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There are times in every person’s journey when the reality of mystery collides with their carefully constructed life.  I love how Michael Kelley describes “Mystery” in this video for Small Group Life.  You see I was one of those spectators really comfortable with the idea of mystery because it didn’t really bother me.  Up to that point in my life, mystery had never demanded anything of me. In fact, mystery only became real to me a few years ago through a very painful experience.  When mystery finally invaded my constructed reality, it went by the name “divorce”.  Suddenly I no longer had the luxury of of living with mystery as a concept or a theological discussion.  Mystery absolutely and irreversibly demanded something of me, and I was on a razor’s edge for the outcome of that merciful collision. In the battle to make sense of being unwillingly thrust into the middle of mystery, I could either talk to God in ways I had never talked before and in the process share parts of me and emotions I had never shared before, or I could completely lock down and climb even deeper into the shell I was living and perhaps never feel again.  Thankfully,  I accepted the invitation to let God answer my hard, angry questions with “Who”, and as I discovered, that put an end to my relentless need for “why”.

As a small group leader, if one or more of your group members (or maybe your entire group) has a raw encounter with mystery, I hope you are able to guide the discussion with an appreciation for mystery that often only comes from a personal collision. Avoid the easy, cliche’ answers and embrace the mess that typically comes from the hard work of wrestling with mystery. Lean into these moments and pursue the invitation into a deeper intimacy that comes like the backwash of  rough, turbulent rapids.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways” – Isaiah 55:8

If the idea of mystery connects with your group and you would like to spend more time exploring how God works through mystery, let me recommend a Bible study from the Canvas series called Mystery. Canvas is hosted by Pete Wilson who has a new book coming out called Plan B and is an incredible communicator and creative force.

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I’m really excited that we will be hosting The Summit: A Convergence of Small Group Experts.  This an event that might be the first time in history these amazing small group leaders have been on the same stage!!  To make it even better, it’s online so you can participate no matter where you live and it’s FREE.  Our very own Rick Howerton will be moderating this Town Hall styled forum and discussing the history, trends, and future of small group ministry.  We are taking questions so you will have a chance to present any issue you are dealing with to the architects of the modern small group movement and hear them respond and provide solutions they’ve seen work in churches all over the world.

The speakers are 9 of today’s most well-known leaders in small group ministry and the next generation’s rising stars – Lyman Coleman Bill Donahue, Steve Gladen, Randall Neighbour, Carl George, Bill Search, Reid Smith, Greg Bowman, and Eddie Mosley

Be sure to register and plan on taking part in this amazing experience.  If you are a ministry leader, forward the information to all your group members so they can get answers to some of their most pressing questions too!

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.

Community

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.

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.

Sara GrovesI’ve been listening to a pre-release of Sara Groves new CD, fireflies and songs, and have been deeply moved by one of her songs.  Sara is among my favorite singer/songwriters, right up there with Andrew Peterson and Jill Phillips, so I always eagerly await her newest work.  Her own journey and experiences have helped guide me through some of the most tumultuous days of my life.  Her lyrical content has given me hope and clarity, when I was falling prey to self-condemnation.  In short, her music has been an important part of my spiritual re-formation over the past few years and helped me see God as I never had before.

So, I was listening to this CD last week on the way home from dinner with a friend.  I had heard the track, “It’s Me”, a few times and knew I really liked the melody and the chorus but was intentionally listening to the lyrics this particular moment.  Suddenly, I got to one of the hooks near the end and tears started rolling down.  One thing I’ve learned while with the Serendipity team is – “Pay attention to what moves you!  It’s either a part of your story God wants to speak into, or a part of the Larger Story He wants to invite you into”. So I spent some time looking inside for any tender places that might need to hear Truth.

The song is a beautiful picture of a relationship and how quickly emotions can turn and catch us by surprise.  In the blink of an eye anger and hurt can replace tenderness.  It reminds that those people closest to us are also the ones able to hurt us most deeply.  So our tendency is to withdraw or, as Sara puts it, “so run for your life…”.  In the hook she cries out – “Deep down inside the girl is waking up.  She’s calling out to the boy she loves.  It’s me…oh baby, it’s me” As I heard that last phrase, “it’s me”, I was pierced through my heart.  While the context of the song may be saying something like , “Hello it’s me, I’m not the enemy…I’m your wife.”  God needed me to hear something a little different.

You see my greatest fear and one of the defining wounds of my life is being invisible…of not beingimages noticed by anyone.  As the youngest of five boys, and an unplanned baby at that, it was easy to grow up and get missed.  So those two words, “it’s me”, have been my heart’s cry for the better part of 40 years.  In such a tender way, God is using this song to invite me into my pain and asking me if I will really believe He has “seen” me from my mother’s womb….that I was never invisible to Him.  My life experiences have told me differently and many agreements I’ve made would suggest that this isn’t true. So I stand at a tipping point now, what do I believe in my heart versus what I say I believe about God.  The fact that this song moves me so deeply suggests I dare not answer this question too quickly.  The men in my small group, who know me intimately, are the ones that will help me explore these beliefs and the conclusions I’ve made throughout life.  My group will help me find God’s Truth that I haven’t been able to grasp before due to the limitations of living from my personal, smaller story.

As small group leaders, we are placed in a wonderful position to give a powerful gift to those in our group.  Pay attention to what moves YOU and share that.  Share how you take these emotions to God so that He might tell you something you need to hear desperately.  Model for them how God speaks through our emotions and how to process and test that within a group.  When group members see you do this, they will follow your lead and practice this as well, often with life changing results.  It is a rare and precious gift in our modern age to identify messages you’ve received over the years and allow a place for God to speak Truth into those messages.  When we as group leaders model this, we create a safe container for others in the group to begin doing the same thing.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:32

When I saw Gran Torino earlier this year there was a powerful scene that moved me deeply, although I wasn’t exactly sure why.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the scene.  It’s when Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, takes the young boy, Thao, to the barber shop to show him…model for him how men interact.  Walt strolls in and speaks to the barber in very rough language and is greeted in return with the same gruff banter — all done with a surprising warmth between the two men.  He tells Thao to go out and do the same thing.  When he does, the barber acts  incensed and deeply offended and grabs a shotgun in feigned outrage.  So what was the difference?  Thao spoke in the same off-color language as Walt, but the response was the complete opposite.

I have found this same situation in my own life.  At times associates, friends, or family members’ “friendly” barbs and “funny” insults have been very hurtful and offensive to me.  However, there are those people in my life who are closer than a brother that could say the very same thing, and I would return the banter feeling a sense of camaraderie — not of outrage.  Why is my response so different for them.  Why do I feel so different?

In processing this, I’ve come to believe the difference lies in knowing the heart of people through the battles of life.  My closest brothers have walked beside me when the battles were raging the hardest.  They were there when I was wounded and helped carry me when I was completely disoriented and couldn’t make sense of anything.  I knew they had my back, which allowed me to pursue healing rather than spend all my energies defending myself and striving for justice, or medicating and anesthetizing the pain.  They reminded me of my true identity as a restored son of the Sovereign Lord.  These few had seen me at my worst but also saw what was deeper.  To me, these individuals have “earned” the right to speak to me anyway they want because I know their heart for me.  I know they love me deeply and that provides freedom from misinterpretation.  I know their jokes are simply jokes because they have showed up for me over and over again.  For those whose hearts remain hidden from me, who haven’t been in the valley with me, who don’t know my heart and my greatest wounds, I can get riled up when they hurl insults in  a “humorous” way.  I don’t know what’s behind that…and it makes all the difference.

Now I’m not suggesting that we begin speaking to our closest friends in course and off-color language, as done in the movie, but how can we nurture this depth of relationship in our small groups?  How can we begin to know others’ hearts more intimately?  I believe it begins with authenticity in our groups.  By leaving your false-self behind and bringing your true-self and offering it to the group.  Of course this is risky and we have all felt the sting of offering a piece of our hearts only to have it rejected, minimized, or in other ways mishandled.  But this is also the only way to really begin to come alive.

In Rick Howerton’s book on small-group community, he states there are seven principles groups must practice if they want to live authentically:

  1. There are mysteries found in the Bible – God is static but our understanding of Him should be dynamic as He continues to reveal Himself to us.
  2. The fact that life is messy – In sharing our messes, we become free to be ourselves and free to support one another as we continue the journey to be more like Jesus.
  3. Personal imperfections – We will judge ourselves, as well as those around us, until we accept our personal imperfections.
  4. That God is always present even when He feels distant – God sometimes uses what we perceive as distance to force us to reach out to other believers.
  5. Respecting others without having to agree with all they do or say – God created us as individuals, and no two of us are exactly alike physically, philosophically, or spiritually. Differences shouldn’t divide a group. Instead, they should bring it together as group members benefit from one another’s diverse perspectives and experiences.
  6. Confessing our failures at the right time with the right people – In most instances when our moral failures are confessed to others in the right setting at the right time (with those who have covenanted to keep confidences and care deeply about the confessor), the person confessing experiences healing.
  7. Satan is at work in the world – Christ-followers should be aware that Satan is more than a fictional character is an enemy on the attack, looking to destroy friendships, family members, and belief systems. Most importantly, he looks to kill hearts.

What kind of transformation would we experience if we knew those members of our small group so deeply that we never had to try to interpret what they really meant? What if we knew their heart for us and they knew our heart for them. Put these principles to action in your group and see how you experience change together.

Last fall at the Catalyst Conference, I caught up with Stewart McWilliams from Fellowship of the Rockies in Colorado Springs where we talked about Catalyst, the book “Tribes” by Seth Godin, and Serendipity Small Group Workshops. Stewart had recently hosted a Serendipity Small Group Workshop with Rick Howerton for his small group leaders as well as other ministry and group leaders from area churches. It was a great success for everyone in attendance both as a learning event and as a small group networking opportunity.

If your church would be interested in developing your group leaders by hosting a Serendipity Small Group Workshop contact Rick (Rick.Howerton@lifeway.com or 615.251.5862). You can also view our calendar to see if a workshop will be in your area for your group leaders to attend

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