Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, people need each other more than ever before, yet they need to avoid each other more than ever. Christians believe faith is more powerful than fear. As the news media and government agencies continue to discuss the critically important topic of the spread and impact of Coronavirus, it’s easy for anyone to give into fear, especially when they are isolated from others.
Worship services are forced online as groups of 10 are being discouraged to gather. For smaller numbers, social distancing is encouraged where people should stay six feet away from each other. Whether by mandate or by choice, people are cautious about meeting with any size group. Isolation, though, tends to amplify fear. How can we promote community and social distancing at the same time?
Reframing Life and Ministry
The only thing missing from everyday life amid a pandemic is personal contact. The church may not be meeting within the four walls of the church building for an hour on Sunday, but the church can function as the Body of Christ despite the lack conventional church services.
Paul instructed in 1 Corinthians 12 that every member of the Body is important and that every member has gifts. Rather than meeting in weekend services to check off the church box for the week, members can and should be challenged to embrace their deeper calling. Who can they serve? How can they encourage? How can the church be the church outside of the four walls of a Sunday service? We really should be asking these questions anyway.
When we think of small groups in particular, often we focus on practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible.
“Love one another” (John 13:34; John 15:12).
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10).
“Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).
“Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16).
“Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13).
“Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
“Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
“Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13).
“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
“Pray for each other” (James 5:16).
There are 59 of these statements in all. (For a complete list, check out this post on smallgroupchurches.com LINK https://www.smallgroupchurches.com/the-59-one-anothers-of-the-bible/
There are only a couple of these statements that should be avoided in a climate of social distancing:
“Wash one another’s feet” (Mark 9:50) and
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14).
All of the other “one anothers” can be practiced among believers even in isolation, quarantine, and social distancing.
Reframing the Practice of the One Anothers
What is available to believers who are in isolation or self-quarantine? We have computers, tablets, smartphones, messaging, social media, telephones, streaming video services, and televisions. People communicate more while they are apart than when they are actually together it seems! Now take the communications devices available to people and pair them with the one another statements.
With this technology, how do we “encourage one another daily” as stated in Hebrews 3:13. The reality is most people don’t see each other every day. But, given the technology in our hands, we could text or message encouragement to one another daily. Just the other day a friend in Florida came to mind. I texted to see how he was doing. He was discouraged. In a short text, I encouraged him. His response was, “I think that’s just what I needed to hear today. Thank you.” I wasn’t in the same room with him. I wasn’t even in the same state with him, but I was able to encourage him. How can we encourage one another daily when we can’t see them in person? Use what we have!
The same goes for these other “one another” statements as well.
“Love one another” – We can do this anywhere at any time.
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” – We can call to check on each other.
“Honor one another above yourselves” – We can think of others before we think of ourselves. How is the pandemic affecting those we know? How about our neighbors?
“Live in harmony with one another” – Distancing may promote harmony in some ways. But in light of a global pandemic, we can also put our differences aside.
“Stop passing judgment on one another” – Everyone acts differently in different situations. Be as gracious in social media as you would if you were talking to the person face to face. People are already anxious. We don’t need to feed into this.
“Serve one another in love” – Can you spare a square? If someone is in need and you have the ability to help, then help them. You might need to make a “no contact” delivery and leave some toilet paper on their doorstep, but you can serve.
“Carry each other’s burdens” – When you call to encourage someone, you can listen. You can empathize. You can’t give them a hug, but you can care.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” – Life’s too short. Let it go.
“Build each other up” – When people are isolated, their thoughts and our enemy can get the best of them. Lift them up. Send a text about what you like about them. Post a verse. Leave a voice mail.
“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” – We need reminders to move forward and not get stuck. While stuck home from work or school, we have time on their hands. How can we help others?
“Pray for each other” – We can pray over the phone. We can even pray on someone’s voice mail.
Meeting with Your Small Group Online
Hebrews 10:25 instructs us “…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Often these instructions are taken for worship services, which today have moved online. The author of Hebrews is more than likely speaking to smaller home gatherings. This is your small group. You could take the risk and meet together in-person. But, let’s face it, we don’t know where the Coronavirus pandemic is going to go. Your group might meet, but some might choose to stay away – either out of caution or out of fear (Remember: “Stop passing judgment on one another”). If we can’t meet in person, we can meet online.
I was part of an online small group on CompuServe in 1992. There was no video or audio. It was basically a chatroom and a message board. It seems like ancient history now, but this was back before most people had ever heard of the internet. On my dialup modem, I connected with Greg in southern California, Trish in Chicagoland, David in California, and a couple in Idaho. Greg wasn’t even a Christian at the time, but he joined our Christian forum because it offered low priced, flat rate service. One day Greg informed the group that he received Christ as his Savior. We all converged on Greg’s house in San Dimas, California for his baptism. Years later, Greg was a groomsman in my wedding. Since moving to the East Coast, we don’t see each other very often, but we still connect.
With online technology today, it’s easier than ever to host groups online. You get to see faces and hear each other’s voices. It’s much better than my CompuServe days! To meet in online groups, you have to pick a platform. I prefer Zoom, which offers both a paid and free service. Group members can connect by video, audio, and/or telephone. I use it every day for staff meetings and coaching groups.
To make group meetings work best, you have to eliminate distractions –close other windows and notifications on your computer, tablet, or phone. Use ear buds or headphones to prevent audio feedback. Make sure there is nothing distracting in the environment where you are sitting. Then, just focus on your group meeting.
Over the years, I’ve heard people object that people who meet online can pretend to be anyone they want and won’t necessarily present their real selves. I’ve discovered this is also true in in-person meetings. It’s up to group members to choose how much they will disclose about themselves and how vulnerable they will be. Remember: speed of the leader, speed of the team.
Ministry doesn’t have to stop because of a pandemic and social distancing. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for the church to be the church. The persecuted church in Acts 8:1 couldn’t stay with the apostles in Jerusalem, but they did spread the message of the Gospel throughout Judea and Samaria just as Jesus commanded them in Acts 1:8. How can we use this circumstance to fulfill Jesus’ command? We don’t need church buildings. We don’t need “official” ministries. We don’t need church staff to lead the meetings. Now is a time to be the church more than ever. My hope is even when we go back to weekend worship services, we will never go back to “normal.” The church should continue to be the church.
Various parts of the world are reacting differently to the Coronavirus pandemic. Some churches were online only last Sunday. Others were sparsely attended. Yet, Costco is jammed!
By choice or by mandate, your meetings might be cancelled this week. You may even work from home. All of that to say, things have slowed down. While you very much deserve a little downtime or even a staycation, this is also a great time to invest in yourself.
Some pastors outgrow their jobs. Others find their jobs outgrow them. In 30 years of ministry and 16 years of consulting churches, I’ve witnesses the hard break of pastors putting their hearts and souls into their churches and small group ministries only to eventually become disqualified for their positions. As you grow your ministry, you must grow yourself.
A great example of this principle is found in Moses and how he handled the people’s disputes while they wandered in the desert. The Israelites numbered somewhere around 3 to 3.5 million. Moses spent his days resolving every conflict for all of them. Things became so bad that Moses’ wife and children left him (Exodus 18:2).
Moses’ father-in-law Jethro confronted him: “What are you really accomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all this alone while everyone stands around you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:14). Moses’ answer sounds like a lot pastors I know (and a pastor I’ve been): (1) The people like coming to me and, (2) I’m the only one who can do it (18:15). Some of us think, “Well, isn’t that what good pastors are supposed to do? But, others might realize this all sounds a bit co-dependent. Moses needed to be needed. Have you ever known any pastors like that? To be honest, I didn’t need to be needed. I just needed to be in control. And, our small group ministry got stuck because of it. (Click here for more lessons on why small group coaching fails).
You Cannot Personally Pastor Everyone
If you have more than 10 small groups in your church, you have to decide who you are going to personally pastor. If you wear a lot of hats other than groups, 10 group leaders might be too many. While you may not think you don’t need any help, you have to realize that you are not giving adequate help and support to your leaders if you’re trying to do it all by yourself. You’re probably busy putting out fires, but you are not mentoring your leaders. You’re probably holding big training meetings that are half attended at best, but you’re not coaching your leaders. You might be sending a weekly email blast, but you’re still not training your leaders. You’re just spamming them. No wonder your leaders don’t respond!
Take a look at Jethro’s advice to Moses: “But select from all of the people some capable, honest men (and women) who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten” (Exodus 18:21). Jethro gave Moses the model for a small group coaching structure. The leaders of ten are small group leaders. The leaders of 50 and 100 are coaches. The leaders of 1,000 (if you have thousands) are a small group team (staff or volunteer).
But You Can Pastor the Right Ones
Growing your leadership does not mean that you stop pastoring and mentoring people. But, it does change your focus as to whom you invest in. You don’t need to handpick every small group leader, but you do want to handpick your coaches and your small group team. If you can only spend time with 10 leaders, then choose 10 leaders who are mentoring 10 other leaders. Now you’re set for 100 groups. If you have more than 100 groups, then choose 10 leaders who can mentor 10 coaches who are mentoring 10 leaders. Now you’ve covered 1,000 groups. (If you have more than 1,000 groups, then talk to Steve Gladen at Saddleback or Bill Willits at North Point.)
Who’s doing a great job with their groups? Which groups would you like to see 10 more just like them? Recruit these leaders to coach other leaders. If you have groups you don’t like or leaders who aren’t doing well – don’t recruit those! If you have leaders who are hard to get along with – don’t recruit those either. Recruit the ones who are doing a good job (and the ones you like!).
A Coaching Structure Will Save Your Ministry
You cannot possibly address every issue in every group. Seating group leaders in neat rows and lecturing them has never really solved a group problem. But, if an experienced leader builds a relationship with a new leader and gives them what they need when they need it, then they receive training that sticks. Think about it. What lessons have stuck with you? The ones that you learned when you were in the middle of a problem. Your leaders are just like you.
Your leaders need a spiritual covering. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I also don’t want to make too little of this. There is a spiritual battle afoot. The enemy comes to steal and to kill and to destroy (John 10:10). Leaders will become discouraged. Groups might become divisive. Your leaders and groups need a coach to care for them, encourage them, and lead them spiritually. By the time an issue gets to the pastor, the situation is usually out of control. Coaches can address problems while they’re still small and haven’t done much damage yet.
Isn’t It Easier to Do It Myself?
It depends on your goal. If you are in a church that only cares about having “some groups,” then you can probably get away with dabbling in groups and not attempting to connect the entire congregation. But, if your congregation and your small group ministry are growing, then doing everything by yourself becomes impossible. There is only so much of you. There are only so many hours in a day. Face it – you are one disaster from being out of a job! I know that sounds extreme, but it’s easy to cruise when problems haven’t raised their ugly heads. Eventually, something is going to blow!
I was reluctant to have coaches. I knew I needed them. I recruited a couple and only got in their way. Finally, after we had doubled our groups in one day (whole other story), I was forced to invite some experienced leaders to help me. Here was the invitation: “I don’t have this all figured out, but if you’re willing to help me build this, I really need your help.” Nobody turned down that invitation.
Start small and start building your coaching structure. Recruit coaches for your new leaders first. (Your other leaders have it figured out). And, the great thing about building a coaching structure like this is it can scale as your ministry grows!
The number of groups any church can launch and maintain is limited by the number of leaders available. It’s simple. If you have a leader, you have a group. If you don’t have a leader, then no group. The problem is most churches can’t recruit all of the leaders they need to meet the demand for groups. The problem goes even further because most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. Without more leaders, how do you launch more groups?
Problem #1: Not Everyone Qualifies as a Leader
Churches place various qualifications for leadership. They may require church membership, leader training, apprenticing in a group, a background check, an interview, or any number of qualifications to lead. For most churches the bar for leadership is set pretty high – as it should be.
In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Commissioning someone as a leader is a serious thing. In order to recognize someone as a leader in the church, they must have good character, and they must be proven as a leader. If you hand out the title to just anyone, then you dilute the meaning and authority of leaders in the church. But, this leads to the second problem.
Problem #2: Most People Don’t Consider Themselves to be Leaders
If they must be a leader to lead a group, then they must fulfill leadership requirements and receive leadership training before they can lead, but they aren’t leaders so why would they do that? My apologies for the run-on sentence, but it’s a legitimate question. How many times have you invited someone to lead a group only to be turned down with “I’m not a leader”?
Admitted non-leaders don’t get excited about meeting leadership requirements or taking leadership training. They’re not leaders. If they have to be a leader to lead a group, then it’s probably not going to happen.
Think about this for a second – what did Jesus call us to do? He didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus didn’t even call us to start small groups although He modeled it. Jesus called the church to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). What do you need to make a disciple? You need a disciple to make a disciple. How many disciples do you have?
By inviting disciples to make disciples in groups, you can help your people walk in obedience to the Great Commission. Rather than continuing to allow your people to borrow from your spirituality, you can give them an easy-to-use tool like a video-based curriculum and a coach to supervise them. They can live in obedience to Jesus by making disciples. They can prove themselves and learn to lead by doing. You can have more groups ASAP. And, eventually, these disciples can be recognized as leaders.
The bar for leadership should remain high. When you do church-wide campaigns, group launches, or alignment series, these are part of the leader recruitment process. These are not ordination events for new leaders. It’s a trial run to give them an opportunity to prove themselves as leaders. Once they’re ready, then you can commission them as leaders. As one of my leaders, Doug Howard told me, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew I was.” I hope you hear that a lot!
There’s an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” You’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s old, but the meaning is relevant. No matter how well you coach and train your leaders, they need to know that you care. Lack of care often leads to burnout. You don’t want to go there.
As the typical ministry season (September – May) beings to
wrap up, it’s a great time to show your appreciation to your group leaders. You
don’t necessarily need to make over-the-top gestures, but it’s important to do
something. After all, there are only two parts to small group ministry: (1)
Recruiting Leaders, and (2) Keeping Your Leaders Motivated, Equipped, and
Happy. They’ll gladly do their job, when you do yours. Here are some ways to
show your leaders that you care:
Plan a Fun Event.
When you think about events, they really can run the gamut
depending on your budget. You could go the route of team building events like
ropes courses, trampoline parks, or escape rooms. If you’re in the vicinity of
a campground, they might have an affordable facility available for your event.
If you’re on a budget, think about a picnic or tailgate. You
could either cater the event or invite all of the group members along with the
leaders to the event. The group members can provide the food for their groups,
so there’s nothing to budget for.
One year our church in California had a picnic like this and
asked each group to present an award to their group leader. Every group got up
and expressed appreciation for their leaders publicly. Then, they would present
either a homemade award like a plaque or a trophy. One group even created a
Barbie doll to resemble their leader. Some groups went way over the top and
gave restaurant gift certificate, a weekend away, or something else their
leader really enjoyed. No matter how it was done, every leader left feeling
very appreciated by the church and by their group.
Give a Small Gift.
small gift communicates a lot. You don’t need to give away a car for leaders to
feel appreciated. Think about what the leaders might enjoy – a Starbucks card,
movie tickets, or an ice cream cone.
One year I gave every one of my leaders a book. I purchased two cases of John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s Making Small Groups Work and gave one to every leader. Not only did they feel appreciated, I also put some training into their hands. Many churches have done the same with my Leading Healthy Groups book.
don’t need to be large. But, even something small communicates a lot.
Give Public Recognition.
In addition to a small gift or some other form of
appreciate, publicly recognizing your group leaders in a worship service is
meaningful to leaders. If this comes from the senior pastor, you get bonus
Asking group leaders to stand, come to the front, or come up
on stage, communicates the importance of small groups and the role of small
group leaders in your church. Either you or your senior pastor can publicly
thank leaders for letting God use them in the past year. You could even give
some statistics like the number of people who came to Christ as a result of
groups, or the number of people currently involved in groups.
While you’ve got your congregation’s attention, this would
be a great opportunity to give them a heads up about your next group launch,
even if it comes in the Fall. People like to plan ahead. And, remember, what
you are saying to your current leaders is also being said to your future
leaders sitting in the congregation.
Leader appreciation is only limited to your creativity. If
you have no budget, then get even more creative. Even simple things like a
handwritten note are significant. After all, who gets personal mail anymore? A
personal email is not the same.
How will you appreciate your leaders this year? What have
you done in the past? I would love to hear what you’re doing.
Love God and love your neighbors. In the Great Commandment, Jesus boiled 613 commands down to these two. He went on to say, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV). In other words, if Jesus’ followers do anything, they should focus on these two things. The Neighboring Life focuses on the second commandment in order to follow the first one.
Who is My Neighbor?
The act of taking time to learn a neighbor’s name demonstrates obedience to Jesus’ command. Once a believer knows their neighbor’s name, then they can pray for their neighbor. Pray for their lives, their families, their jobs, and even an opportunity to get to know them better.
Neighboring is also serving next door neighbors. By offering a helping hand, often the next step is offering a listening ear. “We love our neighbors because we are Christians, not because we are trying to make them Christians,” says Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, co-authors of The Neighboring Church. “We need to stop hijacking the endgame with other things. It happens so subtly. We love our neighbors so they will go to church. We love our neighbors so they will join our small group…Those motives turn people to be loved into projects to be directed…People will know when they are a project.”
The Neighboring Life is the creation of Rick Rusaw, Brian Mavis, and the team at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, CO. Built on the foundation of The Externally-Focused Church, co-authored by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson (Group Publishing 2004), LifeBridge along with many other churches, has sought to transition ministry from missional, community-wide, Service Day approaches to a more granular form of ministry. Rather than donning matching t-shirts, serving for one day, and making local headlines, The Neighboring Life is a daily, personal experience with one’s neighbors. More importantly, it adds the relationship component to serving.
“The bridge between being missional and incarnational is relationship,” according to Scott Campbell, The Ascent Church, Colorado Springs, CO. “You can be missional without being relational. You can’t be incarnational without relationship: ‘love neighbors as you love yourself.’”
“For years [LifeBridge Church] had been getting into the stream of our community to serve. A city employee asked if we would take care of a woman’s yard for her. I said I would look at the situation and get back to her,” said Brian Mavis. “As I was driving up, I spotted the house from blocks away. They weren’t exaggerating. The grass was almost as tall as I was. I knocked on the door and a woman in her young thirties answered. Standing next to her was a little girl. I learned that this woman had recently survived stage-four cancer, and she was taking care of the nine-year-old girl, who was in foster care. This woman was tearful and embarrassed about her yard, but she said her health prevented her from trying to take care of it.
“My heart broke for her, and I was happy that our church was going to help her. I gathered a dozen people and they brought their own equipment. A few hours later we had the yard looking almost as good as new. We came back the next week to put down some mulch. We prayed for the homeowner, and we felt great about what we had done. I was proud of our people, and I was glad the city knew they could call us and count on us to take care of it.
“Over the next year, I called the woman a couple of times to see how she was doing. After the second call, while I was silently congratulating myself, the Holy Spirit said, ‘This is nothing to be proud of. This should never have even happened.’ I immediately knew the full meaning of this gentle rebuke by God. The woman’s grass should never have grown more than six inches tall.”
What should have been done differently? “First,” said Mavis, “I wouldn’t just ask a dozen people from our church. Instead, I would look to see who lived near her. We have several families within a couple blocks of her house. I would’ve called them and asked them to help me help their neighbor. Then I thought I would go one better. I would ask them to help me, but I would also ask them to knock on their neighbors’ doors, no matter if they were Christian or not, and invite them to join in helping this woman…If the church had done a better job of helping our people learn to love their neighbors, then I never would’ve received a phone call from the city in the first place…For years our church was serving the community, but were we loving our neighbors?”
A dilapidated house or an unkempt yard are easily recognizable signs of a family in crisis. But, not all needs are revealed from the curb. Needs are revealed as neighbors are known. Since neighboring is not a program and neighbors aren’t projects, the focus on neighboring is more of a spiritual discipline than a ministry initiative. Neighboring is moving life from the backyard to the front yard. It’s taking time for a neighbor when they are outside. The heart of neighboring is putting others ahead of oneself.
Neighboring requires no special talent. Anyone can be a neighbor. Neighboring does require a shift in thinking for pastoral leadership. Emphasis is given on scattering equal to the emphasis on gathering. This is not to discount the value of gathering, but to balance receiving and giving.
Stay, Pray, Play, and Say
Neighboring almost seems to harken back to years gone by when neighbors knew everyone and helped each other. It was the norm. Today, the norm is cellphones, garage door openers, and quiet streets in neighborhoods. Neighboring requires intentional effort.
The practices of neighboring are simple, yet significant. They can be summoned up in four words: Stay, Pray, Play, and Say. Stay means being available to get to know one’s neighbors. It’s stopping to talk to a neighbor instead of hitting the garage door button. Maybe it means sitting on the front porch instead of the back porch. Pray means praying for neighbors. Praying for both neighbors who are known and those who are unknown. Praying for opportunities to connect and serve. Play is offering hospitality to neighbors from dinner invitations to backyard barbecues to small scale events. The fourth word is say. When the opportunity arises, Christian neighbors are prepared to share Christ with their fellow neighbors. This isn’t the completion of the “project.” This is the start of a new journey.
Once pastors and staff have some experience with neighboring, the entire church can be engaged with The Neighboring Life study and companion video used as a church-wide campaign, group study, or individual study. These resources are available at TheNeighboringLife.com.
Jacob & Mary Alice: An Unlikely Pair
Ever since his wife’s death, 80-year-old Jacob called his neighbor, Mary Alice, regularly. Somehow Mary Alice had broken the ice with this self-proclaimed “crotchety old Jewish man who doesn’t make friends easily.” The two were quite a pair in the neighborhood: a mom of two teenagers chatting the ear off the grumpy old man.
When Jacob’s number came up on caller ID, she answered it, but on this evening, when she picked up the phone Jacob wasn’t talking but she could hear difficulty in his breathing. Rushing over to his house, she found Jacob at the bottom of the stairs and quickly called 911. The paramedic in the ambulance, the emergency room receptionist, the technicians drawing blood, and the doctor all asked her, “Are you his daughter?”
“No, I am just his neighbor” she answered every time, as she kept Jacob calm and answered their questions about his past medical history. As Mary Alice left the emergency room after Jacob was fully stabilized, the doctor asked her with a smile, “Will you be MY neighbor?”
Neighboring requires no special talent. There are no scripts or methods to follow. The heart of neighboring is taking an interest in one’s neighbors. Pastors can start their own neighboring movements by encouraging their members to take a few minutes to talk to their neighbors when they see them outside. This might be an introduction to a new neighbor or a bit of an apology for living next door for so long and having never met. This shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be a start.
As churches embrace neighboring, any step toward a neighbor: a conversation, a meal, a prayer, or an act of service should be celebrated. What pastors tell stories about will cast vision to their congregations.
If pastors are ready to get serious about neighboring, then some tough questions must be answered – How can you be the best church for your community rather than just the best church in your community? What if you got better at the two things Jesus said mattered the most – loving God and loving your neighbor? How can the church put equal energy into scattering into the community as they do gathering for weekend worship services?
If your members move out of their neighborhoods, would they be missed?