August 2008

I remember walking through a house for the last time. Having spent the prior few nights scrubbing and cleaning, getting it ready to be sold, I hadn’t taken the first moment to savor the significance of the event. It was the house to which my youngest daughter came home from the hospital. The nursery we had made, now empty. The curtains graceful in the open window. I leaned against the wall and realized a lifeless house as one of the most profoundly stirring of places. There was a silence that spoke through the years, the experiences, the pain, the joy. It was not necessarily a moment of celebration or loss, simply a time to be human.

We’ve all been in small-group moments of silence. Perhaps it was just after a prayer request or maybe immediately following a provocative or demanding question. Maybe there were questions hanging in the air to which no one in particular really wanted to attach a voice. Sometimes these moments result from simple laziness or a lack of authenticity while at other times the silence embodies a great deal of pain, disorientation, or confusion.

For a community of people to realize redemptive community, however, we must be willing to embrace the silence. To let it speak. As a group leader I have in the past hastened to fill any void that needed to be filled. For everyone’s sake I felt like the uncomfortable moment required relief—and any relief was my responsibility—instead of pausing, allowing the group to feel deeply if only for a moment. Over time, however, I have discovered that the spiritual journey is littered with these moments and each falls within God’s permissive will. God allows us to walk in these valleys for a reason. It is in these valleys that God forms us as much as—probably more than—any other time. To jump in and relieve these moments is to thwart what God wishes us to “feel” in the deep of the silence.

Jesus chose to embrace the pain and reject the shame. Consider how many times we do just the opposite … rejecting the pain while embracing the shame. Be sensitive to those moments of uncomfortable silence. Be prayerful during those moments. The objective is not to let them hang in the air indefinitely, just long enough.

“There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.” —from West with the Night, Beryl Markham


It’s summer’s unofficial end. School is swinging back into session. (I am officially in Day 3 of my daughter’s high school years.) And it’s time to crank up and revive your small-group life. As you look your fall squarely in the eyes, here’s something helpful to remember. It’s impossible to put together the right leadership team until you know what you’re putting this team together to do. There are four primary things you’re organizing your group for:

Small Group Meeting Time. You’ll need people who are willing to lead Bible Study, prepare food (all great small groups eat great food!), oversee childcare, lead prayer times, prepare and open their home for group meetings, and, in some group formats, lead the group in musical worship.

Development of Individual Group Members. Every small group should have as one its primary objectives to start a new group. It is for this reason that great small group leaders recruit an apprentice before the group has its first meeting. Preparing someone to take part of the present group to start a new group is one of the duties of a small group.

While it isn’t necessary to have a person specifically designated to give care to the group members, it is important that no need go unmet. A small group leader must make part of their responsibility to become aware of the needs of small group members then, as needed, utilize the time, talents, spiritual gifts, and resources found in her small group to meet the needs of group members.

Evangelism. Not all small groups will choose to be on mission together. I will tell you that small groups who do missions together have a much closer bond than the groups that choose not to. Some small groups will find a widow or widower and take care of their lawn, others will spend a day working with the homeless, others will connect with various social ministry organizations in their region and help them out. Some groups have actually gone out of the country to do mission work together. If your small group chooses to be on mission together you will need someone to coordinate these efforts.

I remember during my days in the Navy a conversation with a young petty officer. He had received a stripe out of basic training in exchange for extending the terms of his enlistment two years. “Pushbuttons” such advancements were called. This young petty officer would often refer to what he deserved and this particular conversation was no different. Walking away I thought, “What DO we deserve?” Probably a question for another post.

Although in a different context, there are things your group members deserve. Group members will be much more apt to continue with the group over the long haul if they have a meaningful level of ownership and responsibility. In order for group members to sense ownership there are six things they deserve.

1. They deserve to see the vision.
2. They deserve to know the goals.
3. They deserve to help prepare the strategy necessary to accomplish the goals.
4. They deserve to be invited into the adventure.
5. They deserve to evaluate the progress.
6. They deserve to celebrate accomplishment.

“The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Saint Irenaeus

So what is meant by “fully alive”? If true, then what application does this have for us as small-group leaders; as small-group members? This is one of the weightiest ideas I’ve come across.

Remember Dungeons & Dragons? Our parents knew it as D&D and I actually remember sitting in on several anti-D&D sermons as a middle schooler. In the chronology of societal ills Dungeons & Dragons came just after the backward masking of heavy metal records but before Madonna. I played Dungeons & Dragons—kind of. I cheated really bad to get the characters I wanted thus making the game ridiculously easy. Rarely did I actually “play.” In fact, I’m not really sure how the game was even played, now that I think about it. Looking back, it was probably more of an escape for a fatherless kid in a broken family. But I do remember words like “alchemy” and “alchemist”—I didn’t know what they were, but I remember thinking that they were cool words. (Having been a middle schooler and now parented one through the middle school years, I know how weird that era of our lives can be.)

Recently I came across “alchemist” and “alchemy” again, but this time I took a moment to look them up. In that process I came across another term that I’ve seen but have never taken the time to think about: elixir. Elixir is a mixture–the dictionary cites it as a sweetened mixture–of alcohol and water used by an alchemist to transform ordinary material into something of substance, usually but not always, gold. Closely associated with elixir is the term “elixir of life“. Elixir of life is also believed to be able to prolong life indefinitely, at least according to the lore of alchemy. In either case, elixir is associated with some sort of magical transformation.

I love the idea of the alchemist as it is applies to our small group lives. First, think about the alchemist taking this formula that he (or I guess she?) has labored over. The alchemist takes this potion, applies it to something ordinary—maybe wood, scrap iron, even garbage—and it is transformed into something priceless. But the alchemy is only surfacing what was already there in the first. Or the elixir is used to prolong life—given the mystical nature of this process I would assume that this life is the sort of life most people dream of.

Most of us gave up on magic long ago. Personally, I “got over” magic about the same time I realized D&D wasn’t going to work. I figured out Santa Claus was a hoax. My father wasn’t going to come back. Sadly, and I don’t think I’m alone, deep in my heart I gave up on magic. Magic was for kids and circumstances suggested to me that this part of life was silently, effortlessly, and naturally floating away. Like a old song once told us, “the child is grown, the dream is gone.”

But today I would challenge us to fight back. I would say that, instead of giving in to what the smartest people in the room would have us believe about magic, that maybe we again look for it in the world around us. I’m not suggesting that we begin tinkering with a mixture, a potion. But I am suggesting that we ask our small groups to think about the ways we can put magic back in the world. Could the single parent, working mother, discover magic in her yard getting mowed? Could the coffee-drinker experience magic in the cup of coffee you paid for in advance? How magical would it be for the unemployed father to find that his electric bill was not due, but paid for? And there’s always magic in ice cream.

How about challenging your small groups to be the elixir of life this weekend. Be a small group of alchemists.

Watch and Listen for….

  • Single parents who need their oil changed
  • Children who need big brothers or big sisters
  • Parents who need a night out. Group members can watch their kids for them free of charge

Other …

  • Random acts of kindness
  • Money giveaway… Take a sum of money, go to a Dollar General Store, and pay for one person’s purchase. Tell them what church you’re from and that you did this because Jesus was a giver, not a taker.
  • Drive-thru… When driving through a fast-food window pay for the person behind you and leave a note telling them about your church and why you would make this offer: that Jesus was a giver not a taker.

During recent weekend I drove the hour and a half down the road to be with family for what I could only describe as a pseudo-reunion. (Since we get together once each season of the year, there’s really no need to use the “re-“.) As a card-carrying member of the American South, I understand the significance of family and family relationships, but as I sat in on the conversation and the small-town gossip continued I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “Is this what it’s all about? Is this the reason I am here?” Since I’m no longer a regular part of this small Kentucky town—and haven’t been for a couple of decades—the moment afforded me the opportunity simply to listen and feel; to indulge the internal dialog that had begun to swell.

In that moment I concluded that if family is not building up, encouraging, and strengthening, and if I am not offering any of this myself, then what is it really about. Yes, there are times during which you just sit. You listen. You enjoy. And maybe there are even times when you have no agenda other than just enjoying company. Maybe. To be honest, I’m still forming a position on small talk. My great aunt told me once, “small-minded people talk about people, other people talk about things, and great people talk about ideas.”

Matthew 12:46-49 at one time for me was a difficult reconciliation. Even though I have never felt like I have to reconcile everything—far from it—this passage of Scripture was problematic.

[Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds when suddenly His mother and brothers were standing outside wanting to speak to Him. Someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to You.” But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers!

Here Jesus is placing his small group at a higher position than his family. Wow. For a boy in western Kentucky putting anything above the family was antithetical to my entire formation. But in the ninety-degree melt of this August afternoon heat, this passage came again to me. Family is a place to find strength. It’s about knowing who you are, from where you have come, and discovering through community where you’re headed. Like many other things, family should also be intentional. Our small-group world works in almost the exact same way.