There are a lot of good people writing about small groups and small-group ministry these days, which means there’s a lot of great content available for the good and courageous folks who’ve chosen to lead a group. I’m thankful for that.

But one message is mostly missing from the mountains of material: Small groups should be fun. Just like alliteration is fun. (See what I did there?)

I’ll repeat that: I think the presence of fun is a vitally important element of a successful small-group meeting.

Why?
There are two reasons why fun is crucial to a small-group meeting, and everybody understands the first one. Namely, it’s fun to have fun. People like having fun. You, me, your group members, and anyone who might eventually become one of your group members—we all enjoy a good time.

Having fun in a small-group setting creates positive associations. It helps people open up and speeds up the process of building relationships. At the very least, it gives people a concrete reason to come back even if other parts of the group meeting don’t go very well. (Of course, the opposite is true for boring or overly serious group meetings.)

But there’s a second reason why having fun is important for small groups, and that one is a bit more surprising. Namely, fun is a key component of spiritual growth.

If you don’t believe me, check out your Bible. How many feasts does God command the Israelites to celebrate throughout the Old Testament? How many parties did Jesus and his disciples attend? How many times did the members of the Early Church break bread together?

God is a community, after all, and He created us in His image. He wired us to be our best selves when we are part of a network of believers who learn together and work to advance His kingdom together, yes—but He also wired us to enjoy each other (and enjoy Him!) along the way.

How?
That raises an interesting question, though: How does a group leader incorporate fun into the group?

There are a number of things that work for me, but I’d rather open this question to the wisdom of the crowd rather than give any more personal opinions. So, what’s been a fun activity or experience in your group meetings? Or, what would you like to try in order to add a spark of entertainment?

Add your ideas in the Comments section below, and then get out there and have some fun!

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

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

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

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

As I was coming home from the gym last night (and yes, it’s the first time in months I’ve been able to say that. I swam some during my pregnancy, but that was it. It’s one of my bigger regrets and next pregnancy I will try to stay more in shape. Not that I was in shape in the first place.)

Um, where was I?

Oh, yes. I was driving home last night, feeling a throbbing pain on the back of my left heel. I’d worn my ankle brace because I have this tendency to hurt myself, particularly at the Y. My ankle is still healing up from its last sprain and I really did not care to wipe out on the treadmill in front of those bodybuilding guys who I am SURE are always laughing at how fat and out-of-shape I am.

I am an Observer by nature, and although I spent my time on the treadmill watching Good Eats (really, WHO watches Food Network while working out? I’m an idiot), I was also watching those around me. The guy beside me holding onto the side rails of his treadmill and doing a funny walk. The skinny elliptical girls. In my plain sight were two girls doing stretches and ab exercises on floor mats–and taking breaks to text on their phones. (Texting kinda baffles me. I don’t feel the need to be that connected to people, I guess.)

Anyway, the drive home. Right. I was annoyed at myself for wearing a blister into my heel. Earlier last night, I looked down at my foot and said, “I’m bleeding.” I didn’t know how it happened. I’m constantly noticing bruises on my legs from unknown sources. I fall down. I guess I’m just a klutz.

I wondered, driving, what it would be like to be somebody who did not do these things. Someone “cool.” Maybe an elliptical girl, skinny–which I have never been–and someone who doesn’t go to bed at 9 p.m., doesn’t feel like she always wears the wrong thing to work, and doesn’t randomly hurt herself on a consistent basis.

Really, most of the time, I’m OK with being plain old awkward me. I just wonder what’s it like to be on the other side. Do you know? Maybe nobody thinks they’re cool. Maybe everyone deals with the same sense of insecurity.

I’m learning. Learning to be me. Learning that it’s not so bad after all. My husband loves me the way I am, all kinds of crazy and everything. Libbie seems to like me (or at least my, ahem, chest). I have great friends, wonderful family, all who don’t seem to run away when I come near them. And most of all, I have a Father who seems to adore me no matter how much I screw up. In fact, He promises it.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

Photo courtesy of Garrison Photo via Stock Exchange

This post was originally published at Vanderbilt Wife, May 2009.

Do you think God still speaks? Really?

And how?

Even though over the last three years I have worked on at least three Bible studies about God speaking, none of them hit me like this book did. Sure, I thought God spoke to people. In some way.

Even though I know someone who has heard an audible voice telling her that her husband would be OK when he was going through a tough sickness, I still wasn’t sure that pertained to me. I believe her–definitely. But I wouldn’t expect it to happen to me.

And why not?

This books rocks!

In Nine Ways God Always Speaks, Mark Herringshaw and Jennifer Schuchmann relay stories. Stories of God speaking to normal, present-day Christians like you and me. These are interspersed with historical and biblical examples in a very readable manner. The authors throw in their own opinions, doubts, and feelings–as well as incidences that occurred when they were writing the book. It’s a conversation with a friend as they tell you about the amazing thing that happened to someone they know.

I knew I would like the book as soon as I started it. What I didn’t know is how it would challenge me. I think that we’ve really tried to take the supernatural out of God in our culture. It’s not easy to rationalize, so we just dismiss it. I think the biggest struggle I’ve had with my faith is trying to put God in a box that my pea-sized brain can comprehend.

And He is much bigger than that box, y’all.

I came away with the overwhelming desire to expect God to work in my life–to hear Him. Maybe through the Bible. Maybe through coincidences or nature. But also maybe through dreams, visions, voices, or an urge to do something I can’t do on my own. I don’t want to take the mystery out of God. I want to expect Him to work in big ways that I can’t understand.

What is the strangest way God has spoken to you? Most unbelievable? Most frequent? I’d love to know.

Originally published at Vanderbilt Wife. If you’re interested, I’m giving away a copy of this book on my personal blog this week! Giveaway ends Friday 6/5.

alice-in-wonderlandGiven my daughter’s Alice in  Wonderland ballet recital, a recent trip to Disneyland, and a little buzz surrounding the new Alice in Wonderland movie, I thought it might be a good time to give Alice a little bit of a “shout-out” here at The Gypsy Road.  I can only conclude that Walt Disney was accurate when he said, after being asked about Alice in Wonderland‘s lackluster reception: “When we got down to it we realized that it was just a bunch of weird characters.”

I read the Lewis Carroll story back in the fall after putting it off for many many years. As a result of that experience I will add that Alice is a very enlightened character in a postmodern sense. Since we need to become comfortable with the mysteries of the world if we’re going to be serious about traveling the gypsy road, I thought this quote from Alice in Wonderland would serve to connect us to the fairy tale we all find ourselves in—the spiritual journey. We’re also using it in the first Small Group Life release.

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”

mouth-tape-man

I am a part of a men’s group that meets every Tuesday morning. Our topic for the moment has been reading Epic by John Eldredge and discussing the themes, paradigm changes, and formational revelations we are experiencing. What has happened more often than not however, is rather than discussing the book, we are sharing what is currently commanding our attention. You know, those things that keep you up at night and really expose the messiness of life. For some it’s relationships, for others it’s a captivity they struggle to find freedom from, and yet others are just beginning to understand that how their story intersects with the Larger Story. The thing we all share though is that the formulas we’ve depended on our entire lives are no longer working for us. And when things don’t work like they use to, life can get, well … really messy. So we use this time to process our stories in community rather than worrying about finishing the book in 6 weeks. It’s been beautiful … and revealing. New layers of authenticity are being expressed and spiritual gifts are being exercised in response to the needs that bubble up.

One thing I’m seeing through all this is that group life, just like our own lives, can get difficult and messy at times. Here’s the deal, we have one group member lately who has completely dominated the conversations. Not only that but most of his monologue has been directed at providing solutions to others’ problems.  He doesn’t really share what’s taking place in his own journey, but how other men can get their life in order if they just following these simple instructions.   We meet early in the mornings and some of the group has to leave a little early in order to be at work on time. What’s happened of late is these individuals haven’t had much of an opportunity to share or  comment because of the one dominant voice. Another concern is that those who share their messes aren’t necessarily looking for a nice, tidy fix to their problems. Often, they just need to share what’s been causing pain so they can better process what’s really going on. The group can encourage and draw out the strength of these hurting men without necessarily giving them three points to solve their dilemma. It’s gotten to the point where this talkative person has actually begun to hold our group “hostage” by taking over the conversation and others in the group are unsure how to respond. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you experienced this difficult group dynamic? What did you do?

Well here’s what I did. I had a private conversation with the group member who invited the person who was dominating our group discussion and who knew him best. We both agreed that it had become a problem and a conversation with this person was needed soon. I gave him the following talking points to use in his conversation:

  • Because of the limited time we have and some who have to leave early, it’s really important to allow time for everyone to share.
  • You have some really good thoughts and suggestions but the priority is for everyone to talk about their own journey.
  • Not everyone is looking for a solution when they share a problem. Sometimes they just need to speak it in community to process what they are feeling.
  • We value authenticity and often times that will mean leaving someone with a messy situation where there are no quick fixes…and that’s OK.
  • Our group is more about listening to each other and hearing what’s being said than responding to every problem that is shared.

I also have found guidelines from the Samson Society meetings to be helpful, which calls for the following during group discussions:

  • We address our statements to the group as a whole rather than directing them toward any one person.
  • As a rule, we refrain from giving advice to others or instructing them during the meeting, believing that such conversations are best reserved for private moments between friends.

As it turns out, the conversation between these two went great and the dominating person displayed great humility and understanding. I’m excited for our group to meet again and share how God has used this messy situation as yet another expression of His redemptive nature. Our group will likely experience a new level of intimacy because of this and my hope is that everyone feels a more profound ownership of the group.

It would be great if you could join in on this conversation! What are some situations your group has experienced that are similar to this? What action was taken and what were the results? What happened if no actions were taken? What would you have done in the case of my group? Do you have any other suggestions or comments you could share for us?

Remember, group life is organic and you should always be ready to change and modify your group dynamics based on other’s experience. But you should always, always make sure you are living life in community. As I heard recently from a friend,

I’d rather drown in community than swim alone.

In this season of transition, challenge small-group members to intensify their devotional lives. Challenge them to pay attention to the world around them; asking God what He is revealing. Consider giving some time during this week’s small-group meeting to a discussion about these moments and experiences.

A third kind of contemplative prayer is meditation upon the creation. Now, this is no infantile pantheism, but a majestic monotheism in which the great creator of the universe shows us something of his glory through his creation. The heavens do indeed declare the glory of God and the firmament does show forth his handiwork (Ps. 19:1). Evelyn Underhill recommends, “… begin with that first form of contemplation which the old mystics sometimes called ‘the discovery of God in his creatures.’ from Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline).