Why Small Groups Are Hard to Sustain

Small groups are difficult to sustain in the American church. Churches retool their groups every three or four years to keep interest. They change the name, try a new curriculum, hire a new staff member, and adjust the schedule but in the end groups continue to peter out.

Small group ministry exposes the gap between what we know community should be for the children of God and the American culture. “We are unaware that our culture has subverted our faith”[1] and so we continue to tinker with our small group ministry oblivious to the cultural values that are driving our people’s lives.

Joseph Hellerman writes, “We in America have been socialized to believe that our own dreams, goals, and personal fulfillment ought to take precedence over the well-being of any group.”[2]

When a group, even our family, hinders our ambitions we either abandon the relationships or ease them to the margins of our lives. Americans have established evasive maneuvers so that whenever relational commitment levels get too high we can escape.

To be a follower of Jesus is to put the welfare of others ahead of your own interests. Jesus placed the twelve disciples into a group and then demonstrated from his own actions how to serve and how to consider others first. He then expected the disciples to serve one another in the group and to lay down their lives for the others just as he had done for them.

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23

[1] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996. P.53.

[2] Hellerman, Joseph H. When the Church Was a Family (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009)

Love-The Missing Ingredient

Last month I attended two separate trainings for disciple-making led by two different organizations. There was helpful instruction and insight in both seminars but over the 6 days of training the word “love” was not used. (I tend to listen for what is not being said when I attend seminars or read books.)

When it comes to disciple-making Americans think in terms of equipping, teaching, curriculum, and training. The training is usually done in a classroom setting and feels very much like school or business training.

One organization in our training called the discipler a “mentor” the other called him a “facilitator”, which both reflect an institutional attitude not too different from a relationship with a manager or professor.

Making disciples of Jesus in a word is love. If we could go back in time and ask Peter, Bartholomew, or Matthew to describe their time with Jesus they would say something like this, “I have never experienced love, friendship, and belonging like I did those three years with Jesus.”

Equipping, training, instruction, and curriculum do not make disciples of Jesus. The discipler laying down his life for each individual is what makes disciples just as Jesus laid down his life for his disciples.

 

 

 

 

 

Home and the Holy Spirit

In thirty-five years of ministry I have stayed in hundreds of homes both in America and overseas. Three standout. The atmosphere was so distinct that I had to ask, “What makes your family different?” In each case I got the same response-the Holy Spirit.

The parents welcomed the Holy Spirit into their marriage and family. They were intentional to teach the children the nature of the Holy Spirit (Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control -Galatians 5:22-23) and that he lives within each member of the family.

Talking of the Holy Spirit was natural in conversation within their marriage, with their children, friends, and guests in their home. To be in their home was an encounter with the Holy Spirit.

The apostle Paul warns us that if we do not live with the help of the Holy Spirit we will “ . . . bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Galatians 5:14.

What should be the safest place on earth can become a house of devastation. No marriage begins with the intent to devour the other nor does any parent imagine children that hate and destroy.

Here is what love looks like:

  • Joy- There is a spontaneous happiness, laughter, and delight among the family members.
  • Peace-There is harmony between the husband and wife and an absence of strife, anxiety, or dissension among the family members.
  • Patience-Each member of the family shows awareness and regard for another’s feelings and circumstances.
  • Kindness-A absence of harshness or severity. The children are kind with one another and kind to each parent. The couple is kind to one another.
  • Faithfulness-There is a steadfast fidelity to the Lord, one another, and friends.
  • Gentleness-There is an absence of bad temper or belligerence and a deliberate kindness and patience in dealing with one another.

Stephen Covey has observed: “People are very tender, very sensitive inside. I don’t believe age or experience makes much difference. Inside, even within the most toughened and calloused exteriors, are the tender feelings and emotions of the heart.”[1]

  • Self-control. The family is marked by the ability to exercise restraint or control over their feelings, emotions, and actions.

 

 

[1] Covey, Stephen “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), p.193.

Listening: The Duty of Love

I can speak to many people at one time but I can only listen to one person at a time. Listening is what makes ministry loving and personal. As a pastor people would “connect” with me by listening to my teaching. I even had some who thought of me as their friend and yet we had never met. It was a one-way connection, which is not a friendship at all.

Paul Tillich writes, “The first duty of love is to listen,” and yet how rare it is to have anyone listen to us, even though Christianity is supposed to be marked by love. Ministries spend thousands of dollars and work long hours trying to get people to listen to them. Our seminaries, colleges, and churches teach us how to preach, how to teach, and how to share our story, but not how to listen.

Listening well to others requires inner strength because it places the listener in a vulnerable position. Whether as an extrovert or an introvert we protect ourselves from possible rejection. Extroverts are capable of creating a multilayered verbal force field, which seems friendly but in reality is self-protective. Introverts on the other hand are masters at evasive maneuvers to avoid unwanted conversations.

To love I must boldly drop my shield or bravely come out from hiding to engage others in order to listen with an intent to understand what the person is saying.

Although Jesus taught large groups there are also recorded for us one-on-one conversations that he had with individuals, Nicodemus and the woman at the well being two good examples. Both were never the same after being listened to by Jesus.

 

 

To Listen Is To Love

My heart’s condition determines my capacity to listen. To listen necessitates the same humility and self-sacrifice required to serve others. Robert Greenleaf wrote, “A true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first. True listening builds strength in other people.”[1] To listen is to laydown my life for another.

The self-absorbed heart is deaf to the needs of others even when people are speaking (or shouting) directly to it. The problem is not a deaf ear but a diseased heart. A whole heart will seek to understand what is being said whereas pride sees little need to listen.

Jesus says it this way:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.Matthew 15:13

God listens because God is love. God asks us to pray because without two-way communication there is no loving relationship. At great cost He restored his relationship with man so that He, in part, could listen. He loves to listen because He loves much.

To follow Jesus and to be Godlike is to willingly laydown my life for others by listening well.

[1] Robert K. Greenleaf, http://www.concordiaonline.net/what-is-servant-leadership/

What Does God Look Like?

Disciples of Jesus are made by people experiencing God in relationship and not by curriculum or the transfer of information alone. To study and research about Abraham Lincoln is not the same thing as having been a friend of Lincoln.

Jesus formed his disciples into a community around him so that they could experience what it means to be loved and to belong and for us to be able to see what God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” looks like as Jesus with his disciples lived it out.

The character that Jesus’s disciples experienced from him were:

  1. Humility. Counting the others in the group as more important than yourself.

“ . . .He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:8

  1. Servant’s Heart. To serve the practical needs of others.

“ . . .Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Philippians 2:7

  1. Self-sacrifice. To willingly lay down your life for your brothers and sisters.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

John 15:13

Jesus engrafted each man into the group of twelve for a three-year period for them to experience the essence of God so that they could become like Jesus. As the disciples were conformed to be like him they would grow in their love one another and their love for one another was the proof to the world that they were followers of Jesus. Their witness was their community and their community was their witness.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

 

A Tool for Discipling Children

The New Testament says little about the family because the Old Testament says much. The Book of Proverbs is an extensive and important tool for parents as they raise their children.

Robert Alter’s translation and commentary of Proverbs titled The Wisdom Books will be a help to parents as they instruct their children in wisdom. Dr. Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

His translation brings fresh meaning to many familiar proverbs. For example: “How long, dupes, will you love being duped, and scoffers lust scoffing, and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22)

One sample from his commentary “Intelligence of the most practical sort, involving an alertness to potential deceptions and seductions, is seen as an indispensable tool for the safe, satisfying, and ethical life, and a fool is repeatedly thought of as a dupe.”[1]



[1] Robert Alter, A Translation with Commentary The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 194.

Fast Food and the Family

The dinner table is about love and belonging. I use to see fast food restaurants as a threat to our families and culture but now I realize that they are actually the creation of our culture. Our rugged individualism, independence,  demand for instant gratification, and minimum relational attachments find its expression in the drive-thru window.  Unlike our predecessors we can now afford to circumvent the dinner table by grabbing a Quarter Pounder and a Happy Meal all in the name of convenience.

But building relationships has never been convenient. A meal begins with the self-denial to set aside the time required to have dinner together as a family. As parents there is not only the surrender of our own wants (and laziness) in order to make dinner with our family possible but also the struggle to teach the value of the meal to our children as they are pulled by the internet, homework, television, video games, music lessons, friends, sporting events, and school events. We make room for whom and what we value and because relationships and family are no longer important to us the dinner table is disappearing from our culture.

The love of the dinner table is activated by the sacrifice of purchasing or growing the food, preparing the food, setting the table, and the clean up afterwards. It is hard work but meals provide for us the opportunity to lay our lives down for one another that results in having the meaningful relationships for which we long and for which we were made.

 

 

 

 

Disciple-Making and the Dinner Table

Cultures are established and sustained around the dinner table. Each people group is distinguished by its food and table customs, whether Chinese, Italian, Jewish, or Ethiopian. In addition to daily meals there are the special holiday meals that are set apart to remember and retell the stories that have formed the beliefs and values for each culture.  Americans use the Thanksgiving Day meal and the 4th of July cookout to remind them of their heritage.

Rituals associated with these special meals are designed to help pass on the stories and values from one generation to the next. The Jewish people use the symbols of bitter herbs, bread, and roasted lamb from the Passover meal with the intent to help their children remember the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Each culture also understands (1) who is expected at what meal, (2) what behavior is appropriate at what meal, and (3) what food is fitting for each holiday. (Hamburgers are not on the Thanksgiving Day menu nor turkey and dressing at the 4th of July picnic.)

Luke in his gospel shows us the role of the dinner table in the ministry of Jesus and how he used the table to challenge the culture around him and to shape his kingdom. Around a meal Jesus demonstrates the good news of forgiveness, redemption, and belonging by eating with sinners and being the guest in the homes of the social undesirable.

A dramatic and powerful table scene in Luke is the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples. Around the dinner table Jesus illustrated the high kingdom values of a servant’s heart and love by his washing the feet of his disciples and by the laying down of his life for them. Here he also established a dinner table ritual with the simple symbols of bread and wine to remind generations to come of his love found in the story of his life, death, and resurrection.

In closing:

Our families in Chicago are exploring the use of the dinner table for the spiritual formation of our children.

 

We are asking the question how we can use our dinner tables to engage the culture of Chicago with the gospel?

 

 

 

Hospitality Was Central To My Spiritual Ancestry

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This past year we had over 200 overnight guests and even more dinner guests in our home. We believe that Jesus demonstrated the inseparable link between hospitality and the good news of the kingdom of God.

Meanwhile this summer I began investigating my spiritual ancestry by interviewing my parents and Taylor Gardner who had discipled me over 30 years ago. He, along with his wife Jimmye, taught me the role of hospitality in disciple-making.

While interviewing the Gardners I asked where they had learned about hospitality. It all began in the 1960’s while Taylor was in seminary when a missionary named Dick Patty spoke on disciple-making and hospitality, which resonated deeply in Taylor’s heart. Dick had discovered hospitality through a World War II veteran named Jesse Miller whose life was changed forever when he experienced the hospitality of missionaries Cyril and Anna Brooks while he was stationed in the Philippines.  A biographer wrote of Jesse Miller:

“Longing for Christian fellowship, Jesse joined other servicemen at the weekly dinner and Bible study hosted by missionaries Cyril and Anna Brooks. He was so touched and overwhelmed by their hospitality, the Christian fellowship, and the teaching of God’s Word, that he prayed to God, “If I ever have a home of my own, You can have it for servicemen.”

Six months ago I was unaware of the existence of Dick and Margret Patty, Jesse and Nettie Miller, nor Cyril and Anna Brooks but now I see their spiritual DNA not only in my ministry but also in the lives of my disciples. Where would my life and ministry be today if Cyril and Anna had not opened their home to Jesse Miller 70 years ago?

I shutter to think how close I came to missing out on the richness of my spiritual heritage and not being able to pass it on to my disciples and to their disciples.

Jimmye and Taylor Gardner

Jimmye and Taylor Gardner

Margret and Dick Patty

Margret and Dick Patty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna and Cyril Brooks

Anna and Cyril Brooks

Jesse Miller

Jesse Miller