December 2009

Today’s post is the first of several upcoming Guest Posts by leading small group thinkers and/or church practitioners.  Philip Nation writes for The Gypsy Road about the dna of community and asks a penetrating question that will demand something of you.


What does that word even mean?

Sometimes a word is used so often that it begins to lose any sense of impact with us. It happens all of the time. Think about the myriad of business terms that come in and out of favor where you work. Vision. Mission. Team. Brainstorming. Entrepreneur. Paradigm. Win-win. And one of my favorites: Cutting-edge.

At one time, they all had significant meaning, if only for a season. Now, they fall in and out of favor depending on who is your boss-of-the-moment. Sometimes passé and sometimes brilliant, we wield such words like a Samurai warrior with his sword or a kid with a toy light saber.

Maybe that is why so many people began using the word “community” rather than “fellowship.” The latter was once a word with rich meaning of lives shared, burdens relieved, and joys distributed. As a boy growing up in a Southeastern city and regularly attending a revivalistic church, it usually meant a big dinner with lots of fried chicken and casseroles. And that was fine with me. Especially if Mrs. Betty brought her homemade chocolate pie too.

Over time, fellowship did not mean what we thought it should mean. So, we picked a new word to communicate an old meaning. Community. To some, it means the geographic place where they live. “I live in the Hendersonville community just north of Nashville.” But to those in a small group at church, it is increasingly meaning something else. It has become a signpost of life shared.

Now, this is where a writer would most often share his or her authoritative definition of the subject matter. But, for today, I will restrain myself. Instead, it is time for you to become the subject matter expert. Sure, I could tear through a list of “must haves” and “must avoid” for better community. But first, your church must define community before it can act in community.

So today’s blog entry is a challenge: Define what community means. Search through passages from Genesis to Revelation. After all, God is seeking community with us and setting us up for community with one another. Adam and Eve had it in Genesis 2. Moses is stretched in Numbers 12 to keep it. Ruth and Naomi find an unexpected level of it. Mephibosheth never thought he could have it, but he does. Job seeks it only to be silenced by its arrival. Isaiah celebrates in it while Jeremiah finds refuge to lament in its presence. Hosea and Gomer provide one of the oddest illustrations for it. Jesus offered it to twelve men who followed, questioned, doubted, believed, and most gave their lives for it. Paul constantly talked about it. The church both excelled and stumbled in it. And Christ will perfect it one day.

So what is it? Theologians, saints, and sages have given a multitude of definitions. But you are the community expert in your church. So initiate the conversation in your small group this week. Throw it out there and then throw open your Bibles. Let the conversation fill the room about life, sharing life, and doing life together. Let God’s kingdom-expanding grace leap off of the pages of scripture and bring it to light and life to your own community. This week, rather than hope for community—lead your friends to define, describe, and dedicate themselves to it.

Philip Nation image

Philip Nation is the Director for Ministry Development at LifeWay Reasearch as well as a reknowned author. Philip has been a been a youth minister, single adult minister, education minister, pastor, and church planter.  He is married to Angie and the father of two incredible boys.

Keep up with Philip on twitter or on facebook.

Merry Christmas! You can probably blame the lack of activity around here on the fact that LifeWay empties out faster than you can say, “Ho ho ho” during the Christmas season.

We do, however, stay somewhat active on Twitter, so find us there!

The Navigator: @rickhowerton

Agonistes: @bcdaniel

Nomad: @chinavols

Philo: @philbdavis

Syeira: @vanderbiltwife

You can also follow Steve Gladen, the general editor of Small Group Life, or Pete Wilson, who was featured in the Canvas videos.

Giovanni's Madonna with Child

I think it’s probably only natural that this Christmas is different for me.

Not only I am too bogged down in newborn-ness to really decorate, bake, or buy presents, I’ve had a child this year.

Now when I reflect on the nativity on top of my china cabinet, I think a little differently. I consider how much pain Mary must have been in on her donkey, traveling many miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem (a quick Internet search says anywhere from 60 to 90 miles). I was so uncomfortable in my last weeks of pregnancy I could barely sit in my desk chair. I spent most of it on the couch watching movies and old Project Runway episodes. If she was having contractions, all the worse!

Now I am sure God could have given Mary a very easy labor if He wanted, and maybe He did, but why should we think it was any different than what we go through to give birth? She probably hurt tremendously. She certainly had no epidural. She was in a stinking stable! And can you imagine Joseph’s face as he had to cut the cord? Deliver the placenta?

Joseph and Mary were humans, and I think sometimes we forget that. And this year I can identify with Mary and look at the scene differently. Imagine her feelings of honor, excitement, pain, joy, and exhaustion all at the same time. And responsibility.

And then there was the Savior of the world, in her arms. Not just the joy of holding your own baby, whom you have carried in your belly for many months and felt kick and respond to your voice. The joy of holding in her arms her very own Savior.

I really, REALLY love the CD The Nativity Story: Sacred Songs. I would encourage you to go to iTunes or Amazon and at least get “The Virgin’s Lullaby” and this song, which has brought me to tears many times this season already.

Labor of Love (go listen here on Peterson’s own blog)
Andrew Peterson

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town …

Originally posted December 13, 2008 on Vanderbilt Wife

Disclaimer: Stop now if you don’t want anyone messing up the Santa story for you (any more than Tim Allen already has). 

So how did I start not liking Santa in the first place?  Well, we made a decision pretty early on that we weren’t going to do the Santa Claus thing for most of the standard reasons I suppose: We didn’t want our kids confusing fact and fiction, we didn’t like God’s characteristics being passed on to Santa, we didn’t like Santa being more loved and appreciated at Christmas than Jesus, etc.  Typical homeschooling family in our circles.

While we didn’t see any negatives with this approach as far as our kids were concerned (they even got really good at not blowing things for other kids), we began to be concerned that there was a large part of the Christmas conversation that we weren’t being invited into and as a result we were missing opportunities to share our faith.  We had boycotted a lot of the cultural gathering points and found ourselves not even “in the world” at Christmastime.

It was while we were visiting a church of another denomination that I was first introduced to the real story behind Saint Nicholas.  Sure, I had heard about St. Nick but I had never really studied the history behind Nicholas, Pastor of the Church at Myra.  Now I’m not sure this movie is going to portray historical details accurately, but I am intrigued and will probably look it up.  Learning about the love that Nicholas had for Jesus and for doing his work not only gave me an opportunity to teach my kids about the true story of Santa Claus, but it allowed us to be a part of the Santa discussion with others.  Rather than avoiding “all-things-Santa” we became participants so that we could use Nicholas’ story as a cultural bridge to the Gospel.

Of course, there will be folks who choose to remain on different sides of this discussion, but I know that Christmas has become much more fun for us…and productive in Kingdom work!

Breaking the Ice:

If an angel told you (or your parents) that you were going to have a child this year, how would you react?

Journeying into His Story:

  1. What do you learn about Jesus Christ from the angel’s announcement (vv. 30 – 33)?
  2. How does Gabriel’s word to Mary compare with his word to Zechariah (1:13 – 17)?
  3. How do you suppose Mary felt about the angel’s message foretelling her supernatural pregnancy? What do you think was the hardest thing for Mary to comprehend?

Seeing Your Story in His Story:

  1. When were you recently fearful but believing? How did God meet you?
  2. In what area of your life do you need to believe that nothing is impossible with God? What keeps you from believing this?

This Bible study is from the Serendipity Bible for Groups. In case you haven’t heard of the Serendipity Bible for Groups you’ll want to know that The Serendipity Bible for groups has a Bible study like the one above for every passage of Scripture in the Bible.

Since 1964 Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been showing every Christmas. At our house, even 45 years later, it’s an annual staple with my wife and I and my two teenage daughters. Having seen it so many times before, I took my seat earlier this week for this year’s showing fully expecting to take a nap.

Although I didn’t fall asleep (Who could? Something about this movie conjures everything that’s good about childhood doesn’t it), I was kind of in and out through the scene where Rudolph’s fake nose falls off, the meeting with Clarice, and the Hermey scenes that set the stage for the rest of the story. It wasn’t until the “Abomitable” is introduced for the first time that something grabbed me. My first thought was how goofy the creature looks—almost comical—to me now as an adult. When I made a comment to this effect, my youngest daughter, surprised, asked, “That used to scare you, dad?” I didn’t cop to it at the time, but the answer is, well, yeah. That he looks so goofy to me now says a lot about some of the fears we tend to carry—but that’s for another post.

The real a-ha moment came when Yukon Cornelius, Hermey, and Rudolph choose to severe themselves from the mainland and float into the icy unknown in order to escape the Abomitable. In this event there was something unmisakedly Rubicon-like about Cornelius’ willingness to break the ice and float away with his new community, Rudolph and Hermey. He didn’t even give it a second thought. And when Rudolph’s nose again threatens to give them away, no one abandoned him or chastised him, instead they find a solution together because, at this point, they are all in it together; the ships burned on the beaches.

This is such a contrast to life in Christmastown where every day is Christmas, the citizens sing instead of talk, and rub elbows with the one and only Santa Claus every day of the year. You’d think this was the perfect place to live! For sure it seems to be safe from the kind of danger embodied by the Abomitable. The only problem with Christmastown is that they don’t handle exceptions very well. And I guess another problem with Christmastown is that they expect everyone to be the same—and if you do find yourself a little different, then for crying out loud find some means to hide it. And yet another problem is that it is so safe. But most obvious to me during this last viewing is the reality that the Christmastowners were unwilling, at least in the beginning, to get on that proverbial “piece of ice” with Rudolph, one of their own, and “do life” with him. This is only commentary about what intimate community should look like: within our groups we’ve got to be willing to be Cornelius for others by getting on that ice with them, but also to be ourselves and be willing to allow others into our stories.

But there are other aspects of community life to be found in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

“Like I said, the outside world is up to its ears in danger.” Absolutely. And the life of a disciple living in the epic God has called us into is most likely laced with danger as well. One of my friends has on his email signature, “Be kind to everyone, for we are all in a great battle.” Sam the Snowman gets it.

“Hey, what do you say we both be independent together, huh?” Such irony. In being independent together Hermey and Rudolph were taking the first steps toward redemptive community. Rudolph and Hermey were willing to forsake the comforts of Christmastown in order to become who he was created to be in Hermey’s instance, and recover a broken heart in Rudolph’s instance.

“You’ll never fit in! Now you come to elf practice, learn how to wiggle your ears, chuckle warmly, go hee-hee and ho-ho, and important stuff like that. A dentist! Good grief!” A dangerous message of the Enemy combatted best within the context of community. The need to belong is profoundly different from the pressure to fit in.

Rudolph: It’s terrible… and different from everybody else’s! Clarice: But that’s what makes it so grand.” Doesn’t everybody need to hear, from someone intimately acquainted with them, that they are grand—an image bearer of the one true God no less? Really know your group so you can join Jesus in binding the broken hearts.

“Mrs. Donner and Clarice decided to set out on their own. Now they were really taking their chances.” Of course, we were not made to “go it alone” and once again Sam the Snowman passes on great insight to us—we are really taking our chances when we decide to go out into the storm—even with the best of intentions—by ourselves. Remember what happens? Mrs. Donner and Clarice made themselves vulnerable to the Abomitable and become his prisoners. Only the band of brothers, Yukon Cornelius, Hermey, and Rudolph, were uniquely equipped to free them.

Good stuff. And that’s not even getting into the great “misfit toy” storyline. Watch it with your group and ask some questions about community along the way.

As I sat in church Sunday morning, I relished in the beauty of the sanctuary. Poinsettias overflowed on the stage. Wreaths hung from the walls. Beautiful arrangements of candles and fresh magnolia leaves graced every windowsill. The chamber choir sang a glorious song recalling the words of Mary as she learned of the child in her womb:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
because He has looked with favor
on the humble condition of His slave.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed,
because the Mighty One
has done great things for me,
and His name is holy.”   Luke 1:46-49, HCSB

It was easy, in that setting, with the first candle of the Advent wreath glowing, children singing, and sun streaming in the windows, to remember the birth of our Christ. I couldn’t help but think that if I could just camp out in the sanctuary for the next four weeks, I could truly worship. I could be with Jesus all day long, praising God for sending His Son, singing to Him.

But we all know that’s not an option. Our struggle, always, with faith is moving it out into the everyday. Into brushing your teeth, changing your kids’ dirty diapers, and burning dinner.

A wise campus minister once told us that Quakers have prayers for everything they do. Showering, cooking, gardening–everything was deemed sacred and devoted to God. What a blessing, to have such a focused mind.

This Christmas season, I pray for focus. In the car every morning, I try to spend time in prayer, thanking God for His gift. While it may not matter that I don’t have a tree, don’t have any lights up, don’t even have a nativity other than the Fisher-Price version, it would matter if I forgot why we celebrate these weeks in December.

How do you make the season sacred?

It’s Christmas. Shouldn’t Jesus get top billing? Check out the word “Christmas” one more time… Christ-mas. The first syllable of the term we use to describe the season is the name above all names, the name…

…through which we are adopted by God Himself… Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— John 1:12

…that eliminates all others when chasing after eternal life… Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12

…through which we experience life in all its fullness, joy, and peace… But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:31

…that reminds us that He is our Lord… Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” 2 Tim. 2:19

The season of advent has been replaced with football season and basketball season. And every season is tied to the names that are most prevalent during that season. This Christmas season, Tebow and Calipari are names that come up often when group members get together. Twitter is flooded with less than 140 characters proclaiming the birth of the latest superstar running back (Mark Ingram of Alabama sure comes to mind.) or disclosing the name above all names in the world of golf…Tiger.

Let me prove my point. If your group gets together this week mention the game of golf and see how quickly a discussion ensues about Tiger Woods. At some other point, prior to or after the formal meeting time, mention Christmas and see if the conversation turns to Jesus.

Just sayin’…

I spilled a cup of coffee this morning. Not just a few drops mind you, but the entire cup…in my car. This now infamous cup of coffee that I had just filled to the brim landed upside down in the passenger seat. On top of my Bible Study, the book I was reading, Manhood for Amateurs, the CD packet for Behold the Lamb of God I was listening to, a copy of the Small Group Life Ministry Manual, not to mention all over the seat. It was at the worst possible time. Kids were all packed in the car ready for school….we were even on time. And then disaster struck. I spent the next 10 minutes cleaning as best as I could, wiping down the books, CDs, and soaking up the liquid that my car seat had drank up so quickly. Can you guess what my car smells like now? Dusty, cold coffee! Yuck! So in that moment, like it or not, I was modeling for my children what to do when things go wrong. Fortunately no expletives spilled out of my mouth at the moment of impact. We even got to talk about it on the way to school.  Like any good small group leader I ask them questions. “So what do you guys do when something like that happens?” And we got to talk about how we are wired, what responses are good, what are bad, and how does God prepare us and speak into these moments.

It got me thinking about small group leaders and some of the small groups I’ve led. I’m dashing around like crazy trying to get everything ready for group. Vacuuming the living room, getting the coffee going, cookies in the oven, wiping down the counter, and it seems like a million other things at one time….and hoping that nobody shows up early! Without fail it seems something goes wrong, sometimes terribly wrong. I’m trying to empty the vacuum canister and it spills all over where I just vacuumed. I forgot to pick up some cream for the coffee and EVERYONE uses cream. There aren’t enough clean cups for everyone. Someone in the group knocks over their drink. Am I the ONLY one who has experienced this stuff??? So what do I do when this happens? What do you do when things don’t go right in getting ready for group, or even during group? If you find yourself in that position, here’s a few ideas on how to respond:

  • Take a deep breath – This may sound overly simple, but this exercise will help regulate your heartbeat, settle your anxiety and center your emotions.
  • Expect groups to be messy – Just as in life, preparing for group time or even during group time, things can get messy. Recognize that this is a natural part of group life and you are not the only person this happens to. You can also have a relatively high likelihood something like this will happen again, so don’t be surprised when it does.
  • Trust in the Holy Spirit – Make sure you don’t resign to the fear that your group meeting will not be transformational just because things aren’t going seamlessly. Trust that the Holy Spirit is far more powerful than the situation at hand and doesn’t depend on you or me to create the perfect environment to transform lives. In fact, if you look at your own life, it’s often in the messiest of situations where God worked most powerfully to transform you. Do you think group life is so different?
  • Allow yourself to be less than perfect – If you dropped the ball in some way and are less than prepared for your group, it’s important to forgive yourself. Things won’t improve by you constantly admonishing yourself, and it will be a barrier for the group settling into study God’s Word. The same goes for any group member who may have caused a disruption. You would do well to make sure that person (and the entire group) knows that mistakes are OK, this is a safe place to be human. Remember, it’s not up to you to change people’s lives (see bullet point above).
  • Take necessary action and move on – Do what you can in a matter of 5 minutes or less to improve the situation and then move on with the group experience.  If you have a spill or a mess, spot clean and save the deep cleaning for after the meeting. If you’ve forgotten something for the group meeting, call a neighbor to see if you can borrow what you need or call a group member and ask if they could stop by to pick up what you need on their way to the group meeting, if time allows.  The biggest thing is don’t sweat the small things. The reason people are in your group is because they want to do life together with you and allow God to transform their lives through the group experience.  And as good as they may be, people don’t come for your chocolate chip cookies, or your Pumpkin Spice creamer.

These are all simple ideas, but sometime it’s important to remember what’s important. If you needed it, I hope this gives you permission to forgive yourself on those rare meetings when things just seem to go wrong. For more ideas on getting ready for a small group meeting, Randall Neighbor has some great tips for hosting a small group in your home, click here to read.

Because we can learn from others, I’m offering a FREE Canvas DVD Kit by Pete Wilson and 9 Experience Guides ($113 value) for the person who comments with the best story of a small group meeting that went wrong and what you did. Leave your comment by December 13, 2009, and I’ll announce the winner the week of the 14th.