Monday, October 07, 2013

Gospel-Centered Community or Christian Social Club?

Life in a small group community can be a fun, challenging, growing, difficult, and learning experience. These words provide a glimpse into the reason we keep showing up to our friend’s house on Sunday evenings, week-after-week, month-after-month, and possibly year-after-year. We desire to do life together with other believers.

Consistently gathering together with others who are experiencing life at the same harried pace you are offers us comfort, a moment to catch our breath and realize that we're not crazy, and a place we can be known and accepted.

This is good! Yet the descriptive words that I tossed out a moment ago may be clear indicators that your small group experience is really, really good. Yet in the midst of something you and others enjoy, there is the potential that your group could be missing the most important aspect of community life—the gospel!

I’ve recently been reading through the Book of Acts, and it’s caused me to wrestle with the question: What’s at the heart of a small group? I’ve come to realize that most small groups fit into one of two categories: either you’re in a gospel-centered community or you're participating in a Christian social club.

I’m sure that may seem a bit harsh at first, but the reality is that whenever believers gather together for a season of time, we gravitate to one side of the fence or the other. We either drift toward fun-loving fellowship or to gospel-centered intensity.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a great group of Christ-following friends. However, hanging out with Christian friends alone is not enough to produce consistent, fruit-bearing, spiritual growth.

Here’s what I mean:
  • Your group is either seeking God’s truth together in the Bible, or it’s not.
  • Your group is either seeking to allow the person of Jesus to be at the center of your meeting, or it’s not.
  • Your group is either engaging with the work of Jesus on the cross to transform your hearts and minds, or it’s not
  • Your group is either inviting the Holy Spirit to work in your lives, or it’s not.

This is not some legalistic plea to make your group more religious. Instead it is submitting everything you are, everything you do, and everything you face—to the feet of Jesus.

A gospel-centered small group community is centered on what the name might suggest; the intentional practice of placing the gospel at the center of every small group gathering. It really is about Jesus in your friendships, in your decision making, in your parenting, in the stewardship of your talents and treasures, in your pursuit of biblical truth—in everything! Jesus and His transforming work are brought to bear on all of life—the good, the bad, even the seemingly indifferent.

Does this describe your typical small group meeting? Or do chips and salsa, fantasy football teams, and creative ideas from Pinterest take precedent? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ the reason you meet? Is it what fuels the week ahead? Or are social interaction, casual conversation, and friendship at the true heart of your small group?

Lest you think this some anti-friendship, anti-laughter, or anti-fun post, rather it is a challenge to consider what is truly at the center of your small group?

Ultimately, we all desire and need genuine friendships and fun-loving interaction—but we need the gospel more!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Father’s Day Follow-Up

Father’s Day is one of those days. It strikes each one of us differently. Some have fond memories of their childhood because their Dad was the guy who played catch with them and then followed-up the fun with a quick trip to DQ for a twist cone. Others have sketchy memories because their childhood was dotted with moments of laugther and long periods without Dad around. Still others had a father whose behavior was so offensive it didn’t even endear him to a grace-giving child.

Looking past these quick caricatures of the father you had—or didn’t have—is risky for any community of faith. The relationship we had with our earthly father deeply influences our view of God, the way we treat our spouse, the way we parent our own children, the way we view work, and the way we view ourselves. (Just a few rather important things!)

Because of this, Father’s Day gives you a starting point for some rich discussion for your next small group meeting. Likely, this discussion won’t be easy, but it could be a discussion that just might open up deeper realities about the people and the stories represented in your small group community.

As you move into this disucussion, encourage your group members to consider the words of James about the consistent nature of our heavenly Father. 

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
James 1:17

Earthly fathers impact each one of us deeply—some help, some hurt, some harm. In the face of our own personal experience, strive to help your small group engage with the reality of their fatherly experience. And then, turn to the steady trustworthy character of our Heavenly Father. 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Structure is a Blessing

Do you chafe under the weight of regulations, or are you liberated by parameters?

The idea of boundaries—or a lack thereof—is something for every small group leader to consider. Which environment works best for your small group? Which context is the best fit for your particular leadership style?

I met with a small group leader this week who had some interesting insight into the importance of structure.

His group began a few years back in the three-week Small Group Launch environment where we establish the biblical foundation for doing life together in community. We also unpack details of what small group community looks like at our church that might be different from other churches.

This structure proved helpful for the original four couples for the first few years of their time together. They thrived, in fact! Then, life change started happening. One couple moved to a new state. Another couple had a dramatic shift in their home life, and things began to change.

The remaining group members wanted to stay together, so they invited in some new couples (families) to join them. Over time, the couples and their children have integrated well. And they continue to do life together nearly five years after the group first began.

But something is different. Something that was hard for the leader to wrap his mind around initially. After months of processing and wrestling, he landed on what’s different. The new couples don’t have the same understanding, the same commitment to the group’s structure.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But it is something the leader feels a strong desire to re-establish among his group—a commitment to everyone understanding the importance of group structure. His desire is not to be heavy-handed about it. Rather, he sees this as an opportunity to bring the group members closer together, and moving in the same direction.

Structure; without it, a small group can be good—but likely, will struggle to be great. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Impact of a Few Beads

Who doesn’t like to be encouraged on your faith journey?

I believe encouragement is one of the greatest benefits of doing life in community. When you’re feeling tired, down, stressed, overwhelmed, the encouraging words of a person who knows you is like thick blanket on a cold night—it warms you.

One of the most powerful times of encouragement I’ve ever experienced in community took place when I least expected it—on a short-term mission trip to Haiti last summer. 

Our ministry team partnered with a young and growing mission organization called Global Orphan Project.  During the day we visited their orphan villages spread throughout the impoverished nation and invested in the lives of the orphans. At night, we gathered to debrief about the day’s experiences and what God was doing in our hearts and minds.

That’s when it happened.

The leadership team from Global Orphan introduced our group to something they do to encourage one another. It’s called a bead ceremony.

Here’s how it works: There are four different colored beads. Each one stands for something specific—red represents risk, blue stands for leadership, white is for service, and green represents compassion. You grab the appropriate bead, walk over to the person who exhibited this virtue during the day, bless them with the bead, then briefly tell the story of how you witnessed the individual put the specific virtue into practice.

Each night, God used the bead ceremony to bring laughter, tears, and powerful feelings of gratitude for the different members of our group. The impact of a few words of encouragement was dramatic for each one of us. It caused us to see how God was at work in each other’s lives. It encouraged us to get out of our comfort zone and bless someone else with words that we rarely hear spoken in our frenetic, me-first culture.

This begs the question; couldn’t we put the bead ceremony into practice within our small group communities? Couldn’t we be intentional to offer specific words of encouragement to those we do life with week-after-week? Couldn’t we take the biblical exhortation (Hebrews 10:25) to encourage one another to an entirely different level than we’ve ever experienced before?

Give the bead ceremony a try. It just might be the words that you and the members of your group need to hear. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It’s Not All About YOU!

A light bulb flipped on with piercing brightness for a small group member this weekend.

He’s not new to small groups. In fact, he’s participated in them for a few years. But something from God’s Word struck him afresh. It came from the words of the writer of Hebrews. In the 10th chapter, we find these words:

“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…”
Hebrews 10:24-25

The truth that struck this small group participant was the realization that community life is not all about receiving. It’s not all about what you will get from your interaction in community. Rather, it’s about what God can—and will—do through you in the context of your small group.

How can God use you to spur another on? How will God use you to encourage someone else? What will God do through you to deeply impact the faith journey of another?

It may seem basic, even simplistic, but this reality is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of community life in the church today!

You and I may join a small group for personal reasons and desires, but the ultimate purpose just might not have anything to do with our spiritual goals or purposes.

Small group life is genuinely more about others than it is about self. That’s why I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quote from his classic book Life Together, “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged…The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother.”

Here’s the life-giving reality of life in a healthy small group—it’s not all about you!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Three Questions to Discuss in Every Small Group Gathering

Some discussion questions are better than others. We’ve all experienced the reality of this in one small group gathering or another. You know, the fill-in-the-blank answer that’s always “Jesus”. The leading question that seeks an overly touchy-feely response that would make even the most tender-hearted person blush. The question that’s overly pushy in offering an application for everyone in the room. 

With this in mind, a small group leader and I discussed three questions that should be at the core of every small group gathering. Here they are:

A Head Question:
Every time your small group meets, you should strive to engage with the intellect (the head). We should be challenged to consider the truth presented to us from the Scriptures or other Bible-based materials about the character of God. Whether your group is a collection of mature believers, people who are new to the faith journey, or somewhere in the middle, it’s always helpful to consider afresh who God is.

This model is something the Apostle Paul regularly used when he was writing one of his epistles. He began with a truth/fact of about God, before moving to his heart-level impassioned plea for action.

A Heart Question:
This is the question that brings authenticity and rootedness to your small group community. When you use discussion questions that cause group members to tell a bit about themselves—not just about what they think—you’re creating authenticity. Authenticity creates depth. Depth grows roots. Discussion questions that cause people to examine their own lives, their marriage, their parenting, etc. Questions that stir something deep within our hearts, bringing real-life to the forefront of group life.

A Hand Question:
After the head has been convinced of a biblical truth, and the heart has been compelled to respond, the hands should be challenged to act. Always close out your meeting time with discussion questions that lead a Christ follower to some practical application. This will help take the discussion from theory to practice, from simply a nice idea kicked around in someone’s living room to a gracious act at the local community center that brings God glory.

These three questions, in some form, may already be part of the discussion questions for your current study material. Likely, you’ll need to tweak the questions to make them engage a head, heart, and hand question structure.

Give it a try. You’re small group time just might become that much richer!