Category Archives: Small Groups
In alphabetical order, these are the books and websites I value most when it comes to personal self-awareness. Obviously our closest friends are some of our best resources, too.
- Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. Manning calls us to fully embrace our identity as God’s beloved and to recognize the imposter within. This book has been life-giving to me multiple times.
- Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. I’ve blogged about this book/concept here. Where were we before he alerted us to this gaping hole in our spiritual formation?
- The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner. Anything Benner writes is profound. This one is on my reading list.
- Invitation to a Journey by M. Robert Mulholland. This is a book about spiritual formation, but Mulholland integrates an understanding of the MBTI in it.
- Living Your Strengths by Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld. I’ve also blogged about this book here. If you’re familiar with the Buckingham and Clifton StrengthsFinder, this puts a biblical twist on it. Includes a code to take the assessment online.
- Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas. He has identified nine “pathways” that Christians have found are the ways they connect with God the best. I plan to blog through this book at some point.
- Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster. Foster’s book is less about understanding one’s self and more about understanding the modes of faith we come from. He speaks about the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social-justice, evangelical and incarnational traditions as the six great traditions of the faith. A thick book that reminds me I don’t have the monopoly on faith.
- 16 Personalities Test. This is a free online test based on the longer MBTI (Myers-Briggs). You get your results and can look up a definition of your personality type.
- Spiritual Gifts Survey by Lifeway. This is free as a PDF. I plan to blog about the main biblical passages on gifts soon.
- The Absent-Minded Christian. Blog post from Biola University. Being self-aware and conscious of God’s presence each moment go hand in hand.
Jesus is famous for asking questions in the gospels. Questions deserve answers. It is why they are a powerful part of any teaching. Too many questions and you overwhelm someone. Questions that are overly simple, and you get the easy Sunday School answers. Learning how to ask questions is an art perfected with practice. But who better to learn from than our Master, Jesus? After looking at all the questions Jesus asked, I’ve grouped them into 10 categories, with 3-4 examples from the TNIV with each. Think about them as you prepare for your next small group.
Jesus asks rhetorical questions that expect a certain answer. He expects that those listening will already know the answer to the question, and yet he uses it to reinforce his point. So it’s not a question for dialogue, but for teaching. Examples:
- You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Mt. 5:13
- If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? Mt. 5:46
- And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Mt. 5:47
Jesus asks questions about why people (sinfully) act the way they do. He doesn’t let them justify their actions as okay, but asks why they live in a sinful way. Whereas we would be prone to ask whether or not a person struggles with sin, Jesus knows they do and asks them about it directly.
- Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye”? Mt. 7:3-4
- Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Mt. 9:4
- Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do the things I say? Lk. 6:46
Jesus asks questions that force a decision or a concrete answer. They are line-in-the-sand moments that cut across our tendency to waffle, equivocate, or hold things in tension. For Jesus, some things cannot be held in tension. You are either all in or out.
- John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men? Mt. 21:25
- Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? Mk. 3:4
- If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say? Jn. 5:46-47
Jesus asks questions about our desires. He knows that what we want is as important as what we do. He wants to help us get behind actions to motives.
- What do you want me to do for you? Mt. 20:32 (asked of two blind men who had called out for mercy)
- Do you want to get well? Jn. 5:6
- Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments. Mt. 19:17
- What is it you want? Mt. 20:21 (asked of James’ and John’s mother)
Jesus asks questions that force people to revisit the Scriptures. They thought they understood it, and Jesus tries to illuminate and correct their reading. He especially does this to the religious leaders. Sometimes it is to help them see that it was written about Him, and others to see the intended meaning.
- Is it not written in your Law, I have said you are gods? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Jn. 10:34-36
- What is written in the Law? How do you read it? Lk. 10:26
- Have you never read in the Scriptures…? Mt. 21:42
Jesus asks questions about our lack of faith and understanding. After a miracle or a teaching, He was so often misunderstood. Asking the question reminds those watching and listening that they are missing something.
- (To Peter) You of little faith. Why did you doubt? Mt. 14:31
- Are you still so dull? Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? Mt. 15:16-17
- Where is your faith? Lk. 8:25
- Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Jn. 8:46
Jesus asks questions about His identity. People were always asking about whether He was a prophet, demonized, from God or not. He asks people to tell Him who they believe He is.
- Who do you say that I am? Mt. 16:15
- What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is He? Mt. 22:42
- Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Jn. 14:9
- Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me? Jn. 18:34
Jesus asks questions about our priorities. We all tend to place other things of value in the spot reserved for God alone. Jesus knows this and challenges us to let them go.
- What can you give in exchange for your soul? Mt. 16:26
- How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? Jn. 5:44
- Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Mt. 6:27
Jesus asks questions after/as a parable to drive home his point. The audience has to choose a character from the parable in answer to His question.
- What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? Mt. 18:12
- Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? Lk. 6:39
- Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Lk. 10:36
- Tell me, which of them will love him most? Lk. 7:42
Jesus asks questions that demand a commitment to Him. In a time following a difficult circumstance, Jesus doesn’t miss the opportunity to call for complete commitment. He knows people will be tempted to walk away from Him, and asks them to reaffirm their commitment.
- You do not want to leave too, do you? Jn. 6:67
- Do you believe in the Son of Man? Jn. 9:35
- Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these? Jn. 21:15…
When I lived in Wisconsin, I learned quickly that I was different from many around me. As a pastor at a Wesleyan Church, I had committed to abstain from alcohol. No problem for me, but certainly a regular part of life there. My wife and I felt like outsiders at lunchtime, wedding receptions, and more. The average person, though, had been raised to not blink an eye at its consumption. They had been enculturated, whether they knew it or not. We were the weird ones.
This is one small example of a process that occurs in every area of our lives, from religion to politics to eating habits to exercise. You name it, you learned it through enculturation.
I was introduced to the concept of enculturation by John Westerhoff in his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? He defines it as “the process by which an individual learns the traditional content of a culture and assimilates its practices and values.”
Enculturation assumes a process. Individuals, whether they are newcomers to a culture or have been a part of it for their entire lives, are still undergoing, whether consciously or unconsciously, enculturation. No one person embodies the values and practices of a culture completely. This is the assimilation component. No one drops their previously learned and lived values and practices completely, but rather adds to them.
In the church, as we seek to make disciples, we are calling people into the kingdom of God, into God’s values and practices. Just how do we do that? Westerhoff mentions eight areas. I list them here along with questions a small group leader could ask as they pertain to groups. This could apply to a church as a whole or to our families, also.
- Rituals—repetitive symbolic acts (word and deed) that express and manifest the community’s sacred narrative.
- What can people expect to hear and do at your small group every time? How do those things shape them?
- What is missing on purpose?
- What is missing on accident?
- What do your words and actions symbolize? Does everyone know it?
- How do your words and actions express the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
- Environment—all that people see, taste, touch, smell, and hear.
- How do you arrange furniture in your space?
- Are people sitting in rows or a circle?
- Are you physically positioned as the one who knows all or the one who facilitates?
- Are you ever able to eat food that fits with the study for the night?
- Calendar—how people remember significant events.
- How does your small group celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passion Week, Easter, Pentecost?
- What other significant events do you celebrate, such as people’s birthdays and anniversaries? Kids’ events?
- How does the school calendar affect your group? The national calendar? Are they given more weight than the Christian year?
- Time—how people are encouraged to spend their time, energy, talents and resources.
- How do people involve themselves in the group beyond attending?
- How does your group help people become more involved in the life of the church?
- In what ways do you call people to actively care for one another?
- Do you ever choose to ask people to spend money on projects or missions?
- Relationships—decision-making, settling differences, living together.
- Do you make all the decisions, or are others allowed to help make decisions?
- What do you do when people disagree doctrinally or otherwise?
- How do you love one another, as Jesus commands?
- Role Models—those who the community establishes as examples to be emulated.
- Are you living as one to be emulated?
- Do you lead people to Jesus rather than to yourself or your way of thinking?
- Do you confront negative role models our culture has accepted?
- Behavioral Activities—those disciplines practiced regularly by the community.
- What are you expecting of those in your group during the week? Prayer? Bible reading?
- Similar to rituals, what things do you do over and over in your group?
- Language—the way we name and speak of things.
- How do you speak of God?
- Of Scripture?
- Of humanity?
- Of the world?
- How do you joke?
Ask the questions of your group. Let them change the way you lead and facilitate conversation.
What are we studying? A common question and often deciding factor for those participating in a small group. Small group leaders need to be ready to wade through the myriad of choices Christians are pumping out. If you’re like most of the small group leaders I know, you don’t spend time browsing Christian publishing house websites. You’re not familiar with the latest content. You have a life!
So when it comes time to finding the next thing, you’ve got a little bit of time to make a decision. There are ways to narrow things down and pick something that will meet the spiritual needs of your group.
I created a small group curriculum tool for our church that is pretty comprehensive. You don’t have to answer every question to make it work. The goal is for you to think about each aspect of a curriculum as you pick one.
It covers topics like:
- Group members suggestions
- Scripture and theology
- Christian life and life application
- Format and timeframe
- Small group leader prep time
- Small group members and learning
- An appendix of suggested authors
- A list of websites to consult
Download it here as a PDF.
Theologians seeking to account for the way God rules the world say that He does so in two ways: through coercive power and persuasive power. In His coercive power, God causes things to happen regardless of what we do. Things like creating the world, raising Christ from the dead, sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the return of Christ all fit here. In His persuasive power, God allows things to take place but does’t determine them in advance. He works to persuade people and cooperates with His good creation, us, in how the world works. Things like giving prevenient grace that leads us to salvation all, God’s commands in Scripture to us, and even allowing suffering all fit here.*
I like what John Wesley writes in his sermon “On Divine Providence”:
“He is infinite in wisdom as well as in power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures. For his wisdom and goodness go hand in hand: They are inseparably united, and continually act in concert with Almighty power, for the real good of all his creatures.”
Wesley says that God continually governs and manages “all the affairs” of His creation in His infinite wisdom and power. This seems to speak to God acting in coercive power. If we read on, though, Wesley balances it with these statements in his next paragraphs (forgive me for the long quote but it is all worth reading):
“Only he that can do all things else cannot deny himself: He cannot counteract himself, or oppose his own work. Were it not for this, he would destroy all sin, with its attendant pain in a moment. He would abolish wickedness out of his whole creation, and suffer not trace of it remain. But in so doing he would counteract himself; he would altogether overturn his own work, and undo all that he has been doing since he created man upon the earth. For he created man in his own image: A spirit like himself; a spirit endued with understanding, with will or affections, and liberty; without which, neither his understanding nor his affections could have been of any use, neither would he have been capable either or vice or virtue. He could not be a moral agent, any more than a tree or a stone.
“If, therefore, God were thus to exert his power, there would certainly be no more vice; but it is equally certain, neither could there be any virtue in the world. Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore, (with reverence be it spoken,) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself, or undo what he has done. He cannot destroy out of the soul of man that image of himself wherein he make him: And without doing this, he cannot abolish sin and pain out of the world. But were it to be done, it would imply no wisdom at all; but barely a stroke of omnipotence. Whereas all the manifold wisdom of God (as well as all his power and goodness) is displayed in governing man as man; not as a stock or stone, but as an intelligent and free spirit, capable of choosing either good or evil. Herein appears the depth of the wisdom of God, in his adorable providence; in governing men, so as not to destroy either their understanding, will, or liberty.”
Wesley basically says that God governs humanity in the way He made them, allowing them to exert free will, and in doing so shows His wisdom. God governs us as people who have free wills, not as any other part of His creation.
What does this have to do with being a small group leader?
As small group leaders, we cannot force anyone to submit to God’s authority for their lives and make Him transform them, but we can point them to the God who has the power to do it. We can be persuasive with our lives and words.
As we lead discussions, we can help people notice the ways God has been at work in their lives. We can be careful not to attribute things to God that really were the fault of human decisions. And we can take responsibility for the times we have not responded to God’s persuasive grace.
*I am drawing from an article by Dr. Chris Bounds called Divine Leadership in the World written for Wesley Seminary.
Yesterday, my daughter asked me if someone could be a Christian without being part of a church. She’s eight. I told her it was possible, but unlikely that he/she would stay a Christian for long. Her natural follow up: Why?
Because Christ built the church, loved the church, and died for her. And He made us to have faith together, not alone.
Her thoughts were for a school friend who she knows attends our church only on Wednesday nights and whose parents don’t seem to have faith. I reminded her that God knows about her friend and that she’s going to be okay.
As our chat ended, I thought about how hard it is to neglect being part of the church when you remember who God is. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
- The Father is the Father because of His relationship with the Son and Spirit. The same goes for the Son and the Spirit.
- They are free–not from each other but for each other.
- They are not subordinate to one another, but freely submit to one another in love.
- They are love by nature.
To be made in God’s image, as Genesis 1 says, means that we are made for relationship. We could go even further to say that those who lack significant relationships with others become less than human, less than what God intended.
Colin Gunton says that a person is defined in terms of relationships with other people, while an individual is defined in terms of separation from other individuals. Good grief that’s so true.
Being human means being together. Not like shopping in the same store while avoiding eye contact. Not like attending a Sunday morning service a few times a month and quickly skating out before meeting people. Like what could happen in a small group. I say could because we all know churches and groups that fail to look much like the relationship God has with Himself.
It’s with this in mind that I think a small group can be valuable. I don’t know about you, but I want to be all that God created me to be. And I can’t become that person as an individual.
The question becomes, “How might a small group do this?” Here are my suggestion, based on the understanding of the Trinity above.
- I begin to identify myself by my relationships. I am friend, father, husband before I am pastor.
- I begin to view my freedom as something that is for others. As Paul said, be slaves to one another humbly in love (Gal. 5:13).
- I begin to honestly submit to others–with their preferences, their quirks, their desires–rather than placing myself first.
- I begin to both give and receive love–here defined as doing what is best for one another in accordance with Scripture.
We could list more. In time, we become more fully human as we are in deeper relationship with one another. It is why the friendships that are formed as we meet consistently matter just as much as the content we cover. It is why we make time for a small group. It is why we challenge small group leaders to put relationships first.
I have a theory: Every small group will need to balance its focus on Scripture/spiritual formation with relationships/fun. And every person who enters a group will come in with different expectations for both. Some come in from a Sunday school or Bible study background and desire greater depth of biblical knowledge. Some come in with little to no biblical knowledge and need to encounter the overarching story of Scripture first. Others are entering a group because they want to make friends and they’re ready to share.
The matrix below attempts to characterize four types of people as they enter a small group based on a mixing of their desires. Though the top right quadrant combines a high desire for Scripture and high desire for relationship, those in it may not be the most spiritually mature. Their motives for wanting deeper relationships may not yet be transformed by the Spirit. But they are in the best starting spot going in.
Those in the other quadrants each have barriers to overcome before they’ll let their guard down, allow God to change their priorities, or participate fully in the group.
Recognizing what people desire in a group can be revealed by asking some open-ended questions?
- When you were signing up for a small group, what was going through your mind?
- What do you hope to gain from being a part of this small group?
- What is one thing you hope doesn’t take place during small group?
Note: The matrix is based on personal observations over the last decade-plus of ministry. You may find there is something missing or that my assumptions are skewed. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
One of the biggest fears people have when it comes to small groups is how much they’ll be asked to share. The beauty of a Sunday morning worship service is the anonymity ability it provides for those who want it, at least in churches large enough for guests not to stick out.
Small groups bury that. It’s like walking into my house. You can see just about everything from the front door–living room, dining room, kitchen, hall, laundry room. It’s all there. Now there are tricks to making the house look cleaner than it really is, but you can’t hide everything.
And I get it. No one wants to be forced to open up. It’s not that we don’t ever want to share parts of ourselves with others, it’s that we want to do it on our own terms. Being forced to do it reduces our chances of doing it. This one thing, I believe, prevents so many in our churches from ever trying out a small group.
But if we feel free to share at our own pace, a small group can become a can’t-miss part of our week. When we once came perhaps because we were interested primarily in the study, we now come because of the friendships we’re forming. When we once were reserved because we weren’t sure if we could trust people, we learn that what is spoken about during small group remains confidential.
In the past, my small group has practiced Andy Stanley’s idea of sharing three people, three places, and three events that have shaped you into the person you are today. The leader goes first and others follow as they are ready. Some people are short, sweet and to the point. Others are quick to divulge deep hurts. The format gives people a framework that helps them know what to share and when they can be done sharing while still allowing freedom to share as much or as little as they want.
After these initial times of sharing, it’s pretty easy to tell how group dynamics are going to go. You’ll have a feel for who will be content to let others share, who will be okay with quiet, who will tend to dominate conversation. And if you encourage those who are listening to not only pay attention to the stories that are shared but also the dynamics around the room, they’ll walk away with a greater sense of how they can either contribute or give room for others to contribute to conversation.
So… three people, three places, and three events. A great starting point for opening up relationships in a group.
As you read, contemplate what this short passage means for your small group. If these are the realities we live in, what does it say about the life we have together in our groups? Note that Bonhoeffer uses the capital-W “Word” to refer to Jesus, as in John 1, and a lowercase “word” to refer to spoken or written words.
God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.
How many of us have ever experienced the truth of what he says here? I know I have. As others have been struck by the living Word, Jesus, they have spoken of him to me and reminded me of how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection matter. It is good to realize that when we are unsure, others may not be.
I was told once by Dr. Jim Lo, a professor in college and dear friend, that we must allow ourselves to be served so that others can exercise their gifts. If we refuse to be served, then we prevent others from using the gifts God has given them. I believe the same is true for receiving a word about the Word from someone in our small groups. Cultivating community sometimes means being okay with your own discouragement, doubts, fears, and struggles enough to be quiet and allow someone else to say what needs to be said for you. No one expects you to have all the answers all the time. God certainly knows we don’t. No one expects you to be immune to the troubles of life, to never need a word spoken to you. Again, God certainly knows you aren’t immune.
Rejoice in the people He has placed in your life to bear the Word to you! Take a minute right now to pray for those in your group and to thank God for them. Think about what you need to say at your next group gathering. You never know who will get a chance to speak to you.
Bill Hybels, in his book Axiom, has written a chapter called “The Tunnel of Chaos.” In it, he says author and psychologist M. Scott Peck outlined four stages that a group of people go through from pseudo-community to true community. “If community involves knowing and being known, serving and being served, and loving and being loved, then most relationships…are constantly devolving into pseudo-community” (p. 101).
Pseudo-community is a “first stage” where people tend to be warm and amicable toward one another. They avoid talking about differences and anything that could result in conflict. They speak in sweeping generalities that are not wholly true. Peck says, “In pseudo-community a group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense.” This is a shortcut to nowhere. Even though the group may function well on the surface, underneath there are real fears and concerns waiting to be expressed.
To move beyond this stage, a group must endure chaos. Chaos is marked by people beginning to state what they really feel as well as a yearning for the leader to give direction. Notice this is not the time for the leader to demand the group follow, but to give direction and lead people through the tunnel of chaos. In the chaos, a leader must:
- Listen well and give people opportunity to share.
- Encourage honest sharing by laying “ground rules” for discussion.
- Discern when it is best to talk about the chaos as a group and when to talk to an individual.
- Pray about the direction God is taking the group and what He is trying to show you all.
- Lead by example in the way he or she shares with honesty and vulnerability.
After chaos, Peck says there are two possible next steps: moving into “organization,” though this is not community, and moving through emptiness. Group members all need to empty themselves of the barriers to communication, Peck says. He lists fixed expectations, preconceptions, prejudices, snap judgments, the desire to convert someone to your point of view, the urge to win, fear of looking like a fool, or a need to control. I would add that emptiness is not an end in and of itself. Our goal in emptiness is then to be filled with the Spirit and the grace of God.
Only after chaos and emptiness can a small group that begins with well-intentioned pseudo-community cross the bridge to true community. Paul also reminds us of the need to live as one together when he writes, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:2-6).
Questions to Ask:
- What effort do you need to make to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”?
- How would you assess the conversations typical of your small group? Do they feel more like pseudo-community or community?
- Are you willing to go through the chaos and emptiness? Are you seeking to be filled with the Spirit? How can you lead those in your group to seek more of the grace of God?