March 28, 2013
Soak up his love, lean into his power, and continue his mission.
This Lent I've followed a devotional reading plan by N. T. Wright called "Lent for Everyone." My church is non-liturgical, and we usually don't focus much on the days leading up to Easter, but this devotional reading plan has reminded me just how important Easter is.
Three things have especially stood out to me:
1) God's overwhelming, incomprehensible love. It's common to focus on God's love shown through the cross, but I'm overwhelmed by the love Jesus showed in his life before the cross. It's only in the context of this everyday love that it's understandable that Jesus would endure Good Friday.
2) The amazing power available to us. I recently came across Ephesians 1:18–21 again, and I can't get over this: "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know . . . his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead" (emphasis mine). When we seek to become Christlike, we don't do it on our own; we do it in God's power. Do your group members know they have this power available to them?
3) Jesus' mission. During his time on earth, Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. And he completely flipped the societal norms with his teachings. The kingdom wasn't just something that was coming—it was something his followers were to help usher in. Plus, Jesus invited others to join in the mission, to join in kingdom living. As we live out kingdom values, we continue that mission. And we, too, have the amazing privilege of inviting others to join in—especially through small groups.
Small groups have the opportunity to lean into these three things: to experience and show the world God's love, to change from the inside out by depending on God's power, and to continue Jesus' mission by living out kingdom values and inviting others into kingdom living.
Make Jesus' life, death, and resurrection central to your faith. Soak up his love, lean into his power, and continue his mission—and model this to your group members. Celebrate Easter every day.
This prayer, from the devotional reading plan, perfectly sums up what I've learned this Lent:
Humble Lord Jesus, as you reach out to us in your gentle love, help us to find the way to bring your kingdom in our own day.
March 26, 2013
Why surrounding yourself with the right people is key
A few years ago, I jumped from volunteering in a college ministry to working on staff at a church, starting up a small-group ministry. I had grown to love ministry through my volunteer time, and I felt ready to dive head first into this new adventure.
But out of the blue, I found myself feeling lonely. I was surrounded by people getting to know me, the new staff person at church. I led three different small groups in the hopes of apprenticing new leaders. I regularly hosted activities in our home. Despite being surrounded by others, though, I was lonely.
I struggled with how I could have enjoyed ministry in the college setting so much and how lonely I felt now, only a few months later. What had changed?
As I spent time in prayer, I began to realize that while I was surrounded by people, I hadn't surrounded myself with a few of the most important people: those who don't look to me as a leader but as a friend. That was the major difference between my time volunteering and my time on staff. Without a few close, non-ministry friends, I felt overwhelmingly isolated.
Jenni Catron shares a similar story on our sister blog, Gifted for Leadership, and she points out that leaders need to surround themselves with encouragers and challengers. Read her post and let us know what you think.
If we truly believe in the necessity and power of community, we need to go first and surround ourselves with a close community of people willing to hold us up as we minister.
If you're feeling lonely and burned out, use our resource to get back on track.
March 21, 2013
It's usually hard to answer that question.
A common remark I hear from leaders is: “I’m just not sure if group meetings are successful.” Quite honestly, that’s usually hard to gauge for a few reasons. First of all, while we know our overall goals for groups are life change and deeper relationships with one another and with God, we won’t always see great evidence of that at every single meeting. After all, creating lasting life change or deep relationships rarely happens in an hour and a half. Another reason gauging meeting success can be difficult is that we don’t set specific goals for each meeting, so it’s hard to know if we’ve met them. (Although, sometimes the Spirit has other plans, and that’s okay!)
As you prepare for your next meeting, think about what you hope to accomplish. What can you do and what should you focus on in order to meet the long-term goals of life change and deeper relationships? When it comes to your discussion or study time, Sam O’Neal provides really helpful advice in Field Guide for Small Group Leaders: the Big Idea. He writes that leaders should focus their questions on getting just one or two big ideas across. This will keep the discussion focused and help you determine whether group members have understood the important truth in your study. Consider the topic in the passage that your group especially needs at this time. This may mean you’ll have to choose to focus on only one truth in a passage when five are presented. Remember, though, that you can choose to go wide or deep with your discussion. If you go wide, you’ll cover all the ideas in a passage, but not go in depth on any of them. Going deep, you’ll cover just one or two topics, but you’ll dig into them and have a good idea of how to apply them. Set a goal for your focus and ask only a few questions so that you can really engage in deep discussion. Later, you may set goals for more specific application or application that requires more sacrifice.
For some goals, curriculum may not be the most important part of your meeting. For instance, if your main goal is to get to know one another so that deeper relationships can form, you’ll want to spend the majority of your time chatting over snacks, answering icebreaker questions, or meeting in smaller groups for sharing and prayer. So set a goal that group members will share a meal together and chat, getting to know basic information about one another. Later, a goal may be that group members get together outside of meetings or that group members share personal prayer requests rather than requests for their aunt's friend's surgery.
Determine the smaller goals you'll need to meet in your next meeting in order to meet your larger, long-term group goals. And then plan your meeting accordingly. Afterward, decide if you met your goals for the meeting. Use what you learn to better prepare for your next meeting. And don't forget to give yourself some grace when things don't go exactly as planned. That's just part of the joy of small-group ministry.
March 18, 2013
Regardless of what you think of the papacy, we can learn something from the newest pope.
It's hard to miss all the coverage on Pope Francis, formally Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. And you may wonder, What's the big deal? I'm not Catholic. Regardless of our differences, the choice of Pope Francis represents lots of changes that many Christians are excited about. Already, the pope is open to relationships and discussions with Orthodox and Eastern rite believers as well as Protestants. In fact, his installation tomorrow is expected to draw upward of 1,000,000 people including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I—the first Istanbul-based Patriarchate to attend since the Great Schism in 1054—and leaders from many major world religions. It's a clear sign that people from around the world respect Pope Francis, even if they don't share his religious beliefs.
He's focused on poverty, known for simple living, and is committed to living out the Christian faith—especially by caring for the social outcasts. He is well-respected in Buenos Aires, even though he's spoken out strongly against the government. And he's a Jesuit, an order in the Catholic church committed to accepting God's orders for their lives, even subjecting themselves to extreme living conditions, for the sake of ministry in Christ's name.
Regardless of what you think of Pope Francis (or the papacy in general), one thing is undisputed: the mission of Pope Francis' life is clear, and people are standing behind him because his actions show his beliefs.
This has me thinking, If someone were to watch me live my life, to see what I'm involved in and where I spend my time, would they have a clear picture of my mission? Would they see me as someone sold out to the mission of Jesus? It's a tough question to consider, but it's an important one. If our lives were our only testimony, would others know our mission? Would they know that we have surrendered our own desires in order to commit to Jesus' mission?
As I've pondered this question, I've found I desire to be more intentional in my faith, to spend even more time with Christ so that his love and grace will flow out of my life and will cause me to live radically obedient to his calling. And while that calling is scary—it does mean that we have to die to self, over and over again—it is, no doubt, the greatest adventure we could possibly have.
Explore this idea with your small group:
1. When you think about following Christ, what are the first words to come to mind? Do those words focus on a benefit to you or a benefit to the world? (Focus on getting the answer to these questions: Does following Christ mean that things will always go well for us? Or does following Christ mean that life may actually be more difficult—but that God will be glorified in some way?)
2. Do you see following Christ as adventurous or safe? Think about our Christian brothers and sisters in countries more hostile to Christ such as China or India. Following Christ in their contexts is anything but safe. Why do you think they remain true to Christ amidst such hostility?
3. James 2:14–26 is clear: faith without expression through actions (changed lives, changed priorities, etc.) is meaningless. In other words, the people we encounter should be able to look at our lives and know without a doubt that we are following Christ. If someone simply watched your actions from this past week, would they know that you are on mission with Jesus? Explain.
4. To clarify, James isn't calling us simply to do the right things. Instead, in chapter one, he insists that we must listen to the Word. And Paul points out in Ephesians 4:22–24, we are "to be made new in the attitude of [our] minds." For Christ-followers, new actions flow from a changed mind and heart. Why is it so important that our actions flow from the changes the Holy Spirit is making in our hearts and minds rather than from sheer will to change?
March 15, 2013
These meeting builders can do a lot more than transition you to your discussion.
Recently, I’ve been reading The Power of Habit, and I’ve been learning a lot. It’s amazing how God created our brains to be extremely efficient, to make the most of our limited time and energy with the greatest result—all by creating habits.
The idea behind habits is that there is a cue (something that tells us it’s time to start a routine), a habit loop (the routine that has been ingrained in our brains), and a reward (some desired response that we experience almost immediately). So I see a chocolate chip cookie (the cue), I eat it (the habit), and then I feel—at least for the moment—a joyful sugar rush (the reward). Or in the morning, I step into the bathroom (the cue), wash my face and brush my teeth (the habit), and I’m ready in a timely manner without having to think through what I’m going to do in what order (the reward). One warning, though: once we experience the cue, it’s hard to stop the habit loop from taking place.
As I’ve been reading, my mind has been spinning with ways to take advantage of this natural tendency of our brains. How can we use the power of habit to our advantage in small-group ministry? Icebreakers can serve as an important cue in our small-group meetings. When we gather around and we begin the meeting with an icebreaker (the cue), group members will settle in, share, and get ready for the discussion to follow (the habit). The reward is that they’ll have fun, get to know one another better, and experience a more focused discussion time. And it’s a reward that leads to an even greater reward: life change.
When we use icebreakers as a cue, group members know that it’s time to settle in, to focus on the discussion, and to participate. It signals the start of the meeting and provides a sense of normalcy and routine to each meeting.
Do you take time for an icebreaker every meeting? Or do you sometimes skip them? Why?
Find great icebreakers by browsing our list.
March 13, 2013
Sitting with group members even when we don’t have easy fixes
Over steaming cups of tea and a discussion filled with laughter, a serious tone burst forth.
“I think we may be headed for divorce,” one woman in my small group expressed with concern and fear. Then she desperately asked, “So what do I do now?”
The hush in the room was noticeable yet not awkward as we considered her question. And the truth we realized is that there aren’t any easy answers to this question. Yes, we need to pray—and fervently. Yes, she needs to immerse herself in God’s Word. Yes, she needs to take steps to show love even when she doesn’t feel it (and it’s not reciprocated). But those aren’t easy fixes. And they’re definitely not easy to do day in and day out in the midst of a dying marriage.
More interesting than this woman’s issues lying in the open was the reaction from some of the other members. One felt disappointed that we didn’t have an answer for her. Another one, feeling the tension, tried to comfort her with pat answers. Others expressed empathetic statements.
Why do we fear we’ve failed when we don’t have any easy, straightforward advice to give? Instead of focusing on solving everyone’s problems and offering easy answers, it’s okay to sit with people in the mess and say, “This is terrible. I don’t have the answer. But you better believe I’m here with you, and I’m lifting you up in prayer every day.”
After all, isn’t that what Jesus offers us? He says he’ll stay with us through thick and thin regardless of whether there are easy answers. Our small groups can follow in his example.
How have you been comforted by your small group—even when there weren’t easy answers to give? How has your group comforted others in the midst of difficult situations?
March 4, 2013
Why Christian leaders are highly susceptible to the sin of sloth
"I'm just so busy!"
How often have you exclaimed this statement with a sense of helplessness?
In our newest resource, Avoiding Burnout, Carolyn Arends writes about how something she read from Eugene Peterson completely changed her perspective on Christians crying "too busy." Peterson suggests that Christian leaders—especially really busy ones—are highly susceptible to the sin of sloth. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? But busily running around can help us avoid the really important things in life: our health, our relationship with God, our family.
I'm not a pastor. But I am busy, like almost everyone I know. When Peterson declares that "the pastor's primary responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God," I can readily apply that job description to my roles as wife, mother, musician, and author. The mandate can be stated even more succinctly regarding my task as a human: Pay attention to God. If I don't, I'm guilty of spiritual sloth, no matter how hard I'm working. In truth, there is an inverse relationship between how overwhelmed I am doing things and how much energy I can give to being attentive.
But did I mention I'm really busy?
Part of the problem is that spiritual receptivity requires unglamorous practices like prayer, time in Scripture, and attentiveness to what God is doing in the people around me. Telling me, "Prayer promotes spiritual growth!" has as much wow-factor as announcing, "Reducing calories leads to weight loss!" I want something new—a development that will lead to breakthrough. Peterson observes that spiritual disciplines have "not been tried and discarded because [they] didn't work, but tried and found difficult (and more than a little tedious) and so shelved in favor of something or other that could be fit into a busy [person's] schedule."
Sometimes avoiding burnout is as simple as spending more time on the important things.
Read the rest of Arends article and learn lots of other strategies to avoid burnout in our newest Practical Ministry Skills resource.
March 1, 2013
What to look for in new team members
Michael Cheshire, senior pastor of The Journey Community Church in Aspen Park, Colorado, has learned a thing or two about being a team player—and identifying team players. In small-group ministry, being a team player needs to be a leadership requirement. Without a team mindset, small-group ministry is destined to fail. So whether you're identifying new coaches, leaders, or apprentices, look for people who can work well on a team.
But how do you identify whether someone is a team player? Cheshire shares several tests in his article from Leadership Journal:
1. We must ensure that we're not just seeking willing, warm bodies. Are these people fit for this ministry?
2. We must seek people who are able to disagree with us passionately without becoming mean. Are the people around you willing and able to disagree with you?
3. We must identify people who are for the team more than they are for themselves. Are they willing to stand up for others on the team?
4. We must find people who feel permission to fail—so that they're willing to take some risks. And we have to give them that permission. Do you see success and failure as a team endeavor, or do you try to do everything simply to avoid failure?
Read the rest of his tips for putting together a team of team players at LeadershipJournal.net.
How do you identify team players? Share with us below.