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March 19, 2014

Why We Have to Discuss Work in Small Groups

Takeaways from the Redeeming Work event

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Last week I attended the Redeeming Work event put on my Leadership Journal, and I really enjoyed the speakers and conversations. (In case you missed it, you can see tons of thoughts from the day on Twitter, or catch the event as it travels the country.) Nearly 200 leaders gathered from around Chicago to learn what it looks like to view work in a new way—to see our vocations as an integral part of following Christ. We gathered at Ignite Glass Works (a local studio that boasts beautiful spaces and intricate glasswork around the building), ate local food made by passionate people, and discussed the day at independent coffeehouses around the West Loop. The day holistically gathered us into a workspace, talked about vocation, celebrated work done well, and supported local businesses. It was a beautiful picture of how God can redeem our work.

As I’ve said before, I believe the topic of vocation and seeing our work as part of our discipleship is extremely important for small-group leaders. Why? Because small-group leaders meet weekly with the people of the church to discuss daily life—much of which is taken up by our work. Leaders, we have an amazing opportunity to encourage, equip, and empower the people in our groups to see their work differently—no matter their work.

One of my favorite parts of the event was hearing Amy Sherman speak. Last year when I read her book, Kingdom Calling, I was blown away by her robust theology of redeemed work (You can read an excerpt here and here). As she spoke to the leaders gathered last week, she reminded us that we must help people be disciples in their Monday through Saturday lives—and a big part of that is our work.

When we take this new focus, we’ll not only help our group members be a better kind of worker, but also help them think through the actual work they’re doing. She gave multiple examples of people who have taken their passion, seen a real need in their communities, and are making decisions about the work they do—paid or unpaid—to make a difference for the kingdom. One person she profiled is a chef who opened a restaurant that serves organic, local food to care for the earth, has an open kitchen so everyone can see how she treats her staff, and offers free “cooking on a budget” classes to underprivileged families. Her faith affects every part of her business. Another person profiled is a builder who purposely sets up homes in communal settings that include lots of public space for gathering, wide sidewalks, and a small-town feel. On top of that, he’s made energy efficient heating and cooling systems standard to help care for the earth and keep costs down for families. It’s easy to see the impact that we could have for the kingdom if every person in our churches understood that God wants to affect every aspect of our lives—including our work.

Another reason we must address this topic is that we’re losing young adults. Numerous speakers during the day pointed to the fact that young adults are leaving the church because the church doesn’t seem relevant to their chosen work. They’re getting the message that unless you become a pastor or missionary, your work doesn’t have significance and is unimportant to God. If we can begin celebrating work and helping people see what God is doing through our everyday work, we’ll all have a healthier view, and we may find we’re more relevant as a whole—not just to young adults.

In the midst of talking about vocation, it’s easy to focus on self-discovery and the quest to find the “right” job, but in reality, that’s a luxury that few in the world actually have. One of the attenders asked, “How do I talk about this with the people in my congregation who are working just to make it by? To the single mom who’s working two jobs just to pay the bills? To the guy who is flipping burgers just to get a paycheck?” His question was met by knowing glances and a multitude of understanding nods. Most of us are ministering to at least some people who don’t have the luxury of identifying the perfect job and pursuing it. Many of us have to work—whatever that work is—simply to pay the bills. And it’s difficult to see this kind of work as something that God is redeeming and working through.

The speakers suggested a few things, though. First of all, we have to help people look at their jobs in a new way. What kind of worker are they? What kinds of choices do they have with their work? What kind of influence do they have—even in their position? What opportunities are there to represent God in that work? These are questions that every person can answer—from the stay-at-home parent to the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, and from the artist to the waiter at a local pub. Consider, for instance, the driver of the airport parking shuttle bus. It may seem like tedious work, but it’s meaningful. It helps people get where they need to go. It helps keep the airport running smoothly. It helps a bigger system of work and rest and community continue to run. It may be mundane, but it’s definitely not meaningless.

The day wrapped up with Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, speaking about serving God even when our dreams and ideas don’t pan out. His story flies in the face of the American Dream: work at it and God will bless it. Instead, he learned that even when God does bless something, even when things seem to be going well and God is using us in major ways, all that really matters is our relationship with Christ. As Vischer puts it, paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, those who have wealth, success, flourishing careers, and Christ have nothing more than those who have Christ alone. God will give and take away as he chooses. In the end, we must continue to choose Christ—not for what we can do alongside him, but for the opportunity to be alongside him.

As I consider the wisdom from the Redeeming Work event, there are several takeaways for small groups:

1. Small-group leaders must make talking about work a regular part of our meetings. Spend time checking in about how work is going, the troubles they’re facing, the ethical decisions they’re making, and more. If our work is important to God and our discipleship, we need to communicate this to our group members by spending time talking about work at meetings.

2. We should regularly pray for our work and the work of our group members—even in our meetings. Help group members understand that God cares about their work.

3. We must include in our definition of work all that we do to contribute—even if it doesn’t have a paycheck attached. This kind of language will include stay-at-home parents, retired people doing volunteer work, and those who primarily see their vocation lived out through their volunteer work rather than their careers.

4. We have to help group members understand that, like Aaron Niequist put it last week, “Sunday mornings aren’t the main event. Tuesdays in the cubicle are.” As we discuss our studies, talk about our lives, and spend time in prayer, we must communicate that our faith should affect our lives every day—not just Sundays, and not just by having us attend more church events. We can choose studies like Make a Difference in Your Community that discuss this.

5. Small-group pastors and directors can help people in similar fields come together—whether through small groups or other gatherings—to encourage and support one another.

6. As we help our group members see work as part of their discipleship, we must also remind them that their worth comes from God alone, not from the work they're doing. We have to remind people that God wants to be with us, not to use us.

Ready to see God work in mighty ways? Equip your group members to live out their vocations and partner with God in their work.

For more information on the Redeeming Work events from Leadership Journal, see their site.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (0)

February 17, 2014

When Faith Intersects with Our Careers

How to equip group members to live out a holistic faith

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A few months ago, I had the privilege of hearing J. D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina, speak about making work Christian. Unfortunately when most Christians think of trying to combine their faith and their careers, they assume they must work for a Christian company, a non-profit, or—at the very least—a company with a not-so-subtle Christianese name (e.g., a coffee shop called "He Brews"). Or, if they can't seem to find a job at the right kind of company, many assume that combining their faith and careers requires sharing their faith in very direct, even awkward, ways.

But Greear set the record straight. One fact that he shared completely blew me away. Pointing to Acts, he stated that of the three great church planting centers in the ancient world (Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome), not one was founded by an apostle. Rather, the gospel was spread the furthest by ordinary business people on the coattails of commerce. Instead of specially trained missionaries telling people about Jesus, everyday laypeople were living out a holistic faith that included their business endeavors.

Greear's main point was that we church leaders must equip the people in our congregations to live out a similar holistic faith that encompasses every area of their life, including their work. Rather than live out our faith a few hours a week in special places or roles, we must live out our faith every hour of every day. Who better to equip the everyday men and women in our churches than small-group leaders who are living life week-in and week-out with them—and are most likely laypeople themselves?

So I want to point you to a few resources that can help:

Redeeming Work Events from Leadership Journal
These one-day events happening around the country (beginning in Chicago on March 13) will explore the latest research and biblical scholarship on faith and work and how to recapture a theology of vocation. Hear great speakers as they address how to equip people to live out their faith every hour of every day. Register today!

Serving God in Our Jobs, by Amy L. Sherman
This article fleshes out a biblical theology of work. Use it to clarify your own understanding or hand it out to group members to start a conversation about faith and work.

Christians at Work, by J. D. Greear
This article explains five qualities that make work "Christian" and puts to rest many assumptions about what it looks like to combine our work and faith.

Praying for Our Work, by MaryKate Morse
This article features prayer exercises to help your group members connect their faith and work. It's a great way to explore this topic.

As a small-group leader, you are perfectly poised to help your group members understand this concept and begin living out a more holistic faith. Let us know how you're equipping your group members in the comments below.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (0)

January 28, 2014

Reflections on Real Love

Focus on the “one another” commands this February

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I’ve been thinking a lot about biblical community lately and what it really looks like. And I keep coming back to the “one another” commands in the Bible. The writers of the New Testament really wanted Christ-followers to understand what it looks like to live life well with others.

I’m thankful for great friends in my life that regularly love on me and allow me to love on them. We encourage one another, challenge one another, and carry each other’s burdens. Life lived with others truly is better.

Small groups are a wonderful place for people to learn the one another commands and practice them. I purposely say “practice” because they aren’t always easy to follow. Sometimes people rub us the wrong way, or we flat out disagree, or there are personality clashes. Despite this, we’re called to love one another and live in biblical community.

So this February, the month of Valentine’s Day and love, we’re taking a look at 28 different verses that talk about how we’re to relate to one another. Read the day’s verse each morning either on Twitter or Facebook. Reflect on what the verse means, how you’ve experienced it, and when it’s hard to live out that particular command. Then let us know what you think. We’re looking forward to what you have to share.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (1)

January 14, 2014

Eating Well to the Glory of God

How what we eat matters to fulfilling our calling

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In our country, there's a disconnect between eating well and having a body that is able to do what God calls us to do. We eat for enjoyment, for celebration, and even as a drug, but most of us don't consider how healthy eating affects how well we're able to fulfill our callings.

Whether or not you're overweight, this is an important topic, and we can all learn how to treat our bodies better so that we can better carry out our kingdom work. This brief video from This Is Our City explains more about why we must understand this relationship between food and calling. Consider showing it to your group and discussing the implications.

For a deeper discussion, use our new Bible study Body Matters. In three sessions, your group members will discuss our value in Christ, why our bodies matter to God, and how to set healthy goals to improve our health.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (0)

October 14, 2013

Wrestling and Telling

Two very different approaches to discipleship

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Last week I was able to tune into portions of Exponential West, a conference specifically for church planters. The focus was on discipleship and was built around the five shifts laid out in DiscipleShift by Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert Coleman.

Though you may not be a church planter, I imagine you're interested in discipleship. After all, that's the heart of small-group ministry. The book specifically addresses small-group leaders. And the questions raised by the speakers get into the nitty-gritty of what group leaders do.

Jim Putman, for instance, asked a telling question: Do we teach people to wrestle with their faith, or just tell them what to believe?

This question hits me especially hard because I've experienced both. I can distinctly remember a well-meaning youth sponsor telling me shortly after I'd started following Christ that I had to cut ties with my non-Christian friends in order to live the Christian life. Looking back, I understand why this was her advice. After all, it's a lot easier to cut ties than to deal with the mess of redefining relationships. It's a lot less risky, too, because it would eliminate the temptation to return to my old lifestyle. But it didn't change me—it simply told me something to do because, well, someone had told me to do it.

On the other hand, I've had amazing men and women ask me difficult questions to help me process my situation, wrestle with difficult answers, and trust God. Through those situations, I've grown in my faith, navigated the gray areas of life, learned to listen to the Spirit, and developed a well-defined identity in Christ.

As we lead discussion in our groups, it's easy to focus on the "right" answers and totally bypass the opportunities to allow our group members to wrestle with the gray and listen for God's voice. It gets us through the study/curriculum/book faster, and we feel pretty accomplished, too. Our group members learn valuable Bible knowledge, but they miss something more important: how that knowledge applies to their life.

A few weeks ago, my women's group was discussing John 7 which briefly mentions the Festival of Tabernacles. One of the women asked the purpose of the festival. Another talked briefly about being in the desert for 40 years. Together, the women pieced together the story. Forty minutes later we'd talked about the use of festivals in Jewish culture, the reason only the high priest could approach God once a year, and how Jesus had changed all of that.

It was a tangent to be sure. John 7 is actually about Jesus speaking with authority to the Jewish people at the festival and the fact that some believed and others didn't. But our tangent led us somewhere important when one of the women exclaimed, "Wow! God did all that so I can have a relationship with him!" The sentiment sobered the group, sending everyone into deep thought. Slowly they started to respond. And tear up. And explain that they weren't investing in that relationship like they could. It led to real prayer requests and thankfulness and ideas about how to build an authentic relationship with Jesus. It led to a shift in our hearts and minds. And it was obviously the work of the Spirit.

It all started with letting God's Word speak directly to the group, being open to tangents, and allowing group members to wrestle with what they were reading. It's easier to point people back to what they're supposed to get out of a passage. Or even to draw the same conclusion without letting group members get there on their own. But that doesn't focus on discipleship or transformation or wrestling. And that's what small groups should be focused on—even if it's a plan that's a lot trickier to follow.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (1)

September 16, 2013

Wisdom from Derek Webb

Why three phrases are essential for healthy community

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Derek Webb, a solo singer/songwriter who was formerly part of Caedmon's Call, recently visited our offices here at Christianity Today for a concert and interview. His eighth solo album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You, released on September 3, 2013.

He treated us to acoustic versions of many of his new singles including "Lover Part 3" (a completion of three different songs on the Trinity) and "Everything Will Change" (a hopeful, joyful song about not losing hope that Christ will change everything in the end).

As Webb sang "Everything Will Change," I saw his heart's intentions: to remind people that even though the world looks bad right now, even though the church has countless flaws, even though it looks like things can never get better, the core of our faith is believing that they will. God will, in fact, change everything. And we must hold to that hope at all times—especially when things seem to be going terribly wrong.

When he sang "I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You," I was blown away by this important message for living in community. During the interview, he expressed that this song is and has been his message all along. This is what life as a Christ-follower is all about. We must say this over and over to God, and we must say this over and over to the people in our lives.

So many problems in community seem to be caused by people not admitting they're wrong, not saying they're sorry, and not remembering their love for one another. When we can get good at saying we're wrong and apologizing, we build relational bridges rather than tear them down with blame and pride. When we remember our love for one another, we're willing to be honest, to say sorry, to forgive. And as we show our true selves to one another, we grow together, becoming more like Christ.

Learn more about leading an authentic, thriving group with Growing Small Groups. And if you've already run into some issues with group dynamics, use Ministering to Difficult Group Members to help solve the issue.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (1)

August 27, 2013

Take Heart

Leading isn't easy, but it's beneficial kingdom work.

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Right about now, you're probably feeling a little stress. School is starting, the church calendar is ramping up, and the start of groups is right around the corner. There's so much to do in so little time. And you may begin wondering whether small groups are worth all the effort.

Take heart. The ministry you do by leading a small group is incredibly important. By leading a group of people, facilitating meaningful discussion in meetings, and empowering everyone to take next steps, you are working alongside God in the mysterious work of life transformation.

While it's not easy work, it's beneficial kingdom work, and the Holy Spirit guides us as we minister.

Spend an extra measure of time in prayer this week, laying your fears, anxieties, and worries before God. Trust that he will work through you as you lead.

For practical tips on leading a group focused on life transformation, use our newly updated Growing Small Groups Training Theme. You'll find a devotion, assessments, case studies, and how-to articles that will give you perspective and train you to lead a growing group.

If you're new to leading groups or starting a new group, use The First Meeting to put you at ease as your group meets for the first time.

Then share with us below: Why do you lead a small group? Your words could be exactly what another leader needs to hear.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (1)

August 23, 2013

Small Groups Engaging the Community

Why small groups are perfect for this ministry

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Recently, Christianity Today struck up a relationship with Ed Stetzer who now writes a blog for our ministry. And I must admit, I’m thankful.

I’m thankful because he’s writing about discipleship, community, and missional living—three topics that are dear to my heart and to yours. And that’s because they’re goals of small-group ministry.

Last week, Stetzer posted “Four Steps to Community Engagement” and discussed how exactly churches can begin to impact their communities. Though some articles that have a specific number of steps seem to offer paltry advice, Stetzer hits the nail on the head.

First of all, he writes, we must define what success will look like—and it must go beyond bodies, budgets, and buildings. We must learn to define success as transformed lives.

Second, the church must do the hard work of preparing. In other words, churches must train leaders in this area, cast vision, and model how to engage the community.

Third, churches must provide personal leadership to believers. And that’s where small-group leaders can have a huge impact. Once your church leaders have trained you, and you’ve caught the vision, you can explain, model, and coach the vision to your group members. In fact, that’s something you can do better with your group members than your small-group pastor can do—because you know your group members at a deeper level. It’s critical that you help the ordinary Christ-followers in your group catch the vision because it’s part of their individual mission. It’s not just something that the church as a whole does.

Fourth, the church must move into the community. And not just to invite people to the church. The church must learn to celebrate the things that build and transform the community, not just those things that build the church.

I’ve found that small groups really are an amazing way for the church to engage the community, because it allows smaller groups of people with similar passions and interests to engage the community in meaningful ways—ways that sometimes don’t feel as authentic or productive if the whole church is involved.

One of my small groups has been developing a relationship with an elderly man who was living in run-down motel. I’m happy to report that we walked with him until he was ready to look for other living accommodations, and then we helped him find a new place to live. My other small group is regularly investing in women and children at a residential program for women who have found themselves homeless for a number of reasons. Simple gestures like making them dinner and playing games with their families are huge wins.

These are just two examples of small groups engaging the community. I have no doubt that your group will do something different, something meaningful in your context. And I hope you use your imagination to dream big about what God might want you to do to engage.

To find out more about helping your small group engage your community, check out our Training Tool on Missional Small Groups and this short video from Carter Moss on why small groups are perfect for community engagement.

What is your group doing to engage the community?

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (0)

August 20, 2013

Get Ready for Fall Launch

5 steps to get you there

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In churches across the country, small-group ministries are preparing to launch and re-launch. As people head back to church after a summer full of vacations and activities, they're looking for a rhythm, a schedule, that allows them to connect with others and lead a meaningful life. And small groups can meet that need. But launching small groups is a little more complicated than simply letting people know about the groups available. Here are a few helpful reminders:

1. Train Leaders. Whether your leaders have been around for a while or are brand-new, spend time preparing them for this important role. After all, trained leaders are more likely to be successful. Key topics to cover include the goal of group life, leadership expectations, how to facilitate discussion, and how to choose a study. For everything you need to know, use our Small Group Essentials tool Train New Leaders.

2. Cast Vision to Your Leaders. This is the time to clearly communicate the ministry's goals and expectations. It's a great time to make sure everyone is on board. Plus, don't forget to talk with fellow staff members and get them excited about small groups. Our Training Tool Improving Communication for Effective Small-Group Ministry will help.

3. Cast Vision to Your Church. Once you have your leaders on board, you can begin recruiting people to small groups. Along the way, you'll also cast vision for what can be expected when someone joins a group. Market Your Small-Group Ministry will show you how to cast vision and funnel people into groups. Hand out the article "What Can I Expect from Small Groups?" to new or potential group members.

4. Begin Groups. Support leaders as they begin their new groups by providing Start Your New Group, which includes information on their role, leading discussion, holding a great first meeting, and finding the right study for the group. The article "First Night Survival Guide" will especially help new leaders.

5. Provide Ongoing Support. Once groups are up and running, you can stop to take a breather—but only for a moment. Then follow up with leaders to see how their groups are going and how you can support them in their role. Coaching Small-Group Leaders will help you understand exactly how to support and empower your leaders. It's also a good idea to follow up with new group members to see how things are going. You can learn a lot about the group by asking the group members.

SmallGroups.com offers everything you need for a healthy, growing small-group ministry. Let us know what you think of our resources, and what new resources would be helpful to your ministry. Plus, for a limited time, subscribe to SmallGroups.com and have access to all of our Training Tools and Bible Studies for less than $1.50 a week.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (0)

August 15, 2013

Highlights from the Global Leadership Summit

Takeaways for small-group ministry

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I really enjoyed my time at the Global Leadership Summit this year, and I was busy tweeting some of my most memorable lines so you could share in the fun. After a week of processing and thinking through the information, I have to say that I learned a lot.

I was so encouraged to hear powerful women speaking on important topics. And hearing from a pastor from Kenya was enlightening. I loved the different styles of teaching, even if they felt a bit jarring one right after another. Most of all, I was encouraged that so many were taking leadership development—discipleship—so seriously. It's a critical function of the church, and a main objective of small-group ministry.

Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek, vulnerably shared how his leadership team has been struggling to be healthy for years. But now, finally at a healthy place, he can look back and share wisdom from his mistakes. He reminded attendees that real, healthy leadership takes more courage than you think, and people are tired of gutless leaders. Instead, they want people to make real decisions and own up to mistakes. In small groups, this means leaders must be authentic with group members and not be afraid to say "I'm sorry" and "I don't know."

Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State, talked a lot about leaders investing and knowing the people they oversee. After all, leaders get nowhere without willing followers—they're the ones who get the work done. Powell shared that good leaders not only know their people, they show them how their individual mission helps carry out the organization's larger mission. Then they empower their people to carry out their missions. Powell could have been a small-group coach with that kind of wisdom. Great coaches help leaders see exactly what they need to do to be successful in their role, and then empower them to lead well.

Patrick Lencioni, founder and president of The Table Group, shared three reasons people are miserable in their jobs: they feel anonymous and unseen, they feel irrelevant, and they have no way to measure how well they're doing. Small-group directors, coaches, and leaders can all apply this wisdom to the people they minister to. Get to know the people in your care—their gifts, their families, their passions. Show them how they're not only relevant but important to your ministry. Explain how they are doing something no one else could do in quite the same way. Then clearly describe what is expected of them—from a coach, to a leader, to a group member. When they know what's expected, they'll be able to measure their success.

Liz Wiseman, president of The Wiseman Group and WSJ bestselling author, shared incredible wisdom on being a leader that multiplies the talents, productivity, and wisdom of those around them. Even more, though, she shed light on how people with good intentions often diminish the people around them by accident. Multiplying boiled down to choosing to be a servant leader, someone who intentionally makes others great by believing in them and empowering them to do their job.

Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at University of Houston, shared on the importance of vulnerability, something not often associated with leadership. She went on to say that at our core, we all have three needs: love, belonging, and to be brave. While small groups often focus on the need to belong, we don't always do a good job of practicing love with one another or providing challenges that require group members to be brave. Without this, we'll never fully meet the needs of group members.

Oscar Muriu, senior pastor of Nairobi Chapel, explained the importance of investing in budding leaders, intentionally discipling them. He urged leaders to spend as much time as possible with budding leaders, so our involvement in the work of God isn't limited to our individual capacity. And this is the beauty of apprenticing new leaders into leadership. Investing in apprentices multiplies our efforts for God's kingdom.

Dr. Henry Cloud, bestselling author, explained how important relationships are for our brains. In fact, our stress levels are reduced by 50 percent when we have a buddy. If that's not a reason to invite people into biblical community, I don't know what is!

These are only a few of our favorite highlights and takeaways from the conference. You can read even more on our Twitter feed, and our other blog posts on specific speakers from the Summit. Stay tuned for more.

posted by Amy Jackson | Comments (1)