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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 at 11:30 AM on March 19, 2014 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (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 at 9:09 AM on February 17, 2014 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (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 at 12:18 PM on January 28, 2014 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (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 at 4:15 PM on October 14, 2013 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

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 at 8:56 AM on August 27, 2013 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (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 at 5:25 PM on August 15, 2013 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

August 13, 2013

Choosing Vulnerability

Brené Brown explains its power.

On Thursday and Friday, I had the privilege of attending the Willow Creek Association's Global Leadership Summit. There were a number of amazing speakers over the two jam-packed days, but one held special weight for me as I thought about small groups.

Brené Brown is a researcher and a story teller, and she has studied social work extensively. Her talk focused on the power of vulnerability in leadership. She said that, frankly, without vulnerability, we're not really leading. In a nutshell, vulnerability honors the other person. It lets them know they are seen and worthy. And that seems like a high goal for small-group leaders.

To give you a taste of Brown's research and passion, watch her Ted Talk below. You'll see how she's able to speak in a way that's powerful because of her vulnerability, and she explains her own struggles with being vulnerable. Then stay tuned for another post about this important topic for small-group leaders.

How vulnerable are you with your group members? Why have you chosen this level of vulnerability?

posted by Amy Jackson at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

August 7, 2013

Welcoming a Same-Sex Couple into Your Group

How to respond in a loving, biblical way

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Imagine that this weekend at church services, Matt and Alex Jones-Smith, newlyweds, and their adopted daughter, Rachel, walk up to your sign up table for small groups and ask to join a couples' group that has childcare.

How will you respond?

There's a good chance this will happen at some point—maybe this weekend, or in a few months, or next year. And you need to be prepared with a loving, biblical response.

That's what Timothy Morgan tackles in his article "Why Welcome a Same-Sex Couple to Church?" from Christianity Today magazine. When considering how congregations can reach out to people with same-sex attraction, we must talk about how small groups can do so—because we know that small groups are a great way to help people connect and feel welcomed in a church.

Morgan's article explores how churches have been welcoming those with same-sex attraction without affirming or condoning the behavior, and he looks to Jesus' time on earth for wisdom on how to engage people with same-sex attraction.

At the end of the article, Morgan gives several characteristics of churches that are successfully welcoming people with same-sex attraction. Included: commitment for the long term, avoidance of quick fixes or one-size-fits-all solutions, and careful use of language so homophobic slurs aren't accepted.

What would your group do if a same-sex couple wanted to join? What can your group do to be more welcoming?

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:51 AM on August 7, 2013 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

August 1, 2013

Healthy E-Ministry

How to stress physical presence while leveraging social media

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The current issue of Leadership Journal focuses on e-ministry: how leaders can use social media to effectively minister to others. The fact is that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are here to stay—and that means we must learn to leverage them for God's purposes.

But there's a right and wrong way to do that. And Tim Challies' article in Leadership Journal explains the limitations of virtually connecting with others. After all, he writes, many of the key ways pastors minister require physical presence: marrying a couple, holding a hand at the hospital, baptizing a new believer.

It's the same for small-group leaders. Bible discussions, prayer for healing, and meals just aren't the same in the virtual world. Leaders need to be present to hand a tissue to a crying group member, lay hands on and pray for a new leader, or show visible concern as a group member shares his or her story.

Challies writes that leaders must learn "what it means to be present in and through new technologies" and understand when physical presence is best. But there are two challenges: these technologies try to convince us that virtual presence is just as real as physical presence, and they're able to distract us from being fully present (it's pretty difficult to concentrate during your prayer time when you hear a notification from your phone).

This new virtual reality brings two new ways to minister to people. First of all, people are more lonely than ever, craving real connections. We can provide that both by meeting them on social media and by showing them there's still a place for physical presence. Second, people are grappling with how to use social media well—in a way that furthers God's kingdom, not distracts people from it. As leaders, we can help people wrestle with this issue, working hard to model good social media use.

A great tool to further understand this issue is Physical Presence Matters. In it, Will Johnston explains why our bodies are fundamental.

To learn how to use Facebook to deepen group relationships, read Make a Facebook Group for Your Group.

To read the full issue of Leadership Journal, visit their site.

How do you use social media for small-group ministry? How has it helped deepen relationships? How has it distracted you from God's work?

posted by Amy Jackson at 2:27 PM on August 1, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

July 9, 2013

Our Own Worst Enemy

Community gone bad can be the very reason people walk away.

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Recently, I saw images of signs held up at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade that apologized for the way the church has treated people in the LGBTQ community. It reminded me just how unloving the church can feel to so many.

And it goes beyond sexual orientation. History has seen the church mistreating people who have been divorced, people who have had children outside of marriage, people who have voted a certain way . . .

The list goes on and on.

Even worse? The way we treat each other on a regular basis within the church. How many churches have split? How many people have walked away from church after burning out? How many have sworn off community because they were treated harshly?

Sometimes we're our own worst enemy. And unfortunately, far too many of us have experienced that.

That's why the article "We Need to Stop Eating Our Own" from Leadership Journal caught my eye. In it, Michael Cheshire, a pastor, explains how a brush with death made him realize just how uncomfortable his church had become—and how he could no longer be pastor if things didn’t change. He writes:

People will fade out of a church, a club, or a movement. But people don't fade out of their friendships; friends would notice and come after them. Yes, the mass exodus from our churches is continuing and spreading. Those leaving, for the most part, are not mad at God; they're mad at his followers.

Despite what you will hear from some religious leaders in today's church culture, the average Christ-follower walking out the door is not weak, unwilling to commit, or intrinsically selfish.

The vast majority of these Christians are leaving for two main reasons: First, and foremost, they are tired of being treated harshly by other Christians. Second, they feel the church has lost relevance to its community and to what they are going through in their everyday lives.

Often the way we treat each other within our faith communities is still stunningly poor. You don't need an in-depth study to find out why so many are leaving the church. Just have some conversations with the people who have left.

Read the full article at LeadershipJournal.net and then consider what small groups—what your small group—can do to reverse this trend. How can our small groups be more loving, more authentic, and more relevant to our communities?

We have an amazing opportunity in small groups to help people engage in meaningful, authentic relationships. And it starts one group at a time.

posted by Amy Jackson at 5:20 PM on July 9, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

May 13, 2013

Resource Review: Troubled Minds

An excellent resource for ministering to people struggling with mental illness

I recently had the privilege of reading Amy Simpson's new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission, available from InterVarsity Press. The short video above gives you a sneak peek into the book.

Simpson's mom struggles with schizophrenia, and she had her first full mental breakdown when Simpson was only 14. In Troubled Minds, she shares her own story and how the church helped—and didn't help—her family during this difficult time. This incredibly practical book lays out helpful descriptions of the basic types of mental illness, ways the family of a person with mental illness is impacted, and the stigma and struggles people with mental illness face when attending church. She also breaks down the issues church leaders face when ministering to people with mental illness, and offers great advice for how churches can respond in compassionate, helpful ways.

One of the most important parts of Simpson's book, though, is helping to dispel the myths surrounding mental illness. For instance, mental illness is far more common than many of us realize. She explains that over 25 percent of American adults will face mental illness this year and that many people with mental illness will seek help in the church. In fact, according to a survey discussed in the book, "nearly half (44.5 percent) of church leaders are approached 2 to 5 times per year about dealing with mental illness; 32.8 percent are approached more frequently, from 6 to more than 12 times per year."

If you haven't been approached yet, there's a good chance you will be—all the more reason to understand mental illness and learn ways to help those suffering. This is especially important when you consider the struggles people with mental illness face when attending church. Simpson says the problem is only exacerbated by uninformed leaders, the wrong belief that Christians don't deal with mental illness, and a church culture that expects attenders to live mess-free lives. People with mental illness may also face Christians who spiritualize the problem—even sending the message that they aren't walking with the Lord if they're suffering.

We must do better, especially in our small groups. If we seek to create safe environments for people to grow in their relationship with God and with one another, we must make our groups safe for all people, including those facing mental illness and their family members.

May is Mental Health Month, and we want you to have the resources you need to minister to people with mental illness. We offer a great four-session Bible study on ministering to people with mental illness and an excellent article from Amy Simpson on ways your small group can help people who are dealing with mental illness. Plus, check out an excerpt from her book: "Mental Illness Is Mainstream."

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:59 AM on May 13, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

May 9, 2013

When Missional Living Isn't Warm and Fuzzy

Are we still called to help?

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A few months ago, I talked to a woman who had become disillusioned by her experiences with missional living. She made her feelings pretty clear as she told me why she thinks my small group is wasting its time when we try to help people in messy situations.

"Some people don't change," she said, "And it's not our job to fix them—it's God's."

Her candid feelings startled me. I agree with her—some people don't seem to change. And I agree that it is God's job to change people (and he can change even this woman's heart). But I also know that God wants us to love on others and help usher in the kingdom by righting the wrongs we see, helping people to live the lives that God intended for them all along.

But the truth of the matter is that when our small groups try to help others, it doesn't always work out the way we'd like. We don't always see someone finding their way back to God. We don't always experience warm, fuzzy feelings. We don't even get a thank you very often. Despite this, we're still called to help, to serve, and to love.

Even if nothing changes. Even if there's no thank you. Even if it's so messy that we worry how much worse it will get.

We don't get to control the outcome. We just obey the directions that God has given us.

A new article from Joel Brooks on SmallGroups.com really fleshes this idea out, and I appreciate the author's honesty. Have a look and let us know what you think below. For a great single-session Bible study on this topic, see Called to a Life of Mercy and Justice from our sister site, ChristianBibleStudies.com.

posted by Amy Jackson at 3:31 PM on May 9, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

May 2, 2013

Working Together as a Team

It might not be easy, but you still need to do it.

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A few nights ago in my small group, the leader asked an icebreaker question: When have you worked with a team to accomplish a goal? It was a great icebreaker because it led into a discussion about Jesus calling his disciples, but many of our group members were stumped. Even I’ll admit it took me a while to think about it. When we did come up with examples, most of our answers referred back to high school, which is a little distant for most of us.

Why is it that all we could think of were examples from high school sports teams and school projects? Is it that we don’t work in teams after the age of 18?

It dawned on me that as your small group works together to accomplish goals of spiritual growth, missional living, and caring for one another, it may be the first time in a long time that your members have worked on a meaningful team. In light of this truth, we need to do two things:

First, we must highlight this opportunity. What a privilege it is to work with others and accomplish a goal we could never accomplish on our own! We must value this opportunity ourselves and model it to our group members. And when we do accomplish something we really need to celebrate it to show our group members that it’s a big deal.

Second, we must realize that we’ll have to work through team dynamics. When we’re all used to working on our own, team unity won’t happen instantly. That’s why it’s critical that you work through group dynamics issues and through any conflict that may arise. Our newly updated resource will definitely help you out in this area.

So tell us: What has your group accomplished as a team? What has helped you come together as a unified team?

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on May 2, 2013 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

April 18, 2013

Green for God's Glory

Celebrate Earth Day with your group

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Since I was young, I’ve had an interest in being “green.” I was a careful recycler. I reused odds and ends for craft projects. I cared about preserving the outdoors. Of course, during my teen years I took more than my fair share of ridiculously long showers. (Apparently water conservation wasn’t that important to me.)

As I got older, though, my green lifestyle took on new meaning. When I started following Christ late in high school, I made the connection that being green wasn’t just a nice thing to do. Instead, I began seeing creation as something God created and gave us to take care of. Over the next few years, my interest in living an environmentally friendly lifestyle turned into a passion—a God-given passion.

Since then I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a school, a church group, a women’s event, and even a garden club about the importance of conserving the environment, and it’s been a joy. To me, going green is one way we usher in the kingdom of God. We are called to be good stewards of the blessings God has given us—and that includes the earth. On top of that, many of the choices we make here affect our world-wide neighbors in negative ways—which means we’re failing at the command to love our neighbors. For instance, the pesticides that are required for conventional cotton farms have a terrible effect on the health of the workers, most of whom are in poor countries.

In honor of Earth Day on April 22, use our three-session study Creation Care with your group or use the single-session study Going Green for God from our sister site, ChristianBibleStudies.com. Consider ways that you, your small group, and your church are going green for God. Then brainstorm ways you can do even more.

Here are some ideas:
Start bringing your own bags when you shop
Use reusable water bottles and pitcher filters instead of disposable water bottles
Take your lunch in reusable containers
Reuse your current belongings before buying new ones
Recycle everything possible at small-group meetings (including plastic cups)
Eat snacks off of washable plates instead of paper ones
Limit the copies you print off for your group: e-mail out our downloadable studies to save paper
Start a recycling campaign at church
Set up a free paper recycling service (like Abitibi) for your church
Start a community garden

Share with us below: How are you living an eco-friendly, sustainable life?

posted by Amy Jackson at 2:52 PM on April 18, 2013 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

April 11, 2013

How Should We Measure Spiritual Growth?

Lessons from the Twelve Conference

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I attended the Twelve Conference today, a huge online gathering of small-group leaders and point people. So far, it’s been a great learning experience, and I’m so glad that many SmallGroups.com writers are represented, including Ben Reed, Carolyn Taketa, Rick Howerton, and Spence Shelton.

One of the discussions today was about how to measure spiritual growth. If you’ve ever tried to measure it, you know just how difficult it can be. After all, simply recording attendance, number of groups, and number of new people in groups doesn’t give us an accurate picture of spiritual growth. These speakers, though, came up with some great questions to ask to gauge spiritual growth:
1. What are you doing today that you weren’t doing yesterday?
2. How are you growing in the areas of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5?
3. Are you following Jesus today better than you used to?
4. Are you growing in the one another commands of the New Testament?

When it comes to assessing groups, you might ask:
1. Have we created a safe environment where people share authentically?
2. How deep are your prayer requests?
3. What stories of life transformation—healed marriages, reconciled relationships, etc.—do we have as a group?
4. Are we developing and sending out new leaders?
5. Do we focus just on ourselves, or do we also focus on others outside our group?

How do you measure spiritual growth? Share with us below.

For more insights from the Twelve Conference, follow along with us on Twitter today.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on April 11, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

April 8, 2013

Followers of the Wounded Healer

Wisdom for relating and ministering to those with mental illness

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It's pretty apparent when someone breaks a leg, like Kevin Ware of the Louisville Cardinals did during the Elite Eight NCAA basketball game last week. Legs aren't supposed to bend like that. When someone is struggling with mental illness, though, the signs aren't as clear. And while Ware will receive no shame for breaking his leg, chances are that a person with Schizophrenia will. No one will tell Ware to heal faster, yet many will ask those dealing with depression why they aren't feeling better yet, telling them simply to cheer up.

But our shaming and prodding will do no good for the person with mental illness. And that goes for those who are seeking to help people with mental illness, too. When your son with depression commits suicide or your mom with bipolar disorder causes a scene at the grocery store, you don't need any shaming or prodding either. You and your loved one need grace and love and reminders of God's light.

Ann Voskamp shares on her blog how she's seen the church deal with mental illness, including her mom's—and how she wishes the church would respond. She writes:

Our Bible says Jesus said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick." Jesus came for the sick, not for the smug. Jesus came as a doctor and He makes miracles happen through medicine and when the church isn't for the suffering, then the Church isn't for Christ.

I wanted them to say it all together, like one Body, for us to say it all together to each other because there's not one of us who hasn't lost something, who doesn't fear something, who doesn't ache with something. I wanted us to turn to the hurting, to each other, and promise it till we're hoarse:

We won't give you some cliché—but something to cling to—and that will mean our hands.

We won't give you some platitudes—but someplace for your pain—and that will mean our time.

We won't give you some excuses—but we'll be some example—and that will mean bending down and washing your wounds. Wounds that we don't understand, wounds that keep festering, that don't heal, that downright stink—wounds that can never make us turn away.

Because we are the Body of the Wounded Healer and we are the people who believe the impossible—that wounds can be openings to the beauty in us.

Recognizing that different mental illnesses need different treatments, including resources outside small-group ministry, your small group can help those with a mental illness by representing our Wounded Healer to them. Too often we want to send away people dealing with mental illness, allowing specialists to do their work, but as the Body of Christ, we should come alongside those struggling.

What can small groups do to create environments where those struggling with mental illness—and those with loved ones struggling with mental illness—are welcomed and cared for? For a specific example, how might a small group reach out to parents who have recently lost a child to suicide?

For an excellent study on this topic, see Ministering to Those with a Mental Illness.

posted by Amy Jackson at 4:13 PM on April 8, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

April 4, 2013

Something More Important than Preparation

Why who you are matters more than what you do

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I read an article recently about the importance of preparing for small-group meetings. While I whole-heartedly believe that preparation leads to positive meetings and the environment for life change, I wonder if preparation truly is the most important thing.

Regardless of our planning and how thoroughly we’ve read our Scripture passage, what our small-group members really want—and need—is a group of people who are authentic, who live their lives together through the mundane, the scary, the frustrating, and the joyful moments. They’re looking for others who don’t always have the right answer, but are willing to empathize with them and pray. They’re looking for people who recognize that life with Christ isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always have clear black-and-white answers.

So although it is important to prepare for meetings by studying the passage, preparing good questions, and making sure someone is bringing a snack, our preparation isn’t the most important thing. Instead, we need to be people authentically following Christ, people who are outside our safe bubbles long enough to run into hard situations that make us to depend on God even more. People who make mistakes and then claim and apologize for those mistakes. People who are visibly growing more into the likeness of Christ—and are willing to admit it’s a difficult process.

In short, maybe the most important thing you can do for your small group is to be a growing, learning, imperfect Christ-follower.

Imagine the emotional safety of a group led by a leader like that. Imagine how your example would empower your group members to live out their faith. Imagine the thirst for God’s Word in a group of people who are working out their faith each day. Imagine how you might change the world by simply being a small group of authentic Christ-followers.

What do you do to keep yourself grounded in Christ? How do you keep your personal relationship with God as your highest priority in the midst of leadership responsibilities?

posted by Amy Jackson at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2013 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

March 28, 2013

Easter Should Change Your Small Group

Soak up his love, lean into his power, and continue his mission.

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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.

posted by Amy Jackson at 11:34 AM on March 28, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 21, 2013

Was Your Last Meeting Successful?

It's usually hard to answer that question.

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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.

posted by Amy Jackson at 3:17 PM on March 21, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 18, 2013

What Does Pope Francis Have to Do With Me?

Regardless of what you think of the papacy, we can learn something from the newest pope.

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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?

posted by Amy Jackson at 3:59 PM on March 18, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 15, 2013

Get in the Habit of Icebreakers

These meeting builders can do a lot more than transition you to your discussion.

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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.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on March 15, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 13, 2013

Questions Without Answers

Sitting with group members even when we don’t have easy fixes

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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?

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:55 AM on March 13, 2013 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

March 1, 2013

Wanted: Team Players

What to look for in new team members

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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.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:37 AM on March 1, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

February 14, 2013

Chocolate Cake, Pepsi, and a Milestone Birthday

How listening helped my small group bless a new friend

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This past weekend my small group blessed a 70-year-old man in a big way. He lives by himself in a pay-by-the-week motel. Without any family, he's lonely. And because he's not able to drive and is a little unstable on his feet, he's pretty much confined to his small room.

When we met him last summer, we were deeply touched, and we immediately started to build a relationship with him. One group member started picking him up each week for church, so he can experience community. Then we invited him to a Thanksgiving celebration with our small group. For Christmas, several of us bought him presents, and my husband and I had him over for Christmas dinner.

So when he told us he was turning 70 on February 9, we set to work planning a party. One group member is an excellent baker and made a large chocolate cake. Another member loves to plan, so she put together a delicious meal. We all pitched ideas for good presents for him, and we invited the kids, knowing how much our friend enjoys being around little ones.

The party was a success. But only because we learned to listen. Without listening, we would have no idea of how much he enjoys being around children. We'd have no idea that he prefers the King James Version or that he loves Pepsi but can't carry it home from the store on his own. We wouldn't know that his favorite treat is chocolate or that he goes to McDonald's each week with a friend for coffee. And all these details factored greatly in our planning. Because after all, a birthday party should be all about the person having the birthday.

One of the first lessons we learned as we started to be a missional small group is that we can't assume what others need. Instead, we have to get to know people and listen for their hopes, dreams, and needs. With our new friend, we've done just that. And it means that we've deeply touched his life. And in return, he's touched ours.

Listening is extremely important when it comes to missional living. Without first listening, we can do a lot of damage. We will probably incorrectly assume what people need. And we may break any trust by pushing ourselves on others.

And while listening seems simple enough, it's a difficult skill. True listening forces us to withhold judgment and seek to understand first and foremost. Only when we truly understand can we help others in the ways they need to be helped.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on February 14, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

January 29, 2013

Develop Your Facilitation Skills

Why your leadership matters

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Do you know how important your role is, small-group leader? Without you, your group will not run as smoothly, and group members won't get as much out of discussions. It's easy to believe that if you have a mature group your presence doesn't matter. But that's simply not true.

Consider how easily your group members go off on tangents during your discussion. Do you gently bring them back? Or observe what happens when someone shares something that makes them vulnerable. How do others react? Do they attempt to lighten the mood through humor? Just sit silently waiting for you to make the next move?

Sure, many meetings—the "normal" meetings—may make you feel like you're not all that necessary. Group members share great insights, are open in their prayer requests, and enjoy themselves. But what happens when there's an awkward moment? Or when there's a disagreement? Or when two group members are on opposite ends theologically?

Leaders who are able to facilitate group discussion well will recognize these moments and take steps to validate group members and help move the discussion along appropriately—not too fast to neglect and gloss over what's happening, but not too slow to dwell on the situation for too long.

Facilitating discussion is really an art, something you can continue to improve on as you gain more leading experience. But if you want to grow in your facilitation skills, you'll need to be intentional. Read about how to facilitate, especially in unique situations. Start with The Basics of Facilitating and Tips for Facilitating a Group Discussion. Then learn how to deal with specific group dynamics issues in our digizine Troubleshooting, including four of the most common small-group issues.

Another great idea is to reflect on your facilitation skills. After each meeting spend five minutes reflecting on the discussion, answering the questions below. If you co-lead, work through these questions together.

What went well? Did the group go off on any tangents? Was I able to bring the group back? If so, how?

Did the mood change at any time? For what reason?

How did the group members handle the change? How did I handle it?

Did I encourage multiple members to share their thoughts, or did one or two dominate the meeting?

Did we start and end on time? Why or why not?

How deeply did group members share? Or did they stay at surface level?

What can I do differently next time to facilitate better?

How have you grown in your facilitating skills? What has helped the most?

posted by Amy Jackson at 9:15 AM on January 29, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

January 22, 2013

What Does It Look Like to Be a Christian?

Remembering that life isn't black and white

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The women's group I lead consists of several women who are fairly new to the faith. As we read through our book, talk through the weekend's sermon, or discuss a passage of Scripture, it's inevitable that questions arise. And their questions seem to center on application: What does this mean for me? What does this mean for the lifestyle I'm used to?

For those of us who have been in the church for some time—or have been part of the Christian subculture for some time—these questions may bubble up well-rehearsed answers:

Of course it means you shouldn't live with your boyfriend—you're just going to have to move out immediately.

Of course it means that line of work isn't okay—you're just going to have to quit your job.

Of course it means you shouldn't be friends with her—you're just going to have to distance yourself.

It can be easy to forget that life isn't simply black and white. And while we might be able to identify the ideal, that doesn't mean it's immediately possible.

A recent blog post from Out of Ur reminded me of this ever-present dynamic in my group. The post discusses a new trend of "insider Christians" in other parts of the world—people who are following Christ yet are not willing to leave the cultural and religious communities, especially in Hindu and Muslim communities where the religion is enmeshed in the culture.

The story of these insider Christians forces us to ask the same thing that the women in my group are asking: "What does it look like to be a Christian?" As Christians further down the road, we need to carefully consider our answer. We can't sell the gospel short, but we also can't underestimate the difficulties of their situations—and the potential for God to work within it.

So I'm curious, how would you define, in a nutshell, what it looks like to be a Christian? And is that picture for all Christians everywhere and at all times? Share with us below.

posted by Amy Jackson at 9:33 AM on January 22, 2013 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

January 11, 2013

Invisible Wounds

Ministry to people with mental illness

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When someone in our small group falls and breaks a hip, we know how to respond. We visit the hospital, send encouraging cards, and deliver meals.

But do we know what to do when someone is diagnosed with mental illness?

Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds, a book on mental illness and the church coming out in April, has first-hand experience with mental illness in the church. Amy's mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Amy has learned a lot about living with, loving, and ministering to people with mental illness.

In a radio appearance today on "This Is the Day" on Moody Radio, Amy gave several tips for ministering to people with mental illness—and they're tips for all of us. Statistically, we will all encounter people with mental illness. There are 12 million people in the U.S. alone with a serious mental illness (1 in 17 adults) and 25% of all Americans have some form of diagnosable mental illness.

Simpson reminded listeners that it is a great first step to refer people with mental illness to appropriate doctors and therapists. But that isn't enough. We must commit to walk with them through the process, helping to deliver holistic care. Simpson said to remember to smile, make eye contact, and say "hi." Help remove the stigma by regularly mentioning mental illness in group discussions, studies, and prayers. Ask how treatment is going. And remember that there is hope for all in Christ.

For a full-length article on this topic, read Amy's article "Through a Glass, Darkly" from our sister ministry Leadership Journal. And stay tuned for more from her book later this year.

And if you're struggling with this now, use our Bible study Ministering to Those with a Mental Illness to work through some of your questions.

Amy Simpson is also the managing editor of Gifted for Leadership and the marriage and parenting resources from Today's Christian Woman.

posted by Amy Jackson at 11:26 AM on January 11, 2013 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

January 9, 2013

The Tensions of a Broken World

What exactly is our role?

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SmallGroups.com offered a lot of resources and articles on missional living in 2012. I’ll admit that it’s a topic close to my heart, and I truly believe small groups have a huge opportunity—and responsibility—to develop Christ-followers who are engaged in the mission of God.

But not long after you begin to look for opportunities to love on and serve others in your community, you’ll run into the realities of living in a broken world. There are systemic injustices that keep unfortunate situations perpetuating. There are long-term prejudices that make people afraid to step out in faith. And there are sin patterns that are so ingrained that it’s hard to truly make a difference.

And yet, God still calls us to participate in his mission of restoring the world to what it was meant to be by ushering in his kingdom.

In an excellent excerpt from The Cost of Community, Jamie Arpin-Ricci discusses this tension and helps Christ-followers understand their role.

When it comes to missional living, Arpin-Ricci is the real deal. For another excerpt from his book, read Rich and Poor Find Solidarity in Christ.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:48 AM on January 9, 2013 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

November 8, 2012

Book Controversy and Nasty Back-and-Forths

There's a more helpful way to approach controversial books.

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What do you know? There's another book controversy.

I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of it. Well-known leaders read—or simply read about—a book, post something on their blog, and others—having read or not read the book themselves—fight over their opinions. It's exhausting just thinking about it! And it shows a lot of disunity to the rest of the world.

Recently, I came across a well-written blog post on Out of Ur that reminded me of an important role small-group leaders can play in helping avoid these back-and-forths. Instead of banning a certain book, telling everyone they shouldn't read it, or, on the flip side, condoning everything in a book, perhaps we can help group members understand how to biblically interact with books—whatever their message may be.

This is a key skill that disciples need to develop. Think about it: We work through tough passages in the Bible that we may not agree with at first glance, but we don't tell people to stop reading them. Instead, we teach them to inductively study the passage, weighing different scholarly opinions. Why can't it be the same for books?

In the Out of Ur post, Matt Mikalatos writes that, "the best way to protect our people from dangerous ideas or books is not to prevent them from interacting with them, but to teach them to interact with them well." He suggests we learn to "read with our Bibles and our minds open."

I believe that it's rare that we'll read a book and completely agree or disagree with everything in it. Instead, we'll find certain views that we agree with, and others that rub us the wrong way—all in the same book. And there's value in that: I've learned so much from books that represent views I greatly disagree with because it's helped me better understand the issues and better love the people who hold those views.

Teach your group members to read with open Bibles and open minds, comparing an author's views with those in the Bible. Help them consider all possibilities, and come to their own conclusions, not simply taking the author's words as fact. Jesus calls us to be thinking people who live out his teachings in our place and time, not robots who simply do as programmed.

How do you help group members determine what is true, right, and pure? How do you help them to articulate their own beliefs?

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:56 AM on November 8, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

November 2, 2012

Tragedy and Suffering

What to do in the face of hardship

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When tragedy strikes, our faith can be rocked. Whether it's a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the loss of a friend, a difficult situation with a child, or a change in plans, we may begin questioning the goodness of God. And that's one of the reasons that living in community is so important—we can receive support and encouragement in trying times.

Use one of these meeting add-ons to ground your group members' faith:

God's Grace and Strength
Use subgroups to help group members explore God's grace in the midst of hardship.

Journal for the Journey
Explore keeping a blessings journal to remember all God's done.

We've even put together a free playlist for you on Grooveshark that's called: "Even When It's Hard." Play it when you're doing the activity "God's Grace and Strength," or whenever your group members need to ground their faith.

SmallGroups.com also offers several Bible studies that cover this topic, including:

2 Corinthians: Hard Knocks, Unbreakable Faith (4 session study)
Learn a perspective on hardship and suffering that is needed in today's world.

Living In Between (3 session study)
Deuteronomy may be a painfully honest book, but it promises God's presence through the pain.

Our Powerful Helper (6 session study)
God provides comfort when you need it most, and the power to persevere.

Perspectives on Suffering (4 session study)
Investigate how we can remain faithful in suffering by God's grace.

Is your group struggling right now? Handling Tragedy in Your Small Group provides help.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on November 2, 2012 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

November 1, 2012

Should We Focus on Spiritual or Physical Needs?

Or can we do both?

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Have you felt the tension between helping people and preaching the gospel? Should we focus on spiritual needs or only care for physical needs? Or can we do both?

Many of us have felt this tension in our small groups, too. We feel the need to help our group members study and understand the Word. At the same time, we see physical and emotional needs that need to be met.

And when our groups serve in the community, we feel the tension. Is handing out food at a soup kitchen helping to spread the gospel—even if we never utter the name of Jesus? Should we include information about the gospel when giving financial handouts?

Krish Kandiah of the UK Evangelical Alliance shared his views on this tension at the Nines conference last week. He said that when we feel the tension, we tend to do one of two things:

Cling to the quotation we ascribe to Francis of Assisi (though there's no record of him speaking or writing this): "Preach the gospel; use words only if necessary."

Or, we decide that when preaching the gospel, only words are necessary.

To put it another way, when faced with the tension, we simply choose a side, focusing just on helping people or just on telling people about Jesus.

However, Kandiah points out an important fact: Jesus was an integrated person who handled this tension. We don't just have the red letters in our Bible; we also have what he did. Both his words and actions were important in ushering in the kingdom of God. In fact, if there ever was a person who could get away with doing only one of these, it was Jesus. And yet he gave us a different example. He showed us that we are to both live and speak the gospel. And in doing so, we will carry the message of God's redeeming love into the world.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on November 1, 2012 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

October 31, 2012

Dealing with Rogue Leaders

Helpful tips from the Nines conference

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Last week I had the privilege of virtually attending the Nines conference, which featured many different pastors and leaders discussing hot topics over two days. One interesting topic covered was handling rogue leaders. Brian Tome from Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered tips—things he learned the hard way as he dealt with this difficult issue—and two really stood out to me.

First, he said it's crucial that we say the hard things before it's hard to say. In other words, make your expectations clear and speak up about the problem from the beginning. Don't wait until the problem is out of control.

Second, it's important that we play biblical instead of nice. That took a second to sink in for me, but it's true. If we're more concerned about being nice than handling things in the way Scripture instructs, we're essentially rogue leaders ourselves.

If you lead a small-group ministry or coach leaders, you're bound to experience a few rogue leaders, but these two tips can help minimize the impact. If we're clear from the beginning about our expectations, we set a solid foundation. And if leaders step outside those boundaries, we can call them on it. Plus, if we're willing to have the hard conversations at the first hint of something gone astray, we may be able to nip it in the bud.

The second tip becomes key when the situation has developed and we have to deal with it. That's hard to live by for relational small-group ministers and coaches like us. Too often, though, the reason we try to be nice is to protect ourselves: we're afraid of what the leader will say to or think of us, or how uncomfortable we'll feel. If, though, we focus on our love for the other person rather than our own comfort, it may be easier to "play biblical."

What have you found helpful in dealing with rogue leaders? Share with us below.

Plus, check out Ministering to Struggling Small-Group Leaders for tips from others.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:54 AM on October 31, 2012 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

October 24, 2012

Invest in Others

Don't overlook this incredible opportunity.

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As we create our discussion questions, clean the house, and make sure someone's bringing a snack, we may forget an important opportunity that we small-group leaders have: to add value to our group members, to build them up and encourage them.

Heather Zempel, author of Community Is Messy, is incredibly intentional about investing in people and adding value to them. In this article she lists seven ways leaders can invest in others such as make their day, listen, and approach every person as someone who can teach you something.

Read the full article and let us know what you do to invest in your group members.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:27 AM on October 24, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

October 5, 2012

The Power of Music

Free playlists to use with your small group

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Ever notice how well music can set the mood? Bring the power of music to your small-group meetings. Playing upbeat worship music as you gather and catch up sets the tone for praise. Playing Christmas music during a holiday gathering sets the tone for festive fun. And playing slow, meaningful songs during your meeting sets the tone for serious reflection.

To help you set the tone for your next meeting, SmallGroups.com has been creating some free playlists for you on Grooveshark. We'll be adding more playlists in the coming weeks. Our first playlist for you is our Confession and Forgiveness playlist, which is perfect to use with Fiery Forgiveness, an activity on confession and forgiveness from Keri Wyatt Kent.

Use our free playlists at your next meeting, and let us know what you think.

posted by Amy Jackson at 12:41 PM on October 5, 2012 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

September 20, 2012

Resource Review: 'Field Guide for Small Group Leaders'

The ins and outs of crafting effective, transformative meetings

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All small-group leaders have something in common: that moment we find ourselves in a panic wondering what we've gotten ourselves into. And chances are, as you prepared for your first meeting, those feelings were strong. How in the world do I structure my meetings? How do I come up with good questions? How do I get people to talk?

New leaders these days are lucky—they can use Sam O'Neal's Field Guide for Small Group Leaders to give them expert advice and calm their nerves. And veteran leaders can benefit from it, too—there's so much to learn and brush up on.

O'Neal covers everything from the role of leaders and learning styles to crafting meaningful meetings and handling unwanted surprises. The book is divided into three helpful sections: Mapping the Terrain (the basics of the leader's role), Planning Your Route (crafting a great meeting with focus, activities, and discussion questions), and Hitting the Trail (leading the meeting and troubleshooting issues).

One of the most helpful tips I found in the book is the need to identify the "Big Idea" of each meeting. O'Neal says that in order to bring focus to a meeting, we must look at our study material and pick out the one major point we want to get across in our discussion. Then we can choose a few questions to discuss that directly relate to that Big Idea. This keeps the focus narrow and the meeting succinct. Without this focus it's too tempting to talk about all the themes in a chapter of Scripture, but we simply don't have time in our hour-and-a-half meetings.

O'Neal stresses that small groups have the goal of life change. And in order to accomplish that goal, leaders must focus on application and inspiration in the meetings. If leaders don't help group members take their next spiritual steps, small groups will simply be a fun social gathering with interesting conversations. Luckily, O'Neal gives great advice in this area as well.

O'Neal has over 10 years of experience in small-group ministry and is a former editor of SmallGroups.com. Read Field Guide for Small Group Leaders today and buy it for any new leaders you know.

For excerpts from the book, read "Give Your Study Some Context" and "Use Teachable Moments to Your Advantage."

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:51 AM on September 20, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

September 13, 2012

Resource Review: 'Community Is Messy'

Focus on the discipleship opportunity in small-group ministry.

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Do you treat small-group ministry like a program or a discipleship opportunity? Heather Zempel, in Community Is Messy, urges readers to the latter. But she also admits the difficulty. She writes:

Discipleship is a whole life journey, not an eight-week class. It's about developing the fruit of the Spirit and spiritual gifts and looking more like Christ, not about checking off a set of boxes. It's a process of becoming, not a destination. There's no way to short-circuit discipleship. It's about turning every moment of every day into an encounter with God.

While many of us whole heartedly agree with her definition of discipleship, we realize that measuring discipleship and spiritual growth is difficult, even messy. So we resort to running our small groups—our main means of discipleship—like an eight-week class instead of a journey.

So how do we lead our ministries in a way that recognizes and honors the messy journey of discipleship? Zempel, who holds a degree in environmental engineering, suggests that small-group leaders must engineer environments that welcome true transformation and spiritual growth.

This focus on discipleship requires a lot more work and a lot more time. It requires life-on-life interactions that aren't scripted. It means intentionally investing in others and helping them see their potential. She writes that you need to be a little crazy in order to disciple others because "you have to see things in people that they don't see in themselves. And then you have to speak things into their lives or ask them to do things that they may scoff at or at least shake their heads and laugh at." It's messy, but according to Zempel, it's the way Jesus taught us: communities of believers living life together, learning about God along the way, and being drawn to him more and more.

More than anything, Zempel calls readers to value people more than programs. She calls us to be leaders who leave a legacy of relationships that we've invested in, and she gives great advice in being a strong leader: developing tough skin and a soft heart, being a life-long learner, thinking outside the box, modeling the life of Christ to others, cultivating a deep relationship with Christ, and embracing the mess of ministry.

Zempel also gives practical advice on handling "rogue" groups and finding a structure that fits your ministry. This combination of practical advice and focus on discipleship makes this one of the best books I've read on small-group ministry in a long time. It's especially helpful for coaches, directors, coordinators, and pastors who lead small-group ministries. On the other hand, small-group leaders can learn a lot from her focus on discipleship and being a strong leader that others want to follow.

Read "From Classroom to Laboratory" and "Life-on-Life Discipleship" for two excerpts from the book. You'll find a number of other articles from Zempel on our site as well. Buy the book today, which is also available in e-book form.

Heather Zempel is the pastor of discipleship at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and has written numerous articles for SmallGroups.com.

posted by Amy Jackson at 12:00 PM on September 13, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

August 16, 2012

In the Shelter of Each Other

How a Jars of Clay song gives a beautiful picture of small groups

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At church this weekend, our worship team led us in singing a 2010 Jars of Clay song called "Shelter." As I sang the lyrics, I was reminded of the beauty of small groups. In small groups, we gather in safe places of shelter—places where we can "set aside the names [we've] been given," and "set aside the lies [we've] been living." Small groups are places that we never walk alone.

I was most moved, though, by the following lyrics:

We must all believe
Our lives are not our own
We all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone
In the shelter of each other
We will live

It's so true: our lives are not our own. I believe this is true in the sense that our lives belong to God, and that we belong to one another. We are responsible to and for one another. This is a high calling and a humbling privilege. In small groups, we gather, believing that we belong to one another, that we can help one another to transform into the people God created us to be.

Small groups give us hope, help us grow, allow us to be who we are, and provide shelter from the storm of life. It's a beautiful picture. Reading these lyrics has reenergized me for small-group ministry this fall. What about you?

posted by Amy Jackson at 11:24 AM on August 16, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

August 9, 2012

Messy, Messy

How the mess of missional living is blessing me

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I've written before that missional living is messy, but I really want to drive home this fact: It's not for the faint of heart. Lately, I've been challenged by several situations that have highlighted the messiness of missional living, and it's caused me to reexamine what I really believe.

Not too long ago I sat behind a young couple at church. Their clothes were dirty and disheveled, yet I could tell they had tried to pick out clothes appropriate for church. They both had unkempt hair that hadn't seen water or a brush for some time. Worst, though, they reeked. The woman smelled like cigarettes, and the man smelled like a dirty diaper. As he shifted uneasily during the sermon, the stench wafted back at me. It made my stomach turn, and I found myself unconsciously leaning back in my seat, trying to put more distance between us.

I'll admit that my mind was screaming, "Get up and move! Get away from these people!" It took a lot of willpower to stay put. But I kept thinking, Aren't these the kind of people you want at church? The people you've prayed God would bring? Isn't it amazing that they had the courage to get up this morning and come here?

I don't remember much of the sermon that day. Instead, I prayed that God would give me courage and the words to make this couple feel welcome. After service, I struck up a brief conversation with the couple, introducing myself and asking their names. Sadly, it took a lot for me to look past the dirt, grime, and smell. I realized that morning that while I say I believe that all people are made in the image of God, my natural instinct definitely didn't align with that. However, I felt that tension and trusted God could fill the gap. And he did. It was an extremely short conversation, but I consider it a win for God. It challenged me to trust in him, trust in his truth—even if my trust was shown in an extremely small act.

Weeks later, my small group had the opportunity to bless an under-resourced mom and her two girls. They are on the cusp of homelessness. They do have a home, but there's not much money left over for anything else—including food. We brought tons of groceries over to their home, filling their cupboards and refrigerator. The mom was overwhelmed by the bags of groceries brought by the eight strangers invading her home.

The biggest blessing, though, had nothing to do with food. Instead, it was the love we gave her daughters—a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old. Her younger daughter was born with a condition that has left her severely deformed. Her body remains the size of a 1-year-old, and she must be carried around like a baby, unable to walk or sit on her own. She also can't speak. Because people aren't sure how to act toward this young girl, many just look away.

I, too, was nervous to interact with this young girl. Would I hurt her? Does she understand what people are saying to her, or should I speak to her like a baby? Could she communicate at all? What should I talk to this young girl about? Would she be scared of me?

Despite these questions, two of us sat holding her while the rest of the group helped the mom put away the groceries. When I said "hello," she smiled so wide. A grin snuck onto my face. We held her, brushing through her hair with our fingers, telling her how beautiful she is. The woman with me had brought her own daughter who promptly asked what was wrong with this little girl. My friend quickly responded, "That's how God made her. Isn't she beautiful?"

What astonished me was this young girl's wit. While she looks like a very young child, even a baby, her brain obviously functions at a higher level. As we talked with her, she warmed up to us and began "bumping us"—touching her fist to our fists—her own way of saying "hello." Pretty soon she started to fake us out. She would put up her fist to "bump us," but when we put our fists up, she would move her hand away and start laughing hysterically. I couldn't help but laugh, too.

I left feeling that I'd made a new friend, very different from how I thought I might feel afterward. I'll admit this was a tough experience for me. I was nervous about what it would be like, and I had questions that made me want to stand back. But God used this situation to stretch me, to remind me that each and every person is made in the image of God.

Twice in a matter of weeks, God put me in situations where he challenged what I believe. In essence, he asked me, "Do you really believe that every person is made in my image?" I'll admit my heart hadn't bought in like my mind had. But these experiences have done a lot to convince my heart.

When we're on mission for God, we live our lives in a way that makes the kingdom present, that makes Jesus present. We live by God's values instead of society's values. We bring the love of God to each person we interact with. (And we experience the love of God in others.)

And all that can get pretty messy.

But that's the way we grow. God meets us in the tension we feel, offering to fill the gap with his strength, grace, and love. And we find that as we seek to bless others, we are blessed beyond our imagination.

For more on missional living, read our free digizine.

How are you helping your group members live on mission? How are you encouraging them to offer up to God the tension they feel so they can grow?

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on August 9, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

July 19, 2012

Challenging Situations

Putting ourselves on the road to spiritual growth

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Growth requires that our normal ways are challenged—the way we think, the things we value, the amount of money we spend at Target. Without feeling challenged, we simply continue in our same routines. While most of us would say we want to grow spiritually, how many of us take off running any time we're challenged? We make our lives as comfortable, conflict free, and full of luxuries as we can.

As I've studied spiritual formation, I've learned that we need disequilibrating experiences, things that shake up our norm enough to make space for the Spirit. (That's why spiritual disciplines like fasting are so great—they force us to change up our routines.) The problem is that even when we aren't actively seeking out comfort, American culture throws plenty of comfort and convenience our way. Think about it: How many people in the world can drive 10 miles or less to a grocery store which has produce year-round from around the world, regardless of natural growing seasons? It's easy to take all our conveniences for granted.

If small groups are an excellent place to nurture spiritual formation (and I believe they are), we'll need to continually introduce our group members to challenging statements, people, and situations. In other words, if our small-group meetings are the most comfortable time of our weeks, we're doing something wrong. If we're not experiencing challenging situations together, reading Jesus' controversial statements, or taking steps of faith regularly, we're missing an opportunity to grow. Instead, we're simply gathering for fun, for social reasons.

This is why I believe Jesus' call for us to be on mission is really smart. When you're on mission with clear purpose, you'll continually run into situations that challenge you. You're given the opportunity time and time again to rise to the challenge, growing in your faith. If you serve together at a homeless shelter, you'll run into people, situations, and cultural ills that will challenge you. Do I really believe what God's Word says? Do I really believe God can work through governments for his purposes? Do I really believe I should give grace and mercy to everyone—even those who have made bad decisions?

If you're reading through James and you genuinely talk about the implications of his words, you'll encounter some difficult imperatives. How is my faith shown in the way I respond to my neighbor's needs? Am I actually growing in being slow to anger? Do I really listen to God's Word and let it change me?

To keep your group members from getting too complacent, you should look for opportunities to challenge them. But to make sure these experiences encourage growth instead of fear, here are a few tips:

1. Prepare your group as much as possible ahead of time.
Are you going to the homeless shelter? Explain how things work there as much as you can. Clearly lay out what you'll do while you're there. Discuss any rules they'll need to know.

If you're going to be reading through a difficult passage of Scripture, give a brief synopsis of the text and explain its historical context. Clue group members in to key topics and ideas.

2. Debrief afterward.
Plan for plenty of time for group members to share their feelings about the experience. Let them sit and reflect for a while. Encourage them to think about how it has affected them on an emotional level. Allow group members to share parts of the experience that were difficult, that may have made them especially uncomfortable. Invite them to share their honest questions and comments. Affirm group members' feelings and thoughts. Address unresolved issues if possible. At the same time, recognize that discomfort often makes room for the Spirit to work, for transformation to occur.

By preparing your group ahead of time and allowing them to debrief afterward, you'll create a safe place to explore the challenges you face together. As your group members experience challenge and encourage one another to take steps of faith, you'll all experience spiritual growth.

For more on helping group members grow, see Empowering Group Members, Meaningful Application in Small Groups, and Leading a Life-Changing Bible Study.

posted by Amy Jackson at 3:03 PM on July 19, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

June 22, 2012

Finding the Right Ministry Strategy

Why you need to look at your church's culture before implementing what works for other churches

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I recently finished reading Heather Zempel's new book, Community is Messy. It's not out until September (I'll review it in more depth then), but I want to share an insight with you. Heather, a contributor for SmallGroups.com, writes about the importance of understanding the culture, rhythm, and demographics of your church when planning for small-group ministry. Ministering at National Community Church in D.C., she realized that the natural rhythm of life is a trimester system—students and politicians alike follow a schedule that divides fall, spring, and summer. Additionally, she observed their churchgoers are young—many in their 20s and 30s—and looking for clear ways to grow in their relationship with God. And the demographic is fairly transient, with very few people staying for more than a few years.

With these things in mind, she and her team came up with a plan for small-group ministry that fits their church. NCC runs small groups on a trimester schedule, offers several discipleship-heavy groups (e.g., Theology 101, Old Testament Survey), and allows several "black market" groups to exist so that people can try out creative ideas—even if they don't fit the church's structure.

Heather is the first to admit that she's still learning and trying new things, and she fully expects to change their system in the years to come. But I think she's done something that we often forget when we're planning for small-group ministry: she first looked at her church culture when planning. It's too easy to read a book from "Big Community Church," get excited about their success, and try to implement those ideas into our own ministries without adjusting them to fit our church culture. It's too tempting to apply their exact methods instead of simply the principles.

I would guess that we don't look at our church culture first because it's hard work. It's difficult to have an objective eye as we look at our churches, researching the rhythms, culture, and needs. It's difficult to look at our own structures and ministries with a (constructively) critical eye.

I would urge you to take Heather's advice: look first at your own church. Only then should you research ideas for ministry that fit your context.

For more from Heather Zempel, click here.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:03 AM on June 22, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

June 11, 2012

Life Well-Lived for the Kingdom

Setting an example for emerging adults

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Today our newest Practical Ministry Skills resource, Meaningful Groups for Emerging Adults, was released, and I'm very excited about it. I'm excited because (1)I'm passionate about the life stage known as emerging adulthood and (2)there are very few resources for ministering to this life stage. This resource isn't simply looking at a new generation; it's looking at an entirely new life stage. And it will help you understand the needs and tasks of emerging adults and how small groups can minister to 18- to 30-year-olds.

Included in our resource is an interview with Wheaton College professor David Setran. He explains how this new life stage came about and how the life stage is defined. He also shares how people in this life stage are formed spiritually, and hones in on the need for mentoring:

SmallGroups.com: What helps to spiritually form emerging adults? I think mentoring in particular is critical for their spiritual formation. They need older adults who can serve as guides as they move from adolescence to adulthood in such a way that they feel excited about the prospect of becoming an adult. One of the things I have found in my research is that adulthood is something to be held at arm's length, to be resisted at all costs. A lot of emerging adults see adulthood as this time when all excitement is lost, all freedom is lost, and everything becomes routine and static. They desperately need mentors that demonstrate life doesn't end when you become an adult. They need to see lives that are well-lived for the kingdom, that demonstrate to them that this is the beginning of something really exciting.

Mentors for emerging adults need to realize they don't need to tell them what to do, what to think, and how to live. Emerging adults are trying to form their own voice, and mentors can nurture, develop, and encourage that voice. The mentor should be someone who's going to walk alongside them. And, to be honest, I have found that emerging adults are really seeking mentors. A lot of times older adults actually feel intimidated to take on a role like that because they feel outdated or don't feel they understand youth culture, but that's exactly what emerging adults need—to see what life on the other side looks like and how to live that life well.

That's a convicting call for adults in the church!
Exactly! With the fragmentation of the family and shifts in culture, a lot of emerging adults haven’t really seen that modeled for them. So it would be great to see that in the church, in all the different stages of life. It's an urgent call.

Emerging adults need to see that older adults are living lives well-lived for the kingdom. They need to know that adulthood doesn't mean they will just sit quietly in the pews, letting the younger people go on adventures with God. They need to see that God uses us all in radical ways throughout our lives. Are you living a compelling, well-lived life? What picture of adulthood are you painting for emerging adults?

To find out more about ministering to emerging adults through small groups, click here.

How does your church minister to emerging adults? What mentoring experiences have you had with emerging adults? Share with us below.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:54 AM on June 11, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

June 1, 2012

Granting "Refrigerator Rights" and So Much More

What I learned at my Memorial Day barbecue

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While several of our articles at SmallGroups.com explain that a measure of true friendship is granting “refrigerator rights,” this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. It’s not that I don’t understand—it makes sense that a good measure of comfort is the ability to open up someone else’s refrigerator looking for a drink—it’s just that it feels really strange. I have refrigerator rights at several of my friends’ homes. But when people are in my home, I worry that granting refrigerator rights only means I’m a lazy host—after all, why else would I make my friends get their own drinks?

I’ve wrestled with this idea for a while. When do I grant this right to my friends? How do I know they won’t be offended? And when is the right time to accept refrigerator rights from my friends?

This past weekend, though, I had a breakthrough. We hosted a barbecue with some of our closest friends. We were having a great time sitting outside, chatting about life, and laughing at ourselves. Then one of the women hopped up and asked if she could get some water. I startled myself with my response: “Of course! Glasses are above the dishwasher. There’s cold water in the fridge.” She ran inside and I sat, wondering how my response had come out so naturally. But I realized I was surrounded by close friends, people I share life with. So why shouldn’t that be my response?

After that interaction everyone felt comfortable getting their own drinks. And pretty soon people were helping me get out the sides and carrying the burgers to the table. The mood of the gathering relaxed, and we started sharing more deeply. Everyone felt more comfortable—not just because they had refrigerator rights, but because those rights signified that they had rights to our lives.

And while it may not seem super spiritual to allow others to open our refrigerators, it does signify something about our relationships. And I’ve decided to grant refrigerator rights to more of my friends. I’m excited to see what God does through this simple act of hospitality.

Who has refrigerator rights in your home? Do your group members make the list? Share with us below.

posted by Amy Jackson at 9:23 AM on June 1, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

April 17, 2012

Leaving the Neat and Tidy Behind

Being a missional small group is messy

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My husband and I have greatly enjoyed being part of our current small group. We joined only five months ago, and already we've fallen in love with this group's missional mindset. The group members always have their eyes open for opportunities to bless others. It's been a growing experience for us. We've been stretched out of our comfort zones, and we're compelled to look for other opportunities to care and serve.

If there's one thing I've learned about being missional, though, it's that it's messy. It doesn't fall in neat boxes. It doesn’t stick to normal lines. It doesn't even have a clear cause and effect. Regardless, though, there's a definite sense that you're doing what God calls his followers to do—show the love of Jesus to others.

A few months ago, our group decided to throw a housewarming party for a woman who was recently homeless. Now in an apartment with a young son, she had nothing—no silverware, no plates, no pans. She didn't even know how to cook. We showed up at her apartment on a rainy night. More than 15 of us stood in her small living room, giving her our gifts, helping her put things away. One couple brought a slow cooker with several recipes, offering to show her how to prepare them. The woman was overwhelmed and quietly put the items away. We didn't know the right things to do or say, yet we stayed for over an hour just loving on her, laughing at jokes, sharing stories, and listening to music. We didn't know what our gifts would mean to the woman, but we tried to be Jesus' hands and feet . . . and that's all we could do.

More recently our group attended a baby shower for a refugee woman from Kenya. We were surprised by the differences in the culture—from how they celebrated to the music they listened to. As we worked our way through the buffet line, we didn't recognize any of the food. But we were lucky to try spicy gizzards, bananas and beans, and sweet bread. It was definitely out of our comfort zone: we were with people we didn't know, surrounded by cultural nuances we didn't understand. Yet it was beautiful to celebrate this baby with them. And we learned a lot that night about their culture. Now we can't wait to party with them again. They definitely taught us a thing or two about celebrating.

In five months, we've had more experiences like this than I've had in any other small group. And I think it's because this small group is doing something right—they're willing to be uncomfortable in order to reach people far from God, to better understand our Christian brothers and sisters from other backgrounds and cultures, and to provide for the least of these. I've wondered aloud to my husband why our past isn't filled with these kinds of experiences. But we know the answer—it's just too messy. How do you program something like this? How do you keep group members from getting frustrated when things are uncomfortable? How do you teach group members the value in simply being present with others? How do you help people understand that we should obey Jesus regardless of the outcome?

I'm reminded, though, of how often Jesus was willing to step out of the norm, including when he ate with Matthew's friends in Matthew 9. Why does ministry have to be neat and tidy? Life isn't. If we're going to meet people where they're at, we're going to have to leave the neat and tidy behind.

For more information on being a missional small group check out: Eliminating the Walls Between Insider and Outsider Activities, Resource Review: Missional Small Groups, and Instill the Vision in Your Small-Group Leaders.

posted by Amy Jackson at 11:39 AM on April 17, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

April 12, 2012

A Culture of Consumerism

Why our communication about small groups may be hurting us

When I've heard pastors and church leaders talk, I get the feeling that we may have shot ourselves in the foot. That is, by communicating that small groups are all about meeting my needs for community, friendship, and spiritual growth, we've created a culture of consumerism. And when a group member doesn't feel his or her needs are being met, leaders hear about it.

But is the main goal of small groups to cater to the needs of group members—to provide a safe place where they can gain friends and have fun? Or is the purpose of small groups a bit deeper?

This video from difted.com explains that sharing what we've been given is our true purpose. It states that "pouring them out onto the world around us might leave us with more than we thought." Instead of trying to fill up my bucket more and more, it's about sharing what I've got with others. And I want to ask you: how can we emphasize this in the way we market small groups?

How do we emphasize that small groups are a place to serve and give of ourselves so that we all experience more abundant growth? Share with us below.

give fast pray from Difted on Vimeo.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:40 AM on April 12, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

April 10, 2012

Next Generation Needs

What will it take to reach a new generation?

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Did you know that the largest generation today is the Millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000? It's a hopeful generation that believes in helping people and accomplishing things for the greater good. It's a generation seeking roots of meaning and careers of purpose. It's a generation deciding what they want their lives to be about.

And only 25 percent attend church weekly. Almost two-thirds never attend. (So if you're thinking you haven't seen these hopeful, helpful people in your church, you're probably right.)

What will it take to reach this generation with the compelling mission of Christ? Sam S. Rainer III says it will take a new type of authority. Check out his intriguing article from our sister resource Leadership Journal.

Then let us know below: what can small groups do to reach Millennials?

posted by Amy Jackson at 1:44 PM on April 10, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

April 5, 2012

A Quick Health Assessment

A free tool from Michael Mack and TOUCH Publications

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I recently finished reading Small Group Vital Signs by Michael Mack. The author explains seven signs of a healthy small group: Christ-centered, healthy leader, shared leadership, proactive leadership, authentic community, ministry to others, and discipleship. He breaks down each area in its own chapter, giving a clear understanding of why the area is crucial to small-group health and offering great ideas for improving in the area.

Whether or not you've read the book, though, you can benefit by taking the free online assessment. This assessment asks 42 questions and creates a graph showing how your group is doing in each of the seven areas. In a matter of minutes you can have a clear idea of the areas in which your group is doing well, and which areas could use some improvement. Take the assessment today for your own group, or pass it along to your leaders.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on April 5, 2012 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

March 29, 2012

Know Thyself

Is knowing self important to our faith journey?

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I recently came across this quotation from Honest Christianity, and it got me thinking. He states that an important factor in our faith journey is getting to know ourselves—which may not be what we normally think of. We think about growing closer to God, becoming more servant-minded, and building relationships with others. But what if all those things depend on getting to know ourselves first?

"Prideful creatures that we are, it is hard for us to acknowledge what we do not like or respect, or what we sense others will disparage. It is so much easier, so more convenient, at least in the moment, to deny the existence of the distasteful. God, however, is truthful, and to truthfulness he calls us. He wants us to know ourselves, so that in the process, we can grasp just how much he loves us. We need not fear what is inside us, however heinous, however awful, however base. God already knows all about it, and he loves us anyway—which is, in fact, the good news of Jesus Christ . . . Our life with God will thrive only to the extent that we purpose in our hearts, sincerely and relentlessly, to reckon with truth—about him, about others, about ourselves." --Clinton W. McLemore in Honest Christianity

Do you agree with McLemore? How important is knowing self to our faith journey? When have you seen proof of this?

If it's important, how much time should we spend on getting to know ourselves? How do we balance it with getting to know God and others? And how do we help our small-group members with this?

Share your thoughts and experiences with us below.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on March 29, 2012 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

March 27, 2012

Finding God in 'The Hunger Games'

Use the popular movie to spark discussion in your group

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It seems like everyone is talking about The Hunger Games! And for good reason. The trilogy is hard to put down, and it brings up important themes. Here at Christianity Today, we read the books and anxiously awaited the movie's arrival, and we've spent a lot of time discussing it ever since.

Looking for great resources on The Hunger Games? Christianity Today has you covered.

Amy Simpson, editor of Gifted for Leadership, shares how she sees Jesus in The Hunger Games in this article. Spoiler alert! Her article shares a lot about the book series.

The Her.meneutics blog posted on why we need dystopian tales.

Plus, a movie review by Todd Hertz.

Consider using the movie to generate great conversation in your small group. Take a trip together to see the movie. Then use this study guide for great questions and discussion.

What's your take on The Hunger Games? Do you have other ideas on using it in small groups? Share with us below.

posted by Amy Jackson at 2:55 PM on March 27, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 15, 2012

Growing Indifference Toward Faith

What should small groups do in the midst of this growing trend?

Our sister resource Out of Ur recently highlighted this short video of David Palau interviewing David Kinnaman of the Barna Group. Kinnaman shares that more and more the unchurched are simply indifferent to the church, and it's a trend we'll see continue to grow over the next 10 years.

This poses big questions for the church: how do we reach a world who doesn't care about us or our message?

My question to you: what can small groups do in the face of this cultural shift to continue to introduce people to the love of Christ? Watch the video and share your thoughts with us below.

Out of Ur is a blog of Leadership Journal that covers important news and challenges impacting the church.

posted by Amy Jackson at 10:20 AM on March 15, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 2, 2012

A Resource to Avoid Awkward Moments

Dig deeper into the Word with Keri Wyatt Kent

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Have you ever had one of those moments while discussing Scripture when a group member looked to you and asked, "What does that mean?" Ever felt that pang of panic when you didn't immediately know the answer? Maybe it was as you discussed Matthew 11:28–30 and someone asked what a yoke was or how it could be easy. Maybe it was as you used the terms justice, mercy, and grace in conversation, and someone asked how they were different.

Thanks to Keri Wyatt Kent you may run into fewer of these awkward moments. Kent, author of nine books including Oxygen, Simple Compassion, and Listen, provides two great resources: Deeper into the Word: Old Testament and Deeper into the Word: New Testament. These books each provide 100 reflections on common words in the Bible, providing insight into the original language and the historical context.

So, for instance, if that question about the yoke comes up, you could flip to the entry on yoke, which fleshes out four things the terminology would have sparked in the original hearers' minds. Or, to learn the difference between justice, mercy, and grace, you could flip to any one of those words to see that "justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve, [and] grace is getting what you don't deserve." And with 100 word entries in each book, you'll have plenty to learn and look up.

The books are extremely user-friendly. Each entry is about two pages and fleshes out the word in common language and modern-day examples. As you read, you'll learn about the Greek or Hebrew roots and read Scripture passages where the word appears. Use these books during your small-group Bible study to look up words you come across, or use each entry as a devotional to begin your meeting. You could even use the reflections to put together a brief word study that complements your study. With so many ways to use these resources, check them out today and see how they may help your small group go deeper into the Word.

For a sample from these books, check out Why "One Another" Is Important to Understand, which excerpts her entry on "one another" from the New Testament book. Learn more about Keri by visiting her website.

posted by Amy Jackson at 7:57 AM on March 2, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

February 21, 2012

Recognizing a Blind Spot in Church Culture

Learning from the introverts among us

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While it's been difficult for me to admit for most of my life, I've finally become comfortable saying that I'm an introvert. For those who know me well, it's really not surprising—after all, I primarily spend my working hours alone in an office typing on a computer, reading books, and manipulating words.

It's taken me a while to realize that being an introvert doesn't mean I don't like people. And it doesn't mean I'm super nerdy (although, I am a little nerdy). It means that I'm highly sensitive, easily over stimulated, and better at working alone—at my own pace with few distractions. On the positive side, introverts tend to have rich inner lives, are able to concentrate for long periods, and have fewer but deeper relationships (in fact, many introverts struggle with relationships that consist only of small talk).

Recently, I started reading a book on introversion: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. She explains that one-third to one-half of people are introverts, yet American society greatly favors extroverts. She gives a history lesson of how that came to be, and talks about her visits to places in the U.S. that exemplify this fact.

Would you be surprised to know that one of the places she visited was Saddleback Church? She explains that evangelical Christianity highly favors extroverts: we want funny, engaging teachers that move around the stage, lots of time to casually fellowship and mingle with one another, and elaborate, highly sensory worship settings. We expect true followers to be involved with many groups, and to attend all the group activities offered (like retreats, women's and men's events, and family events). We expect true followers to express their faith publicly and vocally.

Now think about the types of people we desire in our small groups: people who share often, easily mingle during fellowship time, and strike up conversation with newcomers. And these are good things. We see these as signs that someone is actively engaged—both with the group and in their relationship with Christ.

But what might an actively engaged introverted group member look like? Have you experienced that group member who listens intently for the majority of the meeting, but shares a nugget of truth that blows the group away? Have you noticed those group members who seek out the newcomers by quietly welcoming them and getting to know them one-on-one? Are you aware of the person in your group who quietly yet actively listens to other members, encouraging them by leaning forward, nodding, and smiling?

While we like to see people living out their faith in highly visible ways, consider this: there is a lot of activity happening in the introvert's mind and heart, activity that is important yet often overlooked. And this way of life isn't against the grain of Christianity. In fact, Scripture tells us to meditate on the Word. We have countless examples of historic Christians engaging the contemplative life. Even the modern theologians we look up to must spend countless hours alone with God and his Word. So maybe introverts have something to offer our extroverted culture—the reminder to slow down, to reflect, to "chew on" God's Word, to go below the surface.

How can you encourage and empower your introverted group members? How can you change your perspective of what an actively engaged group member looks like?

What about you? Are you an introverted group leader? Check out our Leading as an Introvert resource.

posted by Amy Jackson at 1:18 PM on February 21, 2012 | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

January 31, 2012

How Do You Train Your Small-Group Leaders?

National Community Church has taken its training online.

Heather Zempel from National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and writer for SmallGroups.com, recently blogged about NCC's new way of training small-group leaders.

In her blog post, she shares that they have started doing online training so that leaders can train at their own pace in their own timing. When finished, their answers to the questions in the training are sent to the staff at NCC and a face-to-face interview is scheduled. So far, they're very happy with the results.

Read the blog post to get the full picture, and check out this training module on choosing a study, part of their online training.

Then let us know: how do you train your small-group leaders? Are you happy with your results or do you wish it were going better?

12 What Do We Study? from National Community Church on Vimeo.

posted by Amy Jackson at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

January 25, 2012

Exploring the Command to Carry One Another's Burdens

Using questions to minister

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During a graduate class I’m taking, my professor held a discussion around Galatians 6:1–2. He asked the class what Paul meant by saying we "fulfill the law of Christ" when we carry others' burdens. Further, he asked us if we considered carrying others' burdens central to the Gospel or more of a peripheral duty.

His questions got me thinking. What does it mean if a central part of kingdom living is carrying others' burdens? What does it say about evangelical Christianity's emphasis on personal prayer and Bible study? And what about corporate worship? How often do we attend in order to hear from God or experience him for ourselves instead of connecting with others there?

Carrying others' burdens was central to the early church. We read in Acts 2 that early Christians "had everything in common" and provided for one another so no one would be in need. Paul also wrote often about not being a burden unnecessarily (see 2 Corinthians 12:14, 1 Thessalonians 2:9, and Hebrews 13:17). And he had plenty to say about bearing with one another by putting on compassion and patience (Colossians 3:12–13, Ephesians 4:2).

We also have God's example in carrying other's burdens—namely, our own. Psalm 68:19 says, "Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens." And in Matthew 11 and Galatians 5, Christ is painted as the one who frees us from heavy burdens.

So, it appears that carrying others' burdens truly is central to following Christ. But what does that look like? And how can small groups help fulfill this?

Last week I sat in a coffee shop near my home reading, when a man who seemed fresh out of high school asked to sit at the table with me. I was surprised by his request, and a bit irritated as I wanted to sit by myself silently enjoying some coffee and a book. A couple of times he tried awkwardly to start a conversation as I read my book. I gave him quick answers before returning to my reading.

Then I realized this was an opportunity, to get to know this person who is created in the image of God. So I tried awkwardly to start a conversation. I asked him questions about his day, his job, and his drink. It turns out, he was lonely. He wanted some human contact. He just wanted to have a normal human conversation with someone. And for whatever reason, I seemed safe. We talked for nearly an hour that day about aquariums and schools and movies, and I realized in my heart what I'd known in my head for a long time: questions can minister to others. They can show that we care, that we see them as real, living, breathing humans who deserve love and respect, and who have something to offer the world.

So, my first thought on carrying others' burdens is this: perhaps a great place to start is simply to be with the person, asking questions, getting to know them as another human being, helping to carry their loneliness, fear, or doubt.

What do you think? Can questions in themselves minister? How have questions ministered to you? How have you ministered to others by asking questions? Share with us below.

Check back over the next few months as I continue to flesh out the idea of carrying others' burdens.

posted by Amy Jackson at 11:09 AM on January 25, 2012 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

January 12, 2012

Resource Review: 'The God Questions'

A forty-day journey exploring big questions about God and faith

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Imagine a book that answers big theological questions in easy-to-understand terms while still giving satisfying answers—questions like these: Is God real? Do all roads lead to heaven? and How can a good God allow suffering? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

But when a co-worker recently gave me The God Questions by Hal Seed and Dan Grider, I was pleasantly surprised. It consists of 40 daily readings and six small-group sessions. The idea is to do the study over six weeks. Each week has a theme question and each day discusses subsequent questions. And they really are big questions: Is God real? Is the Bible true? Do all roads lead to heaven? Each daily reading discusses a major question in about three pages and includes a fourth page that allows the reader to respond, including a main idea to chew on, a verse to remember, a point to ponder, and space to reflect on personal feelings about the question.

My initial thought after seeing the questions is that the authors would inevitably make one of two mistakes. They’d either explain these huge questions in theological terms that no normal person knows, or talk in terms so simple and fluffy that they don’t actually answer the questions. Luckily, this book does neither. While safe for seekers (it uses accessible language and explains things concisely), this book makes clear its position: God is real, can be trusted, and desires a relationship with each of us. The authors use easy-to-understand language and simple—but not simplistic—intellectual arguments that don’t require a degree in theology (or physics, for that matter) and provide satisfying answers to real questions.

While we might believe these questions are those of only non-believers, these questions also surface in the lives of many Christians. One week’s question struck me in particular: If Christianity is true, why is the church full of hypocrites? Even more practical, one week discusses discovering our purpose and another discusses how we can change our behaviors.

Additionally, we can get a lot to support our faith from the book. One daily reading discusses the books of the Bible, categorizing them, and explaining how we got the Bible we read today. Another week discusses what Muslims believe, including a brief history of the religion, its view of God and the afterlife, its main teachings, and a description of Qu'ran. (There are similar sections on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity as well.)

At the back of the book, you’ll find a six-session small-group plan. It includes icebreaker questions that go along with the week’s questions, Bible readings, seven discussion questions, and a challenge for the week. The discussion questions include both knowledge-based questions to go along with the daily readings and questions that get to the heart and help readers apply what they’re learning. I think the questions would be beneficial in any adult small group, and could easily be adapted to fit the group's needs.

In the introduction, the authors state that knowledge can give us confidence in God, ourselves, and our faith. And I believe that confidence can help us submit to God, trusting him to rule our lives and guide our steps. Consider The God Questions for your next small-group study.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on January 12, 2012 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

December 21, 2011

While We're Waiting

What God has in store along the journey

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One theme has stood out to me in 2011: waiting. For the first time in my life, God allowed me to experience an extended time of waiting with no clue of what he had in store for me at the end. It was different from waiting a week for something to go on sale or waiting two weeks for the next paycheck. That kind of waiting involves little mystery about the outcome: I will buy the item I waited for and we'll pay the bill when the money is deposited. It is waiting for something we expect. It is simply delayed gratification.

It's much more difficult to wait for long periods of time for an unknown destination or answer to prayer. Instead of delayed gratification and discipline to stay calm and wait the prescribed amount of time, waiting for the unknown requires a heavy dose of trust in God as we push out the doubt that creeps in, force ourselves to wait instead of make our own way, and deal with the hurt, bitterness, and frustration when we've waited longer than we would have liked. We must keep reminding ourselves that God does want what’s good for us and that he will answer our prayers—even if the answers look nothing like we expected.

The theme of waiting seems especially appropriate during Advent as we learn again how to wait on God. In an entirely new way, I am able to understand Sarah (Genesis 16). Usually when I read the story of Sarah (or Sarai) telling her husband Abraham (or Abram) to conceive a child with Hagar, I have felt shocked and amazed. Why would she tell her husband to be with someone else? Why can't she simply wait for God to deliver on his promise? Now, though, I understand how beautiful the idea of making our own way can appear. When we've waited and done all that we feel God is asking us to do, we begin to get tired of waiting. We assume that if he really were going to deliver, he would have done so by now, and we begin to plot how we can make things happen in our own power. Until this year of waiting, I never understood how someone could get to that point. But now I do.

What I've learned in all this waiting, though, is that the blessing comes not only when we reach the destination, but also as we journey—in the work that God does in our lives while we're waiting. As we wait on him, we get a true picture of our hearts and souls. We learn just how little we trust God and how human we truly are. And we learn that God's way isn't a prescription (take this pill, do that dance, and everything you want will come true). Instead, it's a journey—and the best gift is God's presence along the way.

In all this waiting I've realized that many times we approach small groups with set goals, timelines, and expectations in mind. We follow set "prescriptions," waiting for the expected outcome to happen in the expected timeline: we'll discuss confession, confess to one another, be healed, and be amazing Christians afterward. Or I'll identify an apprentice, train for eight and a half weeks, and birth a perfectly healthy new group. We wait in a delayed-gratification kind of way. But I think our wait for spiritual growth is much closer to the unknown-destination waiting I've experienced this year. There's no guarantee that life with God will be easy. There's no guarantee that if we follow the prescription we'll experience amazing life-change. There's no guarantee that everyone in our group will even want to grow spiritually. And there's no guarantee that once we experience change we won't return to our old ways.

We can, however, stick together as a community as we journey, waiting on God. When we begin to feel like Sarah, wanting to make our own way, we can encourage one another to continue to lean into and trust God. We can help one another to see the work God is doing in our lives. We can pray for one another and carry one another's burdens. In doing so, we will be a true vision of biblical community.

As leaders we must hold out this truer definition of waiting—waiting on God, opening our hearts and minds for what he wants to do in our lives, without always knowing the destination. As we help our group members understand how to wait, I believe we will see real growth and change—I just can't tell you when or how. But maybe that's the beauty of it all.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on December 21, 2011 | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

December 19, 2011

Fighting Isolation

Many church leaders struggle to identify significant relationships in their lives

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As the weather grows colder and the days become shorter, I isolate myself more. When I get home, I throw on warm, comfy clothes and snuggle up in a chair with our dog. My husband and I make simple meals of warm comfort food and spend the evening talking or watching our favorite television shows. Gone are the days of summer when the warm temperatures and long days meant there were extra hours to spend meeting friends for dinner or taking long walks through the neighborhood, connecting with neighbors. During the cold winter months, we have to nearly force ourselves to be social and connect with friends—to choose to live in community and invest in meaningful relationships.

While spending more time at home is natural when the weather is less than desirable, what if your life were always a winter of isolation? In his article for our resource Accountability for Church Leaders, David Augsburger writes that isolation is a serious issue for church leaders:

Shrinking personal networks have come to characterize Western life. The healthy person needs 20 to 30 significant relationships—five or so each drawn from family, church, work, play, neighborhood, and relatives. These are partially interlocking, yet richly varied networks of friends with commitment to intense, positive, reciprocal relationships with history and continuity. Many church leaders are hard pressed to name more than a few friends who are truly mutual and reciprocal. The constant temptation to be a helper in nonreciprocal and non-accountable relationships leaves a caregiver impoverished relationally, with less community than is necessary for healthy functioning.

With so many commitments to investing in others, without necessarily participating in mutual relationships, church leaders may struggle to identify many significant relationships in their lives. For many church leaders, relationships are ministry-based, transient, and somewhat superficial. For instance, a small-group leader may be friends with one of the small-group members. The two may e-mail regularly (mostly related to the group meetings), talk weekly at church services and at the group meetings, and share some meaningful prayer requests. At the end of the small group, though, there is a good chance that the relationship will turn out to be less close than originally thought.

This is a problem. Church leaders, like all Christians, need to know and be known. We will struggle in life, and we need to have friendships that hold us accountable and help us grow. And perhaps church leaders need this even more. James writes that those "who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1). Yet when we feel isolated, it's difficult to identify close friends who we would want to begin an accountability relationship with.

Check out Accountability for Church Leaders to learn how you can intentionally build accountability relationships into your life. You and your ministry will be healthier for it.

Share with us: how do you avoid isolation as a church leader?

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:16 AM on December 19, 2011 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

November 22, 2011

Are We Inspiring Hope?

Your idea of a great small-group meeting might be missing something

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When I think of a great small-group meeting, I think of authentic conversations, new insights, several good laughs, and feeling known and loved. Something that doesn't normally come to mind? Inspiring hope. But that's changed.

Recently at my women's small group, I was filled with hope, and that was exciting—especially because I haven't always been a fan of women's ministry. Our discussion filled me with a renewed sense of mission, identity, and worth. Surprisingly, this great small-group meeting happened despite being in a group with less-than-perfect group dynamics, no clear leader, and a book study that's not exactly the best I've seen—red flags that would normally catch my attention. But our discussion stemmed from a great question, authentic sharing, and wisdom gained over years of following Christ. Our answers steered clear of the trivial and cliché and instead pointed to hard-learned truths.

So is inspiring hope something that we should strive for in small groups? Or should we be content with nice discussions?

The Bible certainly seems to say a lot about hope. Romans 12:9-13 says to be joyful in hope. Romans 15:4 points out that Scripture was written to fill us with hope, and 15:13 clarifies that it should be an overflowing hope, full of joy and peace. 2 Corinthians 3:12 reminds us that hope makes us bold to live out lives of faith. And 1 Thessalonians 1:3 says hope can give us endurance as well.

It certainly appears as if hope might be something Jesus wants for his followers. And if hope makes us bold and gives us endurance to keep on keeping on, it seems that hope is an important ingredient for spiritual formation. After all, if there's no hope of change or redemption, what's the point? Hope sounds perfect for small groups.

So do your group meetings inspire members with hope? Do your group members leave meetings feeling as though they've been on holy ground, that God was truly present in the meeting? Do they leave with a greater sense of identity and mission? Do they leave feeling emboldened to live a life worthy of their calling?

How do we make sure our meetings are brimming with hope? I imagine that depending on your study, some nights are more easily inspiring. For instance, talking about Jesus' miracles and discussing the miracles group members have seen in their own lives probably feels more inspiring than discussing the laws of Exodus. On the other hand, if we're reminding group members of Christ's power, the working of the Holy Spirit, and the deep love of God, can't any topic bring hope and inspiration?

As we head into the Christmas season, consider how your small-group meetings are inspiring hope in your group members. As we consider the hope of the world arriving as a baby, may your group bathe in the light of hope, gaining joy and strength to live lives for Christ's glory.

posted by Amy Jackson at 8:00 AM on November 22, 2011 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

September 12, 2011

Waving Goodbye to Small Group Mission Projects?

Or at least to our usual attitude.

Alan Danielson recently wrote on his blog that he hates small group mission projects. I think his point is valid. He clarifies that he has no problem with missional groups, but rather with mission projects – because they're seen as projects, not as primarily about people or relationships.

How often do we view people as projects or goals? I remember having a conversation with a friend once about the fact that she had a lot of friends who were unbelievers. I told her that I thought it was awesome that she was connecting with those outside her church family and encouraged her to continue strengthening those relationships.

My friend quickly looked down at her feet. "None of them have come to Christ yet. I've really been trying. I keep telling them about Jesus." She was clearly ashamed by the fact that none of her friends who were unbelievers had committed their lives to Christ yet.

My conversation with her, and others like it, have made me wonder how often we approach relationships with unbelievers like this. How often do we see them as people that we need to convince to commit their lives to Christ? How often do we see them as checkmarks on a small group progress sheet? (Meet weekly? Check. Invite new guests? Check. Lead at least three people to Christ? Check.) How often do we view building relationships with unbelievers as mainly for the sake of accomplishing a Christian goal instead of for the sake of loving someone that God loves?

How does your small group approach missional living? What does your ministry teach about being missional? How might we approach evangelism with authentic relationships at the center of our mission?

I'd love to hear what you think about this topic. Also, be sure to check out our newest article Nine Principles of Relational Evangelism by Randall Neighbour.

posted by Amy Jackson at 9:29 AM on September 12, 2011 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

August 4, 2011

Video of the Week: Facilitation

Mac Lake gives great advice on how to improve your facilitation skills.

I really like this video from Mac Lake (former Small Groups Pastor at Seacoast Church) on how to improve as a facilitator of discussion.

Time well spent for small-group leaders and member alike, in my opinion!

How Can I Improve My Facilitation Skills? from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

posted by Sam O'Neal at 10:49 AM on August 4, 2011 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

July 19, 2011

Video of the Week: Difficult Situations

Helpful thoughts from a helpful speaker

I recently came across this video from Josh Surratt, who is the Small Groups Pastor at Seacoast Church in South Carolina.

He's got some good thoughts on handling tough situations within a small group. Here goes:

Dealing With Difficult Situations from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

posted by Sam O'Neal at 9:16 AM on July 19, 2011 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

June 2, 2010

The True Battle for Christian Community

Giving the Holy Spirit full sway to release our appetite for the Father

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One of my favorite authors and speakers is Larry Crabb. I’ve heard him speak on several occasions, and his definition of spiritual community is one of the most powerful ideals he shares. He defines Christian community this way:

“Reaching with supernatural community power into the depths of another person’s heart so that the evil in our hearts that rules so often unrecognized in how we relate is clearly identified and exposed as hateful and that the Holy Spirit is given full sway to release our appetite for the Father.”

There’s a lot in that statement. He expands on this statement further by saying the real battle to maintain community is helping one another overcome the suspicion that God is not good and that I need to take over. Sometimes we recognize that easily, other times we don’t. One of the main purposes of Christian community in our small groups is to help encourage one another as we face skirmishes in that battle.

Part of helping one another is walking with one another through trials of all kinds. We need to help one another see that God often allows us to go through things that are very crushing and discouraging in order to get us to the point where we are hopeless and helpless before Him. At that point, we can know there is nowhere else we can turn but to the Lord. However, going through that process alone can be very discouraging and create bitterness rather than growth. That’s why we absolutely need Christian community in order to truly grow. Where else can people really get into healthy growth processes other than in some type of intentional small group?

posted by Dan Lentz at 6:15 PM on June 2, 2010 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 8, 2010

Placement vs. Recruitment

Is there a right way to get people into small groups?

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Over time, I’ve been monitoring the discussion around whether it is better to have centralized placement of people in small groups, or have group leaders recruit their own group members. The other option is a hybrid model where people are placed in a medium-size group setting and then recruited into small groups (i.e. connection events, etc). Regardless, it’s interesting to consider the various strategies and their outcomes.

Several things have brought this issue to increased relevance in recent years. In particular, small-group campaigns and geographical strategies have caused us to evaluate small-group growth and outreach all over again.

As I think about the recent history of the small group movement, I believe that in the past, many small group ministries leaned toward a decentralized model of getting people into groups—where groups primarily recruited there own members. The result, particularly in growing churches, was that small groups’ numerical involvement could not keep pace with weekend worship growth. Having group members recruit their own, organically, just couldn't keep pace. Granted, small groups in these churches tended to be more stable and long-term, although many of these groups experienced growth stagnation because they lost the vision and mission to reach new people and to multiply new groups.

Continue reading Placement vs. Recruitment...

posted by Dan Lentz at 1:13 PM on March 8, 2010 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

September 15, 2009

Great Relational Leaders

What they do and what they don’t do

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Lot’s of great leadership nuggets can be found at 21stCenturyStrategiesInc.com. I was reviewing some archived material there recently and came across a list of relational leadership traits to avoid, put together by Dan Reeves. I’ve adapted Dan’s list a bit and repurposed it as a list of relational characteristics that describe great small-group leaders.

Great relational small-group leaders...


  • Are not stingy with their praise of others.

  • Confidently affirm those things they agree with or believe, while being honest and humble about their own failures.

  • Are willing to initiate healthy mentoring conversations about things that make them concerned.

  • Do not tend to jump immediately to negative conclusions when interpreting people’s actions.

  • Do not find it easy to understand people’s motivations without asking them.

  • Prefer first-hand information rather than second-hand information.

  • Give the benefit of the doubt.

  • Do not tend to want all permissions run through them.

  • Are very comfortable with independent thinkers.

  • Do not tend to be locked into the safety of rules, regulations, and organizational efficiency.

  • Tend to see what can go right with an idea, rather than what might go wrong.

  • Focus more on mission than maintenance.

  • Are more concerned about people than process.

  • Are able to use and release leaders with skills, knowledge and abilities different from or better than their own.

  • Avoid using the legitimacy of their power and control as an excuse to solve problems and make decisions in isolation.

  • Are not insecure.


Do you agree with this list? What relational characteristics have I missed?

posted by Dan Lentz at 1:01 PM on September 15, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

August 31, 2009

Rehabilitating Small-Group Leaders

Wounded leaders need time and care before returning to battle.

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Because of a chronic illness I have been experiencing over the past several years, I've been thinking a lot about what small-group leaders need as they go through crisis situations in their own life. I used to be of the mindset that continuing to lead your small group, even during a personal crisis, was the best way to get through the crisis. "Bring your struggle to the community" and then press on! I learned the hard way that I was only half right.

During my illness, I definitely could not survive without my community. But as for leadership, I have hit times when I simply could not press on as normal. I did not have energy to do the hard relational work. I struggled to be adequately prepared. I simply did not have the energy to take the initiative.

This experience is teaching me that we need to take the rehabilitation of wounded small group leaders seriously.

I have appreciated the insight of Stephen Ministries, who provide training and resources for small groups to help care for their members and leaders. Here’s a quote from one of their staff:

Continue reading Rehabilitating Small-Group Leaders...

posted by Dan Lentz at 12:30 PM on August 31, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

June 29, 2009

Lead Yourself Well

So that you can be a leader worth following

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In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul states, "imitate me, as I imitate Christ." On one hand, that makes discipleship an easy process. I don't have to be a theologian or Bible scholar; I just have to be willing to bring other people on a spiritual journey with me. We are simply saying "imitate me. Do what I do."

But on the other hand, it makes the discipleship process very scary, because we are simply saying "imitate me"—and, well, I'm just not sure that would always be wise. It makes me realize that my greatest challenge and priority as a leader is to lead myself well so that I become a leader worth following.

Here are just a few disciplines that I have prioritized in my own life to ensure that I am leading myself well.

1. Feed Yourself. I think there are two dimensions of feeding yourself. First, leaders must be immersed in Scripture. Reading it, meditating on it, studying it, putting it into practice. There is absolutely no substitute. About four times a year, I develop a Bible reading plan for myself that is separate from any small-group leadership or other teaching responsibilities I have. I don't want to just read the Bible to get a word of truth for my group; I want to read the Bible so that I can grow as a person.

Second, I believe that leaders are learners. I try to be very intentional about reading books that help me lead better. A few that have helped me in recent months include Simple Small Groups (Bill Search), Making Small Groups Work (Henry Cloud and John Townsend), and Renovation of the Heart (Dallas Willard).

2. Stretch Yourself. It's easy to lead when there are no challenges, difficulties, or tensions. But real leadership happens when we face something that makes us uncomfortable or disturbs our normal routine in some way. If we lead for long enough, then we will find ourselves in stretching situations whether we want to be in them or not. So I've made it a practice to stretch myself regularly and intentionally in order to prepare myself better for leadership challenges when they come my way.

Stretching myself might mean serving in an area that is not part of my natural ministry affinity, being intentional about sharing my faith with someone, or slowing down long enough to talk with the homeless man that I pass on my way to lunch. All of us have spiritual muscle groups that aren't worked as much as others. Locate those muscles in your life and put them to work.

Continue reading Lead Yourself Well...

posted by Sam O'Neal at 1:53 PM on June 29, 2009 | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

June 3, 2009

When Is It Time to Move On?

There may come a day when you need to remove a person from your group.

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Are there times when a person should be asked to leave a small group? I think so. But those times should be rare, and it should be done only for the right reasons. So what are those reasons? I can think of a few.

The person is just too needy.
Once or twice a person has been in our small group who just had too many issues. They really needed a counselor, rather than a small group. In those cases, my husband or I—or someone else who was very patient—met separately with that person, instead. We have even been in some situations that no lay person could deal with, and we had to recommend a counselor and walk away.

You'll know a person is too needy for a small group if they cannot talk about anything but themselves. No matter the beginning of the conversation, the ending is always about their problems. If you've brought this to their attention and they can't adjust their behavior, or if they feel that you just don't understand how tough things are for them, that's a clue they need one-on-one attention.

Or perhaps they have an undiagnosed mental problem that causes them to disconnect from those around them. They will need more help than you can give them unless you are a trained counselor. In these rare situations, it can save the group (as well as the individual) to get them the help they need.

Continue reading When Is It Time to Move On?...

posted by Sam O'Neal at 4:00 PM on June 3, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Microwave vs. Crock-pot

Which leadership development philosophy do you choose?

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It's a conversation that has repeated itself several times over the years for me. The conversation takes different forms, but the theme is the same: Can people grow into spiritual leadership quickly, or only slowly? Can small groups be multiplied quickly, or does it take extended periods of time? Can new small group leaders be released into leadership quickly with the help of quality programmed curriculums, or does slower process-oriented apprenticing and relational training need to happen before releasing leaders?

In short, can development processes be "micro-waved" or do they need to be "crock-potted"? It's a conversation that took place again recently with some leaders in our local church. Did we come up with an answer? Yes and No.

Continue reading Microwave vs. Crock-pot...

posted by Dan Lentz at 9:34 AM on June 3, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

May 26, 2009

Something Bigger!

Getting to the root of our small-group ministry calling

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Through all the hype and trendiness associated with various small-group philosophies, it's critical that we not lose perspective on what God is doing behind it all. I was reading a recent article by Scott Boren who was taking a fresh look at the writings of some of the early pioneers of the modern small-group movement.

Scott noted these earlier writings focused on something bigger than just getting people into small groups. Click on the link above or below to read the entire article, but here's a summary of what Scott gleaned from his research:

1. Their primary concern was not on church growth, number of groups, or what percentage of the church was in groups. They realized that group participation was not the end goal, but a means for accomplishing God's greater mission. They had a vision for the redemption of creation and for empowering people to have a role in this redemption. Groups helped them do this and groups would often grow as a result. But there is little talk about how many groups, how people join groups, or other technical questions.

Continue reading Something Bigger!...

posted by Dan Lentz at 9:32 AM on May 26, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

May 22, 2009

Why We Do It

Our truest motivation for small-group ministry is the life-giving community of the church.

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Why are you a small-group leader? Why are you involved in the community of your church (and the Church)? I've been thinking about those questions recently.

Sometimes I get the impression that people view "community" as just another one of those things we do as Christians. Good Christians read their Bible, pray, and (along with several other spiritual disciplines) participate in a small group. Because that's what we're suppose do as Christians, right? If I were new to the community of God and his people, I'm not sure how thrilled I would be with this expectation—especially if I didn't think I'd enjoy being with the people in it.

Now don't get me wrong: I love small groups. But it's not small groups themselves that get me fired up. It's what can happen in small groups.

Jesus has told us he will be in the midst of two or three who come together in his name (Matthew 18:20). If we assume community begins with two or more people, then what Jesus is saying is revolutionary! Here's why: The presence of God has the power to transform things. When believers gather in Jesus' name, a life-changing environment is created that affects all who come within its radiating sphere of influence.

When God's grace is flowing, the Church is being the Church in all the fullness God intended. And the most beautiful part of it to me is the fruit of real community: God saving more people each day! This is precisely what we see happening in Acts 2:42–47. What a picture of the life-giving flow of God's grace. It is a timeless blueprint for doing what Jesus has commanded every believer to do in The Great Commandment and The Great Commission.

The life-giving community of the Church is the one thing in the whole universe that encompasses what every believer is to do (make disciples) and how they're to do it (love God and one another). It is how God transforms our lives, and it is how he desires to use us to reveal himself to the world. People see God when believers love one another (John 13:34–35; 1 John 4:12). And I can't think of a better presentation of the Gospel that kind of LIFE.

posted by Sam O'Neal at 11:23 AM on May 22, 2009 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

May 19, 2009

Volunteerism or Ownership?

Why you need other people to take charge of your group.

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Small-group leaders often leverage friendships with group members to get things done for the group or do something in a meeting now and then. Recruiting volunteers is a great way to draw in a regular visitor or disconnected group member. But when it's the only type of help a group leader has in his or her group, the future is looking dim, whether the leader realizes it or not.

Constantly asking people in your group to help in one way or another will eventually wear you out. It also may be considered a favor by the person volunteering to help you (instead of the group). If you are unable to reciprocate in a personal and possibly a sacrificial way, the member may feel abused or simply be unwilling to volunteer in the future.

Adding group ownership to the volunteerism you probably already do is great for your group—and you as well. Invite everyone in your group to join a core team that decides "who will do what by when" for the group meetings and members between meetings. By meeting monthly for an hour or so to make plans for the next six weeks of group life, it will remove any burden of leadership you may be experiencing and give others a strong sense of ownership for the group's success.

Here's a few thoughts and tips about leading with a team vs. leading a group with just volunteerism:

Continue reading Volunteerism or Ownership?...

posted by Sam O'Neal at 9:22 AM on May 19, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

May 5, 2009

Questioning Discipleship

Why group leaders should be less information-dumpers and more question-askers.

Note: In the next few weeks, we'll be introducing some "blogging all stars" from the world of small-groups ministry. Heather Zempel fits that description. She is Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church, and she has been training group leaders for a long time on her own blog: Wineskins for Discipleship.

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Henri Nouwen said, "We have to keep looking for the spiritual questions if we want spiritual answers." I used to think that my job as a small-group leader was to gather and dispense information. I thought small-group leadership was about controlling the message and making sure everyone knew the right answers to questions. However, the longer I plow the ground of spiritual growth, the more I'm convinced that discipleship boils down to the questions we ask more than the answers we give.

I've never researched it, but I'd love to know the percentage of Scripture devoted to Jesus' questions vs. Jesus' teaching. I bet the percentage looks a lot different from the amount of time the typical pastor engages in both of those activities. Consider the following:


  • Who you say that I am?


  • What do you want me to do?


  • What are you thinking in your hearts?


  • Do you believe I can do this?


  • Why are you terrified?



Those are some of the questions Jesus asked, and they transformed the lives of the people that he asked them to. He asked questions that are confusing, disturbing, realigning, and transforming.

Continue reading Questioning Discipleship...

posted by Sam O'Neal at 10:57 AM on May 5, 2009 | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

March 9, 2009

Small-Group Covenants: Part 2

The covenant components that team-building experts agree have to be in there

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I’m a member of our local church’s senior leadership team. We’ve been re-exploring our group covenant together. It’s important to us because we are team led—we don’t have the traditional senior pastor role in our org. structure. The process has prompted me to do some fresh research into group covenants, particularly as they relate to leadership groups. I wanted to see what some leading folks in the area of team-based leadership said were the critical components of a group covenant (over and above the basic small group covenant components I mentioned in my last post).

I chose six folks I considered experts in the area of leadership groups and read their stuff (if you’re interested in names, these folks were: Pat Lencioni, Ken Blanchard, George Cladis, Dave Ferguson, Dan Reeves, and Bill Thrall). It’s interesting that not all these folks advocated the use of a group covenant when it came to forming leadership teams, but they all advocated having values defined, mission buy-in, and behavior expectations in place within the group.

Continue reading Small-Group Covenants: Part 2...

posted by Dan Lentz at 10:05 AM on March 9, 2009 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

March 5, 2009

Small-Group Covenants: Part 1

Why it's vitally important that your leadership group has its act together

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Like many of you, I'm part of the leadership team of our local church. As a Servant Team (that's what we call our leadership group), we've been re-exploring our covenant together. Many of you will already be familiar with small-group covenants or agreements. There are many versions of covenants, however, most all of them include these basic components:

  • Why we exist (life-change, Bible study, task group, fellowship, etc.)

  • What we do (socials, service projects, outreaches, retreats, eat snacks, etc.)

  • How we relate (including expectations about the priority of participation and attendance, confidentiality about group discussions, accessibility of members to each other, accountability between members, and openness of the group to new members)

  • When we meet (frequency, time, do we take breaks, etc.)

  • Where we meet (location, how we handle childcare, etc.)

Continue reading Small-Group Covenants: Part 1...

posted by Sam O'Neal at 11:01 AM on March 5, 2009 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

January 27, 2009

Campaign Half-Life

Two tough questions for churches using small-group campaigns

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I continue to be amazed at how many churches are using "campaigns" to launch new small groups in their churches. I'm not talking about political campaigns, which are so prominent in the news right now. I'm talking about Campaigns like "40 Days of Purpose," the "50 Day Spiritual Adventure," and the like.

The idea behind a Campaign is to create church-wide unity, enthusiasm, and momentum. This is done through prayer, teaching, evangelism, special events, and personal devotions that are all aligned with the campaign themes. Many new small groups have been successfully launched using these Campaigns as a way to get unconnected people into new or existing small groups.

Once the campaign period ends, however, there is normally a slow fade-out of the energy that was created. And once the energy fades, churches are faced with several new questions. How do we maintain support for new groups? How do we keep training new leaders?

In other words, churches must wrestle with that dreaded question: What do we do now?

Continue reading Campaign Half-Life...

posted by Sam O'Neal at 10:17 AM on January 27, 2009 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)