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.

 

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)

 

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?

 

9 truths nobody told you about small group

Ahh…small group life. You’re in…by the duping of your pastor. Or by the guilting of your wife. Or because you thought you were signing up for a free vacation.

But that was 6 weeks ago. And you’re finding out that what you expected isn’t what’s being delivered. And what you were sold isn’t being given. Group isn’t exactly what you thought it would be.

I don’t know what the hook was that got you “in,” but that won’t be the hook that gets you to stay. Allow me to tell you what nobody else told you when you signed up. And let me show you why each truth will serve you greatly.

9 truths nobody told you about small group

1. You won’t want to go.

As much as you like it, most weeks you won’t want to go to small group. You’ll start making up excuses about your excuses. Then your excuses will start making up excuses.

But isn’t the same thing true about almost anything in life that’s good for us?

2. You won’t make best friends with everyone in the group.

You’ll encounter people that rub you the wrong way. Speak out of turn. Don’t speak at all. And ones that can’t cook a pot of chili to save themselves. These aren’t necessarily people you’d want to hang out with on Friday nights.

But it’s not about making best friends. It’s about growing spiritually.

3. God will change you. And it’ll be painful.

How often in life do we choose what we know will cause us pain, and what we simultaneously know will cause us growth? Very rarely. This is your chance to grow in a safe, loving environment that wants God’s best for you.

Strap on your big boy shoes. 

4. God will use you. And it’ll be difficult.

You thought small group was about you, didn’t you? You thought you were the one that was stretching in this process. You thought the group, and its growth, its challenges, and its joy was about you. Boy, were you narrow-minded. And even though your story isn’t done, and you’re not where you know you want to be spiritually, God’s going to use you. He’s going to use your journey, and the wisdom He’s given. He’s going to use your insights into Scripture. He’s going to use your prayers.

You’ll find yourself surrounded by a group of broken work-in-progresses. And by the grace of God, you’ll be contributing to that work.

5. There are “better” ways to spend your time.

At least that’s what you’ll tell yourself. You need some “me” time. Your kids need you at home. You’re behind in emails. You’re hungry. You’re tired. You’re crabby. You…need to play golf.

There ARE better ways to spend your time. But carving out a couple of hours every week is time your soul needs. Choosing what we need over what we want helps us to mature.

6. You’ll be offended.

There will be times when you’re offended to your core. Sometimes the offenses will be off-base, out-of-line. Sometimes you’ll be offended on behalf of someone else. But the ones that sting the most are the offenses that are rooted in truth. The ones where you know they’re right as their words slice you like a surgeon.

You’re going to be hurt. In the best way possible.

7. You’ll be the offender.

You’ve offended people before. People at work. Family members. The guy that you cut off in traffic. But the difference in offending someone in your small group is that you will have grown to really love them. And you’ll feel just as pained as they are.

You’ll grow to love the people in your small group. And at some point, in some way, whether it’s implicit or explicit, you’ll offend someone you love. In truth and love.

8. It won’t feel natural. For a long time.

Small group will feel awkward and forced. You’ll wonder why in the world you signed up. These people don’t feel like “your people,” and they’re likely not going to be people you’d naturally hang out with.

These are exactly the kind of people God wants to use to grow you.

9. The information you gain isn’t all that important.

A lot of people sign up for a small group because of the content of the study. But that’s just the backdrop. The content you gain will only serve as long as you SEE it lived out in the lives of your group members.

Content is only a part of the value of a group. It’s a small piece of the pie.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – the apostle Paul, Hebrews 10:24-25

 

 

10 things a small group leader has to stop doing

There’s a lot of talk about what small groups need to look like. How they need to be structured, what they need to study, and where they need to go.

Through all of this, group leaders can become overwhelmed. Group leaders want to have a healthy group, and instead of adding more to their plate, it’s time to start taking things away. There are tasks that are killing your group. And killing you, too.

Let’s quit those together.

10 things a group leader should stop doing

1. Stop talking so much.

Group leaders need to listen way more than they talk. Listen to stories. Listen for pain. Listen for God’s voice in the midst of their group. Instead, most group leaders want to try to impress their group by how much they know and how close to God they are.

But that’s not what group members are looking for. And they’re not impressed.

2. Stop thinking so much.

Just love people and lead them to Jesus. Don’t make it so difficult. When you’re consumed by “planning,” the heart of the group gets lost. If you want to stop your group from sliding off of the hill, stop thinking so much. Let the Spirit prompt you in the moment. Maybe you’ve been relying on your plans and your agenda more than you have on God leading you. Instead of your leadership flowing out of your relationship with God, it’s flowing out of your to-do list.

3. Stop canceling group meeting.

This has got to quit. Let your group know that the weekly meeting is happening, even if it’s just you and your spouse. Don’t cancel because half of the group is out sick. Let this be an opportunity to get to know the other half of your group in a way you can’t when everyone’s there.

Oh, wait…you, the leader aren’t going to be there? Then it’s a perfect time to give someone else the reigns and help them develop as a leader.

4. Stop meeting every week.

(Hey, it’s my blog. I can contradict myself if I want. :-) ) It might be time to give people a breather. Take a week, or two, off. Recharge for what’s coming. Let people invest in their family. Let people relax. Then come back ready to dive back into small group.

5. Stop sticking with a curriculum even though it’s terrible.

If a curriculum isn’t working for your group, throw that junk away. It’s not worth driving your group into the ground over. You might even put the curriculum down for the night and just study the Scriptures together. Try asking these 3 questions of a text:

a. What does this passage say? (just repeat it in your own words)

b. What does this passage tell me about God?

c. Based on what this passage says, what are you going to do?

6. Stop simply studying together as a group.

Small group life is so much more than just a Bible study. It encompasses doing life together, not just studying together. Serve, pray, go, do, and laugh.

7. Stop viewing group as a 1.5 hour program.

If you want to stop doing something today that will have a huge impact quickly, then stop thinking that your group is relegated to a 1.5 hour meeting once/week. Work it in your schedule to meet with at least one person/week in your group outside of your normal meeting time. At this meeting, just get to know them a little better. Buy them a cup of coffee, and listen.

8. Stop being scared of “obedience.”

Sometimes you’ve just got to push people. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and you’ll probably get pushed back. But small groups help people obey, not just know, the Scriptures.

9. Stop telling people what they have to believe.

Give people space to explore. Push towards obedience, but give people the freedom to explore their relationship with Jesus without feeling like they need to have all of the answers and have all of their life figured out. Let them know it’s really okay to be “in process.”

10. Stop making group boring.

Shake up your routine. Change locations, studies, discussion facilitators, or prayer time. Plan a retreat, or give some practical homework. Or just throw all of that out of the window and play a game with your small group. Routines are good, but they can work against you if you stick closer to those than you do to the mission of your small group: helping people take steps of faith together.

Anything else you’d add, that a group leader should stop doing?

 

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?

 

Getting your small group to like you

photo credit: iStockPhoto user Digital Skillet

photo credit: iStockPhoto user Digital Skillet

Getting your small group to like you isn’t something you may have explicitly set out to do. If you did, you’re pretty self-centered. And there’s a great chance that nobody really likes you.

There. I said it.

While you may not have set that out as a written goal though, it’s on the back of your mind whether you’re a leader or a group member. Don’t lie. You want to be liked. And that’s not a terrible thing. If you didn’t care what others thought of you, you’d probably be a jerk. Caring what others think (while not being dominated by that) shapes our responses, and helps us become more loving and generous. If you didn’t care what others thought of you, you’d dress like a slob and never shower. So please, please keep caring.

If people genuinely don’t like you, and you’re a representation of Christ for them, then there’s a great chance you’re acting as a barrier for them to enjoying Jesus. It would be wise for us to not be a barrier.

How to you get your small group to like you? Well you can start by taking a shower before group. Then, let’s get to the more important things.

How to get your group to like you

Listen intently.

Listen way more than you talk. When you think you’ve listened too much, you’ve just started the process.

Share your story.

You’ve got a story of loss. Victory. Defeat. One that makes much of God, and His power to change your heart and shape your journey. Share that. It’s a gift.

Be authentic.

Nobody likes a fake leader. We all want to know that the person we’re following is the person we think we’re following. Be real and open and honest with your struggles and victories.

Be consistent.

Show up and engage. Week after week after week. On the weeks that you feel like going, show up. On the weeks that you don’t feel like going, show up. On the weeks when you’re too busy, show up. Consistency builds trust.

Go over and above.

Have coffee with a group member outside of your group’s meeting time. Invite a couple over to your house for dinner. Text them when you know they’re going to have a difficult day. Reach beyond the “normal” and “expected.”

Love unexpectedly.

Call on their birthday. Offer to watch their kids so they can go on a date night. Buy them a book that’s made a difference in your life.

Give grace when it’s not deserved.

I know, I know…grace “deserved” isn’t really grace. But there are times when you give grace and it’s expected. But when it’s not deserved in the least. When it hasn’t been earned. When everybody in the room expects you to go 100% truth in the moment…go 100% grace.

Learn their kids’ names.

Do this one today.

Remember their birthdays and anniversaries.

Go ahead and plug them into your calendar now, and set yourself a reminder. Trust me…they’ll notice this.

Share a well-timed truth.

Don’t just sit in your big comfy chair and drop theological bombs on your group. Listen well, and share a well-timed, well-pointed, well-applied truth. One that’s informed in the moment, and that walks the nuances of a deep relationship.

Give your resources.

You can’t give everything to everybody. But you can give significant, needed resources, to your group members. In a way that’s much faster, more efficient, than applying for aid from government, or even parachurch, organizations.

Be yourself.

If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re contemplative, be contemplative. If you’re patient, be patient. If you’re the life of a party, be the life of the party. If you’re an intellectual, be an intellectual. Be the you God created you to be.

Anything else that you do that engages your group to enjoy being around you?

 

9 unintended benefits of small group life

We all have an opinion on small group life. Some of us lean towards “small groups are amazing.” Some of lean towards “small groups are just plain difficult. And awkward.” Rarely is someone neutral when it comes to intentionally building spiritually-formative relationships with others.

I’ve been a part of life-giving small groups that I long to gather with week in and week out. Ones where I leave with more of Jesus than when I came. I’ve also been a part of groups that seem to suck the life right out of me. Ones where I give, but get nothing in return. (I think that has to do most prominently with small group dominators, but that’s another post for another day)

iStockPhoto, user: Noriko Cooper

iStockPhoto, user: Noriko Cooper

Healthy small groups teach us more than they often set out to teach. We are molded and changed in so many ways, because God uses others in mighty ways to make us more like Jesus. In fact, you can’t be like Jesus without others. It’s impossible. You can’t serve others, love others, be generous with one another, or accomplish any of the “one another” commands in Scripture by yourself.

9 unintended benefits of small group life

1. Not everybody thinks like you do, and that’s ok. (Tweet that)

Sometimes, our pride needs a swift body check. We need to run after a fly ball in center field and crash into the wall. We think we’re the only ones with a corner on the “right” answers, and we need subtle, and not-so-subtle, reminders that there are other ways to think.

2. Not everybody thinks like you do, and you can still love them them. 

Loving those who can, and will, love us back is barely love. Loving those who think and act differently than we do is more challenging, and takes more faith. It’s more risky and more difficult. Just because someone thinks differently doesn’t mean you can’t go out of your way to love them. Hanging around people that think like you do is more dangerous than living life with different people that stretch you.

3. Jesus followers can have fun. (Tweet that)

Maybe this post was written just so you’d read this benefit. If you’re a Jesus follower, please don’t check your humor and love of laughter, fun, and general frivolity at the door. After all, a cheerful heart is good medicine. (Proverbs 17:22)

4. People desperately need you.

You have gifts. You have a story. You have experiences. You have a living, breathing, active relationship with Jesus. And other people need you. God has created us to work interdependently, and though you may not have been valued for your contribution to the Church in the past, small group highlights the value you bring to the table. (1 Corinthians 4:12-31)

5. You desperately need people.

You may have gifts, but you don’t have them all. It becomes quickly and readily apparent in group life that others are wired and strengthened differently than you. Which is beautiful! No longer do you have to be all things to all people. You can be the you God created you to be, and lean in on others as they’re being who God created them to be.

6. Prayer works

Don’t believe me? Try it. Try asking for prayer. Try praying for someone else. God uses the prayers of the righteous to accomplish His work. (James 5:16)

7. The bible is living and active.

As you’re discussing the Scriptures week in and week out, you’ll find God speaking right into your story, as if the Bible were written just for you, where you’re at in life. He’ll speak through others in your group, using the Scriptures as the Truth you need to think, and live, differently. (Hebrews 4:12)

8. Confession brings healing. (Tweet that)

The more comfortable you grow with your group, the more you’ll be willing to be open and honest with your faults. As you confess, you’ll find healing. (James 5:16)

9. Dirty hands clean your heart. (Tweet that)

The more you love people, the dirtier your hands get. The more deeply you love others, the more likely it is you’ll get burned. Serving people well necessitates getting messy. Because people are messy. And the more you love, serve, and give generously of yourself, the more you begin to look like Jesus.

Are you in a group? Any other unintended benefits you’ve found?

 

Why it’s biblical to keep your shoes on during small group

I never wear my shoes in the house. Shoes bring in dirt.

On top of that, I’m more comfortable without them on. My at-home routine when I finish the day is to take my shoes off and put them in the basket beside the front door. After that, I feel like I can relax.

I don’t choose to take my shoes off because I feel like I have to. Or because my wife expects it. Or because it’s something I’ve done since I was a child. I do it simply so I can relax.

Small group time

Just a few weeks ago, we started a small group in our home. When I came in that Tuesday evening before people started arriving, I continued my normal routine. I took my shoes off, placed them in the basket, and started getting our house ready.

30 minutes before we started, I got my shoes back out of the basket. I put them back on my feet, tied them, and wore them until everyone in our small group had gone home for the night.

Then I went back through my routine. I took my shoes off, placed them in the basket, and sat down on the couch.

I didn’t accidentally wear my shoes during small group. I didn’t forget to take them off. And I’m not self-conscious about the smell of my feet. (though you may be conscious about the smell of my feet, I’m not. :-))

I wore my shoes to help people feel welcomed.

Many people don’t like to take off their shoes in others’ houses because

  • they’re self-conscious about the smell of their feet
  • they have dirty socks
  • they didn’t cut their toenails
  • they’re worried about the dirt in someone else’s house
  • they don’t take their shoes off in their own house
  • they feel more relaxed with their shoes on
  • their feet are cold

And if they feel like they have to take their shoes off, they’ll either:

a. Not. And feel guilty.

b. Take them off. And resent you for it.

So I chose to wear my shoes, and help people feel comfortable coming just as they are. Not having to bend to the rules of our family, or change their routine to fit our culture. I wanted them to feel like their wasn’t a hurdle they had to jump over, that they don’t have to at their own house, to engage in our group.

If keeping my shoes on helps someone feel more comfortable, welcomed, and loved, I’ll wear my shoes every week.(Tweet that) Small group is a blend of cultures, values, and traditions. Some people value keeping their shoes on.

If you want to love people well, go out of your way to serve them. (Tweet that) Surprise and delight. Make the best coffee in town. Let them sit on the couch nobody else gets to sit on. Let them eat off of the forks you reserve for special guests. Kindle the fire if it’s cold. Crank up the A/C if it’s hot. Open your home, open your life, and open your heart-shaping, will-bending, costly generosity (Re: Luke 14:12-14).

And if you want to create a culture that values people right where they are in life, let it start with your shoes. (Tweet that)

How do you creatively welcome people into your life?

The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. – Acts 28:2