Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck. Releases May 1.

Springtime is here! Unofficially of course since we have a couple of weeks before the equinox announces the official beginning of this time of year. LifeWay Small Groups has been very busy over the last few months producing some of the most dynamic and transformational resources we’ve released. Gospel Revolution, Stolen, Group Insights, and Rooms are all small-group Bible studies we that we encourage you to check out.

We’ve also been working to deliver an entire new strategy for men’s ministry for your church. It’s no secret that where men’s ministry is concerned, we’ve been in crisis mode for some time. In May we are releasing Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck. This “men’s ministry in a box” provides everything a church needs to launch a men’s ministry or provide a greater, more effective, context for what you are already doing. We’ll post more on this later, but this is the first men’s ministry model that puts men on an intentional spiritual path that culminates with an “activated” man on mission for God and your church’s vision. Kenny’s model is not only church-tested over the last decade, but works for any size church. Nor does this approach require you to add staff or even additional ministry layers. The intent here is to wake the sleeping giant in your church. For more information click here.

And I’m pleased to announce that former editor of smallgroups.com and current LifeWay editor Sam O’Neal will be posting as a guest blogger every Thursday until the release of his new book The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders. Sam plans to dive into various principles of small group leadership with greater detail, but the book addresses several key for leading transformational group experiences, including:

•    How learning styles impact both group leaders and group members
•    How to craft discussion questions that actually spark discussion
•    The art of leading a group discussion
•    What to do when things don’t go as planned

Be sure to look for Sam’s posts beginning March 8. I have had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him over the last few months and can say with certainty that you’re  not going to want to miss what he has to say. (Unless you’ve got some time on your hands, just stay away from topics like the Chicago Bears or NFC North.) And stay tuned for more on Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck as well. We need to rally the men of our culture with a fresh new message for greater godliness and more effective disciples.

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The eighth grade book report. We all had to do it. I’m sure the routine was relatively standard across all eighth grades everywhere: 3″X5″ notecards, 3 pages, 3-5 minute presentation, rough draft, final draft, two grades—one for presentation and one for content. The only wild card was whether you got to choose your own book or were forced to choose from a list. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that my options were limited to a list of pre-selected options. Given my love of baseball and the Big Red Machine I did what anybody would have done: I chose a biography on Pete Rose.

The grade I received in exchange for my work I don’t remember. And I’m sure Charlie Hustle was no more interesting then than he is now. The biography was your typical born here-went to high school here-did some cool things here structure. Regardless of your baseball IQ, surely everyone can appreciate the notion of The Slump. Among all professional sports baseball (no, golf is not a sport) is the most mentally challenging game. The proverbial “game of inches,” baseball players tend to be most superstitious and the most vulnerable to The Slump: the period a hitter periodically enters into during which he gets no breaks, constantly guesses wrong, forsakes mechanics, loses confidence, and can’t recapture what made him successful in the first place. There’s no obvious reason The Slump begins. And often there’s no clear reason The Slump ends. We all have slumps.

Baseball players have various methods for getting themselves out of a slump. Some burn bats. Some just swing themselves out of it. Some get rid of uniforms, batting gloves, helmets. Others seek professional counsel from clinical psychologists, old coaches, new coaches, and the specially trained. But Pete had a different manner for getting himself out of a hitting slump. When Pete found himself an ineffective hitter he would, during every at bat, just focus on hitting the ball directly back to the pitcher as hard as he could. Regardless of the circumstance or situation, he would zero in on the pitcher, seeing the ball, putting the bat on the ball, and hitting it straight back to the mound. See the ball, hit the ball. See the ball, hit the ball. Consequently, this discipline allowed him to block everything out but the pitcher and the ball—the basic elements of his craft.

Rose would employ this strategy until the fundamental element of seeing the ball/hitting the ball became a matter of muscle memory. Once his mind had become re-acquainted with the basic science of making contact, he could again begin taking into consideration the count, game situation, and how the pitcher was pitching to him. With everything going on during a baseball game, the tendency for Rose and maybe any other hitter in a slump would be to forget the original design and mission. In other words, a hitter begins to “think too much.”

I’ve always felt like the spiritual disciplines work the same way. Our tendency is to begin losing sight of our design and mission over time. We slip. With everything going on around us—all the decisions and distractions and obligations—we start to “think too much.” We lose our mechanics. We guess more than we think. What the spiritual disciplines ultimately do is (1) help us avoid The Slump (2) help us swing out of our slumps (3) help us gain clarity. The spiritual disciplines not only remind us of our mission, but afford us greater clarity in the “see the ball–hit the ball” structure for our days, weeks, and months. Ultimately the art of hitting isn’t, at its core, all that difficult.

Just last week we sent Fresh: Reviving Stale Faith by Kerry Shook to the printer. This small-group resource takes the spiritual disciplines of meditation, fasting, and silence and leads groups on a 6-week Bible study experience that will help them apply these basic principles to a disciple’s life. Among the disciplines, meditation, fasting, and silence are particularly suited for helping us avoid slumps as well as providing biblical tools for pulling out of them. Through these disciplines you and your group will gain see the ball–hit the ball clarity needed in order to become the most creative hitter you can be. Check it out by clicking here. We can never have too much discipline and clarity in our lives. I can’t help but think that this is even more true in the world we live in today.

Philip Nation, blogging as a guest at www.edstetezer.com, posted “Flash Mobs and the Search for Community” earlier this week. In the post Philip cites our need to be a part of something larger—and these flash mobs meet this need even if for a few minutes, actually longer once you figure in the planning and practice.  And I’ll be honest … I love these videos. There’s something instinctive and primal about what appears to be the spontaneous overflow of sheer joy and celebration. And I especially like the connection to a great story like The Sound of Music because it has the potential to point us to the Larger Story of the gospel. But I agree with Philip in that there is a greater lesson to be gleaned from the flash mob: People want to be part of a community on mission.

“Flash” is on the money in describing this phenomenon. I think we can all recall moments of …. something. There are whiffs of a certain fragrance that remove us from the present while certain mornings and evenings possess the power to make life seem “just right.” Still, there are other times that Wordsworth describes as offering “the presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts.” These moments “flash” within and around us just like these musical mobs that you can find all over youtube. But like so much, the flash is only marginally or briefly fulfilling. It is a poor substitute for those things real—like real, authentic community. Like deep, sincere discipleship. Like earnest, heartfelt devotion and prayer. While some flashes provide glimpses of Eden and the paradise to come, others leaves us completely empty and wanting, commensurate to the donut of the human condition.

Read Philip’s post and join the conversation by clicking here. And as you think through your community-building enterprises, curriculum, and small-group activities be sure to avoid the donuts.

Bill Donahue at the Building Biblical Community video shoot

Former small-group pastor and small-group pioneer Bill Donahue recently addressed the notion of “story” at churchleaders.com. Bill has been involved—one way or another, as group member and leader, at smaller churches and Willow Creek alike—in small groups for a long time. The only conclusion we’re left to draw is that he’s managed to pick up a thing or two during his association with the more-than-20,000 groups with whom he has been in touch.

The post, Learn How People Are Shaped By Their Stories, describes the path to be taken from isolation to community that begins with a close examination of one’s story. This notion of my own “story” and how it continues to play itself out in my life was introduced to me early on in my tenure here. Admittedly, initially I was somewhat skeptical about what appeared to be a very self-centered approach to discipleship. In fact, in some ways it seemed to run counter to everything I thought I had been taught. But over the years I’ve come to understand the role my story plays in my life, the impact it has, and how God continues to reveal not only truth about who I am through a careful examination of my own story, but also the truth about who He is, through such as examination. Bill’s post calls attention to both of these by products.

As small-group leaders we should always been mindful of the many stories represented in the room. The cumulative effect of these stories contributes to our understanding of God, ourselves, the ways we relate to one another, the way we process external events and circumstances, and our own conclusions about the world around us. One of the reasons “The Question” is so significant in group life is because only through a great question can we begin to re-construct the story—the role the enemy has played, plot twists and turns, disorientation, the heroes and villains. Sure, discussion is great and keeps us engaged, but the ultimate goal of any group must be transformation. What Bill is describing in this post, most importantly, is a means to transformation through the story God is revealing through each of us.

For additional work in this regard check out Robert Mulholland’s Invitation to a Journey and The Deeper Journey. We also have several resources specifically created for drawing our stories out into the group space—certainly not for the timid, but perhaps the most redemptive exercise in small-group ministry—in the Canvas series we created with Pete Wilson and the MORE series inspired by Ron Keck. We also took great lengths to integrate this model for transformation in the God + the Arts series (Finding Jesus in the Movies, Finding Redemption in the Movies, Finding the Larger Story in Music).

I’ve heard it said that we are “always being spiritually formed.” It’s true, either we’re being spiritually “re-formed” or “de-formed” throughout our days and weeks and months. One of the seminal points in Syd Field’s book Screenplay is this: “know your story.” God as the ultimate and final teller of our stories knows this … and He is inviting us to join Him.

 

Recently my wife and I saw The King’s Speech and I immediately incorporated it into our group. We were examining Matthew 7:7ff in which Jesus challenges us to ask, seek, and knock. I’ve always thought this to be an invitation, of sorts, to desire—to search your heart’s deepest desire, put away the darkest of fears, and make known what it is that you really want out of life. Jesus puts similar questions to both Bartimaeus and the paralytic by the well and both, I think, fail to consider Jesus’ question at the most profound level.

Matthew 7:7-8 gave me a reason to talk a little about just how comprehensive the Fall was—not only affecting humanity, but the creation, time, emotions, and … desire. And not only is the Fall of man comprehensive, but it continues to reverberate in our world and our lives. Although dramatically and irrevocably affected by the fall, desire nonetheless is still allowed by God because of the greater good that can be possible if those with re-generated hearts will just do the more demanding work of considering what we really want—as opposed to what we think we want. Doing so reveals to us what we ultimately long for: to be whole, complete, and with God in heaven.

Surprisingly, no one in the group recalled being exposed to the famous quote from St. Iranaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” So we talked for a moment about the implications of loaded terms like “glory of God” and “man fully alive” as they relate both to one another and desire. The point is that for so many of us we, like Bartimaeus, wouldn’t even know how to answer this most provocative question if we were faced with the same circumstance e.g. like when Sam Phillips in Walk the Line asked Joakim Phoenix-as-Johnny-Cash, “What song would you sing if you had to sing one song to sum you up; one song to let God know how you felt?” So what is that “one thing” for you? Because of the events of Genesis 3 and the subsequent Fall it is much more difficult to understand, feel, and pursue our deepest and truest desires. And equally challenging to identify and stamp out our deepest and most enslaving fears.

There is a scene in The King’s Speech in which the speech therapist that is taking the future King George VI on a journey—not just addressing the mechanics of his speech impediment, but the deeper fears of his heart that have contributed to the physical malady—challenges him to be the king that he has been created to be (by now obvious to everybody but him). At the time, “Berty” is unable to face the overwhelming task of succeeding his older brother as well as his father as the true king of England. In this pivotal scene the future king opts to use his position of power not to become step into the role that awaits him, but rather to put the therapist in his place as only a “subject”. Doesn’t desire work in the same way? Instead of allowing God to work through our deepest longings we instead choose the path of least resistance, employing desire destructively? But by no means does this imply that we should abandon the pursuit. At least in part, this is what Jesus is encouraging us to do: keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking.

This illustration worked well with our group and we had some great discussion on becoming more missional and God’s call on our lives. The discussion we had pursuant to our deepest fears—what they might be and how paralyzing they can be—however, had the most impact. I like The King’s Speech for Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth), and Best Director (Tom Hooper) when the Oscars go out in a few weeks. Geoffrey Rush is fantastic but I don’t think both he and Firth will win. (Plus, Rush is always good.) But I also liked this movie as a means for demonstrating the hard work and devotion it takes to finding one’s true, authentic voice—the voice God has given us and role we have been called to fill in the Larger Story He is revealing.

The fifth release in the Small Group Life series, Kingdom: Seek First the Kingdom, hits the stores on March 1. This is a timely resource that addresses a hot-button and extremely important issue not only for today’s church but also believers across the evangelical spectrum.

And it’s because of the significance of this message that I’ve been using this in the group I lead. We’ve been using this “episode” of Small Group Life since December and it has been a great experience. Without sacrificing any sort of theological weight, the study guides have been wonderful for driving good conversation, credible debate, and fresh insights. I’m also not afraid of the little tension that comes with good, provocative questions that make group members have to dig a little deeper.

The six topics that our editors and writers have chosen to create this experience run from the earliest whispers of Israel’s desire to have an earthly king—a Replacement God—all the way to the definitive conclusion—Paradise … Finally! Between the north and south poles of this study we examined the King’s character, what Jesus said about the kingdom, what it means to be a subject of God’s kingdom, and how we can catch glimpses of the kingdom now even though the fullest manifestation is yet to come.

What I have enjoyed most about Seek First the Kingdom is the flexibility. Even though a leader is required to spend much time in preparation, I have taken time to cater the experience to our group. For instance, I took the opportunity during our exploration of “The King’s Subjects” to bring Romans 7 and how the remnant of sin—sin’s stain—taints even the regenerated heart of a believer. The SGL format also allowed our group to draw from John 2:24ff (through 3:8) in order to take on the role that control plays within the heart of a King’s subject. Ultimately, it was the climate-controlled life of the Pharisee that was holding Nicodemus back. He was devout, yes, and certainly devoted, but unwilling to accept God’s invitation to travel “paths unknown.” This discussion was a great point of departure into the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Luke 17).

Since the production staff did such a great job laying the foundation for this study, it still only took me a couple of hours to customize the discussion and incorporate a couple of new ideas and unique insights. We haven’t had to use the children’s Bible study ideas that come free with each Small Group Life release, but I’m sure there are plenty of groups that could make good use of these. And the free video downloads have worked well as an emailed link for us.

If you’re looking for a cool, easy-to-lead yet theologically robust and biblically sound small-group experience to get you from the spring to the summer, I highly recommend Kingdom: Seek First the Kingdom for your group this spring. Twelve small-group studies for $5.95 is a good deal.

Aware of my fascination with Walt Disney mythology, my wife presented me with three DVDs that chronicle events that have been significant in the company’s history: Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Sherman Brothers’ Story, and Walt & El Grupo.

Over the holidays I was able to watch Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary that tells the story of how Disney’s animation studio rose the brink of collapse—can you imagine the Disney animation studio going out of business?— to go on an unprecedented run that began with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and continued with The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin.

The general situation and overall economic forecast for the Walt Disney Animation Studio in the early-to-mid 1980s was bleak. A string of box-office and critical failures combined with stiffer competition had culminated when the story begins. After bringing in Michael Eisner the next step was finding the right person to lead the animation studio out of the pits and into a new era of prosperity. That person was Jeffrey Katzenberg. Early in the movie Katzenberg makes this statement: “You’ve got 90 days to change culture before it starts changing  you.” So Katzenberg, Eisner, and a few other key figures took the reins and charged out into the vast and unpredictable future with the not-so-small goal of re-directing the course of one of the most storied companies in American business and popular culture history.

Because it’s January and many of you are beginning new groups or starting campaigns or even looking at beginning a small-group ministry in your church, I thought it would be a good time to reiterate the broad strokes of culture and organizational change that Waking Sleeping Beauty brings to light.

Sense of Urgency – A friend of mine used to say, “It always takes longer than it does.” I have no idea what that means, but somehow it makes sense in that we must be intentional and persistent. That is, nothing manages to “just get get done.” At least in the early stages, a leader must stay on top of the details and be sure that the process remains in motion. There’s a line in the movie Elizabethtown that I love: “All forward motion is progress.” Something to keep in mind when things aren’t moving as fast as you’d like.

Cast the Vision – Included in this aspect of culture change is building consensus. In order to cast the vision you, of course, need a vision. This is accomplished through prayer and careful, diligent planning. Invite a couple of people along for the journey. Remember that change begins and infects from from the center, but also from the edges. So work from the center, casting the vision from within the inner circle. But also be strategic in working from the periphery back to the middle. There’s a multiplying effect in using this strategy.

Permeate – To change a culture the vision must run throughout the community and permeate the DNA of the organization. “Of course,” you say, “but that’s easier said than done.” I won’t dispute that. A mentor of mine put it best on the subject: “You know the message is beginning to stick when it becomes a punch line at the water cooler, in the hallways, and during meetings.” I realize that the last thing anyone wants is to be a punch line, but the point is to have the new message so top-of-mind that it becomes like “It’s a Small World”—a message with a peculiar yet endearing staying power. Take every opportunity to drill a slogan, message, key word, or visual image deeper into the cultural ethos.

Push – According to Waking Sleeping Beauty, the studio had grown soft. They were a bunch of kids with a lot of talent but lacking a force—or motivation—sufficient enough to forge them into a cohesive team with a sense of purpose. The leadership team that came in included Eisner, Katzenberg, and John Lasseter. They combined with the already-present Roy E. Disney (imagine that) and Frank Wells. Where this team was putting out only a handful of films, most of them bad, every few years, the new leadership instituted a production pipeline of one animated feature per year—a demanding schedule. Changing culture means … wait for it … change. It means pushing people. What athlete doesn’t appreciate the coach that makes him the best he can be? What teachers do you tend to admire most? The truth is we like to see what we’re made of. Change leaders can’t shy away from expectation.

Inertia – It has always fun to watch how an event can take on a life on its own when I’ve been responsible for the planning, executing, and managing events. There’s so much going on in the days and weeks and even hours right before an event begins, but once it does it is almost like it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The same thing is going to happen when you implement new groups or a new small-group ministry. At this point you’ll want to pay very close attention to the nuances of what is happening.

I don’t know if Katzenberg is accurate with his 90-day mandate, but at some point a leader endeavoring to change culture will be, as my grandmother would often say, “swallowed whole.” For sure this is an incomplete list. There are entire books on the subject. I would recommend the Waking Sleeping Beauty documentary for any leader, though. Not only is it entertaining, but there are some great lessons for changing culture. Being a change agent or change-leader certainly not for the feint of heart—but it always makes for a good story.