Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Foundation for Training Small Group Leaders

Over the years, there have been a myriad of programs, books, and seminars on small group leadership. Most of them focus on practical techniques for how to do small groups in the “right” way. They address questions like: 
  • How to lead a group discussion.
  • How to facilitate an icebreaker.
  • How to grow your group?
  • How to lead worship in the group? 
While understanding these techniques of group leadership is important, I found that doing these techniques well does not make for great groups. At best, you will get good group meetings.

Leading a group by following the right techniques is a bit like trying to love your spouse because you follow a set of rules for a good marriage. It will leave you wondering why it's not working when you are doing what all the books tell you to do.

The foundation for leading a group well lies in the end that you imagine. If all you want is a good group meeting, then follow the techniques. But if you want a group that “lives in love,” that lives out what Paul instructs “And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:14), then we need something more. We need practices or a “way” that lines up with this “end.”

The leadership practices that we adopt will possess within them the seed or DNA of the end that is envisioned. The end we envision for our small groups will dictate the kinds of practices we adopt as leaders. Over the years there have been many different “ends” offered for small groups or missional communities. They include things like evangelism, discipleship, getting people connected, Bible study, multiplication of groups, or creating a Jesus movement. Those with the goal of evangelistic growth will focus on practices to reach the lost. Those that seek Bible study will spend great effort honing their Bible study skills.

I’ve wondered if the apostle Paul might write something like this today: “If my group reaches lost people and grows but there is no love, we are only a growing shell of emptiness. If my group raises up new leaders and multiplies but there is no love, we are only multiplying a form of spiritual cancer. If my group gets serious about discipleship and dives deep into the Word but there is no love, we are puffed up hoarders of information. If my group serves and goes forth on mission but there is no love, we are like a chicken with its head cut off. If my group gets lots of people in my church connected but there is no love, we are no better than a salesperson who sells products for a living.”

Our actions, our goals, our vision and even our results matter little if we don’t have love, because love defines the way of Jesus.

The way of Jesus defines the nature of our practices. The practices are shaped by the essence of who God is and, as 1 John 4:8 states, “God is love.” Love is at the core of God’s being.

We lead out of love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Therefore, love of others is an overflow of our love received from God. I don’t mean this in abstract terms, as in when we make orthodox statements regarding how much Jesus demonstrated his love for us on the cross. I’m referring to the experience of God’s love. Love is not love if it’s abstract. Love is about encounter. We are relational only be- cause we have experienced God’s relational love for us. Too often we forget this. We focus so much on the lists of things a Christian should and should not do that we fail to see that we love only be- cause we have first experienced God’s love.

We need to fill the word love with God’s way of love if we are going to receive and experience the kind of love that God is. God gets to define the way that he loves. We don’t. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). The way of Jesus is the way of love demonstrated on the cross. The practices of Jesus’ way will be practices that train us to “take up [our] cross daily and follow [him]” (Luke 9:23).

Think of how this contrasts with our normal patterns of relating. Our world most often trains us in practices where we value ourselves at the expense of others. Sadly, this way of the world has crept into the church and formed the way we lead. The way of Jesus love turns this around: we value others at expense to ourselves.

When we talk about leading in the way of Jesus, we are simply talking about becoming the kind of leaders who live in the love of God demonstrated on the cross, allowing God’s love to move through us. The end is God’s love, and since God loves the world (John 3:16), we are simply joining him in the continuing work of the Spirit to love the world with crosslike love. We need leadership practices that will align us with how God’s Spirit is moving. We are creating environments in our groups so that people can grow in this crosslike love. This is the end. This is the goal.

So if you want to train leaders in your church, begin with this foundation. No! Don’t just begin with this foundation. Weave this truth, this way, through all of your training. If any of our training or leadership practices are not permeated with the law of love, then they must be tossed aside. It doesn’t matter if people like it. It doesn’t matter if it works. We cannot keep doing it even if our groups are growing.

Our measurement of the kind of leadership we need is not whether it produces results. Our measurement must always be whether or not it trains our leaders to live in love, to lead in love, the kind of love demonstrated by the cross of Christ.

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 39-44

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Practicing the Missional Church

I have many fond memories of the church of my childhood, Foote Baptist Church, located in McKinney, Texas, in what was then a rural setting north of Dallas about 30 miles. One of the most significant memories was the altar call, the time at the end of the three weekly services when the pastor would extend an invitation to make decision for Christ. This decision time was the culmination of the entire service. It was a call to walk the aisle and make a public demonstration that a person was “getting saved.”

Later, I was a part of a charismatic church in Houston. At the end of our services, we too emphasized an altar call, though the invitation was not as focused on people making decisions for salvation as much as making decisions to come and get a touch from God’s presence.

However, both focused on the importance of making a decision.

This practice of making a decision has been shaped historically by the revivalist experiences of the American church. The first and second Great Awakenings, followed by 200 years of tent revival meetings, has taught us this. Speakers would articulate a clear message and they would call people to express this decision publicly. This decision-making spirituality is part of our way of doing church.

The call to a decision inside church meetings illustrates much of the way we do Christianity in other arenas. We are deciders. As a default, without even thinking about it, we live according to a decision-based Christianity. It forms a kind of rhythm to the way we do spirituality. It's a kind of music our lives play without our even thinking about it.

While some might argue that this decision-focused mentality is specific to the Evangelical tradition of the church—scholars have defined Evanglicalism around the core of “conversionism,” (See David Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism?)—the idea of focusing on decisions is much more pervasive. Decision-focused living shapes how we think, without our even necessarily thinking about it. The assumption is that if we want something, then we should decide for that something and then stay focused on that something. Then if we do this, then we will get that something.

But reality does not work this way. If I were a salesperson, I might decide to increase my sales every month, but focusing on increasing my sales numbers won’t change anything. I have to learn to focus on the practices that will lead to greater sales.

Sometimes, in Christianity, we have have this belief that if we decide for the right thing, then the floodgates of the good life will open up. If I decide to believe the right doctrines, or if I decide to repent in the right way, or if I decide to act in the right ways, etc, then all will be well.

In some circles, this decision-based mentality has crept into the missional church conversation. If we see the truth of doctrine of the missio dei (that God is a missional God), and we understand that the church is a missional church (that we are participants in God’s missional nature), then we decide to be missional. Then we get to work doing the stuff that fits with being missional, things like evangelism, social justice, discipleship, movement multiplication. Then we establish metrics that will measure our missional focus.

But like the sales person who has decided to sell more product by focusing on his sales numbers, we often fall into the trap of focusing on the end results, thereby forcing us to do the try-harder approach to be more missional. We don’t get what we decide for by focusing on what we decide for. We don’t get missional, in other words, by focusing on missional. Or if we were to put it in a different way, we don’t make a difference in the world by focusing on making a difference. (This is the point behind my introductory book on missional living entitled Difference Makers.)

That’s like a husband who decides that he wants a great marriage and focuses on all of the leading indicators of what a great marriage should look like. Everyday he makes a list of all the things that great husbands do and don’t do. But the problem is that he is not actually practicing the things that demonstrate love for his wife because he is so concerned about being the “right” kind of husband.

We participate in God’s missional life by developing practices that will shape us into being the kind of people who are missional. Doing a bunch of stuff that looks missional might make for good stories in books and on blogs, but doing missional stuff does not necessarily mean that we are missional.

Consider the salesperson again. If he wants to increase his sales, he must develop practices, most of which will be unseen, that will make him a better salesperson. This might include learning more about his products, going to a sales seminar, and showing more interest in his clients. It might also require him to deal with hidden character issues like impatience or that he needs to work on following through with his commitments. This takes time, effort, and lots of repetition.

We don’t become missional simply because we decide to be so. Missional is an act of the Spirit who transforms us from the inside out. For this we need missional practices. We must develop disciplines or practices that shape us for the journey. Tim Morey writes in his book Embodying Our Faith, “A spiritual discipline is any practice that enables a person to do through training what he or she is not able to do simply by trying. They are practices, relationships and experiences that bring our minds and bodies into cooperation with God’s work in our lives, making us more capable of receiving more of his life and power.”

According to Lyn Dykstra, “Practices are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy and presence of God may be known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, they are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God.” These practices train us to move beyond doing missional stuff as if we were the if we were the agents of change to participating in the work of God, who is the acting in our world.

We are shaped by practices. The problem is that most of us who have been around the church for any length of time have been shaped by practices that conform to the ways of the attractional church. We know how to do the attractional church without even thinking about it. It’s part of who we are. That’s the way practices work. We practice them until they become part of us.

Practices are specific in nature. They are the specific actions we are going to make a part of our lives that will make space in our souls for the Spirit to work in an through us. They are both a work of the Spirit and they are things that we do. We are participating in the life of the Spirit as we do them.

In my book, Missional Small Groups, I introduce 21 different practices that can shape individuals and communities for mission. As we move into a few of them and they generate a way of life in Christ and with one another that is missional. Practices shape this way as we develop through basic rhythms that are organized into three categories.
  • Missional Communion—A way of connecting with God together that shapes our life patterns so that we are no longer shaped by those of this world but changed from the inside out and thereby can impact people in our neighborhoods.
  • Missional Relating—A way of loving one another that stands in contrast to typical relational patterns of the culture, of mutual service and self-sacrifice that is visible to others and impacts them.
  • Missional Engagement—A way of being in neighborhoods and in networks (friends, next-door neighbors, family members, co- workers) that displays Christ’s love in tangible ways.

All three of these rhythms are “missional.” The way we pray and the way we love one another shapes how we participate in God’s missional nature. We cannot say that missional is only about doing stuff like evangelism and social justice. As we move into these three rhythms, we find that missional manifest in the overlap of the three.

As we practice these rhythms of life, we learn to play a different kind of music, missional music that is not based on our deciding for something and then acting, but the kind of music that flows out of us because it is part of who we are.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What Story is Your Small Group or Missional Community Telling?

Group strategies abound. Some refer to them as small group, others as missional communities. There are a lot of right ways to do groups. Some will argue about where they should or should not meet. Others talk focus on things like when they should meet, whether they should be mixed gender to gender specific, whether they should target a specific demographic or be geographically based, whether they should be closed or open, whether they should be long-term groups or short-term groups and whether they should study the sermon or choose their own topics. Should the oversight system be flat or a pyramid? Should the leadership system be based on the advice of Jethro to Moses in Exodus 18 or upon Jesus' strategy of choosing the twelve? And there is quite a bit of discussion about whether small groups of 8-15 or mid-sized groups of 20-50 are preferable. We could talk for hours about the various nuances and distinctions between strategies.

Discussions around all of these issues are important. And no doubt if you have spent any time in the literature about small groups and missional communities, you will have your own preferences and even justifications for the conclusions that you have drawn.

Here's the thing: there are a lot of group strategies that will work. I've seen all of the strategies that are being promoted today flourish. I've also seen them all fail. There is no grouping "silver bullet." There is no magical formula. Anyone who promotes their specific approach as being "the" best or "the" most biblical only stands in a long line of many others who have said the very same things over the last 50 years. I know this only because I once stood in this line myself.

Time, and a lot of listening to the journeys of various leaders and pastors, has taught me that the key will never be found in any specific strategy, although we can learn much from each one that has been developed. Instead, central to the development of group life, whatever specific strategy you adopt, is to think in terms of the story that your groups tell. If the stories being lived in and through the groups are compelling then the group system will develop, even to the point of taking on it's own organic life. If the stories that we live in our groups are not compelling, they go through the motions and we have to prop them up with more structures, new strategies.

Think about it this way: while we, as pastors and leaders, ask all kinds of strategy questions that are related to the topics above, these are not the questions that the group leaders nor the group members are asking—single moms with three kids, overworked accountants who are afraid their job is on the line, teachers who work with kids who are being neglected, (insert a description of one or two people in your church). And the life that they live together in the groups is what make the groups work. If the groups are not working at that level—at the level of the story that they experience—then it matters very little how we tweak the actual strategy.

My point is this: small groups depend upon relationships. A specific strategy cannot produce loving relationships. The strategy can create environments that promote the development of these loving relationships, but only relationships beget relationships. It's organic. It's fluid. And it cannot be forced contrived or controlled.

Assume that finding the right small group strategies is the key to flourishing groups is similar to assuming that a novel is quality because it printed and bound or published on Kindle. The story makes the novel. This does not make the form of the book unimportant. But when reading a good novel, I don't think that much about how it is made.

Therefore, the job for us is to think stories first and then to think about the strategies that will foster what we want to see in those stories.

There are four basic stories that I have observed in groups, and I've seen all of these stories occur in a variety of strategies.

The first story is called personal improvement. This is the group experience where individuals participate because it is personally beneficial. The people involved are either drawn to a topic or to a group of people like themselves, and participation is high until it becomes inconvenient. Nothing in group members’ personal life is required to change to participate. The key distinctive of this story is that people attend as long as it benefits them.

Lifestyle adjustment identifies the second story. People view such groups as beneficial, and therefore group members are willing to adjust their life schedules to prioritize attendance at a weekly or biweekly meeting. Usually people make longer-term commitments to attend such groups because they’re good for one’s spiritual journey. But the group is not great. It’s a good-meeting group that requires some adjustment in schedules, but most often there’s little commitment to living out community and mission beyond the group meetings. The key distinctive is that people make schedule adjustments to prioritize meeting regularly.

The third story is called relational re-vision. In this narrative, groups have a sense of urgency to operate according to a distinct set of practices that will form them into a community that stands out in our world. They recognize that loving one another does not come naturally in an individualistic, fast-paced culture that dominates modern life. They know that they have to learn a new way of living, that it will take practice and that it will take time. The key distinctive here is that the group is committed to learning how to live in community with one another in a way that stands in contrast to typical patterns of life.

Missional re-creation describes the final story. As a group begins to practice these distinctive patterns and the way of Jesus becomes part of its being, the group will follow the Spirit on creative paths of life together as members engage the community. They will engage the neighborhood, determine needs, meet those needs and, as a result, change as a group. Through the dialogue with those in the local context, the actual forms and patterns of life will be shaped by the context. A few from one group might meet with a group of shift workers at a bar they frequent after getting off work early in the morning. Others will adopt a home for mentally challenged individuals. And still others will come around a family that lives in a mindset of poverty and walk with them into a new way of being. The specific form is not the point. The key distinctive is that the group takes on unexpected manifestations that have an organic impact on the world around the group.

Most groups settle for one of the first two stories. Most hope for the latter two. It’s tempting to judge the first two and say that they are off the way of Jesus and elevate the latter two to special Jesus way status. And while in some ways this is true, we cannot make this conclusion. All are on the way of Jesus because the Spirit of God is drawing us from where we are further down the way. We don’t get to take the next step on the way from where we wish we were. Jesus works with us where we are. \

In other words, we don't move into the third and fourth stories only because we have good intentions to do so or because we develop clear vision for them. Groups rise and fall through our life together, the lived experience, not because we mandate something called community or announce that we want to be missional.

When you think in terms of stories, you can see how various groups and specific individuals live all four of them at the same time. The question then we must as is this: What does it mean to develop a system that will facilitate movement from the first and second stories into the third and fourth? 

This is where the call to practice rhythms that will form us into the kind of people who live out the third and fourth stories. This I will discuss in tomorrow's post.

Photo Credit:

Friday, September 19, 2014

How Do You Describe God?: A Devotional on "God is love."

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. —1 John 4:7-8

How would you describe God if a friend asked you to do so? What words would you use to explain what God is like? Well actually the words at your disposal comprise a very long list. Let's consider a few.
Sunrise at the Cross

First, the classic attributes of God that theologians have analyzed for centuries provide some guidance. They include such smart-sounding words as:

• Eternal (God has no beginning or end; He has always existed
• Transcendent (God is above and beyond the limits of our world
• Omnipotent (God is all-powerful
• Omniscient (God is all-knowing
• Omni-present (God’s is present everywhere
• Holy (God is absolutely unique and perfect)

Or we can use some words that are a little more popular, and say that God is: good, trustworthy, generous, faithful, glorious, worthy, beautiful, wonderful and great.

Then we might include a few words that the Old Testament writers use to describe God's character. We usually find these words as names given to God at the end of a story where an Old Testament character encounters God in a unique way. Some of these include:

• EL SHADDAI: God Almighty or "God All Sufficient." (Gen. 17:1, 2)
• JEHOVAH-JIREH: "The Lord will Provide." (Gen. 22:14)
• JEHOVAH-ROPHE: "The Lord Who Heals" (Ex. 15:22-26)
• JEHOVAH-NISSI: "The Lord Our Banner." (Ex. 17:15)
• JEHOVAH-M'KADDESH: "The Lord Who Sanctifies" (Leviticus 20:7-8)
• JEHOVAH-SHALOM: "The Lord Our Peace" (Judges 6:24)
• JEHOVAH-TSIDKENU "The Lord Our Righteousness" (Jer. 23:5)
• JEHOVAH-ROHI: "The Lord Our Shepherd" (Psa. 23)
• JEHOVAH-SHAMMAH: "The Lord is There" (Ezek. 48:35)

The list of attributes or characteristics of God can get quite long. But do we simply pick and choose which attribute we like best to describe God? Do we use one of our favorite stories to explain God's nature? Or is there a way to talk about God's center or God's essence?

There is one very unique name revealed in the Old Testament: Yahwah, which is the most sacred, revered and holy name of all. It reveals God's uniqueness, God's distinctiveness from all the other so-called gods that vied for the allegiance of the Israelites. It's meaning is obscure though, something like "I Am what I Am" or "I Will Be what I Will Be." It seems to communicate that the nature and character of the true God will be revealed as we walk with God in reality. In other words, God is not something that we read about in the Bible or in a textbook and then think "Oh now I know what God is like." Instead, we get to know God relationally as we walk with God.

The writers of the Old Testament were very clear about the mysterious, non-abstract reality of relating to God. The Bible does not contain abstract lists to describe God, but instead it is a book comprised primarily of stories about experiences with this mysterious God. And these stories reveal a personal God who personally gets involved with the world to save the world from itself.

When we think about God as a list of attributes, it is too easy for us to construe the mystery of God into a Wizard of Oz experience. God becomes the great wizard behind the veal of heaven that no one has seen and everyone has a theory about. We learn to talk about god the wizard and fail to talk to him. But the reality is that the Bible reveals a God who refuses to stand behind any curtain. Our God does not even require that we find a special path for salvation like "yellow brick road." Instead out of his personal nature God comes down from behind the veal of heaven and journeys down that road to meet us where we are.

Yahweh, the great “I am,” the God experienced in the moment by moment journey, takes this journey out of love. As the Apostle John states "God is love." Love is not something that can be defined in abstract terms, even though we may try. Love is discovered on a journey with the other. Love is up close and personal, involved and invested. Love is what love is and love will be what love will be.

Love is not simply one of the characteristics of God. It is the central essence from which all of God 's characteristics flow. From years of growing up in the church, my imagination about God was shaped by the singing of “How Great Thou Art.” After my childhood understanding finally figured out who “Art” was, I began to sing this song as if God's greatness, God's wonder, God's overwhelming awesomeness lay at the center of who God is. I saw God as the authoritative school principal in the sky who had lots of decisions to make and a world to run. God is Great after all and you had better not tick him off.

“We should never talk speak of any other attribute of God outside of the context of love. To do so is to risk a terrible misrepresentation of his character, which in turn leads to a distortion of the gospel. Christian talk about God must always start with love and introduce the language of power only in that context. (Chalk, 63)

God cannot not love. It is impossible for God to change his stance or position toward us, for if he did not love, he would not be God. His position toward us was revealed most completely through his self-sacrificial love displayed on the cross and this will not change.

Truly God is Great but God's greatness is a sub-characteristic of God's love. Love lies at the center of God just like a four-chambered, blood-pumping muscle we call the heart is central to being human. God's greatness, wonder, majesty and glory are a result of God's great love, wondrous self-investment, majestic sacrifice and glorious passion for others.

Love ... This is our God.

Photo Credit: Sunrise at the Cross

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How Jesus' Mission Is Hidden

Christ does not call us to follow him so that we can triumph or so that we can rule in a visible way. Jesus called us to his way of life, a way that looks like the cross. If our aim is to rule or to succeed or even to have an impact on society, we will be tempted and most likely succumb to the temptation to be violent "in the name of Jesus." If we seek to make the kingdom visible, we inevitably do so on the terms set up by the world, thereby justifying the Gospel according the rules foreign to the Kingdom. Jacques Ellul put it this way:

"Christ's lordship ... is universal but hidden. It is radical by not expressed. Instituted, it is not institutional. Royal, it is also mediate. Today, it is 'suspended.' ... He does not cease to be servant because he has been exalted by the Father above every name or power. ... This is the lordship of love. Hence it does not use force. It can be exercised only in a mutuality of love. It is in no sense authoritarian. The Lord is he who constantly stands at the door and knocks, waiting until the door is opened, not because he could not force his way in, but because, being love, he does not want to exercise his authority without the assent of the one upon whom he exercises it. Because the only face is this lordship is one of love, its only authority is that which is based on reciprocal love. The love with which God loves man can be rejected or flouted by man. If it is, no authority or lordship is exercised. Everything depends on reciprocity." (The Ethics of Freedom, 83-84)

This is the hidden work of love, much like the hidden growth in a grove of trees. If we look for visible, obvious results, then we will miss how the growth of the kingdom works. 

The love of the cross cannot be forced on the world, because as soon as that tactic is taken, it is no long cross-like love. The work of the kingdom is not the work of triumphing, it is the hard slow work of practicing the way of peace. 

The way of God's mission in the world is not meaured by things like: 

• How many converts have we made?
• How much is our church growing?
• How much impact are we having on out culture?
• How many new churches are we birthed?

This things may or may not result from our ministry of cross-like love, that is following Jesus to the point of dying for others. These are visible ways we typically measure triumph. We may experience positive results according to these standards but we may very well experience things like rejection, persecution, and other forms of suffering. In fact, the New Testament speaks to these results much more than the things that we typically measure.  

We neither shoot for triumph or for suffering. Instead we aim to embody the way of cross-like love as we participate with God in washing the feet of the world. Converstions, growth, impact, and new churches will result—as they have throughout the history of those churches that have embodymied the way of cross-like love. But it won't be the kind that makes for headlines in evangelism magazines or increases your social media klout. This is the hidden growth of how the Spirit weaves God's life into ours. 

The Way of Washing Feet: A Devotional on John 13

Thirteen men lounged around a table, ready to eat dinner. Then one stood, removed his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist. While the other twelve mumbled conversation between bites, he walked to a corner of the room and filled a basin with water. He first wiped James’ feet. Matthew was next and squirmed like a 5-year-old. The next three sat in silence. Peter broke the stillness. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? … No, you shall never wash my feet."

Giotto. Washing of the Feet. Scrovegni Chapel, PaduaWhen I meditate on the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples in John 13, I sit in awe and wonder. Awe at the humiliation of Jesus washing filthy feet. Wonder because I don’t get it. Then I read the punch line: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Jesus commanded us to wash one another’s feet. Yet, below the surface, this command lacks meaning. Do we institute a church ritual of foot washing? But I don’t wear sandals. I walk little. Sidewalks and carpet protect me from sand and dirt. My feet are nothing like those of Peter or John.

According to Jesus’ words, we miss everything about following him if we fail with the basin and the towel. But his meaning encompasses so much more than cleansing someone’s feet with a wet cloth. Jesus calls us to practice the art of doing things considered “below us” for others. We must put away selfishness, get on our knees before one another and serve them. Along the way, we discover that following Jesus means doing things traditionally unbecoming or even scandalous.

This is what Jesus did. In John 12, the crowds hailed Him as the King: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They finally realized that Jesus was the King sent to save the Jewish people. Peter agreed, so Peter could not let Jesus wash his feet. Kings don’t wash people’s feet. Kings lead; they don’t serve. Peter could not allow Jesus to serve him. Yet Jesus turned Peter on his head: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Peter returned, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Jesus instead wanted Peter to hear, “Let me serve you and clean the dirty part, and quit telling me how to be king.”

Jesus set the bar high. He saw (maybe smelled) a need for cleansing among the twelve, who sat too blind and selfish to address it. So he served and did not wait for someone else to do it. Then He said, “No servant is greater than his master” (John 13:16).

Back to the punch line: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Much of the church knows this command and others like it. “Serve one another.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Consider others better than yourselves.” So why don’t we live them out? Why don’t I serve others to the point of washing their feet? Why aren’t we willing to give up our lives for one another?

Jesus tells us: “Now that you know these things …” The disciples knew “these things” because Jesus had touched them; He got close and washed their feet. Jesus saw the dirt and the pain that they did not want to see, and he cleansed it. Jesus did not command the twelve to do something they had never received.

According to Jesus’ words, we do not wash others’ feet because we have not let Jesus wash ours first. We act strong like Peter and tell him not to touch us. But the truth is that we just don’t want Jesus or anyone else to see our dirt. We are used to carting it around. We accept it. We might even like it. And we don't want to let Jesus serve us this way because if we submit to this kind of service by the creator of the universe then we have to acknowledge that we are servants also.

The only way we can serve is to allow the greatest of all serve us. This puts us in our place. It gives us the ability to see that we are no better or worse than anyone else. And then we see that we don't serve by will-power and strength. We serve out of brokenness.

Jesus is pleading: “Let me wash you. Let me serve you. Parts of your life weigh you down and bind you. You drag your feet; I want to see you run and play. You can’t see others’ needs until you let me love you and touch the tender parts of your heart. Let me wash away hurts, offenses, anger, hidden loneliness that you pick up as you walk through this dirty world.

Jesus has washed my feet many times. Still, selfishness comes over me like a slow, quiet cold front. I don’t realize my spiritual barometer is dropping until I wake up one morning with a cold, hard attitude. I recognize then that my feet are dirty again, that I need Jesus: to talk with Him about my day, my pain, my joys. I must tune my ear to His words of love and acceptance. I must submit and allow the lover of my soul to wash me again.

Photo Credit: Giotto. Washing of the Feet.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Multiply Groups Out of Vision, Not Necessity

When I first started teaching seminars on small groups in the early 1990s, we put a heavy emphasis on multiplication of groups. The goal was to grow the group to 12-15 people and then multiply it into two groups. In many ways, this made a lot of sense. The logic goes this way:
  1. God wants all people to be saved.
  2. The most effective way to reach people is through relationships.
  3. Groups are founded upon relationships.
  4. As groups relate to people who don't know Christ, they will be exposed to the life and message of the Gospel and be drawn to it.
  5. Then they will be added to the group.
  6. The group will grow.
When the group grows, multiplication will be a natural outcome. So we focused our language on the importance of multiplication, thinking that if we emphasized this outcome that it would motivate people to relate to and reach people who don't know Christ.

The result, though, actually worked against our desire for multiplication. We communicated the goal of multiplication by using what I call "pastor-speak," that is the language that connects to the desires and goal of pastors who are held accountable for specific outcomes. Instead we needed to think about how we communicate this to everyday people, those who are not paid by the church.

Misty Forest Path Autumn Forest Mist Misty Morning Path TreesOn the journey, we tried to improve our communication. So we taught people the following principles:
  • Never use the word "split." To say "multiply" speaks to the positive. To say the group is splitting emphasizes the negative. 
  • Always communicate with groups up front that there is a vision for multiplication. Don't change the rules of the group in the middle.
  • Never, never multiply a group quickly. (We even offered a 7-step process for multiplying a group in a healthy way over a period of six weeks.)
  • Some strategies have adopted an approach of having the group closed for a season and then open for another, leading to multiplication.  
  • We challenged people to step up and catch the vision to reach the world.  
In all of this, I wonder if we have ever learned to talk about multiplication in "group member speak." When we focus on growing the group to reach certain size so that the group can multiply, we are multiplying the group out of necessity. We start new groups because we got big. Inadvertently, we are communicating to group members that we are supposed to build community and build relationships with others so that we can grow and then break up those relationships.

This does not make sense. I don't care how much we "buy into the vision." It's not the way we are wired as humans. It's not the way relationships work.

But some might argue that this is the way that groups grow and multiply all over the world. Just study the growing groups in El Salvador or South Korea. The difference is that these small group strategies have been developed in a cultural context that thinks in terms of group first. In relationships-oriented cultures, people know how to connect beyond official group life. But in the individualistic societies of the West, relationship rules are different. So when we start connecting with each other and then we are told to multiply because we got to big, we are actually undermining our ability to practice the kind of life that produces the beauty that would draw in those who don't know Christ.

The alternative to multiplication out of necessity is multiplication out of vision. I still believe in the basic principles listed in the bullet list above. But we don't talk about multiplication that must happen because a group gets to be a certain size. We talk about it in terms of a vision for multiplication. We don't start new churches because we have to, because we get to be too big. The best way to start a new church is out of the vision based of a leader and a team that sense the Spirit's leading. Why wouldn't the same apply to group life.

We don't start new groups because we have to. We don't start them because a potential leader has gone through the right leadership training classes. We start them because God is called and prepared a new leader and a team to venture out on a new journey.

The difference is subtle but monumental.

The emphasis then does not lie on the need to multiply. Instead, we emphasize the question: What is God's next step for me and us on the journey? As a community we need to be asking this of everyone, from the brand new Christian to those who have been in the church for 60 years. This is a question that goes beyond our small group strategies. It taps into the life of Christ in our midst, the king of the kingdom of God. After all, the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all and it grows in surprising ways. The Spirit of God is at work and the next step for your group and for all members of your group will not look like what has been thus far.

The next step might include multiplication. If we are listening to the Spirit, then this is highly likely. But if we force multiplication out of necessity instead of listening to the Spirit we will get good efforts, but it may not be what the Spirit has for us.

We need ways to ask ourselves and talk about what the Spirit has for us next. This protects us from assuming that we know the next step and keeps us dependent upon the surprising ways that the Spirit grows the kingdom. I encourage groups to reflect on this question three times per year, right before the natural times of transition. The first would occur right after Thanksgiving leading up to the natural transition time of the New Year. The second would occur in early May. The last in early August. Notice that the time to talk about "What Next?" is not the end of December or the end of May. People need time to process this question, and if God is leading them into something new, the group needs time to go through the transition.


A Discussion Guide for Asking the Question: What's Next?

Read the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Matthew 13:31-33

  1. What do the "seed" and the "yeast" represent?
  2. Reflect on what you know about the ministry of Jesus. How did his ministry seem small and insignificant?
  3. What are some of the seemingly small, yet surprising ways that God has worked in your life over the last couple of months?
  4. What are some of the small, surprising ways that God has worked in our group over the last few months?
  5. How is the "seed" growing in you? Is there anything unexpected stirring you?
  6. What's next? What is God saying to you about your next step on the journey? (Notice: for some this might be something like marital counseling. Others might be sensing that they need to step out at work and love people. This is not just a question about future group leadership, although that is part of it.)
Photo Credit: Misty Forest Path Autumn