Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week for June 6-10, 2016

Here are last week’s Small Group Leader TIPS as Tweeted, posted on our Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

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Monday, 6/6: Encourage mbrs of your community to spend time in solitude w/ God. Each practice makes the other stronger.

Tuesday, 6/7: Try different approaches to Bible study. e.g., Read various “I will” statements of God and discuss/apply.

Wednesday, 6/8: Try this: Study a “one another” pssg from the NT each week and find specific ways of doing each one.

Thursday, 6/9: Tell grp mbrs to find a Bible verse on a topic (i.e. ldrshp) and come to next mtg ready to discuss it.

Friday, 6/10: Ask this question: What can we learn/apply as a GROUP from this Bible passage?

Go ahead: Copy and paste these to tweet or post them to your followers!

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS here!

Is It Well with YOUR Soul?

As a shepherd leader, you are undoubtedly concerned about those you lead. You care about their souls. You pay attention to their spiritual conditions and want to lead them deeper with God.

At least I hope so.

Being in a small group is—or should be—good for your soul as well. But I’ve found, through my own experience and from talking to other leaders, that this is not necessarily so.

Last week I attended a regional gathering of small point people from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. The theme was caring: for our leaders and ourselves. We began by worshiping together, singing several songs, one of which was “It Is Well with My Soul.”

I felt like a liar as I sang those words.

Because my soul has been troubled lately. I won’t go into all the reasons here, but, even as I sang, my soul felt . . . not well at all. It felt stressed, hurting, depressed, even lonely . . . as I stood in the midst of a bunch of fellow community and discipleship junkies.

And I knew I was probably not alone.

Allow me to digress for just a moment. When I take a step back and consider the big picture of my life, I realize how blessed I am. In the big picture, my soul is well. I have a strong relationship with my heavenly Father who loves me despite myself. He provides for me every day. I have a loving wife and four good kids. I have friends. My health is good. I could go on and on counting my blessings.

But let’s face it: our many blessings don’t always add up to a soul that is well.

When my soul is not well, I know I need at least four things:

  • I need more time with God in the “ordinary” disciplines of Bible study and prayer, perhaps extended time away from all my projects, to-do lists, etc. to be with God in a solitary place.
  • I need more time with my friends—the opposite of the above. I need a both-and solution, and I’ve learned this is a symbiotic relationship. Both of these makes the other one stronger.
  • I need to serve others, taking my focus off myself and putting it on other people. When I surrender, my soul grows stronger. (Does that make you think of the Grinch?)
  • I need more time doing some of the “out of the ordinary” types of disciplines. For me, this includes personal worship. Actually, I like to spend time on a regular basis worshiping God. Worship is a lifestyle, not an event. But I’ve learned that extended time in personal worship helps me more than just about anything else when it is NOT well with my soul.

Let me briefly discuss that last one a little more. I try to find different ways to worship God.

One way is to take a walk in a woods where nature sings to me the majesty of God, and I simply join in that worship.

Another way is something I did this morning: singing praise and worship songs to God. To help me do this, I created a YouTube channel that I play in full screen on my laptop. I chose praise songs that help me focus on God, ones that include the lyrics so I can sing along. If you like this idea, you can view it below. I believe you can also subscribe to it.

What other ideas have you used to attend to your own soul? Please share them below.


How to Start Every Day: This WILL Change Everything!
The Counter-Intuitive Cure for Leader Stress and Burnout
The Most Important Thing You Do Today: It’s Not Reading the Bible!
What Do You Do When Life Sucks?

The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned … #2: Community Is Not All It Should Be (even in Brazil)

It’s been a couple weeks since returning from my trip to Brazil, training cell pastors and leaders at two conferences. Yesterday, I shared the first of some of my discoveries from my trip: Community Is a Way of Life in Brazil, and because of that cells fit into that culture.

While I believe that’s true, I also noticed that the Brazilian church, like the church in most places, is still lacking many of the biblical components of true, authentic community. That’s my topic for today:

2. Community Is Not All It Should Be.
I’ll tell the truth. When I was asked to speak to the pastors and leaders in Brazil, I wondered what I had to teach them. I’ve heard so much about the strength of the church and the cells in Brazil. I was told they are the “cell-group Mecca.” One widely known cell-church leader told me the Brazilian Christians “are far ahead of us in experiencing the supernatural presence and power in their cells than US churches experience.” Another cell-church leader told me about a church in Brazil with 10,000 cells.

It’s easy to idealize (even idolize) the churches in other countries. We read about the great things God is doing there, the growth of the churches through groups, the spiritual vitality of the people. But we don’t always hear about the weaknesses. Afterall, they had asked me to come and speak specifically about leader burnout and the vital signs of healthy groups.

While in Manaus, in the northern part of the country, the pastor of the church where the conference was held told me about some of the struggles many of their cells had. These sounded very familiar to me.

Lack of Authenticity
While the Brazilian people naturally share life together, they still seem afraid to share deeply about their inner lives. Like so many people I know, they tend to hide from one another, a situation that’s been around since Adam and Eve after the Fall (Genesis 3:8).

Lack of Confession
This hiding results, of course, in abandoning the New Testament admonition of confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another so that we may be healed (James 5:16). I could tell, even through our language barrier, that this pastor yearned to see his people be able to break free from their sin through authenticity, confession, and prayer. Oh, for more pastors who have this level of compassion for their people!

Lack of Christ-Centeredness
I spoke in my second session about the idea that a healthy group is a Christ-centered community. Even in my remarks, I mentioned that much of this was probably review for them, but after the end of the session in both cities where I spoke, many people thanked me for sharing this vital principle. Like so many groups, many of them had let other priorities rather than Christ take first place in their groups. Satan is tricky. He gets groups focused on otherwise good things that take our attention off of Christ, and the result is we don’t experience his presence and power or carry out his purposes as we should.

Spiritually Struggling Leaders
I sensed the Holy Spirit leading me, over and over, to speak truthfully and personally about the vitality of leaders’ spiritual lives, taking time, regardless of how busy they are, to spend time with God, to get away from the crowds and their groups and to spend time in solitude with the Father. In Aguas de Lindoia, I felt led to share my own story of allowing my ministry to come before my relationship with God and my relationship with my wife, and the terrible toll that took. Many pastors hugged me afterward, some with tears in their eyes and very firm holds on my shoulders, thanking me for sharing. It’s so easy for us as leaders to confuse our priorities–to allow our passion for God to become a consuming zeal for ministry that then takes over our lives. Our call as leaders is to delight ourselves in the Lord, not in our ministry. God overflows through leaders who delight in him. He gives them the desires of their hearts.

Read the rest of the posts in this series HERE

Silencing the Monkeys in the Banana Tree

I came across a quote in an article by Henri Nouwen recently that made me laugh and then made me think:

Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down.*

This is hilarious … and true … and sad. I’m so distracted with so much. Even as I write this, I have Monday Night Football on and am eating a couple pieces of toast. I’m thinking about my day tomorrow and a meeting I need to plan, and a million other things.

Maybe you’re like me. I sit down to have a time with God every day. Just an hour or so to be close to my Father. To hear from him, talk with him, surrender my day to him. And then the monkeys start jumping up and down.

I really desire to be a man after God’s own heart, and I know that starts in solitude with God. Nouwen defines solitude as “being with God and God alone,” and we need to create space in our lives for that. But it’s so hard to spend time with God alone when the monkeys are in the trees.

God wants to tell me, You are my beloved. You matter to me. Be still and know I am your God. But I still hear the monkeys constantly chattering, What about what you thought about last night? Try harder. Work more. Prove you are beloved. You can’t. You’re not good enough.

For me, this is all part of what it means to become more like Christ, who heard the same monkeys chattering and yet was not distracted by them. He was able to stay focused on hearing God’s voice above all the noise. As Nouwen put it,

Jesus listened to that voice all the time, and he was able to walk right through life. People were applauding him, laughing at him; praising him and rejecting him; calling “Hosanna!” and calling “Crucify!” But in the midst of that, Jesus knew one thing—I am the beloved; I am God’s favorite one. He clung to that voice.

In the same article, Nouwen says that solitude with God comes first, and then community and then ministry. This is important for people who desire to be leaders after God’s own heart, leaders who bear fruit because we are connected with Jesus. But more on this in upcoming posts.

So … how do you silence the monkeys? What do you do to be with God and God alone?

* from the article, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Leadership magazine, Spring 1995.



When God Puts You on Hold

Quite often, God puts his children on hold. King David experienced this. “I wait quietly before God,” he said in Psalm 62. (Actually, David wrote often about this act of waiting on God.) I’ve experienced this and so have you. Perhaps you’re on hold right now.

God is always with us. It’s not as though we’re sitting on hold while he talks to someone else on the phone. God is omnipresent and, although I don’t know how, he can be listening to a thousand other people and me at the same time. He is not just omnipresent (as if that’s not enough!) he is fully present with me and others at the same time. He is listening and paying full attention, with all his compassion, to me … and you.

And yet, he often has us wait for him. He has his own purpose for this. I think a main purpose is so that we develop the relationship with him first. I find that the longer I follow him, the more I sometimes need to wait for his response. As a new Christian, he often responded to me very quickly, but now I need to wait on him more. Back then he was encouraging me that he was there. Now he is teaching me patience and trust.

Note that David waited “quietly” (the God’s Word translation says “calmly”). That means I come to him and I do not talk. This is hard! My brain is always talking! My Father wants me to be still and know he is God. He wants me to quiet my self-talk so I can hear him, not my own voice. He wants me to get rid of the distractions from the world so I can be attentive to his voice. More than anything, he wants me to trust him alone!

God may want more than a 5-minute “quiet time” that I rush through each day, where I’m doing most of the talking, or I’m reading someone else’s words. Spending time with God may mean spending more time than we think we have so that we are actually putting him, not out agendas, not our own plans and purposes, first.

King David said, “I wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.” David trusted God and so he did not get anxious as he waited. God’s got this, no matter how long I wait for him to answer me.

If God has you on hold right now and you are waiting for him to answer you, God has you right where he wants you! Trust him. All power belongs to him (v. 11). His love for you is unfailing. (v. 12).

What’s God doing while he has you on hold? How can you trust him more as you wait?

I Need Someone to Teach Me How to Live

I confess, even after 51+ years, I need the Lord to “teach me how to live” (Psalm 27:11). I don’t have this life-thing all figured out yet. I’m reminded of that fact every so often when I think I have everything under control.

God knows the best way for me to live. He knows the path ahead of me much better than I do, so I can trust him to lead me in the right direction (Psalm 25:4-5). Imagine taking a tour through a forest led by a guide who has been down this trail thousands of times, and yet constantly questioning his decisions or wanting to go your own way. Isn’t that what we do with God?

When I say, “teach me how to live, O Lord,” I must do 4 things: (1) humble myself; (2) surrender my will to his; (3) spend time with God alone so I can really listen to him; and (4) obey, no matter what I think or others tell me. I’m sure there are more. But these are the main ones for me.

God will teach me how to live when I live a God-centered (not a me-centered or problem-centered or what-everyone-else-thinks-centered) life. King David lived a God-centered life. in Psalm 27:1, he said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation–so why should I be afraid?” The apostle Paul understood this as well: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Both of these men put their focus on God, not their problems. They trusted God with all their hearts, and leaned not on their own understandings!

God will teach me how to live when I trust and obey his Word. I need a standard for how to live my life, and I believe God’s Word is that standard. I will choose to trust God’s way of doing life, which he has revealed in his Word. I believe His Word gives me the very best way to live my life, and I believe he never ever teaches me how to live in a way that is contrary to his Word.

God will teach me how to live when I choose to spend time with him. I’ve found that it takes discipline to make time to spend with him each day, but I can not know how to live if I don’t! God desires to spend this time with us and teach us his ways: “My heart has heard you say, ‘Come and talk with me'” (Psalm 27:8). What a privilege it is to hear God say, “Come, take some time and have a conversation with me today. I want to talk to you and hear from you.” I want my response to always be like David’s: “And my heart responds, ‘Lord, I am coming.'”

God will teach me how to live when I wait patiently for him (Psalm 27:14). God does not work on my timetable. Sometimes I’m not sure if he’s listening or not. Sometimes my Plan A does not work out, even when I thought I was doing it his way. Sometimes God teaches you in the midst of the pain, uncertainties, and waiting. Patience takes trust. Trust takes patience.

God is teaching me how to live today. How is he teaching you to live? 

How I Prepare to Spend Time with God

As I sat down to spend time with my Father this morning, I went through a ritual of sorts. Not the kind of dead ritual of thoughtless, purposeless religious duty, but a heart-felt practice I’ve developed over the years. I share it here hoping that you may find something that helps you drawl closer to God each day.

This is not a list. I don’t do everything here each day and not in any set order. These are just some of the things I pray as I sit down to spend time with God:

Thanks for the privilege of being able to come to you. I know it’s only possible because of what Jesus did for me.

I surrender what I want for what you want with my life. Not my will, but yours be done.

 You alone are God. I praise you. You are worthy of my praise, adoration, love … all that I am. (I often speak attributes of God, especially those that feel very true that day.)

I am sorry for my sin. (I take some time and take an inventory of where I’ve fallen short and confess it to God. I try to be tough on myself here and ask myself before God if I am really sorry for my sin.)

What do you want me to see today? What do you want me to hear from you?

What do you want to change in my heart?

In what area(s) am I conforming to the world rather than to you?

What part of my mind needs to be transformed/renewed?

Help me to be humble and quiet before you so that I can truly hear what you have to say to me. Help me set aside my own agenda or anything else that would keep me from hearing from you.

I know I have an enemy who does not want me to talk with you or hear from you. But I know you are for me and are fighting for me. Send your angel armies to protect me today. (I sometimes spend time here asking for God’s protection on my family and every other part of my life.)

Thank you for your Holy Spirit who guides me, comforts me, and counsels me. You have taken up residence in my heart and you have given me power through your Spirit to do the things you are calling me to do.

As I read your Word today, I acknowledge that it is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I want it to be my guide for living. I believe your Word gives me the way to live life your way, which is the absolute best way for me to live. I accept your Word for what it says.

Help me to obey what you tell me in your Word and through your Spirit. I will obey your Word!

It’s not about me. It’s all about you. I am your vessel. Show me what you want me to do today. Show me how you can use me to bring about your purposes. I am no longer my own. I belong to you.

I love you, Lord. I love you Father. I love you Jesus. I love you Spirit. I love you … but I know I only can do that because you loved me first. Thank you for your unconditional love for me. I know I don’t deserve it on my own accord, but I thank you Jesus that you redeemed me. I love you.

What to Do When Your Ministry Feels Like a Failure – Part 2: Respond When God Initiates

Yesterday I began a 3-part post about how to respond when you are not seeing any fruit in your ministry, small group, or just about anything else you are involved in. Read Part 1 here. In reading Isaiah and considering other Biblical leaders, I see two reasons why we face failure and what to do about each one. Today I’ll address the first one.

The prophet Isaiah faced certain failure. (In Isaiah 6:9-10, God actually told Isaiah that his ministry would cause people to harden their hearts and that they would be unable to understand or perceive God’s Word.) Isaiah was wildly successful in his failure, and we can see the main reasons in Isaiah 6:1-8. Pay careful attention to the progression:

First, Isaiah spent time with God, taking in his majesty (vv. 1-4). It’s significant that Isaiah saw the Lord in the Temple. If we want to meet with God, we must create the space for him. Before we can understand God’s purposes and plans for us, we must come into his presence and experience his power. 

Second, Isaiah came before God in complete humility (v. 5). He understood God’s holiness compared to his unholiness. To respond to God properly, we must know that he is God and we are not. He is transcendent.

Third, Isaiah was made holy by God’s touch (vv. 6-7). When we come before God in confession and repentence, he can and will purify our hearts and make us righteous. (See Ps. 51:10). Of course, the only way we can be purified and made holy for good is by faith in Jesus’ death for us on the cross. Because of that, we can come before God as new creatures in Christ. Now we can approach the throne of the Lord with boldness and confidence (Hebrews 4:1610:19), because now God sees the righteousness of Jesus in us.

Like Isaiah, before we are called to minister to others, the Lord Jesus and his angels must first minister to us. They must first forgive us and cleanse us and make us righteous in his sight. Notice that here again, solitude with God comes before ministry (see my blogs on solitude here). Once again, we minister only out of the overflow of what God pours into us!

Finally, Isaiah was ready to respond to God’s call (v. 8). Note that God did not command Isaiah to go (although it may be implied); he asked him, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” God left room for Isaiah to make a choice. Isaiah responded, “Me! I’ll do it! I’ll go for you!” Isaiah did not go out of his own initiative, but only through the calling of Almighty God.

This last point is vital for anyone who wants to be a leader after God’s own heart. If you lead from your own initiative, do not expect success in God’s eyes. You may obtain a certain amount of worldly success by ministering out of your own ideas and your own power, but in the grander scheme of things, what does that really matter?

This morning I was reading Chapter 6 of John Eldredge’s Waking the Dead. He talks about counterintuitive direction from God, something Isaiah surely received.

The particular foolishness of the church in the past century was Reason above all else. The result has been a faith stripped of the supernatural, the Christianity of tips and techniques. . . . Many of the churches and ministries I’ve known made their decisions by principles and expedience. We have our morals and we have our precepts, but where is the living God?

I think Isaiah would agree with this assessment.

If we want to be bear fruit, fruit that will last, we must be connected to the Vine. Apart from Christ’s presence, power, and purposes, we fail. 

What do you think? How important is God’s initiative in your leadership?

Solitude Before Discipleship?

I write this blog primarily for leaders. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about leaders and I try to speak to the hearts of leaders. So sometimes I might say something that can be misconstrued if read from a different perceptive than my target audience. This just happened today.

I posted a brief excerpt from my November 6 blog, “Solitude Before Community” on the new Discipleship Network site from NavPress. The blog on that site, along with the corresponding responses can be found here. In that excerpted Discipleship Network blog, I said,

It seems to me that in today’s church culture, we put everything else in front of solitude. Some put discipleship first. They say it all starts here. That we have to teach people how to grow and serve and share their faith….

Well, that drew the attention of at least one member of this discipleship network! He responded, in part,

How do we expect people to practice solitude without teaching them…or telling them they should practice it? Am I being silly here? … [W]hen I think of discipleship I am thinking that hands on teaching of what it means to be Christian and how to pursue Christlikeness. Is the practice of solitude important? Yes it is. Should it be taught. Yes. But it cannot be practiced without being taught. So I think discipleship comes first, or concurrently if you want to look at it that way….

I totally agree with him! Unfortunately, I did not differentiate my audience in that post, so please let me do so here. As leaders, our first priority is to spend time with God, and we need to get away with him in solitude, as Jesus often did, to accomplish this.

As leaders, our teaching, discipling, mentoring, evangelizing, serving … all come from the overflow of our hearts that primarily comes from time spent with the Father.

Yes, by all means let’s teach people how to have an intimate relationship with God, how to spend time alone with him as well as in community. But as leaders, let’s make sure we’re modeling that ourselves first.

Solitude Before Community

“Why is it so important that solitude come before community? If we do not know we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re going to expect someone in the community to make us feel that way. They cannot.” –Henri Nouwen 

I’ve been blogging a short series about our inner life, discipleship, community, and ministry, inspired by Nouwen’s Spring 1995 Leadership article (see blogs from November 1 and November 2). Nouwen suggests that many of us start by trying to do ministry ourselves. Then, when that doesn’t work, we try to beg others to help us, and then, finally, when it still isn’t working, we decide to pray about it. But Jesus acted in reverse. He began with God in solitude, then created a community who would carry out the mission together, and then finally they would serve together. It was within that context of what today we might call a “missional community” that Jesus did discipleship (note, not in a classroom or even in a circle in someone’s living room!).

It seems to me that in today’s church culture, we put everything else in front of solitude.

  • Some put discipleship first. They say it all starts here. That we have to teach people how to grow  and serve and share their faith.
  • Some put evangelism first. Our first priority, they say, is to carry out the mission to make disciples.
  • Some put leadership first. Everything begins with leaders who model the abundant life and bring others along, right?
  • Some put community first. After all, they say, all of this good stuff happens in the environment of authentic Biblical community. So we have to build small groups.

Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We seek God’s Kingdom by being committed to the King.

I’ve been involved in small groups ministry for a long time. I guess I’m kinda known by being a small groups champion and cheerleader. Several years ago, the leadership team at Northeast came up with words that would describe each staff member’s personality or passion. The word they used for me was community. Makes sense, but truthfully I didn’t like the tag. Can you say pigeon-hole? Silo? Type-cast?

I think we put the cart before the horse when we put community before solitude.

We need both, but especially as leaders, we must prioritize solitary times with God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in Life Together, “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.  Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Perhaps a reason that our small groups are sometimes not very healthy and they do not bear much lasting fruit is that the group members have so little time alone with God. On the other hand, in a group where individuals have been alone with God, they arrive with hearts prepared to share out of their overflow what God has been telling them. They reach out to others out of the overflow of what God is doing in their lives. They serve others together out of the overflow of time spent with a loving God. They step up to leadership because they sense God’s calling upon their lives.

Again, Bonhoeffer said, “Only in fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to be rightly in fellowship.” In your small group are people learning to be “rightly alone”?

Solitary means fasting from people for a specific time period in order to connect intimately with God and revive our souls. When group members are regularly spending time alone with God, it changes everything in the group!

Here’s how Nouwen said it

When you are aware that you are the beloved, and when you have friends around you with whom you live in community, you can do anything. You’re not afraid anymore. You’re not afraid to knock on the door while somebody’s dying. You’re not afraid to open a discussion with a person who underneath all the glitter is much in need of ministry. You’re free.

Do you really want your small group to be healthy? Start here! Discuss this as a group the next time you meet. Plan some solitary time alone with God yourself.

What do you think about this?
How does your time alone with God affect your community? Your ministry?
How’s your own solitary time with God?