7 Questions with Michael Frost

Name: Michael Frost

Current title: Founding Director

Current organisation: Tinsley Institute at Morling College

Michael Frost is an internationally recognised Australian missiologist and one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. His books are required reading in colleges and seminaries around the world and he is much sought after as an international conference speaker. Dr Frost has been the founding director of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study centre located at Morling College in Sydney, Australia, since 1999. He has also been an adjunct lecturer at various seminaries in the United States.

He is the author or editor of sixteen theological books, the best known of which are the popular and award-winning, The Shaping of Things to Come (2003), Exiles (2006), The Road to Missional (2011) and Surprise the World! (2016). Frost’s work has been translated into German, Korean, Swedish, Portuguese and Spanish.

He was one of the founders of the Forge Mission Training Network, an international learning community for missional Christians. Michael Frost blogs at mikefrost.net

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1. What have you found most challenging as a church leader?

I’m both a thought leader and an organisational leader. As a thought leader, the continual challenge is to be provocative enough to stimulate the interest of my readers/listeners, without being so confrontational as to aggravate them. Simply telling people what they already know is comforting (to the listener and the presenter), but it achieves nothing. For change to occur, a thought leader has to create dissonance, a kind of disruption in people’s thinking so they’ll reconsider the status quo.

Daniel Berlyne was an art critic who said, “What strikes us as good art is usually a slight deviation from our expectations.” If an artist deviates too much from our expectations we find it alienating and bizarre (like some abstract or experimental art). But if the artist conforms too perfectly to our expectations it’s boring. It’s the same with thought leadership. If a teacher/preacher/writer creates too much dissonance their audience can react angrily. Dissonance isn’t a good feeling. But if you create no dissonance you might as well not even bother. That requires me to perpetually keep my finger on the pulse and adjust and readjust. I don’t always get it right, though.

When it comes to organisational leadership, I’ve been a pastor, church planter, leader of an international organisation and the director of a think tank, so each brings its own challenges. Honing the effectiveness of the organisation, inspiring and resourcing my team, guiding change, satisfying stakeholders, etc etc - all the usual stuff. It’s all challenging.

2. How did you become a church leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I became a Christian at university. I was a passionate new convert, confident and articulate. Churches love people like that, so I was given opportunities to lead and preach way beyond my maturity and capacity. I took the advice my pastors gave me and ended up at theological college, and before I knew it I was ordained and pastoring a large church in the Hills District of western Sydney, which was the new Bible belt back then. It looked like everything was going well, but I knew something was wrong.

That was the heyday of church growth theory, an approach to leading churches that drew from the new social science of marketing. Its proponents claimed that the church’s primary function was to grow. I now know that’s not true. The primary purpose of the church is to glorify God by alerting the world to God’s universal reign through Christ. But back then I drank the church growth kool aid and embraced all their strategies -- seeker services, contemporary music, dynamic youth ministry, targets, goals, counting, counting, counting. I got to the point where I realised I wasn’t drawing on the grace of God or the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The things that energised my ministry had become male ego, competition with other churches, and hunger for success.

Once I realised that, I knew I needed to quit, recalibrate, renew, and start again. I got a job teaching ideology and sociology at TAFE and started reading David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin. I met a guy called Alan Hirsch, who was a few steps further along from me and we began dreaming about what a church would look like if it calibrated itself entirely around the mission of God. And we kept asking, what kind of leadership is required to create such a church? I found myself being retheologised and, not to put it too dramatically, rebirthed as a leader.

You see, if church leaders lead without knowing what the church is really meant to be and do, they will resort to a kind of ecclesial business model. But the church isn’t simply an organisation, and it’s definitely not a business. The Bible’s favoured metaphors are things like family, body, community. In 2002, Alan Hirsch and I wrote a book about everything we’d uncovered and rediscovered. It was called The Shaping of Things to Come and my life was never the same after that.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

No day is really the same as the next. And Covid19 has changed everything. But, when things were normal, I’d prepare and teach classes, attend team meetings, develop strategic plans, coach interns, supervise research students, write a blog, research and write books, speak at conferences, preach in churches, and record interviews with podcasters.

I’m not leading a local church right now, but not that long ago, I’d spend my spare time at leadership meetings, and running all kinds of cool events (our church met in an art gallery). I also used to be on a number of boards and committees, but I’ve resisted doing that these days. I felt God telling me to focus on the Tinsley Institute and my speaking ministry. As I say, coronavirus changed a lot of things. My international speaking is now via webinars or prerecorded talks, and who knows how long that will be the case.

4. What one book had the most profound impact on your church leadership? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I don’t read leadership books. They leave me cold. I was recently asked to write about the five books that changed my life and when I listed them they were all biblical theology or novels -- Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet about prophetic speech; Lesslie Newbigin’s commentary on John, The Light Has Come; Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s Resident Aliens; Ken Bailey’s amazing book on the parables, Poet and Peasant; and a handful of novels by Wendell Berry, Flannery O’Connor and Willa Cather.

I know that’s more than five. I cheated. And I could have added more, including books by David Bosch, Tom Wright, Stanley Jones, and John Perkins. Recently, I’ve been reading about racism, white privilege and reconciliation. It’s the most pressing issue of our time.

5. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

Know your limitations and don’t pretend you know everything or can do anything. I’ve seen a number of highly gifted leaders come unstuck by simply being unable to acknowledge their limits and admit their failings. Humble, vulnerable leaders last longer and achieve more, whereas insecure leaders can achieve great things for a time but flame out spectacularly in the long run, hurting a lot of people along the way.

6. How do you develop a healthy leadership pipeline in a church?

It takes a rare mix of (a) pastoral vigilance to spot emerging leaders, (b) an intentional coaching regime, (c) methods for gift identification and skill acquisition, (d) freedom to fail, (e) theological and biblical education, and more. I will say, it’s those last two that often seem to be in short supply in many churches. The current obsession with excellence in our churches has left less room for emerging leaders to try and fail and try again in their development.

Also, in general Aussies are notoriously anti-intellectual, and charismatic and evangelical Aussies are especially so. Don’t fall for the lie that leaders don’t need the discipline and insight that comes from deep immersion in the Bible. We shouldn’t be simply trying to shape good leaders. The business world does that. We should be trying to shape wise, humble, godly, knowledgeable Christian leaders.

7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a church leader so far?

I don’t know if this is the most meaningful, but years ago when I was in America, a young pastor came up to me with a battered copy of The Shaping of Things to Come and asked me to autograph it. As I was signing it, I mentioned how worn it was and he told me that as he was reading it he would get through 10 or 20 pages and be so infuriated by it he’d throw it against the wall. Then he’d regret it, pick it up, read another 10 or 20 pages before throwing it against the wall again. “That book made me so angry,” he told me, “but I couldn’t stop reading it.” He finished the book, quit his job with a big attractional church and planted a missional community.

I’ve heard similar stories from countries all around the world. I’ve also had former students tell me they were so agitated in my classes, but they come back to thank me for broadening their vision. If you feel called to be a change agent, I hate to break it to you, but they’ll hate you before they love you.