Tag: worship

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 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.

 

 

How the Jews get it & the Christians miss it

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image credit: CreationSwap user Jason Harper

Traditional thinking in American Protestant culture values individual time with God. We purport that as the center of spiritual growth.

Go in your room, shut the door, and study.

Master the art of the “quiet time.” Just you and God. Not you and God and ____. Leave ____ out.

Read a book by yourself. Put headphones on and listen to a podcast by yourself. Go sit on a hammock and pray…by yourself.

This bleeds into our worship services, too. We sit in a classroom-style setting, with rows of chairs in a Sunday school class or a worship center. One person, the teacher or preacher, proclaims the Truth we need to digest, while being certain to keep our hands to ourselves. There’s no talking allowed in either setting. I even remember a note in the bulletin of a local church I attended saying, “If you have to get up during worship, please do so before the sermon starts in order to not distract the work of the Holy Spirit.” Because the Holy Spirit throws up His hands in utter ‘what-am-I-going-to-do-now’ fashion as soon as a kid gets up to go to the bathroom.

Contrast this with traditional Jewish styles of learning:

Jews seldom study Torah alone; the study of Torah is, more often than not, a social and even communal activity. Most commonly, Jews study Jewish texts in pairs, a method known as havruta (“fellowship”). In havruta, the pair struggles to understand the meaning of each passage and discusses how to apply it to the larger issues addressed and even to their own lives. – Rachael Schultz

Studying, wrestling, and seeking hard after God is done communally. We Protestants have missed that. With our rows of people, quiet services, quiet times with God, and personal spiritual growth plans, we inadvertently push people towards an individualistic faith.

My friend, James Grogan, says

Circles are better than rows.

He may have stolen that phrase, but since I don’t know who said it first, I’ll give James the credit. Circles promote group growth, unity, and a combined synergy towards knowing God, encouraging each other, correcting each other, and pushing each other towards God’s best.

The reality is that I don’t know everything there is to know about the Bible. God hasn’t revealed all angles and varied beauty of truth to me. Your life experiences have given you a certain interpretation of the texts of Scripture that help me know God more fully. Your upbringing, your failures, your pain, your victories, your passions…they all help me know God better. Not that if we study and engage God together that we have to walk out of that clones of one another. I’m still me and you’re still you. But our collective relationships with our Creator is multiplied together.

The advantages of studying together

1. We both work to fulfill the Great Commission.

Iron sharpens iron, and together we push one another to love Jesus more.

2. We build fellowship.

The early church devoted themselves to fellowship, and God honored them in this. (Acts 2:42) You can’t do this on your own.

3. We fight against pride, realizing we’re not the only ones with the “right” answer.

On your own, you’re prone to thinking you’ve got the best angle, the most understanding, and all of the “right” answers. If you thought you didn’t, you’d change your mind, right?

4. Past experiences are (at least) doubled, adding new flavors and angles to the truth.

You only have one past, one set of experiences and one mind. And thus only one insight into the vast depth of Scripture.

5. We can laugh together.

And that’s vital for our growth. If you laugh on your own, while it’s just you and God talking, people look at you weird. And put you away in “homes” for a long time.

6. We don’t get “stuck” on questions.

We’re less prone to getting stuck, because we can help each other out of our ruts of questions.

7. There’s built-in accountability.

I can’t short-cut the process of learning if I’m constantly being pushed and challenged by someone else. Alone, in a large room, though, it’s easy to disappear, not process, and not challenge myself.

8. You’re prone to being narrow-minded by yourself.

We can so easily dive straight into narrow-minded legalism and bigotry when we make our faith only about ourselves.

9. You only have 2 ears to hear from God, alone.

When you read the Scriptures and study them alone, you’re limited to your own ears. God speaks to other people besides you. You know that, right?

10. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

Obeying God is too hard. Trying to understand, and obey, the Scriptures will break you. If you go it alone.

We Protestants have missed the boat when we study, prepare, and deliberate the Scriptures by ourselves. We’re better together.

Because circles are better than rows.

 

 

Structured Sunday Services & Crazy People

Creative commons: Kai Blake

I’ve heard people say that a structured, time-sensitive service isn’t one that leaves room for the Spirit to work.  Ever heard that?  Ever said that?

The conversation starts innocently like this:

I wish we could have sung another song…or chorus…or verse.

OR

I wish that _____ (my pastor) could’ve preached just a little longer. OR It’s over already?

And then you follow it up with this bomb

…because the Spirit needed just a little bit longer to work on ____. (or, sometimes if you’re feeling extra humble, you’ll say that the Holy Spirit needed a little longer to work on you.)

And for saying that, I call you a crazy person.  Because that’s the only category you fit in right now.

“Why, Ben?” you say.  I’ll tell you in 6 points.

6 Reasons to Structure your Sunday Services

1. It says it in the Bible.

Multiple times in the Bible, it tells us that all Sunday morning church services are supposed to last for 1 hour.  Don’t question me on that.  I went to seminary.

2. We pastors can’t work more than an hour straight.

Like “they” say, preaching a normal-length sermon is like working an 8-hour day. So if we have 2 services every Sunday, we work a 16 hour day.  And if we, like we do at Grace, have 3 live services on our campus on Sunday, it’s like we’ve worked a 24 hour day.  And you want us to do more?!?  You walk a hard line, my friend.

3. How “bad” are you that the Creator of the universe can’t do anything in your life in a solid hour?

*I’m pausing here for dramatic effect, then peering judgmentally over the top of my glasses at you as they slide down to the end of my nose.

4. When you have multiple services on a Sunday, logistics dictates that you have some structured order.

After all, the next service, full of people ready to experience God, is coming.

5. Structure isn’t bad. Is it?

Since when has structuring something been considered evil? We see nothing in the Scriptures saying that limiting the length of a service is anti-Holy Spirit. In fact, we at Grace have found that people are more apt to engage when they know that there will be a planned start and stop time.

6. Structure doesn’t have to limit the Spirit.

To think that the Holy Spirit is limited by time is thinking very little of the Spirit. Can God not work in an hour? How much longer does He need? Does He need just a few more minutes to really do His best work? One more repeat of the chorus…one more killer illustration…one more winsomely timed video?

*image via Kai Blake

 

10 Personal Observations I learned through preaching

I had the chance to preach at Grace this Sunday.  It was a great experience communicating with my church family.

image via Flickr’s NotAshamed

And I learned a few things about myself through the preparation and delivery of this sermon as I reflected on it.  Things that seemed more tangible than other time I’d preached.  See if there are some here you’ve experienced if you’ve ever preached.

10 Personal Observations I learned through preaching

 

1. Preaching causes me to pray more.

I was on my knees more this past week than I have been in a long time.  I needed a fresh word from God, fresh insights, and a message that was True.

2. Preaching causes me to study more.

I can’t just pull a message out of thin air.  I have to study the Scriptures a lot in order to prepare a message.  It was a rich time for me.

3. Preaching humbles me.

a) Knowing I’m preaching the Scriptures and people are learning them through that preaching…that’s both humbling and intimidating.

b) Knowing I’m being prayed for…that’s humbling, too.  I can’t tell you how many people I heard from directly offering an encouraging word of prayer.  It was powerful.

4. Preaching causes me to worship more deeply.

I felt a deeper dependence on God than on normal weeks, and I consequently felt a deeper level of worship.

5. Preaching causes me to be more aware of God’s presence

As I was working to craft my message, I was processing it throughout my days.  As I went about my normal activities, I felt more aware of God’s presence as I was consistently ruminating over deep truths.

6. Preaching stretches me.

I’m used to writing blogs and articles.  A blog is typically less than a page of typed notes.  An article is 2-3.  I had 10 pages of single-spaced, typed notes, for my 30 minute sermon.

7. Preaching refines my thoughts.

I’m an external thinker.  Which means that, in order for me to make sense of my thoughts, I need to express them externally.  Typically, that clarity for me comes through writing.  Preaching is another way that I externalize, and refine, my thoughts.

8. Preaching gets me fired up.

The more I meditate on the Scriptures, and what I’ll be communicating, the more I get fired up about sharing the Truth.  I was pumped, not nervous, when I came out on stage.

9. Preaching reminds me that pastors can be lonely people.

The role of a pastor can be lonely.  I studied by myself, prepared the message by myself, and delivered the message by myself, alone on stage.  Afterwards, I criticized myself for things I should’ve done differently.  A pastor may be in the spotlight, but there has been a lot of alone time leading up to that sermon.

10. Preaching drains me.

Preaching takes a lot of energy, because not only are you spending extra time during the week preparing, you’re also pouring your heart and soul into speaking.  I put a lot of emotion…not banging the pulpit though, mind you…into my preaching.  I was exhausted last night.

Have you ever preached?

Do any of these observations resonate with your experience?

 

 

 

The anticipation

I love being a dad.

It’s not easy, by any stretch of the imagination.  But it’s good.

And one thing that we as a family love is laughing together.  And one way I personally promote that is by tickling my son.  It makes both of us laugh hysterically.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tickled a 2-year old, but it’s pretty funny.  It’s hard not to laugh along with them.

And I noticed this the other day: my son starts laughing before I even tickle him.

I just curl up my hand, like I’m going to tickle him…and just get it close to his belly, and he starts to cringe up in laughter.  And it’s not one of those courtesy chuckles.  It’s an all-body laughter.

The anticipation plays into his overall tickle experience.

 

And I’m convinced that Sunday mornings are similar.

From week to week, we should be building anticipation as to what’s coming next time.  Whether that’s through

  • sermon series
  • serving opportunities
  • small group/Sunday alignment
  • emails saying, “Get ready…”
  • social media connections
  • website resources
  • mixing things up on Sundays so people really don’t know exactly what to expect
  • building relationships that encourage continued gathering with other believers

We should be thinking, “What’s encouraging our folks to come back next week?”* Is there a reason for a newcomer (who may or may not be a follower of Christ) to return?  How are you communicating to them that coming back next week is vital?  Are you following up throughout the week?

If you believe that the message you’re presenting is valuable, why would you not create tension and anticipation for what’s coming next?

TV shows do it.  Movies do it.  Radio talk shows create it.  Teachers create it.  Guys who want a second date build it.

If you want a second round with a visitor, you’ve got to build anticipation.

How are you building anticipation?

Should we build anticipation, or should the message simply speak for itself, standing alone?

*Before you leave theologically charged comments, let it be known…I believe that God is the one who draws and changes hearts.  He is the Motivator.  It’s his kindness that leads us to repentance.  I just don’t want anything to get in the way of that, if I can help it.

 

 

 

Lattes and the value of enjoying God

As a way of honoring the volunteers in our community groups ministry, my wife hosted a Christmas party for the wives of group leaders.  I thought that this would be one of those parties that I could just slip out of, and go hang out with the guys.  Suffice it to say that that didn’t happen.  I was stuck in the house with a bunch of ladies who would be eating and exchanging gifts.

My job for the evening was to make lattes and hot chocolate for everybody.  I am often delegated this responsibility because I worked at a coffee shop as a barista for over 3 years, and really enjoy coffee.  I made a variety of different drinks that night.

What stood out to me was their response to the drinks, and what that did for me.  Some ladies were very appreciative, saying, “Thanks!” or “We appreciate you doing this for us!”  It was nice that they appreciated my drinks, but the greatest responses were, “That’s good,” and “I really like that,” and “I didn’t even know if this would be good, but I love it!”  Now, I don’t say this to toot my own horn at all.  I say this to point you to what worship is, at its core.

Worship is enjoying God.  Sure, there are other aspects of worship.  Take, for example, giving.  Giving is an act of worship, right?  But giving to others, merely because God says to give, isn’t enough (though it is a step of obedience).  “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)  There is a component to giving that requires an emotional commitment.  A cheerful giver does not give merely because he or she has to give.  They take delight in giving.  But can an emotion really be commanded?  Aren’t emotions just a reaction, not something that we can control or help?

“Delight yourself in the Lord.” (Psalm 37:4)  There it is.  Delighting involves an emotion.  Delighting means that you have a positive affection towards something or someone.  To delight in something means that you enjoy it.  To delight in God means that we enjoy Him.  David, the psalmist, delights in and longs for the sweet commandments and precepts of God. (Psalm 119:16, 24, 29-30, 36, 40, 47-48, 58, 70, 72, 77, 92, 103, 111, 131, 143, 162, 164, 174)  How do you go about the business of delighting in God?  I think it starts with two things: trusting in the Lord and committing your way to Him. (Psalm 37:3, 5) Delight can be both the catalyst and the result of trusting and committing, and is an essential aspect of worship.

The ladies showed the most value to my drinks when they enjoyed them.  The empty cup and a smile went much further in my mind than words alone.  What about with God?  Do you think He just wants your words?  Or does He want your heart, too?

 

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