What if Everything We’ve Always Believed About Small Groups Was Wrong?

What if everything we’ve always believed about small groups was wrong?

What if we have it all backwards?

What if the model for discipleship is actually something other than sitting in a circle, answering an icebreaker, studying the Bible (hook, book, look, and took) or watching a DVD, and taking prayer requests?

What if we were to go and make disciples (or, more accurately, make disciples as we go) in community rather than meeting in someone’s living room?

What if we were to teach people to obey everything Jesus commanded us, rather than just teaching them curriculum material?

What if our model looked more like Jesus’ (ministering first and then debriefing, taking advantage of teachable moments to learn)?

Just wondering. What do you think?

A Sense of Us

There are some biblical principles that are as true for small groups as for marriages, teams, partnerships, or any kind of enterprise where two or more are involved. One of the most important principles is “a Sense of Us.”

A Sense of Us means …

  • Us is always more important than me.
  • Us always makes me better.
  • There is no us without me.
  • The personality of each me makes the us … well, us.
  • Us is more than just the aggregation of more than one me.
  • A healthy marriage does not really begin and end with me, and neither do healthy groups or teams.
  • Oh, and most importantly, there is no possibility of us without Him.

And here are the10 Commandments of Us:

  1. Consider us as better than me.
  2. Bring all your me to us.
  3. Never allow me to get lost in us, but …
  4. Look not only to the interests of me, but also to the interests of us.
  5. Do not hold tightly to the rights of me.
  6. Think about us, not only me.
  7. Love us.
  8. Be an encourager of us.
  9. Build up us.
  10. Look for how God will use us to reach another me.

Training Group Members

I saw this video recently on Alan Danielson’s YouTube page and it got me thinking about training small group participants how to be productive members of a healthy, growing group. (By the way, if you’ve never read it, check out Alan’s Triple-Threat Leadership blog here.)

How would you help your group members live in authentic community? One thing I occasionally do is bring a list of some of the New Testament one another commands to the group and have them evaluate the group on a 1-5 scale on each one. Get a pdf copy of the evaluation here.

At Northeast, we give each new group member a copy of Randall Neighbour’s little handbook, Community Life 101. Randall wrote it to help members, as the subtitle says, get the most out of their small group experience. The fact is, people enter a group with all kinds of expectations, which may or may not have anything to do with the biblical values that make groups thrive (and many of which are totally self-centered). Community Life 101 helps our group members catch the biblical values that make groups great.

When group members live out the biblical values for community, groups grow and naturally multiply.

So what values, principles, and topics would you “teach” to your small group members? Share them by leaving a comment below.

Small Group Charades

Tonight we began our small group meeting playing a game of charades as an icebreaker. Guys vs. girls. Girls won. Lots of laughing. Good times. Then we discussed three Scripture passages, looking at them to answer the question, “Why do we meet as a small group?” Read through these yourself, reflecting on that same question for your group:

Hosea 6:6 (The Message)

I’m after love that lasts, not more religion. I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.

Amos 5:21-24 (The Message)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

Isaiah 1:13-17 (The Message)

“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.”

Then we discussed three simple questions:

  1. What does God not want?
  2. What does God want? What is He pleased with?
  3. What can we learn from these Scriptures as we plan for our group life this fall?

We had a great discussion that moved us to action. Now here’s my own application:

God is not pleased with us just because we show up at a small group meeting or a weekend service. That’s why small groups must be more than just a meeting. A healthy small group is about loving God and one another, including those outside our groups. A healthy small group is about living for God and carrying out Christ’s mission, not just a weekly meeting. And a healthy small group is about justice and mercy for outsiders, not just another meeting for insiders. A healthy small group is real people in real relationships making a real difference. They don’t play small group charades.

I love how Warren Wiersbe put it in his Bible Exposition Commentary of the Old Testament: “No matter how many people attend religious meetings [small groups], if the result is not obedience to God and concern for our neighbor, the meetings are a failure.” 

What do you think?

Is Our Group Healthy or Unhealthy?

I received a good question from one of our small group leaders today. I think this is a critical question that many leaders and groups are asking:

What are the top 3 things a healthy small group should be doing? Shouldn’t it be more than just social, or just project driven?

Here’s my response:

Below are the top 7 hallmarks of a healthy small group. Note that the first 4 deal with how a group should be focused and organized, and the last 3 deal specifically with what they should do.

  1. Christ-Centered: Jesus is the real group leader. Life Groups meet in his presence and power and for his purposes. (Matthew 18:20)
  2. Healthy, Growing Leaders: The Life Group Leader is growing in his or her faith by being involved in daily disciplines such as Bible study and prayer. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
  3. Core Team: The group is led by a Core Team of 2-4 members who share leadership. No one leads alone. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
  4. Goals & Plans: The group has a written “Action Plan” that includes a mission, goals, expectations, ground rules, etc. (Proverbs 16:3)
  5. Connecting with One Another in Authentic Biblical Community: The group meets regularly & consistently, does life together outside of meetings, and regularly prays for and ministers to one another. Group members participate in a role (shared ownership). (Acts 2:42-47)
  6. Knowing God: Group members are intentionally being discipled. The group engages regularly in Bible study and application. (Colossians 2:6-8)
  7. Serving Others: Christ’s mission (Matthew 28:18-20) is the Life Group’s mission. The group regularly prays for their lost friends and is sharing their faith with others. The group is intentionally open to new people. The group is serving others together and/or individually (or has a plan to do so if the group is new). (Colossians 4:5-6)

The Result (a.k.a. “fruit”) of a Healthy Small Group is a group that is …

  • Growing
  • Reaching Out
  • Reproducing

A Life Group (what we call our small groups at Northeast) by definition is (5) connecting with one another, (6) growing in their relationships with God (through a variety of means including study and application of the Word), and (7) serving others (which includes being open to new people). I think a healthy Life Group strikes a balance between those three things over time.
But don’t overlook #1. It is the most important one. A healthy, life-changing group focuses primarily on Jesus. The group focuses on Him and His real presence with them when they meet. It’s His power that transforms lives, brings healing to hurting people, and moves a group to make an impact on others. And a group MUST be all about His purposes and plans for them. The most unhealthy groups are all about their own individual ideas, plans, and expectations for the group. A healthy group is people in community who have surrendered their own agendas to Jesus’.
Sounds like maybe your group is not agreeing on what your purpose is? The answer is this: What is Jesus calling your group to be and do? The answer is no big secret or mystical riddle. Jesus told us why we exist in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

O God … or Yea God?

Your attitude as a leader is a vital to the health of your small group. That’s why your daily time with God is so important. It’s the starting point for leading from the heart.

It’s way too easy for a leader to fall into an “O, God …” attitude. O, God, these people aren’t really growing. O, God, why are we not serving more? O, God, why don’t we sense your presence? O, God, why is this group not growing in numbers?

I’ve witnessed this attitude in many leaders and many groups over the years, and I’ve seen this negativity frustrate and hinder a group from growing. Let me clarify … Yes, as leaders, we must be taking our concerns before God and surrendering them to Him. Yes, as shepherds, we must be aware of and concerned for the people entrusted to us. However, we cannot allow ourselves to turn negative. As a shepherd-leader, I need to allow God to work in His own way and in His own timing, surrendering what I think. When I start thinking negatively, I can miss the spiritual growth that is happening, perhaps below the surface. Spiritual maturity is extremely hard for humans to measure.

Our calling is to plant seeds, water, cultivate, and let God bring the growth and fruit. This is important! As leaders we must learn what is our role and what is God’s and not get the two confused!

The attitude of healthy, effective leaders is “Yea God!” Learn to celebrate what God is doing in and through your group and church. Be ready often to encourage even the baby steps you see. Don’t push for people to change. Just plant the seeds, cultivate them, and surrender their growth to God. He’s the only one who can really make things grow.

When you pray together take more time to praise God and thank Him for what He is doing in your group. Change the attitude of your group to proclaiming often, to one another and to those outside your group, “Yea God!”

Transcendence in Healthy Groups

One key to a healthy small group has to do with transcendence–an understanding that some things in life are bigger than yourself, like God, values, an organization’s mission, policies, the community, etc. This transcendence affects a small group in at least two ways:

First, the leader and the whole group must realize that what is truly transcendent in the group is God. He is the actual leader of the group. A healthy group meets around the presence of Christ and for his purposes and with his power. A healthy leader and a healthy group bow the knee to Christ and his mission for the group.

That leads to the second transcendent value: No one individual in a group is transcendent. The group does not revolve around one person and his or her needs, desires, issues, or personality. A healthy group agrees together on an “Action Plan” and lives by it. The group’s goals and plans begin with God’s purposes for the group, birthed out of prayer, and become transcendent for the members of the group.

The next time a group member asks, “Why don’t we do this or that?” (translation: “We should do it MY way.”), you can point to the group’s plans and goals and respond, “This is who we are.” The needs of the whole group–the community–and its values and mission are transcendent.

A person who thinks the group revolves around him can bring down the whole group. I’ve seen it happen many times. Don’t let it happen. Remember what is transcendent in your group.

Summer Small Groups: Some’re Here, Some Aren’t

What is your small group doing this summer? Did you know that summer can actually be the BEST time for small groups? It’s a great time to get outside together, serve together, do more socially together, play together, learn some new things together. What’s the key word here? That’s right … together! Here are some ideas:
  • Pull out your calendars now to plan when you will and won’t meet over the summer.
  • Make a commitment to one another to be there whenever possible.
  • Go on trips together: camping, vacation, etc.
  • Lighten up the Bible study for the summer and do some devotional stuff together.
  • Do more Bible do’s rather than Bible studies.
  • Meet on the deck, back porch, or at a park.
  • Study the one another passages from the New Testament over the summer, and do each of them in a creative way. (A group I led did this one year. We rotated homes and whoever hosted planned the “one another” study and application. One week we served one another by washing each others’ cars. Another week we encouraged one another by doing a fun affirmation exercise. Another week we spoke one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs by having a creative worship time at a park. Every week we offered hospitality to one another without grumbling!
  • Serve together. There are lots of great serving projects you can do, especially outside, over the summer. Need ideas? Go here for hundreds of them!
  • Have fun!
  • Invite some friends who are not in a small group (or in a church) to join you!
  • Go fishing together (or biking, hiking, swimming, rock climbing skydiving, etc.)
  • Add your ideas! 

When Jesus Isn’t Able

Jesus went back to his hometown, and Mark 6:5 says, “Jesus wasn’t able to do much of anything there—he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that’s all” (The Message).

When I read this last week, it took me by surprise. Jesus … not able to do much of anything? In the midst of healing thousands, calming storms, raising dead people to life, and feeding thousands with a Lunchable, Jesus experienced a “failure.” Of course, his power was sufficient. It always is. But their stubbornness and unbelief was the obstacle to his work having any effect. The problem was not in Jesus’ power; the problem was their hearts, which were hard, shallow, or full of weeds (see Mark 4:1-20 and my post about it here).

We can only imagine Jesus’ dismay over the fact that he could not bring healing or insight to these people, his own friends and family. Jesus was simply too familiar to them. They knew of the Jesus from the past–the son of Joseph and Mary–but they did not know the Jesus of Today, the Son of God who had the power to bring healing and transformation to their lives. So he moved on to other places.

Hmm…. does this still happen? Have we become too familiar with Jesus (and the way we’ve always done things) to be healed and transformed by him? Do we know the Jesus of the past from Bible stories we learned as a child, or do we know him and how he is working Today, in our midst?

As you meet as a small group, move beyond the stories of what Jesus did. Talk about–better yet, experience–what he is doing. He is indeed present in your group meetings–right now. Don’t just meet to study the Jesus of the past through Bible study. Be sure your hearts are softened and prepared to experience his presence, power, and purposes Today.

Otherwise, Jesus may have to move on to other places.

Is Blood Really Thicker Than Water?

“Blood is thicker than water.”

I’ve given that proverb a lot of thought for a long time. The saying goes back hundreds of years and means that the bonds of family are stronger than those between friends. I know plenty of people (those who have messy relationships with their families of origin) who would argue with that opinion at even a purely sociological level. But what about spiritually?

This past week I read Mark 3, in which Jesus’ mother and brothers showed up looking for him. Jesus’ response is surprising:

“Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, “Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35, The Message).

Jesus was talking about his disciples–those who had left everything to follow him. At another time, he spoke of the high cost of being his disciple. He said we as his disciples should be willing to surrender our family of origin–even our own life–to follow him and be a part of his spiritual family (Luke 14:26).

Growing up, I was taught, Friends come and go, but family is forever. That’s a part of most people’s worldview. Today, as a Christ follower, that saying has taken on a different meaning. I know my relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ are eternal. I hope my relationships with my birth family are as well.

Our new birth is more important than our natural birth. When we were born again, we were born into a spiritual family–the church, the body of Christ. They are now my spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters (see 1 John 2:12-14 for an encouragement to us as spiritual family members). I am a new person in Christ and I have a new family, and that family is my priority.

Who are these family members? Like a natural family, we have extended family members (people in our local congregation) and even “kin” (everyone who is a part of Christ’s family around the world). But our real priority is our immediate family–those with whom we do life together as a small group. Your small group is your spiritual immediate family.

When you were born again, your relationships with your Christ-following friends changed. They had been water relationships. Now they are blood relationships. Just as Jesus changed water into wine (wine symbolizing his blood), Jesus makes you a part of his family. Now we’re blood brothers and sisters in him!

Now, here’s something truly amazing … and vital. Jesus said that those who obey God’s will are our spiritual family. Not just those who happen to be thrown into a group with us. Not just the people we meet with on Friday nights. Not just those with whom we study the Bible and pray. Jesus’ definition of this spiritual family has everything to do with surrender of our own wills to obey God’s will–together.

What are you doing as a leader to help your group members obey God’s will? How are you pursuing God’s will together as a family? Blood is thicker than water. But spiritual blood is even thicker … and deeper.