Invite People Into a Journey, Not Just a Relationship

We often define the Christian life as a relationship. It’s a vital part of our theology and our language. We need a vertical relationship with God and horizontal relationships with others (ref., John 22:37-40; 1 John 1:3).

That’s absolutely true, but the Christian life is much more than that, and I believe we’ve inhibited our outreach and discipleship by communicating our faith only in relational terms (and through purely relational ministries).

In a January 2020 Christian Standard article, Don Wilson, said when he asks people, especially men, to make a decision to become Christ followers, “I ask them if they would like to begin an adventure with Jesus, rather than asking if they want a relationship with him.” (Wilson retired in 2017 as founding and senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, a multisite church in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, and he now co-leads Accelerate Group, a nonprofit organization created to encourage and support pastors and their wives.)

When I came across this sentence, I momentarily forgot I was supposed to be editing Don’s article. I read the sentence several times and then typed it into my notes program. It was like I just found a lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

Following Jesus is a journey we go on with Jesus. We get to experience the relationship as we travel along with him on a wild adventure.

New believers need to know this from the beginning. We need to change our language and the way we teach them about what being a Christian is all about.

Think about it. What did Jesus say to people when he first called them to be his disciples? “Come have a relationship with me?” No. He said, “Come, follow me.” He invited them into a journey with him toward a specific destination. He would make them into fishers of men. He would turn followers into people sent on a mission. He would transform them into leaders of his church. Quite the adventure!

It all happened in relationship, but it was about much more than that.

Relationship, fellowship, community—these things are the environment into which Christians are reborn and in which they learn, mature, transform, serve, lead, and share their faith with others. It’s the setting for the sojourn, the atmosphere for the adventure, the ecosystem for the expedition.

I’m changing the way I communicate the good news and discipleship. “Join me on an adventure with Jesus! You’ll never be the same.”

Make More Disciples by Making Less

As a small group leader, how many people do you think you can effectively lead, shepherd, and disciple? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? Let me ask this question another way: If you are to bear much fruit, fruit that will last . . . if you are to see true transformation of people’s lives . . . if you are to see people develop into leaders so that you are multiplying your leadership . . . into how many people can you invest your life? 

The World’s Greatest Small Group Leader formed a small team that would eventually change the world. But first, Jesus called two sets of brothers: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Three of these, Peter, James, and John, became Jesus’ inner circle, his Core Team. Jesus poured his life into these three men, investing into them and modeling a life surrendered to the Father for them. He took these three away with him to pray and heal, as well as when he was transfigured.[I] While Jesus did not ignore the other nine apostles or his other followers, he intentionally discipled these three and developed them into leaders. 

Jesus knew something vital about leadership, discipleship, and shepherding. No one—not even Jesus—can effectively lead, disciple, or shepherd more than about two or three people. Leading, discipling, and shepherding are based on close relationships in which the leader invests into the life of those he or she is leading. 

"No one—not even Jesus—can effectively lead, disciple, or shepherd more than about two or three people." Click To Tweet

For years, many churches have assumed that small groups or Sunday school classes or discipleship programs make disciples. Just get people into one of these, and voila, you’ve made disciples. But it doesn’t work that way. Small groups and other forms are simply the context or environment in which disciples can be produced. Disciples are made life on life. As Leroy Eims said, “It takes time to make disciples. It takes individual, personal attention. It takes hours of prayer for them. It takes patience and understanding to teach them how to get into the Word of God for themselves, how to feed and nourish their souls, and by the power of the Holy Spirit how to apply the Word to their lives. And it takes being an example to them of all of the above.”

Read that quote again. Study it. Reflect on it. Can you do those things by yourself with 10 or 12 people? How about five or six?

I’ve said it before: We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can’t mass-produce disciples!

The foundation of disciple-making is a one-on-one relationship. Discipleship is the personal relationship in which one believer pours his or her life out into another to help that person become more like Jesus. I think most people can make this kind of investment with at most two or three people at once. In the best circumstances, these two to three should be people within your small group. It does not make a lot of sense to be in one group for discipleship, another for fellowship, another for Bible study, and yet another where you serve together. That leads to burnout for everyone (and yet I’ve seen plenty of churches organized this way). 

"Discipleship is the personal relationship in which one believer pours his or her life out into another to help that person become more like Jesus." Click To Tweet

The small group is where you do life together, serve together in missional community, and discuss and apply the Bible together. It’s also a warm and welcoming place where you can invite friends who do not know Christ yet, where they can see the love portrayed in your community life and meet the One who makes it happen.

Within that larger small group, discipleship happens one-on-one or with two or three who may meet regularly for more intense Bible study, memorization, and personal application; prayer; confession; and accountability . . . or it may be a less formal relationship in which they meet regularly for coffee, talk on the phone and text one another, or whatever works best for those involved. It’s always intentional, but it doesn’t have to be “formal.”

In these subgroups, the two or three people are close confidants whom you trust. The relationships are more authentic and intentional than in the larger small group.

I’ve described in much more detail how this works in a healthy small group in my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership: How to Gather a Core Team and Lead from the Second Chair, and also in Chapter 3 of Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (both published by TOUCH Publications, www.touchusa.org). The foundation of the process is that the designated leader of the group must share leadership (that is, shepherding and discipling roles) with several others in the group. Each person on the core team takes responsibility for discipling one to three others. 

I’ve found that those whom have been discipled this way often turn around and disciple others, reproducing themselves again and again.

Jesus demonstrated a simple model we can use to make more and stronger followers, a model that can, and should, reproduce more disciples, more groups, and even more churches, just as Jesus intended.

"We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can't mass-produce disciples!" Click To Tweet

This post is adapted, in part, from Chapter 2 of The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership.

[i]While it seems that Andrew was not included as much in Jesus’ inner circle as the other three, he was included at least once when the two sets of brothers pulled Jesus aside privately to ask him some questions (Mark 13:4). Interestingly, when the Gospel writers listed the Twelve, Matthew and Luke list the brothers together: Peter and Andrew, then James and John. But Mark separates the sets of brothers, placing Andrew fourth on the list behind Peter, James, and John. In the listing of the eleven apostles in Acts 1:13, Luke places them in this order: Peter, John, James, and then Andrew. Is there any significance to this? We can only surmise, but the order of names in a list was usually very significant in Jewish culture.

20 “Bible Dialogue” Questions

Here’s a way you and your group can study the Bible without using a Bible-study guide. I developed these questions (some of which I picked up from other places) several years ago.

Read a section of Scripture (a chapter, for instance) together as a group. Be creative. Read in the round (one verse or sentence at a time) or have group members read in parts. Then ask some general questions to get people dialoguing around the text. Move from “what did you get” questions to “what will you do” questions. Here are a few possibilities. You might use only one or two of these kinds of questions in a study! Remember that follow-up questions are the best questions.

  1. What jumped out at you in this passage?
  2. What’s going on here? Summarize what’s happening.
  3. What did you notice here, maybe for the first time?
  4. Who are the main characters in this passage?
  5. What’s your favorite verse in this passage? Why?
  6. What’s your least favorite verse in this passage? Why?
  7. What do you think God is trying to communicate overall in this passage?
  8. If we were writing a sermon with three main points from this passage, what would be our three points?
  9. What did you sense the Holy Spirit saying to you?
  10. What example do you see here that you can follow?
  11. What commands do you see here that you need to obey?
  12. What thoughts do you find here about God himself?
  13. What promise(s) do you see here for you to claim?
  14. What principles do you see here that you need to accept?
  15. What can we learn as a group from this passage?
  16. In what verse or section do you sense God speaking directly to you?
  17. How will this passage affect your relationships this next week?
  18. What changes do you feel like you need to make based on this passage?
  19. So what? What are you going to do based on reading this?
  20. What is one specific thing from this passage that you would pray back to God? How would you word that prayer?

Safe or Dangerous?

One morning on the Christian radio station I usually listen to, a local pastor of the “church of the week” talked about the nature of the church. He said the teens from his congregation had written essays about the church, and all of them used the word safe in their descriptions. The pastor went on to say that this is an accurate portrayal of the church.

What do you think? Does safe describe the heart of Christ’s church?

Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. We do want people to feel like the church, and every small group within it, is a safe place. They will be accepted for who they are and where they are in life. They will not be attacked or abused.

On the other hand, God’s Word portrays a church that is dangerous. It’s in a war for the eternal destinies of humankind. It’s a place of surrender and sacrifice. Peace comes in the midst of all this, as we put our trust in Christ. We are eternally safe because of his suffering, but we are on the front lines of a battle every day.

I think that is the gist of what Jesus was trying to teach his followers in Matthew 10, when he sent out the twelve to do ministry. He told them, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

That does not sound very safe to me! It has always fascinated me that in this passage Jesus says he did not come to bring peace, and yet he is the Prince of Peace. He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Perhaps Jesus’ words in John 14:27 hold the secret for great small groups. The world defines peace as safety from trouble, but Christians know that in this world there will be trouble. Jesus has overcome the world, however. While difficulties and hardships will come, we do not have to let our hearts be troubled. As Christians, we do not need to seek safety and comfort. That is not the purpose of Christ-centered, kingdom-minded small groups. We seek the mind of Christ—his purpose, will, and peace in the midst of whatever may come our way.

As Christians, we have peace because we have Christ. He gives us life to the full in the midst of troubles.

-Michael C. Mack, World’s Greatest Small Group

Creating Authentic, Ground-breaking Communities

A big part of your role as a leader is to do everything you can to help develop an authentic, ground-breaking community! As a shepherd, what do you do to make this happen?

  • Pray regularly for and with the members of your group.
  • Keep in touch between meetings. Call, e-mail, visit.
  • Accept everyone, regardless of personality differences. Author John Ortberg makes this astute observation: “[Here’s] a deep theological truth: Everybody’s weird. Every one of us—all we like sheep—have habits we can’t control, past deeds we can’t undo, flaws we can’t correct.” *
  • Deal with conflicts up front. Don’t try to wish them away or pretend they aren’t there. For more help on this subject, see Pat Sikora’s book, Why Didn’t You Warn Me? (www.whydidntyouwarnme.com).
  • Stay positive. Group members sometimes tend to become negative—about other people, the church, you name it. Turn the tide as soon as you can. It seems like a lot of people complain and gossip, but very few people want to be in a negative group.
  • Focus on people, not the program. As Ralph Neighbor says, “The people in your group are the agenda!”**

Community is the environment in which everything else happens in a small group. It is the soil in which people grow spiritually.

From World’s Greatest Small Group by Michael C. Mack

Find out how to purchase copies of World’s Greatest Small Group.

*John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 18.

**Ralph Neighbour, Jr., The Shepherd’s Guidebook, rev. ed. (Houston, Texas: TOUCH Outreach Ministries, 1996), 67.

The Need for Accountability in Groups

CJ StephensGUEST POST by C.J. Stephens, Small Groups Minister at Northeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky

 

I hear the stories over and over again. They vary in subtle ways, yet they’re always about that person in your group—the one who seems to have everything together. Their life is going perfectly. Their family is great. They are making more money than they ever have. They love their job.

And then one day, out of the blue, their life falls apart.

It turns out that everything wasn’t as great as it seemed. Maybe they weren’t in such a great financial position. Maybe their marriage was a sham. Maybe the person was dealing with a secret sin.

I wish I could say this kind of thing never happens in our groups, that it never happens in our church. But it does, and each time, it breaks my heart. It can happen in your group, too, if your group lacks something critical: accountability.

Honestly, I hate accountability. I like to make plans. I like to come up with grand ideas about getting healthy or saving money. But I hate when someone holds me to those plans. I’d rather just make the plan and then give up on it whenever it becomes inconvenient for me.

Yet, I grow the most when I’m held accountable. This is true for your group as well. Your group will grow closer to each other and grow in their spiritual walks when they are being held accountable.

Cross the Line

The major barrier in our groups to accountability is an unwillingness to cross the line. You know the line—the line between comfortable, polite dialogue and discussions about touchy, sensitive topics in your life. So many of our groups never get past the surface level of life. They never move beyond the comfortable. Yet, it’s just across that line where we can ignite the most growth.

I want to give you a word of warning. It takes time and sensitivity to know when and where you can cross the line from casual friendship to speaking truth into someone’s life. The most important thing is that the person to whom you are trying to talk knows you are doing it out of a place of love. They need to know you have their best interests at heart. They need to know you are not meddling or teasing, but helping them in their walk with Christ.

Hold Them to It

Once your group is in a place where you can deeply speak into their lives, you need to consistently hold them accountable. I’ve been in groups in which people bring up the same relational troubles over and over. I know people who mention the same sin issues repeatedly and never seem to make any progress. How can we help those people move forward?

I’ve found one question to be helpful to you as a leader: “What steps are you going to take this week to change that?” It’s a deceptively simple question, but it has helped me enormously. It asks the person to do two things: make a plan to remedy the situation and get to work on it quickly. Let’s discuss each briefly.

Make a plan: Many of our problems never get solved because we never make a plan. By asking group members to make a plan to change, you are asking them to think more deeply about the situation and come up with a solution.

Get to work on it quickly—this week. Our nature is usually to let things go on and on without a solution simply because the solution is uncomfortable. By putting a timeline on the plan, it makes the problem immediate.

And here’s where the accountability comes in. The next time you see that person, ask him or her, “How’s that going?” This part is crucial. If you don’t check back with them, you aren’t holding them accountable. Check in on them. Bother them. Pester them until they start to make progress. Let them know you are on their side, but challenge them to find a solution.

If you love your friends, you’ll want them to grow. You’ll want to see them change. Love them enough to challenge them. Don’t wait until the problem blows up their life and they must then try to pick up the pieces. Keep your group accountable.

_____

This blog post originally appeared in “Leader Connect,” a newsletter for small group leaders at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

The 7 Indispensable Elements Necessary for People to Grow Spiritually in Your Small Group

The following post is excerpted from my new eBook, Small Group Leader Toolbox. See more information about this resource at the end of this post.

Just as a plant needs a number of specific elements in its environment in order to grow, Christians need at least 7 vital factors or influences to grow spiritually. Each of these plays a significant part in helping people mature in your small group. Be sure you know your place as a leader with these factors (for instance, you are not the agent of life change!).

Goal: Christlikeness

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Agent: The Holy Spirit

“God the Father chose you long ago, and the Spirit has made you holy. As a result, you have obeyed Jesus Christ and are cleansed by his blood” (1 Peter 1:2).

“But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23).

Method: Shepherding

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care …” (1 Peter 5:2).

Environment: Authentic Biblical Community

“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).

Means: By the renewing of our minds

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

“For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13).

Instrument: Application of Scripture

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

Time Frame: Lifetime Process

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

Question: How have you seen these factors at work in how people are growing spiritually in your group? Please scroll down and click to comment.

Small Group Leader ToolboxI wrote Small Group Leader Toolbox to provide small group leaders with the resources they need to help them and their groups be effective, grow spiritually, and live out God’s mission for them. This 54-page eBook provides scores of ideas, tips, checklists, how-to’s, assessments, planning templates, and, well … pretty much everything a leader needs to lead a dynamic small group or class.

Get your copy of this eBook now!

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25 Tips for Dealing with Politics in Your Small Group

How do you discuss politics civilly in such a politically charged culture?

Or should you even try?

Your group members may debate whether you should even talk about politics in small group meetings. Some would maintain that this could fracture a good group. Here’s my take: your group should be a great place to discuss politics IF you handle it well. Here are 25 important principles:

  1. Before you begin discussing politics, consider the spiritual and emotional maturity of your group members, as well as your group as a whole. As a shepherd leader, you should be able to gauge where people are and if they can follow the rest of these principles in a discussion.
  2. Before entering into the discussion, set the ground rules. Use some or all of the following as your basis for what and how you will discuss.
  3. Pray that God will lead this discussion and do what only he can do to use it for your good and his glory.
  4. Agree on how you will relate to one another. The following 12 New Testament guidelines provide some of the most important relational principles for any group discussion.
  5. Clothe yourselves in humility toward one another and each other’s positions and opinions (1 Pet. 5:5).
  6. Love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Pet. 1:22). Love covers over a multitude of political positions.
  7. Be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50) and live in harmony with one another (1Pet. 3:8). This is a decision of the will you make before any discussion, especially a political one.
  8. Honor one another above yourselves, and above your own political opinions (Ro. 12:10).
  9. Be patient, bearing with one another, and one anther’s political views, in love (Eph, 4:2).
  10. Accept one another, regardless of political views, just as Christ accepted each of you (Ro. 15:7).
  11. Be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32).
  12. Do not slander one another (Col. 3:9). And while you’re at it, don’t slander the other person’s candidate or political party.
  13. Do not grumble against each other or each other’s candidate (Jas. 5:9).
  14. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people (2 Tim. 2:24; see Prov. 17:14, 19).
  15. Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another (Col. 3:13).
  16. Pray for each other so that you (as Christ’s body) may be healed (Jas. 5:16).
  17. As you discuss issues, look at the larger context/perspective, that is, God’s story as revealed throughout Scripture.
  18. Discuss: What is the role of human government in God’s story? (Study Romans 13—all of it; don’t stop at verse 7—as a basis for this dialogue.)
  19. You may need to talk about the overall context of God’s story. What is it? It’s a story of redemption, so how is government part of or not a part of that story?
  20. As people turn to discuss/present specific issues, candidate and party positions, and their own ideas/opinions, always go back to Scripture to see what it says about these issues. The Bible, not a group member’s or politician’s opinion, is always your standard!
  21. If (when) group members turn the discussion toward a politician’s unethical, immoral, or illegal behaviors or words, turn the discussion toward Biblical principles for these issues. Use some of these as follow up questions: * God seeks leaders after his own heart (King David – 1 Sam. 13:14). In a secular government, how does that apply? * Let’s talk about us. The Bible says we’re all ministers/ambassadors for God (2 Cor. 5:18-20), so what importance does morality and ethics have for us? * We know God is sovereign; in other words, he’s in control in how his story unravels over time. How can we view the current political climate and what this election might mean from a big-picture point of view?
  22. Talk about the biblical role of government in today’s society that has become increasingly secular in a world that’s winding down toward Jesus’ coming.
  23. Discuss: How has God used secular government in the past to carry out his story/mission? How is he working today in and through government?
  24. View your discussion, even debate, as an opportunity to grow spiritually, not to make a point.
  25. Utilize this discussion as an opportunity to model for our culture what real hope, peace, love, and unity look like even when we disagree about issues.

God has a vision for your small group that is part of his grand story and is bigger, way bigger in fact, than current politics. Don’t let Satan divide you through what in the overall scheme of things amount to side issues.

Your group can bring glory to God and his kingdom by the way you relate to him, one another, and the world … by his power.

And that’s HUUUUGE!

How is your group dealing with politics? Get in on the discussion by clicking the comments box below!

Small Group Leader TIPS of the Week: August 22-26, 2016

Here are the Small Group Leader TIPS for the last week as Tweeted, posted on our Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

This week’s TIPS focus on discipleship in small groups.

 

QUESTIONS: (1) There are two mistakes in this week’s TIPS (same mistake in 2 posts). Can you find them? (2) Which of these are the first you need to change in your group? How will you do that? Please share your responses by clicking the Comment box below.

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS here!

Is Your Small Group (or Church) Ready to Go Underground?

What will happen to the church and to small groups if (or when) it becomes illegal for Christian ministers to publicly hold up biblical values? What if your testimony became “hate speech”? These are the questions Francis Chan addresses in this three-and-a-half-minute video. The video, I believe, is actually misnamed. While politics is the backdrop of his comments here, Chan’s focusing on the church being the church it’s supposed to be. Take a look:


Francis Chan on Politics from Nate Hanson on Vimeo.

The church that Jesus imagined and founded, the one that is at its purest state, the church the early believers developed and grew under God’s guidance, was an empowered church. God empowers leaders who empower others who continue empowering generation after generation of Christ followers to share the simple and life-changing message of the gospel.

I’d like to think, and I pray it’s true, that if church buildings were closed and church leaders were jailed, the church would not only keep going but would become better and stronger.

It’s sad to me that it would take those kinds of extreme measures to get us to do what we were suppose to be doing in the first place. 

Perhaps we need to stop fighting so much for our “rights” and start empowering others and proclaiming the gospel as we should. Let’s start with prayer, recognizing God’s power, presence, and purposes. May his will be done!

In our small groups and churches, it’s time to share leadership! This is one of the 7 signs of a healthy small group and the one that is the biggest catalyst for a group growing, bearing fruit, and reproducing itself. (See Chapter 3 of Small Group Vital Signs.) It’s time to empower everyone in our groups and churches and to share ownership with every person.

Is your church and your small group ready to go underground? What are you doing to prepare? 

MORE ON THIS TOPIC

10 Stupid Things That Are Keeping Your Small Group from Growing
The Fool’s Gold of Group Discipleship: 6 Small Group Elements Easily Mistaken for the Real Thing
Seven Steps to Share the Leadership of Your Group