Reggie McNeal on Shifting From Local Church Centric to Kingdom-Focused Leadership


Reggie_McNeal_podcastWelcome to this week’s unSeminary podcast and thanks for joining us with Reggie McNeal of Leadership Network. Leadership Network began in 1984 with just 20 leaders and now serves over 200,000 leaders around the world. They help identify where God is working at the edges of his kingdom and help His work spread.

Reggie currently works in the area of city impact within Leadership Network. He works with churches that are very involved in their communities and helps them accelerate their work to focus on big issues like literacy and community health care. Reggie joins us today to talk about three things that church leaders can do to partner with their communities in making a positive impact on the people they serve.

  • Shift your language. // As Reggie explains, there are three things that must happen within the leader and the church in order for this reach outside of the church to be successful. “And you don’t get a pass on any of them,” Reggie says with a laugh. The first thing is that you have to pay attention to language. What he means by that is the narrative: What do we talk about? How do we talk about it? All of the discussions for hundreds of years have been about making the church right. “We’ll take any topic and bring it inside the church,” Reggie says. Gifts, jobs, what clothing is appropriate for who to wear when. We’ve all heard it at least a dozen times. As Reggie says, that conversation has probably run its course with most of us and most definitely with people outside of the church. Instead, focus on the kingdom narrative, which is all about life. Jesus didn’t teach the gospel of the church, He taught the gospel of the kingdom. If He taught about God’s kingdom and the life He had come to give, shouldn’t we pay more attention to that aspect of the narrative? Use that language to draw people in rather than focusing on something like “What’s the fall series?” or the dos and don’ts of church.
  • Change the scorecard. // “Whatever it is you celebrate in your culture, that’s what people think is the big deal,” Reggie reminds us. So if you only celebrate church-centric metrics—such as how many people came, what they gave—then church-centric metrics seem to be the only things that are important. It seems that God only cares about how many people are in church on Sunday mornings. But Reggie tells us that we can use other metrics as indicators of success—such as making sure the school kids in your community aren’t going hungry, or increasing local literacy. That is what Reggie is encouraging people to do, to change their measurements for success away from church statistics and towards how the church is partnering with it’s community. This doesn’t mean you leave Jesus out of the equation – ultimately your community is going to want to know why you do what you do.
  • Shift the leadership agenda. // Ultimately in order for these shifts to happen the leader has to change their own personal scorecard. As Reggie notes, “If you want to be a kingdom leader, you yourself have to go first.” Be willing to reach out to the community and get yourself involved on a personal level, whether it’s reading in local grade schools or being a crossing guard. Whatever that looks like, initiate that reaching out and incorporate that service into your personal life, even if you start small, and see what sort of partnerships can develop over time.

You can learn more about Leadership Network at www.LeadNet.org. Or email Reggie at [email protected].

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Episode Highlights

00:39 // Rich introduces Reggie and welcomes him to the show.

01:24 // Reggie talks about his current assignment with Leadership Network.

02:36 // Reggie talks about cross-domain collaborations.

04:48 // Reggie talks about the kingdom-centric approach.

08:04 // Rich gives an example of collaborations within his own church.

09:50 // Reggie talks about the changes in missional conversation.

10:26 // Reggie gives examples highlighting the importance of narrative.

13:00 // Reggie highlights the need to change church-centric metrics.

15:32 // Reggie talks about being faithful and sharing the truth in love.

19:03 // Rich gives an examples of his church serving the community.

22:00 // Reggie talks about being a kingdom leader.

26:05 // Reggie offers his contact information.

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich, the host here and a happy Thursday. Thank you so much for tuning in, we know you’ve got a lot going on at your church as you get ready for this weekend and we’re just honored that you would take some time out to listen to us today.

I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation with Reggie McNeal from Leadership Network. For people that don’t know Leadership Network and if you don’t know who Leadership Network is you might be under a rock somewhere. They began in 1984 with 20 leaders and now serves over 200 thousand leaders around the world. They really are incredible at identifying, where is God working at the edges of his kingdom and helping that spread really to a bunch of different churches and they’ve really been incredibly influential and Reggie has been a part of that. Reggie welcome to the show.

Reggie – Hey, I’m glad to be here Rich, thank you. What a great intro for my organization. I’ll be sure to tell our CEO that you did us proud there.

Rich – Okay nice, that’s great. Reggie, why don’t you tell us about your particular area of interest or expertise within the Leadership Network mafia?

Reggie – Well my particular assignment right, where I’m doing research and development is in the whole area of city impact. It started, it grew out of a missional conversation, before that I was doing missional renaissance, leadership communities and I would convene teams and we would think of ways that they could accelerate their community engagement.

Well now I’m working with teams who are very involved in their communities because we’ve seen a real growth in that over the last half a dozen years. Now I want to help teams who are already very significantly engaged with their community and accelerate their development to create cross-domain collaboratives that can really focus on and move the needle on big issues like literacy or community healthcare or something like that.

So I think it’s a natural outgrowth of the missional conversation and actually these days, I’m positioning it in what I’m calling a kingdom-centric kind of gender.

Rich – So when you talk about cross-domain, is that like across multiple churches, across a series of issues to kind of work together? What does that look like?

Reggie – Well by cross-domain, I mean how does a faith community come out and play with other societal sectors like the business community, the political community, the education. So there’s 6 or 7, sometimes up to 14, different people slice and dice it differently, but private sector, public sector, social sector, those kinds of things.

So the church is not going to be able, in its own silo and in our own little playground, for instance if we’re working on literacy, we can sit in our church fellowship all day, we can recruit volunteers all day, but if we don’t work with the education sector, the business sector, then those ideas go nowhere. But collaborating is something we didn’t learn in seminary, so we don’t have to unSeminary that part, it’s a different kind of competency. We have to listen more, we have to be more patient, we have to build trust, we have to be clear in our communication, we have to establish expectations, promising only what we can deliver. There’s a whole bunch of issues around that whole collaborative piece.

So what I do is, I help church leaders who really do want to unbundle the social capital locked up in their congregations and release it back to the community to really make a big difference. I help them know how to do that better, you know, what the pre-conditions are and then what the collaborative path looks like.

Rich – That’s incredible. I think there are a lot of church leaders who may have the heart for, “Hey, we want to reach out. We want to take some steps to collaborate with the people and the government and business leaders,” but they just don’t know where to start.

I remember a couple of years ago, that Reveal Study out at Willow talked about one of the core things they found of growing churches, was that their leaders were community connectors outside of the church, that they were people who were looking to build bridges with the local community. Where does a church leader even start with that? What does that look like? How do you go from being maybe my own local church-centric to more of a kingdom focus or more of like what you said, kingdom-centric approach? What does that look like?

Reggie – Well I think there are three things that have to happen to shift a culture. There are things that have to happen in the leader but the culture ultimately has to support that leader in the shift from church-centric to kingdom-centric. So I help leaders think through three legs of a stool there, if that’s a right analogy of the pieces and you don’t get a pass on any of them, you know a B plus is not going to make it.

Rich – Right.

Reggie – So you have to pay attention to language. You literally have to shift your language and what I mean by that, it the narrative, what do we talk about? How do we talk about it? For the last 500 years and the reformation, it’s all been about getting the church right and all the discussions have been ecclesiological somehow. We’ll take any topic and bring it inside the church, whether it’s gifts or… Man, we’ll even quote stuff out of Ephesians that was written for instance for folks who didn’t have church jobs. Well we turn those gifts and officers and all that in the church jobs, it’s kind of amazing how we can fit our own experience back, even in the biblical stuff.

Over the last 500 years, we’ve been trying to figure out what makes a church and who can do what, when? Can they wear a skirt? Can it happen on a Tuesday night? All that kind of business. Well alright, I can tell you, that conversation has probably run its course with most of us and I can promise you it’s run its course with people outside of the church.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – Not just a narrative, it just doesn’t have traction. However, a kingdom narrative is all about life, it’s about the life God wants people to live. Jesus says, “I’ve come to give you life.” He preached the kingdom of God. So I would say, if he’s preached the kingdom of God, we all pay attention to it. He didn’t preach the gospel of the church, it was the gospel of the kingdom and then he qualified the truth of life.

That’s how I basically tell people to talk about kingdom, because you can go out and run a banner on your church, “We’re a kingdom-centric church.” “What kingdom are you talking about?”

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – But let’s talk about life, that’s the issue, plus that’s what the kingdom’s all about. Which, by the way, takes us then into a much wider array of issues than simply what’s the full series?

Rich – Yes, “What are we talking about this weekend?”

Reggie – Yeah, employment, we’re talking about healthcare, we’re talking about literacy, we’re talking about big stuff here.

The second thing you have to do, besides the language and the narrative and all of that, is… and by the way, when I do consulting, I’ll actually help them go through their gathering of their weekend experience or whatever. Was the community ever mentioned? Did we ever pray for the community? When was the last time we had a community leader in and interviewed them and prayed over them? Or on our website can you go to the children’s ministry pages and all of that? Well we need some help on Sunday.

Rich – Right.

Reggie – Or if I want a tutor down at the local school and we have a partnership there, can I sign up for there? I mean it’s just a whole array of communication.

Rich – Before we leave the language thing, just one quick piece of that, just a little story from our own church. A couple of years ago we challenged all of our campus pastors to get a meeting with the mayor in all the towns we were in and simply ask this question, and I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you’re talking about, simply ask the question, “What can we do to help this city? We can mobilize volunteers, we’re good at that. We can pull people together. What could we do to help?” That was well received in all the cities we were in.

In one of our campuses, the mayor literally sat back in his chair and said, “I have never had any faith community ask me this question,” and I won’t say the town because I don’t want to reveal the mayor because of what I’m saying. That mayor, from what I know, he doesn’t attend church, I don’t know what his personal faith background is, because there weren’t signs of that. But the next week we received a check from him personally with a note that said, “I don’t know what is happening at your church but I am just so glad and we’re looking forward to working together.”

He ended up obviously following up and we ended up doing some stuff in that community that we would have never identified, we would have never have said, “Hey, this is the kind of thing we did.” He said, “Hey, here’s a particular constituent group that’s under-served in our community, it would be great if you could help,” and that’s begun an incredible partnership in that town that’s grown and blossomed in other things.

Reggie – And that’s what collaboration is. I mean, we’ve seen this move or what I call progression or prepositions in the missional conversation and in our kingdom conversation from the in. I mean, years ago, we were just helping churches try to pay attention to the community they were in.

Rich – Right.

Reggie – Or parachuting in and a lot of times the community had changed.

Rich – Yeah.

Reggie – But then we went to for, so we were doing a lot of things for our communities, externally focused, all fine.

Rich – Yeah.

Reggie – Now the preposition is with, and that is the incarnational…

Rich – Don’t miss that people, that is very good; going from in, to for, to with. That’s great.

Reggie – It’s a huge jump from for, to with.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – It changes everything.

Rich – Right.

Reggie – It moves the center of gravity off of us to the larger kingdom and you’re going out to those mayors to ask them, “What is it you need here to help?”

Rich – Right.

Reggie – I’ve got a great story. I was talking to this priest, episcopal priest in Dallas, moved there, taken on a new parish, went to the local elementary school and said, “I’m a parish priest but I think of the community as my parish.” See that’s a kingdom mentality and he said, “So how can we help here?” and the principal said, “Let me think about that.” So he goes back, he writes back to the principal, “I enjoyed your time today. I look forward to hearing back.” She forwards it, doesn’t take his name off, forwards it to a colleague, “I had this religious nut come and see me…”

Rich – Oh no.

Reggie – So the colleague writes back in, I mean this guy’s watching this back and forth and then says, “Give him a menial job,” and so he would have done it anyway but she fires back, “But we need a school crossing guard.” And I’m saying this to say whatever it is that people say, if you go to say, “What can we do to help? Or what’s the one thing we could do that would make the most difference?” you better pay attention.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – Start with what they give you. So this guy said, “I’m your man.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been a school crossing guard, but before God you’re dodging people that are on the phone and putting on makeup and drinking coffee.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – But 6 months later, he’s in like flynn and I mean anytime a kid, a divorce or a house burns down or grief in the family, he’s the go to guy there. And now he’s able to bring, he could have said, “I’ve got two volunteers I could enlist,” but now he’s able to bring them into this.

Rich – Yes, yes.

Reggie – Because he was simply willing to be a servant his end.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – So that with, it just changes everything in our minds, and it kind of challenges, it really does challenge our hubris and our spiritual leaders, it’s kind of inborn, “We know what’s good for people after all, so just listen, we tell you what.”

Rich – Nice.

Reggie – Approach it with a humble, it totally changes the narrative.

Rich – Yes, it changes the picture. So that was the first thing, deal with the language.

Reggie – Yes.

Rich – What are some of the other things as we try to make this shift?

Reggie – Two other things. If you want to interrupt, I can get through this. I’m a little tired of being interrupted. You folks don’t know me, I don’t grin. The only time I’m messing with you is when my mouth moves.

So the second thing is the scorecard, you have to change the scorecard and some people don’t like my use of the word ‘score’. Okay that’s good, don’t use it. But my point is, whatever it is you celebrate in your system, in your culture, that’s what people think is the big deal.

So if we’re only celebrating church-centric metrics like how many folks came, how much money did they bring, how often do they come? All these church activities, led by church people, for church people, consumed on church… all of this stuff, then people are going to think, “Oh okay, this is what’s really important to God and actually he’s taking his own cues for how the kingdom’s going based on Sunday attendance.” I mean what a shrink wrap notion. But if we had the courage and the guts to shift our scorecard to say, you know, we’re driving the number of hungry kids in our school system to zero. Or we’re taking the number of kids off the first grade reading list or at risk list…

I mean if we had the guts to hook our scorecard to actually people enjoying better lives in our community then that certainly changes priorities, it changes budgeting, it changes everything and this is what I’m encouraging folks to do and challenging them to do quite honestly, because I kind of feel like it’s a bit idolatrous to keep celebrating the fact that we have 10 more people or a hundred more or a thousand more folks coming to our deal, but our town’s going to hell in a handbasket.

I mean, Jeremiah 29, that thing about seek the welfare of the city to exiles and that’s us in our culture now, suddenly we woke up and that’s where we are. I mean if you’re going to seek the welfare of the city and pray for it because if it prospers you’ll prosper, well then what does that scorecard look like? And this is hand to hand combat though, I’m telling you. This is not easy, because we are 17 hundred years of deeply entrenched church-centric metrics, just to gauge how we’re doing.

Rich – Now just on that, let me play the devil’s advocate here, using that word particularly. The Leadership Network does come out of kind of a pretty standard, I would say Evangelical kind of part of the Christian community, who we have become very good at counting nickels and noses and we love that stuff. They listen to you, they listen to the challenge and they say, “Yeah, but isn’t this just all that kind of social justice stuff? Why do we really care about all of that? Isn’t it just about conversions?”

Reggie – Yeah, I run into this all the time and I appreciate the question. First of all, I do want to say, what part of the gospel is not supposed to have social implications? If we understand the gospel and the holistic nature of what God is up to in restoring everything that’s been tarnished, diminished, broke in the fall, then backing away from any part of that, that to me seems kind of cowardly and quite honestly… but I understand the historical context, where a hundred years ago, when fundamentalism showed up, it just drove a wedge in American Christianity between mainland denominations who suddenly began to backpedal off of the Jesus claims because they didn’t want to be viewed as those fundamentalists over there, but they hung in there. I mean they hung in in the soup kitchens.

You go to inner cities, and I mean it’s the mainland denominations that still have a presence and us Evangelicals acting like we just discovered social justice. It kind of goes a little thin with some of the groups, or Catholic charities or whatever.

Rich – Right.

Reggie – I mean, there are folks that have hung in there forever, but backpedaling from the Jesus piece has been a particular challenge and when I work with these groups and I do work with a lot. I’ll be with 10 Methodist congregations starting tomorrow. My encouragement to them is, “You know you don’t have to leave Jesus out of the equation here, people expect you to believe something,” and they kind of actually want to know why you do what you do.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – And if you’re doing what you do because… like now, if you say, “Well I’m doing this so I can get a check from the mayor, or I’m doing this so that we can improve the number of conversions that we have,” I mean that kind of bait-and-switch, that’s where that trust thing comes in.

Rich – Yes and people smell it from a million miles away right?

Reggie – Yeah, I mean exactly right. They see this coming from the next zip code over. So what we have to do is faithful, sharing the truth in love, both pieces are important; you don’t truly love people if you don’t tell them the truth but if you don’t love folks, you can bullhorn them with the truth and who cares?

So both pieces are important and we just have to be faithful, but when God, who’s already at work with everybody we’re going to work with. God never left the inner city and he never left schools by the way.

Rich – Yeah.

Reggie – And all that silly stuff that we talk about, I mean, we run slap into God in the under-served, the under-resourced populations because he’s there, he’s at work. So as he opens up those opportunities, I say we’ve got to be faithful to step into that conversation and he can give an answer for the hope that’s in us.

Rich – Absolutely.

Reggie – Then what happens is, I’m thinking of a group here, they started a sports league, a community, a neighborhood sports league, so that the kids could belong to something organized besides a gang. I tell you, when they started, there wasn’t one single family that was in that initial group that was connected to faith, community in any way, now they’re all connected to faith, community. They don’t start the sports league, just so we can have a chance to run out and do a drive by shooting with the gospel present, you start that because these kids, you want them to have a better life. What happens is, when people are being served and they realize that, the spirit just opens up those opportunities.

Rich – Absolutely. Yeah for sure. A quick example; last year our church did a… we have a pretty robust inclusion ministry, so kids with special needs, but we don’t really do anything for adults or young adults so we had a number of people challenge, like maybe we should be doing something on that front. So last year we hosted a one-time event, we did a prom for kids impacted with special needs. Last year we have about a hundred kids come to it, it was amazing, it was literally kingdom on earth stuff, it was incredible.

Reggie – Right.

Rich – This year, and I had very little to do with this, our team did an incredible job, it went from a hundred guests to 500 guests, it was literally five times as big, it was incredible. But it was interesting, listening to the feedback from the parents of the guests, the vast majority of the parents of the guests who came, the vast majority of these people don’t attend our church, we’re just serving our community, we’re just reaching out to a population saying, “Hey, we’re doing this, we’d love for you to come in.”

Reggie – Right.

Rich – We’ve heard time and time again from parents of the guests saying, “Oh I was kind of nervous to come because I thought you guys were going to like preach at us and kind of the whole night was like waiting for that moment but then I realized, your people just wanted to care for us.” And what did that do? That opened up an opportunity to then talk and it asked that question, “Well why are you doing this? Why are you engaged in this thing?”

Reggie – Yeah, then it’s a very natural conversation.

Rich – Yes absolutely.

Reggie – It’s not some canned marketing thing, like we’re selling Jesus like soap or something.

Rich – Exactly.

Reggie – What’s fascinating too about this I find is that, the business community uses a term, ‘lag and lead factors’ when they scorecard and the church, we’re notorious, we just measure lag factors, like the number of conversions.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – Well there’s a whole lot of lead things that have to go in like having conversations with people.

Rich – Right.

Reggie – So you’re never going to get more conversions until your conversation rate goes up.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – We haven’t figured out, you know, I grew up in a tribe where our pick up line was, “You know you’re going to go to hell and fry like a sausage,” and then we wondered why people didn’t want to pursue that conversation. But you do what you do and you’re in a service thing or… Evangelism used to be me and you, kind of this confrontational, across the table or across a cup of coffee.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – Most of the Evangelism, I think, in this new kingdom paradigm, is shoulder to shoulder. People who are working with us or we’re both mentoring in the school and those conversations just begin, you know, “What motivates you?” and that kind of thing. Oh my goodness, then you’re off to a conversation that just starts out of who you are, instead of some, you know, let me pull down the… and give you a PowerPoint. Anyway, I’m seeing it all over.

Rich – That’s cool. So language, scorecard; what are we measuring and then what’s the third thing we should be wrestling through?

Reggie – Well the leadership agenda has to shift and we’ve hinted at a lot of this already.

Rich – Yeah.

Reggie – But the leader has to change their own personal scorecard. I was just with 32 District Superintendents of Education in the state of Texas. They brought me in by the way, listen to how the script has flipped. They brought me in to say how can we engage the faith community in our schools, help us know how to do that? Can you believe that?

Rich – That’s amazing.

Reggie – They’re saying, “We are so desperate for help. Help us know how to get…?” Now there’s that part of me that’s aggravated with that too saying, why in the world isn’t the church beating on the door of these Superintendents of Education saying, “We’re here to help. How can we help?” It’s just incredible to me.

Rich – Absolutely.

Reggie – So one of those Superintendents of Education stood up and talked about his own district’s volunteer reading, it’s a client of mine in Northeast Texas, Titus County, called Titus County Cares and they’ve started Titus County Reads under the umbrella of their larger efforts. Beautiful, beautiful organization. But this Superintendent, he himself reads on Tuesday afternoons. See that’s the leadership, you’ve got to show first.

Rich – Yeah.

Reggie – When you’re leading a movement you don’t do that from a memo, you don’t do that from the office, you do that in the trenches, you do that in the street. So if you want to be a kingdom leader, you yourself have to go first, but you don’t go by yourself, I mean you take them with you. By the way, this Superintendent emailed all of his principals of his school saying, “I suggest that you consider being a volunteer reader,” and by the way, I’m doing it on Tuesday at [Corporate 00:23:44] school over here.

Rich – Yes.

Reggie – I mean, this is a slam dunk. But by the way, he told stories, incredible, the program was only 5 weeks in, he was 10 minutes late to his reading, a 30-minute reading.

Rich – Oh no.

Reggie – And he came up with a stool and he walked through the door and the child, the second grade boy that he read to was in the hall on the floor just bawling his eyes out.

Rich – Oh my goodness, that’s heartbreaking.

Reggie – He yells out at him and he says, “Hey,” and the kid looks up and grins, just takes off running, just launches himself into the arms of the Superintendent and says to him, wet faced, “I thought you weren’t coming.”

Rich – Oh my goodness.

Reggie – I mean, how many people have let that kid down?

Rich – Absolutely.

Reggie – We just change life directories one by one, it just matters. That kid, he’s going to have a chance, he’ll have a chance, a fighting chance, because someone gave him 30 minutes of uninterrupted attention, not negatively. Oh my gosh.

Rich – That’s incredible, that’s incredible. Well Reggie this has been amazing. Anything else you want to share before we wrap up this episode? It’s just been amazing content, I really appreciate you jumping on today’s call.

Reggie – There’s lots I want to share but if I start down another road I don’t know how I’ll come back from it, but I would say, I’d like to end with saying to leaders, if this stirs your heart a bit, and says, “This is something,” just get out there and wade into it. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you don’t know how… you’re going to screw up, but it’s important, we need to screw up more in this area in order to become a player in this area. Don’t make the same mistake over and over but go ahead, go first, figure it out and then let that work from inside, that why will begin to show up in your own life and it will be an unassailable invitation.

Rich – Well I appreciate you being on the show today. If people want to get in touch with your or with Leadership Network, how can they do that?

Reggie – Well our website is leadnet.org, short of Leadership Network. Folks can email me at [email protected], it’ll find me and I’d be happy to hear from folks.

Rich – Thanks very much Reggie, I appreciate you being on the show today.

Reggie – Glad to visit with you Rich. Talk to you later.


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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.