Overcoming the Monster: What Story Are You Telling?

In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, he outlines the fact that every story we tell ourselves as human beings – since the beginning of time, whether around the campfire or in a big budget superhero movie – all fit into seven basic categories:

1 – Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. (Beowulf, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Wars, Jaws, The Dark Knight, James Bond, Jurassic Park)

2 – Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. (Cinderella, Aladdin, Pretty Woman)

3 – The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. (Iliad, Indiana Jones)

4 – Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience. (The Lord of the Rings, Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Interstellar)

5 – Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Bean, Dumb and Dumber)

6 – Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad)

7 – Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. (Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me).

This observation – that we find these same basic story structures all over the world, and throughout time, is fascinating in and of itself – but the thing I was pondering recently, especially since we just came through eight straight parables Jesus taught in Matthew 13 at our church, was the power of stories and their place in our lives, and more specifically, how we can leverage that to influence others in every area of life from ministry, to business, to even raising our own kids.

Trump vs. Hillary 

Let me use an illustration from American politics. It surprised everyone that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the end. The media, the politicians, and the institutions were all surprised, and of course there are complex reasons why he did beyond my understanding, but I think one reason he won is because he told a better story than she did (whether that story is true or mean-spirited, etc., is again, not the point). Whatever one thinks of the content of the story he told, they must admit it was a clear, large, simple, and compelling. It was about bad guys and good guys and an old America which was perfect and wonderful, and simple solutions to get America back there again (a combination of “Overcoming the Monster” and “Voyage and Return”). And it was a story that invited people into it.

The power of story is its ability to influence and capture the imagination of millions of people, and to influence them in one direction or another. Not to equate the one with the other : ), but this is the same reason Jesus brought his message of salvation and the kingdom in the form of stories and not just prose. Stories inspire, re-frame the world, turn facts into meaning, answer our biggest questions, and in so doing, change our very behaviour. It’s why we shouldn’t just answer our kids questions with straightforward answers, but tell them stories about why the answers are what they are. Frame their lives in the context of the larger narrative of the world to help them find their place in it.

What story are you telling?

What churches, ministers, charities, and businesses need to ask when thinking about how they get their message out most effectively is “What story am I telling?” “Is it compelling, big, inspiring, and inviting enough?” “Is it clear, or convoluted and complicated?” “Is it boring or exciting?” “Am I presenting just facts, or something more – a mythology?”

I am watching the Netflix show The Crown right now. Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen is one of the most moving scenes of the whole show, and while the guests are watching it on TV, there comes a part in the ceremony when they put a barricade around the Queen so the audience can’t see and a group watching the TV ask why they blocked the cameras, and the answer one of the characters gives is telling:

“Symbol upon symbol,” he says. “An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it.” “It’s crazy,” one of his guests remarks.

“On the contrary, it’s perfectly sane,” he replies. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose, when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. Wrap her up like this and anoint her with oil and hey, presto — what do you have? A goddess.”

The sub-story

As a Pastor and church leader I have the greatest story of all time to tell on a weekly basis: the story of the gospel of Jesus, and how it in many ways is the combination of all of the seven basic plots (think for instance how the story of Jesus is all about “Overcoming the Monster” of Satan, sin and death, how it is “Voyage and Return,” of Jesus from Heaven to earth, and a “Rags to Riches” story as well, with Jesus as a poor baby who is vindicated in the end). The question for a church leader then, as an example, becomes the sub-story that you invite your city, community, church, or guy in the coffeeshop into as a local expression of that larger story of the gospel.

What local monster can you overcome? What global ones can you kill together? When we do our annual Golf Tournament, this is what we do. The Monster of slavery and sex trafficking needs to be defeated and we are invited in to overcome it. What great Quest and adventure are we all on as disciples of Jesus to “get to the location” of heaven in the end, “facing many obstacles and temptations along the way”?

When my wife Erin and I lead Marriage Conferences we often end, not by cute stories and how-to’s of ‘communicating better’ and ‘having a better sex life,’ but by explaining that the most important thing for their marriage is to be swept up into the mission God has for their lives as a married couple: to together push back the evil in the world, to love and bless the poor, and to fight sin and Satan in the lives of their friends and families, and in their own hearts, and that if they are busy in the trenches doing that they won’t have time to turn the guns on each other. Usually at the end of this rallying cry people cheer and amen and clap. And when I ask them why they usually say they’ve never thought of their marriage in this context of the global spiritual war around them and their place within it before and it helps to frame their problems (usually making them look small and insignificant) and give them something to work toward together.

So, if you own a business, or lead a church, or even just a family – what story are you telling to frame your lives, your product, or your mission? Is it big enough? Clear enough? Compelling enough? And does it invite people in? If not, work hard at figuring out a way to do so. Why? Because, as Elias Canetti once pointed out, in his Nobel Prize winning book, The Voices of Marrakesh:

“The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest…their words come from further off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people.”

Indeed.

And as a Pastor I admit, I want people to linger. I want people to stay longest, to hear the greatest story ever told and one that can change their lives now and forever. A story about a God who loves them, and died to save them. Who overcame the monster for them, so they never have to. Who turned a Tragedy into a story of Rebirth – and who now invites everyone to experience the joy of that accomplishment.

Q & A Friday: Is there a profile for a church planter?

Hey Mark. I was looking for some advice on church planting. I feel a strong call to plant a church in my city. I was just wondering how do I know if I am called and gifted to start and lead a church?

This is a delicate question for two reasons. First, because I don’t think one size fits all when it comes to church planting. Some planters are more adept at preaching and teaching, and others at caring for people. We need all kinds of different churches to reach all kinds of different people. Second, because it is such a specific question of calling, which is often hard to measure. For instance, when networks evaluate whether a person should plant a church, they are not evaluating whether they are fit for ministry, or being a pastor in general, but planting in particular, which is a whole other question. There were couples Erin and I were assessed with back in 2008 who were told not to plant a church, but that didn’t mean they should leave ministry altogether at all.

Having said that there are things the Bible says about this role which are important to reflect on. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that God has given certain gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (v. 7-11), what has come to be known as APEST. What are these roles? In their book The Shaping of Things to Come, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch lay them out this way:

The entrepreneur = the apostle (they start new works, are groundbreakers and strategists, who initiate an organizations mission – i.e., missionaries, church planters, para-church leaders, etc.).

The questioner = the prophet (they disturb the status quo, they question the way things are, are theologically deep, and communicate both their questions and their theological answers in a compelling way. They have a deep pining to see holiness around them and to connect people to truth).

The recruiter = the evangelist (they reach new people with the gospel, lead people to Jesus, and rally and inspire people on to mission; they take the message of the organization to those outside and sell it to them).

The humanizer = the shepherd (they love and counsel people well, care deeply for the soul and spiritual well-being of people, love one on one discipleship and relationships; they provide the organizational glue by caring for the individuals inside it).

The systematizer = the teacher (they take concepts and boil them down to simple ideas and sustainable principles for peoples lives, they explain and communicate well, and create sustainable systems for on-going functionality).[1]

In another of his works, Hirsch explains that these roles are not only different from one another but that they actually end up flowing chronologically in how they play out in the world. That each one progressively creates the environment for the next one to be activated:

The APOSTOLIC (a new missionary endeavor, a new church, etc.,) creates the context that gives birth to all the other ministries. It establishes the covenant community, which then leads to the PROPHETIC, which is a ministry that explains what God has to say to a community, and ensures that the holiness of God is honored and truth is respected, which then leads to the EVANGELISTIC, which, now that what God has said/is saying is made clear, one can come into relationship with that God. Without the evangelistic ministry there is no basis for pastoral ministry.

Once people do come to Jesus then the SHEPHERDING/PASTORAL function is initiated. The pastor cares for people to the point that they understand the need for Christlikeness, which is the environment for the TEACHING function, which leads the community and the individual to maturity, understanding and mission.

In light of this then we are in a better place to understand which gift set would best make up a church planter. To undertake the task of starting and leading a missional movement and be able to build the teams to minister to the new people one reaches is done most effectively, not exclusively of course, if a church planter is gifted within the first three categories (APE), with proportional skills in the others (ST).

In the context of a post-Christian context which is opposed to the gospel, and which needs to hear, see, and feel it afresh, one needs to have vision, and competency to move the pieces around the chess board at 30,000 feet, while organizing and inspiring teams of people in a sustainable way (A), have theological conviction/acumen and the gift to call others to repentance, truth, and holiness (P), and have a proven track record of leading people into a saving relationship with Jesus (E).

Once all this foundational, ground level work is done (and is done over and over again), the work of the ST’s takes over in order to grow, disciple, and train up disciples, leaders, those who have been reached by the work and ministry of the APE.

One last caveat: this is not ministry done by one lone ranger. The APE needs to gather around themselves all different types of people and activate them to the mission to reach and train up people, which is the whole point Paul makes in Ephesians 4. We have these gifts “in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v.12). And thus the cycle begins of hopefully a healthy and reproducing organism that is reaching and discipling people in the ways of Jesus.

If you are interested in next steps apply for assessment at C2C Network, an amazing church planting network planting gospel-centered churches across Canada at an amazing rate!

________________________________

[1] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson Publishing: 2003), 175.

Transformation Trios: how they work & the 15 questions.

In light of another pastor/leader I admired years ago having moral failure and being removed from ministry this week by his church, on Sunday I talked about the accountability that I was pursuing in my personal life to help me grow closer to Jesus devotionally, and to help guard against sin and temptation in my life which “so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1-3) – a scary verse if there ever was one. This was based on Jesus teaching about ‘secret sin’ (Matthew 10:26). I also challenged those who make up Village Church to pursue similar relationships/community in their lives. I told them I was going to be starting what my friends church in Amsterdam (Crossroads Church) calls Transformation Trios. I had many people asking to get the information on how this works, so here is the concept if you want to join in:

What is a Transformation Trio?

A Transformation Trio (TT) is a grassroots tool for discipleship and spiritual growth. It is a group of three people that gets together regularly (usually every week) to grow in discipleship and pursue life transformation by sharing what God has spoken to them through reading his Word that week, being accountable to each other, and praying for each other and for those who do not know Jesus yet.

Characteristics:
* A TT meets once a week/every other week for approximately one hour (at a time which works best for all participants).
* A TT is made up of 3 persons of the same gender (because of gender related accountability questions).
* There is no curriculum involved other than the Bible and a list of accountability questions.
* New members will naturally learn as they join an existing group, so no on-going training is required.
* There is no leader in these groups. They are peer based and everyone participates.

*We encourage each group to select a book of the Bible to read through during the week. Together you agree on how much reading to do each week. The number of chapters per week varies per group but ranges from 7 to 30 chapters per week. If the group is reading a book of the Bible with fewer chapters – e.g. James -they may agree to read the book through two or three times in one week.

We believe that real accountability stimulates growth and confessing our sins to each other gives inner freedom and healing (see James 5:16). At each meeting group members ask each another questions which stimulate conversations about character, life-style and confession of sin. This should happen in a safe environment that values honesty, vulnerability, confidentiality, and grace.

The list of accountability questions to ask one another each week are these:

1. How have you sensed God’s presence during this past week?

2. Have you taken enough time to be with God alone in prayer?
3. Have you received a specific answer to your prayers?
4. How did you do in your Bible reading this week?
5. What has God been speaking to you through his Word this week? 6. How can you respond to this?

7. Did you express a loving and forgiving attitude toward others?
8. Have you remained pure sexually?
9. Have you lacked integrity in your financial dealings or coveted something which does not belong to you?
10. Have you taken enough time to rest?
11. Do you need to confess any other sin?
12. Did you pray for your non-Christian friends?
13. Did you share Jesus with someone (in word or deed)?
14. What worries or other issues are you currently facing?
15. What would you like to pray about?

I pray that you can find two people you trust enough to do this with in your life and that you stick with it!

Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle.

I am reading a book right now by Brad Lomenick (a leadership consultant and founder of Catalyst) called H3 Leadership. The thesis is simple. Good leadership takes 3 ingredients: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle.

I shared these three concepts with our staff last week.

If you are a leader, pastor, church planter, business leader, blue collar worker, or stay at home mom – these three H’s are essential to success and effectiveness in life.

Be Humble – Humble people aren’t always the quiet people. Humble people ask lots of questions, ask for help, look to always learn, investigate, find better ways, pray a lot, try not to be the hero of every story they tell, and listen to others to get perspective on themselves. They admit they don’t have answers to every question. People generally like humility more than arrogance, and are drawn to humble leaders and humble people.

Stay Hungry. This is lacking a ton in the church world. In the business world people have hunger for financial gain, a promotion, etc., but in the church world these incentives do not exist in the same way, so what I find is a large amount of people who just kind of got into ministry – sometimes because they aren’t very good at anything else. They were floaters, liked warm spaces, drinking coffee, and not a lot of heavy lifting, so… ministry! But they aren’t necessarily hungry to move forward, expand, reach more people (or do what it takes to reach more people, which is change, adapt, live with complexity and stress and challenge), so they take it slow, and coast. They are happy with who is around, and their heart doesn’t break for the lost among them. At least not enough to cause them to go the extra mile, work a little harder, or make the sacrifices no one else can make. All because many are not hungry enough. They settle, and are satisfied.

Always Hustle. A guidance counselor at a local Bible College recently told a new student that of all the churches he could work at, to avoid Village Church because we would work him like a horse. He immediately left the office and came to Village looking for a job. Why? because he knew that’s the best thing for him. He is that high quality. An H3 leader never mails it in. They always go over and above. They don’t punch clocks. They don’t ask about vacation time in first job interviews. They put their head down, and work tirelessly for the cause. And 9 times out of 10 that work gets rewarded, and they get ahead. Not because hard work equals magic, but because hard work equals better work, which usually equals getting ahead.

Years ago I asked a person working for us to go and do something that I didn’t have time for that day. They responded that it wasn’t in their job description. It took me a minute to realize that they weren’t kidding. I spent the next few weeks helping them re-think how they view their work hoping to instill in them as much hustle as possible.

The reason I would want to take the time to do that is because we don’t really view people as employees but rather as leaders. And good leaders don’t approach things like that. They stay humble, while being driven by a hunger, and hustle in all they do.

What You Can Learn From ‘The Tipping Point’

I was talking with a friend this week about one of the most talked about water cooler books of the last many years, Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Tipping Point, and was reminded of how good it was and how it helped me when I was planting Village Church. It emphasizes an important basic biblical principle – that little things matter because they lead to big things.

Why did God take the kingship away from Saul? Because he didn’t wait for Samuel. Why didn’t God let Moses go into the Promised Land? Because he hit a rock with a staff instead of speaking to it.

It’s the little things. They are everything.

What is a Tipping Point?
The Tipping Point revolves around the little things as they relate to social epidemics. What is a ‘Tipping Point’? Gladwell says:

It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990’s, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted. When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking – wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point?

He says there are three things that cause something to ‘tip’:

(1) The Law of the Few: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills.” Gladwell describes these people in the following ways:

  • Connectors are the people with a special gift for bringing the world together. To illustrate, Gladwell cites the midnight ride of Paul Revere, who was successful not because he had a loud voice or just because the message was important (the Red Coats are coming!) but because he knew everybody. He was connected.
  • Mavens are “information specialists”, or people we rely on to connect us with new information. They accumulate knowledge, and know how to share it with others.
  • Salesmen are “persuaders”, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, that makes others want to agree with them.

(2) The Stickiness Factor: the specific content of a message that makes it memorable and have impact. The children’s television programs Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues are specific instances of enhancing stickiness and systematically engineering stickiness into a message.

(3) The Power of Context: Human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” For example, how “zero tolerance” efforts to combat minor crimes such as fare-beating and vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes city-wide such as murder. Here he talks of the now famous ‘broken windows theory.’

For the Christian/pastor/church planter
For a Christian in general, and more specifically a pastor, and a church planter, studying social epidemics and how they spread is pretty well mandatory if we want to be successful at spreading the most important social epidemic in history: the advancement of the gospel of Jesus. I read this book asking: How do we use these basic principles of a spreading epidemic to reach more people with the message of Jesus?

How do we make the gospel the fastest growing epidemic to bring about change the world has every seen? Such is the challenge before the church.

We use the Law of the Few, recognizing that like most things in life, the 80-20 rule is true about reaching people for Christ as well – large amounts of people are going to be reached and impacted not by the masses (for a plethora of reasons) but by a few – ‘connectors’ – gifted and called by God to reach people. For a planter, strategically, one needs to be good then at identifying, pouring into and leveraging these ‘few’ people for the cause of Christ. A hard thing to admit but just true.

We use the stickiness of the message of the Bible to reach our culture? The beautiful combination of history (reason) and art that it is. Which is why Jesus was both a great theologian and a great story teller. A Rationalist and a Romantic.

We use the power of context – including church communities, their personalities, attitudes, and behaviors, and how those all interact with and at times subvert their host culture, for the spreading of the message of Jesus.

These of course are just suggestions of how we could use the lessons of The Tipping Point to serve the God. Take them or leave them. The bottom line is we as the church should be working day and night on the small things which are going to have big impact – and pray that the message of Jesus ‘tips’ in our generation – for the glory of God and the good of people!

Leaders, who do you spend time with?

Awhile ago I was sitting around with some leaders of a church. They are doing a great job at developing leaders, and I was there to spend some time with their team and learn. At one point I asked them how they decide which leaders to spend time with?

Why that question? Because in ministry, like life, there are so many people one could spend time with and you have to be strategic even in this. So you are stewarding your time and resources well. Notice the question is not who do you spend time with? There are a variety of kinds of people we should spend time with in life, especially as a pastor: rich, poor, healthy, sick, those in the centre of your church ministry and those on the margins who just showed up; the most encouraging people and the most critical (how else do you learn, and get better!?) – the question is about leadership specifically.

Among the hundreds and sometimes thousands of leaders we could spend time with (developing, learning from, etc.,) we have to figure out who to spend it with, because we only have so much of it and we can’t spend it with everyone. After all Jesus spent most of his time with only 12 guys (and within that, he had 3 disciples he spent even more time with, and within that 1 guy he poured into the most).

Their answer helped me greatly: “When someone leans into us,” he said, “we lean back.”

There is wisdom here.

There have been many times in my life I have spent hour after hour with leaders who simply weren’t interested in being developed, or learning from whatever I had to offer (which sometimes admittedly isn’t much!). In the end, these hours were often a waste of time. On the other hand there have been men and women who have showed very high interest in learning, growing, and getting better, and asked me to help them get there – in other words they leaned in; and spending time with these people was never a waste of time. They grow, they learn and they teach me – and every time, whether it’s one day, or an ongoing ministry relationship, both parties go away better.

So, for you in your life. As you sift through the priorities of life – which friends to spend time with, or business relationships to invest in; when someone leans into you, lean back. And if you lean toward someone, and they lean away, think hard before spending too much time chasing them around thinking you have something to teach them.

Either you don’t, or they aren’t ready for it.