The Table Podcast

Conversations Coast to Coast

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Pastor Neil Tomba discuss cycling 3,000 miles across the United States, focusing on engaging in conversations about faith and Jesus with individuals from all walks of life.

Timecodes
00:36
Tomba’s background in ministry
02:15
Motivation for cross country bike ride
09:20
Logistics of trip and documentary
11:40
How to start a conversation about Jesus with a stranger
18:02
Examples of how to change the dynamics of conversation
32:25
Questions to determine person’s spiritual GPS
38:00
Lessons Tomba derived from conversations
43:03
Connections with a person’s story leads to conversations about Jesus
Resources https://voice.dts.edu/chapel/what-i-learned-while-riding-my-bike/
Transcript
Darrell L. Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. And today our topic is bike riding, actually it’s more complicated than that, it’s about engagement and it’s a wonderful story about how our guest, Pastor Neil Tomba, decided to I guess you did it during a sabbatical is that, is that what happened?
Neil Tomba
I did it during my normal vacation, I did it in the month of June.
Darrell L. Bock
Month of June, took a series of bike rides and has documented it and it’s just a fascinating story, so we’re calling it “Neil’s Incredible Adventure.”
Neil Tomba
It’s the new name.
Darrell L. Bock
And Neil Tomba graduate from Dallas Seminary in 1996, I was teasing with him earlier that it feels like it was a millennium ago and it is. And so God placed him on staff at Northwest Bible Church as Minister to Singles and in February of 2001 he was senior pastor and he’s been the senior pastor ever since so you’re coming up on almost 20 years of senior pastoral work. And you were feeling so wonderful in this role that you thought I just need to get out and ride my bike.
Neil Tomba
Exactly.
Darrell L. Bock
And so he was an electrical engineering student at LSU so he’s a Fighting Tiger, and you know became convinced of the gospel I take it in college, am I reading that right?
Neil Tomba
When I was at LSU, sophomore in college.
Darrell L. Bock
And I got saved basically in the same point of my life, between my freshman and sophomore year at the University of Texas, which just shows that the nature of the university can have nothing to do with your spiritual life. And, and, and so let’s, the reason we have Neil here is Neil spoke in chapel beginning of this semester and in the midst of doing so showed clips of this, of this bike ride that you took. And so let’s just go back to the very beginning, clearly you were feeling deeply stimulated in the senior pastorate to be taking this on, what, what motivated you to do this? Obviously you must have been a bike rider to begin with and but really it’s not about bike riding, what motivated you to do what we’re about to describe?
Neil Tomba
So Darrell all my life I’ve wanted just to kind of live outside and people say to me, “Neil, you like the exercise don’t you?” So I like to go out and play still at my young age of 58, and so whether it’s hiking or biking or running I would just do this with people and often as I’m doing it we’d run up on, next to somebody at White Rock Lake and just start engaging in a conversation. And I often found that it was actually easy to start talking about things with people that really matter. And I’ve been doing that just for years and doing it on the bike and 18 years ago when I was on a mountain in Colorado I thought I want to go across the country someday and document conversations that I have with people that really matter whether it’s about their values, their faith, whatever’s going on in their life, and that was the start of that dream, 18 years ago.
Darrell L. Bock
So, so tell me how this, so you obviously you said you did this during a month of vacation which to some people doesn’t sound like much, how far did you ride, let’s get the basic facts out there.
Neil Tomba
Three thousand miles, 33 days, we took 2 days off, started in Santa Monica, California, finished in Annapolis, Maryland.
Darrell L. Bock
Oh man, so truly across the country and documented it along the way and, and I take it that part of the reason you thought this would work is that you’d had so many of these conversations to begin with that you knew actually having these conversations, etcetera, can work, we can actually illustrate some things in the midst of the process as well.
Neil Tomba
Yes, you know Darrell it’s not unusual, like I’ll go ride my bike early in the morning at White Rock Lake. Not long ago I came up next to a guy, he was riding slower than me, so I slowed down and I just made a comment about his bike. Next thing you know we’re in discussions about his family and about some very hard things and he said, “Man right now my wife and I go to bed every night and she cries.” And over the course of the conversation I prayed with him not thinking anything about it, and when we went to split here’s what he said when he went his way, I went my way, he said, “Thanks for the kindness.” And that’s just what I do, just asking questions.
Darrell L. Bock
Well your illustrating something that I think is fundamental and it’s part of the reason why I asked you to come in and talk about this and that is because what I saw on the screen as you were playing these various vignettes of conversations that you had, was someone just sitting and doing just a wonderful job of listening. And then asking what I would call are natural but very incisive questions that would allow a person to tell their story. And in the midst of that what was driving them etcetera, you know we, when we talk about this at the center we talk about the fact that all conversations kind of have three levels that we give it a fancy name so it sounds important, triphonics, okay, so –
Neil Tomba
That’s too fancy for me.
Darrell L. Bock
That’s right, that’s right, it’s somewhere between stereo and quadraphonic sound, and so, but the point is there’s what you’re talking about, there’s the filter that you’re reading that through, and then there’s the way your personal identity is wrapped up in that conversation. And what drives a conversation usually is that base identity level, but most people never realize it, they always think they’re talking about the frosting on the top layer of the conversation. And so, so I’m watching you ask these questions and it’s like a laser that is going in and very precisely hitting a nerve but it’s not uncomfortable, it’s just in a very natural conversation that emerges because you’ve asked a caring or a sensitive question. And it seems to me that that is, in the midst of that then you get, you get, you get very honest disclosure that’s not threatening, that’s very honest and transparent, and you’re into a level of conversation that usually the small talk that we engage in doesn’t quite ever take us to.
Neil Tomba
You know Darrell when we went, something I started finding myself saying, I hadn’t planned to say it, I started telling people we’re here to be curious, kind, and respectful about your story. And that thing about getting to the small talk, there are times when I’ve been riding my bike and this happened on this trip, when some, at different times some people joined us, I’m with men my age, next thing you know I look over and they’re weeping, from a bike ride talking. And one of the things that just that we even learned in this is sometimes when I’m riding next to people, in a culture where people are constantly confronting each other face to face, there’s something helpful for people when you’re riding side by side, shoulder to shoulder, we’re together instead against each other.
Darrell L. Bock
Well of course the idea of working alongside together is, goes back to Genesis 1, I mean it’s the point of the creation, we were, Adam was created, he was all alone. Eve was put at his side, they were designed to function together and, and I think the original idea was they were harmoniously supposed to oversee the way the creation worked and then pass that on to subsequent generations, didn’t quite work out that way but still that was the design. So there’s something inherently human in coming next to someone and being supportive of them but supportive of them not in a condescending way or not in a way that says well I’m just gonna accept whatever you tell me as being the way to go, but in a way that’s really interested with what is going on in terms of their lives and raising questions about why they do what they do and what drives them and those kinds of things. So, so tell us, so tell us a little bit about, we’ve kind of hinted at how this worked, so how did this work? So you start off in California right, I’m assuming the weather was pretty decent when you started.
Neil Tomba
It was very nice.
Darrell L. Bock
And I assume you just don’t have the regular, how can I say this, two-wheel bike, I think I’ve seen your bike, and it, it looks like I might have to take out a loan to get one. So tell us a little bit about the details of the riding that you did and the bike that you had.
Neil Tomba
So the bike I had, I’m part of a cycling team, I call myself the Old Mascot, and it’s actually a custom bike that our team ordered from a company in Arkansas. It’s a carbon fiber bike, custom wheels, pretty high-end components, and it’s very light and it’s, I picked a frame that is made to do something like this. And we started off on the Santa Monica Pier. Now I’ll tell you Darrell, I was a little worried because we have a professional camera crew with us and I was a little worried, am I gonna pull of just what I normally do because I didn’t want it to be a –
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah ’cause that’s an attention distractor.
Neil Tomba
Yes and we’re on the pier, we’re getting ready to go, we’re filming and our filmmaker’s like okay do this again, do this again. I’m like let’s go. But next thing you know there was a man and a woman there getting ready to ride their bike and they’re looking over at us and I just went and said hi. We started talking, we next thing you know we’re talking about what they’re doing, where they’re from, what they think about God, and boom, within five minutes of the start of our ride I’m like oh, this can happen. And at the end of time it was really interesting, they said something that took me off guard, again they said thanks for talking to us today. I can’t tell you how many times I heard thank you for talking to us today.
Darrell L. Bock
So you get on your bike in California, you’ve had the first talk, you realize hey this may actually go which I imagine kind of pumped you up a little bit, and I didn’t ask by the way if your bike could win the Indianapolis 500, and, and you start off. And so, so you just ride along up to people and start asking ’em, I mean did anything thin you’re weird?
Neil Tomba
Yeah, I think everybody at first was like wait a minute, and you know I would try to get, in my mind I would think about this, get super present right now, be so present that they’re gonna have to listen to you. So I ride up on two guys, they’re on motorcycles pulled off on the side of the highway, and they’re in their costumes, motorcycles costumes, and I’m, in my bicycling costume. And I start talking to ’em, I tell ’em hey we’re riding across the country, we’re making a documentary, and we’re talking to people about things that matter. And I start talking to these two guys and it was really interesting because quickly they opened up some kind of door, I can’t remember exactly what we said and we start talking about spiritual things. And I said, “Do either of you guys have anybody in your life that ever talks to you about spiritual things?”

And they both said no, one guy started talking about going to church and he’s Catholic and he said he goes to church and he’s really open to talking. The other guy was not open at all. Finally he opened up, he went to a Bible college that his grandfather was the president of and it was like he had this room in his house and he had shut the door and never went in it for 40 years. His buddy who was with him, they are related by marriage, all of a sudden says I’ve known this guy for 30 years, I didn’t know any of this about him. Two things happened there, at the end the guy who finally started talking said wow, thank you, I need to have this talk today. But here’s what I thought, wow, we’re not just having a conversation here, just us getting to talk to them, later those two guys are gonna have a conversation.

Darrell L. Bock
Yeah you’re not kidding.
Neil Tomba
And part of this thing that I think is so important of engaging people in conversations, we were giving people an outlet to talk about stuff they needed to talk about and believing that at the heart of the gospel is something people need to talk about, even when I’m not around. So that’s a example of something that happened.
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah and of course a lot of the clips that you did show reflected this, I actually as I’m listening to you think that having the cameras around rather than being an obstacle actually became an opportunity because the moment you say oh we’re filming a documentary and we’re trying to have, ’cause I was gonna ask you how did you actually walk in and build the bridge into the conversation, that’s obviously a natural one. I mean after all having cameras around you while you’re riding on a bike is kind of an attention getter and so I imagine having the cameras around and saying we’re doing a documentary; everyone likes to speak into where people are. And so it’s like an open invitation, a lot of people apparently took it.
Neil Tomba
That’s right and sometimes, a lot of times the camera crew wasn’t right there, when it was it was helpful. But it’s an interesting thing Darrell, whether the cameras were there or not people want to tell their story. And sometimes when we’re coming to have our agenda to talk to people about the story of Jesus just my background of growing up in Campus Crusade for Christ Crew, it’s easy to forget those people have a story that they want listened to and somehow Jesus himself wants to connect to their story and so their story matters. And it’s amazing when people got convinced we wanted to hear their story, they would listen, they would start talking.
Darrell L. Bock
The whole thing about, it’s fascinating, of course you know part of what I also think is going on in the background is when you’re out riding or doing whatever you do when you’re, when you’re doing outside your normal routine and you’re not in your normal rush and you’ve take the, you’re taking the time to do that, I suspect that what happens is, with me is what happens with a lot of people, you think about things that other, in other places you don’t have the time to think about because you’re distracted by whatever it is else you’re doing. And so that’s also a great in because people to some degree are already there in one way or another. And so the invitation to tell the story isn’t, it isn’t a matter of you know getting off one highway and going to another, they’re actually in that lane already to a degree.
Neil Tomba
And it was a challenge that thing about time, I hadn’t really thought about this about people are so distracted, overwhelmed, ’cause several times people would say to us, “I don’t have time to talk to you.” And I would –
Darrell L. Bock
Which is the default mode.
Neil Tomba
Yes, and so I would just sit there and try to be very gentle but say hey, can you give us seven minutes? And Darrell it was so fascinating how many times people said at 15 minutes, “Can I tell you one more story?” Like the gal Tomeka I showed at the chapel, she was busy, she had all these papers out, she was trying to get to a job, and she just slowly started warming up and heating up as she shared with us her issue about racism. And then once we got past that and my response to her was I’m sorry you have experienced that from people like me, wow, then she started wanting to talk about church and Jesus, after that point.
Darrell L. Bock
There’s a huge important point in that which is that once you build a bridge that shows some understanding and empathy for where someone else is coming from, they will meet you across that bridge. And this is, I say to people that when you get into a difficult conversation and you know you’re in different places but at the same time you’re trying to understand one another, if you will do a good job of listening and it becomes clear by the way you respond that you’ve acknowledged that you’re listening and the person hears that you’re listening, the conversation changes.
Neil Tomba
Yeah, you know Darrell that makes me think of two conversations with atheists and they both said the same thing, they were both angry when they found out I was a Christian, and one was going in the Uber as I was going to the airport. And this guy just started talking and next thing you know he tells me he’s an atheist, I tell him what we’re going to go about to do, and, and I basically asked him at one point so what’s your problem with Christians? And he said, “Because they never respect me.” And right away I wanted to get defensive and I tried to swallow that down quickly, but I said, “Hey what does that mean?” Because I realized in that moment I don’t even really know what he’s talking about and I decided to take it, some time for a couple extra questions. And you know what ultimately came down to was this, they never listened. And it’s funny ’cause the other atheist told me the same thing. When I was in California and so I, you know what I told him, I said, “Listen, I have one thing I want to do on this Uber ride, I want to be the first Christian that ever respected you, so you help me, help me do that and at the end of the ride I’ll ask you.” And that’s all I, that was all I did.
Darrell L. Bock
So you guys were taking an Uber together, is that what happened?
Neil Tomba
I, he was driving and I was with a buddy.
Darrell L. Bock
Oh he was the Uber driver.
Neil Tomba
Yes he was the driver.
Darrell L. Bock
Oh wow, okay, yeah I mean those, those are interesting conversations. I’ve –
Neil Tomba
It was intense.
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah, and, and like I say once you, once you communicate that I am actually listening to you, which by the way is not necessarily saying I’m actually agreeing with you, but I’m just listening to you, I’m hearing you and I’m responding in a way that shows that I’m hearing you. The dynamics of conversation often do change because people actually kind of like to connect and, and I don’t think, I think confrontation is a reflection of a defensiveness that we all inherently have about protecting our space and our thoughts and that kind of thing. But once it’s clear that thoughts are sharable it changes the dynamic of a conversation and I think that your experiment kind of proved that. So let’s talk about some of the, you’ve talked about your atheist conversations, I imagine you met people who were kind of all across the gamut, you went all across the country and you met people who are all across the gamut in terms of where they were coming from.
Neil Tomba
You know Darrell the first thing that comes to my mind there is so you mentioned I’m a pastor, I will tell you the first seven days were kind of hard on me because of this, the number or people I talked to who were, I’m gonna say my age, your age, who had just walked away from church, one after another. And so we go to a, we sit in the different motel every night which my wife became the comedian on Instagram talking about these places. And we’re coming into this one and I’m talking to the manager there about just what we’re doing and a lady who worked at the desk said, “Well I have some questions for you.” I said, “Great let’s meet at 7:00 tomorrow morning.” So I’m waiting at 7:00 for her and I go out there and oh she’s in the back room coming her hair.

I said, “Tell her she looks beautiful, come on we need to have this conversation.” And we start talking and she starts alluding to some things and I says. “Sounds like there’s a painful story for you there in church.” And she had experienced abuse in the context of a church. And because I had experienced this a few times and she just at one point, we just came out with a trailer and the guy who made it captured her and I had forget about this, she had this little line on the trailer you here, “And it’s hard to trust.” And it’s amazing how what happened to some people in the context of the church totally twisted not only their view of God, their view of the Scriptures and those were some really hard conversations. So there’s that was just one group of people we constantly dealt with.

Darrell L. Bock
People who had had experiences, negative experiences in the church had walked away and in some cases never looked back.
Neil Tomba
Never looked back to go again but, but it was constantly playing like an operating system in their minds so every time they thought about the Bible or thought about God they were on this lifelong journey of developing their own theology.
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah I’m gonna use an old, old illustration. You remember vinyl records when they used to skip? Okay and you go back to the same track you know and it never moves on through the music ’cause it keeps skipping back into the same groove? That’s what that sounds like is like it’s stuck there. And, and they’re constantly trying to cope with and make sense out of what’s going on in terms of their experience, and maybe even in some cases to make sense out of the experience ’cause it doesn’t make sense to be in church and be abused, those two things aren’t supposed to happen together.
Neil Tomba
That’s right.
Darrell L. Bock
Well so okay so we’ve got the group that you, so we’ve got atheists okay, all right met a group of atheists, you just formed clubs as you went along the way, there was the atheist club, there was the I was there once club but not anymore, who else did you meet?
Neil Tomba
Well let’s take the, I’m not against God I just don’t think about him group. We’re going through a little small town and our whole team is on a making a bee line to a Braum’s Ice Cream shop, I’m like hey we’re here to have conversations.
Darrell L. Bock
Okay I know why you did the bike ride now.
Neil Tomba
And so I, the whole team was in front of us and I saw three young guys, it was at a like city square and they were doing something. I said, “Hey Wes, go tell the film crew to come back here, I’m gonna have a conversation with these guys.” And I pull off, start talking to these three guys, they’re 25 years old, live in a small town, and I think they were playing like Pokémon Go or something, I asked, and we started having a conversation and a couple things that happened, they had been friends since they were 7 years old. So Darrell one of the things that I tried to do was as much as I could I tried not to bring up Jesus without it connecting to something in their real life. So instead of saying, “Darrell I like your purple cups, let’s talk about Jesus.” You know and so I said, “Do you realize man this is kind of unusual for you all to be connected like this,” and so we started talking about their friendship, their relationships, it got into their backgrounds. And one of the guys had a grandfather who was a preacher and he just said he didn’t know what he thought about God, but these three were really inciteful, they wanted to talk. And I said to him, I said, “So what would it take for God to convince you he was real?” And he said, “I guess he would have to come in corporeal form.” And Darrell I was like oh my gosh and you know again I’m trying to hold back you know, I’m like, “Dude, that is amazing, can you tell me where you got that word?” So I’m not telling him what it means and he said, “From a video game.” I said, “Really?” So I started asking him questions, I said, “Do you know what that means?” He goes, “Yeah that he would come in a body.” I said, “Do you realize the very thing you said you wanted God to do he did.” And his eyes get this big around, I said, “Do you have a Bible?” He goes, “I do.” I said, “Let me just say some things about you know history and documents that the New Testament is, we have so many documents containing the New Testament,” we talked about Caesar and how few documents we have just to talk about hey, this is worth reading.

And then at the end I said, “I want you to do something, I want you to go back and read the gospels realizing God did just what you wanted him to do in Jesus.” And it was really cool because he said, “I’m going to start reading the Bible.” So there was several people that basically said don’t really know, don’t read the Bible, and it’s interesting though ’cause right now I’m thinking of a 25-year old guy from Alaska, a young couple who we met at Cadillac Ranch where they have the Cadillacs in the ground in Texas, and she gave me this sticker. All I would say young twenties who were all in that same camp and I feel like every one of them was open, at the end of the time said yeah, I want to go back and see the stories of Jesus, and if I lived in their town I know we would have ongoing discussions. They were open, they just didn’t have anybody to talk to about it.

Darrell L. Bock
That’s interesting ’cause I actually think that one of the things that’s happened, you know we kind of lament the way in which culture has gone and it’s moved away from Judeo-Christian roots, etcetera. But I think we’re coming up into a period for a lot of people in which the Christian story is not an old story that they’ve heard 100 million times, but it’s a new story. And they don’t know very much about it and, and being able to present that particularly to younger people, has real potential in terms of what it can, in terms of having these kinds of conversations where you can, you can move in. I’ve got, there’s a last set of questions I want to be sure and ask you when we get to the end so I’m saving that in the back of my head, but there’s one. So we’ve got just to build up, we’ve got our been there done that club okay, walked away, our atheists the people who are open, did you meet church people who, who engaged you at all or were they kind of screened out ’cause they weren’t so much the focus?
Neil Tomba
You know we didn’t try to screen out anybody and there, one of the things that was fun as for me as a pastor who’s hearing all these stories of people who’ve walked away from church, I think about a guy who we met who was just finishing his court-mandated alcohol rehab program, he was taking his son fishing. I saw him with a fishing rod, I said, “I haven’t talked to anybody with a fishing rod, let’s go talk to him.” Somebody invited him to a Celebrate Recovery. I was talking to a lady who was in a quote, unquote, bad part of town and I’m using that term because a Baptist deacon was riding with us and that’s what he told us about that part of the town. They were selling some dogs, I pulled up, I bought a dog from them to give away, and this lady said, “Yeah I go to church, just started going a year ago, somebody talked to me about Jesus and invited me to church and I’m growing in my relationship with Jesus.” Another couple at restaurant just weeping as we’re talking to ’em because of coming to know Jesus. A farmer, 23-year old couple, his testimony is my wife led me to the Lord. So we had, it was good to hear those stories in light of other stories I was hearing.
Darrell L. Bock
So you got a real look at kind of what’s going on with people across the country and do you, have you stayed in touch with any of the people you talked to ’cause didn’t you, did you have to get, let me ask you this question first, did you have to get their permission to use these conversations in order to do the documentary? That’s something that standardly often does happen.
Neil Tomba
We’ve got release forms, everybody we talked to. You know I’ll tell you about somebody we’re staying in contact with, Brandon Glampley, or Brandon G. Lampley, we had, there was a group of people who were traveling across the country or hiking, we have several of those people we talk to. And Brandon’s just this interesting guy who loves people and he’s just out there kind of living and experiencing life and so that’s one of the guys I stay in touch with. There’s some, I’ll tell you a story about one lady, I told this story at chapel, who we got deep into her story, just her letting us walk in, telling us about a suicide of her mother, disconnected from God, disconnected from art that God had put, she said, “I think God gave me that,” and asked her to use this marked journaling Bible and write a, draw a picture as a way to connect. She goes, “I’m gonna do that.” And I said, “Will you send me the first picture you draw?” A month after being back she sends me her first picture. And I continue to keep up with her, so the way I’m keeping up with people is through Instagram, that’s, we would tell people follow us there, connect with us, and so there’s several people that we’re keeping up.
Darrell L. Bock
So they, they basically opt in or –
Neil Tomba
Yes, so Darrell that was one of the things I said, we’re not gonna try to force anything here and if people have kind of talked to us through Instagram that’s how we keep talking to ’em.
Darrell L. Bock
Interesting, and so the last set of questions I’m gonna ask you but I’m not there yet, is gonna be kind of package what you learned about having these, what you’ve learned about having these kinds of conversations. But so, so you’ve got this huge variety of people and there seems to me to be something that is pretty common at least in the conversations that I have when I’m listening and that is that people are wrestling with what I call getting located. And what I mean by that is – is that they have their life and they’re trying to make sense out of it and in the midst of trying to make sense out of it they’re trying to figure out so where exactly am I, not just who I am, but where exactly am I? What is life about and what is my location supposed to be?

And I really sense this particularly with younger people, that they, that, I was in a conversation last week at a meeting of Christian leaders and I was listening to them complain about the younger generation, a nice way to say it. And they, you know they were going through the standard criticisms one way or another, you know they’re shallow or they’re, it’s all about me and all those variety of things. And, and I chimed in, I said, “Well I want to come to the defense of young people ’cause I work around young people a long time,” and I say, “our world is full of distractions, full of people pulling you in this direction, that direction, and there isn’t much location for a lot of people and what I sense is that people are trying to get located.” One of the things that listening does is it allows the person to tell their story and in the midst of telling their story you can sense their search, their search to get located.

Neil Tomba
Yes, yeah, you know what’s fascinating, I know you’re using the location as a metaphor Darrell, but I can think of four conversations right off the top of my head of that search for location translated into people going back to their land. The lady who owns the ice caves, her family owned that land, she went back to the land. This lady who owned a ranch, she had a white-collar job, moved back to this ranch. Two Native Americans I talked to who had been in the big city, coming back to their land. And really I think it’s them actually moving toward that metaphor you’re talking about in a real live physical way, but really to try to make sense of this story of their life, how it’s connected to the story of where they’ve come from, but also where they’re going, and trying to make meaning.
Darrell L. Bock
And so what that means is – is that you know it’s, in the midst of a lot of things that get said theologically about people and their sin and their blindness and that kind of thing, you know all that is – is dislocating. It does de-connect, well we talked, the old language used to be you know you’re separated from God and that de-location is disorienting. And I find that one of the best conversations I can have are these conversations in which, in which the issue of a person kind of describing kind of where they are and where they’re headed and what matters, which I classify them all as location conversations. And, and you know back to the land, a person goes back to their childhood, the things that they grew up to, things that they perhaps go back to because there was an element of being safe when you were a child if you were surrounded by people who actually did you know look out for your well-being when you were growing up, that kind of thing. And then the ultimate refuge is God. So I think there are ways to talk to people that, that help them with the location questions that they actually are hidden underneath their story.
Neil Tomba
You know Darrell one of the questions that I, again I was discovering questions coming out of me when I was there, and one of the questions that I had not thought that I would ask people, I’d start asking people if, questions like this, what’s your hope, what’s your dream? And I think that also gets that location of the direction you’re moving and what you think. And it was, and it was interesting how a lot of people actually hadn’t had, hadn’t thought about that, hadn’t been invited to think about and man that leads to discussions about something bigger.
Darrell L. Bock
Which, which goes back to an earlier image that we’re talking about which is the idea of being distracted. There’s so many voices in our world right now, there’s so many, there’s what I call a lot of static you know, things pulling you in this direction. In some cases it’s purposeful because it’s an attempt to escape out of where people may find themselves if they stop and have silence. But in a lot of cases, too it’s just there’s a lot of noise and a lot of pulling and if your life becomes intense actually being able to stop and be reflective about what you’re doing you may or may not take the opportunity to do which is, and then when people do it they’re riding bikes you know. They’re out, they’re out in that communion and alone time in which they’re trying to you know recharge. And all of that it seems to me is pretty, pretty important. Okay let me turn to the set of questions I want to close with which goes something like this. Obviously, I mean if, if you walked up to someone and said, “I’m gonna do a documentary, I’m gonna get on my bike, I’m just gonna ask people questions about life, and I’m expecting this to be a huge success,” a lot of people would go, “Huh, are you kidding me?” So what did you learn about having conversations, what, what, because I think a lot of people are afraid to go there.
Neil Tomba
Yes, well what we said earlier, people actually do want to tell their story, people are afraid because of just our culture/climate politically, just the whole thing that people are expecting somebody to tell them they’re an idiot, to discount them. So people want to tell their story and they’re open to telling it when we are curious, kind, and respectful. For me I got a greater awareness of this thing I call I’m walking on holy ground when I move into your life. And to really, even if I don’t say that there is something about my approach that that affects. And that was so, it was so great to having really my first in-depth conversations ever in my life with Native Americans ’cause you know they believe that and they’ve very guarded.

And that takes me to this next thing that having conversations I have to be willing to be patient and gentle. You know sometimes physical people aren’t always patient and gentle riding bikes where I ride with a bike team, they’re glad to drop you. I often ride by myself when I start off with a group of people. There’s no patience and gentleness in that area with each other. So this idea of being patient and gentle with people, and I talked a little bit about this at the seminary, what I learned, and I think what our culture tells us, you be bold, mean, direct, you say whatever you want whenever you want, you just put a post on Facebook. But when you get face to face with people that only gets you so far.

Darrell L. Bock
Yeah and not for very long.
Neil Tomba
And not for very long, that’s right. And so I think there is, we have to use even, we have to think differently when we’re face to face than when we’re online.
Darrell L. Bock
I noticed something that you did in the clips that you showed that I thought was interesting and that is, and I don’t know how to describe this other than you often asked permission. Talk about that.
Neil Tomba
Yes, so Darrell I’m riding my bike recently at White Rock Lake and I find out the guy’s Jewish and as soon as he finds out I’m a pastor, we’re riding next to each other about 25 miles an hour in a very fast group, but even in the midst of that I could tell his wall went up. And that asking permission came out of that awareness that hey this is his life and when I’m moving in it’s like walking into somebody’s house, I don’t just open some, the front door to somebody’s house and just walk in their house. I knock on the door, it’s a form of asking permission. So it might be asking permission directly, “Hey can we talk about this?” It might be knocking on the door. And another way I ask permission Darrell is by affirming, I’m looking to see how I can affirm. So the Jewish guy that day I saw his wall go up, I said, “Hey can I just right now stop, not literally stop on the bike, I want to say to you I feel grateful for the Jewish people for helping keep alive the belief in the One True God and protecting his word.” Boom, the wall starts coming down, we start talking about family, we both have three daughters, all this happening 25 miles an hour on a bike. So I think it, that thing is really important whether it’s I ask for, however I do it but that I’m aware that I just don’t go barging in somebody’s house.
Darrell L. Bock
So, and that’s part of the communication of the respect that we’ve been talking about, that you’re respecting the space and coming in kind of, for lack of a better, one step at a time, but rather than kind of approaching, it’s like I approach my dog one step at a time, the closer I get sometimes the more nervous he gets you know. No, it’s, it’s saying do I have permission to take your hand and we can walk together?
Neil Tomba
Yes, and sometimes people say no.
Darrell L. Bock
And then you’re done.
Neil Tomba
And you’re done. And I don’t have to walk away thinking well should I have done this better or that better or, you’re done.
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah, weren’t ready.
Neil Tomba
That’s right.
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah, yeah so let, let me ask another question ’cause a lot of this has been about for lack of a better description, kind of how to engage and how to relate to people. But, but there’s, there’s a hidden figure in all of this, God. And sometimes I imagine there are coincidences that emerge or things that emerge when you’re having a conversation like the, with your Jewish story you know, you both have three daughters and there’s a connection. I take it some of that happened a lot.
Neil Tomba
Yes, you know Darrell I’ll tell you one story, we pull up in Santa Rose, New Mexico, after riding our bikes for six hours, we had a tail wind, we went 120 miles that day in the shortest amount of riding we had the whole time. We pull up just the right time, they’re cooking hamburgers, they’re feeding kids. I walk up to one guy and he talks about a son who died in a car wreck. We had four conversations about sons who died in car wrecks, interesting coincidence. But also the gal who was in charge of this program, she had a semi-colon tattoo which people who have thought about suicide or attempt suicide get. And we start talking to her and it was actually my wife who saw it, and Viola was very sensitive to it. Having had an experience in our own family and in a known family member with it, that tattoo, and you talk about a moment of connection. And I’m trying to stick to my story but all during the trip different people in our trip had these interesting moments of connection that ultimately helped lead us to conversations about Jesus.
Darrell L. Bock
So we’re just about out of time, let me, do you have one or two final things you’d like to say about what, what you learned or what you might encourage people about as a result of your wonderful adventure?
Neil Tomba
You know I had to give up my agenda at the very beginning to have any kind of measure of success on this, especially the idea of do I have to come back and report that somebody came to know Jesus. And I learned as a new believer successful witnessing is taking the initiative in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God. And what I want to encourage people in the context of the local church, ’cause on of the things our church I thought, we need to make sure the conversations we have are kinds of conversations our people could have, to say you don’t have to make anything happen. And if you’re free of that I believe you could go out and start having conversations. The other thing, do I have time for this?
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah go, good.
Neil Tomba
The other thing is people who are hurting want to talk. We spent significant time grieving with people and out of those moments grieving with people we saw some fascinating conversations bubble up out of that. So you know when my buddies who say I want to have more conversations at work. I say you go find, you pray God help me to find people that are hurting and at least you can say can I pray for you and see what happens from there.
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah I mean I’m, your first remark has caught my attention ’cause I’m, I think a goal in these conversations is have I drawn closer to the person, particularly if it’s people I might be around on a regular basis ’cause I mean one of the advantages that you have in one sense is you, the documentary is you’re kind of a random person who pops in and can pop in and pop out. But and often times the relationships we care the most about are the ones where we’re close to people. But the question becomes you know some, some plant, some water, and some bear the fruit. And you never know in a conversation where you are in that sequence as far as God, in God’s mind. So I think you’re right you know, if we, we, in our sales pitch world, you know we want to close the deal, but you don’t have to close the deal to have had a profitable conversation. If you’ve brought a person a step closer to thinking seriously about how they are spiritually wired before God, that’s been a good conversation.
Neil Tomba
We got a text from a guy who ended up riding with us for awhile, “This is the most I’ve thought about spiritual things in years.”
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah, great story, well thanks Neil for coming in and telling us your story about you know your wonderful adventure and –
Neil Tomba
Thanks for having me Darrell, and let me encourage people, can I do this, just to follow us on Instagram and ’cause followers will help us get a book and a documentary out so –
Darrell L. Bock
Yeah, it’s, and, and so how do they follow you on Instagram?
Neil Tomba
So Neil Tomba, n-e-i-l-t-o-m-b-a, or you can go to the website NeilTomba.com and we’ve also just put our trailer up on a YouTube channel, Neil Tomba.
Darrell L. Bock
Very cool. Well thanks Neil for coming in, we really appreciate it, we, we’ve certainly enjoyed the conversation, learned a lot by listening to you and you know, your next vacation should be from Minnesota to Texas.
Neil Tomba
Maybe so.
Darrell L. Bock
So, and we thank you for being a part of The Table and for listening with us, you hope, we hope you’ll be back again with us soon. And if you have a topic you’d like for us to consider for a future episode please feel free to e-mail us at thetable@DTS.edu. We do take those requests seriously; we figure out okay who can we talk to that might help us with this topic and try and serve you in that way so we thank you for being a part of the show today and hope you’ll be back again with us soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Neil Tomba
Neil Tomba is a Dallas Theology Seminary graduate and the Senior Pastor of Northwest Bible Church, where he has served the past 23 years. His wife Vela is currently a student at DTS, and he says she will replace him as senior pastor someday. In June 2019, they traveled together (Neil cycled) 2535 miles across the United States, from Costa Mesa, California to Annapolis, Maryland, having conversations about faith and Jesus with individuals from all walks of life.
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