By Allen White
Brett Eastman and I are working with a growing number of churches at Lifetogether.com to help them produce their own video-based curriculum and grow their small group ministries successfully. As we watch churches take big steps forward for the Kingdom, we also see the enemy at work. Divisive church members, staff setbacks, and a variety of other things seem to surface. For the record, Brett and I are not causing any of this trouble. But, there is an enemy who doesn’t like to see churches make bold moves in connecting and growing their people to reach others and serve their communities. For all of my friends who are struggling today, I’d like to share one of the most popular posts from my devotional blog over at http://galatians419.blogspot.com. If you’re worried and stressed today, I hope these words encourage you.
By Allen White
By Allen White
it clear that the only way to get along with them is to co-dependently acquiesce to their wishes. As long as you’re willing to stay on the bottom, things will work out just fine for the bully. That’s a hard place to live.How do you deal with an irrational person? Jesus provides some answers for us.
When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.
“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. John 18:19-24
Writer’s Note: This one is from the archives, but it still has a good application. Makes me smile to remember all of my great friends at New Life Christian Center, Turlock, CA. Those were some good times.
“How do you track that?” I don’t believe that question was asked about converts at Pentecost. But, it’s the question that I get from pastors of small groups who need to justify their salary or otherwise guarantee job security. After all, that is what this is all about, right? But, what if our need to track, control and direct keeps us from a wave of ministry that resulted in dramatic kingdom proportions?
I know all of the evangelical adages. “Don’t we count our money? Are people less significant than cash?” After all, the Shepherd did count his sheep only to discover that one had gone astray. If the counting hadn’t taken place, then the sheep might have risked deadly peril. Matthew 18 makes it very clear that one individual sheep matters to God.
At the risk of taking the analogy of the Shepherd too far, let me challenge you on this: the Shepherd counted his sheep, but the shepherd didn’t limit the multiplication of his sheep because he might overwhelm the accounting system. My thought is that if the shepherd had an overabundance of sheep to the point where the lily white mass stretched as far as his eye could see, his joy over a prolific flock would far overshadow his compulsion for a spreadsheet. When Acts 2:41 records that about 3,000 newly baptized, dripping wet believers were added to the church, I don’t think they were rounding up from 2,857.
We say that people are not statistics, then we quote the statistics about how many people we’re runnin’ and how many people we’re keepin’. Don’t get me wrong. We should know whether our service is effective in building the Kingdom. If we’re ineffective, then certainly no number will save us. If we are effective, then no number will do it justice.
I must admit that I am enamored by some numbers myself. I am amazed that less than a year ago only 30 percent of our adults were in small groups, but since then about 40 percent of our adults have hosted groups in their homes. That’s pretty amazing going from 30% sitting to 40% leading! But, here’s where this breaks down for most folks. I don’t know how many people are in each group. In some cases, I don’t know the person who is hosting the group personally. It’s gotten out of control—well, out of my control, anyway.
What I have learned is that God’s people are capable of much more than I have given them credit for. The people in the pews can lead a DVD based small group study and refrain from heresy and criticism of the pastoral staff. They’re too nervous about getting through the lesson to even think of interjecting theological error. God’s people filled with God’s Spirit interacting with God’s Word leads to more great things than bad.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned. A general contractor, a retired school superintendent, a multi-level marketer, and a substance abuse counselor together can do a better job of leading our small groups than I can alone. I don’t need to train a multiplicity of new hosts. These four do the training. I don’t need to review applications and interview prospective leaders. These four along with their coaches know every one of them. They know what’s going on in their lives and what’s going on in their groups. That’s better than I ever did sitting them all in neat rows and lecturing them for weeks.
We have this need to know numbers. Part of me is curious about that too. But, does a number tell us if our church is healthy? Does a number tell us if a group is growing? Does a number tell us if individual believers are being conformed to the image of Christ? Are these numbers good stewardship or just bragging rights?
How many do we have in small groups? Well, more than I care to count.
Over the years, I’ve faced many ups and downs with small group coaching. The first time we launched groups, we had no coaches at all. Soon the groups burned out. When we debriefed with them, the response was “we feel like lone rangers out there.” We definitely needed coaches.
The next time we launched groups, our leaders had a coach. His name was Allen. Allen recruited all of the leaders, trained all of the leaders, and coached all of the leaders. “Hi, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” The ministry grew to 30 groups, and then it got stuck. In light of our stuckness and Exodus 18, new coaches were needed immediately.
Searching the congregation, we looked for the cream of the crop. Who had led groups? Who was wise? Who was good with people? We found them. These were experienced, mature folks who were willing to help other leaders. I put them to work: disseminate information, collect reports, visit the groups, and report back. I still held on to all of the training, but the coaches did all of the hand to hand combat.
A dear coach named Carol came to me one day. She said, “I’m not too sure that I want to continue coaching. I’m bored, and I kind of feel like I’m your spy.” She was right to feel that way. That’s exactly what she was. But, why was she bored? First of all, Carol was a wise, mature believer with much to offer. I had turned her into a paper-pusher and a spy. While the coaches participated in the group huddles, the pastor of small groups still ran the meetings and did all of the training. He was still in recovery….
Finally, I turned all of the training and meaningful interaction over to the coaches. Suddenly, I had fewer people to communicate with. The coaches were doing their job. Then, the complaints started rolling in. Not from the leaders, but from the coaches: “I can’t get the leaders to show up for any meetings.” “I call them, but they won’t call me back.” So, I fired all of the coaches. Actually, I didn’t. It was time to regroup.
Did we need coaches to disseminate information? No, we had email. Did we need coaches to collect reports? No, we used churchteams.com. Did we need coaches to be spies? Yes, we actually did, but not like that.
What can a coach do that a small group pastor or director cannot? A coach can develop a close personal relationship with each of the group leaders. One pastor or director with even five groups cannot keep up with every group leader and what’s going on with their groups. Coaches serve a vital role in the relational makeup of a small group ministry.
Coaching relationships still have an intentional aspect. The role of a coach is to refocus the player. When they look at their group leaders, they see busy, sometimes frazzled people, who desire for God to use them, but often don’t have much time to think about their group. This is where the coach comes in.
If the coach will meet with each group leader, even just once every three months, God will use that coach to encourage the group leader and to energize that group. The meeting simply goes like this:
1. Ask the group leader who is currently in their group. Not to take a roster, but to start a conversation.
The leader will list out the names:
2. Ask the group leader what is going on with each of the members. As the group leader begins to think about each member, God will bring to the leader’s mind a next step the leader needs to take in the relationship. “Well, I haven’t seen Bob in a while. I need to give him a call.” “Paul is struggling to find work. I need to pray for Paul and see what help he needs.” And, so on.
The coach doesn’t need to tell the leaders what to do. The coach simply needs to offer the space for a leader to reflect on his/her group. After they write down the next steps for each group member, the coach and group leader should set up an appointment in three months. This gives the leader time to take action and gives a deadline for accountability.
Those of us who serve as professional small group folks, especially the recovering control freaks among us, crave more complexity in these relationships. Here’s what I know – complicated coaching in my experience has led to no coaching. By being available to leaders when they need their coach, scheduling quarterly meetings, and participating in a couple of training events per year, leaders will have more than enough resources to motivate them in ministry.
For those of us who would like to tinker will all of this more than we ought to, why not start a blog or something?
By Allen White
Over the years, I’ve encountered a few folks who are thrilled with Bible study, but less than thrilled by fellow believers. These folks have a great handle on the Word, but fall short in the deeds department. They don’t want to be bothered by going back to “elementary” teachings. They are Scriptural carnivores looking for the meat.
A while back, a church member complained he was bored with the basic, “seeker” nature of the questions in a study guide. “After all,” he told me as Hebrews 5:13-14 says, “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (NIV). I told him that’s not what the verse was talking about.
The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were contemplating abandoning Christianity and returning to Judaism. The “elementary teachings” and “milk” refers to the Old Covenant. The “solid food” refers to the New Covenant and life in Christ.
He told me he enjoyed this discussion. It was deep. Oh brother…
Most of us Bible scholars understand that an idol is anything we turn to instead of God. The confusion comes when the idol is studying God’s Word rather than turning to God. That seems a bit like splitting a hair. Maybe the correct issue is our pride regarding our Bible knowledge. We must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). So, how do you know when Bible study has become idolatry for you?
1. You’re more interested in the study guide than your fellow group members.
A small group is community built around a Bible study. If you’re going to err in one direction or the other, then choose community over Bible study. But, if you always neglect Bible study, then that’s a problem too.
But, if you care more about the lesson and less about group life, you just might be missing the point. Sure, you can memorize Ephesians 4:32, but are you practicing it? If you leave your group meeting irritated because someone shared so much about their life crisis and the group couldn’t complete the Bible study, you just might be elevating Bible study a little too high.
2. You can’t tolerate “easy” questions.
Most Bible studies are designed with a opening question that anyone can answer. Then, there are discovery questions which are answered directly from the Scripture passages. Later in the study are interpretation questions and application questions. If you find yourself irritated by icebreakers and bored with discovery questions, then you may be focused on the wrong things. If what you have to say about God’s Word is more important than what God’s Word actually says, you have made an idol out of the study.
I am amazed at the number of “mature” believers who will pitch a fit over questions they already know the answers to. They have no patience for helping new believers understand the Scripture. Their focus is on their own intellectual curiosity. The study needs to cater to their interests. My question is this: How mature are these folks really?
3. You feel prayer requests and sharing life wastes precious Bible study time.
If you love Bible study, but you can’t stand people, you are missing the point. Our knowledge of Scripture should deepen our love for God and our love for each other. If you’d rather parse Greek verbs than persist in prayer for your fellow group members, then take a hermeneutics class and parse away…on your own…by yourself.
Please understand, in no way am I encouraging any group to toss out their Bible study. But, if studying the Bible doesn’t increase our compassion for others, something’s broken. After all, knowledge without grace leads us to legalism.
4. You can recite passages you never intend to obey.
Francis Chan asks this question, “If I asked my children to clean their rooms, and they only memorized my words, would that be enough?” We all must admit that it’s far easier to know the Word than to do the Word. Yet, the Bible tells us that faith without works is dead.
In the church, we have gone far too long substituting knowledge for faith. Often our excuse for not acting is that we don’t know enough. “I can’t witness to my neighbor. I don’t know enough of the answers.” Yet, we know Jesus. Isn’t He the answer? Our apologetic arguments aren’t going to win anyone to God’s Kingdom. Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), right?
If we stopped our Bible study until we lived out the commands we already know, do you think we’d ever pick up our Bibles again? Now, we all need the encouragement of Scripture. But, as Howard Hendricks said, “Most Christians are already educated beyond their level of obedience.”
5. Bible study has become an escape from your real life.
I love God’s Word. I might even love God’s Word more than I love other people. After all, I’m going to do what God’s Word says rather than what others tell me to do. But, there’s a line we can cross when it comes to loving God’s Word – Can we love God’s Word more than we actually love God? We can learn His commands, yet not obey them. We can recite obscure nuances of Scripture from memory, yet do we go to those lengths to help other people?
Yes, we should turn to God’s Word for comfort. But, more importantly, we should turn to God. We should delight in helping others discover the truth of God’s Word. We should be challenged by the deeper meaning of Scripture – not secretive, hidden meanings – but truths applied and lived out in our daily lives. The Word of God is active, not passive. Our worship belongs to God, not to His Word.