7 Ways Your Small Group Can Celebrate the Incarnation: #3: Love Those Who Are Struggling

This is Day 3 of my 7 ideas your group, class, or family can use to celebrate Christmas. See #1 HERE. #2

Remember the folks in your circles who struggle this time of year. Many people—inside your group and among your group members’ friends—are vulnerable during the holidays. Many hurting people find it difficult to be thankful at Thanksgiving and come to Christmas feeling like God is far away. They desperately want to know Immanuel—God with them—but he seems more like Exmanuel: God used to be with me, but now I feel like he’s left me … or, I feel like he is so external to my current experience.

This is one of the best times of year for a small group to reach out to these folks and love them, invite them into your celebrations, and invite them to know more than the “baby Jesus”—to develop a relationship with him who died for them and lives today. People are not only vulnerable, they are open to an invitation to connect during the holidays.

7 Ways Your Small Group Can Celebrate the Incarnation: #2: Celebrate Immanuel

This is Day 2 of my 7 ideas your group or class or family can use to celebrate Christmas. See #1 HERE.

This Christmas, move past the historical Jesus who was born and lived 2,000 years ago. Consider the living Christ who is still Immanuel, God with us … the One who is with us whenever we gather together in his name. As a group, discuss and prepare to celebrate the Event of events when the Creator of the universe made himself nothing and took the form of human flesh, a baby, a humble servant, a sacrifice for our sins.

Don’t reserve worship for your Christmas-eve services at the church building. Build up to that celebration by singing worshipful hymns together as a group and finding other ways to praise God for what he did by lovingly sending his only Son into the world.

What ideas do you have for worshiping Jesus as part of your Christmas celebration? Please share them in the comments! 

7 Ways Your Small Group Can Celebrate the Incarnation this Christmas Season: #1: Experience Christmas!

The holidays are coming. What is your small group’s plan?

Many groups struggle with meeting and studying over the holidays, and this can be detrimental to the health of your group. Not only that, but this is a prime time of the year to help your group members grow in their faith as well as to reach out to and invite new people. Perhaps your group will take a break from your normal schedule, but that’s no reason not to keep meeting. Over the next week or so I will provide 7 ideas for how your small group can get the most—and give the most—from now through New Years.

1. Experience Christmas Anew

This is one of the most wonderful times of the year to grow together in your understanding of the gospel story. The Christmas Experience, from City on a Hill, is a great place to start. This is more than just a nice Christmas study; I believe it will be an experience you and your group will remember for a long time. I wrote the study guides for The Christmas Experience, and I don’t want to sound overdramatic but I loved watching the videos for this study. You can also watch the full-length movie version of this as a group and discuss it. Get more information on the City on a Hill Christmas Experience web page.

Kyle Idleman brought out insights I had never considered and helped me see this very familiar story in new ways. More than that, however, as I watched the dramatic presentation of the Christmas story, I was moved in ways I didn’t expect. As your group experiences this material, I believe they will be moved as well, and they will grow not only to know the story better, but to know God more intimately.

The Christmas Experience is a six-week, DVD-driven small group study that examines the Christmas story in detail, helping groups (and families) prepare for the Christmas season. Each episode focuses on how God chose each individual in the Christmas story for a specific purpose. Those participating in The Christmas Experience study will find themselves in the story as they learn that what happened then changes everything now.

While this is a six-session study, it includes several options for doing the study in, for instance, four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Leader’s Guide and Participant’s Discussion Guide are designed to help groups interact with this material and to grow together as they experience it together.

The Christmas Experience Small Group Study includes:

  • Six 30-minute episodes on 2 DVDs
  • Subtitle options including: English, Spanish, and French
  • Leader’s Tutorial Video
  • Printed Leader’s Guide for facilitating dynamic group discussions
  • Printed Participant’s Guide (additional guides sold separately)
You can get more information, including an ability to watch the trailer, and you can purchase any of these materials on the City on a Hill Christmas Experience web page.

How to Make This the Best Christmas Ever

Alan Danielson and his friend Darren Currin have written a new Advent/Christmas eBook, The Best Christmas Ever, that releases November 26 and is available for preorder now. It’s a devotional eBook that is designed to help people truly experience Christmas differently this year.

The Best Christmas Ever provides practical steps to find more joys and fewer pressures this advent season. This contemporary look at Advent is not for the feint of heart. In it you will be challenged to accomplish a task each week:

  • Create margin in your holiday schedule. 
  • Spend a week NOT shopping for gifts.
  • Avoid asking for any presents.
  • Make a gift for someone (Don’t worry, this is NOT an arts and crafts project…unless you want it to be).

Does that sound weird? Let’s face it, Christmas in our modern culture is too busy, too stressful, too expensive, and sometimes just too much! Worse yet, we’ve come to accept these things as normal. Maybe we should take some strange steps this season. Maybe it’s time to be a little weird because “normal” is pretty broken. Be weird with us and make this The Best Christmas Ever!

To give you a taste for this book, here’s an excerpt:

The world is a mess: militant religious terrorists, school shootings, wars, natural disasters, politics and healthcare problems seem to make up headlines every day. All of these things hit too close to home. Then there are the things that actually do hit us at home: divorce, parent-teen skirmishes, illness, financial pressures, nosey neighbors, things that need to be repaired, personality conflicts at work and much more. Top off those things with the added stresses of the Christmas season: work parties, church events, school musicals, shopping, cooking, planning, mailing cards, decorating….Aaaaarrrrrggghhh! Is your heart rate elevated yet? 

God said something profound to His people when they were stressed: 

   “Be still, and know that I am God!
   I will be honored by every nation.
   I will be honored throughout the world.” 

              -Psalms 46:10 (NLT)

Be still. When life seems out of control, the solution is to be still. Only in stillness are we truly able to take in the sense that God is truly in control. We never feel a sense of peace in God when we are busy and stressed about everything that’s going on.

To make this The Best Christmas Ever take a breath this week. In fact take a few. Find God’s peace in the middle of the chaos by being still.

I know what you’re thinking, “I have too much to do. I can’t even slow down, let alone be still, because there’s not enough time!” Breath for a second and consider that statement: “there’s no time.” Consider the possibility that the previous statement may simply be untrue.

Each of us all has the same amount of time as everyone else. The difference between those who are “rich in time” and those who are “poor in time” is only a matter of how they choose to spend their time. Think about it: there’s only one thing we can do with time: spend it. We all get an allowance of 24 hours each day and we all spend every one of those hours. How are you spending them?

Being still doesn’t require more time, it requires a conscious decision to spend time differently…

Here are a couple ideas for using this book:

  1. Buy a single copy for yourself or buy as many as you need as gifts.  Here’s the link:   http://ow.ly/EqpBm
  2. If you are involved in a church, business, or non-profit, you can buy a bulk “Distribution License” and give the book away to parishioners, clients, customers, and supporters.  Bulk prices are deeply discounted. The more books purchased, the deeper the discount.  Here’s the link detailing the bulk “distribution license” purchases:   http://ow.ly/EqsFB  By the way, if you lead a small group ministry, this could be a great Christmas gift for all your leaders! 

FOR YOUR GROUP: The Christmas Experience

If you and your group are looking to dive deeper into the Christmas story this year and to experience the Christmas season in a new way, I recommend using The Christmas Experience video-driven study featuring Kyle Idleman from City on a Hill. I had the honor of writing the leader’s and study guides. I think you’ll like it. 


The Bible’s 12 Steps to Overcome Depression

I know so many people who deal with the debilitating effects of depression. Family members. Friends. I also have gone through several seasons of depression in my life. Now, I don’t want to oversimplify depression and its effects. I’ve seen the necessity and benefits of helpful medicines for my immediate family members, but I believe they are not the end all for dealing with depression. They may simply enable the person to stand up, sometimes literally, to the effects of depression, but then the person needs to take wise actions and have right thinking.

King David often dealt with depression in his life. And for good reason. He was literally chased from his home, family, and friends and ended up hiding by himself in a dark, cold, damp cave. These were probably his circumstances as he wrote several of the psalms, particularly Psalm 143.

“So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed” (v. 4, NIV).

I also like how the NLT translates this: “I am losing all hope; I am paralyzed with fear.” That’s how many people with depression feel.

In verses 1-3, David had described the circumstances of his depression and anxiety. In verses 5 and following, he told what he did about it. These could be seen as his prescriptions, or the Bible’s 12 Steps to Deal with Depression. I will summarize them here, but I believe the best thing to do when battling depression is to simply read this passage yourself.

  1. Remember all that God has done in the past (v. 5).
  2. Surrender your own ways/will to him (v. 6)
  3. Be honest with God. Ask him for his help. Pray (v. 7).
  4. Trust him daily (v. 8). This starts each day by spending time with him in his Word and in prayer, listening to him.
  5. Ask him daily to show you the right way (v. 8).
  6. Be aware of your Enemy and enemies—those who are fighting against you (v. 9).
  7. Depend on God for his rescue from them (v. 9).
  8. Seek God’s will (v. 10). I often pray something like, “I want to do your will, Lord. Give me the wisdom and strength I need to do it.” David’s prayer is better, I think. Perhaps more humble. “TEACH me to do your will.” He’s admitting he doesn’t know how to do this, although he had spent most of his life pursuing God’s will and it seems that except for a few pretty major slips, he had done God’s will.
  9. Rely on the power of the Holy Spirit (not your own) to lead you (v. 10).
  10. Trust what God will do in the future (v. 11).
  11. Remember it’s not about you. It’s about God’s name and reputation (v. 11).
  12. Continue to serve God (v. 12).
Would you like other verses to read when you need to overcome depression? Psalm 34:18; 42:5-6; Philippians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (great for a small group setting); Matthew 6; Revelation 21:4.


Leading with Grace: How We Deal with Depression, Anxiety, and Suffering (especially when the suffering is inflicted by fellow Christians)

New Children’s Book: Help My Friend Get The Everywhere God into Print!

A close friend of mine is self-publishing a children’s book based on a poem written by her late father, Bob Nelson. Bob was a pastor with a passion for telling people about God’s undying love for them. In 1994, he wrote a poem, The Everywhere God, for his then four-year-old granddaughter who was going through a difficult time after her parent’s divorce.
Bob wanted to make sure his granddaughter knew that no matter what was going on around her, God was there and she wasn’t alone. After the poem was complete, he realized it was something special and desired for it to be published as a book for children everywhere.
Bob passed away in 2008 and the project was never completed … until now. My friend, Cricket Nelson Hater, never forgot about this special story and is bringing it to life as her father desired.
With the help of local artist, Robin Tillman, the poem has been illustrated in bright and colorful watercolor images depicting the lively ideas in the book.
Over and over again in the book is the message of God’s never-ending love for us. Using fantastical situations, appealing to a child, such as flying “to the moon on a black-eyed raccoon” or living in a “lake with a long purple snake,” the story talks about a God who “never leaves or forsakes us.”
This book will be a real blessing to children of ALL ages and I hope you’ll consider giving the project’s Kickstarter campaign a look. There is just one week left to support the project, which ends October 30, 2014.
Please go to the Kickstarter page HERE to support this cool project for my friend. 

4 Reasons Leaders Don’t Pray More for their Groups

Praying leaders have faster growing groups. 


That’s not just speculation or theory. It’s a fact backed by research. This morning, I read and nodded my head through Jim Egli’s newest post, “4 Reasons Why Praying Leaders Have Faster Growing Groups.” If you lead a small group or are a coach, ministry leader, or any kind of Christian leader, this short post should be on your “required” reading list. Actually, the principles Jim discusses should be on the top of your required to-do list.

This topic is not new. Joel Comiskey has written about this quite a bit in his work. I wrote about it in my book, Leading from the Heart. It was also the topic of the second chapter, “A Healthy Group Has a Healthy, Overflowing Leader” in Small Group Vital Signs. And, much more importantly, this is a topic throughout God’s Word.

So I wonder, why are so many small groups not growing as they should? What’s keeping leaders from praying for their groups, something that seems so simple and easy to do? I’m going to try to tackle that question today. I’m sure I won’t hit every reason, so please throw in your thoughts in the comments.

  1. We’ve been distracted from what is most vital. Yesterday, a friend in Brazil posted a quote from me on Facebook: “Dealing with the tyranny of the urgent always leads to frustration and burnout. Leaders must spend less time on urgent … and more time on those things that are vital.” The most vital thing in our lives is our relationship with God. That sentence deserves both an “Amen” and a “Duh!”

    Jesus was blunt: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Praying for group members, our families, our friends, our neighbors comes naturally when we are putting God, his kingdom, and spending time with him first—above all else—in our lives. The tyranny of the urgent will always take over our lives if we let it. Take note of what I just said there: if we let it. Yes, this is under our control. I must make time to spend with God, no matter how pressing other things in my life may seem. Bill Hybel’s book title is apropos: Too Busy NOT to Pray.

  2. We’ve forgotten who God is. How in the world can this happen? The key to the answer to that question is right in the middle of it: in this world. Satan is at work in this secular world and trying to work in our minds to get us to forget that our God is all-powerful, always present, all-knowing. Over the last couple days of my Bible reading and time with God, he has reimpressed this fact on my own heart:

    The Lord is on our side (Psalm 124:1).
    “Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (v. 8).
    “Those who trust in the Lord … will not be defeated but will endure forever” (Psalm 125:1).
    “Just as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever” (v. 2).
    The One who created all that exists is on my and your side! Don’t let Satan or anything else in this world distract you from that.

  3. We’re out of tune. Because of the reasons above, we are not “singing” in tune with God. We’re out of step with the Spirit. This morning, God reminded me how vital this is:  “O Lord, do good to those who are good, whose hearts are in tune with you” (Psalm 125:4, NLT). This prayer is for God to do good—not just for anyone but for those who are living life God’s way, those whose hearts are in tune with God. They are men and women after God’s own heart. Romans 8:28 comes to mind as I read this verse. God does indeed work for the good of those who love him and are called according to HIS purpose. 

    People in tune with God naturally care about those they are called to lead, and the first way they serve them is to pray for them regularly, perhaps daily … not because they should, or because some research shows how effective it is, or to get their group to grow in numbers. They pray for members because their hearts—hearts in tune with God—rouse them to pray.

  4. We think growth is about what we do. We’ve been taught or we’ve somehow  come to believe that our leadership skills, our teaching ability, and the decisions we make are what will grow our groups. Perhaps our church leaders have taught us that, either directly or by what they’ve modeled. Or perhaps we’ve learned it from our culture. It’s what we’ve learned in school and in our jobs and we’ve carried out those faulty notions into our churches and groups.

    The fact is, our prayers put matters in God’s hands, not ours. It says, in no uncertain terms, that we trust God to shepherd and lead these people through us. It’s a matter of humility. It’s what being a Christlike leader is all about. (Don’t believe me? Read Philippians 2:1-11.)

Prayer is the game changer for our groups and churches. When we pray for our groups, just as Jesus prayed for his group (John 17, for instance), miracles happen. It’s the #1 key to the Lord adding daily to the number of those being saved.
What reasons have I missed?
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More Posts on the Vitality of a Praying Leader

Small Group Fireplaces Series: Leaders Pray
Your Vital Roles as a Shepherd-Leader
How I Prepare to Spend Time with God
The Reason Leaders Face Deep, Dark Valleys

The Lord Is on Our Side

The Lord is on our side. 

I came across these six little words as I read Psalm 124 this morning. These words are so vital to our lives that the writer, David, asked the people to repeat them. I took some time to simply meditate on these small yet profoundly impacting words. Here are a few of my thoughts. Let’s begin by repeating these words, meditating and focusing on the words to bring additional meaning:

GOD is on my side!

God is on MY side!

God IS on my side!

When everyone else seems to be against me, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is, indeed, in my corner. I have his power on my side. He won’t leave me when the fighting gets tough. He’ll stand in front of me to protect me. But sometimes he’ll put his hand on my back and give me an encouraging shove to enter into the battle myself–with him still at my side. He never leaves or forsakes me in times of trouble.

Later in the psalm, are the words, “Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Let that sink in for a moment. The God who made everything that exists is on my side and is here—right here!—to help me. He has already helped me in the midst of my sin by dying for me and saving me. And he continues to do even more through the powerful working of his Spirit. He will do this for me and you TODAY.

Whatever you and I are dealing with today, our help will come from him. How? I don’t know yet. I bet you don’t either. I wish I did. But I need to continue keeping in step with the Spirit who is here as my help. I have to walk his way, according to his plans and purposes, not my own. I need to do things his way.

The next thing I did as I read this psalm was to talk to God about my day today, and I simply reminded myself that in every big and little thing, God is on my side and he is here to help me. I submitted myself to him and doing things his way, and I asked for his wisdom and power in the midst of the things I do today.

God is on your side! What does that mean to you today?

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More Posts about God in Your Corner

What I Learned in Brazil: Keep Trusting God
A Daddy Who Stoops Down
Lord of the Darkness: Trusting Jehovah When Suffering Comes
What Do You Do When Life Sucks?

10 Can’t-Miss Principles for Finding the WRONG Leaders

Through my assessment of small groups as well as my experience leading groups and coaching other leaders, I’ve observed a direct correlation between leaders who hog leadership and groups that do not grow or multiply.
Leaders who lead healthy, growing groups share leadership with two to three others … but not just any two or three others. I’ve seen leaders pick the right people and the wrong people to share leadership with. Let’s look at how they end up choosing the wrong ones (and, by the way, these also work well for church leaders looking for small group leaders):
  1. Start by developing a recruiting strategy. Make a list of who you think are the right people. Use the normal list of qualifications: knowledge, abilities, charisma, and especially physical appearance. Then consider how you will twist arms to get the ones you want to take on this job.

    A Better Idea … Ask the Lord of the Harvest to send these “workers.” Yes, start with prayer. Trust him to help you know whom to ask.

  2. Announce you are looking for some co-leaders. Ask the group who wants to join you in leading the group. Or send around a sign-up sheet.
  3. Let the group decide. Better yet, ask everyone to make a case for why he or she should be a core team member (after all, this is an exclusive club!) and then have everyone in the group close their eyes and on the count of three, point to the people they think should be on the core team. The ones with the most votes win!

    A Better Idea … Wait and watch whom God leads you to. I wouldn’t even tell group members you are looking for “co-leaders.” Once you have begun praying, watch for whom God puts in front of you. Listen to his voice as you talk to people. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as you interact with group members.

  4. Take anyone who is willing to help. People are busy; no one will want to sign up for this duty. So take anyone who might say yes. Don’t worry about their spiritual lives.
  5. Wait until you get potential co-leaders who meet all your expectations. This is an important job. These people may someday be leaders of new groups, so be cultivate extremely high standards. If no one meets your leadership expectations, don’t do anything. Just keep leading alone.

    A Better Idea … Watch for potential, not perfection. Look for servants, not saints. Look for humble hearts, not superior skills or incredible intelligence.

  6. Recruit people like you. Things will go much more smoothly if your core team members will lead with exactly the same style as you. After all, you are the leadership model. They should have the same gifts as you and will make decisions the same way as you.

    A Better Idea … Do just the opposite. God will likely lead you to people who do not lead like you. Because of that, you may not even see them as “leaders.” Set aside your expectations and trust God to do what only he can do. He is looking for Christlike, not you-like leaders.

  7. Look for people who have the most obvious leadership skills, people who have the spiritual gift of leadership, and people who are successful in business.

    A Better Idea … Consider the condition of their hearts. God will lead you to men or women after his own heart. By the way, leadership is not the only spiritual gift God can use to help lead a group. In fact, those with the gifts of mercy or shepherding or evangelism or other gifts might be the better matches with the gifts you have. Remember, it’s God’s job to put the body together, just as he wants it to be.

  8. Look outside your group. It’s unlikely that a suitable core team member is in your small circle. So look around your church for people with superior leadership abilities. Maybe an elder or deacon. Perhaps a businessman who isn’t connected yet.

    A Better Idea … Look around you. Perhaps God has already put your core team members close to you. They may be the women or men in the group with whom you already have close relationships or those whose gifts complement yours.

  9. Just do it all. It’s probably easier for you to keep leading alone. What real difference can it make?

    A Better Idea … Begin now to share ownership of the group with everyone. Let everyone be involved in the group process. This will help you lead into sharing leadership. (Read my post on the difference between sharing ownership and sharing leadership.) People hesitate to be on a team when the leader does too much. As the group’s leader you must grow in your ability to allow others to use their gifts.

    Leading alone leads to frustration and burnout for the leader and does not effectively help people in your group grow.

  10. Focus exclusively on caring for your group members. You are the group’s shepherd. It’s all about the people in your group right now. Don’t be concerned about anything outside of or beyond that.

    A Better Idea … and this is VITAL … Remember that sharing leadership is part of the discipleship process. It was part of how Jesus discipled and developed Peter, James, and John in his group. Sharing leadership is also a vital ingredient in multiplying leadership, reproducing groups, and expanding the kingdom of God. It’s a necessary part of our great commission to go and make disciples of all nations.

Leaders who hog leadership keep God’s kingdom from growing. Don’t do that!

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Read More about Sharing Leadership with a Core Team

Leadership Is Not a Solo Act
The “Right Person” to Lead a Small Group
Two Rocket Boosters That Will Propel Your Small Group to Accomplish Christ’s Mission
How to Help Group Members Keep Growing and Growing

See more about how to develop a core team and share leadership in my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership.

You can also purchase it in Portuguese here! (I spoke on this topic at two conferences in Brazil in March 2014.) 

What Should Happen with a Leader Who Has No Time for God?

What should a church or small group pastor do when they discover that a small group leader is not spending time daily with God–assuming this is an ongoing issue?

Yes, there are times that most of us have gone through the desert, and perhaps we’ve allowed our time with God to slip down our priority lists. But we know these times are temporary.

But what should a pastor do if a leader confesses they have been stuck in this situation for a long time, and what should the pastor do if the leader seems to be OK with this (yes, these may be two different situations)?

  • Ask the leader to immediately step down from leadership … at least until this situation changes
  • Develop a personal weekly mentoring/discipleship process with the leader
  • Get a small group coach involved
  • Develop a training program to teach leaders how to have a quiet time
  • Enforce accountability upon the leader(s)
  • Nothing: This situation is between the leader and God
  • Other: ____

What would you do?

Please comment below.