20 Years Later…

This fall I celebrated 20 years of being a full-time, vocational minister. That blows my mind! Me a minister.  I still don’t get it.

I have been thinking deeply about that for the past three months. It amazes me that 20 years have gone by since I literally loaded up my 1986 powder blue Volvo in Macon, GA. and drove west. I have been trying to capture the right words to describe what I have learned, as if I could reduce 20 years into a nice little list such as, “3 things I have learned” or “5 Thoughts for People Going into Ministry”, blah, blah, blah……

I Can’t do that.  The past 20 years represent so much more than catchy principles.

One of the thousands of things I think about is my very first day of ministry in August of 1996.  That day was not the beginning of the story.  It was more like the middle, or the beginning of Star Wars IV, A New Hope, when the world was brought into a story that was already in motion.  There was already great drama, interesting characters, unexpected events, tension, excitement, unknown adventures, fear, hope, and desperation happening in a galaxy far far away.  And there were all those things already happening in my life. Then, one day I was somewhat minding my own business and then “BOOM”, I was embarking on an adventure that I was not prepared for. Unlike Luke in Star Wars though, I didn’t get a light saber or a space ship… that was a bummer.  I did get to borrow my mom’s “bag phone” (who else remembers those?) for the drive and (no joke) the night before I had just saved on my car insurance by switching to Geico….That was kinda cool.

The journey landed me on the campus of University of Arkansas, Little Rock where I served in a campus ministry with my friend Tim (my personal Obiwon Kenobi). A year later I met my wife, Shelley, and convinced her to follow me on my “idealistic crusade”.

At this point in the story, there are about billion details that I could share.  Those details journey through Texas, Arkansas, Boston, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia…but, who has time for details….isn’t that where the devil is anyway?

Fast forward 20 years to today in Dalton, GA where the journey has taken us. There two words that best describe the last 20 years.

Grace and Privilege.

I think of grace because when the journey jumped into hyperspace in 1996, I was in a moment that needed an eternal amount of grace.  That year, my life was less than stellar.  It was pretty much unholy.  Maybe I will share some of that later….but, for now, trust me.  I was much closer to being on the “dark side” than being a Jedi.  There was nothing about my life that deserved to be thrust into the the world of helping people know and live for Jesus.  That is where GRACE jumped in and grabbed me like a giant hug from God and He whispered in my ear, “I have so much more for you.” GRACE

I think of privilege because, the truth is, everything I have been able to be a part of in ministry has been a HUGE privilege. Don’t get me wrong, It has been hard and I wanted to quit more than once and do something else for a job. But, what I think of most is people that God has given me the privilege to know and walk along side of in some way.  I wish I could list all their names!  There are so many!  I can see their faces in my mind as a write.  I think I understand a little of what Paul was feeling when he wrote, “For you are our glory and joy”.  To have the privilege to sit with someone the first time they receive the gift of salvation.  To walk with someone as they overcome fear and takes steps of faith.  To walk with someone through the loss of a family member.  To see the lightbulb of God’s Word turn on in someone’s heart. To help someone find God in the midst of a personal battle.  To lead people to go on mission to the nations.  To rejoice with people through baptism.  To be trusted by people to speak truth into their life….All of it, PRIVILEGE.

Who am I to deserve to be a part of any of that? Wow.

God is too kind to me.

I love the story of the transfiguration in Matthew 17 when Peter, James and John are taken by Jesus up on the mountain. They had no task in the moment.  They were just there with Jesus witnessing some crazy stuff.  I love their response as they realized what a privileged moment it was.  Peter said, “Lord, it is good to be here.

That is how I feel today after so much grace and privilege that covers the 20 years.

Lord, It is good to be here. Thank you for the grace and privilege of the past 20 years.

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CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR LIFE CHANGE – PART 5

Here is another key ingredient that will help foster intimacy and none of us like it…

Time and Patience

Intimacy among a group of people doesn’t happen fast. The type of intimacy where life transformation takes place is the product of faithfully giving ourselves to care for each other over an extended period of time. With that being true, we should fight against getting frustrated when what we desire does not happen as quickly as we would like. We also cannot force intimacy. Our part is to be faithful in caring for and encouraging one another in the Lord so that the stage is set for the Holy Spirit to move when He wants to move.

It was after Jesus spent 3 years with His disciples that He said in John 15:14, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Over the course of three years of spending a significant amount of time together, making themselves known to each other and sharing experiences together, Jesus calls them friends.

In 1 Thess. 2:7-12, Paul says they were gentle and caring like a mother and encouraging like a father…laboring night and day. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy worked hard in their commitment to seeing transformation in people’s lives. In their commitment they took the time to build deep relationships that looked like those within a family. When we get to the point of treating each other as family, there is deep intimacy.

The point is be patient, be faithful, and model the type of intimacy that you desire to see happen in your group.

Here are a few things that will help move you forward.

• Create opportunities outside of official group time for the group to just hang out.
• Plan times to serve together. The shared experience of serving others together creates a moment where the group must learn to work together and sacrifice together and thus create a tighter bond.
• Model and challenge those in your group to schedule one-on-one time with other members of the group.
• Schedule regular time in your group gatherings for each individual to tell their story in 15 minutes.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR LIFE CHANGE PART 4

Life change happens in environments of TRUST but there must also be INTIMACY.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, the Apostle Paul compares his relationship with the people like that of a gentle nursing mother. One of the manly men in the Bible…like a nursing mother. We are called to be intimate in our care for one another.

Here is a key Ingredient that helps foster Intimacy.

Transparency

Another way to put this is that the leader must be growing as the kind of person who is easy to see through. How we feel, what we think, and what is going on in our lives should be increasingly clear to those we are seeking to disciple. This is very risky but when done under the leadership of the Holy Spirit it can open the door for others to be honest about themselves.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as being transparent? Scripture indicates that as time went by He revealed more and more of who He was to His disciples. At the start of His ministry with the disciples He simply said “come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mat. 4:19). He did not tell them everything about Himself or about what was going to happen. It was just the first invitation to follow. By the end of His investment in them He said, “I know longer call you servants but I call you friends, for all things I have heard from my father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Then in a huge act of transparency He says to His disciples, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37).

The One who is the “Head over every power and authority” (Col. 2:10), said to His creation “My soul is sorrowful, stay with me.” That blows my mind. But, I see this as a model because the disciples were able to see how Jesus related to the Father in His most sorrowful moment so far. It was a moment of great intimacy.

Those in our groups need to see how we walk with God in difficult moments. We need to model that it is “ok” to be transparent and ask for others to “sit with us” when life is hard. Here are a few things I have learned in my own journey to be transparent.
1) I can miss out on the power of God in the Family of God when I am not transparent.
2) It is hard…but when done by the leading of the Holy Spirit it is life transforming.
3) It takes wisdom, discernment, and a step of faith.
4) Being transparent creates an opportunity for me to express trust in others.
5) Someone else’s’ transparency is an opportunity for me to model being trustworthy.
6) It is still hard…there will be times when you are transparent and people will turn their back on you…but we still need to model it in faith.
7) Moments of true transparency are moments orchestrated by the Holy Spirit to teach us how to love one another.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR LIFE CHANGE PART 3

Another ingredient of an environment of TRUST..

INTEGRITY

As a group leader you must be pursuing to live the kind of life that will give weight to your words. Or to put it another way, trust will be built when your living matches your speaking. There is a great deal of skepticism in our world towards the Church that is a result in large part to leaders saying one thing and acting another way.

This does not mean that a leader’s life has to be perfect. We will always make mistakes. We will say things or do things from time to time that we will regret. That is where grace is so powerful. But, there must be a consistent life of integrity and even repentance when failure occurs for trust to be built and protected.

Paul says in 1 Thess. 1:5 that their “gospel did not come in word only but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” Paul also said in 1 Thess. 2:10, “You are witnesses and so is God how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved towards you.”

The power of God was seen among them as they lived out their convictions, proving that Jesus was worth following. It will be difficult for us to earn the right to challenge others to live in a Christ like manner if we are not pursuing to do the same. Paul goes on to say in 1 Thess. 2:11-12, “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, Who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” It is our behavior, like that of a trusted and loving father that gives us the place to challenge people towards transformation.

We as leaders can make some of our biggest mistakes right here. We can’t say that we love people then make derogatory jokes about certain groups of people. We can’t tell people to sacrifice for others if we do not do it ourselves. We can’t preach holiness and then live in sin. We lose the trust of those we are trying to disciple when our faith and our lives do not match up. Integrity builds trust.

Challenge: Take some time to ask someone that you trust if they see any inconsistencies in your spiritual life that you may not be aware of. Ask them if they see areas in your life where you need to grow. If they share something with you, don’t be defensive, just listen. Then ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable as you pursue growth.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR LIFE CHANGE PART 2

Life change will happen in a Christ centered environment of TRUST AND INTIMACY. It is the kind of place where you can be “you” without fear of judgment as you walk closely together towards Christ.

Here is another ingredient in an environment of TRUST.

Humility

People will figure out if you are about “you” or “them”. If they determine that you are about yourself (prideful) they will lose trust in you. If they determine that you are genuinely for them and their good (humble) they will trust you more.

My favorite passage that shows this is Matthew 11:28-30 when Jesus says “Come all who are weary…learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart.” I love how Jesus describes His own heart with two unimpressive words, gentle and humble. What I also love is that He uses them in the context of teaching for the soul.

This passages tell me that in order to create an environment of where life change can happen we must model genuine humility in our hearts as leaders.

Humility can be displayed in many ways. It can be the intentional pursuit to make conversation about the other person’s life. It can be choosing NOT to brag about your own spirituality. It can be as simple as cleaning off the table after the meal.

One important ways that humility should be displayed in a small group is LISTENING. It is easy to view leading a small group as primarily being a “Bible Study Leader” or “facilitator.” We do need to teach the Word because it is power, but we also need to create space for listening to the stories, struggles, hurts, and joys of those in our group. Power comes when we are able to ask the questions like “How are you” and “what is on your heart” and then listen to understand the other person and connect their struggles to the hope of God’s Word. When we are truly listening we can have a better sense of how the Word can help transform them.

I know from my own experience that when I have been listened to I feel valued and my trust level for the other person goes up tremendously.

Here are a few tips to help you grow as a listener.

1) Always pray before conversations, asking for the Spirit to help you hear what He wants you to hear.

2) Fight against the impulse to always offer a solution or advice. Sometimes people just need you to listen.

3) Ask more questions to gain clarification. Sometimes we offer our advice without really knowing what the other is really trying to communicate.

4) Repeat back what you think you are hearing. People are typically receptive to me when I say something like, “What I hear you saying is___________________. Is that correct?”

I love the simple and humble prayer of John the Baptist in John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I pray that we would be humble leaders.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR LIFE CHANGE – part 1

It is important to remember that the purpose of Biblical community is the glory of God through life transformation. We should never “do groups” because that is what we are “supposed to do”. We “do groups” because we desire to see God create a movement of relational environments where life transformation happens. Or to put it another way, we want to faithfully follow the command to make disciples of Jesus. That is why we place such a high value on our groups. So the questions before us are, “What are the ingredients of life transforming community?” and “What can leaders do to foster this type of environment?”

I was recently reminded of what it feels like to be in an environment of life change when I was among a group of followers of Jesus where it was safe to be completely “me”. I was sitting among a group of friends who were followers of Jesus and I knew that I could reveal the deepest and most sensitive things about my life to them and their response would be love. I knew that they could do the same and my response would have been love. We have truly shared some of our greatest and hardest moments and walked with each other no matter what. We rallied around each other. We celebrated victory over sin together. We carried each others burdens. We celebrated life change together.

It is what I call an environment of TRUST AND INTIMACY. It is the kind of place where you can be “you” without fear of judgment as you walk closely together towards Christ.

I believe that many times we enter in to small groups that never reach a deep level of trust and intimacy. Part of the reason this happens is that we are not willing to pay the price to reach trust and intimacy. When we are willing to do what it takes and reach that depth, the Holy Spirit has the space to change us in profound ways.

How do you create and environment of TRUST and Intimacy?

Here is one ingredient.

A primary ingredient is love as Jesus defines love. In John 15:13 Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this that someone would lay down his life for his friends.” It is the sacrificial love of God lived out among the people of God that sets the stage for life change. That may not seem flashy or deep but is there anything deeper or more life affecting than when one person “lays down his life” for another person? Repeatedly in the New Testament we see phrases such as “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). “My command is this, love one another” (Jn. 15:17). “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Rom. 12:10). “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). “Above all else put on love” (Col 3:14). “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). “If Christ so loved you, you also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). One of the most challenging passages on love is 1 John 3:17-18, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Love must be lived out.

Maybe these examples will help you look for ways to model and lead your group to love well.

–A single mom in your group can’t afford to send her 3 year old to pre-school so the group pitches in to cover the cost.
–Someone in your group gives birth to a child so the rest of the group organizes meals to feed the family for a couple of weeks.
–A couple in your group is celebrating an anniversary so others in the group offer to take care of their kids so they can plan a weekend getaway,
–A person in your group is struggling through a sin issue in his life so the group gracefully walks with them towards restoration.
–A man in your group loses his job so others in the group work to help connect him with potential employers.

There are endless ways to sacrificially love one another. We just need to pray for our eyes to be open to see and our hands ready to help.

It is when a group of people purposely begin to look for ways to sacrifice for one another and take the practical steps to do so that the power of the Gospel is displayed. People trust those who love them.

The Art of the Follow-Up Question

One of the ways that we miss the fullness of what God may be saying in a discussion is limiting ourselves to the “official” questions on the list. If we limit our discussion to the listed questions we may miss an opportunity to flesh out what the Spirit is trying to say. Learning to listen to what is being said and then asking a good following question that is specific to their answer can take the discussion to a more personal level. For example, suppose the question on your study guide is something like, “Does this passage teach you something new about the character of God?” Someone in your group responds with something like, “This passage reminds that God is faithful to his promises.” That is obviously a theologically correct answer that should be affirmed. But, the person’s answer also gives you an opportunity to ask a follow-up question.

I might ask, “Do you think there is a reason that you need to be reminded of His faithfulness right now?” I might preface the question by asking, “Do you mind if I ask you another question?” or “Feel free to share as little or as much as you are comfortable sharing.” If the person is open to sharing more, then an effective follow-up question can take a good general answer to a deeper personal level.

There are endless possibilities for effective follow-up questions.

Sample Follow-Up Questions
Why is that truth important to you?
Why do you think you feel that way?
Why do you think God is teaching you this lesson?
Can you explain in more detail what you mean by that answer?
How are you seeing that truth work itself out in your life right now?
What do you mean by that?
When was a time when you saw this truth at work in your life?

TIPS FOR GOOD FOLLOW UPS
Pray as you listen. Always ask the Holy Spirit to give you ears to hear what He is trying to say in the moment. Ask Him to help you know if you should ask more questions.
Practice good listening. A good listener has the goal to gain and understanding of the other person.
Be respectful. Respect the persons comfort level in the group before asking for specifics. A person who is new to the group should not be expected to be as transparent as someone who has been there for a while.
Ask permission. Before asking a follow-up question ask, “Do you mind if I ask you another question?”
Involve the group. After asking a follow up question, it can be effective to ask the rest of the group for additional input, encouragement, or if they have had similar/different thoughts or experiences.
Don’t force it. If you do not have a clear follow up question, do not force one.