Neil Tomba's Cross-Country Life Dream
Neil Tomba's Cross-Country Life Dream
3000 miles, 30 days, 100s of spiritual conversations
If you’ve been following me lately, you know that I’ve been challenging people’s socks off about redeeming the bucket list. To that end, I’m enlisting 100 people to list 100 life dreams each by Easter.
My friend Neil Tomba magnificently embodies the ideal of living your dreams. By that I mean using your imagination, thinking far in advance, getting in touch with the deepest passions of your life, and doing everything through the lens of Jesus and bringing glory to God as you live your one and only life on earth.
Living your dreams means using your imagination, thinking far in advance, getting in touch with the deepest passions of your life, and doing everything through the lens of Jesus and bringing glory to God as you live your one and only life on earth.
I was a buddy of Neil’s at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was working at the Center for Spiritual Formation at the seminary, and I looked up to him as someone a couple years ahead of me. I still look up to him as I’ve had the privilege of working with him as a vision consultant at Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, where he is the lead pastor.
Out of hundreds of megachurch senior pastors, Neil is the best personal evangelist I know. When I say “the best evangelist,” don’t think an old-school, cram-The-Four-Spiritual-Laws-down-your-throat evangelist. What makes Neil a great evangelist is how he invites people so naturally and easily into conversations about Jesus. I’ve seen it in real time when we’re having dinner or coffee and he’s talking with a server or another patron. There’s a “click” and a connection, and before you know it, faster than I’ve ever seen it, people feel very comfortable having conversations about spiritual stuff with him.
At Younique we help people find “Two Words” that express their special calling from God. Neil’s Two Words are “adventurizing Jesus.” I talked to Neil recently with Cory Hartman of the Younique team about Neil’s big upcoming adventure.
Neil, what exactly has the Lord called you to do that has this crazy, bucket-list feel to it?
I summarize it as “Conversations Coast to Coast.” On May 27 I’m going to start in Santa Monica, California with a team of folks, two vehicles, and a film crew. Another guy and another gal are riding bikes with me to Annapolis, Maryland over 33 days. We’re going to be stopping along the way every day engaging people in conversations about their faith, about God, about what’s important to them, and about Jesus. The goal of the deal is not to say, “Hey, here’s what you need to know, and I want to give you two points and get you to say yes or no to Jesus.” The goal really is to connect with people’s stories, hear where people are, and learn also from them about what they’re thinking about spiritual things and why we don’t have conversations about the things that are most important to our heart.
You told us that you have had this dream for 18 years. So why now? What has happened recently that made you say, “2019 is the year”?
I’ll give you three answers, and I’ll start with the biggest. Our church has just launched a new vision that’s going to take us to our 75th anniversary in seven years. The vision is that by 2026 we will be having thousands of surprisingly easy-to-start conversations about Jesus all over our city, because we’re convinced that where God has us is where Jesus is. Because that’s our church vision, it really hit me that it’s time for me to do this. I really believe it’s going to ignite the church and help the church see that this can be exciting, not a grind.
The second is that I’ve had some people in my life who have challenged me to pursue my dreams. Will, you’ve been one of them. There’s a young couple in our church, Katie and Reece Norris, who have this organization called Fotolanthropy where they’re telling people’s stories. And God has used people to say to me, “Neil, are you really dreaming big?”
Thirdly, I was just processing life. There’s no reason somebody has a dream for 18 years and doesn’t pursue it, right? God has been pushing me on some of the things that would cause me to say, “I’d rather hide and play it safe than pursue a big dream.”
God has been pushing me on some of the things that would cause me to say, “I’d rather hide and play it safe than pursue a big dream.”
I’m enough of an amateur cyclist to have done an 800-mile bike ride in tenth grade. That was the climax of my cycling career. So give us an understanding of what you’re doing from the physical cycling side.
We’re going to ride about 105 miles a day on average. The goal is to ride about three and a half hours every morning and three and a half hours every afternoon. During those times we’ll stop at a restaurant, at a state park, at a university and have conversations with people about Jesus. It’s going to be a physical challenge every day to go 105 miles a day.
I know you’ve ridden a lot in your life. Is this going to be a totally new physical challenge for you?
I think this is going to be a totally new mental challenge even above the physical challenge. The physical challenge will be hard enough, but the mental challenge of just staying present in the moment and just staying there, wherever you are on that piece of road or in that conversation, is brutal. So a lot of what I do now is just working on my focus.
A couple months ago you told me you were thinking about the questions you wanted to ask people. Do you have a key question you want to use as a lead-in in these conversations?
I do my normal thing where I’m getting to know people and asking them questions. One of the questions that will lead to my key question is, “Do you have anybody in your life who you know likes to talk about faith or God or spirituality?” Then, after some more conversation, the key questions are, “That person in your life—what would you want them to know that you’re afraid of in the conversation? What would you want them to know that you don’t want them to do to you? What would you want them to know about what’s happened to you in your background with the spiritual life that affects the whole conversation?” I’m hoping to get some good stories out of that.
There are so many moving parts to planning a trip like this. You had to build a team; you had to raise support. What has been your greatest learning in the planning process to do something bigger than most people ever do in their life? How did you push through after the fun of the big idea and you had to work with the machinery to make it happen?
Every leader, when they’re growing something, has to deal with this tension: will I really let other people take parts of this dream and run with it? Will I at the appropriate time say, “This is what I want; this is what I don’t want,” but with enough freedom to let people do stuff that I never would have imagined that is better than I would have ever done it? That has been the big challenge.
What’s a specific, practical illustration of that?
I created the day-to-day route with GPS files. I handed it over to another guy, and this guy is now planning every place we’re going to stay, all the possibilities of stops for conversations. Then he started tinkering with my route! He said, “Neil, listen, you’ve got to trust me. Some of the places we’re going to go, there’s not enough places for eight people to have a place to sleep.” Then he starts saying, “Listen, if we go take this detour here, even if we have to drive in the car for ten miles, we can get way better filming.” I finally said to him, “Dude, I totally trust you. You make the call. Here are the criteria; we’re on the same page; go for it.” I’m not even debating him anymore.
That’s a great learning. When you dream big, you may have to invite others into that dream to make it happen.
One more thing: this dream is igniting dreams in others. That guy who is fully empowered to plan the route has been wanting to quit his job for a while to do something else. He decided, “This is my catalyst.” He’s quitting his job so he can come with us the whole month.
Every leader, when they’re growing something, has to deal with this tension: will I really let other people take parts of this dream and run with it?
I love the way dreams spark and ignite and create the domino effect in other people! It’s hard not to be energized when you’re with other dreamers.
So we’ve got multiple dimensions of “Conversations Coast to Coast.” There’s the physical aspect, the logistical aspect, the spiritual and ministry aspect. But there’s also a relational side of it too. How did you choose the people you chose for your team? Part of your accomplishment of this dream is that you’re going to be investing in them as you bring them along to have conversations with you.
I’ll tell you right now, I am wiping tears from my eyes, because I’m just getting in touch in a new way with a part of this story that I just hadn’t thought a lot about.
One of the ways we’re investing is that every month we’re having a prayer meeting. These have been the best, most pursuing-God, Holy-Spirit, dreaming-big prayer meetings I’ve ever been a part of. The person who led our most recent prayer meeting has been through a tough time. She’s not going on the trip, but she started a Facebook page that is a prayer page, and she has been part of our planning. She said to us, “You know what? This has been my entry point back into ministry.” She’s a gal that I’ve been building into for years.
Another guy who’s really managing a lot of this is a guy who for years said, “You know, I just wish I could retire and do stuff with you and for you.” Well, it turns out that he retired at 55 years old just a few weeks ago. He is all in, handling stuff. He is so excited to be a part of this.
Wes and Caroline, who are riding bikes with me, started riding with me last fall. We were just doing our thing training, and we were having conversations with people. One day when I was having a conversation with somebody, and all of the sudden this other guy pulled up. I’m praying with the one guy, and this other guy puts his head down while we’re praying. Then Wes and Caroline pull him aside and start having a conversation with him. And I’m like, “They are totally getting it!”
This illustrates so well how these things fit together that on the surface for many people don’t fit together at all: on the one hand, living your dreams (which can easily sound like the most shallow, pop-culture, narcissistic kind of language ever), but also making disciples of Jesus. It’s taking Jesus-followers into places they’d never go and then meeting other people there who don’t know him and sharing that. These are not two different things: in the plan of God these can be the same thing in people’s lives.
For years when I would take men backpacking I would say, “That backpacking trip for three days and two nights was worth 50 small group meetings in my office.”
Right now I’m dialing in from one my life dreams: spending the winter in Colorado and trying to get 50 days on a snowboard. There’s a lot of spiritual stuff underneath that fun headliner. I want to be on the mountain with my wife and my one daughter who’s still at home.
Have you run into opposition from people who are rolling their eyes and saying, “Come on—this guy is just going on a bike ride. Is he trying to overspiritualize this?” What would you say to someone who pushes back on this idea that the Christian life can be an adventure and that there really can be an intersection of gospel disciple-making and pursuing our passion?
I have been shocked by some people who have said, “I’ve wondered when you were going to do something like this.” It’s been so cool because it’s come from older people and younger people. That’s been really exciting.
This is so integrated with your life that they’re not surprised that this is a big dream you have.
I would say that there have been a couple of people who have actually expressed to me that they have been uncomfortable with this. For one it was clearly because of expectations they had of me as a pastor that I didn’t meet. And I get that—I really do. Then also you can tell that it just can feel threatening for some people—and I’ll leave it at that to be kind.
I think people have lived disconnected from their dreams for so long that it can be threatening and uncomfortable to see other people who have the freedom to express that and live toward that. What goes through your mind when you encounter people who have that resentment or resistance?
Here’s what I think is a huge deal—and I struggle with it. We live in a culture where the greater majority of us want to mitigate risk. And it gets scary when somebody comes out and says, “Hey—I’m going to ride my bike coast to coast, and our goal is to write a book out of this and make a documentary out of this.” All of a sudden I’ve put myself out there and I could look like I’ve failed.
I remember last May, I had finally decided to do this, and I was thinking it would be me, another guy, and a cellphone, and I would beg my wife to drive my Nissan Pathfinder. And I remember the exact time and circumstances where God said to me—not in an audible voice, but he said it clearly as anything I’ve ever heard from him—“You are swinging for a single. I want you to swing for the fences.” You know what’s interesting about this? God did not say, “You’re going to hit a home run.” He just said, “I want you to swing for the fences.” In some sense, if I was out training today and got hit by a car, and it was all over with, the dream of this thing is already happening just because we’re pursuing it.
God said to me, “You are swinging for a single. I want you to swing for the fences.” You know what’s interesting about this? God did not say, “You’re going to hit a home run.”
It reminds me that sometimes in the pursuit of the dream, the point is the process of who you are becoming. Sometimes that’s more important than the accomplishment of the dream itself.
Neil, when we think about bucket list, people tend to sort them into two categories. The one we probably jump to first is that it’s about play, enjoyment, fun. But then there are other items that are like work—they’re accomplishment, achievement, reaching a goal. This endeavor you’re going on, how much does it feel like play to you and how much does it feel like work, or does it blur the line between play and work?
For me, I think about our church and my work there. I think about play on my bike. And I think about my LifeCall to create adventures with our Creator Jesus. And it just feels like all of life. For me that just supercharges it. Sometimes my wife says to me, “When do you actually take a break?” Overall I just have so much energy for it because there’s no splitting off of anything.
That LifeCall that you crafted when you went through Younique—“creating adventures with our Creator Jesus”—is the truth that pulls the work and play together in a fully integrated way for you.
Thank you for sharing with us one way to live a life dream and how it’s going to bless so many others. Right now, what is your heart’s desire for teaching others about what you learn from this trip?
I’m learning from people. My hope is that a book and a documentary come out of this that could possibly help people on both sides of the spiritual conversation. And I hope that for the follower of Jesus it would change their mindset about what it means to have conversations with people about Jesus. I really believe that a lot of what I do, anyone can do with practice just by taking seriously how their story connects with Jesus’ story and taking somebody else’s story really seriously. The most important thing is to be really curious about other people’s stories.
So how can we follow along, and also how can we cheer you on and support you on your way?
You can jump on my website. You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. On our website is the map of where we’ll be each day, and while we’re on the trip we’ll update it.
You can of course pray for us; you can find ways that you can pray on our website. You can see the ten goals we have for the trip on there. There’s also a “Donate” page where you can invest in this trip. We are raising money for taking a whole team across the country. There’s also a link to buy a “Conversations Coast to Coast” T-shirt. That’s a great way not only to give a little money but also to promote the trip.
I’m excited for you as a friend and as a co-laborer in Christ, Neil. You inspire me, and you will inspire countless others. Way to go on following your life dream!
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