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