Christians and Religious Knowledge

Have you seen the news lately about a Pew Forum survey on religious knowledge? Apparently Christians did not fare well. I took the survey online this morning and scored 80%. (Hey, it was really early, before my first cup of coffee.) Christian haters on the Internet and TV are using this as a “gotcha.” Some Christians are doing the same, pointing out that we need to become much more religiously literate.

I’m scratching my head. Is religious knowledge the hallmark of Christianity? The people in the Bible who were known for their knowledge were the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees (I got that one right, I think). The earliest church leaders, on the other hand, the ones who had been with Jesus for three years, were still known as “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). A false teaching prevalent in the times of the first-century church was called gnosticism, and part of that teaching is that knowledge is supreme. The apostle Paul fought this teaching in several of his letters, especially Colossians.

Our command as Christians is to love. Paul made it strikingly clear for us:

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1; see also 1 Cor. 13:2, 8; Eph. 3:19).

Don’t get me wrong. We need to understand the basics of our faith. We should be able to explain what and why we believe when asked. And we should all be growing in our knowledge and depth of insight.

But knowledge is not what we should be known for. Knowledge puffs up. (A friend took the Pew Forum quiz and actually bragged that he got 100%.)

Christians should be known for their capacity to love. So for me, let the skeptics and modern-day religious people babble on about knowledge. I’m sticking with Paul. I’m choosing love. Love builds up. Love never fails.

As for me …

Today as I was reading Micah 7, I stopped at verse 7: “As for me, I look to the Lord for his help. I wait confidently for God to save me, and my God will certainly hear me.”

“As for me…” This phrase appears 54 times in the Bible (NIV), often as a comparison of a godly person’s response to others in the world. The instance that immediately comes to my mind is Joshua 24:15: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (For deeper study, also see 1 Samuel 12:23; Ps. 55:23; Ps. 71:14; Ps. 73:28; Jer. 26:14; Micah 3:8. Even Pilate uttered these words at Jesus’ trial: “As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him”[John 19:6].)

Here, in Micah 7, the prophet has shared his heartfelt sorrow for the decline of the society around him. He said that the godly people have all disappeared (v. 2); they’ve become skilled at doing evil (v. 3). With that in mind, Micah says, but as for meMicah, like other leaders after God’s own heart, decided to be distinctive and distinguishable, even if others thought he was just weird.

So how do I respond? Others around me are doing ____, but as for me, I will _____. As for me and my family, we will _____. How would you fill in those blanks?

The world around us is getting increasingly evil. Even Christians (but are they “Christ followers”?) I know rationalize sin, dishonesty, and lack of integrity. But as for me, I will put God first and obey him. I will, by the Holy Spirit’s power, live a life of integrity and authenticity. I will, by His power within me, love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love my neighbor as myself.

Everyone who desires to be a leader after God’s own heart must also complete this phrase, As for me, I will _____.

Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me (Psalm 51:10-12).

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!”

Don’t Point Fingers, Leader

Did you know that as a spiritual leader, God will hold you accountable for the spiritual condition of the people you lead? You are a steward of the leadership responsibilities and the people He has entrusted to you (1 Peter 5:2, 3) and you and I will someday give an account to Him (Matthew 25:19; see vv. 14-30 for the entire parable).

In Hosea 4, God held the spiritual leaders accountable for the spiritual condition of the people.

“Don’t point your finger at someone else and try to pass the blame! Look, you priests, my complaint is with you!” (Hosea 4:4, NLT).

If you’re a leader, don’t point fingers at the people you’re leading. Look in the mirror first. God’s complaint may be with you!

In verse 6, God says, “My people are being destroyed because they don’t know me. It is all your fault, you priests, for you yourselves refuse to know me.” Spiritual growth–discipleship–begins with us as leaders. We know that. We’ve heard it before. But I wonder how seriously we take it.

As I read this passage, I feel the weight of my spiritual leadership responsibility. And I should feel that weight! People’s lives are at stake. Many people are depending on me to be a model of what having a real relationship with the living God looks like. God will someday hold me accountable for what I did with what he entrusted me. And yet, I realize that I don’t have to carry this heavy burden myself. In surrender, I can take it to Jesus, and he will provide me with rest and peace. In his presence and by his power the burdens–even the leadership burdens–are not heavy at all.

Jesus’ Small Group Curriculum

What curriculum did Jesus use as He led His small group?

That question seems absurd, at least to me. Jesus’ curriculum was life. He asked great questions and told great stories as He did life with His group. And so they learned how to live life as they observed Him and did life with Him.

One of my favorite quotes outside of Scripture is from Leroy Eims:

Disciples cannot be mass produced. We cannot drop people into a “program” and see disciples emerge at the end of a production line. It takes time to make disciples. It takes individual, personal attention. It takes hours of prayer for them. It takes patience and understanding to teach them how to get into the Word of God for themselves, how to feed and nourish their souls, and by the power of the Holy Spirit how to apply the Word to their lives. And it takes being an example to them of all of the above.

What Eims describes here is shepherding. The Best Small Group Leader Ever was a shepherd: the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, the Chief Shepherd. He had compassion on people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

I think Jesus is our best model for being a small group leader.

Which is why I believe small group leaders should be much more than just facilitators or hosts or disc-jockeys who put in a DVD and press the PLAY button. Small group leaders are called primarily, in my opinion, to be shepherds. When we take a minimal view of small group leadership, the members of our groups are still “like sheep without a shepherd.”

What do you think?

5 Ships Every Small Group Needs

A healthy small group needs 5 ships to carry out its mission:

  1. Fellowship: This one’s the flagship. A group needs authentic Christ-centered community to be healthy. But how do you get there? The other 4 ships flank and reinforce the flagship..
  2. Ownership: Share ownership of the group by making sure every member of the crew has a role in the group. I discussed this one in the January 28 post.
  3. Leadership: Share leadership with a Core Team of about 2-3 others. Don’t lead alone! I discussed this one on January 27.
  4. Partnership: Partnership sails together with Leadership. The Core Team partners with God and one another to lead the group. Partnership means you make decisions together, as a team. You partner together to shepherd the group. You each take on responsibility for discipling other members. You work together to develop other leaders. I discuss how to do this in much more detail in The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership.
  5. Discipleship: This is the battleship of the fleet. Discipleship is the reason you need the other 4 ships. The Core Leadership Team partners with one another to disciple the rest of the group, and the whole group should eventually take ownership of the the group’s mission to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Ships are of no use sitting in the harbor. A “ship shape” (healthy) small group ships out to carry out the Commander’s mission!