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!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Three Keys to Processing a Tough Summer

Colorado has been a place of tremendous unrest this summer. That’s an understatement, actually. Colorado’s Front Range has been the location of great tragedy; with lives lost due to senseless violence (Aurora), and lives and homes lost to nature’s fury (Colorado Springs).

So, instead of talking about baseball, grilling brats, and enjoying family vacations, many in our community have been challenged to wrestle with deep, deep loss.

How can a small group community help bring some measure of healing? Allow me to suggest three primary ways:

1. Acknowledge Pain/Doubt/Fear/Etc.
At your next gathering, ask group members to open up about their personal heart-level engagement with whatever tragedy has impacted them. Talk about your struggles with each other. Discuss your doubt. Share your fears. Be honest!

It’s not natural to watch a beautiflul mountain range burn. It’s not normal for us to witness our homes, or those of our friends, on fire. It’s unfathomable to consider the local movie theater as the scene of real gunshots, and the death of friends, family, and co-workers.

This stuff is hard to comprehend. That's why everyone must begin by being honest with our wide spectrum of thoughts and emotions.

2. Read
Then, after you’ve gotten to the core of your thoughts and emotions, take some time reacquainting yourselves with what Jesus says about the tough stuff of life. Open God’s Word. Read it. Together.

Start with John 16:33. Hear the words of Jesus. Allow His words to provide much needed perspective on our sin-filled world.

“…I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Jesus tells us that we will have trouble. It’s not if trouble will invade our lives, rather when it will happen.

After Jesus gives us an honest assessment of our situation, He offers us something more important—hope in Him! He has overcome the doubt, pain, frustration, anger of life in a fallen world where gunmen kill innocent people and where beatiful homes catch fire. Jesus has overcome all the sin and death that we can fathom. And from His lips we hear, "But take heart!”

3. Pray
How can we “take heart”? Through prayer. We can do it by a posture of submission to the One who has overcome. We can bow our knee to our Lord. The Lord of Heaven and Earth. The sovereign God who we don’t fully understand and comprehend, yet trust with every aspect of our lives.

We can “take heart” by bringing our collection of messy thoughts, feelings, and emotions to Him. We can cry out to God in frustration. We can whisper to Him from a heart of worship.

This is a picture of you and I living out our faith in community. As we acknowledge the tough stuff of life, turn to God’s Word for perpsective, and submit to Him in prayer.

God, in turn, helps us to begin to overcome the things that rock our world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What Are You Reading?

The kid’s school year is coming to a close. That means the local public library is promoting their summer reading plans for kids of all ages.

That begs the question; what about the big kid in the mirror? Seriously, what’s on your reading list for the summer months?

It’s a question that all leaders ought to ask—whether you lead a ministry, a small group, a family—or all of the above. Not in a guilt-inducing, burden-imparting sort of way, rather in a way that communicates the significance of this life-giving discipline.

A rhythm of reading is critical for every Christ follower. Reading can bring tears to our eyes. Reading can cause a lump to well up in our throat. Reading can humble us, or cause us to rise up and praise our Heavenly Father. Reading stirs the mind and the heart. Reading can stretch our thinking and introduce us to new ideas.

Whether you’re reading a popular Christian living title, a Theological treatise, or the latest New York Times bestseller—reading is one disciple that every leader ought to consider a priority.

Developing your discipline of reading will benefit two important people/groups:

1. You
The Apostle Paul exhorted Christ followers to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). How can our mind be renewed if we are not consistently exposing it to what’s gone before (history)? Or to what’s happening today (contemporary culture)?

In his book, Practicing Greatness, author Reggie McNeal writes of the importance of spiritual leaders being exposed to fresh insights and ideas. “They are curious. They want new vistas. They want new conversations…Seeking out new ideas can be as simple as reading in a new subject or a new author.”

Reading also solidifies what you already know to be true. It causes you to more deeply engage with the things you already believe. How? It causes you to better understand the foundations of what you believe, and to have a solid argument for the things you don’t.

2. Your small group members
When you develop a rhythm of reading, your day-to-day conversations and interactions with friends will have more spice.

Consider for a moment someone you know who’s an expert on a specific subject; classic cars, World War II history, apologetics, etc. It’s easy to enjoy a conversation with someone about their field of interest because they’ve read and read and read some more about their subject. They’re expertise on the subject matter is invigorating.

Is this true of you? Do you bring new insights, thoughts, stories to your conversations because you’ve immersed yourself into a good book? Those you lead will be richer because they’ll get to sip from the cup you give them—having drunk deeply from the well of Scripture, theology, history, etc. Your scholarship has a direct impact on those you do life with in community.

So make time this summer to grab a good book, a comfy chair, a cool beverage—and read!

Note: My summer reading list includes: Your Church is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy by Eric Metaxas, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David Livermore, and The Batboy by Mike Lupica (with my son).

Monday, April 16, 2012

Are You Leading in Obedience?

Obedience is a word we adults rarely use when talking about ourselves. We’ll throw it around occasionally in the context of parenting, but rarely does it reach our lips when talking about our own lives or the lives of those within our small group.


Perhaps the issue of obedience sounds legalistic? Maybe it suggests we lack grace? I’m not entirely sure why it’s nearly extinct from the Christian’s vocabulary, but I believe it’s a word we ought to reintroduce.

Recently, I was reading through a portion of Psalm 119 and was struck by the Psalmist’s emphasis on obedience.
“This has been my practice: I obey your precepts.
You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words.”

Psalm 119:56-57

“I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands.”

Psalm 119:60
Certainly, I was already well aware of God’s call to faithfulness. Ye the depth of the Psalmist call to obedience caused me to think again.

Whatever ministry position we find ourselves in, whether it’s vocational or volunteer, our life must be marked by obedience—to God’s Word and obedience to the Spirit’s leading.

Obedience is not an option. It’s not something I can do later. It’s not just important for others. A life marked by obedience is for me. It’s for you. It’s for the Christ follower. It’s for those who serve God’s people in any capacity of spiritual leadership.

That’s why pastor, author, martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.”

So here are a few practical questions with which we must regularly engage: Am I living my own day-to-day life in obedience to God? Am I doing what God is asking me to do in serving fellow believers? Am I listening to the Spirit’s leading as I lead my small group?

Ask yourself these tough questions. Obedience cannot be overlooked.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Four Reasons Your Small Group Should Talk About Your Pastor’s Sermon

Fellow blogger Rick Howerton, whom I respect greatly as a leader in the small group movement, recently posted a blog detailing three things that a small group should not discuss—among them was the Pastor’s Sunday sermon. His reason? Gossip. I agree, if that’s where things inevitably turn.

However, I’m going to subtly disagree with my fellow small group apologist. Allow me to explain. While I am not a huge fan of a small group digging into the pastor’s message week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year, I do believe it can be a valuable tool for discussion and growth for a season of time. And I believe it can serve to challenge group participants in four very important ways. Here they are:

1. Consistency – There is an expectation that small group members are in church each weekend. Group discussion about the sermon provides a measure of accountability for everyone. Subsequently, if an individual or couple can’t make it on a given weekend, there is the expectation that you’ll grab the CD or listen to the podcast of the sermon. This keeps you up-to-date with the sermon series, and keeps you engaged with the direction the pastor is leading your congregation.

2. Focus – Many times, people are in church, but they’re not fully engaged. When a small group agrees to spend time talking about the pastor’s message, it requires a deeper level of commitment. Group members will likely listen more attentively, they’ll likely take notes, and they might even dig more deeply into Bible passages presented in the sermon.

There’s just something about knowing that your friends and peers are expecting to hear how God spoke to you through a message that ratchets up everyone’s ability to focus.

3. Deeper Understanding – When a pastor teaches, he often communicates much more than most of us understand at first. Certainly, he teaches the Biblical text. Also, he often teaches Theological truths and the vision of the church in subtle ways that support his Biblical teaching. When a small group discusses the message—including its subtleties—it helps small group members get a deeper grasp of the church’s beliefs and philosophy of ministry. Great stuff for any small group to process and discuss in community!

4. Application – One size does not fit all when it comes to personal application of a sermon. The Holy Spirit will instruct, guide, and lead you differently than He does another. That’s why it’s helpful to talk about the Spirit’s leading in your faith journey from your pastor’s Bible-based message. You might be led to respond with your heart, another with their hands, and another with their head in deeper intellectual pursuit. Processing these things in the context of community can help to refine and clarify your personal application.

To read Rick's original blog post go to: http://blogs.navpress.com/rickhowerton

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Are You Leading in Humility?

Recently, I had the privilege of gathering with other pastors from my area to watch a simulcast event where a small group of famous pastors engaged in thought-provoking dialogue. The event was called The Elephant Room. It’s the brainchild of Pastor James MacDonald.

The concept of The Elephant Room is to get influential pastors from different denominational and cultural contexts to a common table to discuss critical issues facing the church today.

MacDonald took plenty of heat from within the broad evangelical community for some of the guests he invited to participate. He didn’t back down.

What happened because of MacDonald's faithfulness, and lack of need to be liked by all of his peers, was something that will stay with me for a very long time. I witnessed genuine humility, respect, and honor, offered freely between pastoral peers.

It was stunning!

One prominent pastor inquired and inquired again about another’s Theological position on core doctrines—with respect. Another up-and-coming leader repeatedly submitted to the wisdom, maturity, and experience of other pastors involved, before sharing his own opinion and perspective.

The discussions were poignant. The issues were real. Opinions differed occasionally. Yet at the core of the entire day of dialogue was humility presented to one another in grace.

The thought that I couldn’t help but wrestle with was this; why does this sort of interaction seem to be the exception, not the norm, among church leaders?

Whether we lead a church of 10,000, a discipleship ministry, a Sunday school class, a small group, or our family—humility toward our peers (and those we serve) should be a hallmark of our leadership.

The tough question we must all ask; is humility a hallmark of my leadership?