The “Why” before the “What”

This is an excerpt from my book, Starting Small: The Ultimate Small Group Blueprint. It’s more than an excerpt, too. It’s the entirety of chapter 2, my favorite chapter. This is the part of the book that I love the most, it was the easiest to write (because it was an overflow of so much of what I teach and live), and it’s the part I come back to most because it’s so foundational to everything I do.

My book’s on sale this week! Pick up a copy for yourself, or someone you’d like to invest in spiritually! Pick it up HERE.

 


Starting Small Book Cover

Chapter 2

The Why before the What

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:24-25

I don’t think it was ever stated, but growing up, I was made to believe that the Sunday morning worship experience was the most important aspect of my walk with Jesus—that if I missed a Sunday, I’d probably be struck by lightning. This was unintentional, for sure.

It’s just too easy for church leadership to slip into this mindset. Every Sunday morning is coming, whether you like it or not. So significant energy has to go into making sure Sunday happens. From sermon preparation to ensuring our worship team is going to be ready, from making sure the gathering room is clean to being sure we have offering buckets in the right spot to cones in the parking lot, it all has to be ready for the collective gathering of a larger group of people.

And without the Sunday morning experience, you won’t have an (gasp!) offering. So Sunday mornings have to happen. And they’re unbelievably important to our faith.

Without relational connection, the church isn’t the church. The church isn’t a building to be occupied by people once a week. You don’t believe that, and neither do I. The church is us, the people. We are the ones for whom Christ died. Not our buildings. Not our hymnals. Not our pews. It’s the people who are the church. And without relational connection, you don’t have a church.

At one level, my church experience growing up was good. I’m so thrilled that I grew up in a church that taught the gospel. My childhood church believed in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The people shared this message with others. But at another level, it didn’t work. My growth as a disciple happened outside of the scope of the normal way of doing life in my local church. My experience left me with more knowledge, but at the end of the day, the church was just a show. Not something that I actively participated in, but something I observed. I was a soaker—a sponge, entering the doors ready to be filled with water, rather than simultaneously emptying my sponge and soaking it back up.

It was after my junior year of high school that my spiritual life began to rocket forward. Every Friday night, a group of us guys would get together to study the Scriptures, pray together, actively engage in conversations about Jesus, hold one another accountable for our growth, and top it off with late-night runs to Waffle House. And occasionally throw rolls of toilet paper on the neighbor’s trees. Thankfully, I’ve grown since then. Kind of.

It was incredibly freeing and life-giving. At no other point in my spiritual life had my opinion been truly valued like with that group. At no other point had I been listened to rather than preached at. At no other point had I felt so closely connected relationally to people headed in the same direction as me. If it hadn’t been for that small group, I would in no way be who I am today.

We were living out Acts 2:42-46: “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity.”

For me, church never felt like Acts 2:42-26. Never. It was when I lived this out in the context of healthy relationships that I grew and became a disciple. Spiritual growth is so much more than information transfer.

If your church views spiritual growth as a process that happens simply through watching a show, it may not be Jesus followers that you’re creating. Without healthy relationships, you can’t fully honor God. Let’s look at some of the “one anothers” found in Scripture:

– Be devoted to one another. (Romans 12:10)

– Live in harmony with one another. (Romans 12:16)

– Love one another. (Romans 13:8)

– Be at peace with one another. (Mark 9:50)

– Wait for one another when you come together to eat. (1 Corinthians 11:33)

– Serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)

And it’s really hard to do this in a corporate worship setting. It’s really difficult to “be devoted” to someone else when you’re looking at the back of their heads and listening to someone else talk. It’s even more difficult to “serve one another” that way. Unless, of course, they need their hair brushed. Just the back part of it.

Without smaller communities, sitting in circles, not rows, it’s nearly impossible to obey God in all things. Don’t believe me? Then try this experiment. Read this verse, then I’ll toss an activity your way. “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Now, this coming Sunday morning, I want you to try to bear someone else’s burdens. And if you have a small group that meets on Sunday morning, that doesn’t count. Try to “bear one another’s burdens” while your pastor is preaching. Or while you’re walking in to the service. Or while you’re singing. Or while you’re filling up your cup of coffee. Even though my “burden” may be a second cup of coffee, I’m not sure that is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the churches at Galatia.

In fact, Paul is talking about overcoming something. Maybe it’s their sin. Maybe it’s the sin of someone else. But sharing someone’s burdens refers to helping walk someone back to the road of health and growth and grace. The burden of sin isn’t one we’re equipped to handle on our own. And to boil that down to “I’ll pray for you” is to weaken this command. It would be like filling someone’s coffee cup up with decaf. It takes the power right out of a good cup of coffee.

If you want to help people grow spiritually, get them doing life together. Not just getting together to watch a movie or hang out. Not just getting together to pray. Not just getting together to study the Bible. Not even just getting them together to serve. “Doing life together” encompasses so much more. How much more, you ask?

Let’s walk through an exercise. Name 10 sermons you’ve heard in your life that have shaped you.

10 life-changing sermons

Sermon Title                    Scripture References                    Significant Takeaway

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.

 

I doubt you could name ten. I can remember just a couple of sermons that impacted me in life-altering ways. In the moment, I walk out of so many sermons thinking, “Wow! That was amazing!” but then I don’t apply the truth I’ve heard. Or I just simply forget it by the time my stomach growls for a Sunday afternoon lunch.

Now name 10 people that have invested in your life.

10 life-changing people

Name                                   How you’re different because of them

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.

 

 

Much easier, wasn’t it? It’s easier because people are much more memorable than ideas. And people help us contextualize truth, rather than keeping truth at an intellectual arms-length. When we sit in an auditorium and listen to a preacher proclaim truth, it’s easy to think, “I know someone who needs to hear this.” Or, “That’s a strong truth” without ever applying it.

Small groups are vital to the health of a local church. This reality is best understood when we put the why before the what. I love Sunday morning corporate worship. It energizes me to worship with other believers, and be challenged by good, solid preaching. But corporate gatherings alone will dry me up, spiritually. I need small group life. The times in my life when I was most alive spiritually have been the times when I was concurrently living life in honest, transparent community, not hiding behind a mask. Which is all-too-easy to do when you’re in a corporate setting. Hiding is much tougher when you’re living life with others.

1. It’s easy to hide in a large gathering. It’s tougher to hide in a small group. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. Which, let’s be honest, we’d prefer. Hiding is, at least in the short term, safer, easier, and a lot less messy. But for our spiritual growth, hiding is dangerous. And healing is found in confession with other like-minded believers.

2. It’s too easy to be passive during a sermon. Sermons are primarily about soaking in information. It’s a passive activity, for the most part. But we need to engage with the Scriptures while we engage with others. Good small groups don’t allow the passive person to remain that way. Healthy small groups are more intentional about engagement.

3. There is little to no accountability in corporate worship. If you, in your heart, commit to some area of obedience during a sermon, who is going to help you follow through with that? Our hearts are weak and our wills easily swayed, so we need others to walk alongside us. Follow-through is much easier in a small group than in a corporate setting, as we have people praying for our particular needs in smaller groups.

4. We’re prone to think we matter too little in corporate worship. In a room full of people, we are tempted to think that, in the big scheme of things, we really don’t matter. Unfortunately, we can fall into the trap of believing that our perspective, our gifts, our struggles, and our victories don’t carry much weight. Small groups remind us that we are loved, cared for, and bring culture-shaping gifts to the table that God intends to use.

5. We’re prone to think we matter too much in corporate worship. In a corporate setting, the other side of the coin is that we think our problems are the only ones that matter, that nobody really understands our struggles. Nobody could possibly know our pain. Nobody could remotely grasp our situation. Small groups remind us that others have problems like we do. .

6. We’re prone to think, “They need to hear this” in corporate worship. Don’t lie. You’ve thought that. You’ve heard a sermon and said, “Oh man, I sure wish _____ was here. She needs to hear this.” How arrogant are we when our only thought is how God could be speaking to someone else, instead of to us directly? Small groups challenge us to apply Truth personally.  Small groups don’t let us get away with, “they need this.”

7. We’re prone to think, “This is only for me” in corporate worship. When we’re not thinking, “This is only for them,” we can easily think, “This is only for me.” We’re good at making the world revolve around us, especially when it comes to feeling sorry for ourselves. Small groups keep us from cycling into destructive self-pity and loathing. They help us think rightly about ourselves and God, reminding us that we’re only a part of the whole, and that other people are dealing with “life,” too. We’re told to “encourage one another daily” because our hearts are prone to being deceived by sin (Hebrews 3:13). We’ve got to have others to help us think rightly.

8. In a large gathering, when we cry, there’s nobody to ask us, “What’s going on?” If you cry in a large gathering/worship service, it’s easy for people to walk right by you, assuming someone else will stop and pray for you. But they don’t know your story. They don’t understand where the tears are coming from. They don’t know what they’d say. They don’t want to get too involved in your mess.

Small groups don’t allow tears to go unchecked. If you cry in a small group, everybody notices. And everybody cares. Tears become everyone’s problem, not just someone else’s. If you’re in pain, it becomes everyone’s problem, because everyone’s been praying for you, meeting with you, and growing with you. In other words, you have a relationship with them.

9. No food is allowed in most worship gatherings. There’s a sign outside of the worship center in the church building where I’m on staff that says, “No food or drink allowed.” Just because I “get it” doesn’t mean I have to like it. Thankfully, we eat well in our small group, which I’m convinced is a God-honoring activity. I can’t help but think of this key verse: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Nothing helps a relationship form like a full belly.

10. “Be quiet while the pastor is preaching!” Small groups give you time to have deep, life-stirring conversations with people. Conversations that, if you tried to have them during a sermon in a worship service, people would look at you like you were crazy. They may even call security. And write blog posts about you.

Corporate worship services don’t lend themselves to discussions that help with understanding and application. Small groups ask hard questions and allow for discovery. Learning isn’t simply about transferring information. It’s about interacting with that information. Learning involves poking and prodding and finding the holes, then overlaying it on your life to see where and how things need to change.

11. Convictions can go unchecked in corporate worship. When the Spirit moves in small group, you’ve got time to slow down. But not so in a corporate worship service. When you’re convicted in a room full of people, it’s easy to slough it off, attributing it to the burrito you ate for dinner the night before.

In a small group, though, you have a chance to share those areas of your life that still need to grow. And you get to do it in a safe environment where people love you and have your best interests at heart. Then next week, they’re going to ask you about it. Not because they have to. But because they want to because they care.

12. It’s rare to pray for specific needs in a corporate worship setting. Small groups pray for the specific needs of their group members. Not just generic, “God, thank you for what you’re going to do here in this place” kind of prayers, but authentic pleading before God for others. Your needs are brought before God by others.

It’s life-giving when you hear others praying for you. When you hear others begging God to show up in your life: where you work, in your home, and in your relationships. Have you ever heard someone verbally pray for you, specifically? If so, then you know what it’s like to feel genuinely loved.

But small groups don’t do everything well. Setting realistic expectations is important, so that we don’t hope for something small groups can never give us.

One of the reasons that people get so frustrated with small group life is because they step in expecting something that small groups never promise to provide. Maybe they expect to get another sermon, like they did on Sunday morning. Maybe they expect to be constantly “fed.” Maybe they expect to have to do no work. Maybe they want a “deep” Bible study. Maybe they want a seminary classroom-style experience.

Those qualities that a small group does well are summed in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

Using this verse, we can break down the important qualities of a healthy small group.

1. “Brothers:” Small groups help people “belong.” It is absolutely essential in our walks with Christ that we have brothers and sisters to whom we belong. This belonging is the foundation for the rest of the verse, and the foundation for living life in community as well.

We may prefer people to enter our churches who already believe, and have already begun to behave like good little Christians. But our culture today doesn’t value believing and behaving first. Our culture values belonging before they believe. They want to know they’re a part of something before they’ll fully believe in it.

“Church” isn’t merely a sermon factory. It isn’t merely a place that cranks out information for us to download, increasing our knowledge about God. It’s not just a place where church leaders tell people what to do and what not to do. It’s an opportunity to help people experience what being loved really means, despite pain and confusion and the junk of life. It is a chance to show love to people who have never been truly loved. Church is a place to give grace to those who have never experienced it. It’s a chance for us to worship God together, to pray together, and to serve together.

2. “Warn those who are idle:” We’re not talking about an “idol.” The word here is “idle.” We are to speak truth and hope into the lives of people who are stuck. Who can forget that living life as a Jesus follower is one of action. One of serving and loving and giving and going. Some of us need to quit planning and start doing.

Small groups are a breeding ground for personal ministry. When they’re running efficiently, then everybody contributes. Everybody has a role. And everybody feels valued because of the contribution they’re making.

Part of the responsibility of a small group leader is to help group members realize the work God’s called them to, as well as their unique contribution in the Kingdom. (Ephesians 4:12) One way this is accomplished is through turning people loose to use their gifts, rather than hoarding all of the responsibility of ministry. We’ll talk about this later, but for now, know that a vital responsibility of the group leader is not in doing everything necessary to help a group succeed. It’s in sharing the responsibilities necessary (hosting, facilitating, communication, scheduling, researching curriculum, finding and meeting needs), and in so doing, equipping people to exercise their ministry muscles.

3. “Encourage the timid:” Fear is a reality for us in many different seasons of life. It grips our hearts and keeps us in bondage. Fear is one of the key reasons why we need other people. We need others to encourage us to take steps of faith. We need to know that others have our backs when we might fail.

Our journey of faith is too difficult to do on our own. Much too difficult. And yet, we sometimes push back on the very encouragement we need. Strange and twisted, no? Sometimes, I just want to give up. My body’s tired and my mind is mush. I’d rather throw in the towel for the day. But when I press through, I find potential that I didn’t know existed. “When you feel like you’ve used every ounce of energy you possess, you’ve still got extra reserve you can draw on,” my coach once told me. Turns out he was right.

Encouragement communicates, “I believe in you,” and everyone needs to hear it. They need to know that someone else sees the same vision they do. Someone else believes they can close that gap. Someone else believes they can produce more, and become the better version of themselves that God intended. Those you lead can’t continue to do what God’s called them to do without a timely word of encouragement. Genuine encouragement is a gift you can give daily. Turns out it’s a biblical principle:  “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).

4. “Help the weak:” When small groups rally around people in their group, or others in their community, there’s a deeper level of relationship than is found in most other areas of life. Helping the weak is something that healthy groups do well, especially when we realize that we can use our pain to help others.

The church that decentralizes pastoral care is a healthy church. Instead of viewing care as something that has to be done by the paid staff, these churches empower members to take on significant responsibilities. Pastoral care is best when it’s done by people who do life together, because there’s a deep relationship involved.

5. “Be patient with everyone:” We’re all at different points in our spiritual journeys. And at various points, each of us can be a difficult person. Whether we’re walking through a mess ourselves, helping others deal with a mess, or trying to figure out what God’s got next for us, we need others to be patient with us . . . and we need to learn to be patient with others. Just like God’s patient with us. It’s impossible to practice patience on your own. Being that we’re all broken sinners, small groups give us a great chance to exercise patience with one another.

Notice one key component of all of these biblical commands: They involve being active. None of these commands can be accomplished while you’re passive. None can be accomplished if you just look at group life as a sponge, expecting that following Jesus is about sitting around. If you go to a small group expecting to sit and soak, then you will dry up. If you go expecting to give deeply of yourself, then you will be filled.

This active nature of small groups is one of the most important reasons why small groups are critical to the health of every local church. Let me illustrate this point with a story. I played city-league basketball growing up. I wasn’t that great.  I was a scrawny white kid. But I was quick, and a decent shooter.

We played games on Saturday mornings at a local elementary school gymnasium. Overall, it wasn’t a bad place to play. Plenty of seating. It was heated and cooled. And generally, it was clean. Generally.

Taking a look at the gym floor, you’d assume everything was fine. You could tell it had been used by decades of kids playing ball. The freshly veneered surface wasn’t new, but it was acceptable. But there was a spot.

And if you were to take me to that gym today, I could close my eyes and walk to the spot. It was about 6 feet out from the basket on the side closest to the door. It was dead. Everybody playing knew the spot was there, but in the heat of a game, usually once or twice, the guy with the ball would forget about the spot, and go up for a layup with nothing in their hands. Running down the court at full speed, the ball that was once bouncing right back to the hand would bound no more, falling like a bowling ball to the gym floor and making the player look like a fool.

If only the maintenance crew had peeled back the hardwood and exposed the subfloor, it would’ve been a problem easily remedied. It wouldn’t have cost a ton of money to fix the problem. But instead of fixing the underlying issue, maintenance decided to paint right over the spot and pretend it wasn’t there. Just below the surface was this ugly hole, hidden by a freshly painted, freshly lacquered surface.

We do the same things spiritually, don’t we? We put on beautiful masks to cover over a dark part of our story. We put a fresh coat of paint over the pain to tell the world we’re perfectly fine. We slather on fresh lacquer and cover up something that we’d rather others not know is there.

We forget that God can repair and restore what’s broken. We forget that God’s in the active business of reconciling all things to Himself. And though that reconciliation might not look like we hope it will look, in time we’ll grow to see the beauty. We’ll experience God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. We’ll become new.

It’s in this active process of restoring you and giving you hope that God will breath hope into someone else, too. But not if you paint over your issues. Instead of healing, you’ll cover over rotting wood. You will let the time bomb tick, while it’s waiting to explode in the heat of battle. When you need the foundation of your life to hold the strongest, you’ll find it crumbling as you live life in hiding.

You’ve got plenty of mess and pain and disappointments and frustrations. You have plenty of unmet expectations, unmet desires, and unreached potentials. So do I. Quit acting like you don’t have problems. We’re born without a mask. So let’s quit putting a mask on. Be real and honest with someone.  I’ll start: I deal with insecurity. Not every day, but I have to battle against my flesh and remind myself that I’m loved by the King of Kings. I care too much what people think and what they say. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” doesn’t ring true with me. Names hurt. Words injure. And I battle with caring too much how others respond to my leadership.

Why small groups? Because this level of authenticity just doesn’t happen in corporate gatherings. It takes intentionality and significant relationships. It takes meeting together regularly. It takes an active, not a passive, faith.

Get after it. Be active in a small group.

Questions:

What do you want your small group to look like? How many people? What will you study?

What will the goal of your small group be? Paint a picture of the person you want to produce.

Who will you invite to be a part of your small group? Have you prayed for them? If not, stop what you’re doing. And go pray.

 

8 Leadership Principles from my first 90 days at Saddleback

My family and I just made a massive move across the United States, from Nashville to California. From the syrupy sweet Southern US culture to the fast-paced, always-sunny Southern California.

To say that Nashville is different that Orange County would be the understatement of the century.

But we’re adjusting. Slowly, but surely, we’re building healthy relationships, finding our rhythm, and figuring out where to get the oil changed.

Coming on staff at Saddleback has already been an amazing adventure. I’ve learned more here than I’ve learned in the same amount of time in any other place. The learning curve is steep, and the amount of content, strategy, and intentionality runs deep in this place. I love it. It’s such a great fit for me in how God’s wired me for ministry.

Even though I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above water most days.

Hosted the weekend services. Not sure about my gesture there, though.

Hosted the weekend services. Not sure about my gesture there, though.

I’ve learned a few things about leadership since I’ve been here. I can tell this is a place where I’ll continue to learn in every season of life and ministry.

8 Leadership Principles I’ve learned from Saddleback

1. Take your next step in the current one.

This is a little nugget I’ve picked up on as I’ve spent time around leadership. In other words, don’t just do an event. Help people to take the next step in their faith journey. Don’t just host a marriage conference. Recruit small group hosts and ministry leaders. Don’t just give out resources…use them to draw people into ministry. Don’t just host a family missions event…use it to help people step in to a small group.

Your next step is just as important as the current one. (Tweet that)

2. Listening is more important than talking.

Learning the culture, values, and language of an organization is often the difference between successfully transitioning into an organization and staying back on the starting line. Taking the time and space to on-board well is one of the keys to building a solid foundation. For me, I’ve done this by listening, studying, and reading. By buying cups of coffee for staffers, church members, and small group hosts. By listening WAY more than I talk.

3. Relationships are key to organizational influence.

They help you grab the real values of an organization. Relationships help you understand how things REALLY get done. They help you feel at home, like you’re a part of a family. They help you learn what people do intuitively that needs to be made known. Relationships help you move further, faster.

Without relationships, you’ll shrivel on the vine. (Tweet that)

4. Know your church’s strategy forwards and backwards.

Understanding how you’re going to accomplish your core values is key. Your strategy is unique to your local congregation, your organization, your business, or your family. Understand your strategy and relentlessly work it.

5. Be a student of your city’s culture.

The cultural demographic in Southern California is just the slightest bit different than the one in Nashville, TN. Understanding the people you’re trying to reach is vital to progress and growth. Know what they value, where they go, and how they spend their free time.

Without a knowledge of your city’s culture, you’ll never move forward. (Tweet that)

6. Tell your story over and over.

I have heard Saddleback’s story dozens of times since I’ve been here. And every time I hear it, I feel more and more like this is my home church. That Saddleback’s story is my story.

Stories, not programs, inspire people. (Tweet that)

7. Never sacrifice your family for your ministry

If you’re married and/or have children, your primary calling is to your family. Giving your family your second best is never okay. “Killing it” in ministry but not investing time and energy into your family is not okay.

Pastor: if you lose your family, we all lose. (Tweet that)

8. Cynicism is dangerous.

It doesn’t matter what part of the country you serve. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the church world, the business world, or volunteering in your community. Cynicism can eat an organization from the inside out. Cynicism callouses your heart towards growth and change, and keeps you from believing God’s best about your organization and the people you’re called to lead.

Run, don’t walk, from cynicism. It’ll steal your heart. (Tweet that)

 

The 8 keys to being a better small group leader

You want to be a better leader, in life and in your small group. I know you do.

Nobody that reads, watches instructional videos, and seeks to grow in their faith says, “I want to put this work in…so that my leadership capacity decreases.” Nobody.

This is one of the best talks on small group leadership that I have ever heard. My friend John Morgan (blog, Twitter, Facebook) gave the talk at a leadership rally I held for small group leaders at Long Hollow Baptist Church. Whether you’re on a church staff, a small group leader, or not, this video will help you become a better leader.

(the video’s long, but worth carving 35 minutes out for)

In case you missed them, here are the 8 keys:

1. Vision – what is my small group going to look like?
Without vision, you’re not going to accomplish anything. (Tweet that)
2. Attitude – if your attitude is bad, your life will be bad.
Your attitude in how you respond to problems is the determining factor in your life. And your attitude shifts others’ attitudes, whether positively or negatively.

A negative attitude is one of the primary causes of failure. (Tweet that)

If you’re not fired up about your group, nobody else will be.

3. Confidence – improvement comes from self-improvement.
If you want your group to grow, you need to grow. Be “selfish” with your own personal spiritual growth. If you don’t believe in yourself, don’t expect anyone else to. (Tweet that)

4. Environment – you can motivate others by having faith in them.
Believe that the Holy Spirit changes lives, and create environments where that can happen best. (Tweet that)

5. Seek – learn from those with the knowledge and how-to that you lack. 
Who has time to read? You do! “There’s no such thing as a time management problem. There are only priority management problems.” (Tweet that)

6. Bravery – faith is tested in the moments of difficulty.
Fear regret more than you fear failure. If we remembered people for their failures, Christopher Columbus would be the guy that didn’t find India.

You owe it to your small group to be brave. (Tweet that)

7. Initiative – develop habits of taking action before they’re ready.

Don’t wait until your group is “ready” for their next step. Push now. Don’t wait until the church does a small groups push to get people into group life. Take the initiative now. Invite people to join your group.

It’s a shame that sales people do a better job than the Church. (Tweet that)

8. Habits: can you create your vision with your current habits?

Your habits create your reality. Everyone of you is happy with where your life is, and where your group is. If you weren’t you’d be changing your habits and standards. Your small group is as good as you want it to be. (Tweet that)

 

Post Traumatic Church Disorder

I’ve talked with a number of men and women in ministry, and I’ve noticed an alarming problem. It’s often felt but rarely talked about. Just below the surface, it affects daily interactions, vision casting, and strategic planning. It affects how we relate to God and how we relate to others.

I call it post-traumatic-church-disorder.

image: CreationSwap.com user Megan Watson

image: CreationSwap.com user Megan Watson

It may not be a professional diagnoses, but it’s a real issue.

You’ve heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, right?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. – mayoclinic.org

PTSD happens after a terrifying event. PTCD, however, happens after a traumatic, stressful, chaotic, terrifying, painful experience or season in a local church. It can happen after events that our society would deem abusive (physical, sexual, verbal) and/or traumatic. PTCD cuts deeply. If there’s a place where your spiritual, emotional, and physical life should be safe, it is in a local church.The safety net you should feel by being there erodes. Finding abuse and traumatic events where a wall of safety and health should exist carves deep wounds on your soul. You may begin to deal with this issue after having been in an local church that is filled with one, or more, of the following features characterizing its leadership (whether paid staff, volunteer leadership, or elders):

  • unhealthy staff culture
  • abusive (spiritual, emotional, verbal, physical or otherwise) leadership
  • unwise leadership decisions
  • controlling
  • constant complaining
  • fighting (open name-calling, character assassination, slander)
  • gossip (behind-closed-door name calling, character assassination, slander)
  • insulated leadership, refusing to be held accountable
  • self-serving shepherds
  • manipulative leadership
  • bullying

Church staff/leadership teams can have these attitudes and behaviors creep in over time. And you’d be foolish to think that one person that’s dominated by one of these traits doesn’t seep its way into other staff members and into the church at large.

One bad apple spoils the bunch, and one bad staffer can spoil the team. (Tweet that)

These prideful character traits can destroy staff and church morale quicker than just about anything else.

How to know you have it

It doesn’t take long for PTCD to set in. Just a season or two of a self-serving, manipulative, controlling leadership in your life can move your heart to a dark place. Trust is built over time, but is torn down in a moment. (Tweet that) Fortunately or not, our view of the local church greatly impacts our view of God.

How do you know if you’re suffering from PTCD? Here are some markers.

  • a deep distrust of church leadership, despite anything specific that you see
  • a callousness towards church staff
  • growing cynicism towards the Church
  • growing desire to gossip about leadership
  • When your pastor calls you, your first thought is “What have I done?” or “What’s he going to be mad about this time?”
  • a knee-jerk anger when your pastor asks to meet with you
  • a knee-jerk fear when your pastor asks to meet with you
  • constant questioning of the motives of your church staff
  • refusal to engage in serving and attending worship
  • continual doubting of your pastor’s heart
  • refusal to give financially to your local church because of your distrust
  • a growing anxiousness in dealing with church leaders

How to guard against it

Be careful that PTCD doesn’t wreck your heart. It can. And it will. Satan would love nothing more than to keep you from Church by convincing you Church is worth keeping from. (Tweet that) By couching “Church” in the category of pain, frustration, and uselessness, you’ll sideline yourself when the Church needs you and your voice.

Here’s how you can guard your heart from growing distant and calloused:

Pray.
Start here. End here. And fill every moment with asking God to guard you from bitterness, inaction, and callousness. It realigns your heart with what pleases, and what breaks, the heart of God.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Remind yourself of who the Church is.
The Church is the bride of Christ. It’s the one for whom Christ suffered and died. And remember this…Jesus had to suffer and die because the Church isn’t perfect. We’re a bunch of messed up sinners who continue to do battle against our flesh. Church leaders are sinners being redeemed, too. The Church isn’t perfect, but its Redeemer is. And He loves his bride. (Ephesians 5:21-33)

Help make better decisions
Instead of complaining, speak in to the life and leadership of your local church. If you see things differently, that just might be a gift you could give. When you see a different path, point it out. When you see disunity, expose it. When you see poor, abusive leadership, blow the whistle. Terrible leadership begets terrible leadership unless you speak up.

Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or they will become wise in their own estimation. – Proverbs 26:5

Serve selflessly
Keep serving. Give of yourself until it hurts. Give of yourself until it costs you something. This will help curb your tendency of thinking that your local church only exists for you. Yes, we’re broken. Yes, we’re imperfect. But the Church is better when you serve. And as you serve, you become a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem.

Don’t go at it alone
Don’t be so foolish that you think you can work through PTCD on your own. (Tweet that) Masking over problems doesn’t make them go away. Find someone you can be open, honest, and transparent with. You need an outside perspective in order to biblically, helpfully, and healthily walk through this issue.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Don’t give up on the local church. She is the bride of Christ, as broken and twisted as she sometimes can be. She’s worth fighting for.

She’s redemption in process. (Tweet that)

 

How to break up with your small group

image credit: Creation Swap user Boaz Crawford

image credit: Creation Swap user Boaz Crawford

*que sad music*

Oh gosh. Wow. How do I say this?

I didn’t think this day would come. I mean, I really liked you. We clicked. We laughed. We cried.

*eye contact ceases*

For a while, this was really good. But…well…it’s me, not you.

Um…

*insert awkward silence*

I’ve changed. I guess.

*que sweaty palms*

This just isn’t working out.

I’m just not in love with you any more.

But I still like you. But not like I used to. And I know someone else that you could see.

*que the ugly crying*

Ever felt like you wanted to break up with your small group? Know it’s time to move on? Maybe your schedule changed. Maybe you added baseball practice on the same night as your small group. Maybe Thursday nights aren’t the same for your family as they were a year ago. Maybe you’ve started taking a night class.

Maybe you know it’s time for you to lead a group of your own.

Maybe the group isn’t accomplishing what it needs to accomplish, and you’re ready to be more intentional with your spiritual growth.

Break-ups are never easy. But the quicker you rip off the band-aid, the less painful the whole process becomes. If you wait years to do what you know you need to do today, you’ll cause undue pressure on you and your group.

If it’s time to break up, here are some pointers.

How to break up with your group

In person.

If you don’t have the guts to break up in person, you’re a coward. The gravity of this decision necessitates an in-person conversation. Your group loves you, and you will greatly devalue their love, and their impact on your life, if you just stop showing up and assume that they get it. You owe it to your group leader, and to the group, to be clear and forthright. An email, or a text, or just abandoning your group with no explanation isn’t the way to go.

If you’re going to break up with your group, go mano-a-mano.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  – Jesus, Matthew 18:15

(the principle application is when your brother has sinned against you, but whether he has sinned against you or not, difficult and sensitive conversations like this are best handled in person)

 

With honesty.

If there was something that bothered you about the group, be honest about it. Help the group leader know what could be done to improve the group. Choose how honest you want to be in front of the whole group. Don’t go out scorched earth. For the group leader.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. – Paul, Ephesians 4:15

 

With encouragement.

Your group wasn’t all bad, was it? Did God do ANYTHING? Then encourage your group leader by helping them see how God used them. We all need encouragement, daily. Leaders especially. Most group leaders consistently wonder if what they’re doing is making any sort of an impact in people’s lives, and if God is doing anything. You leaving the group feeds their fears and insecurities, so help reassure them and assuage their debilitating fears.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. – Paul, Hebrews 3:13

 

Quickly. Rip that bandaid off.

Don’t wait a year to do this. Don’t wait months to do it. If you know you need to break up with your group, prolonging the inevitable makes things more difficult when the time comes. It’s going to be a hard conversation, but it’ll only get more difficult with time. Call your group leader today and schedule a coffee meeting.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. – Jesus, Matthew 5:23-24

(the principle here being that if there’s something between you and your brother, there’s something between you and God. Take care of it immediately.)

 

By starting a new group.

There’s hardly a better way to break it to your group leader that you’re leaving…to start a new group. There’s hardly a better confirmation of God’s work in and through your current group than for you to take the step of faith to start a new one. Don’t just leave. Leave FOR something. Don’t abandon community.

“[Don’t neglect] to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Hebrews 10:25)

The sum of the above “break-up rules” is to cover everything you do with love.

Ever had to break up with your group?

 

Leaders move without the ball

In basketball, there’s a concept that’s vital. And it’s something that’s rarely seen by the person unless they’re watching intently. The casual basketball viewer won’t see it, because the casual viewer watches the ball. The ball is where the action happens. Scoring, passing, steals, and blocks all happen AT the ball.

But what happens away from the ball is often just as important.

image credit: UKSports.com

image credit: UKSports.com

 

It’s a concept called “moving without the ball.” It’s pretty self-explanatory, but just for the sake of clarity allow me to explain in further details.

Moving without the ball means you move even when you don’t have the ball, with the express purpose of creating the next play, receiving the next pass, gaining the next rebound, or blocking the next shot. IF you don’t move without the ball, you’ll be caught in the wrong position at the wrong time. Or, said more accurately, you won’t be in the right position at the right time if you don’t move when you don’t control the ball.

If you don’t move without the ball

  • You’ll never get open
  • You’ll never score
  • You’ll be out of position when the time is right
  • You won’t be ready to steal
  • You’ll get left behind
  • You’ll constantly be wondering where the action is happening
  • You’ll not be in the action of the game

In a 48 minute game of basketball, the game is dominated by moving without the ball. To a casual observer, the person moving without the ball looks goofy, like they don’t know what they’re doing. Like the game is happening in spite of them. But the casual observer doesn’t know just how important it is to position yourself to be ready.

Moving without the ball isn’t sexy. But it’s vital.

The same is true in ministry.

Moving without the ministry ball

There are times when you, in your role, have “the ball.” These are the busy seasons of ministry, when the spotlight is on. For me, this happens during small group signups and launches. It happens during our church-wide alignments. During these seasons, it’s all-hands-on-deck for our team.

But for the most part, I don’t have the ball. It’s apparent “down time.” And if I don’t move, plan, strategize, recruit, train, and mobilize, when the ball’s passed to me I’ll be caught flat-footed. I’ll be left behind. The infrastructure won’t be ready, the plan won’t be in place, and my heart won’t be in the place it needs to be.

That’s why the casual church observer thinks pastors just work one day/week. Because our “time with the ball” seems like a waste of time. All the casual church observer sees is the time when we’re in the spotlight, highlighting our ministry, getting people into serving and growing, preaching, teaching, and executing. They don’t always realize that executing at the right time in the right way is loaded with lots of “moving without the ball” times.

If I don’t work to prepare myself spiritually, either, I’ll be dead in the water. I’ve got to spend time allowing God to refresh, recharge, and equip me for the work ahead.

That’s why I read books, meet with other pastors, and go to conferences like Re:Group (which is a must-attend event, by the way. To get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the healthiest small groups ministry will help you strategize, and become better in your local context).

Moving without the ball isn’t sexy. But it’s vital.

Strategize, shift, train, recruit, and prepare. Because the ball’s coming your way.

 

Should you allow a transgender person join your small group?

If you haven’t had to deal with people dealing with sexual orientation issues in your church yet, you will. The coming years will bring more and more people who identify as a transgender, transvestite, transsexuals, and others that have, or have not, gone through sexual reassignment surgery. Same-sex attraction is nothing new. We even see the Bible addressing the issue. Culture in America has “normalized” it, though, and if your local church isn’t already wrestling through how they’d handle some of the more precarious and sticky situations, you’re already behind the curve.

I recently received this email from a fellow small groups pastor.

I have a transgender individual who is interested in joining a group. At our church we do not have co-ed groups, so I’m not really sure what’s the best way to proceed.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t have “the answer.” I’m not in the business of creating policies to handle things like this. Instead, I lead relationally, and on a case-by-case basis. That said, there are a few different questions at play here:

  • Is this a sin issue? What is the local church’s stance on this?
  • Is this a place (the local church AND the small group) where a transgender person feels comfortable pursuing Christ? (side note: the local church can believe that this is a sin issue, but still be welcoming)
  • Are they welcome as a small group member?
  • Would they be welcomed as a small group leader?
  • How will the small group respond? With shock and awe? Or grace and love?
  • How will the leader navigate difficult conversations?
  • Can the group accept that someone is “in process” and not make the group revolve around one particular sin?
  • Can the group balance grace AND truth?

Here was my response.

_______

Wow. That’s a tricky one for sure.

I tend to lean towards grace in these kinds of situations, and allow the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit’s going to do. If they claim to be a man, I’d allow them to join a men’s group, but I’d let them know where the church stands on the issue. I don’t want them to feel like we’ve “tricked” them into joining so that we can subversively influence them. There should be no doubt as to the church’s views, but also no doubt as to the church’s grace, and stance towards anyone: grace and truth.

At the end of the day, if they choose to honor Christ with their sexuality, they’re going to likely have to choose celibacy. But they’re not at that point right now. So minister to people where they are, and allow the Holy Spirit to change lives. The BEST place for someone to pursue Jesus is in the context of healthy, safe, truth-and-grace-driven community.

This all goes out the window if they’re disruptive. Group isn’t a chance for them to get on a pedestal and talk about their sexual choices. If it comes up, it comes up. But every week will not revolve around it. This needs to be made clear.

And group isn’t a chance for everyone else to “fix” them, either. It’s a chance to pursue Christ together. Everyone in the group has issues to work on, and I’d encourage that person to be open to the way God might call them to obedience. Radical obedience that could completely disrupt what they find their identity in.

Finally, I’d talk with the group leader whose group they may join know, and have a conversation with them to make sure they are comfortable (as comfortable as one might be in this situation) with this person joining their group. It’s a sensitive, difficult issue that not all group leaders could handle. It needs to be handled with much grace, care, and truth, giving space to pursue Jesus, and truth to wrestle with, that doesn’t revolve around one particular sin.

Let’s take another sin as an example. If someone openly struggles with gluttony, I’m not going to bar them from the group. Even if they don’t think that their gluttony is a sin. I’m also not going to structure group so that we talk about food and dieting every week. We’re just going to pursue Jesus together, and I’ll trust that God can change them through the power of the truth in the context of love.

At the end of the day, the Holy Spirit changes hearts. We can pray towards that end.

_______________

I’d love to know how you’d handle a situation like this. (this conversation heated up on Facebook. Feel free to click on over and see what people have said HERE.)

Can they join your group? Could they even lead a small group?

How would you structure your group so that this person has a place to pursue Jesus?

 

Is your church really safe?

Is your church safe? I don’t mean “we have police officers” and “we have hidden cameras” and “I’m packing heat on my pew.”

Is your church safe for you to be you? Can you be the you that doesn’t have it all figured out? That has more questions than answers, some days? Can you be the you that you are on the inside that nobody else sees? The you that wonders how in the world a God that loves justice could also love you? The you that you’re ashamed of?

Is it safe to for you to bring your doubts?

Fears?

Questions?

Struggles?

Victories?

Insecurities?

Quirks?

Gifts?

Doubts?

Is it safe for you to bring the full force of these and not be shunned?

Not be cast out?

Not be shamed?

Not be laughed at?

Not be marginalized?

Not be made to feel “less than”?

Maybe a bigger question than, “Can you?” is “Do you?”

Do you lead the way in vulnerability? Because if you don’t, they won’t. If your current church environment doesn’t afford you this luxury necessity, create it. If you’re waiting for someone else to give you the permission, you now have it. I’m granting it to you right now. Be you. And when someone else brings their junk, don’t take a step back. Take a step forward towards them and with them. Give grace, mercy, and patience. Give truth in love. Give space for continued exploration.

If we have a Savior that died for us, and was the ultimate example of welcoming sinners, we as the Church should be the most welcoming environment on earth. The safest place to still be “in process.” The place where when you join our community you instantly feel at home. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but our people should feel like your people. Our group, your group. Our home, your home. Our grace, your grace. Your story, our story.

By our posturing, may we, the Church, be certain we’re not telling the world, “Fix your junk before you come in here. Otherwise we will boycott, marginalize, slander, and shun you.”

The safest place you’ll ever find yourself is in a small group community that simultaneously knows and loves you. (Tweet that)

Jesus was a “friend of sinners.” (Matthew 11:18) Are we?

 

The Pastor’s Kid

I’m not a pastor’s kid, but I’m raising two of them. And I’m scared to death.

My prayer for my kids is often, “Lord, help them to not, because of me and the church where I serve, hate your bride.” It’s easy when daddy spends his work day, and many evenings, serving a local body of believers, for kids to grow bitter. Instead of seeing life transformation and community-building, grace-infusing work being done, they see a “job” that takes daddy away from home. They see a group of people that expects more out of them than they can give. They have unfair expectations thrust on them that they didn’t choose, but were chosen for them.

That’s why I’m pumped about Barnabas Piper’s new book, The Pastor’s Kid (releases July 2014). Because I don’t want my two children to grow up despising the church.

Check out this trailer.

 

 

The one thing you should never say to a gym returnee

This is the time of year when people are returning to the gym. You know those guys. Maybe you’re one of those guys.

You have intended to be more faithful in the gym, more faithful to work out. But life has happened. Kids’ sports have happened. Work has happened. Vacation has happened. Sleep has happened. And it’s not that you’ve been intentionally avoiding the gym (ok, well, maybe you have, but just hang with me), it’s just that carving out time to drive across town, get an hour-long-workout in, then drive back hasn’t happened.

Thank you very much, January-new-years-resolutions, for reminding us we need to get back at it.

You want to know the worst thing you can hear when you step a foot back in the gym? The one thing that, more than any other, may cause you to not come back? The one thing that seems benign by the one who speaks it?

Welcome back! It sure has been a while…

Thus implying:

  • You must be lazy.
  • You are really packing on the pounds.
  • You sure do need to be at the gym.
  • I know your kind…we probably won’t see you for more than a few weeks.
  • I see that pudge…hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to work it off.
  • You haven’t been here in a while, so you probably have no idea what you’re doing at all.

That may not be explicitly stated, but it’s often what’s heard, because it’s so easy to bring our insecurities into the gym. When you look around, you see people who work out every day. You see equipment that’s intimidating. And then you see yourself. Out-of-shape. Out-of-time. Tired. Weak. A-little-too-round. Don’t-really-want-to-be-there-anyway. And those seemingly innocuous words fall like a ton of bricks on your fragile psyche.

Instead of asking them where they’ve been, or feigning shock that they’re back, just welcome them. Help them feel acclimated. And remember that being there is better than not being there.

Church returnees

The same thing is true around this time of year in churches around the world.

People are gracing the doors of church buildings in an attempt to maintain spiritual goals they set that they knew they should’ve been working to keep all last year. Maybe that’s you.

You have intended to be more faithful in your spiritual life, more faithful to God. But life has happened. Kids’ sports have happened. Work has happened. Vacation has happened. Sleep has happened. And it’s not that you’ve been intentionally avoiding God (ok, well, maybe you have, but just hang with me), it’s just that carving out time to drive across town, get an hour-long-worship in, then drive back hasn’t happened.

Thank you very much, January-new-years-resolutions, for reminding us we need to get back at it.

You want to know the worst thing you can hear when you step a foot back in a local church? The one thing that, more than any other, may cause you to not come back? The one thing that seems benign by the one who speaks it?

Welcome back! It sure has been a while…

Thus implying:

  • You must be lazy.
  • You must hate God.
  • You are really living a life of debauchery.
  • You sure do need to be in church.
  • I know your kind…we probably won’t see you for more than a few weeks. (churches even have a name for you…C&E. Christmas and Easter attenders.)
  • I see that tattoo…I smell that alcohol…I heard that muttering…hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to work it off.
  • You haven’t been here in a while, so you probably have no idea what you’re doing at all.

That may not be explicitly stated, but it’s often what’s heard, because it’s so easy to bring our insecurities into church. When we look around, we see people who have been following Jesus longer than we’ve been alive. And way more effectively than we ever will. We see processes and procedures and systems that are intimidating. And then we see ourself. Out-of-shape. Out-of-time. Tired. Weak. A-little-too-hooked-on-something. Don’t-really-want-to-be-there-anyway. And those seemingly innocuous words fall like a ton of bricks on our fragile psyche, full of baggage that we bring in towards God, the Church, others, and ourselves.

Church returnees: we’re sorry. We say dumb things to help us feel better about ourselves. Or sometimes we just babble because we don’t know what to say. Please give us another chance. We’re just as broken as you are. We need Jesus as much as you are. We can just be knuckleheads sometimes when words start coming out of our mouths.

Church members: just shut your mouth. Paste a genuine smile on your face. And for crying out loud, would it kill you to just give someone a hug? Or, if you’re not a hugger, give a hearty handshake. Nothing else. No “funny” comments about wondering why they’re here. You’re not that funny…and in fact, you’re offensive. If you say, “Welcome back! It sure has been a while…” they won’t come back. Trust me.