The Real Truth of the Christmas Story

Apparently, my Nativity scene—and yours—are all wrong. So are many of our favorite Christmas songs.

Jesus was probably born on the ground-floor or courtyard of a home, not a barn. The wise men were not present at his birth, and we don’t know for sure there were three of them. Jesus’ birth likely occurred in the spring, not in December. No mention of Mary riding a donkey in the biblical narrative. No innkeeper is mentioned either. Probably no star over the place where Jesus was born. And, of course, no little drummer boy either.

Writers and teachers have been quick to correct these factual errors for years, but our culture continues to perpetuate the misconceptions.

It’s funny what can distract us from the true meaning of Christmas.

Each of these misconceptions is a distinction without a real difference.

Yes, it’s important to get facts correct in the retelling of a story, especially one as important as this one. Which is why it’s so critical that people read the Bible to understand what really happened.

But let’s not major in minors. Let’s not get so caught up in the minutia that we miss the meaning of the most life-changing event ever to occur in human history. God took on human flesh in the form of a baby. He experienced all the things we do. He can identify with our pain. He empathizes with us. He understands. Because he became one of us. He came to us to redeem us from our sins.

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I won’t be correcting anyone’s misconceptions this Christmas. I’ll sing the songs. I’ll gaze in amazement at the Christmas creche with the star above and with shepherds and wise men, and even little drummer boys, all worshipping together.

Because that’s why Jesus was born—to live and to die for all of us—and that depiction at the manger is a picture of Heaven. All who believe in him, people from every age and culture, will be gathered together, this time around a throne rather than a feeding trough, worshipping our Lord and Savior and King.

 

 

 

12 Ideas for a Life-Changing Small Group Christmas

What is your small group’s plan for this Christmas season?

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. Here are 12 ideas for how your small group can get the most—and give the most—this Christmas. Pick one or two of these to do as a group!

1. Start New Traditions.
For most of us, the holidays are about traditions: eating huge meals together, taking a drive to see the lights, decorating the house, going to local events, and, of course, going to church services. Why not invite those from your group or others who are lonely to join you in some of your traditions? One Thanksgiving, I got to know a young man named Mark who lived at a homeless shelter. I invited Mark to family and church events during the holidays, and he enjoyed spending time with us. We also invited him to our small group gatherings, and Mark excitedly jumped right in. Mark had many needs, some of which we could not provide for, but we could reach out to him and offer him friendship, hospitality, and the love of Jesus. My family, my group, and I also benefited from inviting Mark into our traditions. His presence with us made those traditions even more meaningful for us. It’s easy to sing, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”; it’s another thing to go tell a homeless person that Jesus Christ is born.

Start new traditions with your small group. Each year several groups at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, help provide holiday meals for families who would otherwise not have a nice meal. They not only buy it, but they deliver it and pray for the families. Many of the groups at Northeast also work with Operation Christmas Child each year. One group basically “owns” this event, organizing it months in advance, helping collect shoe boxes and running the distribution center on our church property. Your small group tradition can be little or big; what matters is to do something together for the least of these.

2. Study the Gospels (All of Them)
Christmas lessons tend to rely on the narratives from Matthew and Luke, but there are many other alternatives, of course. Peter Mead (www.biblicalpreaching.net), a missionary and writer, suggests studying all four Gospel introductions, for instance. Introduce group members to Matthew’s introduction and then Mark’s. Discuss why Mark didn’t use the birth narrative, but jumped directly to the days leading up to the start of Jesus’ ministry. Then summarize the visitations, prophecies, and narrative of Luke 1 and 2. Wrap it up by studying and discussing John 1:1-18, which portrays beautifully the why behind it all.

3. 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 Small Group Study, 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. 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.

4. Celebrate Immanuel.
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.

5. Invite Friends to Christmas Services.
According to a recent LifeWay Research study, 61 percent of Americans attend church services at Christmastime. Which means, of course, that 4 out of 10 people do not attend. Yet, among those who don’t attend church at Christmas, 57 percent said that if someone they knew invited them to church at Christmastime, they would go. Commit as a group to invite your neighbors, friends, and co-workers to Christmas services. Encourage and spur one another on along the way.

6. Love Those Who Are Struggling.
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 come into the Christmas season 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. Give Gifts to the Least of These.
Years ago, I read Pastor Dick Alexander’s sage advice about gift giving that I’ve never forgotten. “Gifts are an integral part of Christmas,” he said, “but they can either express or distort its meaning.” He suggested limiting our gift giving to one another (in the family or small group). Your family or group may usually exchange gifts with one another (even though is Jesus’ birth we’re celebrating!). Instead, give gifts to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

As the body of Christ in action, your group has the privilege of penetrating the culture by serving people. After all, that’s what the Incarnation is all about. Here are a few ideas:

Eric Bingaman shared what his small groups at Batesville (Indiana) Christian Church have done in the past: “One group took a Saturday to watch the children of church members so they could get their shopping accomplished. One group went door to door Christmas caroling in their neighborhood.”

Chris McCall, Small Groups and Care Pastor at Watermark Church in Ashford, Alabama, said, “Our groups have connected with the local schools in our community to provide Christmas for needy families. Groups enjoy it because it’s more than providing gifts for the families; it’s about the relationships built with the families they provided for. A number of our groups have taken this opportunity to help them minister to the families outside of the holiday season throughout the year.” Yes, Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving throughout the entire year.

8. Throw a Party.
The holidays are an excellent time for a party with a purpose. Be creative: make it a story party, where each person comes prepared to share a short story about a Christmas past; or have a birthday party of Jesus with the kids. Or make it a Christmas-movie party. The main thing is to make this a party to which everyone can invite friends, especially those who don’t fully understand the meaning of Christmas. As Jesus did with Matthew’s friends in Matthew 9, simply enjoy the opportunity to connect with one another, and see what God will do.

9. Serve Together.
Most churches need lots of volunteers during Christmas services. Plan to serve together, if possible at one service in a specific ministry or area. Just ask church leaders what is neeeded and how you can serve together.

10. Build Deeper Community.
Spend an entire day together as a group. A Sunday may be best. (If you can’t do this in December, move it to January.) Go to church services together in the morning and then go out to eat. Go Christmas shopping together at the mall. Plan a party for the evening; ask folks to bring food to munch on throughout the evening, and watch family-friendly Christmas movies together or play games. Or go to a Christmas pageant together. Invite spouses, family, and friends of members.

11. Adopt a Family.
Ask your church or a community organization for the contact information for a local family in need. Find out what the family needs and then shop together for gifts. Schedule a time to greet the family and drop off the gifts. If possible, keep in touch after the holiday season and continue to serve. (Imagine the impact if every group, class, and team in your church did this!)

12. Plan for a New Year.
Sometime in December or early January, gather group members for a fun gathering that you use to plan for next year. Start thinking and preparing for this planning party now.
For many of us, the holidays are the biz, biz, busiest time of the year. Talk to your group members now to discuss some of the things you won’t do this year so that you can experience Immanuel—God with us—and be an Incarnational small group by taking the message of Jesus into the world around you.

QUESTION: What small group Christmas ideas not included here has your group tried? Tell us about it by COMMENTING below!

How to Celebrate Thanksgiving Well . . . Even if It’s Not Happy

I recently discovered 3 views on Thanksgiving that I had never noticed before. Perhaps they will help you better understand and live with thanksgiving .. . all year long.

1. Thanksgiving is an attitude, not just a day.

Look at the following Bible verses, especially the context for thanksgiving:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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).

What’s the context? First, don’t miss the word with. “With thanksgiving” means it’s an attitude that is part of our lives. Instead of worrying, we are to be thankful. In every situation. In every circumstance of life. Even if you don’t have much in life to be happy about.

Several years ago, during the darkest, scariest, saddest time of my life, I was very anxious about my circumstances. During that time, Philippians 4 became a go-to passage for me. I decided to try to substitute worrying with prayer, presenting myself and my circumstances to God, trusting him with the outcome. I began to learn how to pray with thanksgiving! I learned to be thankful well before I received any answers from God. I discovered how to be thankful before God responded to my prayer—even if he didn’t respond as I wanted him to. I learned to trust him!

People who love God learn to trust him no matter what, in every situation and circumstance (see Philippians 4:11-13).

Thanksgiving is an attitude you can have year round.

 

2. Thanksgiving is sacramental and sacrificial.

The word for “thanksgiving” in Philippians 4:6 is also used in 1 Corinthians 11:23-24:

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The word used in both cases is a form of the Greek word eucharistos. Sound familiar? Eucharist literally means “giving thanks” or “gratitude.” Eucharist became the word believers (sometime before 100 AD) used for the sacrament or celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion.

This is incredibly significant! As followers of Christ, we give thanks weekly, even daily, for Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, which bought for us eternal life with him!

Yet there’s more. Jesus celebrated this meal, this Lord’s Supper, and gave thanks to God shortly before he was betrayed, handed over to the authorities, tried, scourged, and finally crucified. Jesus was giving thanks—eucharisteo—as he entered into his deepest and darkest life circumstances.

Sometimes, thanksgiving is sacrificial, an act of surrender!

 

3. Thanksgiving is an act of worship.

That word, eucharistos,is defined in a Greek dictionary as an act of worship. Worship is more than something we do in a building one day a week. Like thanksgiving, it’s an attitude. Jesus said that our worship is about our hearts, not our locations (John 4:21-24).

Happiness is circumstantial, but true thanksgiving can be lived out despite the circumstances. Let’s live this and every day with thanksgiving, even if Thanksgiving isn’t happy.

How are you celebrating thanksgiving, in the truest definition for that word, this year? Please share by commenting below.

 

Small Group Leader TIPS of the Week: Oct. 24-28, 2016

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

This week’s TIPS focus on WORSHIP in a small group.

QUESTION: Do you worship in your small group? Why or why not? If you have, what additional TIPS would you add? Please share your responses by clicking the Comment box below.

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS here!

 

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Idolatry in Small Groups: Warnings & Remedies

Small Group Ministry Leader, if you discovered that one of the small groups under your care was engaging in idol worship, what would you do?

Small Group Leader, if your small group ministry leader came to you to warn you to stop worshiping idols, how would you respond?

In both he Old and New Testaments, idol worship is strictly forbidden and considered detestable (e.g. Ex. 20:4, 23; 22:20; 1 Cor 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21), and yet many small groups are engaging in this wicked practice every week. No, I’ve never seen a group pull out a golden calf, but man-made objects are not the only false gods people and groups bow down to.

The first commandment is clear: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). The next three, and in many respects, all of the rest of the commandments, are based on this one. Whatever we place before God, his Word, his Kingdom, his call, and his mission becomes our idol, our master (see Matt. 6:24), and the focus of our attention.

This, of course, is serious and vital for groups to recognize. I don’t believe groups intentionally set out to be idolaters, but, much like God’s people of old, we set our minds on earthly things instead of God.

How do Christian groups engage in idol worship? When anything else becomes a substitute for the One True God.

  • When they come together for any reason other than God and his mission. That doesn’t mean groups can’t have fun, of course. That’s part of the community life God intends for us. But when that  “fellowship” is not God-centered, leaves out the presence of God, and becomes a substitute for carrying out God’s mission for that group, it’s idol worship. (See 1 John 1:3.)
  • When the group leader keeps all the focus on himself or herself. Worldly, power-hungry leaders love the praise of their group members. They seek validation of their own knowledge and leadership skills. But their hearts are far from God.
  • When group members usurp God’s place. Oftentimes, needy or hurting group members make themselves the center of the group’s attention. Often narcissistic, they desire the group’s love and focus, often above the all-powerful God who alone has the power to bring healing.
  • When the study materials are the focal point. This one is especially insidious. We can study materials to help us grow in our relationships with and mission for God and yet, at the same time, allow these man-made resources to become the center of our attention.
  • When comfort is a main objective. God has called us to costly discipleship—surrendering all to follow Jesus. Yet some groups are gatherings of “rich young men and women” who cannot give everything they have to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:16-29). They’d rather settle for the god of comfort.

I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with these five gods that groups bow down to. I’m sure you can think of many more.

The reason I made “Christ Centered” the first vital sign of a healthy small group (from my book Small Group Vital Signs) is because groups must get this one right before they can grow in any of the others. It goes back to the First Commandment as well as Matthew 6:33: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (NLT). 

Small Group Ministry Leader, this is your #1 Priority in equipping and coaching your groups. You must root out all idolatry in your groups and teach them how to seek God and his Kingdom first. Contact me to discuss how.

Small Group Leader, God has entrusted you with this group of his people (1 Pet. 5:2). Take that responsibility seriously as you lead the group to worship the Lord your God only. Get help and coaching as necessary. Read more posts on being a Christ-Centered group on this site. Read Chapters 1 and 2 of Small Group Vital Signs. But start by surrendering your leadership and the group to God. It’s his in the first place. Lead as an act of stewardship.

“Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts” (1 John 5:21, NLT).

QUESTIONS: (1) On what other idols have you seen small groups focus? (2) How do you respond to the first two questions at the beginning of this post?

Small Group Leader TIPS of the Week: August 15-19, 2016

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

 

 

QUESTION: When you consider the current reality of your small group, which of these TIPS do you most need to utilize now? Please share your response by clicking the Comment box below.

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS here!

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: February 29 – March 4, 2016

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

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Monday, 2/29: Lead your group for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Everything else will flow from that.

Tuesday, 3/1: The Greatest Commandment is a command 4 your grp. How are you loving your neighbors as Jesus defined them?

Wednesday, 3/2: The Great Commission is your group’s commission. So pray, discuss, & plan. Then …GO!

Thursday, 3/3: Spend time with Jesus and allow him to saturate your mind and heart with his love and wisdom.

Friday, 3/4: Make every day #March4th Day. GO and make disciples… #greatcommission

All Small Group Leadership TIPS

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Follow Mike and Small Group Leadership on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks by clicking on the icons in the “Connect with Mike” box in the right column.

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: February 22-26, 2016

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

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Monday, 2/22: Simple yet powerful. DDIY. Don’t Do It Yourself. Lead w/ God and share leadership with others. #DDIY
 
Tuesday, 2/23: What got your small group here won’t get you there. Don’t settle for the same ol’ small group stuff.

Wednesday, 2/24: You’ve huddled together and learned gr8 thgs. Now brk the huddle and carry out the mission of your Head Coach.

Thursday, 2/25: You are a group of priests for God (Rev. 1:6). EVERY Christ follower offers up worship and intercession.

Friday, 2/26: Your grp has been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). Discuss how to carry out that ministry.

All Small Group Leadership TIPS

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Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: February 15-19, 2016

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

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Monday, 2/15: Don’t be the small group answer man or woman. Let group members experience aha moments.

Tuesday, 2/16: Become comfortable answering questions with, “I don’t know but let’s all find out this week.”

Wednesday, 2/17: As you study God’s Word together, “remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.”

Thursday, 2/18: The most strategically consequential action u take today is to climb into your Daddy’s lap and abide w/ him.

Friday, 2/19: Help ppl learn to follow Jesus – really follow him – and you will develop great leaders.

All Small Group Leadership TIPS

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Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: December 7-11, 2015

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

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Monday, 12/7: Use this season strategically to make a difference in the environment in which God has placed you.

Tuesday, 12/8: Remember that nothing that happens in the world surprises God. He placed you here for his purpose.

Wednesday, 12/9: Worship with your group. Jesus is present with you (Matt. 18:20). How can you not worship him?

Thursday, 12/10: Christmas is a time to be with family and friends. That’s what a healthy group is. Why would you take a break?

Friday, 12/11: You don’t need to repeat prayer requests back to Jesus as if he wasn’t listening the 1st time.

MORE SMALL GROUP LEADERSHIP TIPS 

All 8Weeks of Small Group Leadership TIPS

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