Friday, December 31, 2010

Favorite Blogs of 2010

Every year, I go through this little ritual of reviewing my blog posts from the previous year and posting my top ten personal favorites. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Naming of Eve
From Elevation to Garden to City
Five Reasons I Love the Protege Program

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Leadership Lessons From Steve Corn

Tonight, the Mathews family and Plash family found their way to the Sawyer abode for the annual gathering of friends, fun, and laughter. I pulled Steve Corn out of the madness for a couple minutes to talk about leadership. Despite the insanity going on in the background, Steve shared some great nuggets.

Bottom line- young leaders need wisdom. You find that in relationships. And you find it in reading.

Follow Steve on twitter at @stevecorn or check out his blog at

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Leadership Lessons From Chris Douglas

I met Chris Douglas in Free Speech Alley on the campus of Louisiana State University in 1990-something. He was crazy enough to be in the first small group I ever led and went on to serve as a youth pastor, a music minister, a church planting team member, and now works with the programming department of his church in Louisiana.

Today, I joined up with him again at Free Speech Alley and asked him what one piece of advice he would share with young leaders. The video below contains his answer. At dinner, he expounded on one statement he made.
"Success was not the goal. Obedience was." That's good stuff. And it's one of the reasons Chris is a great leader.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Cross at Christmas

We are reading through the Bible together at NCC this year. This week's reading landed us in the book of Luke, where we find the most important question ever asked in Luke 7:20: “But who do you say that I am?” In one of Peter’s better moments, he answers with confidence and clarity, “The Christ of God.” Jesus then begins to expound on what that means. The next seven verses contain cheery talk of crosses and death. First, Jesus announces that he will die. Second, he challenges his followers that they, too, will be required to lose their lives.

During the season of Christmas, we embrace talk of life, joy, peace and love. We wish one another happy holidays and strive to spread goodwill to men. On greeting cards of the Nativity scene, we write prayers of hope, health, and prosperity. And yet the baby shown in that stone feeding trough for animals had come for one purpose. To die. One goal. The cross.

To proclaim him as the Christ at Christmas requires us to embrace the cross every other day of the year. Anything less is at best ignorance or at worst hypocrisy.

Everything in history moved towards the cross, and all of history since orients around it. Following Jesus does not simply mean singing some carols about angels or giving generously to a good cause or enjoying the community of family and friends. We are clearly told we must take up our cross and follow him-- so that we may lose our lives in order to find life in Him.

Let me encourage you to do a couple things over the next two days. First, take some time each day to thank Jesus for the cross. Second, consider what it means to take up your cross this Christmas. What does that look like for you?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas in Mobile

Well, the ritual begins in 12 hours. Ryan and I will board a jet plane and head to the balmy South for Christmas. It's the year to be in Sawyer territory, and I'm looking forward to a week filled with family, friends, football, and fried turkey.

Here are just a few things I'm looking forward to:
  • Sarah Kate's birthday party
  • Hunting for dinosaurs with little Ruthie
  • Playing Settlers of Catan late into the night
  • Making gingerbread castles (yes, castles)
  • Christmas caroling in the neighborhood
  • Bringing back some great Fisher family tales
  • Raising Cane's, Los Rancheros, Carpe Diem, Dew Drop Inn, etc.
  • Seeing the Mathews family and the Plash family
We may sneak in a trip to Baton Rouge or a New Years trek downtown to see the big moonpie drop. One thing I know. It will be an epic good time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This Ain't FedEx

Team D-- the NCC Discipleship Team-- is writing a series of blogs about things that no one ever told us about small group leadership. Today, I challenge you to be committed for the long haul.

Once upon a time, someone stumbled upon my blog because they had done a Google search on "how to shorten the discipleship process." I promptly wrote a new post to inform that person they should quit their job. This ain't FedEx; it's discipleship.

Jesus instructed us to make disciples. Not find them. If the people in our groups are not growing, it's our fault. If we get discouraged after one month or one year or even three, we haven't yet grasped that discipleship takes time. Twelve Galilean guys spent three focused years with Jesus himself and still didn't show up for the prayer meeting on the most important night in history.

I think it's tough to be a small group pastor in a church culture that loves the event. It's easy to share wins about events-- we have instant success, instant data, instant results. Life change happens much more slowly and imperceptibly, and it requires us to be committed for the long haul. If you think making disciples happens within the context of a once-a-week small group in a semester, you are crazy.

Change happens slowly. Gradual, consistent change over time is the best kind and the most lasting. Keep investing, keep praying, keep plowing the ground. Eventually, you will see fruit.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Don't Answer That Question

Team D-- the NCC Discipleship Team-- is writing a series of blogs about things that no one ever told us about small group leadership. Today, let's focus on asking great questions.

I used to think that my role as the small group leader was to be the primary dispenser of information. To teach, to enlighten, to share my wisdom. Someone please help me understand why I thought I was qualified to do that?

I wish I had learned this simple principle much earlier: My primary role is not to answer questions. My primary role is to spark the right questions.

Honestly, I believe that the best spiritual leaders are not those who know the most answers but those who lead people to the best questions. That's what Jesus did. And I think we can all argue that he is the best spiritual leader who has ever lived. Scripture records 307 questions that Jesus asked. He only directly answered 3 of the 183 questions asked of him. He often answered question with question.

Henri Nouwen said, "We have to keep looking for the spiritual questions if we want spiritual answers."

I'm learning more and more about the art of asking powerful questions. The skill of a leader who seeks to draw out instead of cram in. Powerful questions can lead people to develop richer theology, a greater hunger for the Word, and a more robust spiritual life.

The goal of the leader is not to answer all the questions; it's to lead people to the best ones.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Throw Away the Workbook

Team D-- the NCC Discipleship Team-- is writing a series of blogs about things that no one ever told us about small group leadership. Today, I challenge you to throw away the workbook.

The best conversations are not found in the workbook. Throw them out.

That was a bit extreme. A few qualifiers and disclaimers:
  • If you are an NCC leader, you may want to discover the joy of curriculum. I know a lot of you don't use it because you are so dang entrepreneurial. And I love that about you. But curriculum can give your group some great tracks to run on.
  • I like curriculum. (Warning: shameless self-promotion ahead) I wrote a curriculum. You should check it out.
On the other hand...
  • Just because you are using curriculum does not mean you are leading a transformational community. For that matter, just because you lead a Bible study doesn't mean you are necessarily making disciples.
  • If getting through the curriculum becomes the goal, you've got the wrong goal.
Some of the best groups I've ever seen aren't concerned about getting through the curriculum; they are concerned with getting the curriculum through their people. The best conversations are not typically found in the blanks on the sheets of the workbook. They are found in the organic places-- when we are eating together, praying together, playing together, and serving together. When those elements are a part of your group, you look a lot more like Jesus' band of merry misfits. Their arguments didn't happen over a blank in a workbook. Their arguments happened over their status on the team, over the proper way to heal a person, over who would go buy the food for the masses on the hillside. Stuff like that.

Make sure your group is playing together, praying together, eating together, and serving together. You can go deeper if you take the group experience outside the living room.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Normality is Not Normal

Team D-- the NCC Discipleship Team-- is writing a series of blogs about things that no one ever told us about small group leadership. Today, I share one of my favorite lines from John Ortberg: Everyone is normal until you get to know them.

Everyone is normal until you get to know them. It's the title of a great book by John Ortberg (seriously- one of the best books on Christian community) and a line that makes me chuckle every time I hear it.

It reminds me of some small groups I used to lead. In the distant past, of course. Several years ago I led a small group that I was convinced was the most perfect group God ever put together. I couldn’t believe it—it was full of young, smart, likable, energetic, and attractive twenty-somethings who seemed eager and hungry to grow in their relationship with God. We had great discussions about the Bible and experienced great community life throughout the week. It seemed to be my year of Jubilee, granted to me by the pleasure of God in return for all the crazy groups I led in college. I was convinced that God could change the world through us.

Until I got a phone call from my co-leader. He prefaced the conversation with this: “Are you sitting down?” He proceeded to tell me that two single individuals in the group—one of whom we were raising up as a potential leader—were sleeping together. In fact, they had been living together without our knowing. That was just the beginning. As we began to walk through that, we discovered sin messes in the lives of other group members, as well. And I even had to come face to face with a few of my own.

Discipleship is hard. People are weird. Community is messy. It's not just sin messes. It's life messes and relationship messes and just day to day messes that happen when assume that people are normal. Most people seem normal...until you get to know them.

Community happens the moment everyone takes off their masks. Sometimes a mess needs to be cleaned up or a wound needs to be tended or a heart needs to be mended. But no matter which way you slice it, normality is really not normal. The sooner your group gets to the point of that realization and becomes comfortable with it, the sooner you will find real community.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tooting Their Horn- Bittersweet Dreams

High Street. Edinburgh, Scotland. August 2008.

Outside, the din of the Fringe Festival runs well into the night. It's somewhere around 2am, and we probe our incredibly hospitable and interesting new friends about their stories and dreams.

A group of creative professionals that would provide design solutions to businesses and non-profits to generate income to raise awareness of organizations fighting injustice around the world and publish a magazine that would creatively tell their stories. That was the dream of Kate Schmidgall. Or the dream as best as I can remember it. As I listened to her quiet and humble yet audacious heart, I knew I was experiencing a prophetic moment. I knew it would happen.

Just a little over two years later, I stood in the midst of a very crowded studio in Washington, DC as people moved from booth to booth, purchasing Christmas presents from Amanda Ya Juu, Jewel Girl, Opportunity International, WorkUp, and other organizations making a difference locally and internationally. It was the first Christmas Party by Bittersweet Creative Group and the release of their second Bittersweet pilot magazine.

Bittersweet Creative Group is the manifestation of Kate's dream. This group of creative professionals offer their creative gifts to provide identity and branding, print design, and web design and development services to organizations. Meanwhile, they generate funds and leverage their influence to raise awareness of local and international justice issues and highlight the work that is being done to bring hope, healing, and empowerment. A lot of organizations show us what is going wrong in the world. Bittersweet goes into the tension to show us that God is present everywhere...even in hell. Or as close as we get to hell on earth.

And their design product is dang good.

Here's what I'm learning from Kate:
  • If God has given you a dream, he wants to see it happen even more than you do.
  • God can shock you with how successful that dream can become.
  • You need to pursue a dream that is bigger than you.
  • Even if you don't have it all figured out, start. Take a step.
  • Get the right people on the team.
  • God blesses the work that points people towards his heart.
  • Creative work done by those who claim Christ must be excellent.
I'm thinking about starting a new feature on this blog called Tooting Their Horn to highlight some of the awesome things that awesome NCCers are doing. Or maybe it will just be a one time thing as I'm sitting here thinking about how awesome Kate Schmidgall is.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Don't Want to Go to Group...and I'm the Leader

Team D-- the NCC Discipleship Team-- is writing a series of blogs about things that no one ever told us about small group leadership. Today, I acknowledge that there are times that I really don't want to go to my group.

Let's be honest. Every now and then we just don't want to go to small group. Even though we are the leader. Especially because we are the leader. Maybe it's been a long day and we are tired. Maybe we just don't have the relational capacity to deal with the long talker, the weird talker, and the person that lingers for an hour after everyone else leaves. There are nights when we just don't care about that prayer request for Aunt Beulah. Or...we didn't have time to do our homework that week.

If you haven't experienced this yet, you probably haven't been leading for more than a few months. Or you are a much better person than I.

What do you do when the last place you want to be is your own group? It's time for a motivation check.

There are a lot of reasons we step into small group leadership. For some of us, it is a genuine love for people and desire to see them grow. For others, it is an opportunity to invest their gifts. Some see a need and want to fill it. There are a few that simply cannot not lead. But at the end of the day, there is only one viable and valid reason for doing what we do--

To see God’s named honored and glorified in our generation.

Our love for people will fade every now and then. There will come a situation when we question our giftedness and a day when our passion will wane. The cost/benefits of meeting the need we see will not add up. We must do it for God and God alone.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Spirit of Peace

We've entered into a season where we start to feel the “Spirit of Christmas.” For Ryan and me, it started on Thanksgiving night with a family viewing of Elf and continued with a tour of the Christmas lights at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. Getting into the Christmas spirit for us means going to see the Zoolights at the National Zoo and going to Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center. It includes watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on television-- although I would love for someone to tell me how that is not a Halloween movie...the Island of Misfit Toys is the creepiest thing I have ever seen. I just posted a list of 30 things that I love doing at Christmas to celebrate the Christmas spirit.

The “true Spirit of Christmas” is a topic that people have pontificated about in songs and books and Christmas greetings for hundreds of years. But I might submit that the true Spirit of Christmas can be found in the person of the Holy Spirit himself.

At NCC, we are reading through the Bible together this year, and last week we began our Christmas readings in Isaiah and Luke. As our team began reading through them, we were struck by the prominent role that the Holy Spirit plays in the Christmas story. We are very accustomed to thinking about God the Father sending His Son. But we don’t often think about what that third person of the Trinity is up to. Isaiah refers to the role of the Spirit at Christmas at least half a dozen times—that the Spirit will come on Christ and empower him to preach and heal and minister. To rule with justice and to bring peace. In Luke, the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will bear a Son. When Elizabeth sees her cousin Mary, we are told that she was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was upon Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and he prophesied about the coming of Messiah. The Holy Spirit came upon Simeon in the Temple and he looked forward to seeing Messiah before he died.

The Holy Spirit plays a prominent role in the Christmas story. He conceived Christ in Mary. And he pointed people towards the coming Christ. The true Spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit himself. And if we are to live in the true Spirit of Christmas, it means we must be filled with the Spirit. It means allowing the Spirit to conceive Christ in us and living in such a way that our lives point to Christ. Then, we experience and become conduits for the Spirit of peace, love, and joy.

I kicked off Spirit of Peace last Sunday. You can view it or listen to it here.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Groups Are Stubborn

Team D-- the NCC Discipleship Team-- is writing a series of blogs about things that no one ever told us about small group leadership. Today, I talk about the stubbornness of groups.

Small groups are stubborn. Especially when it comes to that dreaded topic of splitting. Or as we like to spin it as small group pastors, "multiplying."

Community is tricky. It takes time to build it. And the reward we give to those who are successful is a stick to break them up and force them to start all over again. I came into small group leadership looking at multiplication as the goal-- the finish line-- the trophy of success. Little did I know my group would resist it. They would avoid it like the plague.

No matter how much we teach on the value of growing and multiplying, the reality is that most people don't want to form deep relationships only to have them torn apart 9-18 months later. Here are some things that might help us:
  1. Talk about the right goal. Talk about the idea of discipleship early and often. The goal is not really multiplication, even though practically and strategically that's what we tend to focus on. The goal is reproducing disciples. And if that is happening, then there has to be a strategic model for making that happen. We've got to get our theology right and talk about it until we are sick of it so that our group members understand the reason why.
  2. Pioneer groups. Focus on "pioneering groups" instead of "multiplying" groups. Instead of the traditional grow and split, grow and split paradigm, we have moved to a model of encouraging a leader and a core group of 2-3 to split off of a group to form a new group. It's a win-win. The new group gets sent off like missionaries from the original group. Now, multiplication is something the group makes happen as opposed to it being something that happens to them.
  3. Share stories. If all else fails (and it will), share stories of people who were able to find community because a group took the hard step of opening of space for new people. Sometimes, people just need to remember what it was like when they really needed a group of friends and how much they appreciated having an open seat in a group.
  4. Go multi-site. Two groups this semester had over 30 people show up on the first night of group meeting. Their solution? Go multi-site. The large group met together for dinner, snacks, and fellowship time. Then broke into smaller groups for discussion. This is a great way to ease a "small" group into multiplication and to sneak some reluctant leaders into new roles.
  5. Create networks. Keep multiplied groups together through a network of coaching huddles or outreach teams. Create opportunities for them to continue to connect regularly.
  6. Look at other models. We can always consider the closed group model like Northpoint Community Church implements.
What do you do to encourage the stubborn group to multiply?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Christmas List

I post this every year, but it's one of the few that I think is worth a re-post. In no particular order, thirty-one Christmas experiences that I believe every person should have at least once.
  1. See Handel's Messiah live.
  2. Participate in a live nativity.
  3. Get your picture taken with Santa Claus as an adult.
  4. Read the Christmas story as a family.
  5. Go to a multi-hundred-voice, over-produced spectacular Christmas production at your local Baptist mega-church.
  6. Participate in a multi-hundred-voice, over-produced spectacular Christmas production at your local Baptist mega-church.
  7. Attend a carols by candlelight service.
  8. Make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
  9. Leave out cookies for Santa Claus.
  10. Eat the cookies left for Santa Claus.
  11. Go Christmas caroling in your neighborhood or at the nursing home.
  12. Wear a really ugly Christmas sweater.
  13. Listen to someone yodel through Silent Night (I witnessed this at a Lutheran church in Oregon last Christmas...I am not kidding you! I saw "yodeler" listed in the program and started laughing. I was not disappointed).
  14. See Polar Express in IMAX 3D.
  15. Watch A Christmas Story 5 times back-to-back on TBS.
  16. String popcorn, cheerios, fruit loops, etc. Eat more than you string.
  17. Make a gingerbread house.
  18. Pack a shoebox for Samaritans Purse Christmas Child.
  19. Send a letter to Santa.
  20. Watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (this one should happen every Christmas)
  21. Cut down your own tree after at least 2 hours of deliberation. Preferably a Charlie Brown tree.
  22. Give a gift to your post officer and trash collector.
  23. Go shopping on Christmas Eve.
  24. Finish your Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving.
  25. Give the gift of time to someone who really needs it.
  26. Kiss someone under the mistletoe.
  27. Fry the turkey.
  28. Play football with your family after eating the fried turkey.
  29. Decorate your house with something really outrageous and embarrassing.
  30. Read a bunch of children's Christmas books with friends.
  31. Go see the Nutcracker.
What would you add?