Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Relational Joy of Small Groups


So far in our series on The other Half of Church, we’ve established that our brains process information from the world first through the right-brain before the left-brain has the opportunity to contribute to our thoughts and feelings. Such a concept has the potential to make a large impact on the mission and vision of a church’s small group ministry. Rather than encouraging groups to meet and discuss curriculum in the hopes that they will build relationships along the way, a right-brain oriented small group ministry opts to have their groups meet and seek fellowship with one another and explore curriculum through the context of relationships. It is from here that we will continue to unpack what such a model can look like, focusing today on when small groups make the intentional effort to practice relational joy with one another.

To experience joy is to experience what God desires for us. In Psalms 16:11, David says to the Lord “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (NRSV). Peter says that when we believe in Christ, we are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for [we] are receiving the end result of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9, NIV). Jesus even took a moment to explain that when we keep His commandments, we will remain in His love, His joy will be in us, and our joy would be made complete (John 15:10-11). In other words, when we remain in God’s presence, when we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and when we follow the commands of Jesus, we end up experiencing a joy that is so pure and powerful that nothing else can be added to it in order to make it better!

Many of us are familiar with this phenomenon if we recall the season that took place shortly after giving our lives to Christ. Commonly, a new believer throws themselves into the faith and passionately dedicates themselves to these three practices. Yet as time progresses and the fleshly driven world begins to chip away at their ability to adhere to these three practices, their “joy tank” is replenished less often. Some individuals may even experience dry seasons where one or more of the practices are set aside entirely. This causes a dilemma that many believers are experiencing (especially in a post-pandemic world): if we are not independently seeking these three practices, how can we then restore joy both inside and outside of the church? The good news is that according to brain science, small groups may be one of the very best options we have that is available to us.

When discussing how our joy is impacted by the relationships that we develop with one another, authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks of The Other Half of Church arrived at three important points of convergence within their studies:

1) Joy is primarily transmitted through the face (especially the eyes) and secondarily through voice.
2) Joy is relational. It is what we feel when we are with someone who is happy to be with us. Joy does not exist outside of a relationship.
3) Joy is important to God and to us.

These three points are satisfied by small groups in a marvelous way. First, the authors point out that the face is key. While in the past we’ve made note that online groups are a great stepping stone for individuals to transition into in-person groups, the ideal will always remain to be in-person groups. With an online group, genuine eye contact is lost and we don’t know who is looking at whom. As a result, we have difficulty establishing an intentional connection with a specific person in order to receive the joy-filled connection that our brains are seeking. Second, joy is not possible without relationships. With a small group, there is intent and anticipation in meeting together and we experience a celebration when individuals arrive at the group where they are expected and welcomed. For those who hope to haphazardly experience joy through chance encounters or accidental interactions with others, their joy-deprived hearts will forever remain unsatisfied. Third, the three practices noted earlier from Scripture requires genuine relationship with not only God, but also with others as we actively live out the commandments of Jesus with those whom the Lord places into our lives.

There is a joy to know and to be known within a small group. Wilder and Hendricks note that “brain science reveals that this joy sensation is crucial for emotional and relational development.” From this perspective, joy can be viewed as a catalyst that can help to generate fresh transformation in Christ. Sharing praise reports, intentionally seeking out an individual to spend time with them, and expressing gratitude to one another can all be methods that help increase joy in our lives. Let your church’s small group ministry be the vehicle that the Lord can use to help weave these precious moments into your community.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Full-Brained Small Groups


In our previous article, we introduced the concepts of right and left-brain associations with one’s pursuit of relational development, as described by authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks in their book The Other Half of Church. As we journey through this series of articles, we will continue to study the principles from this insightful text while applying them to our respective small group ministries. Today, we will unpack what Wilder and Hendricks label as “full-brained Christianity,” a practice of pursuing one’s faith where both sides of the brain are healthily engaged within the process of an individual’s relational development.

Full-Brained Christianity Within Small Groups
Although their book encourages us to view ministry from a vantage point that intentionally engages the right-brain more often, Wilder and Hendricks are quick to uphold the importance of discipleship programs and left-brain activities. It is here in this balance where “full-brained Christianity” can thrive within a church’s small group ministry. But do we nest right-brained activities within a left-brained discipleship structure of small groups? Or do we nest left-brained activities within a right-brained relational structure of small groups? Wilder and Hendricks opt for the latter. To them, forcing character change without first engaging the right-brain is like putting the cart before the horse since “our preconscious right brain is the driver of character change, not our conscious thoughts and willpower.”

So if relational growth is strengthened through activities that promote right-brained engagement, then is opening the Bible and reading Scripture together a worthwhile activity for a group that wants to grow? Before answering, perhaps it might be better to reframe the question: Rather, does the group have a level of relational connectivity established so that they can explore the text and also feel safe in their vulnerability with one another? I confess that I’ve been on both ends of this spectrum. In one group that I had attended, we opened the Bible to read the Word and would typically end up pointing out a few items that we liked within the passage; Yet I’ve also been a part of a group where the text was opened and we poured out our souls over the living Word of God, allowing the Holy Spirit to saturate our conversation with revelatory insights. The difference between the two groups that I experienced was the level of relational connectivity that we had established before we engaged in studying the Word.

Relational Brain Skills and Covid-19
While the pandemic certainly inflicted collateral damage upon various areas of our lives, our willingness to pursue relationships may have been one of the more impacted areas of them all (A phenomenon we introduced last year as individuals were returning to groups). Wilder and Hendricks note that when we possess a lack of social interaction, it can lead to a church system that leans more towards left-brained Christianity. From here, this type of framework begets a loss of relational and emotional skills, which further compounds and inevitably results in ineffective discipleship. In other words, without a relationally-focused recalibration of the direction of our small group ministries, the pandemic may likely be causing our discipleship programs to become less effective.

On the other hand, Wilder and Hendricks note that when we increase our “relational brain skills,” we build up a joy capacity that can help us navigate through the larger emotional events that occur within our lives. Indeed, “when our identity is not well developed, our personality will change in different settings. With a well-formed brain, our identity will not change in different circumstances.” If an individual’s identity—or even their church’s identity—still feels “off” after returning from lockdowns, it might be worth considering a season that focuses intently on the pursuit of developing the community’s relational skills.

The Road Ahead
To help encourage healthy character transformation within the church, Wilder and Hendricks present four essential ingredients: hesed love, relational joy, group identity, and healthy correction. In the weeks ahead, we will explore further what these ingredients mean within the context of our small groups, and what we can do as leaders to stimulate organic growth. Let us forge a community with a foundation that will not be easily shaken by the tumultuous seasons that may lie ahead. Let us pause for a moment and truly ask one another how the other person is doing. Let us strive for the type of Spirit-filled whole-brained community that we read about through the book of Acts, where both the temple courts and the house-to-house meetings actively took place (Acts 2:46).

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Brain and Small Groups


What encourages continual transformation within the heart of a believer? Some say it is reading Scripture, while others might say that it is a healthy prayer life. Certainly, these items are vital and they incorporate two core activities of the Christian faith. Yet if you asked those who study neuroscience, it’s likely that they would have another item to add. Coauthored by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, the book The Other Half of Church explores the neuroscience of transformational change and what we in the church can (and probably should) do in order to unlock huge opportunities for our churchgoers’ spiritual growth. Over the course of the next few months, let us unpack some of the larger concepts introduced by the authors while looking at the text through the lens of one’s small group ministry.

Our Brain’s Two Halves
For those who remembered their lessons from high school biology, our brain is made up of what our authors refer to as two “processors” (the left and the right), which work together but specialize in different responsibilities. While it is common that the right side of the brain is often associated with art or emotions and the left side of the brain is often associated with logic or problem solving, what may not be as commonly understood is that all of the information that our brain receives will traverse through a pathway that begins on the right side of our brain before it travels to the left side of our brain. As a result, our right brain processes data more quickly than our left brain. According to Wilder, “The right hemisphere process that creates our working identity integrates our reality six times per second. The brain brings together current experience and emotionally important personal memories to create an active sense of who we are in our relationships at that moment.”

Relationship-Fueled Transformation
When you reflect upon a season of your life where you experienced some of the greatest character growth you ever had, who was surrounding you in your life during that time? When I gave my life to Christ, I not only had a mentor in my life who was teaching me up in the faith, but I was also spending time with other Christians on a weekly basis. While I was reading Scripture and finding out who God was through the living Word, I was also observing others who were leading by example and who were showing how to live a Christian life. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine what my formation in the faith would have been if it hadn’t been for those individuals who were walking alongside me during that time. Testimonies of that “on fire” stage for new believers often echo similar details, where relationships typically seem to be at the core of the person’s season of transformation. Wilder and Hendricks agree, explaining that since “our right brain governs the whole range of relational life,” our “character formation develops out of our community, the people we call ‘my people.’ Our loving attachments and the values of our community drive our character.”

The Brain and Small Groups
When we encourage individuals in our church to grow in the Lord, what types of activities do we normally recommend for them to pursue? A common sermon on spiritual growth will likely include Scripture reading and increased prayer time, but are relationships included within such a mix? And if fellowship with other Christians is indeed mentioned, to what degree is relationship-building encouraged? If our brains are wired to process our world more through our right brain, and if our right brain governs our relational life, and if our relational life is what accelerates our ability to have positive transformation and character growth, then does our church’s prioritization of its small group ministry reflect this? In the weeks ahead, we’ll explore how small groups are the perfect vehicles for delivering the ingredients that Wilder and Hendricks list as essential for fruitful growth.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Insights from the Early Church

Whether in time or in physical proximity, those who were closest to Jesus had a once-in-eternity opportunity to tell humanity the most essential information that is needed in order to build a proper understanding of the Christian faith. Due to their positioning within time and history, it is fascinating to acknowledge that their writings will continue to be referenced and widely consulted for the remainder of the time that humankind will reside upon this earth. While the collection of retained works from the first few centuries is not as large as the texts and writings that would eventually be written during the centuries that followed, two early Christian works in particular stand out as noteworthy and exceptional when capturing a glimpse into the teachings of the early Church: The Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermas.

The Didache
Along with its catechistic tone in providing guidance on items like how to appoint bishops and deacons, how to pray over the Eucharist, and how to confirm when a prophet is genuine, The Didache calls heavily upon an amplified interpretation of the Ten Commandments and the two commandments that Jesus gives us in Matthew 22:37-39. After a brief read, it becomes evident that the Church was convicted during this time to maintain a level of morality that was in stark opposition to the cultural climate of the time. Indeed, the author(s) of Didache comments on the end times in a way that harkens to Matthew 24:22-30 and 2 Timothy 4:3-5, saying “For in the last days the false prophets and corrupters will abound…and love will be turned into hate…as lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another. And then the deceiver of the world will appear as a son of God and will perform signs and wonders.”  However, all hope is not lost, as the text reassures its readers that “those who endure in their faith will be saved by the accursed one himself” (Jesus).  Considering this somber message that was written so long ago, one can’t help but wonder if we as a world have made much progress in knowing what it means to love one another, these past 2,000 years.

The Shepherd of Hermas
Yet The Didache wasn’t the only writing from this period that was concerned about making an intentional effort to love one another. To help emphasize the generous nature that Christians were called to pursue, The Shepherd of Hermas also exhorts us to “not hesitate to give, nor grumble when giving,” and to “give generously to all who are in need, not debating to whom you will give and to whom you will not…for God wishes that from his own gifts, gifts should be given to all.”  Until we Christians do this, the text makes note that we will effectively be rendered “useless” for the kingdom of God until we make the choice to exhibit a spirit of community that benefits those who do not have.  In fact, according to the author of Shepherd, we were made rich by the Father for that sole purpose: to be able to utilize our spiritual gifts and pursue the calling that the Lord has impressed upon each and every one of our lives.

Upon reading these two works, I was impressed by how well they spoke to the responsibilities that God extends to us (even to this day). These texts from so long ago embolden us to be courageous when carrying out our respective ministries. They help to give us confidence when introducing others to Jesus, the only person who is able to rescue individuals from the deep anguishes of life that they may be experiencing. Let us not walk in uncertainty. If we fear the devil, then that means we believe that the devil has authority over us and it gives him permission to admit more evil and/or sin into our lives. Instead, if we fear the Lord (who actually has real authority and power), it is here where we are able to tap into the power of the Lord and stand against the attempted advances of the devil. Let us walk in alignment with the Holy Spirit and confidently proclaim the Lord’s name in everything that we do.  Amen.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Moral Duty: Youth on Social Media


Recently, author and priest Tish Harrison Warren wrote an article for Christianity Today, titled “Don’t Quit Twitter Yet. You Might Have a Moral Duty to Stay.” The article does well in posing the questions surrounding what we Christians could and should do within the realm of social media. But do we teach our youth to simply just limit their screen time for the sake of their own spiritual health? Or do we teach them to use their phones and reach out to others for the sake of the lost? Warren explains, “the unavoidable fact is that people today find a public voice, in part, through social media. This goes for Christian writers, artists, and public leaders as well. These online spaces are where people—those whom Jesus loves—are talking about important things. This is where people share their work.” Yet the author acknowledges that the topic is complex. While it is an important space for our voices to have a forum, social media also is known to “decrease our ability to think critically, increase rates of depression, and fuel anxiety and distraction.” And for those voices that do begin to gain traction and to generate a following, “the authority that comes from being popular online can subvert institutional health and accountability.”

We have learned much about the psychological impact that the virtual world can have on our minds, for it has been a decade since smart phones arrived on the scene and since the usage of social media apps like Instagram reached critical mass. The minefield of fleshly-driven messages that social media brings to our youth is an unavoidable reality for Gen Z and for future generations to come. Thus, just as the church has helped to train its adults on how to engage the world within the family, the workplace, and the world, it now is being called to incorporate into its mission a need to teach its youth about the intricacies of how to live as digital Christians. Here we will briefly explore a few areas where this can be applied within our respective youth ministries.

Giving Youth a Platform
Since our students will almost certainly download social media apps and participate in the online community, why not equip them on how to use it for the benefit of the kingdom of God? For previous articles on ideas of how to accomplish this, check out what it means to be a micro-influencer and some of the ways that a Social Media “Empower Team” can be established within your youth ministry.

Focus on Creating More than Responding
Too many times have our responses to other content creators come back to haunt us when the influencer stumbles and generates enough negative attention to get themselves “cancelled.” To the critics that rummage through our digital archives, it doesn’t matter that we did not know about that influencer’s sexism or political affiliation; a tweet or comment from us that agreed with one of their past posts is now in the spotlight and our character can suddenly be questioned alongside the character of the recently "cancelled” individual. But do we go silent and completely refrain from commenting on anything on social media? No, such a thought is unrealistic and unhealthy. However, we must also think twice before clicking that “submit” button on our replies. Is the comment that we want to make a life-giving and kingdom-contributing comment? After all, what we do online is forever; what is said or shared or sent is locked in the digital archives of the internet and can never go away (even if we might try to delete it). Rather, let us encourage and teach our youth that we don’t have to wait upon the creativity of others in order to feel that we can be given the chance to interact with the world. When we focus more on creating God-inspired content, it provides an even greater opportunity for the world to hear our distinct voice. It is then that the Lord can use us in the best opportunities where He has always meant for us to serve.

Youth Retreat
A sermon on social media is great, however the temptations of this world may cause our students to easily forget the message that prodded their heartstring a few Sundays ago. Sometimes, immersion into a topic can create a series of memorable experiences that can help students break away from the world’s distractions and focus on what the Holy Spirit is trying to communicate to them. Because of this, dedicating an upcoming youth retreat to social media may be the perfect opportunity to address a large amount of material in a short amount of time. Perhaps on opening night, the retreat can introduce “Tik Tok Workshops,” where the youth break out into teams (each led by a youth leader) and then create Church-friendly Tik Tok videos (feel free to add a competition element as well, where prizes are offered for the best videos). Pause for a quick exercise to have each student make 5 positive and affirming comments on their friends’ content. Youth pastors can take advantage of the opportunity to discover their students’ spiritual gifts and work with them to identify ways where they can be deployed within the digital realm. Finally, perhaps the team can wrap up one of the evenings where the speaker addresses the heavy topic of pornography and then initiates a “phone altar call.” Here, each person is invited to lay their electronic device at the altar and the youth ministry leadership prays over the devices while they are dedicated to the Lord. Rather than an ineffective attempt to get our students to merely decrease their screen time, the goal of such a retreat would be to educate and train our students on how to utilize technology to help transform lives and bring glory God.