Authentic Community


I’ve been thinking about marriage a lot lately. Our first child to reach adulthood, our son, was married two years ago. Then this past year our eldest daughter married. Almost as close to home…almost…we will attend our nephew’s wedding next month. Weddings are an awesome time to see the beauty of marriage in all its glory. But weddings are just a snapshot. Is it possible for such marital bliss to remain?

It doesn’t seem like it, does it? With celebrity marriages lasting months now (rather than the short number of years we used to expect) and the divorce rate in the church not being much better than the world’s, one would think this is an institution to be avoided at all cost. I mean who signs up to fail?

If you haven’t checked out this video of Ian and Larissa yet, I’d encourage you to. While it may not represent the norm, it certainly gives us something to aspire to…an example of the beauty and the mystery of marriage…a picture of selflessness…and a story that illustrates the things that matter most about marriage and relationships in general.

My wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary this year and I’ve gotta say that it just keeps getting better. We are SO looking forward to the next 25. Things haven’t always been perfect but they’ve always made us better and stronger. We decided a long time ago to stay together no matter what and to work through any difficulties or even tragedies…together. When we made that decision it was pollyanna at her best. We had no idea how many curveballs life could throw or just how much it could sometimes hurt…or how much we could hurt each other. Financial calamities, unsought career changes, the loss of children, dangerous health concerns, heck, even deportation by foreign governments. Life is a roller coaster…full of peaks and valleys. In the end though, there is nothing sweeter and no moment more restful to my soul than walking that path with my soulmate, holding hands, snuggling together, and smiling at each other. I see that same joy and peace in Ian and Larissa against even more stark circumstances.

Yep, marriage is beautiful…and mysterious. Ian and Larissa reminded me of that today. May the Lord continue to bless their marriage…and ours.

The past six weeks have been crazy busy around the LifeWay Small Groups halls. And the majority of my time has been devoted to a resource that will release in February. It’s called Stolen, it’s with Chris and Kerry Shook, and it’s compelling … to say the least.

Kerry and Chris Shook founded Woodlands Church, formerly Fellowship of The Woodlands, in l993. Since then the church has grown to 17,000 in average attendance each weekend. It is one of the fastest-growing churches in America. Kerry and Chris wrote the New York Times best-seller One Month to Live: Thirty Days to a No-Regrets Life as well as Love at Last Sight: Thirty Days to Grow and Deepen Your Closest Relationships.

Here’s a little bit about this six-week study: Over the course of our lives the Enemy works hard to rob us of the treasures God has set aside for us—our inheritance, strength, peace, dreams, joy, and passion.  In this creative small-group Bible study, Pastor Kerry Shook and his wife, Chris, use specific biblical examples to lead you into a discovery of the ways you can reclaim these treasures. From illustrations of how Paul was able to find strength in God’s promise to the Shunammite woman who had allowed her dream to die to how we see passion play out in the story of the prodigal son, you’ll discover the bigger picture of who we are in Christ and all He intended for us to experience.

Watch for more information coming soon. But first check out this message from the Shooks. And get ready for a journey to reclaim what is rightfully yours!

Until next time,
Signe

“There’s something about the word fresh that changes everything.”  Kerry Shook

As I type this blog post, our latest Platform resource—Fresh: Reviving Stale Faith—is on the way to the printer. While editing this project, Kerry Shook both challenged and inspired me.
Let’s see—meditation, fasting, and silence. OK, so … I have a tendency to get focused on my to-do list, my agenda and often forget to carve out time to meditate on God’s Word on a regular basis. And fasting … well, I’ve never fasted in my entire life. And then there’s silence … my friends who are reading this are laughing out loud right now because being quiet and still are definitely not strengths for me. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to admit those things here. But I bet I’m not alone.

Does your faith ever feel stale? Are you maybe a little intimidated when you think about carrying out these spiritual disciplines in your own life but at the same time you’re at least a little curious—and a lot ready for a fresh faith? Then this study is worth checking out.

To the ancients, daily life included spiritual disciplines such as meditation, fasting, and silence. But our modern world has all but abandoned these time-honoring principles, instead relenting
to overcrowded agendas, busy schedules, and fast-paced, frantic day-to-day routines, leaving us with a faith that’s stale and tired. Yet it’s fresh faith that’s appealing. It’s fresh faith that feels active and alive. It’s fresh faith that makes a difference in this world. In this addition to the Platform series, Kerry Shook explores the ancient disciplines of meditation, fasting, and
silence and reveals the irony of how patterns of the past are really practices that promise to revive our faith.

Kerry is senior pastor of Woodlands Church, one of the fastest-growing churches in America. He and his wife Chris founded Fellowship of The Woodlands, now Woodlands Church, in 1993. Since then the church has grown to 17,000 in average attendance each weekend.

The six small-group sessions are:

1.  The Art of Focus — the benefits of meditation
2.  The Art of Discipline — the strategy for meditation
3.  The Art of Restraint — the purpose and power of fasting
4.  The Art of Emptying Yourself — how to develop a plan for fasting
5.  The Art of Margins — the power of silence to reduce our stress and express our faith
6.  The Art of Silence — how silence can empower communication and increase our sensitivity

Fresh: Reviving Stale Faith will be available December 1 … check it out!

Until next time,
Signe

One of the most refreshing projects I’ve worked on since coming to LifeWay is Gospel Revolution by J.D. Greear. J.D.’s small groups pastor Spence Shelton helped us develop the curriculum and it is definitely done with a local church focus in mind. While our Serendipity team has focused primarily on small-group curriculum in the past, this study has even broader appeal. More traditional discipleship groups would benefit greatly and find it easy to use also. Let me give you a little background on the project so that you can get a better feel for it.

Gospel Revolution is really about rediscovering the gospel. J.D. reminds the reader that the gospel is not the diving board off which we dive into the pool of Christianity but the gospel is the pool itself. Building off of the concepts in J.D.’s excellent book by Broadman and Holman called Gospel, the group study really meets many Christians where they are. The list of what “good Christians” should be doing never seems to end. Evangelism. Missions. Adoption. Radical generosity. Bold prayers. Audacious faith. Every time we turn around we’re learning about something else that good Christians are doing. The result is that many Christians find themselves more exhausted than inspired. Jesus’ revolutionary message is that at the center of Christianity is not a list of things we are to be doing for God, but an announcement of what He has done for us. As we stand in awe of what He has done for us, what we should do for Him will come naturally. J.D. incorporates a simple gospel prayer as he teaches and models how to live out the gospel in everyday life.

Here are a couple of blogposts that also discuss this gospel message that God has given to the church through J.D. Greear:

Interview of J.D. by Trevin Wax http://trevinwax.com/2011/09/28/recovering-the-gospels-power-a-conversation-with-j-d-greear/

Overview of Gospel’s Generosity Matrix by J.D. http://www.churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-blogs/154951-jd_greear_the_generosity_matrix.html

What I found most encouraging about J.D.’s teaching is that he is not only biblically sound but culturally relevant. J.D.’s authenticity really draws you in and his illustrations are things to which we can all easily relate. I was not only professionally challenged by this study but personally inspired. The old-time message of the gospel came alive for me and has resulted in the kind of spiritual fruit that God intended the gospel to bear in my life. Well, that’s my testimony. I hope you too will take part in this gospel revolution and rediscover the power of the Christian faith!

For the first time, LifeWay Small Groups brings you a Bible study inspired by an award-winning novel. Through the power of visual storytelling, teaching from the author, and scriptural truths, Rooms: The Small-Group Experience will guide your group into deeper biblical truth and understanding.

Rooms is the story of Micah Taylor—a young software tycoon—who inherits an incredible beachfront home from a great uncle he never knew. A home on the Oregon coast. In Cannon Beach. The one place Micah loves. The one place he never wants to see again. But strange things happen in the house. Things Micah can’t explain. Things he can barely believe. The locals say that the house is “spiritual.” But Micah slowly discovers the house isn’t just spiritual, it is a physical manifestation—of his soul.

While Rooms: The Small-Group Experience uses story, character, and themes from the novel, it’s been created so that even someone who has not read the book—or who does not intend to—can still find fresh perspectives and strong biblical content. This study is a powerful experience for those who have read the novel as well as those who haven’t.

Rooms: The Small-Group Experience guides participants through the four most significant themes from the novel:

  • Woundedness: group members will have an opportunity to consider the events of their lives that have tended to drive their behavior most
  • Destiny: group members will explore the true desires of their hearts, what makes them come alive, and what they have been divinely designed to do
  • Warfare: helps group members identify the voices of their lives, recognize truth from lies, and realize the potent weapons for combating the enemy that are at their disposal
  • Freedom: takes group members on a journey toward greater freedom in Christ through the sort of healing made possible in Him

I’ve edited lots of incredible LifeWay resources in my almost 22 years here, but I’ve never been quite as excited as I am about Rooms. This study will be available October 1. Click here for a sneak peek.

Until next time,
Signe

While I enjoyed the movie immensely, it’s a little tougher to enjoy sometimes without the popcorn and when the main characters in the story are all too real. Since discovering that our youngest son has not only a growth deficiency but genetic abnormalities, it just never seems like we can fully come to grips with what we’re up against. While Ben’s development has gone much better than I expected when I first heard the news, it seems that every visit to the doctor brings another punch to the gut. This past month it was news that he has four kidneys for some mysterious reason and his blood pressure is strangely high for a six-year old. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy…it all adds up. “One step at a time” I tell my wife, “Everything will work out just fine.” Of course, fine is relative.

Last week I got on an elevator with a fella who was probably forty but whose smile made him look more like four. He had a nicely pressed uniform on and was delivering packages. For more than a passing moment, I saw in this cherubic man my son Ben years from now. I wondered what his parents’ expectations were when he was little. I wondered when they found out that he would probably not live what most of us consider a normal life. How many punches in the gut did they receive…or was it just one big one? I wondered if he lived with his parents now or if he was able to live on his own. I wondered if he had a driver’s license. I wondered if his parents were still alive and what he would do without them. And once again I thought of Ben. A little selfish I know given that this guy deserved his own story without my absconding with it for a pity party or even just somber personal reflection. I would like to think that I was just hurting for Ben in those moments, but if I’m honest that’s probably not all it was. Ben seems to be as happy as can be so I probably mourn in no small part the death of a dream.

Ben may yet overcome his difficulties and live a more fulfilling life than I can imagine. That’s our hope. And God really is in control. I hold firmly to Romans 8:28, one of the first Bible verses I memorized after becoming a Christian at age 20…but no longer in a trite way…no longer as a pat answer. Instead, it has worked its way through my soul and I’m now in a position to really share what it has meant to me with others…thankfully. God’s Word doesn’t always take the worry away completely, or the pain. But it does keep me anchored in faith with not a small measure of hope. And I can’t help but hurt for those who try to make sense of the never-ending story or even the rollercoaster that is life without the love of Christ.

That’s just one more reason to share the hope that is within me. I hope you’ll be encouraged to share your own hope as well…through the lens of your own story.

In 2005, precious baby Rebekah was born to my friends Dave and Teresa, two of the godliest people I know. The way they live their lives has always been an inspiration to me, but never as much as in the years since Rebekah’s birth. You see, Rebekah only lived for six days.

I will never truly know what the past six years have been like for my friends. And in totally honesty, I feel guilty that I haven’t been more involved in their lives during that time — especially since I’ve been a recipient of the blessings Dave and Teresa have experienced through their grief.

I never got to meet Rebekah, but the impact her life and death have had on me is indescribable. Her family has allowed her story to live on in a truly dynamic way.

Dave and Teresa, along with their daughter, Lydia, have taught me that God has a significant plan for us — no matter how long or short our lives. I have seen His strength and goodness in the midst of tragedy because this family had allowed me to. They have been open about their emotions — good and bad. They have shown their humanness without shame. I have witnessed them give God the glory through unbelievable sacrifice. I have been challenged and humbled. And I’m so thankful. Dave and Teresa’s message is one of not letting loss defeat us but instead allowing it to change us for the better.

Maybe you are grieving the loss of something or someone significant. Or perhaps you are walking that road with someone dear to you. What an incredible testimony your story can be. I encourage you to share your journey with others in your life—your small group, your community, your tribe. You never know what God will teach them through you.

Six days, one tiny baby, a God-honoring family, and my life will never by the same.

Until next time,
Signe

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.

 

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.

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