Whitney Johnson's "Disrupt Yourself" is a mine of rich, useful insight for missionary disciples looking to bring some Kingdom disruption into tired old realms.
She left a wildly successful career as a financial analyst to become an author and thought leader in the field of disruption, working in close collaboration with the likes of Clayton Christensen, the godfather of disruption theory.
Johnson argues that innovation starts as an inside game, and that we must disrupt ourselves before disrupting others. “We can natter all day about being agents of disruption, but to effect real change, we need to be the subject of disruption.” Self-disruption on the personal level positions us to disrupt at the public level.
This is consonant with the gospel, in which the new creation begins with a new heart. Jesus calls us to repent and be converted in our inmost hearts so as to love God and others as commanded by Jesus and fulfill the Great Commission. The Gospel and Acts could easily be read as disruption stories, whereby Jesus and the Holy Spirit massively disrupt the “market” of human meaning and happiness, intruding with an offer of unimaginable and ultimate newness.
Although written in a secular vein and aimed primarily for business and leadership spaces, “Disrupt Yourself” is for anyone wishing to grow and improve themselves, multiplying their value-adding influence within their respective spheres of influence. With a little imagination, Kingdom-hungry disciples of Jesus can profit from her seven steps to self-disruption. The principles can help us collaborate in new movements of the Spirit to reach the lost, evangelize the peripheries, and renew the church.
But first... no Pelagianism allowed. God is the first mover. Only if His disruptive influence is upon our life can we ourselves be disrupters for His Kingdom. Grace always comes first and what follows is always and only a response. But that being said...the response matters. A lot.
Innovation starts as an inside game, and we must disrupt ourselves before disrupting others.
The rich rewards of disruption require forsaking comfortable paths and embracing some risk. Although evolutionary biology increasingly shows nature favoring calculated risk-takers, the battle against comfort-loving, risk avoiding, institution-ossifying entropy and what Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance” pose no small challenge for those working within established institutions.
In order to really step up and take wise risks, Johnson suggests we get serious about identifying our distinctive strengths and then put them to work on things no one else seems willing or able to do. “Position yourself to play where no one else is playing,” then be courageous in stepping out and offering your contribution.
St Paul’s entire adult life as a Christian was characterized by bold risk-taking. From his first tentative post-conversion knock on the door of Ananias, to his lengthy period of apostolic training, to his defying Peter’s vacillation on the Gentile issue, and on through his missionary journeys, standing still was for Paul the greater risk than the manifest risks of evangelizing. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:16)
After identifying something you do well, it’s time to match your distinctive strengths with unmet needs. “Look at the problems that the organization needs solved and ask yourself: Can I fix that?” Many people would rather complain about the deficits of their organization than step forward with solutions. (Sound familiar, church?)
Johnson offers some helpful questions to help self-identify strengths: What skills have helped you survive? What makes you feel strong? Which problems most bother you? What compliments do you shrug off? What made you different or odd as a child? Disruptors focus on what they can do that others can’t, then look for a job that no one else is doing.
Paul’s rigorous theological formation positioned him to advance compelling exhortations to his flock through his preaching and disruptive letters. His life-changing conversion convinced him that Jesus died and rose for all, giving him a heart to cross tribal barriers and reach the lost. An added element, distinctively Christian, is that for the sake of Christ, Paul even embraced positions of weakness to reach souls, trusting God to fill in the gaps.
“Jaws” became a classic largely by accident: due to budgetary constraints, the mechanical shark did not film well, shifting the focus toward the ominous, menacing vibe that so bewitched audiences. Dr Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” shares a similar origin story: a friend challenged the author to take 255 unique words every six-year-old knows and write a story kids can’t put down.
These examples challenge us to stop using constraints as an excuse. Constraints are healthy. They keep us focused, give us something to push against, and demand creativity. “When resources are at a minimum, successful people dig deep to discover an embarrassment of riches right under their feet.” This is a provocative challenge, particularly for under-resourced ministries and churches.
Paul labored amid constraints throughout his apostolic career. Just take a glance at 2 Corinthians 11 and 12 to see a thorough cataloguing of all the personal and circumstantial constraints that so challenged him as he spread the gospel. Constraint for Paul was an opportunity for God to show up and show off. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10)
In the last post, I cited examples like Netflix and Uber to show how disrupters displace established titans in the industry. A sense of entitlement leads the Blockbusters and taxis of the world to dismiss upstarts while considering themselves invincible. This keeps them from growing and adapting and instead accelerates their path to obsolescence and extinction.
Johnson encourages gratitude as an antidote to entitlement: “The ability to admit that you depend on others and the humility to recognize your limitations…is an an explicit acknowledgement that the world is not all about you.” She also says: listen to voices outside the tribe, even those most critical. “Try re-framing dissenting voices as important allies.” The subtitle says it all: entitlement kills innovation and thwarts newness.
Entitlement? Paul had been there, done that. He was keenly aware of his past as a proud and violent Pharisaical persecutor of the Church of Christ (see 1 Tim 1:12-14), and lived out of a profound sense of gratitude that he was saved by grace. Most of his letters begin with a greeting filled with gushing thanks and praise for all the wonderful things God is doing in the people he is shepherding. The grateful Paul developed the theme of thanks more than any other biblical author.
Our strengths can become weaknesses. If we rely too heavily on them, we stagnate. “If as an individual you’ve reached the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, it’s time to find a new ladder.” Acquire new skill sets to avoid the ruts and complacency plateaus that sink established giants content with comfortable mastery of old skills. Warning: this requires humility and vulnerability: “Just like a snake shedding its skin, you have to lose something critical to grow, leaving you vulnerable and exposed in the process.”
Here is where the church really should take notice. Neglecting Scripture because “We have the Eucharist” or writing off a dynamic megachurch because “They’re just putting on a show” are not the attitudes of self-dirsupters. If we are top-heavy with doctrine and apologetics, yet unmoved to reach the lost and lacking skills of a missionary disciple, something's wrong. If our Twitter feed, book list, and blog bookmarks are an echo chamber of self-reinforcing ideologies, something's wrong. Stepping back from certainty-building in order to engage the awkward messiness of missional, disciple-forming relationships could be a most fruitful disruption for many.
Post-conversion, Paul quickly changed from expert to novice, master to disciple, proud law-keeper to humble grace-receiver. He was frequently recalibrating and re-assessing his methods as an evangelizer. At the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16 ff.) he used natural theology as a starting point for evangelizing; then he went to Corinth, abandoning lofty speech and wisdom in favor of “knowing nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2). Paul embraced constant adaptation and was willing to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) to aid in their salvation.
Learning is a process that always involves a level of failure. Failure does not mean my ideas are bad or wrong, much less that I am bad or wrong. Failure, if heeded and analyzed well, gives valuable data on how we can learn and grow. Johnson says the key is in the narrative we ascribe to our failure. We should always ask: “What have I learned that I didn’t know before? How can I apply that knowledge to propel my journey up the learning curve of disruption?” Only after these questions have been exhausted is it time to perhaps let go and move on to a new pursuit.
A certain type of rules-driven Christianity can make people so fearful of mistakes that they never mature. Pope Francis told the youth at Rio: "Be creative. Be audacious. Do not be afraid." He told bishops and priests to stop acting like hens keeping their chicks under their wing. Yes, we should have a healthy caution towards the world. But these days, perhaps the greater danger is staying safely closed in on ourselves while the world burns. Practically every pastoral skill I have came only after an embarrassing pile of failures. Thankfully, God and people are forgiving, and His grace has always filled in the gaps in the process.
Paul did not say, “Woe to me if I make a mistake.” He said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” He preferred getting a little dirty trying to score a goal for the Kingdom and missing, than staying spotless on the sidelines. Paul’s very letters are evidence that his pastoral labors were not always effective. One could point to the problems of the Galatians and Corinthians and say, wow, Paul really did a poor job evangelizing them. And yet…Paul learned and grew from it. Vexing pastoral “failures” prompted the now-treasured corrections and insights found in his epistles as he sought to constantly improve on what he began.
“A leading predictor of C-Suite success is insatiable curiosity and a willingness to learn.” Disrupters follow their curiosity to play where no one else is playing and pioneer yet-to-be-defined markets. They start with the premise: little is known, much is assumed. They are willing to test hypotheses in order to seek answers to problems that no one else is solving. Disrupters have a “learning agility” that allows them to adjust metrics of success as they go. For the disruptor, curiosity to discover new solutions and paths overcomes fear, and the rewards of new discoveries are worth the difficulty of the journey.
Missionary disciples of Jesus Christ are not interested in C-Suite success. But we should pay attention. Because if the world is curious and teachable enough to attain its worldly goals, how much more should we be to attain our heavenly ones? Today more than ever, curiosity and willingness to learn should drive every Christian disruptor seeking to reach the lost and contribute in the renewal of all things in Christ. Otherwise we risk becoming a walking cliche, satisfied with answers to questions no one is asking.
Paul’s letters exhibit a man ready for total suffering and sacrifice if it meant discovering more Jesus for himself and others. Although a theological master, Paul never grew complacent. He never rested on his laurels. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss… because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil 3:7-8)
For a New Evangelization that is truly disruptive, the church will need new evangelizers willing to disrupt themselves. The preceding principles can provide a good starting point to begin thinking about it.
I'll let Pope Francis have the last word:
Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: 'We have always done it this way.' I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. (The Joy of the Gospel #33)
Lost in Translation
Getting Over Certainty
Innovators and Operators
Find a New Way