“Why Small Groups Matter to Me”: My Story

I’m kind of known for being passionate about small groups. While it’s not really small groups themselves that I’m passionate about, but rather for how God uses the authentic community that occurs in healthy groups to transform lives, people sometimes ask why I’m so big on small groups. Here’s my story, written for SmallGroups.com.

When I was a new Christian, I started searching for a church. After three months of searching on my own, I finally decided to pray about it. I asked God to help me find a church like the one in the Book of Acts, which I had just started reading, a church where I could make friends and grow in my new faith. I lived by myself in a one-bedroom apartment and had no family in the area. My only acquaintances were people I worked with, most of whom were not Christians. The next day I came home from work and got a strange call. It was a wrong number—misdialed by one number. Before I could hang up, though, the lady on the other end asked me if she could tell me a little about her church. READ THE REST AT SMALLGROUPS.COM

Why are YOU big on small groups? I’d love to hear your story as well!

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

People are talking about mental illness, depression, and anxiety right now, and that’s a good thing. Recently, Carlos Whittaker wrote a thoughtful blog post, “My Panic Attacks, My Mental Illness, And The Church’s Dirty Little Secret,” which, at the time of this writing, has received 181 comments.

Unfortunately, people simply don’t understand mental struggles like depression and panic attacks unless they or someone in their family experience them. Each one of us in my family deal with depression, anxiety, or both. I’m no expert, but I believe this is hereditary. Both my wife’s parents have dealt with these issues. My mom would never have admitted to having depression or anxiety, but I clearly remember her taking her “nerve pills.” Several of my cousins on my dad’s side of the family have also suffered. 
I believe leaders in our churches need to better understand and learn how to more effectively deal with mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. “Just get over it” does not help. “Maybe you just need to pray more” and “If you just had more faith …” are not real answers. My family has heard these and other religious cliches that reveal a lack of both understanding and empathy.

Jesus, on the other hand, treated people with compassion. Others, including Jesus’ followers, often did not understand people’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual brokenness, which led them to push these people to the fringes of society. Jesus stood out by touching–physically and emotionally–these people, listening to them, caring about them, and bringing wholeness.

How do you treat people in your group who deal with mental or emotional disorders? Do you treat them differently than those who have physical disease? When people tell me to “just get over” my Type-1 diabetes, which I’ve had for more than 40 years, or when they give me the latest cure-all (eat cinnamon!), or when they tell me that if I just had more faith, I’d be cured of my diabetes (see what Jesus said about that in John 9:1-3), I realize they are simply ignorant.

Perhaps my attitude needs to change as much as theirs. Those of us who suffer from any number of afflictions, including the suffering that comes from others’ words, get to practice grace. We get to be like Jesus, and simply forgive them, since they really don’t know what they’re doing. We get the opportunity to love unconditionally, even when our brothers and sisters in Christ act like complete idiots. And that’s what living in authentic community within the Kingdom of God is all about.

How to Deal with the Person NO ONE Wants in their Group

Dilbert on Dealing with Challenging People in Your Group

The Most Important Thing You Do Today: It’s Not Reading the Bible!

As I opened my Bible and started reading this morning, I had to stop myself after the first stanza of Psalm 104. Something was missing. Rather, someone was missing. I found myself reading to be reading. But that’s not what God’s Word is for.

So I stopped reading. I looked out the sliding glass doors that overlook the woods in our backyard and smiled at the beauty of the sun rising through the still-bare trees. The birds were singing in unison with all of nature at the beauty of the morning. I worshiped along with the birds and then simply talked to the Creator of it all, asking him to speak to me in his Word this morning. I asked him to guide me as I live for him today through the words I was about to read. I asked him to change me as only he could through his Holy Communication with me. Then I turned back to my Bible and began reading again.

Praise the Lord, I tell myself; O Lord my God, how great you are! You are robed with honor and with majesty (Psalm 104:1, New Living Translation). 

I write this blog for followers of Christ, but I especially want to use these posts to speak to small group leaders. I believe that God uses ordinary people like you to grow his kingdom and change the world, and he does that only as you receive from him what only he can give. Then he overflows his love, grace, power, peace, and wisdom out of you and into others.

The most important thing you will do today is spend time with God. So I want to remind you today to stop whatever else you may be doing and, if you haven’t already, spend some time with him. And don’t just read the Bible. Communicate with your Creator. See what he has to say to you. He’s waiting.

May the glory of the Lord last forever! The Lord rejoices in all he has made! (Psalm 104:31, NLT). 

Seven Steps to Share the Leadership of Your Group

I’ve written in other posts about the Vital Sign of Sharing Leadership with a Core Team of two or three others. Today let’s talk about HOW you can move from leading solo to team-leading the group. Here are seven steps you can take.

1. Share the load. Ask God to show you whom you should ask to be part of the core team and begin to share leadership with them. Here are a few things that will help you discover the right people for the team:

  • Don’t recruit, at least not in the usual way we usually think of “recruiting.” Instead, ask the Lord of the Harvest to send these “workers.” Trust him to help you know whom to ask.
  • Know what you’re looking for. Look for potential, not perfection. Look for servants, not saints. Look for humble hearts, not superior skills or incredible intelligence.
  • Look around you. Perhaps God has already put your core team members right around you. They may be the people in the group with whom you already have close relationships or those whose gifts complement yours.
  • Don’t do it all. 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.
  • Don’t over-program this! You don’t need to have a big meeting to announce new leadership positions in the group, with official titles and name badges. (You don’t need no stinkin’ badges!) Just ask a few people in the group to share some of the leadership roles with you.
  • Share ownership with everyone in the group. Share leadership with a selected few. See “Share Ownership, Share Leadership” for more on the difference between the two.

2. Don’t go back! I’ve known leaders who have a core team but then continue leading alone. Don’t do it. In fact, ask your core team to hold you accountable. The next step will help with this.

3. Create a clear plan of action. Who on the core team will do what and when? How will you communicate with one another? How often do you want to meet separately from the group to play, pray, and plan?

4. Share shepherding/discipleship. Look at your group’s roster when you meet with your core team. With whom do your core team members have natural relationships? Utilize those friendships as a point of origination to shepherd them through the core team members. In one group at our church, a core couple with young children strategically shepherded the other couples with kids. It was a natural alignment. Later, as the group grew, the couples with kids launched a new group. It could not have happened more organically and easily!

5. Actively develop core team members. Leadership development is easier with the core team approach, but it requires intentionality on your part. Strategically give your core team members opportunities to lead meetings. Then visit with the core team to encourage and provide feedback. If you do this with other core team members, everyone will benefit and become an encourager. I like doing brief recap sessions right after a meeting, when possible.

6. Attend training sessions together. When your church has leadership training, recognition, or other small group events, the whole core team should attend. If your church only invites the main leaders to these trainings, extend an invitation to your core team. (Of course, make sure you’ve received approval from your church ministry leader first.)

7. Extend the Kingdom. Core teams make for healthier small groups, and healthy small groups grow. As you move to a core team approach, your group will surely grow and multiply. It is just the natural result of doing small group leadership as a team. In my church, we do not put any time limits or size limits on groups. We simply help them become healthy and the groups branch off or multiply naturally.


Big Buts in the Psalms: The Secret to Real Success

In my reading of the Psalms, I’ve encountered several huge buts. The psalmist usually begins the psalm with a lament about his current circumstances, how bad things are, how everything seems to be falling apart. And then the writer uses this simple, three-letter, transitional word … but.

But … and though the situation itself hasn’t changed, the psalmist’s attitude does. His outlook and focus changes. He turns his attention away from the circumstances and to his God who is way bigger than the circumstances.

This is why I think Paul told the Colossians to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1) and to “set you minds on things above, not on earthy things (Col. 3:2). In other words, we need to put our hearts and minds on Jesus, our only real hope and source of peace and power, not on the things of this earth that waste away and have so little to give.

On another occasion, Paul said he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11), and this man’s circumstances were rough! He said he had learned the “secret” of being content in any and every situation (Philippians 4:12). That secret was in his relationship with God.

Here’s a big, challenging question: Am I more desperate for God or for what he can provide? He desires a loving relationship with me, not neediness. He’s my Master, not my minion. And I believe the best gift God can give us is the withholding of giving us what we want until we turn our eyes off ourselves and our circumstances and to him. The secret is in the relationship.

When we turn our hearts and minds from the problems of this world and to Christ Jesus, everything changes. This is why Paul could write,

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! …
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7). 

God is on his throne in heaven and he will not be unseated! He is a covenant-keeping God, and I can rely on and trust in him. So can you.

So … have you come to your “but” yet?

A Man Named Simon: What we can learn from this man about the bad circumstances of life and how God can make them Good

On this Good Friday, I decided to read Mark’s account of what happened on that Friday when Jesus was sentenced, crucified, died, and buried. I’m not sure why, but today I was struck by one sentence, one verse, in this passage:

A man named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the country just then, and they forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus.) -Mark 15:21, New Living Translation 

That’s it. The Bible tells us little more about this man, and any other Bible reference to his sons (see Romans 16:13) seems like speculation, although it’s kind of cool to wonder!

Yet I started thinking about this guy, just a common man from the country who came to Jerusalem, like many others, to celebrate Passover. This man got caught up in something he probably knew nothing about, and he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

I doubt that Simon realized at the time the significance of what was happening to him. I doubt he realized in the moment that he had actually come face to face with the ultimate Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God, who was in the process of taking away the sins of the world (including Simon’s; see John 1:29). Perhaps he knew that carrying a Roman cross declared one’s guilt, but I doubt that he understood that this man whose cross he was carrying was innocent of this or any crime. I’m guessing Simon didn’t consider this to be a very good Friday at the time.

I can relate to this Simon. Like him and like you, I have found myself in circumstances I do not understand. I have no idea how God is working in and though this situation. It just seems things are out of control and often life has felt like a huge burden to carry. It’s easy to miss God’s bigger picture, his bigger purpose. Ultimately, I relate to Simon because, like him, I know I am the one who is guilty and yet Jesus took the cross and died upon it. The Holy One took the death penalty for the guilty ones so the guilty ones could become holy in God’s eyes. Amazing.

I don’t know if Simon got this at the time. Many feel he did eventually, though, and that he is called out by name here because he and his family were known in the church years later. I don’t know about that. but I do know that the the same Jesus that Simon encountered by chance that Good Friday is the Jesus who I am trusting this Good Friday.

By the way, as I thought about this verse today, I was reminded of the old song by Ray Boltz, “Watch the Lamb.” Yeah, it’s a little cheesy and I have some doubts about the historical accuracy (it’s just a fictional story based on that one sentence in the gospels), but it does bring Good Friday into perspective. Here it is:

The Sweet 16 of Authentic Small Group Community

These 16 commands for living in healthy, authentic community will help your small group change the world. Talk about one shining moment!

  1. Love one another.
  2. Be at peace with each other. 
  3. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
  4. Honor one another above yourselves.
  5. Live in harmony with one another. 
  6. Stop passing judgment on one another. 
  7. Accept one another, … just as Christ accepted you.
  8. Instruct one another.
  9. Serve one another in love. 
  10. Carry each other’s burdens.
  11. Be kind and compassionate to one another. 
  12. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
  13. Admonish one another. 
  14. Encourage one another daily. 
  15. Spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
  16. Confess your sines to each other and pray for one another so you may be healed.
Look through this list with your group. Which are slam dunks for you right now? With which ones do you need more practice? 

When Our Definition of Discipleship Keeps Us from Making Disciples

The church has redefined discipleship into churchmanship.

Living as a disciple takes intentional effort and, according to Jesus, requires us to make costly decisions. It means more than just sitting in a row in a church building or in a circle at a coffee shop or in someone’s living room.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul repeated the same message three times … that everyone should stay in the situation he was in when God called him (vv. 17, 20, 24). The implication is that every new believer is strategically positioned by God to be involved in his mission.

Often, however, new believers get the message that they are to withdraw from old relationships. Many fellow Christians have told me they can’t witness to non-Christians … because they don’t know any! They are kept so busy in the programs of the church that they never have the chance to make new friends with “those people they have nothing in common with.” This is so unfortunate, because when we become Christians, each of us is in a unique position of influence in the world. No one else has the specific opportunities that we have as ambassadors for Christ.

As small group leaders, we must be sensitive to this. Healthy small groups are mission outposts where together we carry the gospel into the world in which we live.

When we as believers begin to see ourselves as insiders in our part of the world–in the office or factory, in the school, in the neighborhood or apartment building, in the family–then the whole body will start working together as it should.
Here’s the thing. You and I must get outside our comfort zones, and maybe even outside other people’s comfort zones, in order to become insiders where God has placed us.

Mannequin Small Groups
Is Your Small Group Dead or Alive?
Outdulgent: Lessons from the Galloping Gourmet
Loving Each Other Too Much
Healthy small group leaders are friends with non-Christ-followers
More Rethinking Our Small Group Model … Going Deeper

Part of this article were adapted from my first book, The Synergy Church: A Strategy for Integrating Small Groups and Sunday School (Baker Books, 1996), which is out of print. You can find copies, however, on Amazon.com and other online book sellers. I will be including sections from this book in some of my upcoming blog posts. To see more information about this or any of my other 13 books and studies, click HERE.


Love & Hate

To be holy is to hate what is unholy. To love a holy God is to hate what is evil.

You who love the Lord, hate evil! He protects the lives of his godly people and rescues them from the power of the wicked. (Psalm 97:10, New Living Translation)

To hate something (the Hebrew word here is ‏שָׂנֵא‎, sane, pronounced saw-nay) means to be set in your mind and heart against it. To truly love people (1 John 2:9; 3:11; 4:7, 19-21), I must hate that which destroys their souls. Satan is the author of evil and he uses it to crush people.

While that is true in a general sense, I must personalize this verse.  I must be careful about hating the evil that is affecting other people more than I hate the evil that is affecting me. I must learn to utterly despise the sin, the unholiness, in my own life. I must see it as something that is putrid, ugly, and to be avoided at all costs. God will protect me against this evil and rescue me from the power of the wicked if I give him control, Lordship, over my life. I do this not just once, but every minute, every time I have a decision between evil and holiness to make.

I choose to be holy and I can do this only in the presence, by the power, with the protection, and for the purposes of my holy, sovereign Lord!

Leader, how do you view unholiness in your own life? To be a vessel that God uses to overflow his love and power, you must remove the filth. Otherwise the filth will overflow from you. You can live a holy life only in his presence and power, under his protection, and ultimately for his, not your own, purposes.

How do you see the unholiness in others’ lives? Jesus saw the flaws in other people with a compassionate heart and he sought always to lovingly heal, not condemn.

God Is Calling You to Something New Today!

We love brand new things, 
but most of us settle for the same old thing. 

Sing a new song to the Lord! Let the whole earth sing to the Lord! (Psalm 96:1, New Living Translation)

Today is a new day.
This is the beginning of a new week.
Today could be the beginning of a new life.

In what same old ruts are you stuck?
What same old routines are binding your small group? Your church? Your family?

Ruts can become very comfortable places.
God calls his people out of the old and comfortable into new things.
God calls his leaders to new things.
(Think of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Elisha, Peter, Matthew, Saul, …)

To get out of the comfortable same old thing, you must count the cost.
And that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus has a brand new wardrobe for you to wear today!
Don’t cut it up to patch your old clothes!

He has new wine for you to enjoy.
Don’t put it in the same old container.

The Day is coming … “everything new” (Rev. 21:5)!
Jesus: the mediator of a new covenant through his blood (Heb. 12:24)
gives us a new birth (1 Peter 1:3).

Is it time to sing a new song to the Lord? 
What new things is God doing in my life right now? 
What new things is he teaching me? 
In what new ways can I serve him? 
What new, creative ideas will he give me today?
What new people does he want me to meet?
What new places does he want me to go?