discipleship leadership

Meeting People Where They Are

Recently, I had a seminary assignment to write out a personal philosophy of leadership.  The process of clarifying and writing my thoughts was very helpful for me, and I thought I would share it as a series here on the blog.


Meeting People Where They Are

The apostle Paul writing to the Ephesian church speaks to this holistic aspect of discipleship. He writes:

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The goal of each and every believer is to serve and lead in such a way that the body of Christ builds itself up in love. If that’s the goal, then the proper working of each part is needed and thus each individual must grow up into him who is the head. Simply put, the more each of us looks like Jesus then the more the body of Christ will grow.

Understanding with clarity where Jesus desires the follower to go provides a clear vision for the forward-looking direction of the leader.  The other half of the task of leadership is to understand where an individual or an organization is.  Casting a compelling vision for a Christ-exalting life is part of leadership, but understanding how best to communicate God’s word into individual and corporate circumstances with persistence, persuasion and precision is what distinguishes a visionary from a biblical leader.

An Example from the Life of Jesus

No better example can be found than in the life of Jesus.  In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman who is drawing water.  In this instance, Jesus recognizes the woman’s marital situation (“you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband”).  He sees where she is, her sin, and knows exactly what to say in order to move her to where she needs to be.  He utilizes her circumstances of desiring water to help her understand the motivations of her heart, and pointing to her ultimate need for a savior.  Ending the conversation with the revelation that he is the messiah, Jesus clearly meets the woman where she is and points her towards where He wants her to go.

Seeking Understanding of the Person

In our current church culture, there is a tendency towards proclamation and systems building as the primary means of leadership.  Both of those tools are incredibly helpful and necessary for organizational leadership, but often those systems can only accomplish a portion of the task of discipleship and leadership.  There are two primary deficiencies with this kind of leadership.  First, in order for preaching to remain sufficiently broad to attract an audience, the content is generalized to a wide audience, which requires the individual to have the motivation to respond to the message and work out implications on their own.  Second, with respect to systems, they are often constructed inside of the current culture as a response to a problem, and therefore most often are syncretistic with culture rather than challenging the existing idolatries.

Most churches rely on small groups to combat the idolatry of individualism and challenge their communities to radical generosity to counteract materialism.  At the heart of most church systems, however, consumerism is left systemically unchallenged, providing a service where the individual church attender is merely coming to an event to receive some benefit from it.  Systemic leadership must be willing to meet people where they are, but move them towards biblical fidelity and challenge the predominant idolatry of a culture.

In the same way, leading people on a personal level must involve hearing their individual story, understanding their worldview, and engaging persuasively through building bridges to a gospel-centered, word-centered way of life.  In our current American culture, biblical leadership requires an understanding of individualism (our propensity to view ourselves as autonomous units), materialism (our proclivity to find meaning and value in the accumulation of things) and consumerism (our hearts desire is driven by what we can receive from something or someone).  These idolatries are the common world-view of most American individuals, and therefore are also pervasive inside of organizations composed of these kinds of people.

discipleship leadership

Where Jesus Wants Us To Go

Recently, I had a seminary assignment to write out a personal philosophy of leadership.  The process of clarifying and writing my thoughts was very helpful for me, and I thought I would share it as a series here on the blog.


Where Jesus Wants Us To Go

For the purposes of clarity, the second half of the definition of leadership will be analyzed first, as it provides the foundation for the first portion of the definition.  Theologically, leadership cannot be understood apart from the revealed Word of God and the perfect life, atoning death and resurrection of Christ.  To lead biblically, a person must first submit to the Word of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Often, discussion begins on philosophical and value-based grounds, but biblical leadership must primarily be rooted in a worldview grounded in the Scriptures.

Leadership in Light of the Story of Redemption

Biblical leadership, therefore, looks first to the story of redemption in the Scriptures for a beginning and endpoint. The metanarrative of Scripture puts leadership squarely in the purpose of God to exalt Himself.  God the Father has accomplished the exaltation of Himself through the person and work of Christ, and leadership therefore is ultimately Christocentric.  Finally, the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in effectually carrying out this work of the exaltation of Jesus in the world through applying God’s word into the hearts and minds of believers.  This redemptive activity of God to exalt Himself in the person and work of Christ by the power of the Spirit is the fundamental reality of the Christian life, and therefore any activity within the Christian life, like leadership, must fit within this overarching story and purpose.

The Great Commission as the Fundamental Command of Leadership

Having a firm grasp on the story of redemption, the next step in defining biblical leadership is to answer the question “what is the primary task of the leader?”  Surveying the Scriptures, it appears that the primary way in which Jesus desires his followers to lead is expressed in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The primary command of a leader grounded in the redemptive plan of God is to make disciples through the means of baptism and teaching obedience.  This is the basic command for biblical leadership because it is the foundational commission for all followers of Jesus. To define leadership without the great commission is to build a house without a proper foundation.  Biblical leadership therefore is founded on helping individuals publicly identify themselves with Christ through the means of baptism, and submit the entirety of their lives to obedience to Jesus the King through obedience to His word.

Jesus is the Model of Biblical Leadership

If obedience-based discipleship is the foundation for leadership, it seems wise to search the Scripture to see a tangible demonstration of this model.  Fortunately, we have the perfect example of this kind of leadership in Jesus and his investment in the first disciples.  From selection to commission, the life of Jesus presents us with a compelling illustration for biblical leadership.  Jesus met his disciples in the context of their everyday life (Matthew 4:18), called them to radical obedience (Matthew 4:19), demonstrated the power of God (Matthew 4:23-24), revealed to them the authority of His word (Matthew 7:28-29), shepherded them through their sin and disobedience (Matthew 18:1-5), provided them a vision for their lives (John 21:18-19), and commissioned them to do the same in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).

The Method of Jesus Provides the Pattern of Biblical Leadership

If Jesus perfectly obeyed God the Father in His time here on earth, then He presents a faithful representation of how God desires for leadership to be done.  Through the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, God has provided the church a tangible model for faithful leadership that makes disciples for the glory of God.  Robert Coleman, in his classic work “The Master Plan of Evangelism”, outlines the process and methodology of Jesus with simplicity and detail.  

In short, Coleman’s work details discipleship as eight overlapping principles; selection, association, consecration, impartation, demonstration, delegation, supervision, and reproduction. From a process standpoint, I do not think there is much to improve upon, and this book has served as a foundational resource in my own leadership. 

discipleship leadership

What is Biblical Leadership?

Recently, I had a seminary assignment to write out a personal philosophy of leadership.  The process of clarifying and writing my thoughts was very helpful for me, and I thought I would share it as a series here on the blog.


What is Biblical Leadership?

Leadership is a simple concept, and yet simultaneously incredibly complex.  As I have processed through my own leadership philosophy, I have arrived at this definition of biblical leadership:

Biblical leadership is meeting someone where they are, and taking them where Jesus wants them to go.

This definition has served for me as a fundamental axiom in discipleship, in leadership development, and in organizational leadership.  The two essential components that are at the core of my philosophy are the understanding of the individual, and the biblical vision for a life lived under the lordship of Christ.  Biblical leadership is therefore intensely personal and at the same time intensely biblical.

This definition provides a basic foundation for leadership, but as with any definition, it requires us to expand the meaning.

Biblical Leadership

First, the term “biblical” can be put in front of just about anything and be supported by a few texts.  By no means do I think the definition above comprehensively encapsulates all that the Scriptures teach about leadership.  For me, however, it captures the essence of what leadership consistently looks like throughout the Scriptures.

Whether you look at Moses leading the Israelites of out Egypt, David reigning over the kingdom of Israel, Peter leading the New Testament church, or Jesus, the perfect leader, making disciples here on this earth, there are three irreducible components:

  1. The Leader
  2. The Follower(s)
  3. The Interaction between Leader and Follower(s)

The definition I have written is from the perspective of a leader understanding the follower and providing a framework for interaction.  In the following posts, I’ll unpack what I mean by the phrases “meeting someone where they are” and “taking them where Jesus wants them to go”.

How would you define Biblical leadership?

austin stone leadership megachurch missional community

Institutionalizing the Change to Missional Communities

The Austin Stone didn’t begin as a church committed to missional communities.  Through several years, we have transitioned our church from a traditional community/small group model to our current model of missional communities.  This series of posts will help you understand how we made that transition over time:

Much of this framework is adapted from John Kotter’s model for leading organizational change.  I pray this series will help many of you that are leading churches through a season of transition!


Institutionalizing the Change to Missional Communities

To make any change stick, it should become part of the core of your organization.  A transition to missional community is no different – it must become a foundational conviction about the identity of your church and the teams that lead her.

Many churches would say that they have a core conviction about the foundations of community and mission, but when you take a closer look, that value is aspirational rather than actual.  So how is that you can keep missional community really at the core of what you do?

Embedding the DNA in All Ministries

Part of what has made the transition at The Austin Stone sustainable is that missional communities are the foundation of all the ministries at the church, not just a silo in it.  One of the strategies my team employed to help make this become a reality was patience.  Rather than “forcing” every ministry to adopt our vision, we spent years serving and meeting the needs of those various ministries.  We believed that long term change would come primarily through relational trust and unity in leadership, so we earned the opportunity to influence through serving.  We definitely took some short term hits, but the long term effect was worth it.

As of now, our campus pastors all consist of the team who originally developed the vision for missional community.  Our international mobilization team uses the same form of missional community that we teach the general population of our church.  Our advanced training programs require commitment to an actual healthy missional community.  Our worship teams live together in authentic missional communities.  It’s safe to say that the theology, philosophy and practice of missional community is thoroughly embedded in everything we do!

If you want to institutionalize missional community, you’ll need to take it slow, but continue to champion the value over and over again. Perhaps the most important piece of making the change stick is to continually cast vision for the foundational nature of missional communities with your senior team.  More important that a full grasp of the strategy is that you capture the heart of your senior team…tell stories at any chance you get!

Lastly, as you are hiring new teammates, do your best to involve yourself in the process, regardless of the role.  Always help people looking for staff, and keep a running list of people that have similar convictions for ministry.  The more people that bleed missional community on your staff, the better!

Train Everyone

Another critical piece of institutionalizing the DNA of missional community is to train everyone.  I’ve seen so many churches trying to make the transition that only train leaders in the DNA they are after, but often the people in communities and the crowd only hear the vision cast from a stage.

One of the critical learning points for us was to train entire groups, and also welcome anyone to participate in our training. After we launch a new group, the next step we always communicate is to participate in Basic Training together.  This has two primary benefits:

  1. Everyone in the new community is hearing the vision, values and practices, and therefore you’re creating more people who will hold the missional community accountable.
  2. The leader of the new community can focus on shepherding people through the transition, and our teaching team can focus on inspiring people towards change.  Functionally, the leader gets to be “good cop” whereas my team can be “bad cop”.

Bottom line, the more people that know, love and apply your vision, the greater chance you will actually institutionalize it in people.  At this point, we’ve had over 30% of our entire church body participate in basic training, and missional community is now the prevailing culture – it’s weird if someone want to do something different!

Using Helpful Tools

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of curriculum, but we do use it for one particular purpose – to reinforce the DNA we are after in newly launching groups.  After a group has participated in Basic Training, we then expect them to go through a multi-week curriculum that is like training wheels – it helps them put into practice the vision for missional community.

Whatever tools you use to help solidify a change, let me encourage you to focus on using one or two, rather than consistently adding new content.  Institutionalization is born from repeatedly acting upon the same vision over time, rather than reinterpreting the vision into new language.  The more people you have utilizing the same tools and same language, the more likely the vision is to be codified over time.

Reinforcing the Vision Over Time

Lastly, to institutionalize the vision you’ll occasionally need to revisit it from the pulpit.  For us, this fall was exactly that – we redefined missional community for everyone currently in one and invited many more people into the vision who were only attending on Sundays.  We went from 39% connected as a church to 61% connected to missional community, and everyone in the church is speaking the exact same language.

If there is one thing I have learned in the transition to missional community, it is “practice the art of assuming nothing”.  Never assume that you, your team, your leaders, or your church have it figured out!

austin stone leadership megachurch missional community

Building on the Change to Missional Communities

The Austin Stone didn’t begin as a church committed to missional communities.  Through several years, we have transitioned our church from a traditional community/small group model to our current model of missional communities.  This series of posts will help you understand how we made that transition over time:

Much of this framework is adapted from John Kotter’s model for leading organizational change.  I pray this series will help many of you that are leading churches through a season of transition!


Building on the Change

At a certain point in the transition to missional communities, you have executed on the plan we have walked through.  You’ve created urgency, formed a strategic team, crafted your vision, communicated the vision, empowered people to act, and celebrated some wins.

The temptation is to stop after those steps have been completed, and to be honest, the previous steps are the easy part. Transition is not best measured by what you can do in a year, but if you’re doing it 5 years later with greater effectiveness and participation.

For a change to truly take hold in your church, you will need to build on the initial momentum that you build in the transition and form lasting change.  Many people are familiar with the “Diffusion of Innovations” concept.  In brief, you tend to reach a tipping point in an organization when the Innovators and Early Adopters of a group have implemented a key idea and practice.  The organization will naturally adopt a “new normal” over time, with the Early Majority and Late Majority coming on board soon.  The illustration below highlights the concept:


A Stark Reality

It would seem that if you have executed the transition plan that we have talked about, by and large you would have significantly won the Innovators, Early Adopters, and Early Majority, but in our experience that was not the case.  While we had thought we were close to a tipping point after casting vision for two years in a row, we were sorely mistaken.

Because we focused primarily on casting vision and telling stories without building simple, reproducible, transferrable practices and a system of coaching and care, we found that ~10% of our communities had taken the vision and run, whereas about 60% were desiring to attempt the vision but were either confused or frustrated at their attempt, and 30% simply went about with business as usual.

After the two years, of the 10% who had adopted the vision, only a handful were really healthy.  Several were tired and close to burnout, and some had even left the church because The Austin Stone “wasn’t missional enough”.  The 60% were lacking relationship and growing increasingly confused and frustrated, and some were very suspicious of church leadership.  The 30% who didn’t make the change remained pretty happy, and some even had an “I told you so” outlook.

Without building on the change, the produce of casting a vision for transition will ultimately produce very little sustainable, long term health.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve accomplished a transition!

Train the Same Thing Repeatedly Over Time

Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned in building on the transition was to assume nothing.  Particularly, we could not assume that people had heard the vision, believed the vision, and were attempting to live the vision.  With that conviction, we doggedly trained leaders and communities in the same theology, motivations, values, and practices from 2009 to 2011.  Rather than continuously adding new material, we taught the same things over and over again, refusing to move along until we had seen a marked change in our missional communities and their effectiveness.

Over that 2 year span, we estimate that we trained almost 1600 people in our church community with basic training, and did not shift the practices we were cultivating or the content we were teaching during that time.  You can see the results of that effort here.  It wasn’t until we had trained the vision on a practical level and reinforced the vision through training communities together that we actually hit a tipping point in the adoption of the vision.

In addition to repeating the same training, Years 3 and 4 of transition were spent in focusing on missional community health rather than multiplication.  Toward that end, we developed training, coaching, assimilation and care structures, as well as establishing a culture of assessment.  Without an infrastructure, real change will likely not happen, and people will simply adopt new language and default to old behaviors.

Continue Improving and Iterating

Creating a healthy system doesn’t just have the benefits of sustaining momentum, but also creates an environment where continuous learning can take place.  When you have excellent communication and oversight, it affords you the opportunity to continuously improve upon the vision you originally created.

Each successful (and unsuccessful!) community provides an opportunity to build on what went right and identify what you can improve.  It allows you to learn what practices that are useful and which practices can be discarded.  It also allows you to innovate on the original vision and embed it more thoughtfully and precisely into new contexts.

Our different campuses at The Austin Stone all have a unified vision for ministry, but each group of people presents unique challenges and unique opportunities to embed the vision for missional communities into different parts of our city.  The insights we have gained from having multiple teams committed to the same vision in different contexts has allowed all the teams to continue learning and improving upon the vision!

An Exhortation

As a final word in this post, I encourage you to consider the process of transition as a 5 year commitment, rather than a 1 year experiment.  I’ve been around several churches who have been excited about the idea of missional communities, but have reverted back into other paradigms of ministry because they did not see the fruit of the change in the span of a year.

More important than desiring the fruit of missional ministry is a core conviction that you can’t do ministry another way. Don’t start the transition if you’re not willing to fight tooth and nail over several years!