Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review - What is the Mission of the Church

I was very happy to get the chance to get a complimentary copy of a book from Amazon dealing with a question that is profoundly important:  "What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission" by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.

DeYoung and Gilbert do an outstanding job at addressing a question that is completely fundamental to the Christian faith, simultaneously profound and challenging, yet not often discussed in churches. What exactly IS the mission of the church? It's a question that is intimately associated with the question what is the gospel? Is the mission primarily or exclusively to proclaim the gospel of salvation in Christ and save souls? Is it, as some many recent authors and pastors suggest, much broader than that - including joining God in His mission to restore the world, to bring Shalom, and to labor hard for social justice? The answer to this question is not easy, but the authors have made a strong case for the Great Commission really providing the answer to the question of the mission of the church. They don't downplay the importance or value of seeking to do good and bring justice, especially when individual Christians feel a strong call to do so, but they don't see attempts to 'broaden' the gospel as fruitful or Biblical. They also don't steer away from touch questions: does "social justice" as the phrase commonly means today, have much to do with how the Bible looks at justice?!

The real strengths in the book are the careful examination of what Scripture has to say on this question, and on the respectful pastoral heart displayed by the authors, which seek to affirm those giving their lives to important causes carried out in the name of Christ, while saying true to their understanding of the Bible.

For the person strongly interested in this topic there are two must-read posts I will point out. One is a great review on this book by Ed Stetzer, and the other is this thoughtful response by the authors.

What is the Mission of the Church is definitely worth reading, especially along with supporting and contrasting books such as What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert and The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review - God at Work

In "God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life", author Gene Veith has done a nice job at addressing an important and challenging issue concisely and fairly clearly. He shares about the doctrine of vocation from a distinct viewpoint - that of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The 'priesthood' of believers was an important outcome from the reformation, and Veith takes the view that this message translates as: "The priesthood of believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling." This view was in strong opposition to the previous view of vocation as something reserved for a chosen few - priests and missionaries. The thrust of God at Work is that every area of our lives is a chance to respond to the call to God. "Our vocation is not one single occupation... we all have callings in different realms - the workplace, yes, but also the family, the society, and the church."

The only minor issue with this approach is that it might be bit too much of a swing in the opposite direction. If everything is a calling, then nothing is. If the term vocation refers to all we do, is it a useful term? (The reader interested in this subject may also want to read The Call by Os Guinness.) The teaching of the book will be of great benefit to many who fail to see how important their work is to God, and how much they can honor Him by fulfilling their purpose in the workplace. Hopefully they won't at the same time see a busy job in the workplace as a reason to ignore the great commission as somebody else's job. Overall, a good read.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hanging Up the Leisure Suit

Sometimes a church recognizes something isn't quite right, or wants to fix a certain program. At such times it's helpful to step back and take a system-level look at things. Are there healthy systems in place? Is everyone on the same page? Are we making disciples and equipping them? Tony Morgan takes a look at these questions in his "Leisure Suit" series of (free) eBooks. The first is "The Leisure Suit Trap - 8 Reasons Your Church is Stuck". This week Tony released the next in the series: "Hanging Up the Leisure Suit - How to Get Unstuck." But first let's look at how a church can get stuck. We get stuck 'wearing' a system or approach that at one time was amazing, trendy, cool, effective. Now... it's like the old leisure suit in your closet. Here are eight reasons Tony unpacks why your church may be stuck.

1. You Lack a Leadership Empowerment Plan
2. You Are Unclear About Your Vision and Mission
3. You Blame Outsiders and External Factors
4. Your Structure Inhibits Growth
5. You Worship Your Past Success
6. You Focus on Activities Instead of Outcomes
7. You Fail to Equip God’s People
8. Your Ministries Ignore People Outside the Church

The eBook is so short and well-written I won't even comment on them here - just read the eBook yourself :)

In Hanging Up the Leisure Suit, he switches gears to consider How to Get Unstuck. There are six sections, and in each the focus is on making necessary changes to bring different results, bridging strategy to implementation, building strong foundations, and creating healthy systems for your church. What is a healthy system? Tony shares "Within the context of a church, a healthy system is a simple, replicable process to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be."

1. How Do We Get Different Results?
2. Mind the Gap
3. God Uses Systems to Accomplish His Purposes
4. Building a Healthy Foundation
5. When Teaching Creates Barriers to Change
6. Eight Characteristics of Healthy Systems

Again, it's short enough you can just read the eBook rather than have me try to explain it. But I'll share one of the more interesting quotes I found from the book:
"One of the great myths in ministry is that we have the power to change behaviors by teaching more... We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking the only way people will take a next step is if we teach at them more."

My only minor disappointment with the eBook was that it didn't get much into how to modify (or replace) existing systems to establish more healthy ones. Perhaps that will be the topic of the next book in the series, or perhaps it is meant to be left as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How Do Churches Successfully Encourage Growing Disciples?

Greg Hawkins (Executive Pastor of Willow Creek) shares some things via the small group show which they have found in researching how a church can be effective at growing fully devoted followers of Christ.

Five Factors Seen in Churches Doing a Great Job Growing Disciples 

1. They get people moving (on a discipleship journey)
   - Clear first steps, strong intentionality and vision
2. They embed the Bible in everything
3. They create 'owners' in the congregation (volunteerism on steroids)
   - They give away ownership in ministry, with accountability is high on the backside
4. They pastor the local community - ministry is not just within walls of church
   - That includes partnering with other churches, with local government, and
     highly encourage their people to be deployed outside the church in ministry
5. Senior leader and senior leadership team consumed with making disciples

These factors and others are described in more detail in "Move" - a new book from the Reveal study. You can watch this trailer about the book.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Knowing Then What You Know Now

Today on Michael Hyatt's blog was a guest post by Adam Donyes in which he asked several senior leaders "What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were thirty?" His list...
1. The most important person you can lead is yourself.
2. Nothing is more valuable than relationships.
3. Maximize the moments with your children.
4. Listen—you will never find the pulse of your family or organization if you don’t learn to listen.
5. Worrying is temporary atheism. Rid yourself of worry.
6. Become a better steward of your financial resources through investments and wise decision-making. The older you get the more you’ll want to give away, being able to do so begins with the financial decisions you make today.
7. Balance—the words “No” and “Not now” are empowering when accompanied with wisdom.
8. Spend time reading and receiving the Truth every morning, because the world will only lie to you the rest of the day.
9. Saying “I’m sorry,” when spoken from a genuine heart, has great healing power.
10. Character should always trump talent.
11. Retreat and Rest—if ships don’t come back to the harbor, they’ll eventually sink.
12. Don’t stop learning—you’re not as smart as you think.
13. Learn to value patience. You’re likely to learn more while you wait.
14. Time management—without it time will control you.
15. Develop authentic and deep relationships with men who will sharpen you and see through you.
Some really great pieces of wisdom in this list! Several things that came to mind immediately for me were on this list, including the first four. That fifth one, ouch - that's a hard one. A few items on the list I've seen people nod their heads "Yes, that's true" and proceed to do the opposite - ignoring rest, not taking care of yourself, hiring talent over character.

The other things I would have told a 30 y/o version of myself: You know far less than you think you do. Head smarts is only one kind of smarts, value people with different kinds of smarts. Relationships take time to develop; they may not seem like it always, but there's no investment with a higher long-term dividend. In the corporate world you never 'arrive' - life is always as stressful as you allow it to be, and will get worse if you don't take steps now to change that.

What would you say to a younger version of yourself?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back to School... again

After graduating from Rockbridge Seminary with a Master of Ministry Leadership just two months ago, I have re-enrolled at Rockbridge for another program (M.Div)!  I know that probably sounds like I'm being a glutton for punishment, but I can't help it. I just love learning. I love school - the reading, the writing, the discussions, pondering questions that go beyond the daily grind, but also considering how to be more effective in the things we do. I enjoyed the Rockbridge experience so much it was a pretty easy decision. They are a 100% online seminary, where I can do all the work when it's convenient for me (mostly 10pm-1am in my case), without cutting too much into family time, and without having to relocate or take a break from either work or ministry.

This semester I am taking two courses: Church History I (early church right up to the reformation), and a course on Christian Worldview and Theology. The goal of the former is to help us understand our roots in a way that can help us better understand our present and forge the future. The goal of the latter is to give us a deeper understanding of not just what we believe, but why. Should be some very interesting material!

I'll answer my most frequently asked question - why do you want to get a Master of Divinity? Are you planning to be a minister? Short answer: No, I already am a minister, and so are you if you are a follower of Jesus. Slightly longer answer: I have no current plan for what might come next in my life. If I guessed I would probably be wrong. But I do know that having a much deeper understanding of Scripture is going to be a great learning experience that will serve me well whatever is next, and will help me grow spiritually as well. Plus the M.Div program (covering O.T. and N.T., biblical theology and interpretation, preaching and teaching, history and a smattering of Greek) is the perfect complement to what I have already studied for the MML (a nice mix of theory and practice in discipleship, fellowship, worship, ministry and evangelism, and a lot of leadership training). If I get to share some of this with my brothers and sisters (locally at Calvary Baptist Church and those of you online) over the next couple of years, even better!

If there are any topics you would like to hear more about, please let me know?!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Patience and Perseverance

For some reason I can't exactly put my finger on, I'm feeling tremendously anxious this week, although there isn't really a good reason (it's not overwork, and things overall are going well). It's highlighting that patience isn't my strong suit.

Patience and Perseverance. They're very different beasts.

Patience is tolerating pain, frustration or other annoyance, often with an aspect of waiting, and often on issues outside your control.

Perseverance is the dedication to stick-to-it, being diligent, seeing something through to completion.

Persistence is working hard, in spite of or to remove a difficulty.
Patience is waiting for the difficulty outside your control to disappear.

I'm pretty darn good at persistence. I can be downright awful at patience :)

How to respond biblically? It's frustrating that James (5:7-8) commands us to be patient but doesn't give us much on how. God grants wisdom in abundance when we ask (James 1:5), but patience is another matter. Colossians also commands us to clothe ourselves in patience (1:12) and to just let peace rule in our hearts (1:15). Again... how?

First, remember that peace and patience are two character qualities listed as fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). We don't grow the fruit. We abide in the Lord, and the Spirit brings forth the fruit. We water, we walk in the Spirit, we pray, but ultimately these fruit come from a life that is intimately related with Christ.

Second, with respect to anxiety, here's a favorite (and helpful) verse - Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV):
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Right as I'm about to hit the post button a friend just emailed me, to encourage me with this verse (Rom 5:3, MSG)
"We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!"
And so... to the throne I go, in prayer. Will you join me?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review - Simple Small Groups

A short time ago I learned of a book called "Simple Small Groups" by Bill Search. It's sub-titled "A User-Friendly Guide for Small Group Leaders," and it delivers. There is no shortage of books that promote a specific model for doing small groups - this is not one of them. Instead Search distills some essential elements of healthy group-life, and describes how to foster these elements no matter what model you use for your small group ministry. As Mark Howell puts it, "Rather than over-complicate the subject, Search isolates three simple and essential ingredients that every effective group must have, identifies them with a single word, and then proceeds to explain the role played by each of them. The best part? He goes on to flesh out the nuts and bolts of how it works."

Connect. Change. Cultivate. These are the three patterns that lead to a healthy small group.

Connecting is the growing sense of relationship between members of a group.
Changing is the "spiritual and relational renovation that transforms us into the likeness of Christ." It's goes beyond the intellectual or simple behavior modification.
Cultivating is missional lifestyle. Not just service. Not just evangelism. It's both. It's an outward focus that engages hearts into action.

These three patterns are not rules. They're not prescriptive, but descriptive (a concept discussed further by Joseph Myers in Organic Community). A welcome and distinctive feature of the book is that it doesn't hold up intimacy as the only valid form of connection. People have a real need to relate in a number of spaces: public, social, personal, and intimate (The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups). Small group systems that promise intimacy seldom deliver. Instead, seek to create a safe relational space that encourages connecting without trying to force it.

There are three aspects to the book that I found particularly helpful. The first is that Search drills down into each pattern and considers the continuum in which every group falls. For each he considers three different stages, and how to take a positive step wherever the group may be. The second benefit is that each section also contains a "Nut and Bolts" chapter with a lot of stories and tips on how to put these ideas into practice. This makes the book very practical and easy to read. Each pattern also has a simple tool to help assess where your group is at. The third key to Search's approach is that it recommends a harmony between the three patterns, not balance or equality. It's ok to have groups that are not trying to do everything. One group might for a time focus 80% of its effort on developing community, and 10% on the other patterns. The focus may shift over time, according to the needs of the group and the leading of the Spirit.

Relational Pattern
(Connecting Continuum) : Meet - Connect - Belong
Growth Pattern (Change Continuum): Learn - Grow - Transform
Missional Pattern (Cultivate Continuum): Exploring - Applying - Impacting

The book concludes with an appendix of Scripture references highly appropriate for each pattern. Overall I really enjoyed reading the book and it has given me a lot to think about - for myself, my small group, and coaching other small group leaders. The concepts here tie-in very nicely with key principles from other books I've been reading, such as Jim Egli's "Small Groups Big Impact", or the Up-Out-In paradigm described by Mike Breen, Scott Boren and others. The Relational Pattern is IN, the Growth Pattern is UP, the Missional Pattern is OUT. Again the key isn't to set unrealistic goals of perfection, but to be intentional about (and celebrate) small steps forward in each pattern.

Simple Small Groups is an excellent resource for small group leaders, and is a must-read for small group coaches and pastors.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review - Small Groups Big Impact

Recently Rick Howerton made me aware of a book called "Small Groups Big Impact" by Jim Egli and Dwight Marable. This book presents the results of a careful study on the factors that result in healthy small groups and a thriving small group ministry. I made several posts (Part one, two, three) reflecting on Howerton's interviews with Egli. Their findings seemed so interesting I immediately ordered the book and read through it. Here are my thoughts...

In "Small Groups Big Impact: Connecting People to God and One Another in Thriving Groups" the authors share the results of research studying 3000 groups in 200 churches in 21 countries. Some of the results were very intuitive, but some findings were quite surprising. For example, they found that neither the leader's personality, giftedness, age, gender, nor any other factor outside the leader's control had any impact on group health or group. Also, the time spent in preparation for the study had no statistical impact on group health. What was the key factor? Time spent in prayer for the group meeting and members each week. Sure we say prayer is important, but do we really believe that enough to make it a top priority for our group? Another surprising finding: open groups were found to have a significantly higher level of community than closed groups! Typically people favor closed groups in hopes of finding intimacy and close community - in practice the opposite occurs: inward-focused groups stagnate and do not end up experiencing a greater level of community.

The authors found three sets of factors that correlate with strong groups that experience health and growth.

Small Group Health Factors -- Pray - Reach - Care - Empower

Leaders who pray for their group, empower their people to lead and serve, and group members who actively care not only for themselves but reach out to those outside the group are the groups that thrive and grow.

Small Group Growth Factors -- Conversion Growth - Assimilation - Group Multiplication

The research found three distinct dynamics which all had to be present for small groups to multiply and thrive within a church. Conversion is not enough unless they are enfolded into group care and life. New groups are almost impossible for form without multiplication of leaders.

Church-level Growth Factors -- Intercede - Equip - Coach

What can the church do to best support its small groups? Consistent and visible prayer for groups, members and outsiders was vital, as was an intentional leadership development process. But the most important factor was the presence of an active coaching system. Systems that thrive consistently answer 'yes' to the question: "Does my coach or pastor meet with me to personally encourage me as a leader?” while small group ministries that fail to thrive have leaders that would say: “I feel as if no one keeps track of our group or me as a leader.” What do coaches do in practice? They pray for and care about their leaders, just as the leaders are expected to do for their group members. Coaches pray for them and with their group leaders, meet with them 1-on-1 primarily for encouragement in spiritual growth and leadership, and they regularly gather them in huddles to talk and problem-solve together.

Small groups are the most crucial factor in the health and growth of churches.

Coaching is the most pivotal factor in the health of the small group ministries.

The book concludes by giving some very good advise on facilitating group meetings in a way that exemplifies the healthy group factors. It also discusses what church leaders can do to support the small group ministry as a whole.

Overall I found Small Groups Big Impact an outstanding resource for small group pastors and group leaders alike. I would really call it a must-read for senior pastors, small group coordinators and coaches. The book is well-written and not very long - get a copy for yourself at Amazon or other retailers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review - Weird

Thanks to Michael Hyatt (Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers) I got a copy of Craig Groeschel's new book - "Weird: Because Normal Isn't Working". (How cool is it when a pastor starts out in the introduction of a book: Why I love being weird. ?)

The book is, well, weird. But in a good way. It portrays a vivid contrast between what has become 'normal', and alternative choices that are now considered weird, but that work out a whole lot better than the new normal. Specifically, it talks about the benefits of being weird with your time, money, relationships, values and even sex.

The central theme of the book is that normal isn't really working out that well. "You certainly don't have to agree with all my ideas, but if you take the Bible seriously, I trust you won't deny that the way normal people live today is miles away from what God intended... Instead of living stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted, you can live a life of meaningful relationships, intentional scheduling, and deep, fulfilling rest for your soul." And this is why the book is very much work reading. It looks at margin and other aspects of live in a bold and direct fashion without pointing a hypocritical finger. Craig freely admits the ways that he has got it wrong (and still does from time to time). He speaks from the heart and from the Word, a great combination. It's an extremely practical book. Check it out.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review - Erasing Hell

After the uproar in the evangelical community a few months ago surrounding Rob Bell's book "Love Wins" I wasn't all that eager to read another book on the doctrine of Hell. I heard of Francis Chan's new book "Erasing Hell," but frankly, I'm not a fan of Chan's writing style. The reviews on Amazon are not that strong. And yet, I found a copy sitting in my mailbox at church - left by a friend asking me to skim it and share my thoughts. So I read it, and found to my surprise I thought it was very well done.

Erasing Hell is co-authored by Preston Sprinkle, a professor with a Ph.D. in New Testament. Their goal in writing this book? "to answer the deepest questions you have about eternal destiny. Like you, sometimes they don't want to believe in Hell. But 'We cannot afford to be wrong on this issue.'" They describe it as a book not about arguments, or doctrine, or being right, but a book about the character of God.

Table of Contents
1. Does Everyone Go to Heaven?
2. Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?
3. What Jesus Actually Said about Hell
4. What Jesus' Followers Said about Hell
5. What Does This Have to Do with Me?
6. "What If God ...?"
7. Don't Be Overwhelmed
Appendix: FAQ

Other reviewers commented that in this book Chan takes pot shots at others, carries a very arrogant tone, and that merely presents a response to Bell's book that doesn't stand on its own. I really did not find this to be the case at all. I find a Chan that is extremely gracious towards others, humble, glad for having been challenged to study the Scriptures to seek the truth, challenged by his own lack of love, and passionate about wanting others to know Christ. (I thought he was far more gracious and humble here than in Crazy Love, for example).

Chan and Sprinkle make a strong case for the existence of a real hell that is eternal and not empty. Chan admits he would not like this to be true, but that neither Jesus nor his followers nor the majority of theologians throughout the history of the church give us much hope that it is not. Repeatedly he reminds the reader: this is not about doctrine, but the destinies of real people - people God loves. The final chapter leads off with "We are not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled - as with all doctrine - to live differently in light of it." He then spurs us on toward a greater sense of urgency about sharing the cross, the solution to the problem of sin.

Is it a perfect book that answers all questions and removes all doubts? By no means. But it is definitely a solid and accessible book of interest to those who want to better understand this important doctrine, and/or those who are confused by what they thought they believed upon reading Bell's book. If you want to be thoroughly challenged in your understanding of Hell and be awed by a God who is naught but love, if you like a book to raise more questions than it answers, by all means read Love Wins. But if so, do not let it be the only book you read on this subject! (Another recent book in this area that comes well recommended is a direct response to Bell's book - "Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell's Love Wins" by Wittmer and Horton. It's a gracious response written from the perspective of two systematic theology professors.) There are a host of issues in Bell's understanding of Scripture and teaching on hell that simply cannot be ignored. Erasing Hell is a good counterpoint that treats both Scripture and authors with opposing views fairly - and a book that stands on its own merit. Are Chan and other traditional evangelicals wrong? I sure hope so! Really, I do. But I think their position is the one best supported by Scripture and a holistic view of the character of God.

"Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity and the things we made up" is available at Amazon and other retailers.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Empowering Leaders

In yesterday's post I discussed an insightful article by Will Mancini on the vehicles needed to cast and share vision. There I started to consider application of these principles to leadership development, and continue here with some more thoughts on empowering leaders and application to our church.

Mancini is a co-author with Aubrey Malphurs on a superb book called "Building Leaders" (sample chapter on empowerment here), a guide to building a leadership development process in the church. He shares on the great importance of empowering leaders in this book, with a summary on his web site. Take a close look at the list above. Do you see how vitally important leaders are for casting vision across all levels of the organization? Empowerment is not easy! It's painful and at first inefficient. More from Mancini:
#1 Empowerment increases the scope of unknown ministry outcomes.
#2 Empowerment requires a sacrifice of short-term ministry efficiency.
#3 Empowerment requires giving away authority that previously provided the basis of personal ministry success.
#4 Empowerment necessitates close support and authentic community with other leaders.
What's my takeaway for a mid-sized church with a strong leader, wonderful volunteers, yet is too big for the pastors to know everyone and drive everything and too small to have a large staff or a solid culture of leadership development and empowerment?
  1. It is essential to have a significantly higher level of interaction, support, and community with our small group leaders. (And not just as conduits to distribute information, but in recognition these are our most valuable set of leaders in the church.) 
  2. It would be of tremendous benefit to more intentionally foster a leadership development culture in our church, by increasing communication and discussion, encouragement, and empowerment. Again not just top-down, but leader to leader, taking time to dream, dialogue openly, and pray together.
  3. Our preaching of vision is strong, but can be made more effective by some advance planning so that the message is repeated and reinforced in other venues.
  4. We should continue to re-evaluate our communications and branding as well as our structures and titles involving volunteers.
  5. We have to be more willing to risk short-term pain and even failure to develop the culture of empowerment needed for us to have a significant kingdom impact.
Is your church empowering leaders? Can your ministry leaders and small group leaders articulate the church's vision? Is it their vision too? 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Casting Vision and Developing Leaders

Casting Vision and Developing Leaders - the two are a lot more connected that it might seem at first glance.

I read an excellent blog post today by Will Mancini - The six vehicles for church vision: how many are you using? Everybody knows the great importance of preaching for casting vision, but there you're leaving a tremendous amount of influence on the table if it's the only (or even the primary) venue for vision. Please read the whole article, but here's some key points from the six vehicles he describes.

Vehicle #1 - The Connecting Environment. Small groups are where vision sticks or bounces off. It's actually the primary vehicle because it is the most relational.

Vehicle #2 - The Leadership Pipeline. Highly underrated! Will writes "The leadership pipeline is the vehicle where vision is transferred from leaders to other leaders. It assumes a leadership development culture. It supposes there are time and places where only leaders meet to pray, dream, dialogue and train together."

Vehicle #3 - The Preaching Event. There is no substitute, as it connects the vision to the Word of God and the act of worship.

Vehicle #4 - The Structural Story. The supporting structure and systems, and your attitude toward staff and volunteers matters a great deal.

Vehicle #5 - The Visual Brand. Everything speaks.

Vehicle #6 - The Voice of Each One. Essential, though it may take a long time to get there if starting from a centralized preaching-centric approach. "Vision transfers through people not paper."

In my next post I'm going to discuss the need for empowering leaders and share some thoughts on applications within our church.

What are your thoughts? Are you using all six vehicles? If not, what needs to change?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review - On the Verge

This week heralds the blog tour of a new book by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson called "On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church." It's part of the Exponential Series at Zondervan.

On the Verge is a book that combines some rather deep and strategic thinking on the church of the future along with content of great interest to practitioners as well. This is due in part to the passions of the two authors. Alan is a missiologist encouraging the church to return to its roots and create a high-impact apostolic Jesus movement. Dave has roots as a church planter and is now the pastor of Community Christian Church, a mega-church in Chicago.

The authors lay out a model for apostolic movement which they refer to as movementum: imagine - shift - innovate - move. They attempt to "reimagine the church in apostolic perspective". A key discussion is that of the missional DNA called "The Apostolic Genius. Verge churches combine exponential thinking, church-growth practices, and incarnational mission approaches. Throughout the book a 'both-and' approach is taken.

The core mDNA, or the Apostolic Genius, is a their paradigmatic center comprised of:
  1. Jesus is Lord
  2. Disciple-making
  3. Missional-incarnational impulse
  4. Apostolic environment
  5. Organic systems
  6. Communitas
Confused yet? I still am. To be honest I found On the Verge a very difficult book to read, very though-provoking at times, while simply annoying at others. They place such a strong emphasis on criticizing (deconstructing) current views of the church that they're constantly inventing new words to describe things. Apostolic Genius? Movemental? Verging the church? Communitas instead of community? I imagine they think this helps makes things clearer, but not for this reader. It's not clear if this book succeeds in its hopes to be highly practical.

I don't want to sound too negative - there really is some excellent material, and church planters and thought leaders in the church would do well to struggle through it. And Ferguson and others in these kinds of movements are seeing fruit. If you were a fan of Alan's "Forgotten Ways," embrace postmodern paradigms and long to see fresh apostolic reexpressions of church, chances are very good you will love On the Verge. Modern thinkers, church leaders wondering how to help their congregation take first steps towards more missional living, and those who eschew neologisms are not likely to connect well with this book.

Check out an excerpt of On the Verge for yourself, or get a copy at Amazon or other retailers.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review - Small Groups with Purpose

Last month a tremendous new resource came out for those interested in launching or strengthening a small group ministry - "Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities" by Steve Gladen. It's an extremely practical and well grounded look at small group ministry. To say Gladen is experienced would be a huge understatement - he's the Small Groups Pastor at Saddleback Church, which has 120% of its weekend attendance engaged in more than 3500 small groups (!) He's not describing a specific model (although the approach is one that fits particularly well with purpose driven churches), but shares a number of tips on design and implementation of a small group ministry. I know personally that Gladen has a tremendous heart to help churches develop healthy small groups - whether the churches are large or small. He leads a national small group network (which is free) that is a great way to connect together in a huddle with other small group ministry leaders.

The first part of the books gives a bit of back-story on the small group movement, the ten foundational principles of small group ministry at Saddleback, and the origin of small group community found in the book of Acts. The second part asks "What does this look like?" It covers the need for clarity about the win, a biblical understanding of community and spiritual formation, mobilizing your groups for service and outreach, and the role of worship in groups. Part three looks at some of the nuts and bolts of developing healthy small groups: a spiritual health assessment tool, barriers to the discipleship pathway, a process for leadership development, and a supporting infrastructure for the ministry. The final section considers some church strategy questions related to Sunday School, connection events/processes, and campaigns.

What is new here?
- If you haven't followed any kind of purpose-driven training on small groups before, you will find a wealth of principles and practices that have been tested and refined. Saddleback's approach to connecting people in groups, the use of campaigns, a lower initial bar for leaders as H.O.S.T.'s, and of course the five purposes behind a healthy and balanced group
- If you're already familiar with the purpose driven framework and perhaps launched a 40 Days campaign, there is still a lot of unique and very helpful information here: details on their unique approach to supporting small group leaders with community leaders, how to manage a strong connection event, and some great insights on how they allow people to get involved in small group leadership without a ton of training - but don't leave them there.
- A few other distinctives: they favor balanced as opposed to special-purpose groups; focus on leadership potential instead of proven leaders, growth by campaigns rather than dividing existing groups, and the use of master teacher curriculum rather than expecting leaders to be experts.
- Read through the book carefully! Gladen's advice is so densely packed with practical suggestions and insights learned from many years of experience that it's easy to think "Ah yes, I know that" and skip ahead to the next section. Read with a highlighter in hand. This book will be of highest interest to the point person for small groups in a church, but is also valuable for small group leaders and coaches.

Who may not like it as much?
- If you think anything remotely connected to 'purpose driven' is antithetical to the Bible, you can safely skip this book.
- Fans of cell churches, house churches, missional communities may find the approach here too structured for their tastes. Mind you, Gladen's approach to small groups is in fact highly relational, externally focused, and consistent with missional living, but there are other books where the language and practices are simply more explicitly organic. (For example check out books by Ralph Neighbour, Neil Cole, Scott Boren, or Joseph Myer).

My favorite section - their coaching structure

One of the most common experiences of churches with small group ministries is how challenging it is to effectively support, train and care for small group leaders. Leaving it all to the small group pastor is typically a horrible idea (violates span of care principle). Yet in many churches a small group coaching system that looks good on paper simply flops in practice. Why is that? In a nutshell, they tend to treat all groups and leaders as equivalent, and they are not. Here's the approach Gladen recommends.
  • Priority care is needed by new groups
  • Personal care is needed for seasoned groups
  • Phone care is needed for veteran groups
  • Persistent care is appropriate for stubborn groups :)
I love how he recognizes the existence of the latter group, but these are the guys that burn out coaches like wild fire in many traditional approaches to coaching. They're not going to change, so let 'em be. Put your effort and heart into those leaders who are both most receptive and who need the most guidance. (If you are familiar with Ken Blanchard's Situational Leadership concepts, you should see some strong similarities here.) Likewise each group will be at a different stage, probably doing better or worse in the different purposes. Rather than being frustrated over immature groups, help them to take a first baby step by crawling, then later walk, and be patient waiting for them to learn how to run. Clarity of the role, for both coach and leader, is essential.

Whether you are new to small groups ministry or have been at it a while, a small group leader or a point person, I can recommend you check out Small Groups with Purpose.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Google Plus

You may not have heard yet about Google Plus (Google+) but it sure has been generating a buzz on the tech scene recently. Google+ is a new service (by Google) now in beta testing -  a social service with a fair number of similarities to Facebook and twitter, but also with some unique and powerful functionality. You can check out a demo of it, or read a good review on Google+. I'll describe some of the top features here and a few first impressions (I was lucky to catch the brief window of opportunity to join last night as Google opened the doors following the Facebook video chat announcement.)
  • Circles
Circles allows you to place people you interact with into groups such as friends, family, coworkers, or just people you want to follow. Whenever you share anything - a post, a picture, a link - you get to choose exactly who gets to see it. It's a much nicer and more intuitive security/privacy model than Facebook.
  • Hangouts
This is the most unique and fun feature I see in Google+. A "Hangout" is a group video chat that can be made known to the Circle of friends you specify. Up to ten people can chat, and you see everyone's face - and the person currently speaking gets the main/big window. Very slick.
  • Huddle
The "Huddle" feature is group text chat. Think of a series of text messages, but between whatever circle of friends you want, not just two people. It's the perfect way to decide where to meet for lunch or which movie to see. This should work extremely well on mobile devices like Android phones or iPhones.
  • Photo Sharing via Picassa
People who use Picassa will be happy to hear that Google+ users have their limit raised from like 1GB to unlimited. Android users have a great benefit called "Instant Uploading." Every picture or video taken can (by your choice) be uploaded automatically to your Google+ account. Once there, you get to decide who to share it with (which Circles or individuals).
  • Sparks
This is a way to keep up with news in whatever area(s) of interest you choose.

My Initial Impressions using Google+

- Very well done! I like the interface, very intuitive, excellent feature set.
- Circles and how they are used to share in streams seem to be done to perfection
- Hangouts is the standout in terms of innovation
- Huddles, when available on the iPhone, will be a useful tool. It also seems like a pretty cool way for participants to join in the conversation at an event or seminar. Maybe useful for online meetings or group discussions (for those w/o webcams or desire to Hangout).
- Totally underwhelmed by Sparks. It's just not how I want to keep up with information on a given topic. I would rather find the best pages on a topic and follow them via RSS

Biggest fear -- many friends are already saturated in Facebook, spending too much time there following what is going on. If they try to do this in both Facebook AND Google+, I don't see how they (we? I?) will have any kind of life left!!  If they switch, I'll have half of friends on FB and half in G+; that's definitely not optimal. Let's hope there are integration tools to help address that issue.

One last tidbit - this video clip might clarify how Hangouts work...

Do any of you have any impressions about your experience with Google+, or any questions?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review - Not a Fan

Are you a fan or a follower?

That's the key question being Kyle Idleman asks in his new book "Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus." Pastor Craig Groeschel comments "Jesus never asked us to sit on the sidelines and cheer for his cause. Not a Fan will challenge you to grow from a fair weather fan to a full-time follower of Christ." In a way that is casual in tone but challenging in content, Idleman calls for us to consider what it really means to be such a follower. He opens up with the following observation in the first chapter on "Define the Relationship".
"The biggest threat to the church today is fans who call themselves Christians but aren't actually interested in following Christ. They want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them."
The chapter titles give a good idea of what he discusses:
Part one: fan or follower? an honest diagnosis
1. DTR
2. a decision or a commitment?
3. knowledge about him or intimacy with him?
4. one of many ways or your one and only?
5. following Jesus or following the rules?
6. self-improved or spirit-empowered?
7. the relationship details
Part two: an invitation to follow (the unedited version)
8. anyone - an open invitation
9. come after me - a passionate pursuit
10. deny - a total surrender
11. take up your cross daily - an everyday death
Part three: following Jesus. wherever. whenever. whatever.
12. wherever. what about there?
13. whenever. what about now?
14. whatever. what about that?

The book is aimed primarily at the individual, but has some important words for the church as well. In a section on "Snuggie Theology" Kyle reminds us "What you win them with is what you win them too." If we look for conversions based on a watered down gospel, it should be no surprise when we find a church that is not making disciples. One of the things I liked best about this book are the stories at the end of each chapter.

There have been a number of books recently stressing the Lordship of Christ, the need to be a true follower / disciple of Christ and not just a person who says he believes but has doesn't back up his talk with deeds. These include Crazy Love, Radical, and The Christian Atheist. Of these, I think I like "Not a Fan" the best (though all are good, Crazy Love and Radical are a bit dogmatic).

Not a Fan is available from Amazon and other book retailers.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from as part of their Amazon Vine™ review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising".

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review - Unleashed

Erwin McManus is the very creative pastor of Mosaic; I enjoy listening to his sermons online. So I was glad to receive a copy of his book Unleashed from Thomas Nelson Publishers. I mean, how many megachurch pastors produce a contest-winning Doritos commercial shown during the Super Bowl?!?  (And yes, that did land him in the middle of some controversy)

Unleashed: Release the Untamed Faith Within is an inspiring book that has been described as giving "a call to escape a tame Christianity and become original, powerful, untamed Christians—just as Christ intended." McManus is clearly passionate about the faith, seeing it something that is (and should be) more barbaric and unrefined rather than what we often see a a "civilized" lifeless form of Christianity. Unleashed strongly calls Christians to live "all out" for Christ - and this is a voice we need to hear.

The book is not long. Four chapters: The Barbarian Invasion - Barbarian Call - Barbarian Tribe - Barbarian Revolt. He takes an unorthodox approach but does not deliver an unorthodox message; the main teaching points are solid. That said... the book fell completely flat for me. I simply can't relate. Then again, I didn't like the Doritos commercial either. Being encouraged to be part of an uncivilized renegade barbaric tribe has no appeal for me. I make a living doing combinatorial optimization :) I do desire a passionate heartfelt life that is sold out for Christ, and I get that means we are different from the world and not called to conformity - so I do appreciate my brother's message. Readers who loved John Eldredge's "Wild at Heart" or "Epic" will probably love Untamed as well. I do like his book "Soul Cravings."

Unleashed is available at Amazon and other book resellers.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers for this review as part of their Book Sneeze Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising".

Friday, July 1, 2011

Summer Reading

Summer.... what a great time to grab a favorite book, a glass of iced tea, head for the hammock or shady tree, and enjoy!  (Ok, actually, I'm not an outdoor cat, don't like iced tea, am easily annoyed by bugs, but I didn't want to sound like a total bookworm :)

I was encouraged by a post by Gail Hyatt yesterday, "How Many Books are you Reading?" She's currently got six going, and makes a case why this doesn't make you an egghead :)
- Different formats for different situations (eReader on the go, audio books in the car, paperbacks in bed)
- We don't face one issue at a time in life - different books speak to different ongoing needs
- Different moods and surroundings - thoughtful books in quiet times, fiction on-the-go, short chapters or peaceful reading before bed...

Thanks to an Amazon gift card from some good friends who know me well, I've been gobbling up several recently. I'll post reviews for several of these over the next few weeks.

Weird by Craig Groeschel
Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman
Unleashed by Erwin McManus
Simple Small Groups by Bill Search
Finding the Flow by Tara Miller and Jenn Peppers
On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson
Launching Missional Communities by Mike Breen and Alex Absalom
Missional Mom by Helen Lee

Also, after two and a half years, I finally finished reading the NKJV Chronological Study Bible :)
That was an interesting approach. Wonder what to try for the next go around...

So tell me, what are you reading these days?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Small Group Ministry Planning

After my recent posts on small groups, and the factors that encourage group growth and a successful ministry, I got a few questions and comments from readers. So I'll share a few more concluding thoughts about the implications of Egli's research study and recent book on a church's approach to small group ministry.

Ok, prayer and community are important, but Egli doesn't suggest any specific model?

No he doesn't, and that's why one reason I find the results so interesting. Another excellent resource I recommend is "Simple Small Groups" by Bill Search. The focus there, quite in line with Egli's findings, is that you really need three elements to succeed in small groups regardless of your model. Up (connection with God), In (care for each other), and Out (cultivating relationships with outsiders). I see this Up-In-Out pattern reflected by other authors and small group experts, including Mike Breen and Scott Boren (Launching Missional Communities and Building a Discipleship Culture). For a lot more info on various models to consider using, see Mark Howell's excellent series. And remember: adapt, don't adopt; your church culture is unique.

Does group size matter?

There are a great variety of small group approaches. On the small side, there are leaders who advocate missional groups of three (G3), discipleship triads of three or fourhuddles of six-to-eight for discipleship and leadership training, in addition to more typical groups of twelve. Going even bigger, a powerful new trend is for mid-sized communities of 20-50 people who united in Christian community around a common service or community. (These also tend to use the huddles as well). So really, there are valid approaches possible with any size group system. It's more about making sure that leaders are healthy, intentional, clear, and relational.

What's the role of the senior pastor and church leaders on small group ministry?

Even with a dedicated small group pastor the senior pastor really must be a visible and strong champion of small groups. That means being in a group, highlighting small group success stories from the pulpit, and pointing people to life transformation through small groups. There is really no substitute. If you're wanting to be a 'church of small groups' instead of a 'church with small groups' it's even more important. A small group coordinator / pastor must be on the same page as the senior pastor on vision, expectations of a group, and of group leaders. If people are thinking it's to be a "church of groups" then all pastors and ministry leaders will need to work together to reduce competition, and must make clear the 'win' for people to be moving into a small group. (For more on clarifying the win and improving focus, check out the excellent series by Andy' Stanley: "7 Keys to Effective Ministry".

How do you change or relaunch a small group system that isn't working well?

If your congregation had a system or model put upon them that didn't work, they are going to be very resistant to yet another radical change. Patience is key here, as well as making the effort to understand the reasons why people are frustrated with the current system, and suggesting changes which address these concerns. If the current system can be salvaged, with some tweaks to address felt problems, that may a good first step. If not, be sure to "pilot" any new system with a smaller set of people who are likely to be enthusiastic rather than planning to go with a grand launch.

What other questions do you have about small group ministry? Different answers to these questions, or feedback on this series of posts? Leave a comment!

Friday, June 24, 2011

More Findings on Small Groups

As you may have noticed, I've been quite excited by things I've been learning about small groups this week, including some research by Jim Egli on what makes for a great small group and some other factors encouraging small groups. Today Rick Howerton finished up a four-part series interviewing Jim Egli about his book and research study on small groups. I'll share some more interesting findings from that series in this post, and finish up next post with some answers to questions I've gotten from readers.

We saw that for individual small groups the key factors for growth were a praying and empowering leader, and group members who care for one another and reach out. But what systemic factors distinguish a thriving versus a struggling small group ministry? Egli found there were three factors including church-wide intercessory prayer and leadership training, but the dominant factor above all others was the presence of an active coaching system, in which the coaches were well trained and knew what was expected of them.

In the third part of Rick's interview Egli shared:
"The research showed that effective coaches do four things: they pray for their leaders, they meet with them personally to encourage them, they get their leaders together as a group to encourage and pray for one another, and they occasionally visit their groups."
The pattern is clear, your leaders at every level must model what they want to happen in the lives of those they lead. In the case of coaches and small group leaders alike, it's all about relationships, covered in prayer, expressed both inside and outside of regular meeting times.

Given this context, I had to smile as I was reading "Finding the Flow: A Guide to Leading Small Groups and Gatherings" and came across this comment: "Generally, leader trainings give a nod to the leader having a consistent personal devotion time or living a godly example for others, but then they quickly move on to skills." Clearly we would do better in our training and modeling to spend a lot more time encouraging personal devotion time, prayer, and the spiritual life of the leader.

But wait, that's not all!?!

Howerton finished with a fourth post with perhaps the most surprising of the findings. Many churches choose closed groups instead of open groups to foster a greater sense of intimacy. What does the research show about this assumption?
"The results surprised us. We found out that open groups actually experience closer relationships between the members than closed groups do."
Didn't see that one coming! They discuss how there is a faulty assumption underlying the idea that closed groups are better. People assume that small group life is all about the meeting time, which is emphatically not true. It's rare to see intimacy in a room with a dozen or so people, and far more common to occur organically, with two or maybe three people getting together informally. In a healthy group, this kind of interaction outside the group meeting time occurs often. In fact, over-promising intimacy as a key benefit of small groups can lead to disappointment, as Nelson Searcy describes in his book "Activate." Searcy sees it as more realistic to consider small group meetings as personal or social (not intimate) space where a reasonable hope is to find a potential friend.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Encouraging Great Small Groups

Last time I posted on some powerful research results on the factors that correlate with healthy growing small groups, shared by Rick Howerton about Elgi and Marble's new book "Small Groups, Big Impact."

In a nutshell, a leader's prayer time trumps prep time, and the dominant factors for a group are: leaders who connect with God, pray for their group and empower others to serve and lead; and group members who reach out to others outside the group and who love one another. (Doesn't that sound Biblical?! :)

Top 10 Implications for Small Group Ministry
  1. Our church must see small groups as relational environments for community, spiritual growth, and outreach (not just an assimilation structure or a means to carry out church priorities)
  2. Our church should visibly pray for groups and celebrate small group successes - people cared for, coming to Christ, stepping up to lead, and groups multiplying.
  3. Our small group coaches must encourage, pray for, and support small group leaders in a way that is meaningful to the leader (different leaders and groups can have vastly different needs)
  4. Our coaches must listen more than they talk, and when they do talk, encourage prayer, care, outreach, and involving group members in ministry (mechanical issues can be handled on an as-needed basis)
  5. Our small group leaders must pray regularly for and with group members
  6. Our small group leaders must intentionally share the load, inviting others into ministry and leadership
  7. Our small group members should be encouraged to care for one another, do things together outside of the meeting, and reach out to others in a natural way. (Hanging out trumps Homework)
  8. New leaders must be chosen on the basis of their love for God and love for others (not their gifting, personality type, or experience).
  9. New leaders should focus more on who they invite (leveraging existing relationships) than what they study.
  10. Our ministry team leaders need to pray for their team members, encourage them personally, build a sense of community, as well as equipping them for the task.

............ Appendix ............ (I'll bet you didn't think a blog post could have an appendix did you?)

I've been chewing on how these results support or work against what I've seen in various small group ministry models and books. Several of the resources below seemed completely contradictory in their outlook and advice, but what do they have in common (with each other and with Egli's findings)? This may not interest every reader, but if you're a small groups geek who has spent any time struggling with the 'right small group model' I hope you find these reflections worthwhile...

Saddleback's Host Strategy. If leadership gifting, teaching and facilitating skill, and lots of up front training were critical for a small group leader, how does one explain the great success of Saddleback's "HOST" strategy. They use DVD-based teaching, minimal training or experience, and will let almost anyone lead a group. Yet notice the tie-in with Egli's results: while the leader is not necessarily gifted or trained, they care enough about people to invite friends and family for a group. They invite people they already are in relationship with (increasing the 'care for one another' factor), and are usually reaching out and inviting people not already connected to a group (strong outreach factor). Typically, enthusiasm and prayer run high for such new Host leaders too.

Small Group Coaching. It's rather well known by those working in the area of small group ministry that the effectiveness of small group coaching and training systems varies tremendously. Sometimes they flop miserably, other times they can be quite effective. Why is that? The results here suggest that it will not be very effective when 'coaching' that focuses on how to facilitate a group, trying to be a leader who is the expert and does it all, or looks for certain giftedness to put someone in leadership. Instead, coaching would be expected to be most effective when it is relational, models prayer and the heart of a shepherd, models and encourages caring for one another, and that encourages a leader to share the load and keep a missional or outreach mindset. Mark Howell has this one-sentence definition of a small group coach: "A Small Group Coach needs to do to and for their small group leaders whatever you want small group leaders to do to and for their members." What does that suggest in Egli's paradigm? A small group coach should pray often for his leaders, care for them, empower them, and be on the look-out for new leaders who love God and can do likewise.

Simple Small Groups. One of the most interesting books I've read on groups in a while is Simple Small Groups by Bill Search. It doesn't present a new 'model' for doing groups, rather it focuses on what a group leader can do practically to help group members (and the group itself) to grow. Search looks at three vital dimensions to group life: connecting, changing, and cultivating. The connect continuum moves from meeting to connecting to belonging. To help people connect he suggests sharing leadership responsibilities, praying for one another, and hanging out together. (Sound familiar? Egli would agree!) The changing continuum spans learning to growing to transformation. Key factors here include sharing honestly, applying the Scriptures, and really listening to the Holy Spirit and each other. (These are factors that would be critical for the growth of the individual - the health rather than the growth of the group.) The cultivate continuum is about exploring, applying, impacting, and is fostered by establishing a missional pattern in the lives of each group member. Reaching out to others and caring in a practical way are essential - another tie-in to Egli's findings. I think this is why the book struck such a chord with me; it focuses a lot more on factors that matter rather than mechanics or models.

Small Group Leader's Toolkit (Dave Earley) - starts with a story of a small group pastor expecting a quiet new leader to fail, but shocked at his success. On asking his coach what made this leader different he heard "he does everything we ask him to do like other leaders, but what sets him apart from others is that he prays a lot. He prays for his group and with his group every day." The author concludes "Prayer is the most important task of a spiritual leader." He shares ten 'power tools' for small group leaders. The very first is prayer, and others include things like personal integrity, modeling love for one another, and a commitment to developing others.

The Naked Truth about Small Group Ministry (Randall Neighbour) - rails against much of what is going on in the American church and its small groups. Interesting, a main theme in the very first chapter is the lack of prayer and a recommendation for prayer groups and for small group leaders to get serious about prayer. In the second chapter he highlights relationships as paramount, and the need for small group members to truly care for one another. Also very interesting - he cites research by Jim Egli showing that "the practical, proactive coaching of small group leaders does more than anything else in a church's small group system to promote health and growth." (So - both the system and the groups need a leader/coach who prays and cares for those they lead.)

So Much Noise and Debate. There are so many different models for doing small groups, and even more books telling you about these models. For every model you will find some churches in which it's working well, and others where it fails. Within any given church you'll see the same thing whenever the emphasis is on the model - some groups do well, others don't. Why is that? We're focusing on the wrong thing! It's important to have a structure, a plan or model for doing small group ministry, but when all our mental energy and training goes into following the model we fail to promote what really matters: praying, caring, reaching out and inviting others to serve and share. This also explains why I can read several books promoting different models and finish them with a sense that half of what they're saying is great but other aspects don't appeal at all (sermon-based groups, semester-based groups, or neighborhood groups). When most authors pitch a process it's very hard for the reader to differentiate between what is essential (a practice that fosters caring, outreach) and what is strictly pragmatic (topic, length, format, how groups are filled...)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Great Small Groups

Have you ever wondered what factors make for a small group that is healthy, where life transformation occurs, and that actually grows? (I know I have!) Jim Egli and Dwight Marble have, and they conducted an interesting study to help answer that question. They've shared their results in a new book called "Small Groups, Big Impact." Rick Howerton has interviewed Egli and shared some fascinating results (part one and part two) from his quantitative study involving 3000 small group leaders in more than 200 churches in 21 countries.

What factors about the group leader and/or group would you expect to have a big effect on health and growth? Stop and think about that for a minute. The leader's prep time? Appropriate spiritual gifts like teaching or exhortation? Curriculum or meeting format?

Here's the first surprising result. The length of time a small group leader spends preparing the study has no correlation with growth of the group. None. Whether they spend no time whatsoever preparing, or several hours. The single biggest correlation? The prayer life of the leader(s) and whether they actually prayed for the group and their meetings. In some ways that's a 'duh' response, but at the same time profound - the key factor that correlates with whether a group grows is one the group members never even see!

A second surprising result about the small group leader. There was no correlation between personality types and small group growth (extrovert, introvert), nor spiritual gifts, nor age or gender or anything else outside the leader's control. Everything that mattered was a behavior, and there were only a few key factors. Here are some quotes from Jim Egli in his interview with Rick Howerton.
"We probed and looked at hundreds of variables but we found out there are just four key things—pray, reach, care and empower. Leaders need to connect with God. Group members need to reach out to others beyond their group and love each other. Leaders need to give ministry away and call others into leadership. It’s not complicated."
"It jarred my leadership paradigm. It meant that anyone that could love God and others could lead successfully. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to look for people who had a certain disposition or a certain personality type or gifting. I just had to look for people who were open to God and wanting to move forward with him." 
"When a leader connects to God and group members practically love one another and others, people are drawn to the group and into relationship with Jesus."
Simple, but profound, with significant implications for small group ministry. I think I might have to pick up a copy of 'Small Groups, Big Impact.' :)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Insights from James - Part 5

Today our men's group wrapped up our study of the book of James (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) with a look at the end of Chapter five. These passages cover a wealth of material - patience, not grumbling or judging, standing up under suffering, prayer and healing, forgiveness, and confrontation. That was quite a bit to cover over a coffee session!

We noted that although several of the verses seem at first glance disconnected from one another, there are some strong tie-ins between them. Throughout this chapter James continues exhorting the practice of a faith that overflows into action, and that allows us to stand firm and patience even in the face of suffering, affliction or persecution. In describing the expectant hope of compassion and deliverance from suffering, he brings the book full circle to how it was opening - asking these persecuted Christians to remain joyful under their suffering.

Some were unclear about the warning against swearing. As usual, context is important. James is specifically addressing the common practice of swearing an oath when you really are telling the truth or when you really mean it that you will keep a promise or contract. James is calling this nonsense, that a man's word should be his bond. Between this encouragement to be a promise-keeper, and to be one who is patient under suffering, one of the guys said with discernment: "You know, we can summarize this whole chapter as James telling us: Guys, man up!"

The most challenging section of this chapter, and perhaps all of James, is the statement in verses 14-15 that when you pray over the sick in the name of the Lord that "the prayer offered in faith will make them well." Obviously, we've all prayed for people who did not get better. People die, despite the prayers of many well meaning and faithful friends. Logically, if someone prayed for like this dies, we either simply did not have "enough" faith, or... we are misunderstanding this passage. I think that here, as with other passages in James, if you don't allow for the fact that this is wisdom literature, and that the author is making a case in as strong terms as possible to make a point and to call us to action, you can get tied up in knots being too literal. (We saw this earlier in James talking about being justified through works vs faith.)

First, there's a command. Are you sick? Get together with faithful friends, confess sins, and pray for healing. Period. Do it. Do it in faith. Second, the likelihood of God choosing to heal (which He is always able to do) without prayer, without submission, while clinging to a sinful life-style, is not that great. Rather that would mock God. Third, James is saying that God absolutely has the power to heal, and that He has often done so in the past, both to bless His children and to display His power (as with Elijah). Finally, we made an analogy. If I make a statement "Carry out proper maintenance on your car, change your oil regularly, and your car will run fine and last long" I don't expect you come back when your car broke down and say "You promised! I changed my oil every 2500 miles and it still collapsed. Your statement was a lie." Well, no, my use of the phrase "will run well" wasn't ever intended as a guarantee, but a wise statement. The chance of a car running well with proper maintenance compared to never changing your oil is far higher. My point in making such a sentence isn't to give a magic bullet to long-life for the car, it's to encourage you to do the right thing. Praying when in trouble, singing praise when happy, confessing sins and seeking forgiveness, and coming together with brothers and sisters before the Lord when facing major illness - this is just what we do as Christians! How much more do these behaviors reflect our joy in Christ and our doing-faith compared to judging, grumbling, and sitting in our armchairs arguing over doctrines while the poor need our help!?

And that, my friends, is the message of James.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

You Just Never Know

I loved a post by Jenni Catron on her blog this morning. Read it yourself, but she's making the important point that sometimes the way we encourage or challenge someone can make a huge impact in their lives, even if we don't know it. I was feeling discouraged recently about what I felt was a lack of impact, and two friends in the same week commented out of the blue what I difference I had made in their lives. In God's hands, every interaction with another person is an opportunity to bless in ways beyond our ability or understanding.
"You never know how or when you are influencing another’s life.  You never know what interactions will be critical to help someone make it through another day.  You never know how God is using you without your full understanding.

And because you just never know, let me challenge you to embrace every interaction as if life depends on it.  Because it just might…"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Real-Life Discipleship

No, I'm not talking about the book "Real-Life Discipleship" (which I enjoyed and reviewed recently) - I'm talking about how the pressures of every day living can be a powerful environment for growing as a disciple.

A friend emailed me asking for prayer as things have gotten very hectic and stressful at work, right at the exact time there is another huge pressure hanging over his head outside of work. We've had other talks and been mentoring each other and wanting to be more faithful in Bible reading in prayer. Given that context, here's what I shared with him...

"The onslaught of stress from multiple sources can be a very conducive environment for growth. It may highlight what is important, what is not, or what should be; it displays or builds character in how we respond under stress; it makes it challenging to see and act on the needs of others when our own needs are so pressing and time is so short. Discipleship (following Christ more closely and loving Him and others) can happen in this real-life environment even more than while doing traditional 'spiritual' exercises. Two things will determine for you whether this hectic season of stress will be such a time of growth in Christ, or simply a growth in stress and anxiety - time in the word to gain God's perspective and let Him speak to you; and time in prayer asking to gain wisdom and strength before facing the day, and reflecting on the choices we made that day to gain perspective."

When I'm faced with more stress than it seems I can handle, I find myself moving in one of two directions. I either escape or embrace. I escape when I turn to video games or sports or a less productive (procrastinating) activities which provides very temporary relief from thinking about reality. That is so tempting, but never turns out well. On other occasions, I embrace what I'm facing as an opportunity to grow, and I embrace what God is doing in my life. I let go of distractions (instead of running to them), and ask God "what are you trying to teach me here?" I wish I could tell you I take the second choice all the time, but I don't. When I do though, it dramatically changes my perception of the situation, my ability to handle the stress, and it builds my character more in the likeness of Christ.

How do you handle an onslaught of stress and work? Do you find yourself turning away from God (and towards things of little value), or do you give thanks for an opportunity to grow in the likeness of His Son? Discipleship doesn't just happen in the church - it happens as we live out real-life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Insights from James - Part 4

Last week our men's Bible study group took a look at the fourth chapter of James. There were some very important cautions in there - pride and arguments, submitting to God and resisting the evil one, and being careful not to boast or be presumptive about tomorrow.

But the section that causes me a lot of confusion was verses 11-12:
"Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?" (NIV)

I certainly get the point not to slander or speak evil of one another, and how that is judgmental, but how exactly does that mean we're judging the law itself??!

To get some help I took a look in the IVP New Testament Commentary notes on these verses, available under the 'Resource' tab when reading these James 4:11-12 at BibleGateway. It sheds some light on the meaning here...

- A central theme of James is living out a life of faith - which comes by grace yet calls us to action - especially guarding the tongue and watching how we view and speak with others.

- To speak against a brother is essentially to judge him. It's not just distinguishing good from bad, it's judging.

- Because faith brings forth mercy from God, this has implications for our lives.

- When we judge, we're effectively saying "God's law of life and mercy for sin is a something I wish to claim for my life, but not apply to others. For them, I know better, and don't want mercy, I want to judge."

- The commentary notes: "James's point is that if we accept God's mercy through Christ, we place ourselves under Christ's law, which commands mercy. If we then judge others instead of being merciful toward their faults, we are rejecting that law and so setting ourselves up as judges over the law. This contradicts our proper stance as recipients of grace—we are to be doers under the law... In judging people, what we really want is to take God's place."

It goes on to summarize the passage as follows:
"What James has been prescribing is a life of faith that has two facets: confidence in God's grace and passion for God's righteousness. The confidence and the passion are complementary responses to God's judgment and mercy. God's mercy triumphs over judgment on our behalf; therefore we may be confident in relying on grace. However, we who have genuinely grasped grace will become all the more eager to grasp righteousness, realizing that our lack of righteousness so nearly brought us to disaster in the fearful judgment of God. Once one has humbly sought grace for escape from judgment (4:10), it becomes unthinkable to set oneself up as judge over a neighbor (4:11). It is part of a single stance before God to submit to him for his grace (4:7) and to submit to him for his law; one cannot be both a judge over the law and a doer under the law (4:11). James is showing us a well-integrated faith in Christ as both merciful Savior to be trusted and righteous Lord to be obeyed."
I'm really liking the new interface and resources over at BibleGateway. Check them out!