Apparently, my Nativity scene—and yours—are all wrong. So are many of our favorite Christmas songs.
Jesus was probably born on the ground-floor or courtyard of a home, not a barn. The wise men were not present at his birth, and we don’t know for sure there were three of them. Jesus’ birth likely occurred in the spring, not in December. No mention of Mary riding a donkey in the biblical narrative. No innkeeper is mentioned either. Probably no star over the place where Jesus was born. And, of course, no little drummer boy either.
Writers and teachers have been quick to correct these factual errors for years, but our culture continues to perpetuate the misconceptions.
It’s funny what can distract us from the true meaning of Christmas.
Each of these misconceptions is a distinction without a real difference.
Yes, it’s important to get facts correct in the retelling of a story, especially one as important as this one. Which is why it’s so critical that people read the Bible to understand what really happened.
But let’s not major in minors. Let’s not get so caught up in the minutia that we miss the meaning of the most life-changing event ever to occur in human history. God took on human flesh in the form of a baby. He experienced all the things we do. He can identify with our pain. He empathizes with us. He understands. Because he became one of us. He came to us to redeem us from our sins.
I won’t be correcting anyone’s misconceptions this Christmas. I’ll sing the songs. I’ll gaze in amazement at the Christmas creche with the star above and with shepherds and wise men, and even little drummer boys, all worshipping together.
Because that’s why Jesus was born—to live and to die for all of us—and that depiction at the manger is a picture of Heaven. All who believe in him, people from every age and culture, will be gathered together, this time around a throne rather than a feeding trough, worshipping our Lord and Savior and King.
As I got into my rental car in Louisville, Kentucky, to head out to The Groups Conference in Mattoon, Illinois, where I was speaking last weekend, I set the route I wanted to take in Google Maps and headed out. I was driving along the highway with the radio cranked up, enjoying the drive, when, about 2 hours in, Google Maps told me to get off the highway, at least 30 miles before my next designated turn. I took the exit as GM instructed and then looked at my phone to see where it was taking me. It looked good: a straighter shot than the highway although smaller roads. As I went, the roads became even smaller and smaller and less and less smooth, yet I was enjoying the sites on this country road that I never would have seen on the highway. At one point, GM told me to turn down a dirt road that had just had gravel added. The car in front of me took the same turn, and at several points, the dust from the gravel became so thick I couldn’t see. All I could do was stop the car and let the dust settle. At places in this drive, I had no idea where I was; I felt lost. I was in Illinois in the middle of a lot of barren fields, but I began to see small oil-well pumps. I’d expect to see those in a place like Texas, but Illinois? Then I saw a sign that said “Louisville, 7 miles.” I felt like I was going in circles! I yelled at my phone, “What are you doing? Where in the world are you taking me?”
Eventually, the back roads took me to the expressway, and I got to Mattoon safe and on time.
I admit that I too often treat God like I treated Google Maps. I set my own destination and course for “my” life. I enjoy the easy ride for awhile, but then I come upon a detour that takes me off the road I had planned to travel. I’ve been in those places where the dust and gunk of life became so thick that all I could do was stop until eventually the dust cleared enough to go on. I’ve felt lost and confused. I’ve wondered why I wandering. I’ve yelled at God, “What are you doing, Lord? Where in the world are you taking me?”
Yet, eventually, I get to a better place—and this has taken years of my life—and it’s not until I get there that I can see what God was doing. In the middle of the detour, I believed I didn’t deserve to be where I was. But afterward, I could hear God say, “Yes, you didn’t deserve this detour to your plans, but I did it for your good anyway.” While these times were difficult and heavy and painful, I saw and learned things about life and about God that I would not have seen or learned otherwise. He taught me to rely on him and trust his course for my life. He gives me opportunities to show others who are currently detoured that God is faithful.
If you lead a small group or family or team or any other collection of people, you will soon discover that they too end up on detours in their lives. Sometimes these detours look very much like the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). Yet, somehow, he is guiding them along the right paths for his name’s sake (v. 3). Your job is not to steer them back to the road they wished they were on or planned to be on. Your job as a shepherd is not to fix them or the circumstances. Your job is simply to walk with them through it. You shepherd them as the Good Shepherd guides you. You simply overflow (see v. 5) the compassion and love and peace and comfort and wisdom and power that he has poured graciously into you. Just be with them during these times.
Often, people don’t want to go where the Chief Shepherd wants them to go. He leads us out of our comfort zones so that we will rely on him, not ourselves, for our comfort and peace.
Guiding people to go (or as they go) places where they do not want to go is not easy or comfortable for you or them.
God wants your group to go and make disciples, but they want to stay on the smooth and easy road they know of comfort, stability, and safety.
God wants your group to serve the poor and hungry and homeless and imprisoned, but they want to serve themselves with good meetings and safe relationships.
God wants them to mature so that they will take on leadership and feed others, but they just want to stay put and be fed.
If you as God’s shepherd-leader decide to follow the Chief Shepherd, you will face conflict from sheep who don’t want to go there. I can point to many biblical examples of this, but one of the clearest comes from the Exodus and the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness. They were off course from where they expected to be. They were looking for the Promised Land, but found themselves in the desert. Moses was their shepherd but he found himself in constant conflict with stubborn sheep. Moses heard God’s voice telling him to lead the people, but he also heard the loud bleats of sheep who didn’t want to go God’s way. When this happens as you lead, what do you do?
Always, always, always hold high the values and principles found in God’s Word. Don’t give in to lesser values.
Listen to God’s voice first (and you need to spend time with him—abide in him—to hear him), and then to people’s voices. When there is conflict between those voices, refer to #1.
Don’t kowtow to people who prefer their comfort over God’s mission.
God has chosen you to lead his flock. He has entrusted these people into your care as an act of stewardship. He wants you to invest into them, care for them and, lead them to where he wants them to go. He wants a return (Matt. 25:14-30)! He wants fruit (John 15:8). Be a wise and faithful steward-servant-shepherd who follows the Chief Shepherd.
What places does God want your group to go that group members don’t want to go? Share it by scrolling down and commenting.
Small groups are taking the mannequin challenge. Many have been doing it for years.
I admit, I don’t get the current #mannequinchallenge fad. I also admit that some of the videos are fun and creative. Here’s a short one as an example:
This may be the latest cultural fad, but it’s nothing new for many small groups, and the church as a whole.
Several years ago I wrote about the difference between dead and fully alive small groups. (Read it here.) I also wrote a post about “Mannequin Small Groups, which I decided to revise and repost; it’s more apropos now than ever!
The problem is that some small groups were never alive in the first place! My friend Carl Douthit once described these groups as mannequins. They were not created with the intention of being alive, growing organisms. They study the Word only for knowledge, not to put it into practice. They are “all dressed up with no place to go”!
Mannequin group leaders and members say they cannot understand why they need to invite new people into their groups or share leadership with a core team or do anything outside of their normal agenda. These groups were not founded with the expectation of being more than “Bible studies,” so they are, as Carl would put it, mannequins, which look good on the outside, but with no life inside.
Mannequin small groups are great at standing still, but Jesus gave us a mission to “GO”!
Mannequin small groups are posers. They pretend to follow Christ, but they are unmoved by what and whom Jesus loves. They stand still in the middle of the great needs of lost, hurting people around them.
Mannequin small groups are at best lukewarm about their faith. Actually they are frozen in time, either afraid to move, stuck in a rut of “we’ve always done it this way,” or, frankly, too focused on themselves to care. (Here’s my mannequin challenge with a very sad face.)
What do you do if your small group is a mannequin rather than missional?
First, you need an infusion of life that can only come from Jesus. The first Vital Sign of a Healthy Small Group is that it is Christ-Centered. When Christ is really at the center of your group, you meet together in his presence, for his purposes and under his power, and that makes ALL the difference! Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, so he can bring life to your mannequin-like existence. He is the Way your group should go. He is the Truth your group needs in order to be real and authentic. He is the Life your group needs to animate and invigorate and motivate and activate your group!
Second, you need to recovenant with your group. The fourth Vital Sign of a Healthy Group is that it has goals and plans. It’s time for you to confront the brutal facts of your current existence, as Jim Collins puts it, and then decide as a group about what God is calling you to be (your vision) and do (your mission). Note: A Christ-centered group focuses on what God, not individual members, want the group to be. This is the difference between Christ-centeredness and self-centeredness.
I could discuss more things your group could do to move from mannequin to missional, but this is probably all you can do for now. Each of the seven healthy indicators I discuss in Small Group Vital Signs will help you move toward missional.
A healthy group is a missional group!
What score would you give your group?
Mannequin 1 2 3 4 5 Missional
Please respond by scrolling down and commenting or asking more about moving from mannequin to missional.
“How can I get people in my group to pray out loud?”
“What can we do to go deeper in our prayer time?”
“How do I keep our group engaged during prayer time? We spend more time sharing requests and stories than actually praying!”
As I train and coach leaders, many of the questions I receive focus on small group prayer. Several years ago, I was leading a group and tried something new. I had been studying what makes a small group “Christ-centered,” the first vital sign of a healthy small group (from my book, Small Group Vital Signs). One of the things I realized was that you can tell how Christ-centered a group is by how they pray.
Does your group take prayer requests and then pray then back to God as if He isn’t present?
Do people give answers or fix?
These activities make it clear whose power the group members are most reliant on. If you know God is present with you and his power is with you when you meet, how would you pray differently than you do now?
Here’s what I did to make our group prayer time more Christ-centered and healthy.
As we enter into our prayer time, I remind group members that as we meet together in Jesus’ name, he really is there with us.
I often remind them of Matthew 18:20 or 1 John 1:3, for instance. I read one of these verses and discuss the implications for our prayer time.
I remind the group that as we share our prayer requests with one another, God is listening, so we don’t need to repeat our prayer requests back to him as if he didn’t hear them the first time!
This simplifies prayer for many people and, at the same time, it makes it much more awesome (literally!).
I ask people to share what’s on their minds and hearts with us and Jesus at the same time. If they prefer to share their request as a prayer, that is, directed to Jesus, that’s fine. The rest of the group will listen in. If they prefer to share it with group members, that’s OK, too. Jesus is present and is listening.
Maybe we get too caught up in “saying a prayer” and putting it into the right format with the right words rather than simply having a conversation with one another and Jesus. Perhaps people don’t pray aloud because they think they’ll get it wrong.
Talking to Jesus and one another should be the most natural thing Christ followers do in community. Make your prayer time Christ-centered!
QUESTION: If you know God is present with you and his power is with you when you meet, how would you pray differently than you do now? Comment below!
Small Group Ministry Leader, if you discovered that one of the small groups under your care was engaging in idol worship, what would you do?
Small Group Leader, if your small group ministry leader came to you to warn you to stop worshiping idols, how would you respond?
In both he Old and New Testaments, idol worship is strictly forbidden and considered detestable (e.g. Ex. 20:4, 23; 22:20; 1 Cor 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21), and yet many small groups are engaging in this wicked practice every week. No, I’ve never seen a group pull out a golden calf, but man-made objects are not the only false gods people and groups bow down to.
The first commandment is clear: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). The next three, and in many respects, all of the rest of the commandments, are based on this one. Whatever we place before God, his Word, his Kingdom, his call, and his mission becomes our idol, our master (see Matt. 6:24), and the focus of our attention.
This, of course, is serious and vital for groups to recognize. I don’t believe groups intentionally set out to be idolaters, but, much like God’s people of old, we set our minds on earthly things instead of God.
How do Christian groups engage in idol worship? When anything else becomes a substitute for the One True God.
When they come together for any reason other than God and his mission. That doesn’t mean groups can’t have fun, of course. That’s part of the community life God intends for us. But when that “fellowship” is not God-centered, leaves out the presence of God, and becomes a substitute for carrying out God’s mission for that group, it’s idol worship. (See 1 John 1:3.)
When the group leader keeps all the focus on himself or herself. Worldly, power-hungry leaders love the praise of their group members. They seek validation of their own knowledge and leadership skills. But their hearts are far from God.
When group members usurp God’s place. Oftentimes, needy or hurting group members make themselves the center of the group’s attention. Often narcissistic, they desire the group’s love and focus, often above the all-powerful God who alone has the power to bring healing.
When the study materials are the focal point. This one is especially insidious. We can study materials to help us grow in our relationships with and mission for God and yet, at the same time, allow these man-made resources to become the center of our attention.
When comfort is a main objective. God has called us to costly discipleship—surrendering all to follow Jesus. Yet some groups are gatherings of “rich young men and women” who cannot give everything they have to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:16-29). They’d rather settle for the god of comfort.
I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with these five gods that groups bow down to. I’m sure you can think of many more.
The reason I made “Christ Centered” the first vital sign of a healthy small group (from my book Small Group Vital Signs) is because groups must get this one right before they can grow in any of the others. It goes back to the First Commandment as well as Matthew 6:33: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (NLT).
Small Group Ministry Leader, this is your #1 Priority in equipping and coaching your groups. You must root out all idolatry in your groups and teach them how to seek God and his Kingdom first. Contact me to discuss how.
Small Group Leader, God has entrusted you with this group of his people (1 Pet. 5:2). Take that responsibility seriously as you lead the group to worship the Lord your God only. Get help and coaching as necessary. Read more posts on being a Christ-Centered group on this site. Read Chapters 1 and 2 of Small Group Vital Signs. But start by surrendering your leadership and the group to God. It’s his in the first place. Lead as an act of stewardship.
“Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts” (1 John 5:21, NLT).
QUESTIONS: (1) On what other idols have you seen small groups focus? (2) How do you respond to the first two questions at the beginning of this post?
Oops! I’m not sure how it happened, but last week’s TIPS never actually posted. So guess what? It’s BONUS WEEK! You get two week’s of Small Group Leader TIPS s Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn for the price of 1!
* * * * * * *
Monday, 4/11: Whenever you see a mbr display the use of a spiritual gift, point it out, affirm it, and encourage more of it. RT or ♥ LIKE on Facebook
How do you get small group members to invite people to their groups?
I spoke at +Greenwood Christian Church this past Saturday, particularly on the topic of moving small groups from good (comfortable, focused mostly internally) to great (costly, missional). We spent time talking about the importance of members inviting people into their groups as part of carrying out Christ’s mission of going and making disciples.
I’m following up with leaders from that workshop (and addressing any other small group leaders who want to make a difference) with 5 specific principles you can use to help your group members, even the shyest ones, invite people to your group. I’ll follow up this post with other posts to provide more ideas and to discuss the ramifications of this.
The Leader Must Go First! Don’t go to your group with the ideas below until you have done these things yourself. As a leader, you must first be an example, a model, for those entrusted to you (1 Pet. 5:3).
Don’t Do Anything Else Until You’ve Spent Time with God. Every strategy you use, every word you say, everything you do must flow out of your relationship with God. Be like Jesus who often withdrew to out of the way places to spend time with his heavenly Father (Lk. 5:16) and did nothing on his own but only what the Father showed him to do (John 5:19; 7:16; 8:28). Remember that God is already working in people’s lives and hearts, so partner with him (John 6:44). When you spend time with God, he will pour into you everything you need and overflow out of you into the lives of others (John 15:1-17).
Lead with the Same Love, Tenderness, and Compassion as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-2). How do you see other people as you go through your day? How do you respond to people who attend church services or other events? When Jesus saw crowds of people he responded with compassion. He saw them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). “Be like-minded, having the same love” (Phil. 2:2).
NOTE: IF YOU’VE TAKEN THESE LAST 2 STEPS, THE NEXT 2 WILL COME NATURALLY.
Change the Way You Think About Weekend Services and Other Church Events. You attend worship services to praise God, receive vision, and be equipped for your mission as a Christ follower. Those are all great things. But add one more vital element. Instead of sitting with your usual friends in your usual seats, make yourself available for God to use you to reach out to people who are like sheep without a shepherd. Prayerfully look for new people or people sitting by themselves and ask if you can sit next to them. Look for opportunities to talk and get to know one another and possibly invite them to your group. Trust that God will lead you to the right people and that he is already working in their lives. You may be amazed at how he works in and through you as his ambassador.
Change the Way You Think About “Ordinary” Days. When you are regularly abiding in Christ, he will overflow out of you into the people who are around you during your “ordinary” days. He’ll make your days extraordinary in ways you can’t even imagine, if you let him. Ask God whom he wants to love and care for through you. Ask him to give you opportunities to invite people you interact with (people he has put on your path) to your small group. Keep your eyes open for how God is working and your heart compassionate for those harassed and helpless people who surround you each day. God will do abundantly more than you can ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within you (Eph. 3:20)!
“We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy.” -1 John 1:3-4, NLT
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to partner with this week’s guest blogger in many different ways. I edited his book, Christ’s Basic Bodies, written and led training seminars for the ministry he founded (TOUCH Outreach Ministries), and interviewed him for my blog and other writing projects. Neighbour is one of the pioneers of the groups movement in America and around the world. See my video interview with him here.
Here’s what I love about this man: He will challenge you, if you let him, in your suppositions about small group ministry, community, discipleship, the church, and in many other areas. You may not agree with everything he says, but I encourage you to pay attention, because if you do, I believe you can become a better ambassador for God.
May I challenge you over the next three days? Set aside any preconceived notions you may have about small group ministry. Just soak in what Dr. Neighbour has to say and learn from his experiences, especially those he has learned from the church in other countries around the world.
For 45 years I have lived and traveled the nations of the world consulting for Cell Group churches. I have spent 8 years in Singapore and have spent considerable times in South Africa, Brazil, and the Ukraine. I have worked in Switzerland, England, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Korea, Russia, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Korea, China, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and the Canary Islands.
I have been asked by Mike to share the three most important things American small groups can learn from what God is doing on our generation outside this nation. This is my parting shot to my fellow Americans. I confess to a total cynicism that it will have much impact. We are, as one lady from Pennsylvania said to me, “God’s Spoiled Brats.”
We have merchandised our faith so Mammon is equally worshiped along with our faith in God. Please understand my bias before reading further.
FACT 1: OVERSEAS BODIES OF CHRIST REVEAL CHRIST’S PRESENCE.
In place of the American focus on fellowship, the overseas movement focuses on followship. There is an awareness that Christ has been incarnated in His new body, one necessary for the present assignment of the Son. In the final prayer of Jesus before He was crucified, He discussed His new Body with His Father. He knew the body of Jesus limited his physical presence. It was sufficient for the first tasks assigned when He came to live among men. In Jesus’ body he could demonstrate the supernatural evidences of the Kingdom of God. It was expressed through miracles, not words. In that body He would become the Lamb slain for the sin of mankind. At the end, He could cry, “It is finished!”
But He knew there was a new task the Father had planned for him before time began. He defined it when He said “When I am lifted up, I will draw all the world to me.”
His new body would transport Him to small groups of people. Each new believer would attach him to a small group of relatives, friends, neighbors. As this group observed the believer’s new life, He would be their light, the light of the world
His new body would be formed by as few as two people (Matt. 18:20), He would be in their midst revealing Himself when they entered a household to spend time with the family (Luke 10). They would not reveal Him by doing good works but by manifesting His presence and power. They would heal, cleanse, deliver, comfort as He empowered them to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:3).His new assignment was not for the group to study Him, or explain Him, but to reveal Him by being priests revealing His indwelling presence.
The body could be as small as a gathering of body members gathering as hands, feet, inward parts. We see them assembled in 1 Cor. 14:24ff.
To be continued tomorrow. Read Part 2: Overseas Bodies of Christ Have Harvest Fields.