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The political landscape is more polarized than it’s ever been (and it’s never been great). You don’t have to look too far before you find memes or yard signs that either strongly agree or strongly disagree with your own political position. But, how can you love your neighbor/enemy in this day and age? How do you reach people who are far from God and post an oppositional meme? What if they show up in your small group?
The challenge is to reach people with the truth of God’s word by putting politics aside. If your politics get in the way of your witness, then your politics are more important than they should be. Your concerned about political causes should be the same as Jesus’ concern. In my read of the Gospels, Jesus didn’t have much concerned for political causes. He stayed on mission regardless of the political situation.
You have a right to vote your conscience. You have a right to hold a political opinion. But, when does politics cloud the church’s mission? Here are some ideas about how groups can draw in people with opposing views and make disciples amid a hostile political environment.
Choose Relevant Study Topics.
Your study choices should connect with people’s felt needs. What are people experiencing right now? Many are facing stress and anxiety at unprecedented levels. Between the coming recession, rapid societal and cultural change, and the stress of life, many people are at their brink. Bible studies like Get Out of Your Head by Jennie Allen, Don’t Give the Enemy a Seat at the Table by Louie Giglio, Rhythms of Renewal by Rebecca Lyons, and so many others to help people overcome their stress and anxiety. People are dealing with many relevant issues these days like improving their marriages, becoming better parents, find their purpose in life, and discerning what’s ahead.
By inviting friends and neighbors to a Bible study based on a relevant topic, every person in your church can reach people who are far from God and point them to the Truth. They don’t have to agree on everything. Besides, what small group actually agrees on everything anyway? By connecting with people and supporting them in overcoming practical issues in their lives, groups can break through some of the barriers that politics creates.
Stick to Jesus and What the Bible has to Say.
Over the centuries, the Church has faced a lot. Whether the church thrived with a favorable government or thrived with a hostile government, the Church has continued to thrive. But, all along the way the truth of God’s Word has held true. Jesus remains on the throne. God is a big boy. He can take care of Himself.
Once you’ve chosen a relevant study for your groups or have allowed them to choose the study based on the needs of their friends, then groups should stick to what the Bible says and avoid controversial issues. The goal is to win souls for eternity not to win the next election.
By creating an environment to accept people where they are, the group can show the newcomers the love of Christ. Jesus is very attractive. Political agendas are not. By breaking down barriers to invite others in, the Holy Spirit will do His work in their hearts just like He does in yours. This doesn’t mean that people will change overnight. This also doesn’t mean that you have to be in agreement with their political views or lifestyle choices. As the saying goes, “You catch them. God will clean them.”
Show God’s Love in Practical Ways.
What are the needs you see around you? How can your group help your neighbors? After all, Jesus boiled down all 613 commandments in Scripture to just two: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). How can you love your neighbor as yourself?
First, get to know your neighbors. I’ve made it a personal challenge over the years to find something in common with everyone I meet. Now with some folks that’s more challenging than others. Sometimes though I’m surprised that I have a lot in common with someone I thought I would have nothing in common with.
Start with your neighbors’ names. If they’re just moving in, walk over and unload something from the moving truck, introduce yourself, and either continue helping or move on if you need to. Now, if you’ve lived in your neighborhood for a while and there’s a neighbor you haven’t met, then walk next door with some cookies, knock on the door, and say, “I’m a little embarrassed that we’ve lived here for so long, yet you and I have never met.” They’re probably embarrassed too.
Pray for Your Neighbors.
If you’ve met your neighbors, then pray for them by name. Pray for their lives to be blessed. Pray for openness to hear about Jesus. Pray for any needs that you are aware of. If you haven’t met your neighbors, then pray for an opportunity to meet them. The power of prayer is much greater than the power of Facebook.
Help Your Neighbors.
Do your neighbors have a practical need? Make yourself available. If it’s a big job, then invite your whole small group. Whether your neighbor needs some work done around their house or needs a night of fun, include them. People are lonely. As my wife once said, “People have more ways to connect than they’ve had, yet they are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” Facebook and other social media provide pseudo-relationships, but lack the real personal connections that people need. By opening up and including others, you and your group are taking the first step in helping people find Jesus.
Think About This
Pastor Jonathan Hansen from Hills Church in El Dorado Hills, California recently told me, “Most Christians are only one yard sign away from destroying their witness.” How can you introduced people to Jesus when your politics keep getting in the way? Winning somebody to your political point of view is not nearly as important as winning someone to Christ. The change of a nation starts with the change of the hearts of individuals. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). This should still be our mission. When it comes to politics, as Larry Osborne said recently on the Exponential Groups Podcast: “Your church (or your group) should be Switzerland.”
These are controversial times. You probably don’t have to think too hard about controversial issues that could pop up in small groups. In fact, some of the issues probably already have. What’s the best way to handle them? Should you just avoid controversy in groups? Is there a way for groups to navigate controversy in a positive or meaningful way?
When you consider the conversations between Jesus’ disciples, they had their fair share of controversy. From James and John’s mother asking about seating her sons of Jesus’ right and left in Heaven (Matthew 20:20-22) to Jesus calling one of his group members “Satan” (Matthew 16) to a group member betraying Jesus, which lead to his death (Matthew 26). The controversies in your small groups probably don’t seem so big. But, that doesn’t keep them from being troublesome. Here are some ways to handle controversy in small groups.
Nip It in the Bud
In the words of the great theologian Barnie Fife, “Just nip it. Nip it in the bud!” When group members start in on topics that have nothing to do with the group lesson and threaten the harmony in the group, the leader can simply stop the conversation. Remind the group that its purpose is to apply God’s Word, the Bible, to their lives in a practical way, and that the controversial topic is not part of the discussion. Once the controversy is diverted, then the group can return to the Bible study.
Revisit Your Group Agreement
What is the purpose of the group? Hopefully your groups have a group agreement. If you’d like to form a group agreement, the process is a free download from my study, Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group. The group agreement helps to define and manage expectations in small groups. Every group member has a say in what the group values and what the group is going to be about. Barring the purpose of the group being to air controversial issues, by simply reminding the group members of the agreed upon purpose of the group, the group can move forward and avoid the controversy. But, avoidance isn’t always the best method.
Hear Them Out
If a particular issue has a group stirred up, it might be good to give everyone a fair hearing. The meeting should be structured so that everyone gets to have their say without judgment or condemnation. The leader could set a time limit for each “side” to convey their point of view. This would be a good opportunity to invite the group’s coach to join the group meeting as an impartial observer. The group could even invite an expert on the topic to come and share his or her perspective on the subject.
You should limit this discussion to one meeting. Everyone can have their say. They may agree to disagree. Once this discussion has happened, then the group moves forward.
The most important thing is that each group member feels valued and heard. For any issue that is not immoral or illegal, the group members should be gracious to each other and their points of view. Any attitude that will force the choice between who’s right and who’s wrong will cause the group to either end or divide and will possibly make enemies of friends. There is no point in allowing things to go that far. It’s important for group members to understand those they disagree with. After all, every believer at one point was regarded as “God’s enemy” (James 4:4). Considering God’s patience with each believer, this would be a good exercise in patience with each other.
Think About This
If groups are ever going to do more than just scratch the surface, then controversy or disagreements will come up from time to time. If controversy never surfaces in a group, then you would need to wonder how shallow the group really is.
Of course, these thoughts are not license to stir up every possible issue. This is also not reason to turn group meetings into a circus. But, if an issue is important to a group member, then it’s important to discover the reason why. Sometimes the group’s “curriculum” doesn’t come from the pages of a book. It comes from life.
Why Do We Need a Group Agreement?
How Do I Deal with Group Members Who Gossip?
Leading Healthy Groups: A Guide for Small Group Leaders
Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
Image by nube1976 from Pixabay
You’ve seen how some groups produce great growth in their members while other groups merely tolerate each other. Some groups excel at reproducing leaders. Other groups seem to just go through the motions. What makes the difference?
You could assume that the leader makes the difference. You might be on to something. But, what is it about that leader that makes for a good group? If you could figure that out, then you could multiply that enthusiasm across all of your groups. Let’s dig into what makes an effective group.
What is an Effective Group?
The simplest definition is a group who fulfills their purpose. If the group’s goal is the three F’s: fun, food, and fellowship, then if the group is fat and happy, they are a success. Every group could be a little happier at least. But, there is a difference between the group’s purpose and God’s purpose for the group.
The mission of the church is to make disciples. You know Jesus’ works from Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now, go back and read it again, and really read it this time. (No yada, yada, yada’s allowed). Effective groups make disciples.
How Do You Make a Disciple?
One common Western definition of a disciple is a student. Students study. The more a student knows and the better decisions the student makes, the more they become like Christ, right? The problem is that churches often produce a lot of over-educated members with poor character. If articulating biblical principles was the only factor to growing in Christlikeness, then the Sunday sermon would be all that is necessary. The problem is that sermons don’t make disciples. There are a lot of knowledgeable Christians whose lives don’t reflect much of Christ. After all, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). It would be fair to ask whether your people’s behavior more closely resembles Galatians 5:19-21 or Galatians 5:22-23. Information alone doesn’t produce transformation. There are other elements to making disciples.
From the Great Commission and from my own experience, I see three key elements in making a disciple: the Holy Spirit, the “curriculum,” and the community. The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the lives of believers. The “curriculum” might be a study guide, but let’s not limit curriculum to that. The community is equally important to the curriculum. Who you join with is highly important in character formation.
The Holy Spirit
While there are diverse opinions about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, you can agree that you cannot give what you do not have. Every believer has the Holy Spirit. As far as being an element of an effective group, at least one person in the group must be saved.
The Holy Spirit guides you (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of God’s Word, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit illuminates your mind (John 16:15). The Holy Spirit gives words to say when you don’t know what to say (Mark 13:11). The Holy Spirit empowers you to serve others (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). Attachment to the Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). While you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see this fruit, it is the Spirit’s work and not just your sweat.
The Holy Spirit is present in the group meeting through his presence, through prayer, through God’s Word, and in the interactions of the group members. The Holy Spirit saturates daily quiet times and spiritual practices. Without God’s presence, there is no power for transformation. While you can become well disciplined, you cannot transform yourself. It just takes more than you’ve got.
In Western thought, which was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, the church picked up the notion that if you knew what was right and made the right choices, then you could live a life that reflected Christ. The problem is that no matter how hard you work, eventually you run out of steam. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It just means that all of that well-intentioned trying doesn’t achieve the goal of Christlike character. And, it’s not supposed to. After all, you cannot become godly without God or other believers. Study is part of the curriculum, but it’s not the only part.
The curriculum also involves your life circumstances. Your problems are your teachers, (and some days you want to skip school). The hardships, trials, and pain of your life cause you to seek better solutions and force you to grow in ways you haven’t volunteered to. But, the curriculum is not only pain and trials, the curriculum also includes serving and sharing and taking a risk with others. You grow by trying new things – serving the poor, taking a missions trip, and loving your neighbors in practical ways.
What is life teaching you? What is serving teaching you? What is pain teaching you? What is your group teaching you? All of these experiences produce a powerful hermeneutic within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.
Now, don’t get me wrong. God gave us a book, the Bible, and God gave us the left side of our brains. That’s not a coincidence. But, those aren’t the only faculties at your disposal to attain godly character.
Over the last nine weeks, I’ve participated in a weekly book club to discuss The Other Half of the Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks. This book confirmed many of the things that small group people have known intuitively. The quality of your community is equally important to the curriculum you study. Wilder and Hendricks teach that things like joy, hesed (community), group identity, and healthy correction create the necessary soil to produce godly character.
Hesed is “wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty,” elaborates Bible scholar Darrell L. Bock. You need a loyal and loving community to grow spiritually.
While I would need to write an entire book to explain Wilder and Hendricks’ book, the importance of community is clear in making disciples. You need people to model, instruct, correct, encourage, support, and partner with you in your spiritual development. You need people who love you but are not impressed with you to willingly speak the truth in love. I experienced this personally.
Years ago as a young pastor who was overly influenced by David Letterman, I frequently used a word that was unbecoming to a pastor. My senior pastor lovingly confronted me by saying, “When you use that word, it takes away from who you are.” He didn’t scold me and say, “You are a pastor. You work for me. No pastor on this staff is going to talk like that around here. If you don’t stop it, then you’re out of here.” No, he gently and lovingly told me the truth. I immediately stopped using that word. Who says these things to you? Who stands by you no matter what? How are these things communicated in your groups?
Disciples aren’t made in isolation. While there is a place for solitude and silence, character is forged in relationship with others. Whether on mission fields or in mine fields of emotions, by serving at soup kitchens or through praying in hospital waiting rooms, the bonds of community grow your character.
Think About This
Some groups depend on the Holy Spirit to zap them into godly character. I guess I was never thoroughly zapped. Other groups have diligently studied the Scripture only to become judgmental and legalistic in some ways. Some have solely embraced community only to be led in the wrong direction. But, the combination of these elements produces something powerful. The people of God filled with the Spirit of God and living out the Word of God produces amazing things. Your groups can produce amazing things.
You know that you need to train your leaders. The problem is half empty training meetings and leaders who are just difficult to reach. How do you train people who will never show up?
Your leaders like most people are inundated with information that further complicates their marginless lives. It’s probably all they can do just to lead a group. I’m not saying this is right. Unfortunately, this is your reality.
I graduated from seminary believing my purpose in life was to conduct meetings. When I started leader training meetings, most would attend. But, over time, the numbers dwindled. In fact, some days I would stand in an empty meeting room shortly after the start time. I would listen to the crickets and question the call of God on my life. Then, one day I had a realization – people hate meetings. But, how do you train your leaders if they don’t want to attend meetings? This led to a new question.
What is Training?
Maybe like me, you equated training with meetings. But, if your people won’t come to meetings, then how do you train them? You have to think outside of meetings.
You can train your leaders through conversations, blog posts, short videos, text messages, coaching, Facebook, and many other methods. You have to push the training out to them. If they won’t come to you, then go to them.
What Do They Want to Learn?
Your leaders don’t all need to know the same things at the same time. While it would be great to think you can equip your leaders by supplying them with answers to all of the questions and issues they will ever face in their groups, the reality is that leaders are only interested in solutions to the problems they are currently facing. The more your training is customized to the leaders’ needs, the more meaningful and memorable your training will be.
How Do You Know What Your Leaders Need to Know?
How Do You Deliver Individualized Training to Each Leader When They Need It?
Let me back up for a minute. There is some general training that you should deliver to all of your leaders live and in-person to get them started. All of your leaders should have an understanding of what it means to lead a group in your church and the basics of group dynamics. This should happen once during your on-boarding process.
Beyond that, give specific answers to specific issues. Use technology to deliver training that your leaders can access at any time. Whether you use Facebook Live or Youtube, push out short videos to your group leaders on relevant topics (answer the questions they are asking). You’ll need to archive these videos in some way so that if your group leaders don’t have an overly talkative person in their group today, then they’ll have access to the training when that person shows up in their group. You can do the same by writing and categorizing blog posts. You can even offer some training meetings – at the church, over Zoom, or even on a conference line. Whatever format you use, record and archive the content for future use.
In my church in California, I bought two cases of Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book, Making Small Groups Work. It’s an outstanding book, and it’s still in print. I gave a copy to every one of my leaders for future reference. You could do the same thing with my book, Leading Healthy Groups, which is based on questions that my group leaders asked me. You could even use my book as content for your training videos.
Lastly, there is no adequate substitute for a coach. The best training is delivered by the person who is the most proximate to the leader when a problem occurs. The key is the relationship. Proximity trumps knowledge every time. The coach may not have the best answer, but if they can deliver a good answer in a timely way, then the leader is served well.
You may find that training leaders is difficult, but it is necessary. The key to equipping busy leaders is to provide training that is proximate, timely, and relevant. The good news with a variety of formats you can reach all of your leaders. You have to choose to move away from ineffective means of training, and maybe try something new. Don’t get stuck in a power struggle over meeting attendance. Take it to them.
How are you effectively training your leaders? Leave your comments below.