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.

While a graduate student at a notable school in the great state of Georgia I participated in a seminar class that studied the works of Edmund Spenser. (“Why?” you ask. Holding down a full-time job allowed limited options. But you make the most of it.) We spent a little time on lesser works like Muiopotmos and “The Shepherd’s Calender,” but the bulk of the semester we spent on The Faerie Queene—a 1,000 (not a typo) page poem that addresses practically every aspect of Elizabethan culture. It’s actually fascinating, assuming would-be readers can manage to stay awake.

The Faerie Queene employs allegory in treating its subject. The allegory takes place on two levels: the Christian and the political. The former takes up the story of the Red Cross Knight and examines the moral, philosophical, and religious of the human condition. The latter draws from various allegorical manifestations of Elizabeth I while diving very deep into expressions of the political, social, and religious conversations of the day. But that’s not important. (I included it because I’ve waited more than 10 years to be able to find a way to use this information. Admittedly, it’s a stretch.) What is important, though, are the knights that represent Justice, Chastity, Courtesy, Temperance, and Friendship. Each has a charge to carry out and each has his, or in the case of Britomart, her, own personal villain—or obstacle standing between him or herself and his or her duty. It’s epic in a poetic, Renaissancey, got-to-read-it-so-I-might-as-well-enjoy-it kind of way.

Each knight has his own villain, that is, except Cambell and Triamond—the knights of friendship. In Spenser’s Faerie Land Cambell and Triamond must battle almost every character and practically every allegorical expression of social depravity, wickedness, and evil over the course of The Faerie Queene. And believe when I say, that is a long course. Presumably this is because true friendship, authentic community, stands to do the most damage to the many villainous plots and schemes both in the fictitious Faerie Land as well as the real world that it has been created to represent.

During my late 20s and 30s a friend and I would debate the merit of friendship and whether it belonged in the pantheon that includes justice, temperance, and chastity. He, ten years my senior, passionately believed that friendship belonged in the most lofty places. I, on the other hand, really just didn’t get it. Not only did friendship not belong on the grandest stage, but maybe it was even trivial. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends and loved them. And even though I had intimate friends I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand community. Maybe it isn’t until a little later in life that we can truly appreciate the depth of community, what its absence means to our spiritual health, and how God works through group life, authentic relationships, and intimate friendship.

It’s no happenstance that Cambell, Spenser’s Knight of Friendship, possesses a ring that renders him almost invulnerable because the ring had the power to heal Cambell’s wounds—his battle wounds. That’s because what was true in 1590 is just as true now. There is power in community. There is strength in community. God heals through community. Episode 7 of Small Group Life, Connections, in which we examine the many connections of our life, addresses the levels of community in our lives and leads groups on a journey into the ways we are connected, should be connected, and must stay connected. These connections represent the cords of Ecclesiastes 4:12—and Cambell’s ring.

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.

Neptune Pool. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel

Just recently I had the opportunity to extend a trip associated with my role here for a few days to enjoy that virtual Eden that is California. My wife and I spent a couple of days in Disneyland, of course, but also took a couple of days to drive up to central California where we experienced Cambria and San Simeon for the first, and hopefully not the last, time. While there we toured the Hearst Castle—basically, the West Coast equivalent of the Biltmore Mansion. This incredible manor, built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, has an incredibly rich history and story. During the tour and in subsequent conversations I’ve picked up on several leadership lessons that can be gleaned.

Partnership. For such a special project Hearst had to seek out the most gifted architect of the day. He found Julia Morgan. Julia completed hundreds of projects in her life but is probably most famous for her role with Hearst. The Hearst Castle took 15 years to complete and it necessitated a give-and-take partnership between visionary and builder, each most likely at times serving these roles alternately. There were probably moments of tension and exasperation, but in the final analysis both were well aware that they had crossed the Rubicon into the point of no return. As we say, they were “in it.” This sort of devotion comes right out of Acts 2 and is foundational to redemptive community.

Beauty Is Worth The Wait. There are little details everywhere you look on the tour we were on. The indoor pool Hearst referred to as the Roman Baths has thousands of tiles made of 22 karat gold. The marble implemented in creating the outdoor pool was imported from Italy. The art collection amassed painstakingly over the course of a lifetime. The story behind the furniture and paintings in the guest houses. Like a true redemptive community, not only was the resulting beauty worth the wait, but it remained a work in progress until Hearst’s death. True beauty is the work of a lifetime.

Work In Progress. The house sits atop  hill that’s 5 miles away from the coast. I mean it’s way up there—practically above the clouds. These circumstances required that the work site become a small-city where builders could actually live, supplies stored, and materials warehoused. In many of the pictures we saw it is an absolute mess. But in order to get where he wanted to be, Hearst and Morgan had to tolerate—dare I say encourage—the mess on the way to the destination.

Willing to Scrap. The outdoor pool, known as Neptune Pool (pictured), was originally designed to accommodate Hearts’s family and a few others. After it was completed, however, it was decided to scrap the whole thing to make it bigger—and grander. Similarly, the Casa Grande originally had just one spire. Because of the threat of earthquakes, all construction utilized re-enforced, fortified concrete making any sort of “re-do” a task of Ruthian proportions. But for all practical purposes they tore down the entire house so they could build in a second spire … just because. Taking this in I remember concluding, when creating something significant we’ve got to be willing to scrap our original plan if the occasion calls for it. To be a great builder often requires our willingness to scrap what we’ve already built.

Become Art Collectors. In the case of William Hearst, collecting art was a zillion-dollar habit that included roaming the entire planet in a quest for the most beautiful, rare, and wonderful finds. In our case, the “art” we collect translates into the stories being told and lived in and through group life. As a group member we must be willing to contribute the “art” that results from our own lives. As leaders we must become art collectors in the same sense.

Yeah It May Be Hard But ….
Not once on the tour did I hear the guide refer to a moment when something wasn’t done because it was too hard. (Disclaimer: Seeming endless resources does contribute in this case.) Hearst had a zoo on site. (He owned a polar bear.) He made substantial changes in construction and planning as a result of art acquisitions. Building on the hill posed enormous challenges given the technology of the day. Instead of seeing the obstacles, he chose instead to “live” in a yet-to-be-seen reality and plot every push of the fly-wheel in that direction—sometimes in small, hand-carved increments. I would refer to this as a form of romanticism. The process of building true redemptive community may be hard, but …

The journey to redemptive community may be daunting—moreso if we choose to look at all the reasons we shouldn’t be able to do it—but this only provides the impetus to look beyond the challenges and directly into what God is going to do. We must work together in community with the various architects God has brought into our lives, willing to scrap and re-direct with each new piece of “art” we fortunate enough to encounter. But in the end we’re building not only something beautiful, but something to stand the test of time.

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more about “Episode 1 – Mystery “, posted with vodpod

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.

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.

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.