And so here we are in another Holiday Season. As a kid it seemed like it took forever to roll around again. When the air got cold it meant just one thing: an honor roll of holidays, school breaks, presents, and the promise of a warm respite from the cold, blustery exterior every afternoon. I loved it then and I love it now. Even though some of the promises have changed, the magic of this time of year (I won’t talk of January and February just yet) remains electric.

One of the transitions from where I was as a child in western Kentucky to my role here with LifeWay Small Groups is embodied in what the team “new year” has come to mean. Then it meant some new classes and a new date on the top right-hand side of a test paper. Now it means a new pipeline, new small-group experiences, and new resources. We’re really excited about what we’ve got in the pipeline in 2011—but it begins now. We’ve got two new Life Connection studies in progress. We just released our first small-group experience on the topic of social justice. Seek Social Justice is not about convincing you to be active and give, but about equipping group members with the tools for making a difference. And in January we’ll release Building Biblical Community by Steve Gladen and Bill Donahue. We believe this small-group study will become a staple for groups, new groups, and mature groups alike for years to come. Building Biblical Community has been created to help groups members know what it means to be in a celebrating, learning, loving, and serving community—that is, how to be a great group member. We’ve also got two new releases in the popular Platform Series scheduled but, shhh, I can’t give away who we are working with just yet. (I’m thinking about waiting to deliver the news during a live broadcast on ESPN.) And of course we’ll deliver 4 new studies in the Small Group Life series: Kingdom, Awaken, Connection, and Cacophony

The Small Groups Guy recently posted LifeWay Is Back on his blog. It’s great to see this kind of affirmation out here in the blogosphere. As LifeWay Small Groups celebrates its 1st anniversary this season, we’re celebrating both the rich legacy that Small Groups Guy references and the coming years.

The manuscript for Episode 4 of Small Group Life Barbarians: A Call into Unchartered Faith is making its way into production. (Boy do we work ahead. Would you believe that this doesn’t release until next fall!) Because there’s the sense that maybe we as a culture have become somewhat soft—or perhaps better put, tame—in our faith of late, and because there’s a least a chord of applicable truth in Mick’s words to Rocky in Rocky III, the Small Group Life staff has undertaken production of Barbarians as a means for challenging believers to be more willing to confront life’s messes, challenges, and even opportunities in the spirit of Deborah, David, John the Baptist, Moses, and, yes, Jesus. And so we can address potential blind spots of a barbaric spirituality, we’ll also take up the story of Jephthah and his rash vow. I love this topic.

“But then the worst thing happened that could happen to any fighter, you got civilized.” Mickey to Rocky in Rocky III

One of the challenges of creating a small-group experience of this sort was just how to break this notion of a Christian barbarian into individual study topics—all able to stand-alone in an open group environment yet maintaining some sense of progression. I was planning to include a list with short descriptions, but decided that it might be best to leave that open for the time being. Regardless of where we land, you can expect Episode 4 to be streamlined, missional, and spiritually provocative in that the experience we create is expected to take you and your groups on a journey.

“A barbarian invasion is taking place even right now. They are coming from the four corners of the earth and they are numbered among the unlikely. From the moment Jesus walked among us the invasion began. And just as with those who crossed paths with Him here on earth, those who are most religious will be most offended and indignant.” Erwin McManus, The Barbarian Way

Episode 3: FREEDOM is in production, Episode 2: MISSION is being printed, and Episode 1: FORMATION is now available. This is a brand new series created to be affordable, flexible, and easy-to-use yet uncompromising in the biblical content and small-group experience you would expect. Got any ideas about Christian barbarianism or any of the topics, you can comment here, DM IAmAgonistes through Twitter (brand new), or go to our Facebook fan page.

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What’s NEXT for your church? What’s NEXT for your small group ministry? What’s NEXT for your connecting ministry?

If you haven’t heard about this yet, you’ll want to begin making plans now!! Earlier this summer Serendipity partnered with Saddleback Church to provide FOUR Small Groups Conferences across the country in 2009 with the theme of NEXT.

This will be the most comprehensive, energetic, and practical conference associated with small groups. In addition to awesome speakers like Rick Warren and Erwin McManus, there will also be the top practitioners in the country including Steve Gladen, Lance Witt, Bill Willits, Robert Davis, plus our very own Rick Howerton. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ll also be featuring a rare appearance by Lyman Coleman, the founder of Serendipity!! There will be two tracks to choose from – a START Track and a NEXT Track – plus a completely new opportunity for the small group leaders at your church called Small Group Saturday. This will be almost like a mini-conference within a conference. While you’re busy learning critical principles for small group ministry, your small group leaders can hear some of the top speakers in the country with the opportunity to learn from one of America’s best small group minds. Lyman will teach an exceptional two-part workshop on relational dynamics of small groups. Your group leaders will get immediate tools, tips, and techniques for leading transformational small groups from the foremost authority of the last 40 years.

There’s a ton of other things going on at these conferences in Lake Forest, Houston, Atlanta, and Cincinnati so be sure to visit the website to register or get more information.

I’m reading Erwin McManus’ latest book Wide Awake. The book itself is about finding the passionate life that we’ve been made for—a message with a great deal of appeal to me. But during my most recent reading I came across this passage in the book:

If you don’t know what your non-negotiables are, you won’t negotiate anything. You’re afraid to let go of anything because later you might discover that was a non-negotiable. When you don’t know what’s really important, you treat everything the same. Adaptability is not the result of a hollow core, but of clarity and conviction about what is at your core. Don’t confuse being rigid and unchanging with having convictions.

McManus makes this point in tandem with a believer’s tendency to abdicate. That is, often we choose between the extremes of absolute control—fed by fear—and utter abdication—fed by despair.

A friend of mine says, above all things, we must remain engaged. I would add that we should be willing to remain in the tension, what another author refers to as the agony of will—the willingness to confront discomfort, fear, and stress. A reality of our post-Fall world is that we live, breathe, and work in an environment that is less than ideal–or at least not what God intended. Given this reality we must still make choices between two less-than-ideal options.

You can see the margin for error here and this margin only increases when we live unaware of our non-negotiables, our core. As small-group leaders and pastors have you asked your groups to be intentional in knowing who they are? Clarity and conviction, according to Wide Awake, allows us to be adaptable. Consider for a moment Daniel, Hanaiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Daniel 1:9-16). They were willing to embrace the changes that came in their new climate in Babylon, but they would not allow themselves to change their core.

If we’re truly looking to influence our communities and beyond; to represent justice and join Jesus’ redemptive mission, we’ve got to know who we are. Knowing the non-negotiables and having clarity contributes not only to spiritual formation but also opens the door for adaptability … and being able to adapt puts the “mobile” in small groups. Being able to adapt allows us to work through the culture we’ve been given without compromising our core.