Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Battling Commitment Issues

I heard from one of my small group leaders over the weekend about the challenges he’s faced with commitment issues. Here’s a brief summary:

● The leader wants to meet regularly, some others in the group do—but most don’t.
● He wants to study the Word of God, some others in the group do—but most don’t.
● He wants to be intentional about doing life together, some others in the group do—but most don’t.
● The leader makes the call. The group is dissolved after two years together.

This happens. Commitment wanes over time. Kids’ schedules ramp up. Job responsibilities increase. People lives get increasingly hectic. Most of us are busy running ourselves ragged with good things. The problem is; many of us are choosing merely good things instead of better or best things.

To overcome this busyness—and make small group life a priority—requires an entire shift of people’s minds in the 21st century. Church-centric living was central to the early church, and a reality for many throughout church history—church life was their life. Today, unfortunately, participation in The Church has become just one of the many options on the smorgasbord of life.

How do you get people to commit and make your weekly small group time a priority amidst the pressures and busyness of life? Great question! Allow me to make this suggestion for your group as you head into one of the busiest times of the year.

At your next small group gathering, consider reading Acts 2:46-47 (see below) together. Then discuss what this sort of commitment might look like for your community amidst today’s challenges.

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"Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” -Acts 2:46-47 (NIV)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Away A Blessing

Thanksgiving causes most of us to take an inventory of our lives. We acknowledge the relationships that mean the most to us. We get a bit nostalgic about the highs—and even some of the lows—of the last year. We get together for a meal with family and friends and typically begin by giving thanks to God for his graciousness to us.

Have you done the same with your small group?

Have you acknowledged the significance of the friendships you’ve established in your small group? Have you discussed the highs and lows that you’ve traveled together during the last year? Have you enjoyed a meal together where you’ve been intentional about giving thanks to God for his blessing upon your lives? There’s no better time than Thanksgiving to be intentional about this type of small group experience!

Last week, a small group I have the privilege of being a part of took time to celebrate each person by speaking words of affirmation. It was a humbling, goose-bump creating, God-honoring, praise-inducing time of blessing each other.

Our leader handed out a piece of notebook paper. We wrote out the names of each person in our group. Then the leader encouraged us to write down all the gifts and talents that come to mind when we think of the person he named. We did this focusing on each person for about a minute as we worked our way around the room. Once everyone’s name had been read aloud and all their attributes had been written down we turned our papers into the leader.

Then the blessings flowed! Our leader read each person’s name and followed it by reading all of the things people wrote down about them. He acknowledged verbally all of the gifts that others see in us. Then he said these powerful words, “This is how God has blessed you. We’re glad you’re here.” It was a rich time of blessing for each person in our group.

As you get together with your small group community around Thanksgiving, be intentional to bless each other and communicate how thankful your are for the role that each person plays in each other’s lives. Very few of us ever receive such a gift!

Friday, November 19, 2010

After the Break-Up

Last night my wife and I went out with some close friends. We enjoyed some great conversation over dinner, and then went to a comedy show. We all laughed more in one hour than we’ve probably laughed all week. It was a great time!

Why am I writing about this? Because we used to do life in small group community with this couple. We used to get together regularly for Christ-centered discussion, prayer, and interaction. That’s right, we “used to”. Our group stayed together for a year and a half. But it didn’t last. Commitment issues, differing expectations, and contrasting goals moving forward brought the group to an end.

After the initial awkwardness of the small group “break-up”, we re-connected with this couple. (Also, we still talk with everybody from our old group, we just don’t spend time together.) We talked about what went wrong with our group. We talked about what we could have done differently. And we agreed that the relationship we had established with each other within the small group context was worth developing.

In spite of the awkwardness we faced going through our small group break-up, both couples chose to invest in each other. We now get together about once a month. We talk about the Scriptures. We discuss theology. We have game nights. We laugh together. And we enjoy each other!

Not all small group break-ups have salvageable relationships beyond the life of the small group. Sometimes group members grow apart over time. Their needs and interests change. The time you spent meeting regularly in community has come to a close—and everyone is ready to move on. There are no relationships to pursue once the group has ended its run.

What we cannot allow to happen is for a small group break-up to cause divisions or factions within God’s church. The Apostle Paul addressed this potential division in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.” 1 Corinthians 1:10-11
When a small group disbands, or has a full-blown break up, it can and should be done amicably. And once it’s done, there just might be some personal relationships to continue to pursue.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The ‘Want-To’ Factor

Last weekend, I was invited into another ministry area of our church to form and launch new small group communities. At the behest of this community’s pastor, I was asked to work with 80 individuals to teach on authentic biblical community, to cast our church’s vision for small groups, and facilitate some table discussion.

In all honesty, it went O.K. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Some participants were deeply engaged, others appeared less-than-thrilled with the morning’s events. I couldn’t help but begin the self-evaluation game in my head as the morning session came to a close: Was I doing something wrong? Was I off my game? Or was it something completely different?

After an hour and a half leading this group, it hit me—these people did not voluntarily submit to joining a small group. They didn’t choose to be there. They were guided into this Small Group Launch experience by the pastor of this ministry. He knows the specific needs of this group, and believes being involved in a small group could meet some of those needs. Yet, from the feedback I was getting up-front, many didn’t see things the same way. Someone even told a fellow participant they were feeling a bit “coerced” into forming a small group.

Clearly, coercion is not a recipe for small group success. It’s not fertile soil for authentic Christ-centered community to grow. If participating in, or leading, a small group is nothing more than a guilt-fueled experience of going through the motions—it’s not worth the time!

This experience has caused me to consider the ‘want-to factor’ of engaging in small group community. Do people want community? Are they willing to pay the price—with their time and/or emotional investment? You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to desire connection. You’ve got to need and long for it, if community is to truly come together and grow.

Are people in your church feeling coerced into small group community? Or do they have the ‘want-to’? It’s a tough question to ask. Yet, for long-term growth, it’s a question worth pursuing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Stop Talking!

My wife and I watch Survivor. It’s one of the few television shows that we carve out time for each week. The show has three primary draws for us: First, we doubt we could ever go through the brutal stuff participants battle for 39 days. (The bug bites—just not for us.) Second, we enjoy the beauty of the show’s backdrop. The lush greens and soothing ocean blues from remote locations we’ll likely never get to see is awesome. Lastly, we love watching the social interaction. How people from all walks of life, all physical and athletic ability levels, and all socioeconomic and education levels interact. It’s intriguing!

(Warning: If you’ve not yet watched this week’s show—stop reading! Come back after you’ve seen it.)

This week, one of this season’s most powerful players, Marty, was sent packing. He survived long enough to get to the jury (final 12), but not to get close to the million-dollar prize.

Marty was a keen strategist from day one. He took the outwit aspect of Survivor’s outwit, outlast, outplay game description very seriously. And for more than three weeks, Marty did just that—outwit many of his opponents. He was savvy. Yet in the end, he fell prey to what ousts many players on Survivor—the tongue. The dude simply talked too much!

Does this ever happen in your small group? Do you have someone who’s a valuable member of your group, someone who everyone loves, yet their mouth seems to have an extra gear? They dominate every discussion—whether they know anything about the issue or not. Their prayer requests are long, and their prayers are even longer. Do you know this person?

The problem we have in small group community is that you can’t just vote them off the island! They’re part of us. So what can we do?

This is where a good small group leader will put his facilitation skills to work. He’ll strive to put the brakes on the chatty guy and seek to draw out the quiet guy. Using something like, “Thanks for your input tonight (Insert Talker’s Name), it’s been helpful. But we haven’t heard from a number of others. So let’s get their views.” Providing this sort of leadership, sometimes repeatedly, can help the talker begin to recognize there are others in the group who have something to offer.

This is not easy, just necessary. Talkers drive people crazy—then drive them away. Don’t let this happen in your small group. You can’t vote them off, but you can curb the talking.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Growth, Growth, Growth

This weekend, we wrapped up our three-week event known as the Small Group Launch. This is where we form and launch new small group communities. We launched out nine new small groups. I’m encouraged!

This marks 44 new small groups, formed and launched, since the beginning of 2010. Speaking simply of numbers, this is the most fruitful year we’ve had forming new groups at Woodmen Valley Chapel. I’m excited that we have about 500 people in community who were not experiencing small group life a year ago. We’re growing, and that’s a good thing.

Yet is numerical growth an accurate measurement of success? Allow me to answer my own rhetorical question with a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’.

First, the ‘Yes’. If people were not interested in engaging in authentic biblical community—it would point to a church-wide problem. It would suggest that folks are not hearing a consistent message from the church leadership emphasizing the importance of Christ-centered community. It might suggest that folks are punching their religious time card at the weekend service and are interested in little else. So, the fact that we have hundreds of people passionate enough to connect with the church about being connected with other believers is a huge positive.

Secondarily, our life-stage model for linking people together is connecting individuals and couples who are going through the same stuff of life. This connection is very practical, and very real. So the number of groups launched is something we rejoice in.

Yet that’s not the whole story. Which brings us to the ‘No’ of my rhetorical question—numerical growth is not enough. We’re seeking spiritual growth in our small group communities. Growth in our knowledge of who God is. Growth of who we are in relation to Him. Growth in Christ-likeness. Growth in an ever-deepening understanding and experience of God’s amazing grace. Growth!

As you might imagine, this one is much harder to quantify. Yet it’s something that we strive for in all of our small groups. As our people engage with Scripture in an honest and authentic way, they grow. As our people engage with each other, speaking truth into each other’s lives, they grow. As our people engage in acts of service toward one another, our church, and our community, they grow. This growth is measured in stories told, and in faithfulness shown to each other.

Growth. It’s something we unashamedly seek—both numerically and spiritually.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Free to Grieve?

Could someone cry in your small group? I mean really breakdown and let the tears roll. Is your group that kind of safe place?

I met with a small group leader, who, like me, lost one of his parents within the last six months. He lost his Mom. I lost my Dad. We talked about our feelings of sadness, we scratched the surface of our struggles, and discussed how to best serve and minister to the parent who’s been left behind. It was a helpful time for both of us. Neither of us cried. But, had we gone much further, my sense is that we would have. And that would have been fine.

Crying and showing emotion with another person, or group of people, is one of those things that many of us want to be free to do—yet we often hold back. Why?

Often we hold back because we aren’t sure how others will respond to our pain and loss. We’re not sure if others are safe. We just don’t know, and the pain of our loss could be made worse by the insensitive comments and attitudes of others.

Is your small group a safe place to be open about pain and loss and grief? Are you safe people? If you lost a parent or a close friend could you be real about your struggle? If someone got fired from their job, would your group “go there” emotionally with the hurting person?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, ask yourself (and the others in your group) what it would take to become a place of genuine acceptance and real comfort? What sort of honest discussion needs to take place before you can get their? A small group doesn’t grow tight just because you meet together once per week. It takes intentional acts of authenticity. It takes the regular sharing of our stories—the good and the tough stuff.

One idea that many groups have found helpful is the personal timeline of positives and negatives. Here’s the idea: draw a timeline of your life that includes your three highest points and your three toughest things. We all have both. This activity helps the optimist engage with some of their challenging times, and it helps the pessimist recognize that they’ve enjoyed some good things too. This facilitates group members being honest about their joys and their pain. It also helps to hear the stories of others and know that they’ve dealt with “stuff” too.

This is not a personal baggage dump, rather honest engagement with our own fallenness and the daily battle we all face living in a fallen world.

Start the discussions now—before something tragic and deeply painful happens to someone in your group. Then you’ll be prepared, and your group will give someone the freedom to grieve.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Small Group Lesson from the World Champion San Francisco Giants

I’m a baseball fan. My team, the Detroit Tigers, didn’t make the playoffs this season so I was able to watch the postseason without a strong heart tug. I watched this year’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers with a genuine eye on the baseball being played.

It was a learning experience—in a small groups sort-of-way.

On Monday night, the Giants captured their first championship in 55 years beating the Rangers 3-1 thanks to a masterful pitching performance by ace Tim Lincecum.

The Giants rode their talented young pitching staff and a collection of castoffs and misfits to their first title since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. What does this have to do with small groups? Plenty!

The Giants have no one in their day-to-day lineup that would be classified as a superstar—maybe not even a star. (Unlike the Rangers who have Josh Hamilton, the likely American League Most Valuable Player.) In fact, seven of their eight position players in the Series-clinching win were either dropped or traded away by a previous team. Two were even released by their former clubs in midseason! The Giants, who were only in first place for 38 days all season, were truly a group that came together to accomplish something bigger than themselves.

Therein lies the lesson for small groups. This collection of misfits pulled together to achieve something that more gifted teams could not, winning their sports’ ultimate team prize. They weren’t the most talented team, or the most funded team, or the most high-profile team—yet they did something incredible!

Is your small group like the San Francisco Giants? Are you a group of spiritual misfits? Are you a collection of one-gift, low-profile Christians? Be encouraged. God can—and does—use groups like you to do amazing things. Need proof? Look at baseball’s newly-crowned champions.