Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation. I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.
For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.
But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:20-21
As a trial attorney, I suppose I have said it to at least a hundred or so jury panels during the voir dire examination of them, when the parties are trying to decide whom to strike from the jury panel. That’s the way our system works. The parties each get to strike a certain small number of prospective jurors, and the first 12 left comprise the jury. It is an examination for one purpose…to determine any relevant bias which may make a juror the wrong juror for a particular case. So, I have said this to all of them: “We all have biases. They don’t make us a bad person. They don’t make us liars. They don’t make us deceptive. In our area of bias, they just make us an unreliable finder of truth in that area.”
Those words rang so very true, I think, as little as 50 years ago in our culture. Truth cannot be found in bias. But, in more recent years, I fear that our bias-rich American culture is making it more and more difficult for us to explore truth without bias. I have stopped watching national news, pretty much completely. Why? Because every single national news syndicate in our country is hopelessly biased, whether by choice or by accident. I’m certain it does not matter which. What bothers me most about that sad fact is that real journalism was our last secular hope for knowing truth. Then again, maybe that was false hope from the …
“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe…” Ephesians 1:16-19
In Kiev, Ukraine, I visited the gallery of Mykola Syadristy’s microminiature art. That gallery (see the website) is perhaps the most fascinating art gallery I have ever experienced. Have you ever seen an entire chessboard (with movable chess pieces) on the head of a pin? Or a rose vine sculpted inside a hollowed-out hair? This Ukrainian artist was truly a master at creating beautiful things which could not even be seen by the naked eye. The gallery itself is simply a collection of microscopes, each one set up to help you see a tiny piece of this otherwise unseen microscopic world.
I see church leaders playing a similar role for those whom they lead. I believe it is up to us as leaders to provide a lens through which people can gain a glimpse of the unseen spiritual world all around us. Paul sometimes refers (in some English translations) to this unseen world as the “heavenly realms”. Scripture is replete with references to this unseen world which is more infinite and eternal and profound than any parts of the more fleeting and temporary physical world in which we otherwise live. Paul prays that God would give the church His spirit of wisdom and of revelation and that the “eyes of …
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. Genesis 37:5
Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same.God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” Genesis 41:25
I know there are some theological problems with comparing our Spiritual gifts to “super powers”…no doubt even more problems than I am aware of. Still, it makes me happy to think of them that way. So indulge me, please, for just this one post, because I believe the story of Joseph and his particular spiritual gift reads like a classic Marvel Comics super hero tale. He was like one of the X-Men with his super power of prophetic dreams and their interpretations.
Like most classic super heros, Joseph had a rough start with his gift. He wasn’t very polished in how he used it. It caused others to hate him and he just mishandled it more often than not. His fumbling of it got him sold into slavery by his spiteful brothers. Of course, years later, he would look back and see that was God’s plan all along. But in the meantime, his gift would cause him much pain.
As he matured, he came to understand the power and began to use it to help others (every super hero faces a crossroads early on when he/she must decide whether to use his/her power for good or for evil). As he made that choice more and more often, great and amazing things began to happen around him and he eventually rose to extraordinary power in Egypt, not to mention saving hundreds of thousands of lives in the midst of seven years of drought.
So here is the application (maybe you already got it)……
Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breathto enter you, and you shall live.And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”Ezekiel 37:4-6
Ezekiel’s “Valley of Dry Bones” can represent a lot of things beyond just the exiled Hebrew people of his time. It can represent the state of our souls prior to salvation, the spiritual state of most nations today (maybe especially including the U.S.), or it can symbolize churches. For our purposes here, let’s take up the latter.
You know I believe in the church, right? I believe it is God’s unbelievable and completely unorthodox (is it OK to call the church unorthodox?) plan to reconcile a lost and broken world to Himself. First, He created us in His image with the free will to choose a relationship with Him or not. Then He sent His son (the Word become flesh) to atone for all of our wrong choices and rebellion in order that we, His regenerate people, might be reconciled to Him. And then, He sent His Spirit to fill His people (His church) and to work through them to continue to bring lost sons and daughters to Him. I believe that has always been His plan and that it will succeed, just as scripture foretells. That is the meta-narrative underlying all of the churches’ successes and failures and seasons of triumph and seasons of brokenness.
But it is against that greater backdrop that Ezekiel’s valley …
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Theology is difficult for me. Understanding God is difficult for me as well. I do so much better with stories and metaphors to try to get my mind wrapped around Biblical truth. Maybe you’re that way too…in fact, maybe we are all that way. Maybe that is why God gave us His Word in the form of Jesus and in the stories of the Bible rather than in formulas and spreadsheets. Surely that is why Jesus used stories, similes, and metaphors so much in his own communication.
The metaphor most of us use to describe our Spiritual pilgrimage, our faith walk, is relationship. We talk about our relationship with Christ, or with God. We use little sayings like, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” We use that term (that metaphor, if you will), because it best captures what it means to follow Christ. It is NOT a metaphor Jesus used for ancient times, because it would not have had meaning then. It is NOT a vocabulary we find anywhere in God’s Word. But, like the term “mission”, it still has profound meaning to our culture today, and it is a useful way of describing our part in this amazing revolution that is Christianity.
The call to follow Christ is a call to relationship. Yes. So, why doesn’t that answer all our questions? Why does that metaphor fall short for …
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. Mark 6:4-6
I’m amazed at the notion that Jesus was amazed…about anything, really. If he were just “fully man” and nothing more, then it wouldn’t be quite so amazing…but that he was also fully God makes me wonder about what, exactly, could so captivate him, so catch him off guard, as to “amaze” him. So here it is: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
As it turns out, amazing God isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Jesus goes back to his hometown, to the people who changed his diapers and whose kids played with him on the playground and who saw him working long hours in his dad’s carpenter shop…with hopes they might be willing to see his growth, his ministry, and his power and authority over everything in this world. He had an expectation that his hometown would not be so constrained by their preconceived notions of him, that they would have room in their hearts for a hometown boy who turns out to be the savior of the world. As those hopes were dashed and his disappointment set in, he was amazed that their hearts could be so closed to the possibilities.
I like studying the gospels and paying particular attention to various people’s responses to Jesus. In each case, we ask ourselves, “Do I ever respond that way?” “Could that ever be me?” In this case, I suppose it is true that this could be any of us. God could well be amazed by …
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:7
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:10
I think the trick to understanding Spiritual Gifts is remembering their purpose…remembering for whose benefit they are intended.
Have you ever been so pleased with a gift you found for someone that you decided to get the same thing for yourself as well? Should we feel guilty about that? Do we have to tell the person that we did that, or can we just give them the gift and keep the rest of the story to ourselves? Is that deceptive? Does that break any gift-giving rules? Can we please get a ruling on this?
One of my two team members (Andrew) on last year’s South Africa trip had a birthday while we were traveling. I happened to be walking through the Waterfront at Cape Town a day or two before and saw the coolest little key chain. It was African art, a symbol for unity (it shows two crossed crocodiles). I thought it would be a perfect and simple little birthday gift for Andrew. I bought it. But I was so excited about it, I decided I wanted one for myself too! And then I decided I wanted one for Kelley too, so that our whole Unity Ministries team could have this as a memory from this trip. And, alas, Andrew’s birthday gift became a team gift for all of us! I suppose the original purpose of the gift got a little blurred in the process…Very sorry, Andrew!
I think that can happen with Spiritual Gifts as well. When the Spirit manifests Himself …
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long…” Matthew 23:5
When I was in High School, my Dad gave me a Ryrie Study Bible. I wore it out. I was proud of that Bible. It wasn’t just the huge size of it (it was a larger Bible than the hard-back “Living Bible” so many of my friends carried)…it was all the commentary in it that made me proud. It was a little unusual for my circle of High School friends, so it drew some attention. And when friends opened it up to look at it, it just screamed “THE OWNER OF THIS BIBLE IS A BIBLE SCHOLAR AND A TRULY SPIRITUAL PERSON!” Seriously. You could hear it. The advantage, of course, of having that Bible was that I didn’t have to tell anyone anything about me in order to manage their perception of me. They need only have seen my Bible. I liked that.
In 1984, on my 24th birthday, my Dad gave me a “preaching bible”. It was black, with a very thin profile. By then, I had grown mature enough in my Christian walk to be a little embarrassed by my huge Study Bible(s). (I actually had several of them by then.) This “Thin Line” Bible was understated. When friends saw it, it said (in a very low key, nonchalant voice), “the owner of this Bible has so much scripture crammed into his brain, he doesn’t really need a big study Bible.” My attitude toward Study Bibles had changed. Actually, I think I heard a Christian comedian make a joke about huge Study Bibles and how pretentious they were and it changed how I saw them. I certainly did not want to …
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1
People who do not want anything to do with the church often accuse it of being “full of hypocrites”. I have a theory about why they say that…
I have at least a couple of observations about Jesus’ words above..observations that apply directly to us as church leaders.
1. This is not a word for you to apply to someone else…this is a Word from Jesus to you ABOUT YOU. Even though I do get it wrong from time to time, I consider myself a student of grammar. With all due respect to Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Stephens and Mrs. Seitz (my first three English teachers in high school) it was Ms. Peak, my 12th-grade English teacher who really convinced me that good grammar and good communication are related. So let’s take the English translation of Jesus’ sentence in Matthew 6:1 and do some simple diagramming, shall we? (Is there anyone else out there who remembers diagramming sentences?)
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
Anybody know the subject of that sentence? Anybody?
If you said the subject is implied and that it is an implied “You”…you get a gold star for today! This is a word to “You”. It is not a word about “them” or about “him” or “her”. It is for you, and it is about you.
I once heard someone say that God’s Word is always more effective as a mirror than as a magnifying glass. I love that concept. It is perfect. I believe we would all become better scholars of Biblical …