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)

Open Hearts

Hurt will cause your disciple to close off his heart from others and from God. Although counterintuitive to us, the Holy Spirit uses suffering in your disciple’s life to open up his heart to the Lord and to you. This suffering will come in two forms: the sprint and the long-distance run. Both are strenuous but each develops different faith muscles.

A sprint strains every faith fiber to the breaking point but it only lasts for a short time. It will take everything out of him but he will learn lessons from the experience that he will never forget. It is important to make yourself available to him, no matter how inconvenient, in the midst of that trial.

Marathon suffering, on the other hand, grinds on for years or maybe even for a lifetime yet it builds a strong faith on the insights gathered from years of perseverance. Just as physical endurance can only be built by running mile after mile so these faith lessons only come from the long haul. The natural inclination is to want to escape from this trial now! However at the moment that trial ends the rich insights gathered from that particular race ends with it.

Our heavenly trainer and coach is trustworthy and he knows exactly what regimen is best and what duration is optimal to conform each of his children to the image of Jesus.

In the apostle Paul’s attempt to have the disciples in Corinth open up their hearts to him, he opened up his heart to them by telling of his experience with these two forms of suffering.

“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.” 2 Corinthians] 6:11-13

1. First Paul’s Sprints:

“I (Paul) have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again . . . I have been constantly on the move . . . 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 2 Corinthians 11:23-27

2. Paul’s Long Distance Run:

Later Paul tells of his ongoing torment that he begged God to remove but the Lord refused knowing what was best for the apostle. Paul then delighted in his suffering knowing that the power of the Messiah within him was a result of his perseverance.

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

 

 

 

 

Destructive Family Emotions

The great test of faith for your disciple will be tied to the destructive emotions of his family. Extreme family emotions were the experience of many biblical characters- Abel, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Jonathan, and David, to name a few.  Abel was murdered by his brother, Jacob tricked into an unwanted marriage by his father-in-law, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, Moses’s brother and sister betrayed him, Jonathan’s dad tried to kill him, while David had a wife who despised him, a father-in-law intent on killing him, and even a son who tried to end his life.

In Hebrews chapter 11 these same characters are commended for their faith and given to us as role models to follow.  Here we have the convergence of God’s purpose, our faith, and the suffering we have experienced in our own families. Each of these individuals chose to trust in the father heart of God (Hebrews 12:4-11), in spite of their family’s behavior, which empowered them to patiently wait for the fulfillment of God’s plan, to forgive others, and to not take vengeance against those who had harmed them.

In closing:

  • The painful family experience of your disciple is not a disruption or hindrance in his life, rather it is a vital component of God’s purpose for him.
  •  The faith of your disciple will be seen in his willingness to forgive others and to not take revenge.

 

Observing Beauty

Disciple making requires living in close proximity to your disciple in order for him to have the opportunities to observe the beauty of how you and your family live out kingdom values. Although instruction is important, life change comes by witnessing another actually living out these beliefs. It matters little what you say to your disciple in comparison to what he observes from your life. As Marion Wade has said, “If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it.” One example of this from the life of Jesus is when the twelve shooed away the children thinking them a nuisance until Jesus demonstrated the beauty of children by placing them into his lap.

My parents have consistently lived out the values of the kingdom for over 60 years. In the 1960’s it was customary for a new car owner to leave the dealer’s sticker on the car window to let every one know that he had bought a new car.  Only after he had paraded around town in his new automobile for a few days would he then remove the sticker. Not Lew Clark. My dad had the dealer remove the sticker from the window before he would drive the car off the lot. I do not ever remember my parents instructing me about humility but that one small act of beauty by my dad did not go unnoticed by me as a young boy and it has made a lifetime impact on my character.

When Your Disciple Dramatically Fails #1

You should not be surprised if or when your disciple dramatically fails.   An intense test of a disciple’s faith is part of the disciple making process and personal failure is an element of that trial.  Your proper response to his failure is important.

In Peter’s case the test came on his last night with Jesus after having been with him for nearly three years.  Peter had a misplaced confidence in himself boldly stating that he would go to prison with Jesus or even die with him.  People often underestimate the fault lines in their character as they overestimate the strong points of their personality.  Little did Peter realize on that very night he would experience the shame of his greatest failure.

Jesus had warned Peter:

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”  (Luke 22:31-34)

Not only was Peter warned by Jesus about when the test would take place but he was also told how he would fail and still Peter walked right into the trap without realizing what he was doing until it was all over.

Jesus demonstrates with Peter how a discipler should extend grace and love to those who fail and betray.  Personal failure provides an opportunity for the discipler to instruct and demonstrate for his disciple the mercy, acceptance, and love of God.

A couple of observations:

  1. A momentary lapse in a disciple’s faith does not remove him from God’s faithfulness.
  2. A disciple’s failure may be his rite of passage to kingdom ministry.
  3. A disciple’s failure is not a reflection on you as a discipler, but your response to his failure is a test of your understanding of how to extend the love, forgiveness, and gospel of Jesus.

The Kindness of Friendship

Jonathan is my hero.  He provides for us an example of the heart of friendship a discipler should have towards his disciple.  Though a courageous warrior, Jonathan was a kind man, living counter to his surroundings and upbringing.  His father, King Saul, was an angry, violent, proud, and irrational person. Although his siblings were products of their environment, Jonathan became humble, loyal, affectionate, and a good friend.  He gives us hope that we are not fated to repeat our family’s dysfunction and self-destructive behavior.

As the story of Jonathan and David’s friendship unfolds we get a glimpse into the heart of Jonathan.  Though heir to the throne, Jonathan was submissive to the purpose and will of God even though it meant for him a displacement to a secondary role.  He actually chose to be a friend to the very man who would take his place as king.

But are there really any secondary roles in God’s economy?   I do not believe that David could have become the man of God that he did without the foundation of Jonathan’s friendship in his life.  Jonathan not only loved David but he taught him how to place a confidence in the purpose of God.  Once when David was running for his life from Saul, Jonathan was able to speak courage into the heart of David because of his own trust in the sovereignty of God.

And Saul’s son, Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God.  “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “My father Saul will not lay a hand on you.  You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you.  Even my father Saul knows this.”  The two of them made a covenant before the Lord.  Then Jonathan went home, but David remained at Horesh.  (1 Samuel 23:16-18)

Placing others ahead of myself is at the heart of following Jesus and making disciples.  To be a follower of Jesus is to live for others.  This is not only what Jesus taught but also what he displayed by his life.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  (Mark 10:45)

When I place the interest of my friend’s life ahead of my own I am illustrating the good news of Jesus to the world.   My nature is to watch out for myself and trust no one.  Only my surrender to the sovereign purpose of God can rescue me from the pull of self-centeredness.

Jonathan embraced God’s purpose for his own life by understanding and embracing God’s purpose for his friend David’s life.  Jonathan then purposed to join God in making David king and to serve him as the second man; in other words, to make David a success.

It is when I recognize that there is a divine purpose for the life of my disciple and that I willingly join the Holy Spirit in fulfilling that purpose, no matter the cost, that I become a true friend.    Many want a Jonathan and David type friendship but few are willing to pay the price.  It is in losing my life for the sake of a friend that I find my own life’s purpose.

A Servant’s Heart and Making Disciples 2

There is a story of Jesus and his disciples that makes me smile every time I read it. They were getting settled into the house after a road trip, and Jesus asked the disciples, “What were you guys arguing about back there on the road?” Busted! The disciples answered him with silence because he had caught them arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Here is the exact account:

“They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.'” Mark 9:33-37

As followers of Jesus there is a particular “way” we are to relate to one another and live out our lives together (Luke actually calls Jesus’ new movement “The Way” in Acts). Jesus formed a group with the 12 disciples to have a relational laboratory in which to teach the values of the kingdom of God. The “way” kingdom disciples are to live is to consider others more important than themselves and to serve one another. Form any group, and there will eventually be conflict. Jesus was able to use each conflict that occurred among His disciples as a teaching point to expose the source of the conflict and also to provide them with the solution. The solution was found in the example of Jesus himself. He said to them, “…I am among you as one who serves,” (Luke 22:27) and “…just as I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

A discipler’s instruction alone is not enough to form the kingdom values in the heart of his disciples and their community. It requires the discipler to demonstrate a servant’s heart by his actions and attitude.

In closing:

  1. It is in community that the discipler can both teach each disciple how to serve the others, and illustrate a servant’s heart by his own life.
  2. Conflict in your community is not a disruption, but rather an opportunity to move the community toward serving one another.
  3. Help each individual to identify opportunities to serve the other members in the group. (Do not assume that they are aware of opportunities to serve. Our eyes are tuned to see ways for people to serve us, rather than to see how we can serve others.)