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)

How to Make a Disciple of Jesus

Recently a missionary asked me how to make a disciple of Jesus. He said, “I am trained in evangelism and church-planting but I do not know how to make a disciple.”

First, we must know what a disciple of Jesus is. A disciple of Jesus is someone that has decided to live his life like Jesus did.

Second, Jesus demonstrated for us how to make disciples as recorded in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Following Jesus is an imitative process. Jesus lived among the twelve disciples for them to see how he lived so that they could emulate him.

Twenty years later the apostle Paul used this same pattern in making disciples of Jesus. Paul and his team would live among the people so that they could imitate him and his team. He writes:

“You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord . . . And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” 1 Thessalonians 1:5&6

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 11:1

Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” 1 Corinthians 4:16-17

“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.”   Philippians 3:17-18

Jesus is our model. Each disciple-maker configures his life after Jesus to demonstrate for his disciple how a disciple of Jesus should live. Paul imitated Jesus and was a role model for Timothy to follow and then Timothy in turn became an example for others to follow.

What is a Disciple of Jesus?

Since the great commission is to make disciples of Jesus it is important to know what a disciple is.

The apostle John tells us that a disciple is someone that lives as Jesus did. “Whoever claims to live in him (God) must live as Jesus did.” 1 John 2: 5-6 

Dallas Willard explains that a disciple is “a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus.”[1]

How Jesus lived his life on earth is well documented. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are biographical accounts of the life of Jesus from four different perspectives.

Joseph Hellerman says it this way: “The earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth constitutes the one time in history of humanity when heaven fully and finally came to earth. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we have the opportunity to see the question What is God like? answered in the flesh-and-blood world in which we live. During His incarnation Jesus not only procured our way to heaven. He also showed us how to live on earth. Now we can pattern our lives after Jesus.[2]

[1] http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=53

[2] Joseph H. Hellerman, 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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Words We Use

My Bulgarian neighbor shouted to me with his thick accent as I was getting into my car late for an appointment, “Hey Lewie! Are you are Christian?” His question put me in a predicament. If I answered, “Yes” it could be disingenuous because what George understands a Christian to be is not what I am. On the other hand, if I answered, “No” he would assume that I am either Muslim, Jewish, or an atheist.

Evangelicals need to become aware that when we use the word “Christian” we mean various things relying on context to define our intent. Many of our listeners either do not have enough information to understand our meaning when using the word “Christian” or they have wrong information so they misinterpret our use of the word. An example of this is my Jewish friend thought that Jesus Christ was the founder of an anti-Semitic movement, so he assumed anyone or anything “Christian” was anti-Semitic.

If a Roman Catholic, Evangelical, or Mormon says, “My daughter is a new Christian!” they do not mean the same thing but to the non-Christian ear we all use the same terminology. The Jewish, Muslim, and atheist see the Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Christian Science, non-denominational, and Mormons all as “Christian”. A Muslim that became a follower of Isa (Jesus) told me that he still cannot tell the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant let alone the difference between a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran.

I live in a Chicago neighborhood made up of Jewish, Indian, and Pakistani people. If I would ask my neighbors, “Wouldn’t you like to become a Christian?” what I mean by that question and what they hear are poles apart. For many of them a Christian is a negative and confusing term.

The responsibility lies on us as followers of Jesus to seek to understand the perspective of our listener so that we can communicate clearly the good news of Jesus.

  • Have coffee with a Jewish person, Atheist, Muslim, or Hindu and ask him to describe his understanding of Christianity, a Christian, and Jesus Christ.
  • Describe your faith to someone without using the words “Christian”, “Christianity”, and “Church”.

 

 

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.

 

 

Singleness and Worry

Singleness is not a justification to worry. A distinctive of all followers of Jesus is that there is no place for worry in their lives.

It is only natural for singles to wonder who will take care of them in illness and old age. For some their greatest fear is to die alone and for others it is that they will be all alone in their later years.

The heavenly Father will care for his single children in old age just as he has throughout their entire lives. Our trust cannot be in a government, a 401K, a pension, church, family members, or friends. Social Security could go broke, the economy may crash, the church may close, and family and friends may die before us. Security can only be found by trusting in the keen attentiveness and care of a loving heavenly Father. (Matthew 6:32)

In reality there is little difference between facing the future being married or single. It is presumptuous for married people to think that their mate or their children will care for them in their old age because there is no guarantee that their mate or children will live past tomorrow. It is also assuming for singles to think that “if only” they had a mate and children that they would feel secure about growing older.

Worry is a waste of time and height of assumption. As Jesus pointed out “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27)

 

 

Mythbuster: Singleness-Myth #10

Myth #10 Singles can be fickle and irresponsible.

Truth: There are singles that are trustworthy.

Nowhere else in American society are singles separated out as they are in the Protestant church. Although there are many aspects of our lives that we entrust to singles, our pilot, nurse, doctor, boss, and accountant all could be single, but when it comes to our spiritual lives we hesitate to submit ourselves to the leadership of singles. It is rare to find a single church staff member.

When we meet a single we automatically assume that something must be wrong. Yet in the first century a young single named Timothy proved himself to be trustworthy and he was able to lead others to follow Jesus.

“For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” 1 Corinthians 4:17

“But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel”. Philippians 2:22

Not all singles are spiritually trustworthy, but just as married people will overtime establish their faithfulness to the Lord so a single can establish his or her reputation as a man or woman of God. The disciples in Timothy’s hometown of Lystra recognized his spiritual uniqueness and based on their recommendation Paul invited Timothy to minister along side of him, a partnership that lasted for 18 years.

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.” Acts 16:1-2

 

Mythbuster: Singleness-Myth #9

Myth #9 Singles tend to be strange.

Truth: Peculiarity is not limited to singles.

I admit that I have met some strange singles over the years but I have also known some pretty peculiar married people. Marriage does not eradicate strangeness and in some cases exasperates it.

Singles can serve as Godly role models for all believers to follow. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and Titus as singles served as examples for the new believers to imitate in the first century. In more recent times David Brainerd, John Stott, Amy Carmichael, and Henrietta Mears have all inspired Christianity by their example.

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”

1 Thessalonians 1:6-7