Archive for January 2009

Essential Practices for the Small Group Leader #5: Be Flexible

January 27, 2009

In my college years, I had the privilege of serving as a summer missionary. One bit of advice from that summer has stuck with me:

“Be flexible.”

I realize that these “Essential Practices for Small Group Leaders” entries have focused on preparation, planning, taking charge, etc. etc. But we have to be careful not to be so prepared, so pre-planned, so in-charge that we become rigid when God wants to do some flexing. Our plans are not always God’s plans.

If you want to bang your head on the wall in frustration now, I’ll wait. (Cue music from Jeopardy.)

Let’s step back a moment and consider the life of Jesus. When He began His public ministry, He knew what He was doing, where He was going and His ultimate purpose – an appointment with a Roman cross. Yet, Jesus still allowed for some detours along the way. Jesus stopped to bring sight to the blind. He stuck around to eat supper with Zaccheus. He welcomed little children that flocked to Him. In short, while He never lost sight of His purpose and appointment with Calvary, He always made time for people. Jesus loved people – enough to die for them.

A number of years ago, I was leading a Sunday School conference and got into an unexpected argument with a pastor over programs v. people. From his perspective, programs drive the church and the people should “get with the program.” To be fair, I know this pastor pretty well and can say that he genuinely loves people; but it shows how we can become inflexible in our thinking and our actions. In other words, we can become very efficient at “church work” while completely missing out on the real work of the church – making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Getting back to our small groups, I still stand by my original points. Bible study leaders should be well-prepared before presenting a lesson to a group. At the same time, we need to be sensitive for those times when God wants to move beyond the lesson we’ve prepared to a unique encounter with Him. The catalyst might be a question from a group member, a prayer request, or an event that occurs in the life of the community or nation. In short, we need to be prepared to step back when we sense the Holy Spirit leading the group time in a different direction.

Sure, that may mean setting aside a few hours of study and planning, but God will still honor that time you spend in preparation – even if it is only for your personal edification.

Being flexible does not mean we follow every whim or chase every rabbit that pops up in our group time. Sometimes we exhibit flexibility with a minor shift in our presentation or by editing content. The main point is we don’t want to be so rigid in what we do that we miss out on those divine appointments that can arrive unexpectedly.

A good biblical illustration is the contrast between the sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha was organized and prepared as she planned her work and worked her plan. It is evident that  her plans included Mary helping with the meal preparation. Mary, however, got caught up with Jesus . . .

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Matthew 10:38-42 (NIV)

I have a confession to make. I really sympathize with Martha. She was working hard to prepare a meal for Jesus and His disciples. She exemplified hospitality and hard work (good traits in a small-group leader, by the way!). I can identify with her frustration – Mary was supposed to help Martha, yet she wasn’t with the program – leaving Martha to fend for herself. Martha became frustrated, fearing her work for the Lord (in her mind, serving a meal) was not getting done properly. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever been frustrated when others in your group seem to go off on a tangent, leaving your careful preparation and presentation in the dust?

The interesting thing here is that Jesus wasn’t the least bit concerned with the meal. Nor was he upset by Martha’s frustration. He simply wanted to spend time with Mary and Martha, to share words of encouragement and hope. Mary set aside her plans and chose what was better – sitting at the feet of Jesus. Martha (bless her heart!) was so preoccupied with her own plans and preparation that she actually scolded Jesus! Jesus exhibited patience with Martha by gently chiding her – “Martha, Martha . . . You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed . . .”

When our own preparation and plans unravel, when we feel that our finely crafted lessons are being left by the wayside, remember this . . . only one thing is needed. What is that one thing?

The one most important thing that can happen to anyone in our group is that they encounter Jesus. Everything else is secondary.

The point is . . .

January 23, 2009

“The name of the game in Christian education is not knowledge, it’s obedience.”
– Howard Hendricks

Prayer as Public Spectacle

January 21, 2009

Corporate prayer has a long and storied history in Christianity (and other world religions as well). Public prayer has been a way of calling people to worship, a means of congregational intercession, and a way of teaching others to pray.

There is a danger, however, when we pray aloud before a group, that the intended recipient of our prayers may not be almighty God, but the assembled crowd. We may, intentionally or unintentionally, cross the line between humbly approaching God’s throne of grace with our petitions and giving a speech to a crowd using spiritual language. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us to allow our personal agendas to slip into our public prayers.

I have to admit, I approach this topic with a sense of trepidation. In critiquing the public prayers of others I’m all too aware of the times I have fallen into this same trap – praying to be heard by the crowd more than by God.  But the public prayers offered up (out?) during President Obama’s inauguration brought this to mind. Apparently, I’m not alone – Michael Spencer (Internet Monk) had an excellent post on his blog yesterday. I invite you to check it out here.

Three prominent figures offered “official” prayers during the festivities – Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist and pastor of the Saddleback Church, is well-known among evangelical circles. He hosted both Barack Obama and John McCain at his church last year. Bishop Eugene Robinson of the Episcopal Church, USA, is well-known as the first avowed homosexual to serve as a bishop in the ECUSA. Rev. Joseph Lowery is a pastor and veteran civil rights leader, who offered the benediction at the close of the inauguration ceremonies.

Each of these men was invited by President Obama, as is his right and part of long-standing tradition. These three men represent very different segments within the Christian community of our country. Each is well-known and controversial in some way. Dr. Warren’s invitation evoked ire from the left for his support of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. Bishoop Robinson is a vocal advocate of the gay/lesbian/trans-gender lifestyle and a divisive figure within the Episcopal Church. Rev. Lowery has been at the fore-front of the civil rights movement for years, earning both accolades and ridicule from various segments of our population.

Even before these men opened their mouths to pray, the media spent much air-time and bandwidth speculating about what they would say? Would Warren pray in Jesus’ name? Would Robinson mention God at all? Would Lowery say something controversial? As it turned out the answers were, in order: Yes, What?, and Of course!

Now, my comments regarding these men’s prayers are nothing you haven’t heard if you’ve watched 30 seconds of coverage in the past 24 hours. Warren prayer in Jesus’ name 3 times in 3 different languages. Robinson addressed a generic ” God of our understanding,” whoever that is, and Lowery’s prayer was very poetic, ending with a not-so-subtle dig at Caucasians.  I show my own evangelical bias when I say that Warren’s speech seemed more God-centered and less political or sectarian in nature. I would have said the same for Rev. Lowery’s prayer except for a recitation he has used before:  “…help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” I wasn’t personally offended by that, but found it rather judgemental of whites in general.

You are, of course, free to disagree.

My point is that such public-event prayers tend to lapse into political speech. Personally, I believe both Warren and Lowery genuinely and sincerely offered their prayers to God. Robinson’s prayer was more to “whom it may concern,” sincere or not. All of these public prayers were spectacles within a larger spectacle – the inauguration of a president. I’m all for praying at inaugurations, but I wonder at all of the hype and media attention that surrounded these prayers (he opined, typing furiously away at his blog!)

A particular passage of scripture came to mind yesterday after the public inauguration events were over. Read it and mull over it. It sure made me think. . . and not very highly of myself.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. – Proverbs 14:34

Like I said, think about it. Oh, and remember to pray for our new president and our nation! But maybe we should all do it from our prayer closets and not in front of cameras. Just a thought.

Essential Practices for the Small Group Leader #4: Take Charge

January 20, 2009

“I have the airplane.”

With those words, a pilot or co-pilot acknowledge they have primary control over an airliner. It is an acceptance of responsibility and an announcement to the rest of the crew that they are guiding the plane’s flight to its destination until they relinquish the controls back to another qualified aviator. Others on the flight crew continue on with their responsibilities, but the primary responsibility of guiding the plane and passengers to a safe landing is now in the hands of the one who “has the airplane.”

In a similar way, a Bible study leader must take control of the class during the appointed time of meeting. That’s not to say that the leader has to be abrasive or bossy – far from it! But it is the responsibility of the leader to utilize the class time wisely and guide the class through the lesson and discussion to a satisfactory conclusion. Here are the key areas where the Bible study leader must take charge:

Time management
Most small-group Bible studies have a set time to begin and end. If the group is scheduled to meet as part of a church’s Sunday morning schedule, these times do not allow much flexibility (unless you wish to be habitually late to the worship service!) The leader sets the tone by beginning on time. This may be after a time of fellowship or prayer or announcements, etc. but the leader must anticipate the time needed to complete the presentation of the Bible study. It may require some editing of content but the leader needs to satisfactorily conclude the lesson (with relevant application) within the allotted time-frame. I know, I know – not everyone in your group shows up on-time. That’s no reason to penalize those who do arrive on-time! If you get things rolling at the appointed time, those who tend to run late might be motivated to arrive earlier.

Give teaching your best effort
Josh Hunt puts it this way, “If you teach a half-way decent Bible study lesson on a consistent basis, people will come.” Howard Hendricks put it in a more blunt manner, “Whatever you do, don’t bore people with the Word of God!” Your presentation is based largely on the preparation you put in during the week. My professor of preaching in seminary said, “The more sweat you put into preparation during the week means the less sweat you’ll experience on Sunday morning!” Very few of us are “expert” teachers. The good news is that is not a requirement to be an effective Bible study leader. We’re all fellow learners when we come to God’s Word.

“And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17 (NIV)

Guiding the discussion
Like an airplane pilot who guides his airplane from point A to point B, the Bible study leader must also have a place of beginning (the introduction), the time of transit (the body of the lesson with discussion), and the safe landing at the point of destination (application and conclusion). All too many Bible study leaders do very well with the first two parts, only to find themselves “circling the field, looking for a place to land” as time runs out.

It takes wisdom and discernment to guide a Bible study lesson. It’s important to discern between questions or comments that add to the lesson or address a need as opposed to comments that serve only to distract from the point of the study. The wise leader will allow for meaningful discussion while graciously acknowledging but deflecting the chronic rabbit-chasers (who sometimes talk because they enjoy the sound of their own voice). It’s a delicate balance, but important for the good of all the participants. Some deeper questions may need to be addressed privately, when more time is available.

Delegation of duties
Just as an airliner has crew members to assist the pilot (flight engineer, co-pilot, flight attendants, etc.), the wise small-group leader should delegate some tasks to others in the group. Job-one for the leader during the appointed meeting time is teaching the Bible study lesson. When that leader also has to make the coffee, greet and register guests, share pertinent announcements, and field prayer requests, the leader may find that he or she is distracted and even fatigued before ever beginning the lesson. It’s better to delegate these other responsibilities to others in the group. This takes much of the burden off the Bible study leader and has the added bonus of involving others. As a rule, involvement = “buy-in.” People who have a specific task feel a sense of responsibility and greater connection with a group. It’s also a great way to develop leaders and discover those who might become Bible study leaders in the future. The main advantage for the small-group leader is that it allows them to focus on the task of teaching.

To summarize . . .
. . . the Bible study leader is the one who sets the tone for the group meeting time. If the leader doesn’t take charge, someone else will – probably in a way that won’t facilitate learning by the group members! The leader can take charge in a kind, friendly, even humorous manner – but he or she MUST take the lead or the group faces the real possibility of losing its way. When that happens, people may become frustrated and discouraged and give up on the group entirely.

“I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” – Phillipians 4:13 (NIV)

Facebook v. Face-to-Face

January 13, 2009

I like Facebook. Let me say that up front.

For those of you not familiar with Facebook, it is an on-line social networking phenomenon that allows individuals to connect with other people around the world. It’s easy, fun (and potentially addictive.)

Through Facebook, I’ve been able to connect with friends I’ve not seen in many years. It also provides a way to keep up with family members and local friends, particularly within my church. It allows me a place to post comments, share photos, pass along prayer requests, send virtual gifts such as bumper stickers and “flair” (virtual buttons), link to my blog, join groups and carry on conversations.

Well . . . sort of.

Though I am a fan of Facebook as a networking tool, I’ve come to realize its limitations. For starters, you aren’t looking at your friends face-to-face. You can’t pick up on facial expressions or changes in voice tone. You miss out on body language with its subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) gestures. Oh yeah, we can add smilies (or type in all-caps when we want to shout) but even then our messages might be misconstrued.

In other words, the Facebook experience is insulated and isolated from the real, sometimes messy and awkward, face-to-face interaction. We call that a “degree of separation.” Sometimes that’s good a good thing (the reason that bloggers are often referred to as the “pajamas media”) whereby we can interact with people from the comfort of our homes without worrying about how we’re dressed. That isolation has a down-side however, if our ONLY contact with other people is through an on-line social network. All of us need real face-time with other people. There are times we need a literal shoulder to cry on, a literal pat on the back for encouragement, a literal hug of affection, or a literal fist-bump of camaraderie. Not only do we need to receive these physical touches, we need to spread them – even if it’s just a smile. There are times when bytes of data streaming across a wireless connection are a poor substitute for real flesh and blood contact, non-Photoshopped warts and all.

I’m not advocating closing your Facebook accounts, far from it. I am advocating a healthy balance between virtual connections and the kind that only happens in person.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, someone just sent me a tweet on Twitter.

Top 10 Book Recommendations for 2009

January 12, 2009

Here’s my top-ten list of recommended books for Christian educators and Bible study leaders. (Actually, I would recommend these to any follower of Christ.) I don’t include the Bible in this list because I’m making the assumption that if you’re leading a Bible study, you’re already reading it. If not, forget these ten and start with the Word.

These are not listed in any particular order. I’ve based my selection on doctrinal soundness, practicality, readability and availability. (There are some books I’d love to recommend that are, unfortunately, out of print and very hard to find.) The titles are linked to Amazon or other sources if you’re interested in purchasing one. And no, I receive no commission.

1. Knowing God by J.I. Packer. A classic work on the nature of God and how we may come to know Him. Not a systematic theology book, but a well-written foundational tome by one of our generation’s leading theologians. I recommend reading it slowly. The section on the Trinity is worth the price of the book.

2. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He has led Redeemer to reach out to the city’s secular culture and lovingly challenge them with the truths of Christ. This book is an excellent work on apologetics (a defense of the faith) that addresses many of the common questions posed by skeptics, agnostics and atheists. The arguments are respectful and well-reasoned – a tremendous resource for those engaging our post Christian culture.

3. The Six Core Values of Sunday School by Allan Taylor. Allan Taylor is Minister of Education at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Georgia – one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention with a tremendous Sunday School organization. Dr. Taylor shares his philosophy of Sunday School work and provides practical helps about reaching people, teaching people the Bible, ministering, involving people, assimilating people and building relationships with people. If you teach a Sunday School class, you need to read this book!

4. Disciple-Making Teachers by Josh Hunt. Josh has a passion for helping Sunday School classes grow. In this book, he challenges teachers to become equippers, helping adults become growing, serving disciples of Christ. He provides a detailed description of a disciple and offers a helpful process for a teacher to guide a group in spiritual transformation.

5. Basic Christianity by John R. W. Stott. In this short book (142 pages), Stott addresses the central tenets of the Christian faith. If we desire for our teaching to be Christ-centered, this is a worthwhile resource and a great gift for anyone interested in the Christian faith.

6. Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks. A very helpful book about personal Bible study. Hendricks and Hendricks provide insightful tips for reading the Bible in a systematic manner, taking notes, and digging for application.

7. Celebration of Discipline – The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. This classic book on spiritual growth addresses the ancient practices of the faith that still are valid for modern believers. Foster covers these disciplines under three major sections: the inward disciplines, the outward disciplines and the corporate disciplines. This book should be read by every Christ-follower who desires to grow deeply in their faith.

8. The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. A powerful challenge to live the life God intends for us. Dr. Willard covers redemption, justification, discipleship and our growth in grace. A deep but readable book that will give you greater appreciation and awe of the work of Christ.

9. What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey. A book that explores grace at “the street level.” A very real and gritty account of living out grace in a graceless world. Believers will be challenged to live lives of grace and mercy when their own beliefs are challenged and ridiculed.

10. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin.  While this is a secular book on leadership, Godin’s insights have tremendous application for those who teach Sunday School or lead small groups. Find out what a tribe is (and your own tribe!) and how people connect over an idea. I think you’ll like this book.

You may wonder why I chose these ten books. To be honest, there were several others I wanted to include, but I intentionally limited the number to ten. I believe that most anyone could read these ten books in a year. Also, these ten address foundational issues of the faith as well as contemporary challenges. Certainly, there are many others I could recommend or even swap out with the above choices: for example, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity in place of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. I chose the latter as it directly addresses many of the contemporary arguments against the faith. So please don’t take these selections as a thumbs down to other works – far from it. But, hey! I had to start somewhere.

Feel free to leave comments or suggestions for books you might wish to include in a top ten list.

One Way?

January 7, 2009

Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a report showing that a significant percentage of American Christians reject the biblical claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation.  From their findings, 52% of American Christians believe that “at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.”

Even more disturbing, 37% of those  identified themselves as evangelical Christians agreed, rejecting the claim that Jesus is the only Savior and indicating that at least some non-Christian religion or religions may also lead to heaven.

This is a sad indictment of how western Christianity has embraced multi-culturalism with it’s “tolerance trumps all” philosophy. It is considered impolite to express the exclusive claims of Christ – especially such statements from the Lord such as, “I am the way, the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father but by me.” – John 14:6. That is the central tenet of the Christian faith – that Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins by his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. That is NOT a minor point to be negotiated or discarded.

The Pew forum findings are a wake-up call to the church. If our message is not focused on Jesus, then we have certainly lost our way. As the apostle Paul said:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” – Galatians 1:6-10

Harsh words? Perhaps. Exclusive? You bet! Truth? Absolutely.

That’s the nature of truth – it offers an exclusive claim. I can no more say that all roads lead to heaven then I could all roads lead to Philadelphia. The notion is absurd. Why would Jesus voluntarily go through the humiliation, the torture, and the agonizing death on the cross if there were another way to the Father? The answer – He would not. Only the sinless Son of God had the divine mandate and moral authority to pay for the sins of all humanity. No other religion or philosophy makes that claim.

The gospel message will always be offensive to some. The very notion that Jesus is the only way to heaven seems politically incorrect and repugnant to many. Sadly, that seems to be the case for some who claim to be His followers.