Thursday, January 14, 2021

2021 - A Year for Belief

 

While the year of 2020 may have been tumultuously chaotic, it seems that one of the only things everyone seems to be unified on is the act of saying farewell to one of the most negatively disruptive years in modern history. Yet the mere act of flipping the calendar month doesn’t necessarily mean that our lives are suddenly changing for the better. Indeed, many of the effects of the previous year have carried over into the New Year as we are still collectively hit hard by job loss, sickness from Covid-19, mental health concerns from the lockdowns, cancellation of momentous in-person events, and a variety of other challenges in our lives that seem to have been amplified by the events of the previous 12 months. Nevertheless, there does exist a part of our lives that we can proactively focus on and build upon in 2021, and that is our level of belief. Reading of the Gospel of John can assist us in the exploration of this concept, especially chapters 11-12. From these two chapters, let us extract 2 key elements that the Bible reveals to us on how we can increase our level of belief.

Engaging in His Work
One of the most fascinating moments of Jesus’ ministry is recorded in John 11 where we witness the resurrection of Lazarus. Upon Jesus’ arrival at the village, Martha states, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, NRSV). But before we concentrate on Martha, we must not lose focus of Jesus’ underlying goal: this story is not about increasing Martha’s belief in Jesus (after all, Martha confirms her faith quite clearly in 11:27). Instead, this Gospel story is about increasing the belief of His disciples! In a shocking moment of transparency, Jesus confessed earlier in the chapter that He was glad to not have been near Lazarus when His friend died because it would end up increasing the belief of His disciples (11:15). 

The resurrection of Lazarus was a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry. From this point forward, we see that Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews (11:54). Rather, the events that transpired ended up solidifying the belief of His disciples so much that they were inspired to remain with Him. Even though the disciples may not have fully understood what Jesus had meant when He first invited them to travel to Lazarus, what was important was that they had enough faith to trust Him and follow Him (11:16). Similarly, if we are engaging in His work and doing ministry alongside Jesus like the disciples had been doing, He will increase our belief as well and inspire us to make the kingdom of God a priority in all that we do.

Staying Humble
On the heels of the Lazarus story that was intended to bring glory to God (11:4), John 12 drives this concept of glory further through three movements: First, Lazarus who recently shook the dust of death off of his shoulders is sharing his testimony and bringing many Jews to Christ (12:11); second, Jesus acknowledges His calling of being a sacrifice as He simultaneously invites God to receive His due glory (12:20-28); and third, John explains to his readers that the love of human glory is a dangerous stumbling block that prevents individuals from believing in Christ (12:37-45). Woven throughout each of these three portions of the chapter we see the theme of redirecting attention to God the Father. 

When we refuse to give glory to God, the negative impact on our lives can be powerful. First, we can become so consumed by the pervasive politics of our day-to-day lives that we would rather punish anyone who is taking away our clout than to focus on kingdom work (12:11); second, our obsession with worldly glory can spiritually blind us to the point where we become oblivious of when the Lord departs from us (12:36); and third, our rejection of Christ and the usurping of his glory will cause us to remain in spiritual darkness, thereby placing us in a position where we will be judged accordingly (12:46-48). It is when we stay humble that our belief is able to be increased, for it helps us recognize that we were never meant to be recipients of glory, but rather God the Father, and only Him.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Exponential Small Group Growth in a Post-Covid World

 

In the February 2020 Lobby Conference hosted by Small Group Network, Saddleback pastors Steve Gladen and Dave Alford tag teamed and tackled one of the most anticipated topics of the event: Exponential Growth in Small Group Ministry. Here, let us review three of the key takeaways from this momentous presentation by Steve and Dave.

Choosing Growth over Control
The Book of Acts is one of the best resources we have to understand the growth of the church during its formative years. A brief read through of this section of Scripture can quickly show us that the church preferred growth over control as they would preach to thousands and then baptize them shortly afterward. As witnessed throughout Acts, explosive growth was a good problem to have, for it established a foundation upon which its teachings could stand upon. Similarly, we too must be okay with the mess that new small groups may create. Instead of focusing primarily on if a new small group leader is maintaining sound theological discourse within their very first meeting, we are challenged to celebrate the fact that Jesus is being discussed at all and that members are coming together to form community. But doesn’t bad theology and misinformed teaching create more complication for the kingdom of God? Yes, however just as we see in the Bible, doctrine and teaching was provided shortly after Acts through the writings of the Epistles. Just as how Paul conducted “on-the-job” training via letters to the churches he was mentoring, we too can choose growth first and then later practice the approach of surgically addressing any theological concerns through a consistent roll-out of bite-size trainings.

A Culture of Groups
While we all wish our congregants would be fully devoted followers of Christ who are consistently serving, attending a small group, and in-the-know of the church calendar at all times, the reality is that many of our churchgoers only step foot onto church grounds for Sunday service (or online for virtual Sunday service). In other words, Sunday morning may in fact be the only shot we have to help promote small groups and/or explain the benefits of small groups. If our churches only mention small groups twice a year at the times when there are coordinated group launches, then this means that the typical church attendee only will hear about small groups 4% of the year (even less if they miss one or both of those two services!). If the church’s leadership agrees that small groups are one of the most important ministries within the community, then we become challenged to display the fact that small groups are indeed a part of our church’s DNA. To help execute this, some strategies can include: (1) head pastor buy-in (where the senior pastor becomes one of the most vocal proponents of small group ministry and even attends a group themselves); (2) Church calendar events that strategically funnel individuals into newly created groups (and/or church events that don’t interfere with the weekdays on which small groups typically meet); or (3) Consistent small group promotion from the pulpit (Not every message needs to be a small group sermon, but every message can contain a shout-out or a 30 second tie-in to small groups).

Lowering the Barriers
In a post-Covid world, small group ministries have found themselves challenged to embrace new methods in facilitating and nurturing community. While meeting in-person will always be the ideal method of meeting in groups, what we do know is that the concept of virtual groups is here to stay. During this time that we find ourselves in, what type of group is easy to duplicate, is able to meet both online and in-person, is easily sustainable, and also is easy to lead? As we arrive on the other side of the widespread disruption that Covid-19 had brought with it, sermon discussion groups may very well be the perfect type of “growth over control” group to launch within our church’s small group ministry. A sermon discussion guide is not only able to empower anyone to host a group and facilitate engaging conversation, but it also allows what Steve and Dave encouraged us all to practice during last year’s Lobby: rather than simply telling our groups what to do, we instead provide for our groups the destination we want them to reach while utilizing the values we want them to use in order to arrive there. Even though a model of sermon discussion groups chooses growth over control, it does so within a framework that provides its groups a set of guardrails within which to operate. In other words, groups are not grown without oversight, but instead are grown within a model that becomes quite appealing to a post-Covid world where both in-person and online groups are meeting on a regular basis.

 

While Dave and Steve’s presentation alone was well-worth the cost of the event, the Lobby Conference was packed with an immense amount of information that was applicable and highly relevant for any church’s small group ministry. This year, due to Covid-19, Small Group Network’s 2021 Lobby is going digital, and it will be opened up to even more attendees and also offered at a fraction of the cost it usually takes to attend. In addition to receiving wisdom from some of the biggest names in small group ministry, attendees will be able to choose from over 40 breakout sessions to attend that are being offered by additional voices within small group ministry (including yours truly). To help kick off 2021, this conference will be one of the best events to attend as a small group point person, and I hope that you’ll consider signing up and joining us on February 23-24!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Crafting Engaging Sermon Discussion Guides for Small Groups


We’ve all been there: the blank white screen, the copious sermon notes to sift through, and the sudden realization that your church’s small groups are meeting the next day and using the very discussion guide that you haven’t even started to write yet. Whether you are fortunate enough to obtain the sermon notes in advance or whether you prefer to burn the midnight oil and write your sermon discussion guides late into Sunday evenings, we all can agree that writing consistently engaging sermon discussion guides is a tough gig. But we teachers wouldn’t have it any other way, and this coffee-fueled labor of love finds itself reenergized by the stories that are heard from the field when small group leaders occasionally stop us in the church lobby to share a quick testimony of a breakthrough conversation they had last week in their group. It’s moments like these where we become filled with joy and praise God for giving us the amazing opportunity to artfully craft content that stirs the hearts of small group attendees in such a transformational way. Today, let us explore a few strategies on creating sermon discussion guides that capture the hearts and minds of our churches’ small group attendees on a weekly basis.

Power of Prayer
You probably guessed “Prayer” was on the list, and readers of this article may be tempted to even pass over this section, but please hear me out on this one. There have been countless times when I became anxious and was not sure of what I could possibly write to help glorify God in a sermon discussion guide. However, during each and every single one of those “countless times,” I have called upon the Lord and asked for His wisdom to give me a helping hand; I’m here to share with you that He has faithfully and powerfully shown up every single one of those times. That’s how good God is. When we pray and ask for something that is in alignment with His will and for something that gives Him glory, then He will show up for His name’s sake. If you have been struggling with finding the wisdom that can help you craft your guides, then pray—I mean really…truly give your sermon discussion guide to God and ask for the Holy Spirit to bless you with the ability to seek and find what He has in store for your small group ministry. I promise you that He will deliver.

Context is Key
When I listen to my pastors’ sermons, I try to jot down the verses used and key takeaways that can be utilized as starting points for questions within that week’s guide. One tactic that I use is to bring along my laptop and paraphrase the sermon in real-time. By doing this, I’m then able to go back through my notes and find the key points from which fruitful conversation can be derived from. One of the tactics I use for this is to take a Bible verse that the pastor quoted and then read the surrounding context of that verse within the Scriptures. Oftentimes, pastors don’t have enough time in their sermon to fully explore the underlying background to a verse. However, a small group can be the perfect opportunity to dig in deeper and learn more about God’s word. By recommending your groups to read those nearby verses of Scripture, the questions you create are surrounding the very same material that the pastor had used. As a result, the conversations that explore these topics will have a tendency to enrich and deepen the groups’ understanding of the pastor’s original message even more.

Sermon Discussion, not Sermon Competition
As a teacher, my mind has a tendency to think of new content that can explore the underlying message of the pastor’s sermon that week. Yet the reality I often have to remind myself of is that this doesn’t mean that it would actually be beneficial to include new content in the week’s sermon discussion guide. After all, our group members already spent 30-60 minutes that week listening to the pastor’s sermon. The discussion guide’s purpose is not to go off on a tangent but instead to facilitate engaging conversations that have the ability to hit the ground running. Even if new content could be spiritually relevant to the topic at hand, it actually can have an adverse effect of creating unnecessary pressure on our group leaders, essentially forcing them to preach our sermons for us. Instead, I try to craft questions in a way that edifies the pastor’s content. For example, “Pastor Sam/Sally says (insert spiritual truth here)…How might this look in our lives if we view it through the lens of (insert context/nearby Scripture here)?” Indeed, we must remember that we are not in competition with our pastors, but instead that we are teammates who have the marvelous opportunity to work together and amplify the reach of the good news within our small group communities.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Youth Empowered - Outreach Empower Team

 

This week’s post is the final installment of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we have released a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Thank you for tuning in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explored Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Outreach Empower Team

Service toward others is essential in the pursuit of being a follower of Christ. A quick glance through the Scriptures can help to reinforce this spiritual truth, and Jesus makes His viewpoint on the matter quite clear: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:23-25, NIV). He doubles down on how we are called to deny the self in Luke 14:33, saying that “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” The Lord has appointed us to be stewards over the materials, time, monies, services, and other items that we have in our possession (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Service toward others effectively takes these items, and, through the vehicle of spiritual gifts, unconditionally shares these blessings in an interactive manner with other individuals so that God is purposefully given glory and praise.

But how often is service discussed or practiced in our youth ministries? When we allow students to utilize their God-given gifts outside of the walls of the church, they receive a deeper and more enriching opportunity to nurture and grow their faith through tangible actions that generate immediate results. In other words, they can see the impact of their faithfulness in real-time, and such experiences can be immensely powerful for a young teenager who is exploring their faith.

Understanding the importance of serving others has a heightened sense of urgency within an environment that prevents individuals from meeting in person. The lockdowns that we have been experiencing throughout 2020 have notably decreased our ability to build relationships and interact with others. Under the circumstances, we may realize that we think about others less often (a phrase commonly referred to as “out of sight, out of mind”). More than ever, the youth ministry of today is called to explain the importance of outreach to its students, as it can help combat the inward focus that we inevitably experience when we become isolated from others for extended periods of time.

But what does this mean for a youth ministry that is predominantly meeting remotely? Just because we are not interacting with others in person, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities to serve others through the digital realm. For instance, older students in the Outreach Empower Team can work with their schools to help initiate a virtual mentorship/tutoring program (where one student offers a 1-hour free tutoring sessions to groups of 3 or 4 younger students via Zoom call). Or perhaps other members of the Outreach Empower Team can become involved with Shopping Angels to help deliver groceries to those who are unable to leave the house. Other opportunities that may be available can be found on youth focused service project sites such as DoSomething.org, or the Youth Service America organization which also has a list of suggested activities to do within the #DoGoodFromHome challenge. 

If we continue to stay isolated within the pandemic, it may become difficult to find a sense of purpose. By helping our students understand the importance of service toward others, our youth ministries can help in generating a sense of purpose for those who are struggling to navigate through the isolation, the social distancing, and the lockdowns that we are experiencing. As we collectively make an intentional effort to take our eyes off of ourselves, it can help us better understand that the Lord can work powerfully in all circumstances and that we can still be content to serve Him through any season, challenging or not.


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Youth Empowered - Worship Empower Team

 

This week’s post is a continuation of our series that is exploring the digital side of student-led youth ministry, where we are releasing a new chapter of Youth Empowered for free, right here on Focusing on Jesus! Tune in each week to read a new portion of the chapter as we explore Empower Teams through a digital lens.

Worship Empower Team
In recent weeks, our nation has begun to witness an increase in Covid-19 cases, prompting communities to start returning to a fully virtual format. As our churches recalibrate and adjust, youth ministries will once again be tasked to find creative ways to lead worship within the digital realm. But what does it mean to have meaningful worship within a student-led youth ministry? Author Melva Wilson Costen explains in her book African American Christian Worship that “in order for corporate worship to be authentic and empowering, it must be psychologically relevant to worshipers and commensurate with their lived experiences.” While such a perspective is of course applicable within any discussion surrounding worship, it becomes even more pertinent within the context of a youth ministry that serves Gen Z’ers (a generation that inherently expects a high level of relevancy in order to participate and engage).

Through my years in youth ministry, I would oftentimes hear a student say that they were interested in learning how to deepen their relationship with Christ. Naturally, a youth pastor can encourage their students to pray and read more Scripture (which they should) while also encouraging their students to participate in corporate worship (which of course is an excellent suggestion). However, simply ticking these actions off of a checklist doesn’t always mean that the student is doing them with a worshiping heart. What is just as important (possibly even more important) is the ability to prepare our hearts so that we willingly receive Jesus in our lives. True, the Holy Spirit is already there in the room, even if we attend service online. But God being in the room doesn’t always mean that He’s actively working in our students’ hearts. If we don’t first ensure that our students understand how to invite Him in, then we may be promoting a less-than-ideal behavior that our teens may carry with them into college: confusing God’s spiritual proximity with God’s active presence.

In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren says that “the heart of worship is surrender” and that the “three barriers that block our total surrender to God are fear, confusion, and pride.” It is here where a Worship Empower Team can assist in the facilitation of a level of surrender that directly addresses these three barriers. At its foundation, a Worship Empower Team is a group of students that are able to not only help their peers better understand the importance of worship, but also to lead the youth ministry in reverent praise of the Lord. The songs that the Worship Empower team leads everyone in can work towards accomplishing three key strategies: to trust in God, to choose to obey God, and to understand where one’s abilities end (and where God’s abilities begin). Extremely fitting for the year of 2020, these three strategies directly address the three aforementioned barriers that may be preventing someone from wholly surrendering.

Beyond the selection of songs can lay some additional tactics that the Worship Empower Team can put into practice. If your youth ministry meets while using an app that allows students to show their video feed, encourage them to turn it off during corporate worship so that attendees don’t have to think about the others who are watching them sing. If students are shy about letting others hear their perfect pitch singing voices, then suggest the use of the mute button (After all, our praise is meant for an audience of 1!). To minimize the number of possible distractions, perhaps the team can suggest for attendees to move to a quiet room in the house or to turn down the lights. In between songs, a testimony shared from a student on the Worship Empower Team can help amplify the importance of one of the three previously noted barrier breakers. In the end, to help sustain the required level of relevancy that Costen refers to in her book, a Worship Empower Team is called to help its youth ministry redirect its attention away from the fleshly desires of the self and more towards God. By empowering students to be the forefront leaders of this initiative, other students can see themselves in a similar light for their own faith journey, wholly surrendering themselves to God so that He might receive His due glory (even in the midst of a pandemic).