February 2009

Spiritual growth begins with discomfort!

One of the keys to spiritual growth is knowing and doing the Bible. (James 1:22) When a group member is learning the Bible and becomes aware of a biblical expectation that is not being carried out, an attitude that is out of order, or a paradigm that needs to be overhauled, the leader must gently raise the bar of expectation and move that group member toward action. Spiritual growth occurs when the following phases are recognized and carried out:

 Phase 1: Recognition of a biblical expectation

Phase 2: Discomfort is experienced by the individual who has become aware of a need for a changed belief or acting on a biblical obligation

Phase 3: The small group leader wisely guides the group member toward action

Phase 4: The small group member makes the decision to do what’s right rather than choosing to do what’s easy

Phase 5: The small group member acts

Phase 6: The small group leader and small group members celebrate with the individual that has courageously moved beyond their comfort zone

Phase 7: The individual experiences growth and is more easily motivated to take on the next act of obedience found in the Bible

 Some will say that a small group should be comfortable and that expecting people to do something out of their comfort zone is asking too much. When Paul told a young pastor what Scripture does he wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) Most of us don’t like to be taught, we despise it when we are reprimanded, are embarrassed when we are corrected, and training is hard work. Obviously, the Words of God are uncomfortable to know and even more uncomfortable when they demand a changed mindset or lifestyle.

Andy Rooney nailed it when he gave us these wise words, “I’ve learned…. That everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.” It’s the responsibility of the leader not only help the small group member get to the top of the mountain, but to motivate them to start toward the precipice, and encourage them along the way. And in most instances encouraging group members to change a paradigm or shift a lifestyle choice is uncomfortable. But remember this…”Spiritual growth begins with discomfort.”


22Okay, these guys are really ancient. And before you write them off as heretics as Western Church history usually recounts, you might want to do some fresh research now that the world has become so much smaller and we are able to fill in some gaps. While the Nestorians at different points in their history continued to make confusing statements about Jesus’ dual-nature (see the website http://www.nestorian.org/index.html for more information), what can’t be denied is their incredible missionary zeal. Christians from “the Church of the East” as they preferred to be called, were doing Business as Mission before the term was coined. Some historians believe that Eastern Christians first took the Gospel to Japan, but there’s no doubt that they made it throughout India, Russia, Mongolia, and China. These guys were serious influencers.

What I love most about the Eastern Christians is that they were so serious about their faith that they incorporated it into every aspect of their lives. They were not so compartmentalized like we tend to get sometimes, separating our “church-life” from normal life. Small bands of believers would join the ancient trade routes along the Silk Road and share their faith at every stop. Not only were they going somewhere to share their faith, but they were living their faith as they went. They prioritized education and memorized much scripture as well as capturing the important truths of the faith in songs and hymns that they developed along the way.

These guys were doing life together and apparently their authenticity won many to Christ throughout Asia. Whole tribes of barbaric Mongols were known to come to Christ as a result of the Nestorian efforts. As it turns out, they got a little too comfortable and civilized later in the courts of emperors, especially in China, and their lifestyle became much more like the establishment religion that we often think of when we think back to the Dark Ages.

My hope is that we will be as serious about impacting our world as these Eastern Christians were, and that we will live with that level of authenticity. But let’s not let it wane like they did!

Almost every group leader has experienced the “silent guy,” the group member that just won’t get involved in the conversation. The problem… It affects everybody in the group. When a group member turns their personal silencer on, other people in the group clam up too. How do you get EVERYONE involved in the discussion? A few suggestions… 

  • Always do an ice-breaker. The most important reason to do ice-breakers is so that everyone can hear their own voice. Not only that, it gives the small group leader a chance to affirm each individual for speaking early in the meeting which will make them secure enough to speak up later in the evening.
  • Make sure group members connect with you and one another throughout the week. The amount of conversation that takes place during the group meeting is directly related to the amount of conversation that takes place between meetings.
  • When necessary… Call the silent group member by name and ask them to respond to a question or give an opinion. When they do tell them you’re thankful for their input and that they add much to the conversation every time they share. You will slowly build a conversationalist.
  • Find out what the silent group member enjoys doing and prepare an ice-breaker or another question that relates to that person’s recreational topic (football, knitting, the hottest novel, etc…). People are more inclined to join the conversation if it is a subject they feel they are knowledgeable about.
  • Subgroup…Sometimes a group member is intimidated by the larger group but is comfortable in a group of 3 to 5.

 Sometimes a group member doesn’t talk much because the person spearheading the conversation doesn’t ask the right kinds of questions. Last week Joaquin Phoenix was on David Letterman. Ever since the time of the interview, the media has been slamming Joaquin for his apathetic responses to Letterman’s statements (notice I said “statements” not “questions”). If you watch this five minute interview you’ll find out that Letterman made more statements and waited for a response than anything else. Seldom did he come right out and ask an open-ended question.

Listen for yourself and let me know how Letterman could’ve changed his conversation so that Joaquin Phoenix would’ve been more apt to respond.

identityA recent article in Newsweek by Andrew Romano states, “…how we dress says a lot about who we want to be, and that ache for authenticity—or, at least, the aura of authenticity—is revealing.” The article itself was written to describe the new fashion trend towards “throwback” clothes like Woolrich that suggest strength and endurance—attributes built to last; to stand the test of time.

Consider the term “aura of authenticity” in this context for a moment. Could it be that after keeping up certain cultural pretenses for so long that we’ve forgotten how to be authentic? This is one of the most important roles our small groups and the small-group movement itself can fill. That is, helping people not only come to know God and grow deeper in their relationship with Him, but also helping them learn—some for the first time—who they are through small-group communities. There is absolutely no reason why a person should settle for an “aura of authenticity” when honest, real authenticity is totally within their grasp. And it doesn’t even matter what they’re wearing.

Given the difficult economic times and what seems like a period of national transition, there will be many looking for something to hold on to; a hint of something that transcends these times. As small-group leaders we have an opportunity here to meet this need with authenticity and the offer of redemptive community.

There are certain tools an artist uses when painting a masterpiece. We recognize the tools that we can see when visiting the artists’ workshop. There’s the easel, the brushes, the canvas, the sketching tools and erasers. These are all tools that we can see and grab hold of. But there are even more important tools utilized when painting a work of art. They cannot be seen or held as they are captured in the mind and heart of the artist. Some of these include colors, shapes, lines and balance. These tools are much more important than the ones that can be seen and held.


In small group life there are lots of tools we use that we can hold in our hands… curriculum, chairs to sit on, candles and a CD player to create the right mood, and of course food. But even if you have all of these in the right place utilized at the right time if you do not become an expert in the unseen art of listening you will never guide your group members to become the masterpieces God intended them to be.


In the amazing new book, Finding the Flow by Tara Miller and Jenn Peppers, they point out that there are three levels of listening, Me, You, and Us.:


Me – “The focus is completely on the self. It’s all about me. How is what I am hearing affecting me? What am I going to say next? What do I think the speaker is about to say? How do I feel about this topic? What are my emotions? How will I defend my opinion? As you can probably guess, this level of listening is the least helpful in a small group setting, as it is the most self-centered. Small group leaders who get stuck here are in performance mode. It’s easy to get stuck here when we are focused on wondering what others think of us…”


You – “The focus or spotlight is completely on the speaker. It’s all about you, the person I am listening to. The skills of a good listener are being utilized. The information is being received clearly. The listener is engaged with the speaker and the facts of the story, figuratively alongside the person, empathizing with what they are saying. Level You listening is what most people equate with good listening.”


Us – “The third level involves and transcends the first two levels. It encompasses more than the people and the facts – it involves an awareness of the underlying dynamics: the actions and reactions, the general vibe, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the space or undercurrent in the room. Rather than focusing the spotlight on one person in the group, it illuminates something more global that’s happening in all of us, in the combination of us – everything that can be seen, felt, heard, and tasted and smelled in the room.”


Obviously, we need to become Us listeners.


It takes knowledge, and practice to become an artist. And someone must tell us what we need to know and how we need to practice if we’re going to be a successful artist. The same is true of being an Us listener.


I suggest you pick up a copy of Finding the Flow as quickly as you can. It will tell you what you need to know and what to practice concerning listening as well as a plethora of other skills that are necessities for successful small group leaders.


In case you’re wondering… Yes, I used the blogspot today to pimp this book. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long, long, long time!




I consider myself somewhat of a romantic, nostalgic, something-like-that kind of Nomad. More than anything else probably, I’m a collector of stories from around the world. That has only increased since traveling to some of those awesome places where missions movements were either birthed or met their temporary end. One of the groups that has always fascinated me is the Moravians. First of all, I really love their motto:

(Latin) In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas
(English) “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity”

That helps us keep a pretty healthy perspective and is certainly applicable for small group life. Some of the other aspects of their movement that I appreciate are:

Passion- Their passion led to sending 9 missionaries out for every 1 who stayed behind at one point. Some of them even sold themselves into slavery in the Caribbean so that they could better reach slaves with the Gospel.

Piety- Their piety was evidenced by a continuous prayer watch that lasted for 100 years 24/7. These folks really sought to live the holy life.

Simplicity- They lived in settlements where people maintained personal ownership but lived out the principles of simplicity and generosity.

Small group focus- They formed hundreds of small renewal groups that encouraged personal prayer and worship, Bible study, confession of sins and mutual accountability

Here are a couple of links to learn more about the Moravians. Hope they offer you some encouragement and a reminder that we are part of a missional legacy much bigger than ourselves!



I get asked quite often if there are good reasons to cancel a small group meeting. Sometimes I’m being asked by small group leaders who are looking for an excuse. Some of the honest excuses are:

 I’ve had a hard week at work and I need a break from people.

  • There’s conflict between two group members. I just don’t want to be in a room with that much tension floating around.
  • My wife and I just need a chance to be together, without anyone else.
  • This is my only night off this week, I’d like to sit and do… NOTHING!

 A few of these are good reasons to cancel group, in certain seasons for sure. You may need to get the two conflicting parties together for a reconciliation conversation (The group would rather you help to settle differences than come and deal with the uncomfortable tension.). If you’re feeling overwhelmed by life and your group members live the same kind of lifestyle you do, you’ll probably find that most group members will celebrate a night off (and the group will be much more engaging the next time you meet).

 There are better reasons for cancelling a small group meeting:

  •  The group has become too self-focused. Cancel the meeting and ask group members to take a pre-Christian person or couple to dinner.
  • The group needs a good dose of fun. Cancel the regular meeting and go bowling, to a movie, etc…
  • The group is at a point in the group life when they know one another when involved in spiritual matters but really haven’t experienced one another doing something recreational. Cancel your small group meeting and do card night, or game night. Knowing only one side of someone is not knowing someone at all, especially if they come and put on their “spiritual mask” each time the group meets.
  • The group is going to go help the poor.

 Jesus spoke a lot about helping the poor. Most groups don’t even think about it.

 The attached video is of The Bridge in Spring Hill, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville. This is the church my wife and I gather with. Almost every small group in our church cancelled their meeting so that the people in the group could be at Room in the Inn, a ministry for the homeless in Nashville. I assure you, the groups that cancelled their meeting and worked together to minister to the poverty stricken are stronger groups for it.

 By the way… Because we made this part of group life, rather than asking people to give another time slot in their already busy schedules, almost half of our church was there.

Our church plant has seen her share of disasters. But no matter how big the church, small group leaders can “be the church” better than any people I know.

 I was driving home after a day’s work… My cell phone rang… I answered.., “Hello, Rick Howerton.” She spoke… “Hi Pastor, I’m on my way home from work. I just got a call from my daughter, she came home from school and found her dad…. She thinks he’s dead.” Her broken tones evolved into uncontrollable wailing. “I’ll be right there” I told her. I called her small group leader immediately. He and his wife beat me to the house. Husband’s gone, no hope for resuscitation. Tragedy, but astoundingly effective small group leaders carried the day and are still doing so months later.

 A quick follow-up story…  When our church gathered yesterday I had a conversation with the small group leader, the one who “beat me to the house.” He concreted in my heart of hearts that he is one of the thousands of heroes in the small group community, the small group leader. It seems that the young girl who found her dad lifeless on that disastrous afternoon was going to be forced to be without a father on “Dad’s Day” at her elementary school. All the other kids would have a dad to eat lunch with them but she would be alone. When the small group leader heard about her situation he made a decision. He would take off work and be her dad for the day. He did just that. He told me that, as he turned the corner to go her room he saw her beautiful eyes. She was peeking around the door frame anticipating his arrival.

 You know… We often talk about kids who can’t understand or embrace the love of God the Father because they were without a loving father in the home they grew up in. While the small group leader will never be able to replace this young lady’s dad, he is most certainly teaching her about the love of God her ultimate Father.

 Small group leaders… You are my heroes!!!

If you’ve got a story about a small group leader that has made a difference in your life or someone else’s I’d love to hear it. Please use the comment box to tell us about a small group leader who is your hero.

 For more information on small groups and church planting join me at Exponential Conference in April.