What Keeps Us from the Mission

Last week Andy asked me an interesting question: “How far should we go in getting involved with non-Christians?” Andy and I are in a men’s group together and we were sitting in a coffee shop talking about people we meet in coffee shops, among other places, co-workers, and others we come in contact with.

My response sprung from my lips: “Exactly as far as Jesus would go.” Andy seemed satisfied with that answer.

Jesus came onto our turf. Take a moment and think about this: A holy, perfect God took on human flesh and entered a very corrupt, sin-full, unholy environment. He came onto our turf to save us. Then, once here, he never backed down from an opportunity to get involved with messy people–people he wasn’t “supposed to” associate with: a Samaritan woman, a tax collector, an adulterous woman, a government ruler, just to name a few. In fact, he became known to many as a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners'” (Matthew 11:19).

I can think of two main reasons Christians shy away from getting too close with non-Christians: (1) fear that we’ll ruin our reputations and (2) fear that the ungodly will persuade us to compromise our faith in some way.

As I read the gospels, I don’t see Jesus ever worried about his reputation; that is, what others thought of him. The Pharisees certainly were concerned about this, so much so that Jesus often called them out on this. Jesus ate and drank with the people whom the religious leaders detested and rejected. After calling the tax-collector Matthew to be one of his followers, Jesus had dinner with his new ministry partner and a bunch of his “sinner” friends. The Pharisees were beside themselves: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” they asked.

Jesus’ response is classic. It sums up what he was and is all about: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. … For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).

But what about compromise? This is the one we are often warned to be very careful about.

Jesus never changed his way of ministering to the downcast because he was afraid of his position being compromised. (As God himself, it seems his reputation was much more at stake than ours!)
The Bible doesn’t say Jesus merely ministered to messed-up people or talked to them once in a while – he was their friend! Yet he did not enter into their sinful ways. You and I need to follow the model of Christ and be a friend to the very same kind of people – regardless of what people might think.

Don’t forget that we have the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We are called to be an influence on the world around us. We can choose to be an influence, to be influenced, or to hide out in our comfy, safe living rooms and do nothing. The latter option would be to purposely disobey the commission Jesus gave us to go and, like him, to enter the turf of those who God loves so much.

Jesus compromised nothing. In fact, it is we who compromise the gospel when we hide in our churches and homes afraid to reach out to the “sinners” in our world. We compromise when we won’t go onto their turf. We cannot expect them to come to us at first – we must go where they are, just as Jesus did.

It’s Not About Small Groups!

Recently, I was commenting on a discussion on the Small Group Churches site about why small group ministries sometimes fail in churches. The author of the original post, +Andrew Mason, suggests three very good reasons this happens, but I believe there may be one big overarching reason.
I’ve seen many churches start small group “programs” like any other program in the church, but they fail to see that small groups are different. Small group community is really the environment where we carry out the mission Jesus gave us. As we go to make disciples and teach those disciples how to follow Jesus, our groups are the context for that to happen. 1 Corinthians 13 comes to mind. Where there are programs, they will fail; where there are man-made institutions, they will cease; where there are strategies and plans of human design, they will pass away. But authentic community (love) never fails.

I think there is a mindset change that happens in successful ministries, a change in how we think about small groups. I believe that effective churches look first at how they will reach and teach followers of Jesus and then they look at the best contexts for that to happen.


Healthy Groups Are a Community for the Community
Your Small Group Can Be a Fireplace (but it’s not the fire)

Healthy Groups Are a Community for the Community

Some churches call their small groups that meet in homes “Community Groups.” I like that name for two important reasons: (1) the name reveals where authentic Christian community takes place and (2) it indicates that these groups are a primary vehicle for the church reaching into its community.

Small groups are (or at least should be) places where friends are made and grown, where the New Testament one anothers are lived out. They are environments where intimacy and trust and accountability grow. They are the body of Christ in action.

They are also an essential way for the church to reach into the community, as each person and group reached its oikos – the Greek term meaning household with an applied meaning of a person’s or group’s web of relationships or sphere of influence. 

In fact, I believe these kinds of groups are far more than just a “vehicle” for “First Church of Anywhere” to use to carry out its mission. These missional groups are the church, as the Bible defines it. Like the New Testament churches that met in homes (see Acts 8:3; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2), these churches work together within the larger church (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Revelation 1:11, for example) to build God’s Kingdom.

Healthy, missional, Christ-centered small groups carry out Christ’s commission for his church: to go into the world around us and make disciples, baptizing them, assimilating them into Christ’s body – both spiritually and relationally – and teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded us. 


How Your Small Group Can (Must) Partner with God
Reconciliation: the Heart of Small Groups
Healthy small group leaders are friends with non-Christ-followers
Leading from the Heart, Chapter 7: “A Heart of Reconciliation”

Small Group Vital Signs, Vital Sign #6: “A Healthy Group Ministers to Others”

How Your Small Group Can (Must) Partner with God

“God’s work is accomplished by a combination of human and divine effort, said one of my seminary professors, Dr. Joe Ellis. “We cannot do it without Him; He has ordained not to do it without us. We depend on each other.”¹

I love this quote. I’m amazed by the reality that we actually get to partner with God in his mission to redeem the people he loves and desires to draw to himself. But we often err by either taking on the assignment ourselves as if it’s our mission, not his, or irresponsibly sitting on the sidelines believing God will carry out the mission without us. With either extreme, we miss out on being partners with God. It’s a human-divine collaboration.

More often than not, I think, we err on the side of leaving God out of it. “Sometimes the voice of Jesus saying, ‘I will build my church,’ can hardly be heard amid the babble of human voices affirming, ‘We will build the church. Our plans, our organizations, our resources will accomplish it, and we will have it the way we want it,'” Ellis wrote. “God is sometimes boxed out of His own enterprise by His self-centered and self-sufficient partners.”²

Does that happen in your small group? Do you ever move forward with a plan of your own volition? Chances are you have. I hope this is not your regular pattern, however. I believe there are two vital things your group–and you as a leader–must do in order to partner with God:

  1. Pray. The key factor is prayer. Prayer puts the power of ministry where it belongs: in God’s hands. Evangelism without prayer has been compared to explosives without a detonator. Prayer without evangelism is said to be like a detonator without explosives.
  2. Plan. I speak about the importance of planning in Chapter 4 of Small Group Vital Signs, so I won’t try to discuss it at length here. But I’ve found that many groups are more reactive than proactive. And when you live by default rather than design, I believe you tend to go with your gut rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit. Plan how you will partner with God and collaborate with him in his mission and specific calling for your group. 
As a group, never forget that you are Christ’s ambassadors; you are the body of Christ in action. You are more than just a “small group”! You are God’s chosen people–partners with the most high creator of the universe! 

¹ Joe Ellis, The Church on Target (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1986), 34.
² ibid., 30.

Hanging Out with Fellow Small Group Ministry Practitioners: August 2013

The topic for our August 1 Small Group Ministry Practitioners Hangout was “Training leaders to be shepherds to their little flock.” How do you train them? What do you teach? Great discussion; we all learned a lot from one another. +Jay Daniell+Josh Hunt+Emil Kerekes+Jonathan Jordan+Adam Workman+Brandon Boyd, and I participated this month. Here are a few highlights.

We started by discussing how to train leaders how to shepherd group members. I began the discussion with a quote from Ralph Neighbour: 

The Shepherd never says, “I will tend the flock on Wednesday evenings from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m.” No! The Shepherd lives with the flock, sleeps in the fields with the flock, goes into treacherous situations to find a lost sheep, and carries the lambs in his arms. The Shepherd is the first one to go into the “valley of the shadow of death” to lead sheep to “green pastures.” (Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr., The Shepherd’s Guidebook, rev. ed. [Houston, Texas: TOUCH Outreach Ministries, 1996], 34.)

This led us to discuss any differences or similarities between what we mean by “shepherding” and “discipling.” I think we all agreed that shepherding, or investing into the people in your group, is a key method for disicipling them. 
One of the key components of shepherding people is learning to listen to them. +Adam Workman told how he takes time in this training to teach leaders how to listen. A good reference for this is the book, Are You Really Listening?: Keys to Successful Communication, by Paul J. Donoghue and Mary E. Siegel. 
Workman also shared his church’s 9-week strategy for training leaders–new and veterans–and launching new groups. I love the strategic thinking for a leadership pathway that develops leaders, launches groups, and then promotes those groups to the congregation. 
Another very interesting dynamic we discussed was the pathway +Jay Daniell discussed: Seeker -> Student -> Servant -> Shepherd. 
It’s difficult to summarize everything we discussed, but if any other participants care to add anything, please do so! 
Our next Small Group Ministry Practitioners Hangout is September 5, 3:00 p.m. (eastern time). This Hangout will be “on air,” meaning it will be recorded as a public video and will be available on Mike Mack’s YouTube channel. Go to my Google+ page at +Mike Mack or my page at +Small Group Leadership to find out more. 
Our topic for September: How are you and/or your small groups using social media in groups? included in this conversation will be: Are groups using social media (i.e. Hangouts) as the primary way they meet? If so, how? Do groups use social media to touch base throughout the week? How so?
I’m also planning for October and beyond. In October or another month in the future, we will ask Josh Hunt to lead a discussion about how to train leaders to lead dynamic discussion. I’m also looking for other topics you’d be interested in discussing. Please comment below with any ideas you have. 

Reconciliation: the Heart of Small Groups

Do you remember the first time you were invited to a small group? I do. I had visited Centerville Christian Church in Dayton, Ohio, and met a few people my age. (I was 28 and single at the time, and was shopping for a church. I had not yet fully given my life to Christ.) They invited me to their group, and I noticed that some of them were single and others were married, but that didn’t matter; they all seemed to have a strong desire to grow in the Lord, and they really cared about each other. And, besides that, they were fun to be around!

I remember especially how it felt to be invited. I felt like they wanted me to be part of their group, to be a friend. One of the greatest human needs is the need to be wanted, to be included in the lives of others. I also felt cared about. They were genuinely concerned about my spiritual life. Unlike some other churches I had visited, I didn’t feel like a “spiritual conquest” among these Christians. They cared about me as a person and I felt like they wanted to be my friend. And that made all the difference in the world to me.

Like those friends from my first group, we have a great privilege to invite people to our small groups, especially when they do not yet know Jesus as Savior and Lord. But remember, it is God who is doing the calling. In John 12:32, Jesus said he would draw all men to himself. God had already been drawing me to himself when I first showed up the group. He had used relatives and co-workers, friends, even an ex-girlfriend’s wonderful grandmother to move me toward himself. That small group was sensitive to the Spirit’s moving and invited someone to their group whom Jesus was already drawing. I was God’s invited guest to their group; they were simply the people who got to extend the invitation!

NEXT POST: How to Partner with God …
This post is adapted from my book, Leading from the Heart: A Group Leader’s Guide to a Passionate Ministry (TOUCH Publications).

More Posts on This Topic:

Wanted: Authentic Small Group Leaders (Arm-Chair Theologians and Lone Rangers Need Not Apply)

Are you an authentic small group leader? 

If we as small group leaders say we should all be witnesses yet do not do so ourselves, this hypocrisy teaches people to be disobedient. It gives the message, “I say you should share your faith, but I do not really mean it because, as you can see by my actions, I don’t really do it.”

People in churches have become very accustomed to “Do what I say, not as I do” thinking. When leaders model that kind of hypocrisy in the group, it turns the group inward and brings about a sickness that is difficult to overcome.

We do not need any more armchair theologians as small group leaders (or as church leaders, for that matter)! We do not need people who talk good ministry but never do it. We need doers of the Word, men and women of action – action spurred on by God’s call on their lives. We desperately need leaders who model reconciliation and a witnessing lifestyle.

People will respond when they see their leaders committed in action to disciple making. Leaders like this will redefine the norm. Small groups need leaders like this because small groups themselves must become centers of outreach rather than inward cliques. For the most part, the days of lone-ranger evangelism are over. Individuals are not usually charged to fulfill the Great Commission themselves. Evangelism belongs to small groups who team up to use their collective gifts to impact the world around them. The small group shepherd-leader who has God’s heart of reconciliation will develop a lifestyle that puts compassion for lost sheep primary over the distractions in life.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to focus on what it will take to make our groups more focused on the harvest. I’ll tell you this: it’s going to take some paradigm changes! 

This post is adapted from my book, Leading from the Heart: A Group Leader’s Guide to a Passionate Ministry (TOUCH Publications).

How and When to Launch a Small Group: The Role of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, Laundry Rooms, Swimming Pools, and Game Nights

Right after Heidi and I got married, we moved into a forty-unit apartment building. We wanted to start a small group to reach out to the people who lived there who did not have a relationship with God, but we had no idea how to start one. So I asked Glen, a minister at the church we attended, how we should proceed.

“I don’t think you should do a group yet,” he said. “Build some friendships with the people first, pray for the people there, and then ask some of those friends to a small group when the time seems right.”

“But how will we know when the time is right?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Just pray. The Holy Spirit will let you know,” he said.

That wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for. My pragmatic nature wanted a specific date and time and a 10-point list of how to’s. But we did what Glen suggested – making friends, praying, looking for the Spirit to move. We found out where people liked to hang out, and hung out with them: at the swimming pool, at one another’s apartments, in the front lobby. We looked for opportunities to build friendships as we rode the elevator, did laundry, and helped people who were moving in. We went to various parties and game nights at others’ apartments. We drank our diet cokes while they drank their beers and partook in a variety of other mood-enhancing substances – and we found we got better at the games as the night progressed! We asked them about themselves, listened to them, loved them, and did not judge them. But we lived as Christians before them.

A year and a half later we were still befriending, praying, and watching. I thought Glen was crazy. We wondered if the Holy Spirit would ever “let us know.” Then one evening Sherry, the apartment building manager, stopped me. She told me that Sigma, who lived in the building with her boyfriend, Vic, had been approached by a member of a cult and invited to attend a Bible study with them. Sherry asked me to talk to Sigma about this cult.

Sigma and about six other people from our building were sitting around a table by the swimming pool. I told Sigma what I knew and answered her questions. In the midst of our conversation, a longhaired guy who wore black AC-DC T-shirts and sometimes smelled like marijuana said, “Why don’t we just start our own Bible study here?”

Someone else chimed in, “Yeah, we can meet at my apartment, and I’ll make snacks.” Someone else said, “or we could meet at different people’s apartments each week. We could invite other people from the building too!”

Then Sherry looked at me and said, “This sounds great, but we need someone who knows about the Bible to lead this … Mike, would you lead it?”

I don’t know. The I’m still waiting for the Holy Spirit to let me know …  The thought only lasted a second. 

I said yes and then sat back in my chair and let them plan the whole thing. A week later we started a study on the basics of Christianity. First Vic came to Christ. I baptized him in the apartment building’s swimming pool early one Sunday morning, waking up half the building when Vic let out a whoop as he entered the cold water. Sigma gave her life to Christ later on. Eventually everyone in that group turned their lives over to Jesus as Savior and Lord, some after we had moved away from the building.

Never forget that “your” small group is God’s endeavor, for which we as leaders have the privilege of being His ambassadors. Nothing of real significance is ever accomplished in a small group apart from God’s leading and power. If we will allow Him to work and trust in His timing, He will surprise us every time! 

I first wrote about this story in Chapter 6 of Leading from the Heart: A Group Leader’s Guide to a Passionate Ministry

Small Group Fireplaces #5: Prayer Produces Growth

Provide the right environment, and growth happens.

For my four children–all now teens and young adults–growth is natural. As long as their mom and I provided the right conditions–good nutrition, a safe environment, opportunities for exercise, as well as schooling, spiritual disciplines, the power of example, and so forth–we knew growth would be automatic. Lack of growth would have meant something was terribly wrong.

The early church grew and grew and grew. Growth was natural for them because all the conditions for growth were right. They were the body of Christ, and that body was, and is, made to grow. The Book of Acts shows what those conditions were. Acts 2:42-47 summarizes the rest of the book; they were a learning, worshiping, praying, sharing, unselfish church. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

It’s fascinating to see how often prayer is mentioned through Acts. The disciples joined together constantly in prayer (1:14). In fact, there was a regular time of prayer at 3 p.m. (3:1). Luke records the powerful prayer of the believers and reports that the place where they were meeting was shaken and then the believers began to preach the word of God boldly (4:23-31). And, of course, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God in prison (16:26).

When we pray, we are taking things out of our own hands and putting them in God’s hands. It is God’s power, not our own strength that will build His church.

Do you want your group(s) to grow? Do you want to fulfill Jesus’ commission for you? Do you want to reach people who do not know Jesus? Do you wish to see real transformation? None of this will happen without prayer. 
It’s time to pray! 

This is #5 in a series I’m calling “Small Group Fireplaces.” Read the first four here:
Your Small Group Can Be a Fireplace (but it’s not the fire)
Small Group Fireplaces Series: #2 – Leaders Pray
Small Group Fireplaces Series: #3 – Groups Pray