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Archive for Small Groups

“Afterward Jesus went up on a mountain and called out the ones he wanted to go with him. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve of them and called them his apostles. They were to accompany him, and he would send them out to preach, giving them authority to cast out demons. These are the twelve he chose: Simon (whom he named Peter), James and John (the sons of Zebedee, but Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon (the zealotd), and Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him)” (Mark 3:13-19, NLT).

As I have already mentioned, Jesus never had a problem attracting crowds. In fact, the previous paragraph in Mark 3 reports that the crowd was so large it forced Jesus to get into a boat a push away from the shore just to provide a little cushion for him to speak. I find it fascinating, however, that Jesus didn’t try to organize the crowd to implement the Kingdom. He opted to select 12 who would accompany him to the top of the mountain. Jesus had three goals for the 12 who agreed to take on the mantle of discipleship.

First, Jesus wanted to help them to connect relationally with himself and with each other. Connecting relationally is an important part of our personal growth and spiritual development. Connecting with God would appear to be a bit obvious and probably doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Jesus values anytime we connect with him, and placed that as priority in his rationale for calling the group together. But the value of connecting with others is a critical dynamic that is often over looked. We have been designed by God to grow, and our best opportunity for growth occurs in the fertile soil of community. The meaningful relationships that are developed in a small group dynamic trump the shallow offerings of the big crowd and provide balance that we do not find when in isolation.

The problem with connecting relationally is that relationships can be messy. Think about the people Jesus selected. There was Peter who could be characterized as outspoken and brash. Then James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” nicknamed as such because of their quick tempers. Simon was a zealot, meaning he was an activist who was willing to shed blood for his convictions. And there at the end of the list is Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus for the price of a common household slave. Jesus didn’t pick the easy, compliant people to join his group. Jesus picked messy people who He believed had the potential to change the world.

When my wife and I were getting ready to get married, my father gave us a bit of brilliant advice about marriage that I’ll never forget. He said, “If two people are near enough alike that they never disagree, then one of them is not necessary.” That’s the kind of value that relationships, difficult as they may be, add to our personal growth. If you are only willing to connect with those who you perceive to be exactly like you, then you’ll get along marvelously. But will you have balance? Will you be challenged? Will you learn to think critically and develop discernment? Will you learn to love unconditionally? Will you overcome your natural tendencies to judge? Relationships are messy because everyone is broken and fallen. And that includes you and me. Tomorrow I’ll post about the second purpose that Jesus had in creating this unique opportunity for the growth and development of his disciples.

Categories : Small Groups
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Your Best Avenue for Growth

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There’s something about a big crowd that is impressive. Take sporting events for example. Can you think of a professional sport that doesn’t announce “tonight’s attendance?” Or a newspaper report on a political event that doesn’t include the number of people who attended the $1,000 per plate black tie dinner? We like to count people, and we love to count lots of people.

During the early part of Jesus ministry he drew crowds. Big, impressive ones at that. If Jesus were teaching today he’d be interviewed by CNN and New York Times. Church leaders would be demanding conferences, and publishers would be requesting manuscripts for the next great “how to” manual on how to draw crowds and how to effectively communicate to the crowds once they have been gathered.

Jesus could attract a crowd but he knew that he wouldn’t change the world with a big crowd. Those big crowds can be fickle, and before you know it the people who shout “Hosanna” on Sunday morning can cry “Crucify!” by the end of the week. So rather than commit himself to the flash mobs, Jesus instead selected 12 men and made a three year investment in their lives. This week I’m going to write a series of posts on how participating in a small group is your best avenue for spiritual transformation. This isn’t a series putting down big churches or notable pastors. This is a series that is simply designed to argue that when you decide you want to be a catalyst for the sake of the Kingdom, your first step needs to be a small one.

Categories : Small Groups
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Proverbs: Wisdom for Life

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One of the most practical books in the Bible is the Book of Proverbs. Compiled by King Solomon, Proverbs is a collection of sayings that help the reader apply the truth of God to everyday situations.

For years I’ve read one chapter of Proverbs each day. During my devotional time I read the chapter that corresponds with the day’s date. For example, on February 1, I read Proverbs chapter one. On February 2, I read Proverbs chapter two, and so forth. While I’ve always benefited from my frequent reading of Proverbs, it’s been a difficult book to study. One of the reasons for that is the way the book is structured. In any given chapter of Proverbs the reader will discover several independent truths on a wide variety of themes.

Our Saturday night congregation will do a small group study this spring that I have designed to study the Book of Proverbs thematically. I’ve selected nine reoccurring themes from the book and written a small group curriculum study guide. During the nine sessions we’ll discuss topics such as Wisdom, Speech, Anger, Stress, Money, Marriage and Parenting. I’m very excited about the finished product and pray that God will use it to connect us with Him and with one another.

Categories : Proverbs, Small Groups
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“When Jesus landed on the shore and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Mark 6:34-35)

“The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teacher of the law.” (Matthew 7:28-29)

In my last post, I shared some characteristics of Jesus’ teaching style. To quickly review, Jesus embodied his teaching. He was comfortable with all kinds of people regardless of age, gender, race, or socio-economic background. He showed compassion for his learners. He was a student of his students as well as a student of the Scriptures. These five characteristics were beneficial to the teaching ministry of our Lord. Now I want to explore some of Jesus’ teaching methods.

1. Jesus established a relationship with his learners.
Teaching from mouth to ear is different from teaching heart-to-heart. If “getting the lesson across” is the main goal, there is little need for relationship between teacher and student. But if transforming students toward Christ-likeness is the goal, a warm positive relationship is essential. In order to develop your relationship with class members, you may want to consider planning a fellowship or a ministry project to do outside of the Sunday School hour.

2. Jesus stimulated and maintained interest.
Jesus developed interest with dramatic illustration. He was a masterful story teller, and drew upon images, situations, and events that the listener could easily identify with. He told parables. He used everyday objects as teaching tools. He asked questions of his students. He taught on the road, and in the boat. He taught on mountain tops and sea shores. He taught indoors and outdoors. He taught while sitting, standing and walking. There was one time Jesus even taught the 12 while they were sitting around a table! These things enabled Jesus to cultivate interest and keep attention.

3. Jesus taught by example.
It has been said that more is “caught” than “taught.” Jesus invited his disciples to imitate his behaviors. The best teachers provide living case studies of the subject matter. Jesus communicated great truths through words and actions. Whether we like it or not, teachers are examples of Christian behavior. More often than not, we are given opportunity to live out the very principles of the lesson in some aspect of life even while we are preparing the lesson!

4. Jesus taught people, not lessons.
A friend of mine once said, “We don’t teach the Bible. You can’t teach the Bible anything. We teach people the Bible.” One of the challenges teachers face is the need to cover all of the material in a given lesson. This is often a difficult task, especially if you’re interested in utilizing a method beyond lecture. Jesus understood the balance between covering the lesson and meeting the needs of the students. When the Scripture intersects with the needs of the students, you’ve taught the lesson!

5. Jesus focused on application.
One scholar recently reported that Jesus teaching could be described as 33% content and 66% application. In other words, Jesus spent twice as much time applying the Scriptures to life than dealing with the interpretation of Scripture. Look for ways to apply the main idea of the lesson. Again, the goal is transformation, not information.

6. Jesus sought long term results rather than immediate results.
Or, as we commonly say, Jesus stressed the marathon, not the sprint. He invested three years in the disciples. He helped them patiently work through the difficult lessons, and celebrated their growth when they were successful. All in all, Jesus understood that one lesson a disciple does not make. We should keep that in mind as well.

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Earlier this week I posted some helpful tips for lesson preparation for Sunday School teachers that I wrote in 2008. These next two posts come from the same series. While the target audience is for Sunday School teachers, small group leaders will find the concepts transferrable to their context.

“When Jesus landed on the shore and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
(Mark 6:34-35)

“The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teacher of the law.” (Matthew 7:28-29)

In both the Ten Commandments and in the Sermon on the Mount, scripture emphasizes that our “being” comes before our “doing.” The best teaching flows not merely out of our mouths, but from our hearts. As we begin to consider the teaching style of Jesus, we first must learn something of the person of Jesus.

In other words, he was what he taught. His words and actions reinforced each other with an authority that amazed his listeners. “What we are” speaks more loudly than “what we say.” Faith learning is more “caught from” than “taught by” a teacher.

Teachers must be able to establish rapport with learners if they are to be effective. As we study the life of Jesus, we discover that he was comfortable with a wide range of people:
Nicodemus, a man who was wealthy, highly educated, and a religious leader in the Sanhedrin;
Zacchaeus, a tax collector who was despised by his fellow countrymen as a traitor and a thief;
The Woman at the Well, whose life was clearly marked by sexual immorality. Jesus put his own reputation at risk by merely speaking with her;
The Demon Possessed, whose lives were broken mentally and emotionally;
The Children, who were viewed as second class citizens whose value was equated with slaves.
Certainly we can add more examples to this simple list. Like Jesus, we have an opportunity each week to encounter a wide range of people.

Jesus made significant investments in the lives of his learners. He valued his learners above his lessons, and was patient with them when they were slow to learn. As it has been said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Because God cares for the people that attend our Bible Study classes, we should show care for them as well.

One of the reasons Jesus’ teaching was so special is that it focused on the real life needs of those he taught. Jesus knew his learners, and he used that knowledge to focus his teaching for maximum effectiveness in each situation.

Jesus was familiar with the text of the Old Testament Scriptures. He used his mastery of the “Bible” to focus on the needs of the people. His teaching met them where they were, not where he wanted them to be. People were his focus. Scripture was his means. As he applied the Scriptures to real problems in the lives of real people, he provided solutions and help that were uniquely suited to each person. When the eternal word of God intersects with today’s needs, the result is life change.

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There is an old saying among writers that quips “That which comes first is written last.” It is a reference to the introduction of a body of work. Normally, linear thinking would suppose that a writer begins with an introduction, writes the body, and finishes with the conclusion. However, it makes sense that the purpose of the introduction is to introduce in an informed manner all that is to come.

For example, I’ve had opportunity over the years to introduce special guests at dinners and church services alike. Sometimes I am the most qualified to make the introduction. On other occasions, I’m not the most qualified. What makes the difference? The difference is whether or not I’m the most familiar with the guest. If someone in the room is more familiar with the guest, certainly they would be more qualified to make the introduction.

Let’s consider some tips for writing better introductions:

1. Know the main point of the lesson.
On a good day, we communicate one truth to our learners that they can take with them as they leave our Sunday School rooms. It is the main idea that gives continuity to the teaching time. The main point should inform how the introduction is prepared.
2. Know the purpose of the introduction.
The purpose of the introduction is to create interest and segue into the body of the lesson. How can you create interest? It could be sharing a quote, telling a story, reading a poem, playing a song, playing a game, or even asking a thought provoking question. “How’s everybody doing?” or “What did you guys do this weekend?” is probably not a good introduction.
3. An introduction should anticipate the final outcome, but not give away the end of the movie.
In other words, you will want to give an indication of what you’re going to study, problems you may encounter, and challenges you may face. But to give away the end of the plot in the introduction gives permission for the learner to pass judgment and to determine whether or not they want to go on the journey for the next several minutes.
For example, suppose you are teaching a lesson on Jonah. You could begin by saying, “Today we’re going to talk about Jonah. He rejected God’s command to go to Nineveh, and tried to run away from God. But he ended up getting thrown into the sea where he was swallowed by a whale. But after three days, he repented and the whale vomited him up on dry land. So let’s all find Jonah in the Bible and begin…”
Or, you could take the same lesson on Jonah and begin by asking, “What’s the most difficult thing God could ask you to do?” After several responses, you could use a transitional statement like, “Today we’re going to study the life of an Old Testament character that felt that God was asking him to do something utterly impossible. Let’s turn to Jonah…”
In the first example, the teacher gave permission to the learners to decide whether or not they wanted to make the journey. I think of it as telling the punch line of a joke or the ending of a movie. In the second example, learners were invited to participate in the journey on a very personal level. Interest is created as they confront a difficult question in their lives and are invited to examine the Scriptures for a possible answer.
4. Use variety.
Your curriculum may give some ideas on how to craft a good introduction. If not, you have an opportunity to express some creativity. One of the important keys to developing good introductions is to use variety. Variety frees you from becoming predictable, and creates further anticipation from the class.
5. Arrive early / Begin on time.
As a school teacher, my wife has her classroom door open 15 minutes before the bell rings. Students arrive during that 15 minute window, put their coats and lunches away, and find their seat to begin class at the bell.
There is much to talk about in the lesson. Our Sunday School classes, especially for our adults, are a significant point of connection during the week. Chances are you have more to talk about in your class than 60 minutes will allow. I think it’s important to start promptly. Sometimes people are late to Sunday School, I realize, but consider this: Are we giving class members permission to come late when we wait for “everybody to get here?”

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As an established church, we have a commitment to maintaining the traditional expressions of Sunday School and Worship while developing the contemporary expressions of contemporary worship and small groups. This post is from an online training email I sent to our Sunday School leadership in 2008. Although it was written to assist those who lead a traditional Sunday School unit, many of these principles will apply to those who lead small groups in contemporary settings. Tomorrow I will do part 2 of the series on Sunday School Lesson preparation.

During my doctoral studies, I had the rare privilege to conduct an interview with Dr. Fred Craddock. Craddock was trained in New Testament studies, and had a notable career as a Professor of New Testament. But when his seminary lost a preaching professor, Craddock was asked to teach homiletics (preaching). As a result of this experience, Craddock wrote a significant preaching text titled, As One Without Authority. He chose the title because he felt as though he was not an authority on preaching. However his philosophy of sermon preparation and delivery has become one of the most prominent styles in mainline churches across America.

One of the principles that Craddock practiced and taught his preaching students was simple, yet profound:

“Do a little every day.”

Craddock believed that preachers would be more effective if they prepared their sermons over the course of six days, versus waiting until the end of the week and having to pull a marathon study event to complete the task. Craddock taught students of preaching that one hour a day, for example, was more valuable than six hours in one sitting. As I thought about Craddock’s suggested approach, I became convinced he was right. For years I’ve tried to practice this principle and make it my own.

What about you? Do you “do a little every day?” Or do you prepare your Sunday School lesson in one sitting? Let me suggest some benefits to working on the lesson on a daily basis:

1. Starting the lesson early in the week helps the teacher become conscious of the text in the midst of daily life, resulting in rich illustrations and lesson applications. If the teacher knows the text and topic for Sunday’s lesson, he or she can be alert to the news, people, circumstances, and situations that could help communicate the truth of the lesson.
2. Starting the lesson early in the week lets the lesson work into the teacher’s own life first. Effectiveness in teaching is improved when one begins with their own self first. When the teacher understands the implications of the lesson, he or she may then turn to focus on the needs of the class.
3. Starting the lesson early in the week prevents one from depending on time that may or may not be available. Whether we like it or not, time that we believe may be available to us at the end of the week may be snatched away by some unexpected interruption.
4. Starting the lesson early in the week gives the teacher an opportunity to think about it during commutes, while waiting in lines, while exercising, etc.
5. Starting the lesson early in the week allows the teacher to work on preparation and delivery. The preaching and teaching task is in two basic parts. In our study we determine what needs to be said. But that is only half the battle. The second half of the task is determining how to say it.

I’m sure you can think of other benefits besides the ones I’ve mentioned. Even those who teach in preschool, children, and youth can benefit from doing a little every day.

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