What Do You Do When a Group Member Resists Spiritual Growth? (Commitment and Small Group Series #12)

What do you do as a leader when you want to see your group members grow and yet they seem reluctant, resistant, or even rancorous toward making a commitment to grow spiritually?

I remember a conversation I had with Bob, a small group leader at our church. Bob has a very intimate relationship with Christ that exudes from him. He told me about his frustrations with some of his group members who are not committed in their relationships with Christ. As Bob shared this with me, tears welled up in his eyes. Bob wants so much more for them, and his heart aches that they don’t seem committed to Christ or growing in their relationships with him.

My friend Murphy Belding always says the only person we can disciple is a willing one. Wise words.

As leaders, we must trust God to do what only God can do in a person’s life. That means I will be praying for that person constantly. I will invest into his life. I will encourage. I will offer to disciple him. I will ask if he’d like accountability for what he commits to. But I cannot make him do it. I do not want to make this commitment legalistic.

Jesus does not force his way into our lives to make us grow. He stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20. This passage is often used evangelistically—Jesus is knocking on the door of a lost person’s heart, inviting him to accept Jesus as Savior. But this passage is written to the church, to people who already claim Christ as Savior. Jesus is inviting his followers into deeper fellowship, deeper commitment, deeper intimacy with him.). And then he waits for us to respond to his voice and to open the door for him to come in. There is no legalism or judgment here. There is simply an invitation and an expectancy that we will respond to him.

Now, imagine you are in the room with a group member who seems uncommitted to Christ and to growing in him. Your job is not to answer the knock on the door for him. Neither is it to push him to the door. It’s to lovingly encourage the person to respond and to show him the way by the way you respond to Jesus.

Tomorrow I will share more about this grace-filled commitment that we as individuals and groups can make to discipleship.

Parts of this post are adapted from Chapter 7 of my book, Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish. Get your own copy here. 

Does Commitment to a Group Depend on the Correct Chemistry? (Commitment and Small Groups Series #8)

I received a question on another site to the first post in this Commitment and Small Groups series.


QUESTION: Just was reading about the group that got tattoos, wow! I wish that symbolism transferred to the heart. Discipleship is a tough tackle. … That particular group probably has the right people in if they were all willing to ink up together. So much of it is getting the right spiritual chemistry. Some groups have a short shelf life because those people were not good material? 


I’m not sure I’d say that some groups have a short life just because of bad chemistry, although that’s possible. But that’s kind of like saying people get divorced for the same reason. Yes, that happens, but this is my point: commitment to one another, accepting one another, loving one another “as is,” being patient with one another, honoring one another above yourselves, being devoted to one another in brotherly love, … all trump the way we humanly think people fit.

Here’s another way to think about it. Small groups work not because they are made up of the “right people”; they work because in a small group community God can form us into the right people!

Yes, it takes some level of commitment to have “Jesus” tattooed on our arms, but it takes even more commitment to allow him to ink our hearts in a way only he can to change us from the inside out into the kind of people who love one another unconditionally and love others to him.

Discipleship is indeed a tough task, but not impossible, of course. When people commit to Christ, commit to their group, and commit to mutual discipleship, however–counting the cost for that high calling and high commitment, depending on the Holy Spirit to make the changes–we grow as disciples who go and make disciples.

This is why we do small groups!

How and When to Launch a Small Group: The Role of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, Laundry Rooms, Swimming Pools, and Game Nights

Right after Heidi and I got married, we moved into a forty-unit apartment building. We wanted to start a small group to reach out to the people who lived there who did not have a relationship with God, but we had no idea how to start one. So I asked Glen, a minister at the church we attended, how we should proceed.

“I don’t think you should do a group yet,” he said. “Build some friendships with the people first, pray for the people there, and then ask some of those friends to a small group when the time seems right.”

“But how will we know when the time is right?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Just pray. The Holy Spirit will let you know,” he said.

That wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for. My pragmatic nature wanted a specific date and time and a 10-point list of how to’s. But we did what Glen suggested – making friends, praying, looking for the Spirit to move. We found out where people liked to hang out, and hung out with them: at the swimming pool, at one another’s apartments, in the front lobby. We looked for opportunities to build friendships as we rode the elevator, did laundry, and helped people who were moving in. We went to various parties and game nights at others’ apartments. We drank our diet cokes while they drank their beers and partook in a variety of other mood-enhancing substances – and we found we got better at the games as the night progressed! We asked them about themselves, listened to them, loved them, and did not judge them. But we lived as Christians before them.

A year and a half later we were still befriending, praying, and watching. I thought Glen was crazy. We wondered if the Holy Spirit would ever “let us know.” Then one evening Sherry, the apartment building manager, stopped me. She told me that Sigma, who lived in the building with her boyfriend, Vic, had been approached by a member of a cult and invited to attend a Bible study with them. Sherry asked me to talk to Sigma about this cult.

Sigma and about six other people from our building were sitting around a table by the swimming pool. I told Sigma what I knew and answered her questions. In the midst of our conversation, a longhaired guy who wore black AC-DC T-shirts and sometimes smelled like marijuana said, “Why don’t we just start our own Bible study here?”

Someone else chimed in, “Yeah, we can meet at my apartment, and I’ll make snacks.” Someone else said, “or we could meet at different people’s apartments each week. We could invite other people from the building too!”

Then Sherry looked at me and said, “This sounds great, but we need someone who knows about the Bible to lead this … Mike, would you lead it?”

I don’t know. The I’m still waiting for the Holy Spirit to let me know …  The thought only lasted a second. 

I said yes and then sat back in my chair and let them plan the whole thing. A week later we started a study on the basics of Christianity. First Vic came to Christ. I baptized him in the apartment building’s swimming pool early one Sunday morning, waking up half the building when Vic let out a whoop as he entered the cold water. Sigma gave her life to Christ later on. Eventually everyone in that group turned their lives over to Jesus as Savior and Lord, some after we had moved away from the building.

Never forget that “your” small group is God’s endeavor, for which we as leaders have the privilege of being His ambassadors. Nothing of real significance is ever accomplished in a small group apart from God’s leading and power. If we will allow Him to work and trust in His timing, He will surprise us every time! 

I first wrote about this story in Chapter 6 of Leading from the Heart: A Group Leader’s Guide to a Passionate Ministry

Your Small Group Can Be a Fireplace (but it’s not the fire)

Our country needs revival. Our churches need revival. And some believe small groups are the answer. They aren’t. Small groups have no more chance of initiating revival than a fireplace has of starting a fire. No programs, methods, philosophies, or forms can bring about what only God can do. Regardless of how biblically sound, culturally relevant, and structurally effective they are, small groups do not themselves bring rebirth.

Even the best small group leader cannot bring revival. No amount of training, spiritual giftedness, or holy passion will bring it about. Only God creates, initiates, and orchestrates revival. Only God. 
Jesus told his followers that he could do nothing on his own but only by the Father’s initiation (John 5:19; 6:38, 44: 7:16; 8:28). If God’s Son worked from this viewpoint, how can we claim that our methods, models, or ministries can do anything? No, our small groups are not the answer. A newer model is not the answer. A new system from a big, growing church is not the answer. What they’re doing in some faraway country is not the answer. Better leadership training is not the answer. Even this blog post and the books I’ve written are not the answer!
Jesus is the answer. We can do nothing apart from God. The Holy Spirit is our real leader. Small groups can be the fireplace where the fire starts, but let’s get rid of the notion that small groups are the fire – or even the match. 
How can your small group(s) become a fireplace? I’ll write more about that in the next several posts. 
This post is adapted from a section of Leading from the Heart, Chapter 6. 

How to Add More Candles to Your Cake (So You Can Become More Childlike)

It takes maturity to have childlike faith.

This is a vital principle for the Christ follower. It’s fundamental for a Christian leader. It’s basic for discipling someone. This is Part 3 of a series in which I’m exploring one Bible verse: “[God] bends down and listens” (Psalm 116:2). (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

I defined childlike faith as “complete trust in our Daddy, even when it does not make logical sense in the mind of a wise and clever grown-up.” That “wise and clever” verbiage comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:25-26, in which he thanked the Father for “hiding the truth from those who think themselves so wise and clever, and for revealing it to the childlike.” Truth is hidden from these people because of their own self-righteous attitudes. When you and I grow out of our adolescent mind-sets and become mature, then, and only then, can we become childlike in our faith. Then God, rather than ourselves, becomes sufficient. 
But here’s the rub. Some people, perhaps many people from my observation, are still adolescents when it comes to their faith. Years as a Christ-follower have nothing to do with it. Trust and surrender are the keys.
What keeps people from trusting God rather than themselves? Many things. One that I’ve observed comes from a mistrust of important authority figures in our lives. How can we have complete trust in our Daddy, even when it does not make logical sense, when our trust has been shaken or shattered by a less-than-perfect human mom- or dad-figure in our lives? I want to be very clear. We must be discerning in our human relationships. When we have experienced manipulation and abuse especially from a parent, chances are we will need help to overcome this. We may need to put up some boundaries. We need to do some work in our lives to put more candles on our birthday cake, as one counselor friend puts it. And we need our Heavenly Daddy to help us do all this! But how? How do we make the leap of trust? 
By acknowledging the truth: God is trustworthy. He never fails. He never gives up. He never leaves or forsakes us. He is worthy of our trust even when our human models fail us. 
I want to encourage you as you read this today. Trust your Daddy–your Heavenly Father, that is–audaciously, unreservedly, unhesitatingly. You are not so wise and clever to figure this out for yourself, so surrender that to him. You need him to add more candles to your cake so you can become more childlike. 
I’d love your feedback on this. Have you experienced this battle for trusting God? How so? 

A Daddy Who Stoops Down

A dad stops what he is doing to bend down and really listen to his child. It’s not that the dad doesn’t have other things on his mind; he certainly does. This dad is making a statement: My child is important. I may have the positional power and persuasion of a parent, but I will stoop down to my child’s level because I love this kid. I want to look into my child’s eyes and really listen.

This is a picture of our heavenly Daddy.

Because he bends down and listens, I will pray as long as I have breath! (Psalm 116:2, New Living Translation)

He loves us so much that he makes us his priority. He bends down. He cares. He listens. He acts.

I love this imagery, this personification of God. He is the Creator of the Universe, all-powerful, all-knowing, the Alpha and the Omega, and he bends down to look his precious child in the eyes and listen attentively. (The New International Version translates the phrase as “he turned his ear to me,” which is not nearly as picturesque; the Revised Standard Version and others translate it as “he inclined his ear to me,” which pictures God bending over to listen, either because he cares enough for me to do so or because my voice is so weak that he must — or both!)

This is exactly what the Father did when he sent Jesus down to us. He humbly stooped down to our level so he could look us in the eyes and feel our pain. He stooped down to wash his follower’s feet. He stooped down to serve us, especially in the ultimate act of service and self-sacrifice when he took on our sins as if they were his own and died on the cross so we could be forgiven.

God the Father stoops down to us. We don’t–we can’t–reach up to him by our own wisdom and work. I’ll come back to this thought tomorrow … because God’s stooping down to us requires something from us, and it’s not working harder or trying to measure up. It’s something so easy and yet it’s something so many of us have so much trouble doing.

For today, just pray, knowing that your Daddy is stooping down to you. He’s listening.

Pay Attention to the Obstacles in Your Life

God is constantly removing obstacles from our path or placing obstacles in our way. Both reveal his compassion and power in our lives. 

Psalm 114 describes in beautiful poetic imagery God’s power on Israel’s behalf as they came out of Egypt on a journey to the Promised Land. This psalm shows Almighty God clearing the way for his people, removing the obstacles in their way, providing for their needs. The earth literally responded to his commands so that his  purposes for his people could take place his way.

It’s not mentioned in this psalm but it’s worth noting that God also put obstacles (forty-years worth) in the way of the Israelites to teach them and bring about his ultimate purposes in his ways.

He still does the same today. When we trust him and walk in his ways, keeping in step with the Spirit, living with a your-will-be-done attitude, we can be assured that he is out in front of us, clearing the way. But when we are off the path he has marked for us, going our own way, pushing our own agenda, he will lovingly place obstacles in our way to deter us from going that way.

Here’s an approach to assessing your walk with God. As you go, as you pray, does it seem that he is clearing the way for you? Perhaps that means you are on the right path, his path. This is the framework of Romans 8:28; God is indeed working for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

On the other hand, are you constantly running into barriers? Is your “Promised Land” becoming more and more of a distant, hazy, seemingly unreachable goal? Do you feel like you’re wandering in circles, bumping into obstacles? Perhaps you are off his path. The most loving thing God does in our lives is not allow us to wander down a path that leads to destruction and death. Obstacles are often his warning signs to us: Danger ahead! Wrong way! Turn around! Yield to Me! 

(This does not mean all suffering in life is caused by God’s discipline. On this planet, in this current age, troubles will come to those who are on God’s path as well as those who are not. I am suggesting, however, that we should carefully, prayerfully evaluate the signs and obstacles along life’s way, especially those that keep reoccurring.)

The first step in the right direction is this: I want your will, Father, not mine (Luke 22:42).

What do you think? 

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:

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.