When it comes to discipleship and small groups, there is a
tension between series, seasons, and semesters. On the one hand, you don’t want
to fight against the community calendar. But, on the other side of things, you
can’t have only 8-12 weeks for discipleship in a year. What’s the balance?
Don’t Fight the Losing Battle of the Calendar
Most people have been conditioned by the academic calendar,
even if they are no longer in school. You’re hard at it from Labor Day to
Thanksgiving, and then from the New Year up to Memorial Day, but between those
holidays there are breaks. People are conditioned to this. There are a few
exceptions, but even communities with year-round school still see an ebb in
attendance and participation in the Summer.
Where I live in South Carolina, everyone goes on vacation
either in the week before or after the Fourth of July. Back in the days of the
textile industry, the mills closed for the weeks on either side of Independence
Day. Now, all of the textile mills are long gone, but the pattern remains.
Your community also has seasonal rhythms like this. But, do
you give up on discipleship during the Summer. Think of alternatives like a
Summer devotional that people can take to the beach or the lake (or on their
phone). Discipleship doesn’t need to stop, but the form might need to adjust
for the Summer months.
Don’t Win the Battle and Lose the War.
I’ve seen churches do semesters or even church-wide
campaigns during the Summer months. As you might expect, participation was a
third or less from either a Fall series or a New Year’s series, but there were
some folks who benefited. The problem was the Summer launch reduced the
momentum for the Fall launch when everyone is back in church and available.
They saw less participation and fewer new leaders than in previous Fall
launches because the Summer study took the steam out of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I led a group for four years that
met for all 52 weeks of the year for Bible study. It is possible, but is it
practical or necessary? You have to decide for your church.
How Do You Use the Summer?
The effort to make well-rounded disciples requires more than
group meetings and Bible studies. Relationships and group life play a big part
in offering the encouragement and accountability that each member needs to
grow. While there is a place to learn what Jesus commanded, His command to us was
to “teach them to obey what I’ve commanded” (Matthew 28:20). You have to know
the commands to obey them, but you have to obey them to become the kind of
disciple Jesus had in mind.
Summer provides the opportunity to grow by other means.
Groups could serve together. Is there a Summer youth event or camp where they
could help? How about a missions trip? Does a neighbor have a neglected yard? Maybe
the group could pitch in to help? But, it doesn’t need to be all work.
I’ve seen groups go on vacation together, go camping together,
or go exploring on a day trip. One group in our church went on a cruise
together. They met another couple from our town on the cruise, who ended up
being part of their group when they returned.
Groups need to work hard together, but they also need to
play hard together. Often you catch a better glimpse of someone outside of a
meeting. Meetings are important, but group life is equally as important.
Make Summer your ally, not your enemy. Don’t fight the
calendar. But, remember, chances are people will be more faithful to their
group over the Summer than they will to weekend services. Don’t stop your
groups, but maybe make an adjustment.
What will your groups do this Summer? Leave your comments below.
By Allen White
When I was a kid, summer started when school was out just before Memorial Day and ended just after Labor Day. We had enough time to actually wonder what we would do with ourselves. Sure, there was a week of church camp and a family vacation in there, but there were weeks and weeks of playing outside and watching old reruns, if we were fortunate enough to have a mom who wasn’t hooked on soaps.
Today, summer starts the second week in June and ends about the middle of August. It’s about six to eight weeks, if you’re lucky.
Many groups automatically decide to break for the summer. It’s just what they do. They assume that it’s too hard to get together or that they’re group members are too busy, so why bother gathering as a group? But, when was the last time you rethought your assumptions? 1. Who’s gone for the entire summer anyway?
We go into summer making a few assumptions like “Everybody’s busy traveling, so we might as well not even try to get together as a group.” In a normal year, most families do one big vacation and maybe a few day trips. While everyone in your group probably won’t take vacation on the same week, they also won’t be gone for the entire summer. Before school ends, ask your group about their summer schedules, who knows they might be available after all? 2. Your group may be the spiritual resource for the summer.
In this age of staycations and day trips, people tend to be busier on the weekends than during the week. Few of us could be categorized as the idle rich. Yes, it’s summer, but we’ve got to keep our day jobs. While your group might be headed to the mountains or the beach on the weekends, they’re in town Monday through Friday. They might not be around for church services on Sunday, so your group gathering might be the consistent touch they get during the summer. 3. Your group doesn’t need to meet every week to be spiritual.
If your group meets every week, then meet every other week or meet once a month during the summer. The key is to keep the relational connections up. Ask your group to bring their calendars and see when most of the group will be in town. Even if you can only get together once or twice during the summer, do it. I’ve even seen groups spend vacations together, go on camping trips, and even take a cruise together. 4. Your group doesn’t need to have a Bible study every week to be spiritual.
Have a party and invite prospective members. If you live in the South, grill out. If you live in the rest of the world, have a barbecue. Ask everyone to bring something. Invite the neighbors, but be sure to only invite people that you actually like.
Serve together with a local organization. Is there a neighborhood school with projects, but their funds were cut this year? Is there a yard in your neighborhood that needs work? Is there a single mom or an elderly person who could use a hand? Is a member of your group moving?
Change it up with your group. While some groups will meet 52 weeks of the year, the frequency of the meetings is not nearly as important as keeping in touch over the summer. You never want to give your group the impression that you only care about them September through May, and not as much during Christmas break.
Oh, and on the being spiritual part, we are spiritual beings, so everything we do is spiritual. Our spirituality involves every part of us, not just worship services and Bible studies.
As your group heads into summer, take time to ask what the group would like to do together. Don’t assume that everyone is busy and that no one wants to get together. If you as a leader need a break, then ask other group members to host a party or head up a service project. You’re not alone.
By Allen White
We lost Robin Williams nearly a year ago. He was a beloved comedian and actor. In fact, he was so beloved that his name was one of the most searched in all of 2014 on Google. I wrote a post a few days after his death as a response to so many hateful things Christians were saying on the internet. That post was not only the most read post ever on my blog, but was also the most read post ever on Rick Warren’s pastors.com with over 1 million views. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.
As I conclude this series on the temperaments of group members and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, I want us to look at the epidemic of mental illness. It’s not a temperament, but an illness that personally affects 1 in 4 adults or 61.5 million Americans (according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance of Mental Illness). Mental illness affects even more people than that including the family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow group members, and many others in relationship with those who suffer.
So, what if Robin Williams was in your group? 1. We would have a lot of fun.
If you’ve ever seen Robin Williams on a talk show, you know he was a man of a thousand voices. He would move from one comedic rant to the next and never miss a beat. He really didn’t even need the talk show host. Robin was a one man show who only needed an audience, but it didn’t have to be a large audience.
The best man in my wedding has a brother who was the pilot of Disney’s jet. Most of his job was flying Michael Eisner, president of Disney at the time, around the country. On one flight, Robin Williams was a passenger. He was just as animated and dynamic with a few people on the plane as he ever was on any talk show.
If Robin was in my group, we’d certainly have our hands full, but we would also have a great time. 2. He would want to be “Robin” not Patch Adams or Mork from Ork.
Robin is known for so many beloved and sometimes zany characters, but like all of us, we just want to be accepted for who we are. He probably wouldn’t want us to impersonate his characters or rattle off zippy one liners. In my groups, I’ve never wanted to be regarded as “Pastor Allen.” For the group to work, I need to come to group and be “Allen.” Like all of us, he would like to be accepted as Robin, not a clown, not a showman, not our evening’s entertainment, but just himself. 3. We would learn to be more generous.
Both before but especially after his death, stories flowed about Robin William’s generosity. He required movie studios to hire a certain number of homeless people on the crew as part of his contract for a picture. So many personal stories have surfaced like buying a bike for Conan O’Brien when he was going through a rough time or giving Jessica Chastain a scholarship to attend Juilliard or tirelessly fundraising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
Every year at Christmas Robin would visit the UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. In 2001, my son was a baby in the Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF and received a visit from Robin Williams along with all of the other children there. My wife and I missed the visit. Sam was only a month old and has no memory, but after Robin’s death, when I told him that special man had visited him when he was a baby, he was very touched.
I know of a lot of small groups who are very generous. Here in Greenville, South Carolina, the Holy Smokers from Brookwood Church cater an amazing meal for the homeless in the community. Groups have done so many things. But, I believe, Robin could show a group how to go even further. 4. The rest of us would have to remove our masks first and be patient.
The public was very shocked by the extent of Robin Williams’ depression that drove him to suicide. Suicide is a terrible decision in any life. Most of us can’t imagine the state of mind one would need to be in to feel you had no other choice, because we don’t struggle with the things he struggled with.
But, here’s the other thing, if our groups are just skimming the surface of a Bible study, we don’t really know what’s going on with anyone unless they are in enough pain to cry out for help without being shamed by the group. Participating in a small group is not a magic cure for anything. People can pretend to be okay in a group meeting just like they can pretend to have it all together in church, but that’s not okay.
If we ever expect anyone else to open up, we need to open up ourselves. We need to talk about what’s real, what’s hidden, what’s secret — these are the things with power over us. The things hidden in darkness must be exposed to the light. After all, the only thing that thrives in darkness is mold.
Let’s be honest — we’ve been in groups where a member announces a divorce and we didn’t even know there were marital problems. Or, someone files for bankruptcy and we didn’t know the extent of their struggle. There is no room for lone rangers in a group. You and I are not any better than anyone else. It’s time to let down our guard and admit that.
If we wanted Robin Williams or anyone else to open up, we would need to create the right environment. That includes showing our own vulnerability. 5. We would be out of our depth, but we would love everyone generously.
Most small groups are not equipped to deal with mental illness. From Schizophrenia to Bipolar Disorder to Depression, Substance Abuse, Autism and so much more, groups don’t know what to do or how to help. And, that’s okay.
There are doctors and medication and mental health professionals to help with mental illness. Groups are designed for belonging, acceptance, care and Bible study. Group leaders and members don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need to show Christlike love to everyone God sends their way. While all of us can certainly learn more about mental illness, groups need to fulfill the purpose they are intended for and seek help when the needs go beyond the group’s goals.
If a group’s purpose turns to helping a single member who is struggling, then that person becomes the group’s “project,” and the group members reveal their own co-dependency. No one wants to be someone’s project. If the group is in over their heads, then they need to admit where they can help and where they can’t. There is a time to get other help.
We miss you Robin Williams. Thanks for bringing so much joy to the world. Our regret is you had to suffer so much.
By Allen White
A group’s location says a lot about the group. If a group meets in a classroom at church, it feels like Sunday school. It’s formal. Sometimes the room is distracting because it’s normally used as children’s space. I remember leading a group for Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in a third grade classroom. A child had created a poster for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I really wanted to help people work through their ennagrams and get to their family dynamics, I kept thinking, “No, it’s chocolate. Really!”
This is why off-campus groups are just better: 1. Better for the Group.
A home is more personal than a classroom. While a group could cover the exact same content in both environments, there is something about a home that reframes the meeting as “group life” rather than just a class. Hospitality has become a bit of a lost art. Growing up families would regularly have each other over for dinner. Today, families are generally too exhausted to think about volunteering for another thing. Inviting a group into a home is a meaningful gesture. Group members can get to know the group leader by asking about family pictures or mementos from years gone by. What’s even better is having the group trade off homes. This way the group can meet in every member’s home and get to know them better as well.
A home is a more casual environment. The meeting doesn’t necessarily feel like a “church thing.” They are meeting with a group of people to encourage each other, study God’s Word, and pray for each other. Granted, it’s not a Thursday night poker game, but you can have that kind of community.
This can also apply to a third place like a bookstore, a coffee shop or a community room at an apartment complex. While these settings are not as personal as a home, they certainly are not as formal as a classroom. The other great thing about meeting in a third place is there is no cleaning up before or after the meeting, and possibly no refreshments to provide. Latte anyone? 2. Better for the Church.
Now, by better for the church, I don’t mean less wear and tear on the building or giving the childcare workers a night off, but that’s not a bad start. Most churches do not have adequate educational space to house every small group who meets. When I served at Brookwood Church, groups met every day of the week, Sunday through Friday, morning, noon and night. Even though there were a couple hundred groups, we completely ran out of space. We weren’t going to build anything else, so where do you turn?
Once we embrace the idea that the church is not merely a building, but the body of believers, suddenly the church has all kinds of space. In fact, churches have millions and millions of dollars worth of property that they aren’t even utilizing — the homes of their members. No need for a capital campaign or building a new building, the church has buildings. They just need to plant group life there. 3. Better for the Neighborhood.
Pastors debate whether their churches should be missional or attractional. I would argue they need to be both. Churches should offer a weekend service where unchurched people would feel welcomed and interested. A place where they friends can invite them, and they can hear the Gospel. But, the church should also go to them. When our church in California, New Life Christian Center, launched our first self-produced curriculum (read more here), we encountered a result we didn’t count on — people who had never darkened the door of our church were meeting our pastor in the homes of their friends. As our group leaders reached out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, they were invited into a comfortable place, their friend’s home, rather than a church service where they might not feel as comfortable. After a few weeks of watching our pastor on video, the leader asked if they like to come to church with them. When they came to a service, they felt like they already knew our pastor because they had just spent a few weeks with him at their friend’s house. 4. Transitioning Your Groups without Transitioning Yourself Out
There are some exceptions to where groups meet. There will certainly be some resistance. In some places, there will be a flat out sense of entitlement. After all, didn’t the church members fund the building campaign, so why can’t they use the building?
As I mentioned, when I first arrived at Brookwood Church, the vast majority of groups met on campus, and I wasn’t about to change that. It’s not that I’m a chicken. I just lack the gift of martyrdom. After all, what we were doing was working for a lot of the groups. If it ain’t broke…
I made two commitments to the existing on-campus groups. First, while we were starting many new groups off-campus, I would never ask them to move off-campus. Second, I promised them I would never split up their group if they exceeded 12 members. That’s for another day. Remember, if you kick them out, they might just kick you out.
Now, over the course of the next four years, we started hundreds of new groups off-campus. And, we started a few groups on-campus. Now by “few” I mean four groups. A couple of people could not figure out another way to have a group, so I gave them a room. Then, we started a group for single moms. Not only did I give them a room, I gave them free childcare, free curriculum, tickets to a Chonda Pierce concert (with free childcare) — the whole works. After all, single moms and their kids are our modern day “widows and orphans.”
Once we changed the expectations for most groups to meet off-campus, they figured it out: meeting place, childcare, and whatever other objection they had. They didn’t feel like second class citizens. They just understood that we were out of space. We may have missed starting a few groups along the way, but the groups we started were better in so many ways.