thought behind Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's new book, The World Is Not Ours to Save. He pushes us to consider our limits and our place in the world that belongs to God. This right view of our place shapes how we engage in activism and work to make the world a better place.

Much of the conversation about Christianity and social activism trends toward two poles: forget the world and focus on God OR take over the world and run it for God. Wigg-Stevenson creates a new pole. How can we either forget or control the world if it ultimately belongs to God?

The books has two flaws. The author tends to get stuck in his stories, forcing them to apply and stretching them to cover all of his ideas. Wigg-Stevenson also tends to lean a little more heavily toward the theoretical, at the expense of the practical. The ideas are wonderful and clearly presented, but it will take some work to translate them into action.

Wigg-Stevenson builds a his big framework for God's kingdom on Micah 4:1-5. He has excellent insights into the passage. At times, I felt like I was reading one of those old British evangelicals, with their precise exegetical outlines. His close attention to the biblical text forces us to consider facets of God's kingdom that often get ignored. I found myself particularly challenged by Wigg-Stevenson's examination of prosperity. Reflecting on Micah's teaching, Wigg-Stevenson notes "Sitting under one's own vine does not imply the pleasures of vacation, but rather the satisfaction at the end of a day's work" (p. 171).

I would definitely recommend this book for group discussion or for one-to-one discipleship.

Collective Effort

I don't often write about our church. I'm hesitant to do so. I don't want to make you jealous. :)

Crossway is doing something special and innovative with youth ministry.

We're at the stage in our church plant where "common wisdom" would advise starting a youth group. Do you know what that would look like? Crossway could pull together a youth band and buy a bunch of boxes of pizza and in a couple of months could have something that kids want to come to.

But here's the problem. Crossway. "Crossway could pull together ..." One church. Newly planted. A great church, but a limited set of resources. And in our faces are thousands and thousand of kids. Kids who won't be reached with the "common wisdom" approach to youth group.

So Crossway is doing something different. We're joining in with two other church plants to start something we're calling "The Collective." Three different church plants are getting together to launch a youth group. Listen to the rationale from Jon Elswick, Crossway's Lead Pastor:

[The Collective] provides an environment where students who attend the same schools, but different churches can connect and build relationships. And perhaps most importantly, it teaches our students from the time they are in middle and high school that what is most important is not one church - but the kingdom of God.
This is a model we're experimenting with in InterVarsity too. What would it look like to organize a ministry strategy around collective effort? What if we built something bigger than ourselves?

Photo by Bill Larned

A Strange Form of Writer's Block

Stop it!

I have a strange form of writer's block.

For most writers, writer's block manifests itself when writers sit to write and can't find anything to say. The ideas fail to flow. The blinking cursor blinks mercilessly. Frustration builds.

But that's not my problem.

I have a lot to say and a lot I'd like to write. I could slam out a post every day without breaking a sweat. I'm sure I would eventually find the bottom of the well, but it would take a while.

No, my problem is different.

Over the course of a month, I wrote posts that convinced some people that I had abandoned my Christian faith and others that I was suicidal. I have no idea how they came to those conclusions. That certainly wasn't my intention when I wrote those posts.

It's tempting, when your writing is misunderstood, to blame the audience. "They don't understand nuance" and "What did they read?" and "Did they even bother to read the piece?" I found myself frustrated and afraid. These misunderstandings can have real consequences.

It's also tempting, when your writing is misunderstood, to blame yourself. "Am I that unclear?" or "Maybe I shared too much" or "Should I even keep writing?" I found myself confused and silent. Why write publicly if I can't make myself be understood?

The act of writing publicly makes yourself vulnerable. And it isn't always pleasant.

But I'm going to keep writing anyways, whether I'm understood or not.

Maybe, perhaps, once I get beyond my writer's block, I'll grow as a writer and develop thick skin and a clear voice, thick and clear enough to skip over these writer's blocks in the future.

Have you ever had writer's block? Where did it come from?

ps. The best way I know of to break through writer's block is to start writing. Write anything. Just start. Before you know it, you'll be writing better and better words.

Photo courtesy of FindYourSearch