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July 18, 2011

Leadership Lessons from the Shirtless Guy (and Why It Makes Me Think of Neil Cole)

The hardest person to connect with in a church ministry or a church plant is the first one. This video makes that point (and many others). It is making the rounds on the interwebs and I would comment on it here. In my case, I think of church ministry—specifically, Neil Cole.

Good wisdom from this rather odd video:

The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.

When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.

When I watched this, I thought about Neil Cole. Neil thinks more about the second follower than anyone else I know.

Here is what I wrote about Neil Cole in 11 Innovations in the Local Church (with Elmer Towns and Warren Bird):

Meeting Neil Cole is, well, anticlimactic. Here is a guy who has helped lead one of the more prolific church planting networks in the country. He has written some significant books and he speaks all over. So I (Ed) was pretty excited when I landed at LAX and started driving over to his office.

Since getting lost in Los Angeles is as easy as falling asleep in a church business meeting, I splurged and got myself a GPS in the car. For each of miles from the airport to Neil's office, a nasally woman said "turn left" and "go three miles and take ramp on the right." (It's amazing that some people pay for what my wife will do for free.)

Anyway, my trusty GPS eventually announced, still in nasal tones, "arriving at destination." But there was nothing there. No sign, no parking. I assumed the GPS was wrong, programmed it again, and drove around the block. Again I heard, "arriving at destination." So I gave up—when a woman tells you twice the right directions, you better listen. I got out and knocked on the door. And out came Neil Cole.

I don't mean to say that Neil himself is anticlimactic. Yes, he shrugs a lot and is very laid back, but it was his surroundings, not his persona, that gave me the letdown. You see, Neil—and everything Neil shapes—is "anti-slick." One of Neil's sayings is that "simple" empowers Christians. And he lives it too—his office is a mess, it's small and it's hot (air conditioning is too expensive to run, he says). The couch where we finally settled had seen better days.

Neil's simple approach is not because he lacks money (although he does and you should send him some). It is because he has passion: a passion that the best way to propagate the gospel is with the idea that the church can and should be simpler and more organic—like Neil. Like Jesus. Everything Neil does (quoting him here and throughout) "is not bound by a large gathering or service we could reproduce quickly." That's the point—church should be simple and easy to reproduce. Normal people, with small messy offices and threadbare couches, should plant and model planting churches led by ordinary people.

I asked Neil a lot about the numbers. I am a missiologist. I was born to count. I'm especially interested in new believers and new churches. But Neil explained, "If you are successful in a multiplication movement, than you cannot count them … if you can count them, you are not a multiplication movement." Neil is concerned about reaching people and making disciples, not with the number and longevity of his churches. "The greatest sin of today's church is self preservation … if a church lasts one year and gives birth twice, it is a success."

Neil is the anti-attractional leader for the anti-attractional church (a concept we'll explore in chapter 10). And Neil likes it that way. He does not want a big church; he wants a reproducing one. He does not want a quality church; he wants a transforming one. He explains, "We must lower the bar of how we do church and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple."

Talking to Neil is just odd. Usually it takes about five minutes for the typical pastor in a growing church to work the conversation around to the week's attendance. Not so with Neil. He is about people—and he tells a lot of stories about them. Many are transformative, and some are discouraging. "It hurts more to do church this way, but its still worth it."

Neil could be pastoring a good-sized (what some would call "real") church, but he sees that as a flawed system. He boils the principles down to three simple ideas:

1. What we are doing isn't working.

2. What's really happening around the world tends to be in house churches.

3. If multiplication is our desire, it needs to be simple, transferable and ordinary.

For Neil, that simplicity boils down to the right DNA:

D—Divine Truth

N—Nurturing Relationships

A—Apostolic Mission

Neil believes we have created a culture of clergy codependency. The church leadership is the codependent, and the parishioners are the irresponsible dependent ones. What is needed is a radical detox. We have to stop relying on Christian leaders who tell us when to stand up, when to sit down and when to kneel.

Many house church advocates take swings at what they call (usually with a smirk) the "institutional church." Not so with Neil. "I think the old wineskins should hold the old wine … not dismantle the old," he says. Instead, Neil believes we should "invest in apostolic architects, not in builders … and don't put a lot of money in it."

Neil lives it. His massive operation without a parking lot has a grand total of 1.5 employees but trains 2,000 people in 12 states and around the world. Not bad for a guy with a nasty hole in his couch.

I should add that I cleared this chapter with Neil before I wrote it a few years ago. He liked it—he was less concerned about himself being lifted up as the "center" of the movement than about followers who make more followers. That's why I appreciate Neil.

I don't know who the second follower in Church Multiplication Associates was, but the advice in the video applies:

The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.

When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.

Watch the video again after reading this … and ask,

Am I easy to follow?

Have I shared the vision?

Do people have to see me as the leaders and center of it all?

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