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 …
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25
My dog, Maile, sleeps in a kennel. She actually prefers it. I’ve had dogs my entire life, and she is the first one I’ve crate-trained. I will admit I was skeptical at first. It just looks so cruel! How can anyone be happy, being in a cage? But every night, when her eyes are heavy and it is time for bed, she voluntarily abandons the freedom of our bed and goes back to the limits and the restrictions of her tiny little bed in her little wire cage. Do you know why? Because it is familiar to her…and, for dogs, there is great comfort in familiarity.
People are a bit like that too. Church people are especially like that. No matter how antiquated, no matter how ineffective, we all have a tendency to return to the familiar, to the “way it has always been”, because it is comfortable.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was fighting a battle which you as a present day church leader might recognize: the battle against the comfort of the familiar. It was a daunting task, getting the Hebrew Christians to persevere in the face of the persecution they faced and to stick with the very different forms of worship from those with which they had been reared. Gathering together as a church body every week with no sacrifices, no holy places, no sacred implements, no fancy robes, and with “traditions” which were all of one generation in age…all of these new ways had to hold the …
I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me —the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace…I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Acts 20:23-24, 33-35
There are surely thousands and thousands of possible reasons people choose to be a church leader. Money is probably not one of them. Oh, I know there are those few high profile ministers (particularly in evangelical circles) who have profited tremendously, but let’s be real, that is by far the exception, not the expectation. Rather, there are other kinds of “payoffs” which I believe attract some people into leadership positions in ministry. Some of us just like to be in charge. We like the power which comes with being the leader. We like to chart the course and then expect those who are following to, well, follow. For others, it is just the attention alone which draws them in. They are otherwise lonely people and the “payoff” for them is the “friends” who gather around them as leaders. Still others choose leadership by default, because they just cannot handle following. They ascribe to the philosophy: “He who refuses to lead is doomed to be led by someone lesser than himself.”
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” Matthew 28:19a
I can remember pretty vividly how I felt at the births of both my daughters. Those feelings will no doubt stay in my memory long after the details of the events have left me. In both cases, God made us wait until long after we thought we were ready. So when they came, I was overjoyed and thrilled and excited and so very ready to be a daddy! With Elizabeth, my older, I can still remember taking her little hand for the very first time in Seton Hospital in Austin. I remember thinking, “What a huge responsibility this will be…I can’t wait to get started!” I had an attitude of extreme gratitude for the opportunity God had given me and of sober responsibility for how much work nurturing this child would be.
What if we in the church had a similar attitude about new friendships? What if we saw each new friendship in our lives as a God-ordained friendship and treated it as if God had given us a responsibility for it? What if we prayed expectantly for God to “birth” such new friendships in our lives and then jumped into them with both feet when He answered that prayer? Oh, how that would change the church!
We in the evangelical world often talk about “just sharing the gospel” and leaving the results up to God. I do think that is an important perspective. There is our part in that process and there is God’s part, and it agree that it is important not to confuse the two. But I also think that “just sharing and leaving the results up to God” lets us off the hook of the Great Commission. Jesus did not say, “Therefore go …
Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.
I remember having lunch with my friend, Ben, who is starting new works in a particularly “unchurched” area of our city. He is taking a pretty non-traditional approach, at least in terms of denominational church starts. He is simply making friendships in businesses and schools and other places in the neighborhood, then watching as some of those friendships develop into Bible studies. The goal, I believe, is to start a number of these Bible studies in multiple locations around the neighborhood and see what happens.
So, as Ben and I were enjoying our Mexican food, we were talking about these friendships he was making. Many of them are not the kind of people who would ever feel comfortable walking into my very traditional, very WASP downtown church. As he was explaining his approach to these friendships, he said something that really hit my traditional, institutional church paradigm completely sideways. He said, “Blake, the people I am talking to about Spiritual things are not asking the question, ‘what do you believe?’ That’s not a question they care about at all. What they are asking is, ‘Are you somebody I want to be like?'”
I haven’t been able to get that comment out of my head. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It has really shaken my world.
I live and move in a world of strategic planning. I consult with churches regularly, telling them how important it is that they spend time defining who they are and what they believe. I am big on mission statements and purpose statements and vision statements and core values. If you ask me to describe my own church to you I would probably begin …