SWOT Analysis: A Helpful Tool for Understanding Organizations

In preparation for teaching at the Pepperdine Lectures in May Charles Kiser introduced Eric Brown and I to SWOT Analysis. I have been a fan ever since. Here is a diagram that will help you wrap your mind around it.


This framework helps you identify what internal and external resources and liabilities and organization. This can be used to map out what is going on with an organization as a whole, a given project within an organization, a ministry, etc. You can take this matrix, have multiple people who are working on the same project or part of the same organization work through it, putting in each quadrant what they think belongs and then having a group discussion over the results. This can be a helpful way to bring clarity to some big decisions. We used this to help churches/ministers conceptualize what is going on with their young adults but this could just as easily be applied by a church staff or eldership with any aspect of the congregation they shepherd.


Wanting the Growth Without Taking the Risk

JesusAppearsToThomasI have been reading through Acts and one thing that has jumped out at me was their willingness to take risks for the kingdom. It starts fast…Acts 2 Peter preaches a bold sermon, telling the crowd that they killed the Messiah but that God was still inviting them to repentance and reconciliation. The result? Three thousand are baptized! After that they challenged the Pharisees and Sanhedrin, disobeying the orders of the religious “authorities” of their day. They were imprisoned, flogged, and mocked.The result? They grew to five thousand! All that and you are only to Acts 5!

Why were they so willing to step out like they did? What was it about all that had lead up to this in the Gospels through Acts 1 that was so influential in emboldening these men to do these things? Two things are mentioned in Acts 1 that are pivotal to their boldness and risk-taking behaviors. 1) Their encounter with the resurrected Lord. Jesus underwent the worst possible treatment and experienced the most agonizing death imaginable. Even through all of that, God raised Jesus back to life. Experiencing the risen Lord would embolden you. It would ready you to take great risks for the kingdom. 2) The coming of the Holy Spirit. God equipped and empowered them through the Holy Spirit to take on the task of taking the Gospel message to the world.

One thing you will notice in the early chapters of Acts is that the church is growing and that growth is usually preceded by a risky presentation of the Gospel or a manifestation of the power of God (like miraculous healing) that results in the growth of the church but also further persecution. Each time they faced challenges, they prayed harder and God responded with further confirmation of their ministry and preaching by giving them grace (Acts 4:33) and growth (from a few hundred to over 5000).

Church growth doesn’t come easy. Many ministry movements have tried to provide riskless solutions that will draw people in but we learn in Acts that ultimately we are going to have to take some risks to see the kingdom grow. When we do, God will be right in the middle of it all. How many things do we start that if God doesn’t show up and bless it the whole thing is destined to fall apart? We all want the growth but few are taking the risks that are required to get there.

Common Ingredients of a Paradigm Shift

Ingredients involved in the growing realization there is a need for change & innovation:

1. Tension – A growing sense that the way things are don’t adequately explain or account for your experiencing or desires.

2. Dissatisfaction –  with the way things are that leads you into an all out pursuit of a better way.

3. Insufficiency – The things which already exist fail to meet the need in an acceptable way. This leads to the drive for innovation that better meets the reality of the challenges that face us. Think about the transition from Morse code to land lines to cell phones to smart phones…and now even smart glasses! You used to have to walk to the phone, now you carry it with you. That reflects and is reinforced by the value of mobility in society.

4. Inefficiency…finding a shorter path to the same solution. When the models you have are cumbersome you may come to realize that what was commonly accepted as “essential” was actually negotiable.

5. Commonality – When other people express the same concern, the same burden or the same vision that is affirmation that there really is something to what you are experiencing, something to the change you are seeking, or something to the solution you are on the edge of discovering.

Working toward a solution:

6. Community – Along with commonality is community. Paradigm shifts aren’t usually worked out in isolation. They often get sparked by conversation that leads to innovation.

7. Key Information – Past experiences, relationships, and information that comes together in a new and profound way that expose a new path forward or a new way to view things. That key piece of information that plugs in at just the right time which makes sense out of all the other parts.

8. Re-purposing – what already exists. There are things we do that used to make a lot more sense than what they do now. Our tendency is to scrap these things and sometimes that is for the best. Instead of seeing something as wasted time and space ask how that already committed time and space could be re-purposed into something that advances your goals, purposes, and passions.

9. Investing Resources – Paradigms rarely shift without great effort. Shifting a paradigm takes resources. It will take your time, energy, etc. Not too many of the world’s greatest discoveries took place while sitting on the couch eating, now defunct, twinkies. Many came after multiple encounters with failure. That takes a willingness to take a risk (or multiple risks). That willingness springs out of the dissatisfaction and tension (maybe burden is a better word) of knowing there has to be a better way.

10. Unexpected – The irony is, when a paradigm does shift it wasn’t because you saw it coming…otherwise you had no need for a shift. Paradigm shifts are often the unexpected result of investing our time and energy into something important to us.

Fine Line Between Radical Faith And Legalism

There has recently been a big push for Christians to get more radical about their faith. The big thing that is being preached more and more is that if you are radical, you will radically follow the commands of God. That is a good move. It is a biblical move (John 14:15). We have had a lot of convenient, comfortable Christianity and it is good to call people to get serious about their faith and put their faith into action. Jesus did that all the time. But Jesus knew how to call people to obedience without siding with the Pharisees (more on that in a minute).

There are several speakers, authors, and pastors who, in their push for obedience, are getting more and more vocal with their judgment calls of who is in and who is out. Here is the gist of how this is said – God’s commands are important (yes). We have to do what God says (of course!). If you aren’t obedient in the areas that are most important to me I will question your salvation (hmmm…). I am sensitive to those types of discussions because growing up in my fellowship there were all kinds of discussions of who was in and who was out. Who do you fellowship and who don’t you fellowship? Where are the lines in the sand? The answer was usually that there are lines in the sand on every conceivable issue whether scripture made a big deal over it or not. I will say we have gotten better about that but I still hear echoes of this mentality in some of the things I heard many years ago. I know it well because I used to be that guy.

The Pharisees started with good motives
Emphasizing  obedience is a good move. It is long overdue. But why can’t we emphasize obedience without swinging the pendulum over to become Pharisaical? Yesterday I read an article Eric Brown sent me called “6 warning signs we’re becoming accidental Pharisees” by Larry Osborne. He highlights some of these things. Reading it is well worth your time.  You know, the Pharisees had some really good motives…at first. They believed that if they bound all aspects of the Law on every day people that God’s people’s obedience would usher in the Messianic Age. The Messiah came and they were so wrapped up in their own self-righteousness that they couldn’t even recognize the Messiah when he walked up to them and introduced himself as such.

In all of our humanity, frailty and weakness it is easy to have difficulty with the tension of emphasizing obedience without missing out on grace. Once we get serious and there is no room for pew sitting it is easy to start making judgment calls about their faith and even their salvation. Are they even Christians? What if they aren’t radical enough in their faith? Along with this, there is an assumption that everyone in the first century was a Christian radical with no one who really needed much grace. They had it together, except for those Corinthians and oh yeah…the 7 Churches of Asia. They had problems to. Come to think of it so did the Galatian churches. You know what so did those in Rome…and Ephesus and Thessalonica…the list could go on starting with the 12 disciples and going all the way to you and me today but you get the point. None of us will be so radical as to make ourselves holy by our own good works.

Last, it is easy to project ourselves onto others. If they don’t sacrifice like we do or give all their book sales away or give a large portion of the church budget to missions then they must not really love God like we do. Careful there! The last I heard it is not the Church of Dabbs or the Church of [fill in the blank with a dozen prominent guys who are doing this right now]. It is Christ’s church. He is the head and we are the body.If someone looks like an appendix to you and you don’t get why they are here or what their function is, at best love and encourage them…at worst just leave them alone!

Our own sinful desires can easily take a good thing like being radical about our faith and twist it into legalism, Pharisaicalism, or worse. We don’t want to become the sons of hell (Matt 23:15) any more than the next guy. So, let’s make sure we guard our hearts against this sort of thing and find the balance that Jesus modeled and taught on this.

Confusing Creativity and Imagination…the Difference is Huge

If the name Ken Robinson sounds familiar it may be from his TED talk entitled Changing Education Paradigms (well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it). In Ken Robinson’s book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative,” Robinson gives his working definition and explanation of creativity and how it stands in contrast to imagination. I want to share a quote from his book that lays this out and the reason for doing so is because we live in a world that values ideas often to the neglect of action. I know I am a process person and I can very easily get caught up in thinking about something and processing it to death but I don’t always act on things the way that I should. What Ken Robinson said about creativity and imagination was paradigm shifting for me. Here is what he wrote,

“What is creativity? Let me build a definition in three steps: The first step is to recognize that being creative involves doing something. People are not creative in the abstract; they are creative in something-in mathematics, in engineering, in writing, in music, in business, in whatever. You cannot be creative unless you were actually doing something. In this respect, creativity is different from imagination.”

In other words, creativity is more than thinking cool thoughts and processing ideas. Creativity requires creating something and that means doing.

Robinson continues,

“Creative processes are rooted in imaginative thought, in envisaging new possibilities. But creativity goes further. Imagination can be an entirely private process of internal consciousness. You might be lying motionless on your bed but in a fever of imagination. Private imaginings may have no impact in the public world at all. Creativity does. It would be odd to describe someone as creative who just lay still an never did anything. Whatever the task, creativity is not just an internal mental process: it involves action. In a sense, it is applied imagination. To call somebody creative suggests they are actively producing something in a deliberate way. A first definition of creativity then is imaginative process with outcomes in the public world.” (Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, 115-116).

I think he pretty much nailed it. It inspires me to be more creative rather than just imaginative. How about you?

Spiritual Transformation: More Information is Not the Answer

The Jews had the Law for 1300 years before Christ came. There were all kinds of details in the Law about how to live, what to do in various situations, and how to maintain holiness and deal with sin. As we know today, the Law was not sufficient. What did God do in its place? He could have just handed down more legal code. God could have had people pen more and more words and bombard the world with oodles of information via text. God chose to do something else. Instead, God sent his son, Jesus Christ into the world to embody/show us how to live and what the kingdom of God is really like. John 1 tells us that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.

I am afraid that we haven’t taken this example very seriously. When we are presented with a problem or issue in the church our knee-jerk reaction is more teaching when the reality is people still need to see the biblical kingdom priorities lived out among them. We think somehow if people hear about something more that change will happen automatically. Mike Breen says it like this,

“This is my fundamental issue with the ‘go deep’ kind of people. If I can make  mass generalizations for a moment, I see them this way: They want to go into the endless minutiae of scripture, which can be a good thing, but they rarely want to do anything with it. They think that knowing about something is the same thing as knowing something. They have bought into the lie that knowing more scripture changes you.

It doesn’t.

Doing what scripture says and responding to God’s voice changes you…If you are not actively seeking to live in it, you don’t really believe it.” (Breen, Multiplying Missional Leaders, 23)

We have a whole generation of young people who sat in Bible class twice a week who are no longer with us. If information was the solution they should have been rock solid. Information is foundational but left to itself, non-incarnated in the Christian community it is not enough. If we followed Jesus’ example we would develop people through more than Bible class. We would take time with people to walk alongside them, teach them, train them, and send them. That takes time and investment and that is what makes it difficult. But let me ask you this, how well has the time we have invested in our current model made disciples? (I probably subconsciously stole that question from Breen’s book somewhere). Breen’s approach has been to use information as well as apprenticeship/imitation of a more mature disciple. That is huge. That is the missing piece in much of the work we try to do to make disciples. Many of us have bought into the lie that more information = greater disciples to the neglect of time in the trenches with those we are discipling with the intent of launching them out. Much of our discipling works fosters too much dependence on a sole leader rather than maturing people to be, as Breen would say, leaders rather than program/ministry managers.

If this is something you would like more specifics on or have struggle with this yourself, I cannot recommend enough these two books:
Multiplying Missional Leaders
Building a Discipling Culture

John The Baptist’s Baptism Was for the Forgiveness of Sins

You have undoubtedly heard that John the Baptist’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and that the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism was that Jesus’ baptism took it a step further by adding the effect of the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Well, was anyone even reading Mark 1:4? “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I have read that verse a zillion times and never picked up on it until this week when a good friend of mine pointed that out.

What is more, Jesus’ disciples baptized people during his ministry. John 4:1-2 says, “Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John — although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.” I had always assumed this was the same kind of baptism John was doing and for the same purpose. Was this also a baptism for the forgiveness of sins? If that is what Jesus came to do it would only make sense that it was. Would Jesus baptize in a way less than what John was doing?

Honestly, this should come as no surprise. God constantly forgave sins under the old covenant. The sacrificial system itself came with the blessing of atonement and forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins wasn’t a new idea in the new covenant. The means of that forgiveness certainly changed.

Then Why Did Jesus Have to Come?
When my friend shared this with me, he said the person who pointed this out to him then asked him “Why did Jesus have to die if John’s baptism brought forgiveness?” That is a question a lot of people would ask if you showed them Mark 1:4. I believe that question shows a gross misunderstanding of the ministry of Jesus. They might as well have pointed out the verses in the Old Testament where God said he would forgive their sins and ask why Jesus had to come if God could forgive sins any other way. The Gospel we have preached is too small when people ask questions like that.

Jesus certainly came to forgive sins but Jesus did more than wipe away the bad. Jesus came to bring us abundant life. Jesus came to give us his yoke. Jesus came to show us the inbreaking kingdom and reign of God. Jesus came to be victor of sin and death so that by his overcoming of those powers he would open the door to our having eternal life with God. Instead, we have chosen to boil down the ministry of Jesus to fixing our problem of sin only. We have preached it and taught that so much that people can’t even see why Jesus came once they understand forgivness of sins was already present prior to Jesus Christ. We have a lot of work to do in helping people have a biblical understanding of the message and mission of Jesus Christ and what the Gospel is all about.

Revitalizing Bible Class – Determining a Better Win

One of the most important lessons I learned from Andy Stanley’s book The Seven Practices of Effective Ministry is that it is crucial for ministries to identify the win for a ministry and communicate that win to those involved. When you do that everyone is on the same page working toward the same goal. Stanley uses a baseball analogy where he says in baseball all the players know what the win is…you have to cross home plate enough times to win the game. The problem in ministry is we don’t always tell people how to get to first base much less second or third or home plate. Just hitting a ball somewhere doesn’t constitute a win. This happens in ministry when the win is not communicated. The deacons, ministry leaders, teachers, staff, elders, all make their own determination of what a win looks like so everyone ends up running in whatever direction they choose.

What is the win in your education program and individual Bible classes? Has it ever been communicated or does each teacher each quarter determine it on their own, most likely based on what they have seen in the past? In my experience the win of most Bible classes is this: have 60 minutes of teaching from the bible or teaching a topic with related scriptures and hope people show up to hear it or participate in it (depending if the format is lecture or discussion). That is just my assumption after having been in Bible classes since I was a baby. I have never heard anyone actually say that is the goal but that is the problem. When no one says what the goal is no one knows how to get their so people make up their own and go with it. Stated or not that is informally communicated by the way Bible classes are set up in many congregations.

Defining and implementing a better win:
Personally I don’t think that is a very good win. It is not up to me to tell you what the win is for you education program and Bible classes. It is for you to think about, pray about, have a meeting with the elders, staff and teachers about and come to a consensus on. Then you have to make the necessary changes in order to create a different result. Those changes will depend on the direction you take but my point is, if you want a better direction it is going to take more than agreement on what the direction is. You have to take action. It has to be visibly different, even if it is just in small ways. Maybe your classes need more obvious application….so you discuss with all your teachers the need to spend the last 5-10 minutes of every single class discussing application and praying over it all. That is just one example. You may also want to communicate that to the congregation so that they can get on board in a more purposeful way.

Here are a few questions that may help you define the win:

  • What is the most important thing that can ever happen in your classes?
  • When have you seen that happen, why?
  • What obstacles do you face to taking a new direction?
  • Which of those obstacles are fixed and which are movable/manageable?
  • Which might be manageable two years from now? (this move may have to come in steps)
  • What adjustments to your ideal vision do you need to make based on the congregation’s maturity and perspective?
  • How many people is it going to take to get this done?
  • How will they be equipped, informed, and empowered to lead in this new way?

None of this changes until someone realizes the win is either poorly defined, not defined, or just too small to accomplish what we hope our classes accomplish.

How would you define the win for your adult education program? What things have you found helpful in having transformational teaching in your classes?

Kicking the Can of Impractical Paradigms

I had a conversation about education with the principal of our Christian School this morning. She mentioned that well over 100 years ago our education system determined the order of certain subjects by alphabetical order. She said that is the reason they offer algebra, geometry and trigonometry in that order (and also biology, chemistry and physics/physical sciences). That isn’t a bad thing all by itself but her take was that some researchers are saying that the order does matter due to what students are able to conceptually grasp at different ages and stages.

It is possible that the reason the education system is resisting changing these orders is because they are overly invested in an inefficient and impractical model. If they put geometry before algebra, which makes sense from a learning perspective, the students would learn better but they would have to revamp all the standardized testing. So they don’t touch it. If a principal decides to do it the right way where kids learn the most they are punished because their students won’t be ready for the nationally standardized tests and they will get punished. So the powers that be kick the can down the road for someone else to tackle. If all of that is true, it is very short sighted. Instead of making the necessary and right changes due to cost, we continue to struggle to have our kids ready to compete in the world which then results in even higher costs to our economy down the road.

Churches are not immune to the same thing happening. We can get so over invested in various structures that we no longer question them or wonder if there is a better or even more biblical way of doing something. What are some structures in churches/ministries that you see as inefficient, missing the point, or at least could use some tweaking? Maybe they were once the right thing but no longer serve the same purpose or maybe there is clearly a better way but we avoid the tension and kick the can down the road for someone else to pick up. Not to just pick things apart or complain…how would you suggest we make those things better?

Turning Problems Into Opportunities

In Acts 6:1-7 a problem broke out among the early Christians. It was a dispute over which widows were receiving support and which were not. Often when church leadership receives complaints like these it is easy to see these things as problems. People are upset. Feelings are hurt. Needs are unmet. These things really are problems on the front end. They create tension and a need for change in order to address a particular situation. Most change does arise out of problem issues. We don’t tend to change things that are working, right? So they came up with a solution by appointing men to oversee how the widows’ needs were being met in order to make sure things were done fairly.

Although on the front end this was a problem, the actual processing through of the solution, carrying it out, and coming out on the other side actually became a great opportunity. It is easy to get focused on tensions in a congregation as problems but if things are going to get better we have to shift our thinking to ask what opportunities are actually being presented so that we might further God’s kingdom by the way we address these sensitive issues.

Notice the result of the apostles delegating this responsibility to those seven men, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7). God’s kingdom actually grew because they took a problem and created an opportunity to do kingdom work out of it. Widows got their needs met, the word was preached (6:4), and everything turned out better after this conflict than it had been before this problem came to their attention.

God works like that. He takes problems and creates opportunities for growth. You see that in the lives of so many people in the Bible. We see it in our lives as well. We can all point to mistakes we made that actually turned into opportunities for growth. We can point to the sin in our lives that God has delivered us from. God doesn’t leave us in our problems but creates opportunities for growth in more ways than we can even begin to understand.

So the next time you are faced with a “problem” remember that God may just be priming things up to take things to the next level and bring about renewed growth in the kingdom!