The Surprise Factor: Gospel Strategies for Changing the Game at Your Church

The Surprise Factor: Gospel Strategies for Changing the Game at Your Church

by Paul Nixon, Kim Shockley

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Principles for church leadership are important, but just as important is knowing when and how to implement them. This is strategy and it can make or break a leader’s work. Those who have been in ministry for a while may have a bag of leadership tricks. But what are the results? Nixon and Shockley explore eight key leadership behaviors that will help a church move successfully through its first season of transformation, putting it well on its way to becoming a dynamic, growing body of Christ. They report that ninety percent of existing churches never make it out of the first season of transformation and give guidance on how to turn around a stagnant or dying church.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426771347
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 02/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Paul Nixon is leader of Epicenter Group, a church leadership coaching organization, and Readiness 360, an organization devoted to assessing church readiness for multiplying ministry.  He is the author of Fling Open the Doors, published by Abingdon Press.

(8.7.2012) Kim Shockley is Team Leader for the Toward Vitality project and has served the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She trains, mentors, and coaches pastors and lay leadership teams nationally. For the past decade she and husband, Gary, have planted new congregations. They currently live in Castle Pines, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

The Surprise Factor

Gospel Strategies for Changing the Game at Your Church

By Kim Shockley, Paul Nixon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-7134-7



KIM: I grew up in a large congregation in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. Ours was a healthy, vibrant church and a great place to be a kid! Once the church held some kind of spiritual renewal weekend. One night after all the folks had gone home, both of our pastors (Fred and Jacob) experienced a numinous encounter with God and a revelation about their ministry. Fred and Jacob, each excited over what they believed to be a unique and special message from God, went looking for the other throughout the building. Turning out lights as they went, suddenly they ran into each other in the dark, literally, at the bottom of some steps. Pastor Fred was of medium height, but Pastor Jacob was significantly taller, so he needed to help his colleague off the floor! In sharing what they believed God had told them, they discovered they had each received the same message!

This happened a long time ago, and I was a teenager, so I don't remember the specific message that came to these guys. But I do remember that it changed the way that they worked together. They became a team, working in union to bring God's dreams to life through our church. Everything was different from that night forward. And it happened because they were both listening and open for God's message for their congregation.

PAUL: You know, Kim, around a quarter century after Jacob and Fred crashed into a common vision, something like that happened in the church where I served on the northwest Florida coast. Our church was growing steadily, far beyond what our five-acre campus could sustain. We had been negotiating with the owners of an adjacent acre to pay an astronomical sum to acquire a small addition of land, when suddenly they stopped talking to us. There may have been some personal history between the owners and the man negotiating for us—but whatever the case, the deal was suddenly dead, and the owners swore they would never ever sell to us. It knocked us back, and we felt a wave of terrible discouragement. Yet, once that door was closed, we were freed to think more broadly and to let God show us a better plan.

Two weeks after the purchase fell through, seven of us experienced a Pentecost-style aha moment in a little upstairs room of a waterfront café. It was some of the most exhilarating two hours of my life. One week more and we had purchased thirteen acres for the price we were prepared to pay for the one, eight miles to our east—and the Soundside campus of Gulf Breeze Church was born. The Soundside campus would carry us much further in ministry to our community than anything we could have possibly achieved at the original site.

KIM: We live in an era when many books have been written on ministry principles and church-growth tricks. It is tempting to begin thinking of ministry as a business like any other. Yet this is not just a business. It is a surprising movement of God's Spirit, with the purpose of transforming our world with the love and grace of Jesus Christ!

PAUL: And until we collide with God's Spirit, or we hit the limits of what we can do simply from a human angle—until then, we mostly just tinker around the edges of what is truly possible.

Jesus led a spiritual movement that was world altering in its effect. Can you imagine Jesus effective in leading such a thing without a significant God-encounter? It took thirty years of intense spiritual formation to produce three productive years as a leader.

KIM: Even during those three years, Jesus took significant opportunity to connect with God. It seems to me he was often looking for a chance to escape the crowds and be with his Father.

God made us with a variety of personalities and gifts. God-encounters will look different from one of us to the next. While I crave my alone time with God and Scripture, others crave different pathways to God.

PAUL: And we come from a variety of theological personalities and traditions as well. In my work with the Readiness 360 congregational inventory ( in diverse churches across the United States, people report God-encounters in radically different ways.

KIM: So it should be no surprise that there are many ways that folks experience a living relationship with Christ. I have a friend who literally prays in a dark closet as Jesus suggested, but dark closets don't work for me, except to store things. Others like getting up early to spend time with God, and some folks end the day with God.

PAUL: Some folks pray with great freedom, creativity, and spontaneity. Others depend on structure. Some gather morning and evening as intentional communities to observe a set liturgy together that marks the spiritual rhythm of their days ... and they listen for God. Some of our taxi drivers in DC have little rugs rolled up in the trunk, which they roll out five times a day, somewhere alongside the road. To pray.

KIM: There seem to be almost as many ways to pray as there are people in the world. But however we get at it, the disciplines of prayer, meditation, study, Scripture reading, fasting, and even rest, all provide opportunities to run into God.

PAUL: ... and for God to crash into us! Annie Dillard is probably over-quoted for her observation that if we really understood the One we were dealing with when we come to worship God, we would all wear crash helmets! (Annie Dillard has said other things I like, but that's like the John 3:16 of Annie Dillard. Find this reference in Teaching a Stone to Talk [New York: Perennial Library, 1988], 52.)

KIM: Over the years I've observed a correlation between how much time a group of leaders spends in prayer and how effective their congregation is in reaching new people and providing vital ministry to their community. Praying congregations realize they can offer a redemptive presence in a place only when they stay connected to their Redeemer.

PAUL: I hear that, and I agree with it—and yet I know that some of the folks who read this will assume that we are talking about only very pietistic churches. I think we have to doubly underline your earlier point that prayerfulness looks different in each place. Spiritual discernment and watchfulness look different in a Louisiana Pentecostal church on the one hand and a New England Episcopal church on the other. But there can be spiritual collision in either place.

KIM: Definitely! One clue as to the spiritual grounding of almost any faith community—left, right, urban, or rural—is the relative absence of fear. The opposite of living in a vital relationship with Christ is living in fear. When I hear fear expressed as the first emotion in a change situation, I pay close attention. We are afraid of hurting someone's feelings, we are afraid of financial situations, or we are afraid that someone will leave our church or that the "wrong" people will start attending. We are afraid that we will do the wrong thing or fail doing the right thing. We are afraid that we will upset the power people or the money people ... the list goes on and on. Fear is normal, but when it takes over, it is a sign that we need to get recentered spiritually as a community.

PAUL: When churches or families or nations act out of fear, they often move in ways contrary to the Spirit of God. Sometimes they can't even recognize the surprising ways that God acts because they are clouded by fear. When we truly and fully abide in Christ, fear somehow gets cast out.

KIM: What do we really have to fear? "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31 NIV). God says, "I will be with you!" to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua over and over again—a promise of God to God's people throughout the Scriptures!

PAUL: Fear can really mess with our minds, when we dwell in it. As a person who lives in downtown Washington DC, I have observed how special-interest groups use fear to manipulate voters and elected officials in ways that pull at the very seams of our collective covenant as a nation.

And then we go to church, many of us already reeling from changes and crisis in our families and in the larger society. It is very tempting and easy to turn our church into a Monument to Fear: a fortress against all that is out there, a place to cower, and a place from which we can vainly seek to freeze the world on its axis. Some of the worst fights I have seen at church are related to human attempts to try to freeze changes that scare us. In a world changing so profoundly, a lot of people would do almost anything to preserve their churches as bastions of comfort and peace set apart from a world in flux.

KIM: I've seen this too. We try to prepare for the future by looking backward—seeking comfort in recalling what we have done successfully in the past.

PAUL: Or sometimes reimagining how wonderful things were in the past. Or recalling a time when we felt more in control of things!

KIM: I do find it interesting, as one pastor pointed out to me, that many of the folks who want the church to look backward are getting text messages from their grandchildren on their iPhones!

PAUL: Yes, and taking full advantage of the latest medical technology to manage their health ... so most of us definitely are receptive to some change. I think we are more apt to fear and resist change when it affects our sense of control.

The greatest God-encounter that I can think of in history was the original Pentecost event. Before the Spirit came and knocked them sideways, Luke tells us that Jesus' remnant band of disciples were cowering together behind locked doors. The events in the preceding days had spun utterly out of control. They were afraid of what might happen next! Afraid of the authorities! Afraid of the world! Not sure what to do next. Before the Spirit of God descended on that room and kick-started this movement that we call the church, the people of God were twisted into a spiritual fetal position.

Several years ago, I found myself on a strange church mission trip in Russia. Through a sequence of events, we came to believe that our mission team had accidentally run afoul of the Russian mafia because they believed someone in our group had seen and heard something we were not supposed to know about. Then a strange tourist appeared with a camera to take our photo in twenty-below-zero weather because he said he had never seen Americans before ... or maybe the photos were for the hit men. A pit settled in my stomach, and paranoia arose that I was going to die in Russia. It was not rational at all, but it was very real. I felt robbed of any control in the situation. I remember going back to the room where I was lodging (at a former KGB retreat center), and I was so angry with God.

When finally I boarded the Delta jet in Saint Petersburg to get out of there, I wanted to bend down and kiss the aisle. And then on the ride home, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I began to feel silly about the whole episode. I realized that I had more in common with the Apostle Peter on Holy Thursday than I ever knew. When I was twenty years old, I don't think the danger would have fazed me so much, but by the time of the trip, I had a young child and a promising career. I felt like I had more to lose.

The Russia incident was a wake-up call to me that I had lost some of my spiritual focus. This happens to churches and church leaders all the time!

KIM: Definitely. Fear colors how we think about everything! That was certainly your experience in Russia!

While fear can be one clue to a congregation's overall health, another clue is how the people experience God's call, both individually and as a group.

PAUL: I see that. One of the marks of healthy churches is that individuals are regularly experiencing the call of God to varied kinds of ministries and endeavors—and then responding to that call by teaming together to bring to pass the visions that God has planted in their collective imagination.

But too often, in even relatively healthy churches, the whole issue of God's call is understood too narrowly, associated with the personal journey into ordained ministry or into a ministry-related career. Don't you think that misses the point?

KIM: Geez, Paul. Misses the point would be putting it lightly.

Too often, we laypeople have willingly given up the sense of being called as something meant exclusively for the professionals. And, Paul, all you clergy-professionals have willingly taken the mantle of God's call and worn it proudly. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Center for Congregational Excellence in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, writes that the call of laity to ministry has been ignored since the Middle Ages:

The professionalization of ministry has made matters even worse, if that was possible. Many people ... assume that ministry belongs exclusively to those few special persons called, educated and ordained as professional ministers. It is the lot of laity to be appreciative recipients of their ministry or, at most, to play supportive roles to the ministry of the ordained. Consequently, most clergy are exhausted trying to do the ministry of the whole Body of Christ and most laity are underutilized in the mission of Christ in the world. (

One way this may be played out in congregations is when the phrase "that's what we hired the pastor to do" is heard coming from lay folks! So, I would like to provide another way to think of God's calling that can apply to everyone. A call is a sense of how God invites and empowers me to have impact for God's kingdom through my life.

PAUL: In the years when I worked as a church development director for my bishop, I found myself in a different church almost every Sunday. There was a strong Emmaus movement in our region. Some churches had sent a whole generation of their lay leadership on Walks to Emmaus. Others had not. It got to where I could walk into a church community on a Sunday morning and tell in about ten minutes if a few people in that place had been to Emmaus or not. The Emmaus churches had made spiritual development a priority, and they were usually miles ahead of other churches in their warmth and hospitality to me, the stranger. The Emmaus churches typically had a group of folks who had discovered their own spiritual gifts and call, and they were living this out. So I experienced a more functional and winsome group of people in my Sunday encounter.

KIM: I've never participated in an Emmaus weekend. In fact, I've been in places where the Emmaus folks get cliquish and inwardly focused, and others like the ones you describe, Paul. There are lots of ways that people can get connected to their callings!

PAUL: No doubt what I observed had to do with the health of the Emmaus community in our area and the way it fit folks theologically and culturally in that region.

There are many churches that cultivate God-encounter in the lives of their people without hauling people up the mountain in a van to a retreat center. In almost every case of this, however, some person or group in the church is working intentionally, inviting people to places of likely God-encounter, where they can rethink their lives in terms of the story that God intends to write through them. One of the time-proven methods for setting up a church for significant God-encounter is to invite folks to study through the New Testament book of Acts. (A wonderful resource for leading a church to rethink its life through the Acts lens is a resource titled Catch Fire in Fifty Days, created by a group of laity and clergy in northern California and Nevada.)

KIM: I visited with a church last week that does something they call Encounter Weekend—more than 1,600 people have experienced this in the past ten years. Needless to say, they have one of the most empowered and called congregations that I have experienced!

PAUL: If I can go back to the story you told at the beginning of this chapter, I am still pondering the crash imagery of Jacob and Fred in the church hallway. The call of God does often come with impact, even injury.

The biblical story of Jacob comes to mind: wrestling all night with God's angel for a blessing. Jacob got his blessing. Alongside the promise of God's blessing for himself and his descendants, however, he received a call to serve God and others. The blessing and the call came as a package deal. Theologically, they cannot be separated. And as testimony to the rough-and-tumble nature of that all-night encounter, Jacob walked away from his experience of call with a limp. He was permanently wounded by the impact, so that he would never be able to get out of bed or walk across a room again without immediately remembering the night by the River Jab-bok, where he wrestled with God and lived to tell about it. Some folks hang ordination certificates on the wall as a sort of souvenir of their call. Jacob's souvenir was a bad hip.

KIM: And, as I recall the story, Jacob was afraid and on the run when his God-encounter came, too.

PAUL: That's right.

KIM: A big part of my call is to remind church people that they have a purpose to live a winsome life that attracts folks to the gospel. So in essence, my impact is multiplied when they can act out the gospel in their own lives! We all carry scars and limps that come from significant parts of our living. Sometimes we just don't see them as the ways that God molds us and prepares us to be in mission and ministry; they are just "life." What an eye-opening and life-changing thing it would be to see God's hand in those experiences.

PAUL: Wow! I think you have just pinpointed something important in my experience of call; each aspect of my own call is related to some kind of struggle or injury in my life. God made each of the scars and limps holy; and today they cumulatively define the best of what I am and what God is leading me to be. It casts light on the mystery of why God refused to remove the Apostle Paul's "thorn ... in the flesh" (see 2 Cor. 12:7 NRSV). Without it, perhaps he would have been just another grumpy, talk-radio guy. With it, God used him to change the world in a wonderful way.


Excerpted from The Surprise Factor by Kim Shockley, Paul Nixon. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Seek Significant God-Encounter,
2. Love One Another,
3. Love Your Community,
4. Treat Urgency as a Gift!,
5. Collect, Develop, and Deploy Bright-Eyed People,
6. Make a Few Helpful, Bold Moves,
7. Create Legend on the Community Grapevine,
8. Hold Difficult People Accountable,
9. Show Up at the Parties,
10. Trust God and Expect Great Things,
Improving Your Odds: An Epilogue,

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