Strategy? Or Manipulation?

I’ve been exploring questions of community and church.   Over the last week I’ve tried to adress two important questions connected to community.  Today, I’ll adress the third. 

That question is “What is the role of strategy in building community in the church?”

I think this question further breaks down into 2 questions, which I’ll adress seperately in this post:

A) Isn’t being strategic really being manipulative? 

B) How important is the specific strategy that Fellowship Church has chosen?

First question first:

I’m open to the possibility that being strategic could mean being manipulative.  It seems like there must be something about the point at which you’re decieving people is the point at which it becomes manipulative.

The thing I don’t quite get, though, is that somehow, the only people who have to justify themselves in this area are the people who talk and think about what they are going to do.  The bottom line is that everybody has a way of doing things. 

I hope you’ll forgive the fact that I’m doing the annoying church-y thing of starting each of these with the same letters.  But what it comes down to is this:

We can be stupid, we can be stubborn, or we can be strategic.  Perhaps I’m slanting each of these by my word choice.   Maybe it would be nicer if I said we can be random, we can be traditional, or we can have logical reasons for doing what we’re doing.  

Ultimately, though, we choose whether we’re going to be traditional, random, or have logical reasons.

And I would say if your randomness or if your tradition are getting you what you want, you ought to keep going in that direction.  My point is that this is still a decision.

People often say “I listen to the Holy Spirit.  That’s what guides me.  It’s not tradition.  It’s not randomness.  It’s not strategic thinking.”

I think this is true.  I think sometimes the church ought to make decisions that appear foolish.  I think that we ought to be open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

Here’s a problem, though, and I hope you’ll forgive me  if this sounds accusatory:

As a general rule, most people are very excited to ask others to submit to what they believe the Holy Spirit is prompting them to do.  Often times, the very people who believe  most in this idea are the least likely to submit when the Holy Spirit is telling some one us to do something.

In short, it seems to me that people who believe that the Holy Spirit frequently guides us in directions that aren’t strategic, often times these people believe the we ought to listen to these people, and not other people, about just what we ought to do. 

I’m so thankful that God is a God of order, logic, and rationality.  I am so very thankful that many times  the Holy Spirit’s promptings are justifiable in terms of logic and rationality. 

I would submit that The Holy Spirit’s promptings are cultivatived in a culture which is carefully exploring the rationale and reasons for what it does.

The other subquestion is: How important is Fellowship Church’s specific strategy?

Leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus is the point.  Community is the best way to get there.  We’re building community in the best way that we know how for the time and place we exist in.

A really great guy who attended our church was not attending a small group.  He said to somebody “Look, I’m not going to do something just because everybody else is.  My small group is this weekly gathering of men at Finders.  My small group is my friendship with Pastor Marty.  I don’t need to show up at the time I’m told and the place I’m told.”

He’s not wrong.   If he’s careful.

His argument isn’t altogether different from somebody who says “Look, I don’t need to go to church.  I can worship God in the forest, I should be worshipping him all the time, right?  Why limit myself to just once a week?”

My answer is that church doesn’t set an upper limit on worship– it sets a lower limit.  Similarly, small group doesn’t limit people into being in only one community.  But it does guarentee that the person is in atleast one community.

A person who thinks the forest is a better place to worship than church, he is likely to start with the best of intentions.  But I think it’s pretty easy for him to get off-track, and not worship at all.

And a person who isn’t intentional about community, I think it’s easy for him to drift from belonging to showing up to a group, to not showing up at all.

Our implementation of community is not perfect.  It’s somewhat relative to our culture.  But it is one valid way to reach the goal of community.  And the scary-dangerous things is that there are lots of imposters to community, lots of ways we can delude ourselves…

And while the specific form of community is a bit up-for-grabs, for my money, the goal of community in general is not up-for-grabs.  It is an essential.

Is Community Optional?

The last couple weeks, I’ve found myself involved with a number of conversations that were quite similiar.  Each of them was really about community, and the role of the church in cultivating community.

(Church here meaning both the global church in general and Fellowship Church in particular.)

I identified three questions that were worth looking at.  The one I’m focused on today:

Is community optional?

I think the answer to that question is “No.”

In one of the conversations I’ve had about community, the other person said, essentially, that they felt like a community-oriented church is o.k.  for people who are into community.  But they suggested that others might prefer a church that wasn’t focused on community.  Perhaps they’d be into a “Spirit-filled” church.  Maybe they’d prefer a church which was more doctrinally-driven.

First off, I think that The Holy Spirit works through community and lives in the space between them.  Secondly, I think that one of the most important doctrines a church can have is an emphasis on community.  Therefore, either a community-focused church will be spirit filled and a doctrinally based church must emphasize community.

I am not saying that every church should be like my church in most ways.  There are countless negotiable aspects of a church.  I would go so far as to suggest that there is more solid scriptural support for the importance of community than there is for having music at all in a worship service.  I would go so far as to say that there is more solid scriptural support for the importance of community than there is for the idea that a church ought to have a building, than there is for the idea that a service ought to fit the music-sermon-music/offering format.    I bet I’m going to make some people mad on this one, but I’ve even say you have to work harder to find the notion of the trinity in the bible than you do to find the importance of community.

I am not saying that scripture does not support any of the above ideas, particularly the trinity.  I am saying that the evidence seems more clear and plain for the importance of community.

I am also not saying that community is all a church needs.  But it’s almost all.  I haven’t studied this question, but tenatively, I would venture the position that worship of God, recognition that Christ rose from the grave, and community are the only true essentials for a group to be called a church.

I would submit that you can’t have love without community, and that you can’t have community with out love.  If I’m right on this, then some of the support I’d offer for the importance of community follow:

* Jesus saying that the most important thing is love of God and love of neighbor.

* Jesus saying that by our love they show know us.

* Paul saying that speaking in every language, prophesying, understanding everything, these are essentially meaningless without love.

I think it’d be easy to find verses that discuss the importance of other things.  I think it’d be quite difficult to point to verses that establish other things as more important than love.

What’s the point of community?

Several times in the last couple weeks, I’ve been involved in a series of similiar conversations.  They were people who didn’t know each other very well, and for the most part, they were people unaware that I’d already had this conversation.

These conversations have lead me to thinking about the topic a bit.  And they’ve lead me to the realization that it’s worthwhile to post on the topic, as maybe other people are wondering about the same thing.  (And even if those people aren’t among the 3 people who actually read this blog, I can always cut and paste or link from this post in an email, or I can send them a link to this post.)

O.K.  Enough with the boring back story.  The conversations have been about community.  More specifically, the questions have boiled down to:

Is community a means to an end or is community an ends by itself?


Is being focused on creating community optional for the church, or is it mandatory?


Does being strategic mean that a church is being manipulative?

First question first:

In some of my earlier discussion, I told people that community is a means and an end.  I had some good reasons for saying this.  The point I was trying to get at was that even if we took away the positive benefits of community, community would still be worth doing.

Community creates authenticity.  It calls members out to hold each other accountabality.   Feeling a sense of community leads collections of people to be more effective as they reach out to the world around them.  Being in a community is the best place to take care of people.  Belonging to a community is the best way to learn biblical truth.

But even if none of those things were true, community would still be worth pursuing.  Because of this, it originally seemed to me that we don’t just “do” community as a means, we also seek it out as an end.  But as I’ve reflected on this, I decided that this isn’t quite right.

At Fellowship Church, we express our ultimate goal as “To lead people in a growing relationship with Christ.”

If somebody could wave some evil magic wand, and make it so that community did not lead to this growing relationship, then we would have to give up on community.  Even if community continued to do all those other things.

Leading people into a growing relationship with Christ is the end.  Community isn’t. 

The other two questions are so intimately connected to this one.  Because if we realize that community is a means to the end of relationship with Christ, the follow-up questions become: “Are there other ways to reach this end?”  And this question is really the same thing as  “Is being focused on creating community optional for the church, or is it mandatory?”  The next natural follow up becomes “Should this community just be allowed to pop up naturally or should we plan for it?”  This question, really, is the same thing as “Does being strategic mean that a church is being manipulative?”

So, in the next couple days I’ll be getting to those questions.  Stay tuned.

Tips for Small Group Leaders: Tough Questions, Part II

Here is a link to a post where I explain why I believe small group leaders should often resist the urge to offer up answers to questions that can be seen as tough. If we’re not answering questions, the natural question is this: Just what should a small group leader do when tough questions arise…
The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all, easy answer. There will be times that you will do too much. There will be times that you won’t do enough. But realize that you have a wide number of options open to you. Consider these:
#1) Pray Do it right there on the spot. But pray for real: it’s such a tempting thing in these circumstances to use prayer as a soap box to broadcast what you really think is the answer. While giving the appearance of prayer. This is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons, of course.

#2) Know how your church leadership would like you to do with tough questions before you get to them. You will get questions that are hard to answer. If your Small Group Pastor, Director, or Coach hasn’t given you some direction in this area already, you’d be wise to seek some direction out.
There are several different layers of support you should ask for.
A) If you have good reasons to expect a certain question will come up, you might ask for the specific response leadership would like you to give.
B) If you feel over your head, you ought to ask for a contact person for you to go to with questions and concerns.
C) You might ask for go-to people and useful resources that you can direct questioners to within the church.

#3) Validate the importance of the question O.K. Most of us are probably sick of hearing about active listening, the importance of restating what we hear, and all those related skills. But the truth is, the reason that so much is made out of these is because they are so very import. It’s likely that the person asking is nervous about the question they are asking; they probably know that it is a good/tough question. You response will create a community that feels safe in asking these questions. A few specific ways to validate the importance of the question:
A) Emphasize with the aspects of the question that you also struggle with.
B) Comment on the importance of the question. What are the stakes of choosing right or choosing wrong in this case.
C) Thank the questioner for their courage in asking the tough questions.

#4) Pass the buck to somebody else. Many of us rarely tap into the power we have when leading a discussion. The ability to ask a specific person who might be gifted and wise in a certain area is tremendous. If the question is one which requires a sensetive response, ask a sensetive person if they have any suggestions. If it’s a complex theological issue turn to your resident theologion. A variety of things are accomplished through this technique. First, you demonstrate your faith in the other members of the group. Secondly, you avoid positioning yourself as the dispenser of wisdom. Thirdly, you put the question in the best hands within your group… Or perhaps outside of your group. Perhaps you can suggest that the questioner brings the question to someone outside the group who you know is well-suited to answer it. Maybe you’ll ask for permission yourself to bring it to someone. If nothing else, asking the group for counsel, asking them if they know anyone with the right kind of discernment for the issue at hand is always an option.

#5 Engage in a content-to-process shift. The content of a question is the meaning of the question itself. The process is the question of how the question is formed, and why the person is asking it. A content-to-process shift is a way to change the focus of ourselves and our group.
Ordinarily we focus on the words people say. Sometimes, though, what someone says is not so important as why they say a thing. This is often the case with questions.
A person who questions the reliability of scripture might in fact really want to know if God is trustworthy. If it appears that a person is wrestling with a certain aspect of God, it might be the case that the person is really wrestling with this aspect of themselves. A person who asks why the pastor did such-and-such might really be asking if the pastor is a good person.
Sometimes the questioner might be aware of the thing they want to ask. Other times they may not. Either way, the tricky part of a content-to-process shift is to go about it in a way that does not look like you are condescending to the questioner.
I find it helpful to go about this in the form of a question; when possible I draw a connection between myself and the other person by saying things like “You know, sometimes when I ask those sorts of questions, I eventually find out that the real question I’m not letting myself ask is (fill in the blank) I wonder if that’s the case with you.” Or I might say “I notice that you’ve got lots of questions about (whatever it is) I wonder what makes you so curious about that.”
There are times that this might not be helpful. There are times that people mean what they say and say what they mean. If this is the case, a content-to-process shift won’t generally accomplish much.

#6 Make a plan Often times whatever words you or others might offer won’t change much, no matter how well-intentioned or wise they are. There all sorts of things that a group can plan to do to help resolve questions. After making these plans, a plan to revisit the issue (perhaps at the next group meeting) would be wise.
A) Plan to pray over the issue, perhaps each day.
B) Plan to think it over and communicate through out the week.
C)Plan to seek out counsel from others outside the group.
D) Plan to utilize resources such as condordances and the internet to research scriptural perspectives on the topic.

Tips for Small Group Leaders: Tough Questions, Part I

Consider the words “good” and the words “tough.”
There are some things which are either one or the other. Steak for example, is either good or tough. Generally it can’t be both.
There are other things which are good because they were tough. I remember a class my senior year of high school on American Government. I worked harder in that class than I ever did in college or graduate school. That class was good because it was tough. I might not have realized it back then. But I do now: that class was good because it was tough.
The words “good” and “tough” can also be applied to a question. We can say “That’s a good question” or “That’s a tough question.”
There are interesting similarities and differences between the questions we classify as “good” and the questions we classify as “tough.” Both types of questions don’t have easy answers. Both types of questions indicate that the questioner has thought it out.
But there are differences. I’m quite likely to tell my kids that they’ve asked a “good” question if I’m comfortable with the idea I don’t know the answer. I’m much more likely to tell a small group member that they are asking a “tough” question if I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I don’t know the answer.
That’s a surprising realization for me: the difference between a “good” and a “tough” question is not in the question itself. It’s not in the person asking the question. It’s in me: my expecations of what I think I’m supposed to know. Or maybe it’s in my fears that I’m going to expose to others what I don’t know. Most likely it’s in both.
There is a level on which this is not good.
The power of a small group is in the process of uncovering truth together. The Holy Spirit does not only work within us. He also works among us, between us.
It is not practical to expect that most small group leads have received thorough, seminary-level training. We should not act like the answer man (or woman) for a variety of reasons.
Wise people who have had the luxury of years of formal religious education struggle with providing the right answer to good (tough) questions. This does not mean that we leaders should not attempt to answer questions.
But it does mean that we should not position ourselves as the dispensor of knowledge. This can be hard. Others might want us to be in this position. It can be enjoyable to be placed in this position. Like many enjoyable things, though, it’s not healthy for us, and it’s not healthy for our members.
Questions begin to look like good ones, and not tough ones, when we recognize that we are not responsible for answering them.
But reframing the questions doesn’t make them go away. As leaders, we don’t need to give verbal answers to good (or tough) questions. But just because we’re not giving the answers, this does not mean that we shouldn’t do anything.
If we are passive, as small group leaders, and do nothing, when people pose tough questions several unfortunate results can occur. The first is that members get a sense that there is no point to asking these questions, that no answer will get found. The second is that we appear to be passive, weak leaders. The third is that unhealthy, unhelpful answers can appear.
Let’s make this concrete.
Suppose that someone in your small group asks about the nature of hell. Our first instinct is to approach this as a tough question. Even if we’re clear in our own hearts about the answer to this question, these answers aren’t easy or popular. It’s easy to feel like as the leader we ought to have some sort of easily accepted, pat explanation. But the truth is, it’s a mistake for the leader to always present herself (or himself) as the teacher.
It’s also a mistake for the leader to do nothing.
If we are passive and silent, some members might attempt to do their best. You probably have somebody in your small group who reads theology books for fun. Perhaps he is not the most sensetive person. If there is a silence, a vaccuum, he’s likely to chime in with some very blunt assertions. Perhaps they will be doctrinally correct. But they are also likely to be divisive, and perhaps even insensitive.
On the other hand, maybe that mellow person who’s sampled other religions will respond to the questions about Hell. Perhaps this person will make statements that are easy to swallow, but out of sync with your understanding of scripture and the church’s doctrine.

It’s easy at this point, to wonder: Just what should a leader do? If he shouldn’t always answer the question head-on, and he shouldn’t sit back and be passive, what else is there!?!?
The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all, easy answer. There will be times that you will do too much. There will be times that you won’t do enough. Despite appearances, though, there is a pretty wide menu of options available to a leader that don’t involve directly answering the question at hand. I’ll suggest a few of these in my next post.

A new Covenant (but not The New Covenant)

I am convinced that our covenants (written agreements) for our small groups will become more powerful and meaninful if we allow the groups themselves to write them, within certain guidelines.

Until now, we’ve all signed the same piece of paper.  That covenant wasn’t bad.  But it wasn’t a unique expression of who the group was or what they wanted to do.  I’d like the groups to have this.

Marty (see his link in the Blogroll) and I have formulated this plan.  The first step I’ve begun:

I started with the four defining values of our small groups (Authenticity, Transformation, Outward-Reaching, Multiplication).  I’ve attempted a definition of each one, and then I’ve attempted to nail down how these definitions play out in real life.

This is no small task.  It’s important foundations for the next step.  So it’s important to me that I get this right.  That’s part of why I’m posting it here.

I’m particularly interested in feedback from folks who are currently connected to a small group (whether this small group is at FC or elsewhere)  What do you think of the definitions and  examples beneath each definition?  Is there anything that should be changed, added, or deleted?  What should we do to make the covenants more powerful and personal?  Is there anything else we should be considering?

At any rate, the document is below.  Please, pretty pretty please, let me know what you think!

Authenticity: We are engaged in transparent, supportive, and loving relationships with other members of the group and the church.
Questions: What should we commit to in order to grow these relationships?
A) Regular attendance

B) Respectful actions

C) Accountabality

Transformation: We are commited to seeking out Christ and conforming ourselves to his image. 
Question: What should we commit to in order to maximize our growth in Christ?

A) Regular prayer for each other.

B) Submission to the needs of the group.

C) Application of Biblical principles.

Outward Reaching: We will work to bring about the Kingdom of God.
Question: What should we do? 
How much should we do it?

A) Social justice

B) Evangelism

C) Formal service projects

D) Informal, spontaneous help

Multiplication: We are committed to growing small groups through out New Englad.
Question: What steps can we take toward multiplying?

A) Shared leadership to develop gifts

B) Apprentice others in things we do within the group

C) Seek out to be apprenticed by someone else.

D) Participate in multiplying groups.

We’re all Mr. Potato Heads

Click below to download an mp3 version of me sharing the message that this note is from. This particular message is Atom Bomb: Reach Out… However, Pastor Marty is an amazing speaker. You’d do better to click on one of his messages and listen to that.
Today, I’m honored, terrified, excited and freaked, to get to deliver the sermon.  These are my notes:

 Before I begin I want to be clear about some things.  The first thing I want to be clear on is that you all are amazing.  Fellowship Church small groups rock.  There is so much genorisity in this room.    I’m not here to guilt you into doing more than you are.   Instead,  I want to share what I think  scripture says about reaching out.  I think we’ve gotten as far as we’re going to go, in approaching reaching out with a certain mind set.

  I want to challenge that mind set, because I think changing the way we reach out will take us to a new level.  I didn’t realize any of this until Christmas Eve.On Christmas eve, I was leaving this retail job that I’ve been working.  It was like 7 PM, and if you want to know the truth I was feeling pretty grumpy and sorry for myself as I was walking out of the store.  It was dark, lights were off, I was headed home. 

         On my way out this woman drove up in a mini van.  She looked at the darkened sign, the empty, abandoned store behind me.  Her lip quivered.  And she asked, “Are you closed?”         

 It was one of those times it seemed like there was no right answer.  Anything I could have said would have sounded pretty sarcastic, considering how obvious the answer was.  And honestly, I wasn’t feeling very nice at that particular moment.

            She filled the silence up.  It was one of those laugh-moans that people make when they are on the edge of falling apart.  “It’s such a big store.” She said, too quickly.  “I thought sure it would be open.  I have no place to go.” I noticed she was driving this 2008 version of a minivan.  I realized she basically looked like a soccer mom.  She seemed like the sort of person who up until very recently would have had somewhere to be on Christmas eve.

          I wish I’d called on Jesus for the right words, for the right thing to do.  I stood there, realizing I’d been feeling sorry for myself because I had somewhere to go.  I stood there, and my whole attitude shifted.  But not enough to really help the situation. 

         “I think the movie theater is opened” I said lamely.  There is a hundred things I should have said.  A hundred things I could have said.  But I didn’t say any of them .  I told her about the movie theater. 

         I wish I had a happy ending to that story.  I wish I knew what became of her.  I wonder if she ended up at a movie, and if that movie was any good.  But I don’t have the answers to any of those questions.

          There are some questions I do have some answers to.  That event helped me to take a look at myself, and at the church, and at Jesus.             One of the things I realized is this: I would have been more ready to reach out if I hadn’t been preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself about working on Christmas Eve.  I would have done better if I hadn’t been thinking about my own junk.

          I’ve never been a soccer mom with nowhere to go on Christmas eve.  But I’ve got my struggles, and they in some ways weren’t so far off from this womens.  If I’d done a better job of handling my stuff, I would have been more ready to help her.  If I had reached out to somebody else, before that Christmas eve, then I would have been ready when she reached out  for help from me to offer more than pointing her to the movie theater.    It would be so easy to skip this difficult stuff.  There are aspects of reaching out that are much  more fun to talk about. Things like the service projects I’ve heard about from our small groups, and the ones that  I’ve been personally involved with. I could spend time talking about   the less formal ways we’ve  supported people.  Reaching out to people who are hurt or lost and lonely, inside the groups and out.

          It’d be so easy to talk about midnight phone calls and emails that I’ve answered and  The blood sweat and tears I’ve put into helping this group or that organization.

          But the truth is that this is half– maybe even less– of the picture.  The truth is that I have received at least as much as I’ve gotten.  The truth is that my back has been up against a wall, and I’ve had no where to turn, but people– you people– have come through for me.  It’s no fun to realize this.  In fact it’s kind of painful to think about.  But it’s the truth.

          If I was going to be more even more truthful, I’d have to say that there have been times when I’ve let you all down.  Times I should have reached out to you and didn’t.  Times that I knew what you needn’t and I just didn’t give it to you because I wanted it for me, or those other times when I just didn’t know what to do, like when I stood there on Christmas Eve.

          The nature of reaching out really isn’t that complicated.  We can see it even in preschoolers, and in the end, I’m not really so different from them.  Sometimes they reach out just to be picked up.  Sometimes they reach out with with a cookie in  hand, a cookie that’s so good and soft and warm that they just have to share it.  they  want to put the spit-covered thing right in somebody else’s mouth, and really, who among us doesn’t atleast fake a bite when we’re offered one?  Sometimes toddlers, are selfish, and they try and keep the cookie to themselves; sometimes they get older, and they want to be held, but they don’t tell anybody, and so they are stuck, lonely.

          And I’ve come to realize, that I’m not much different, and you, I don’t think you’re much different either.  Sometimes we reach out to be held.  Sometimes we reach out with a cookie.  Sometimes we want to reach out– for either reason– but we don’t. There is that part of us that tells us that we are supposed to be self sufficient.  That voice that tells us we’re supposed to be independent.  We’re not supposed to need anybody else.  We don’t want to ask to be held. 

                     I think we’re alot like my friend, Mr. Potato head here.          The normal way of being either a person or a Mr. Potato head is to have two arms.  (Hold up Mr. Potato head.)

          Arms on a person– or a potato — are the things we need if we’re going to reach out.  We need them to reach out to offer others a cookie.  We need them to reach out to be held.

            Every time we leave our broken places broken, every time we leave our wounds unhealed, we are like a Mr. Potato head who ditched his arms. (Pluck off the arms)  We tried only to be independent, we never wanted to be selfish… but when it comes time to use our arms for reaching out to help somebody else… They are gone.  We can’t offer that cookie to anyone, if we don’t have arms to hold it with.

                        The truth is we’re all a mess.  The truth is that we all have those broken places.  The truth is that none of us enjoy asking each other for help.

            Have you ever thought about it?  It would be silly if it weren’t so sad.  I can stand up here and announce that we’re a mess.  And you can sit out there and maybe nod your head and agree with me.  But this service will end.    And then we all go about our lives and live this unspoken agreement to pretend that we’re not a mess.  We all participate in this giant lie together, living in denial of our brokenness and need for each other.

           Every time we live this lie, Every time we refuse to let others help us, every time we refuse to reach out to others, we’re taking off our arms.  When we want them, to reach out to somebody else, to offer someone that symbolic cookie, they won’t be there.

          Of course we want to fix ourselves, by ourselves.  But That’s the whole problem.  It was on our own we got to the places we’re at, wherever that is.  What’re the odds that we’re going to get ourselves out on our own?

          I don’t think it’s going to happen.  If we could do it by ourselves, I think we would’ve.  Our deepest problems aren’t usually new.  These things  might not be getting any worse, but when we try to handle them ourselves, they aren’t getting much better.

            We’ve all got something.  Maybe it’s something that part of you knows that you haven’t admitted to the rest of you.  Maybe it’s something you’re fighting about all the time, with the people you love the most.  Maybe it sneaks up on you when you wake up in the middle of the night.  Maybe it’s something that happened  a long time ago, that seems like it should be in the past but it keeps rearing it’s ugly head and effecting you in your present.

          And we all know somebody: somebody who’s hurting.  Maybe we’re doing a little bit for them.  Maybe we’re doing a lot.  We’re probably wondering, are we supposed to be doing more?  How could we doing more? Maybe we’re doing things for them, but it doesn’t make us feel as good as we want to.  I think we can fake it and force it for a while.  We can try an opposite extreme.  We can do our devotionals and we can pray, we can get ourselves all fired up and we end up making  ourselves into the opposite of this little freaky thing here.(Put him back) So we decide to reach out more.  We write these plans into our palm pilots or scheduling book… or maybe you’re like me, and you don’t have a palm pilot or a scheduling book. I claim that I don’t do lists… But really, we all do lists.  Every one of us knows the things we plan to do.  Some of you organized people right it down.  Some of us less organized people try to keep it all in our heads.  But we’ve all got a list.  And maybe, our list of things to do begins like this: (to be projected)

1.  Grocery shopping.

2 Oil change.

3 Watch the game at the bar.

As a result of our new understanding, we add #4.  (To be projected)

4. Reach out somehow.

(Put an arm in the top of his head.)

We can represent this decision to reach by   giving our friend a new arm.  It’ll help him reach out more. Perhaps we  go work in a soup kitchen Maybe that one day a week that we serve the hungry doesn’t feel like enough.  Maybe we discover some other cause that seems just as worthy.  Maybe somebody in our small group asks us to engage in a service project.  And we keep going, realizing that reaching out to help others shouldn’t just be on our list.  We ought to move it to the top.  Reaching out to help others becomes our top priority.So now, our list looks like this: (on the screen)

1.  Reach out by going to work in a soup kitchen this week. 

2 Oil change.

3 Watch the game at the bar.

4.  Grocery shopping.(More arms.)

Already the ways we try to juggle our schedule becomes complicated.   Because grocery shopping is at the bottom of the list it takes us longer to get to.  And maybe we end up eating out some night, because there’s nothing left in the cubbards.  We end up spending extra money on food for the family that week.  We feel guilty when we realize we can’t give as much financially to some organizations, charity, or church… In our attempt to reach out one way we hurt our reaching out in another.But more than this, it still isn’t enough.  Reaching out is still a fraction of our lives.  We cut things out, and we give away, and we’re still not living up to Jesus’ example. (Take pretty much everything out of MR. Potato Head: nothing but arms in their places.)Our list for the next week looks like this:

1.  Reach out by going to work in a soup kitchen. 

2 Get the kids to baseball.

3.  Reach out financially by supporting __________, and make up for the amount we skimped last week.4 Watch the game at the bar.

5.  Reach out by participating in small group’s service project.

6.  Grocery shopping.

One of the problem with these lists is that they tend to neglect the fact that there are  two reasons to reach out.    Maybe we even work this way so that we can forget.  It’s easy to make reaching out with that cookie a priority.  But we don’t generally plan to reach out to be held.  And maybe, somewhere deep inside, this is our plan.  If we spend all our energy saving the world, we can begin to forget how deeply and thoroughly we need to be saved, too.When all is said and done, we’re nothing but arms, nothing but reaching out.  We can’t see what we’re doing, we can’t talk about it because we have no mouths.  We’ve stopped doing everything else.  And you know what? We’re still miserable.   We think about the abundant life Jesus promised, we think about all the good things we’re doing, and we wonder why we’re still empty.  Sometimes we redouble our efforts.We keep going like this, and our lists get bigger, and we hope something changes on the inside for us, but we keep doing things on the outside the same way. Other times we give up completely.

 Because the good news, for Mr. Potato Heads, is that it’s easy to go back to how we were before.  And the bad news, for Mr. Potato Heads, is that it’s easy to go back to how we were before.  These arms come out as easily as they go in. 

 (Take arms out, put him back to normal.)We return to our lives as originally scheduled.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  (Original list, back on screen)  Our to do list looks pretty familiar, at this point:

1.  Grocery shopping.

2 Oil change.

3 Watch the game at the bar.

We pull back into our shells.  We were hurting while we helped people.  We we’re hurting still, and now maybe we’re burned out and confused on top of it.There’s a pretty interesting study I’d like to share with you.  It’s quoted in Malcom ___’s great book, the tipping point.  In this study, they went to this seminary, And the scientists stood there, at one end of this campus.  And they told the students that they wanted to hear these students preach a message.  They asked the students to speak on the parable of the good samitaritian.If you don’t know this story, basically, a guy gets robbed, beaten, and left for dead. All the people we’d expect to help him: Priests and priests helpers walk on by.  Jesus praises the ordinary person from a hated group who does rescue this man.So the researches plant this seed, in the students head.  And then they planted an actor,who pretended to be in need of help, in the path of the students.  Would the students be like the Pharisees or the Samiritans?

These scientists figured out who would help the man in need.  It wasn’t the people I would have expected.But I want to put that thought on hold for a moment and switch gears a little.   Because there is insight more important than the sort we get from psychologists and studies.

             God new that it wouldn’t be easy to work this stuff out.  The good news is that God left us some stories and some instructions that walk us through this stuff. 

 I’d like you to turn with me to Mathew 10:7-11  Jesus is giving instructions to his disciples.  It’s one of the first times we see them all together: and Jesus is dispersing them, sending them out into the world to reach out to the lost, lonely, and broken.7As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[b]drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. 9Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.  11“Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave.”

Jesus was of course so brilliant in how he did this.  He sent his disciples out with nothing so that they’d have to reach out in both senses of the word.           The disciples probably planned on reaching out to help the world around them.  The way Jesus sent them out, though, required them to reach out for support, to reach out for help, as well.  Jesus said “. Freely you have received, freely give.” Reaching out to help others and reaching out to be helped by others, it’s two sides of the same coin.  It’s inhaling and exhaling.  We can’t do one for long without the other.If we all sat here, and only exhaled for a while, it’d be a pretty wild service.  We’d passing out in the aisles and hyperventilating in our seats.  Though it might look like one of those churches that they call spirit-filled, in fact, all it would be is a church full or people that are oxygen deprived.

It’s easy to see that We can’t exhale for long without inhaling.  IT’s not as easy to see that   We can’t reach out to help others for very long when we’re in desperate need of help ourselves.

Maybe reaching out shouldn’t be just a neat little category of things to do, between getting our teeth cleaned and doing the grocery shopping.  Maybe it’s wrong headed to put it on our to-do list at all.   I wonder how Jesus feels about the fact that we have these nice and neat little boxes not only for our lives but also for the church.: Fellowship on this date.  Evangelize on that one.  Go on a missions trip over here, or over there during the vacation.All those things are awesome things to do.

   I’m not saying that we should stop them.   But I’m not always convinced we’re doing them the way that Jesus did.When you look at Jesus, you can’t tell where the fellowship ends, and the evangelizing begins.  You can’t tell the difference between his plans for a missions trip and his plans for a church plant. 

In that passage we just read, in todays terms, how we would we categorize what he sent his disciples out to do?  Really, we couldn’t.  It’s a missions trip, it’s a church plant, it’s evangelizing, it’s fellowship… and it’s really more simple than all these things, too. He just reaches out.  In so many different ways.  When he reached out, all these things that we categorize seperately end up melting together. 

 And he doesn’t just blend the ways we reach out to help others.  He blends our serving and our need.  He makes us interdependent.  He wants us to offer what we have even as we take what we need.  We reach out to help others with our left hand as we reach out to be helped by others with our right.Now, let’s get back to the’ study that I mentioned before:  There’s a lot of things that I wish I could tell you determined whether or not people would stop to help the person in need.  But it’s actually something that doesn’t look all that important  The thing that most often determined whether or not people would stop was  whether or not the they  felt rushed.

You see, sometimes the folks giving the test told the students that they only had a few minutes to get across campus to deliver the sermons because they were running late.  Other times they did not.  Whenever the students new they were running late, they were highly unlikely to stop.I’d like to suggest that maybe there’s a wider issue than just being rushed.  My experience tells me that whenever my world is cluttered, I tend to have trouble doing what I ought to be doing.One kind of clutter that can invade our world is busyness.  They did that in this test.  They simply made the people busy, and this was enough to cause them to forget the whole point of the parable that we know was on their minds.

   When we’re busy, we forget to slow down.  But I think there’s other ways we get distracted, that our lives get cluttered.  When we’re hurting, we have trouble climbing out of our hurt.  When we live in denial of our own junk, it’s hard to see other people’s.  When we’re occupied with not reaching out to get help, it’s tough to reach out to help anybody else.  In a way, this study is going on for all of us, all the time.  Jesus is watching us.  He knows we’re in a rush.  And he’s wondering if we’re going to stop anyway.This is what our first list looked like:

  1. Oil change.

2. Watch the game at the bar.

3.  Grocery shopping.

And this is what our last list looked like:

1.  Reach out by going to work in a soup kitchen this week.

 2 Get the kids to baseball.

3.  Reach out financially by supporting __________, and make up for the amount we skimped last week.4 Watch the game at the bar.

5.  Reach out by participating in small group’s service project.

6.  Grocery shopping.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t plan to reach out.  But I neeed to ask a question:Are we more likely to notice and help those around us if we’ve got 3 things on our mind, or 6?

  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make lists.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t oirganize service projects.  Organization and time management are incredibly important if we’re going to be powerful in the ways we reach out.The deal is that I think we can simplify our lists and simplify our lives.

 Recently my wife and I were at a restaurant with a bar.  We were wondering about those people sitting there, maybe they came with somebody and maybe they didn’t;  but they certainly weren’t really with each other.   They were sitting there, alone together with these empty expressions. They were watching the weather on the bar TV  and drinking. 

 My wife and I started wondering why they were there and what they were doing.  I have to wonder if these people had this on their lists, all week: come to a noisy room full of strangers, spend money on overpriced drinks, and watch the weather.

   Because it seems like if they didn’t want to be there, they would have left.

I am not saying that they shouldn’t be drinking, probably though, at least some of them should be drinking less.  I’m not saying that bars or alchohol are evil.I am wondering if this was worth there time.  My guess is that for most of these people, it wasn’t that this was actively destructive.   But spending time doing that, it stood in the way of better things to do.

  I don’t go sit in bars and watch the weather.  But I do other things just to fill my  time up.  And even if I don’t write it down, there is a to-do list in my head and these actvities gets a high priority.  I think we all do some things just to take our brains out of my heads.  I’m resisting the urge to offer up my own opinions of things that aren’t worthy of our time. 

 I think you know what these things are.  They are the things that offer nobody– including you– any real benefits.  The things that you might not be able to explain why you do them.  Things you spend an absurd amount of time at, and feel kind-of silly afterwards: what did you really get out of them, when all is said and done.As we think about the things we do, as we think about how busy we get, as we think about our lists there are some important questions I’d like to challenge us with.

Would you engage in these activites that are not worthy of you, if you were more healed, more whole?  If you weren’t a mess would you do whatever it is you do?There are all kinds of ways we try to escape our brokenness.  If we spent this time dealing with our brokenness by reaching out to be healed,  I think we would begin to find our lists simplifying themselves.It’s awesome to be able to do things just for ourselves, sometimes.  But a lot of the things we claim are just for us, they don’t really help.  Those people could spend the rest of their lives watching the weather in bars.  Whatever things that are motivating them to do this, these things won’t go away.  So here’s our first step toward more powerfully reaching out: cross everything off our list that isn’t worthy of our time.  But the truth is that even if we take things off that list that aren’t worthy of our time, we still end up with pretty big, intimidating lists.  I think Jesus wants more than just this for us.And it’s easy to think that Jesus just didn’t get it.  It easy to say that Life at his time isn’t like life in our time.  I’m going to leave aside the fact that he knows everything for the moment, and just take a look at what it was like in his day and age.  I’d like to look for Jesus wisdom about reaching out.  As we do that, lets follow him around for a day.  We’ll try to use some of the space up here to get a sense about where he came from and where he was going. What I want to do now is take a little trip, back to Mark, chapter 5.

This day starts for Jesus and his followers after a broken night’s sleep: the disciples had woken Jesus up to calm a storm they were afraid was going to sink them.

After the storm was calmed, morning came,  they came up on shore, Let’s say it was Over here (stage left, bottom of the stairs)  They came up  and discovered that there was a possessed man who they used to chain up,  over here (climbing stairs, stage left)The man broke the chains, shed his clothes, and lived in the tombs, over here.  (stage center, back.)Jesus caught up with him,  had a confrontation with the demons that were possessing the man.

  He casts them into pigs, over here (left back)  Pigs apparently don’t like being possessed.  They jumped off a cliff and killed themselves back here, in the water, where Jesus started his day.If my day started with a boat ride, lead to a fight with a demon, which lead into a mass pork suicide, I’m about ready to call it a day.  But Jesus is just getting started.So the villagers, afraid, came maybe from over here (left front) up to Jesus and his followers. 

 They  asked Jesus and his followers to go away.And they did.I imagine they had to climb over pig corpses as they made their way back to the boat.  They took another trip, and ended up back where people new Jesus.(Below stairs, walk to stage left) 

Jesus and the disciples end up here, come out of their boat, and are rushed by a crowd excited to see him.And in the middle of the festivities, up comes a synagogue ruler, probably from back there somewhere.  The synagogue ruler interupts the festivities.  His daughter is dying.  He needs Jesus.  Now.Me?  At this point, I’m pretty much done.  I’m exhausted, it’s been a long day, I just want to hang out and feel good about the guy I freed.  But Jesus?

(Toward center stage) he heads to the home of the synagogue ruler, and he’s mobbed again.  And a woman sneaks a touch  of his cloak.  And she is healed.  Jesus uses it as a teaching moment for the disciples, which we’ll get to in a moment. 

 (Toward stage left)After this, Jesus keeps going. Now, finally, he nears the home of the synogoe ruler.  People come out, and tell them that the daughter is dead.  That sounds like a pretty good reason to give up on the whole healing plan to me.   Jesus?  Jesus keeps going.  After all, if you tallied up the day, you’d see that on the plus side you’ve got a man free of possession, a woman freed of bleeding, and probably an enomorus pork barbecue somewhere. 

They didn’t quite get there in time for the girl, but hey, they tried, right?  Not Jesus.  Jesus keeps going.He ends up here, and  capped that day off by bringing somebody back from the dead.

And so, there’s some things that are worth noticing out of all this: The first is that Jesus never let himself get rushed.  He doesn’t ignore the opportunities to reach out that are in front of him.  My agenda, so often, is a list of places to go and of things to get done.   Jesus agenda was people.

  His agenda  was about reaching out from somewhere deep inside.    Jesus life was not cluttered in any sense of the word.  He noticed the people around him, even when he had somewhere to go.

And what about those people?There were people that saw one of their own freed of a demon, and somehow they were afraid of Jesus.  Never mind that the best they could do on their own was chains for the afflicted.  Never mind that Jesus sets him free.    The bible tells us that they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave.  There is no record of Jesus being either angry or surprised that some people are afraid when we reach out, that some people seem to fear the possibility of being set free.

And I can only imagine this bigwig synagogue ruler.  This guy is one of the trendsetters, one of the cool kids.  He sees a big crowd of the ordinary people like you and me.  They are all celebrating with Jesus, so happy to have him back among them.But the synagogue ruler,  he doesn’t play it cool.  He doesn’t try to take it casual.  He doesn’t wait for Jesus to come to him.  He doesn’t try to pull Jesus aside.  He doesn’t worry about the fact that he’s going to bum them all out and crash the party, nor about his social status.  He drops to his knees right there.  He begs Jesus for help.  He probably knows Jesus has just gotten out of the boat.  He knows Jesus will have to some traveling to get to his home.  But he knows what he needs and he reaches out.Eventually there are people in the story who tell that man not to bother Jesus because his girl is dead.  Notice that we aren’t told that they’re worried about the father.  They aren’t offering condolences.  They only come with a lack of faith and a strange belief that the man was bothering Jesus. They seem to be saying “Maybe he could have helped you once, but not now.” 

I find it interesting that it appears that these are  the very same people who later laugh at Jesus when he says the girl is sleeping.  Early on they seem so interested in helping Jesus maintain a schedule.  Now, they laugh at him?  I wonder just what their motivation was.  There daughter is healed, there reaching out rewarded.  The man knew what he reached out and asked for it.

And in the middle of all this is the bleeding woman.  She, too, approaches Jesus in the middle of a crowd.   one of the things that  surprises me is Jesus reaction to her.  She’s sneaking in.  It seems like she’s taking advantage of this needy, crushing crowd.  She comes up from behind, and as much as admits that she was trying to sneak some healing from Jesus, as if he had on some sort-of Harry Potter magic cloak.

The society they lived in gave her every reason not to want to reach out; not to consider herself worthy of Jesus time and energies.  She was a woman living in a sexist society.  Her bleeding would have caused her to be viewed as unclean.   She was poor from the money she’d lost trying to fix her problems.  But she reached out, anyway.  And if we take a look at the text, we can see that she had it right.  The folks that followed Jesus… not so much.

  Scripture tells us: When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.  30At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”  31“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”  32But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Even if we forget the cultural stuff, the disciples confusion is understandable.  Picture the most annoying crowd you can imagine.  Target on Christmas Eve, a crowd finding their seats right before the concert starts.People are up in your space, all around.  They’re pressing in from all sides.  If you looked at me and said “Who touched me?”  I’d probably say “Everybody, you idiot.”And this is what happens.  Jesus is in the middle of the crowd.  All kinds of people are pushing up against him.  And he says “Who touched me” and the disciples… They basically said “Everybody, touched you, you idiot Rabbi.”But who’s really the idiot?  Not likely Jesus.  Jesus of course knew that he was in a crowd.  But he wanted to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that there is touching, and then there is reaching out in longing, reaching out in pain.  And this is a whole different deal. We might expect that Jesus would confront her on sneaking around.  We might expect that there’d be issues with her thinking that the healing was in Jesus’ clothes.  We might think he’d yell at her saying “how dare you slow me down?  There’s a dying little girl and you think your problems are important!?!?”But he didn’t.  He said a thing that he says a lot to people we wouldn’t expect.  He says “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”Unlike our lists, Jesus probably only had one or two things on his at any given time.  And somehow, he got so much more done.  Partially, I think this is because Jesus life wasn’t cluttered.  His mind wasn’t on an overwhelming list of things he felt like he was supposed to do.

Jesus lived his life reaching out.  Reaching out wasn’t something he added to his list: reaching out was something that ran through every item on his list.Jesus allowed people to serve him.  In the bible, we hear about people who anointed his head and who washed his feet.  Jesus praised those who came and asked him for help, as we saw with the women who was bleeding in the synagogue ruler.  We should reach out, to Jesus, too.  When we do, we will become so much more powerful when we reach out to help others.

  Our lists will begin to simplify themselves as the useless things, the spinning of our wheels, the stuff we do to take our brains out of heads, as this all falls away.

we can not go to Jesus in the same way that  the synagogue ruler or the woman who was bleeding went to him.  But we can go to him.  We can go to him directly in prayer, and we should go to him in prayer.  But there are other options open to us.  Things that we should do, too.  Things that are hard, things that we try to avoid.  Scripture describes the church as Jesus body.

   If we take Jesus seriously we have to take seriously what he told us: We are his body.  And we are told that what he did will be nothing compared to what we do.  Do we take Jesus at his words when he says these things?

When we reach out to heal others, it’s with Jesus hand that we’re doing it.  But it’s even stranger and more amazing than that: Because Jesus is already in the hurting.  He tells us he is with us when we are suffering.  He says that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, we are feeding, clothing, and visiting him.

  When we reach out for healing of ourselves, we are also reaching out for the healing of him.Some of you know that I’m a teacher.  That means that I’m licensed by the state of Massachusetts to issue homework.  I’m going to ignore all the stuff about a separation of church and state and give you some homework now.

    If you don’t do it, I think I’ll have to issue you a detention or something.

  Take a step toward reaching out to be healed this week.  Close your eyes right now, and think about something that not many people know about you.  Who would want to know this thing?  Who can you trust with this? 

 If you’re in a small group, I’d like to challenge you to share it with somebody in your group.  If somebody dragged you here today, maybe you can share something with them over lunch.  Maybe it’s something that’s been bugging you.  Maybe it’s time to tell somebody where you’re at spiritually.  Maybe it’s something deeper.  Maybe it’s something that won’t seem so deep at all.If you can’t think of anybody, one possibility is that maybe you’re thinking too big.  I’m not saying go to the deepest depths of the closet and drag your most rotten skeleton out of it.

   I am saying that there is some small way that you can be like the synagogue ruler.   I am saying that Jesus praised the woman who reached out and touched his cloak.

Reach out to somebody.  Trust them with a little something.  As you sit here, take a moment, in the silence, and make a plan: Who are you going to reach out to trust?  What are you going to trust them with?And please remember.  I’ll be checking in next week.  And issuing detentions.

The challenge for you, and the challenge for me, is not to see how many times we can add reaching out on to our to-do list.  It’s to see how many ways we can reach out in the middle of our every day reaching out.When we’re less distracted with our own brokenness, when our time is less filled up with things that don’t help, we will be more open to the opportunities that are right in front of us.  Jesus didn’t rush to the synagogue rulers house so that he would have enough time afterwards to do something else.  He saw needs along the way and took care of them.

If we don’t rush through our grocery shopping, in order to get to the next thing we feel like we have to do, maybe we’ll see somebody who needs a smile.  Maybe we’ll notice one of those carts that they leave our for donations to the local food pantry.  Maybe we’ll drop something in there.If we spend a night hanging out with friends instead of watching a TV screen, maybe we’ll talk about things that are important to us.  Maybe they’ll spend a night talking about things that are important to them.

Maybe after we do these things we feel refreshed.  I think at the end of all this that we’re going to have more time and energy to go out and take on those projects.  We’re freed up to be excited about going to that soup kitchen that we had tacked on to our list out of guilt.

And so many of you are reaching out.  I don’t need to tell you that’s important.  But I’d like to close today with a suggestion around maybe why it’s important.  One of those reasons is that this is practice, this is a dress rehearsal.  At the foundation of the Christian faith is the belief that God has given us all sorts of things that we could never earn.  They are undeserved, gratitious, and over the top.When we serve others, when we give to someone more than they deserve  we are working with God in showing others His love.  We are not only fixing the problem: we are not only showing that we care: we are helping them to believe that there is someone so much greater than us, who cares too.

And when we receive kindness: When we reach out so that others might know our needs, we are practicing at receiving some of the deepest and greatest undeserved gifts of all.  There can be something almost horrifying about taking that which we need yet don’t deserve.  But the fact that it’s horrifying doesn’t make it unnecessary.  And if start with the little things, it makes it easier to accept the big things.

My dream and hope and prayer is that Fellowship Church could be a community that reaches out… in both senses of the word.   I hope that someday Jesus will be in someone who reaches out to you, to heal you.  And I pray that Jesus will work through your hands, too, in the healing of somebody else.  And through your reaching out, whether it’s for you or for somebody else, somewhere deep inside, you’ll hear those amazing words: “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Deitrich Bonhoefer on community

“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

I found this quote on another blog and it really struck me.  (Can anybody help me out on the ettiquette in a case like this?  Should I have asked permission to “steal” the quote they found?)

Bonhoefer either wrote or was trasnlated in a manner that was a bit provocative.  But his words are incredibly important, both to me in my role as small groups guy and for people participating in Christian communities.

Just recently I was in a discussion about walking a balance between not wanting to meddle to much into the natural, organic existence of relationships.  The more structure and support I create the more artificial the relationships become.  In Bonhoefer’s words, the more visionary I am the more we lose authenticity.
There is relevance for the billions of people on planet Earth who are not involved in small group ministries, here.  It’s so easy for us to long for different sorts of relationships.   To look at the people we are “stuck” with (whether this is by accident of birth, location, past decisions, or knuckleheaded small group directors) and wish they were different.

I find it a bit ironic: Bonhoefer was one of the few Protestants who spoke out against the Nazis.  This lead to his death.  If Christians had acted more like a real community and stepped up with him, perhaps things would have turned out differently. 

Small Groups– Fellowship Church Style

I’m honored and occasionally baffled by the fact that I get to direct small groups for Fellowship Church.    I’ve found it interesting to do some homework about how churches “do” small groups.  This is a summary of how we do them.  Very little of this is unique to our church, so I (or anybody else at Fellowship Church, Holden) can’t take credit for thinking up much of it… But anyway, here’s how it goes:

Small groups are groupings of people put together to discover God through fellowship, service, and bible study.  They meet weekly (with brief breaks around Christmas and in late summer) and engage in service projects together.

The life span of a small group is a bit over two years.  In the first couple months, the group is in the “open” phase.  During the open phase, a group is getting to know each other.  Folks are encouraged to just drop in.  No attendance expectations are expressed.  Discussion and fellowship is usually light (read “shallow” or “superficial”)  My focus on filtering new people into groups is to steer them into open groups.

After a couple months, the group enters the “covenanted” phase.  (We used to call this the “closed” phase but decided the term sounds exclusive and isn’t very accurate, anyway) The covenanted phase is one which begins with the signing of a covenant.

Until now, all the groups have signed identical covenants.  The covenants expresses commitments to pray for each other, commitments to regularly attend small group, etc.   Currently, I’m working on a flexible covenant.  The flexible covenant expresses the parameters within which we’re comfortable with small groups operating.   It’s a bit like a menu, with a variety of ways to express expectations for group life.  I’m excited to see how this will work out.  The idea is rooted in the fact that we have certain expectations for what counts as a small group but we don’t need to have them all be identical, and sociologists talk a lot about how important and bonding it is for groups to create their own norms.

Anyway, my goal for a closed group is to have about 12 adults.  One couple within the group lead it though we try to encourage a sharing of leadership and expect an apprentice couple to be identified within the group.

I will only place new members in a covenanted group if I can’t find room for them in an open group.  (Sometimes the night that open groups meet on doesn’t work, for example.)  And I only do this with the group leaders permission.  (Almost always this isn’t a unilateral decision but a group discussion.)

This is the second-most controversial aspect of how we do small groups.  People feel that it’s snobby and cliquish.  And I realize that’s how it looks.

But the truth is this: if I’ve just unearthed all the skeletons from my closet one week, and Joe Newbie and his wife Mary Newbie show up the next, I’ve not only been shut down from continuing to be authentic… It’s also the case that I (and others) will be less likely to open up and be real next time, knowing that our authenticity might get derailed by the arrival of someone we haven’t built up trust with.

At the end of about a year and a half, the group prepares to multiply.  The apprentice will take half of the group members into a new open phase; the old leaders will take the other half of the group members into open phase.

This is probably the #1  most controversial aspect of the philosophy.  People grow really close.  It’s kind-of brutal to break groups up.  Virtually every group has had reasons– sometimes compelling ones– to alter the timelines for their specific cases.

But I know how I am, and I know that most people are basically like me.  We like comfort, safety, and the known.  Left to our own devices, we will be quite engenuious at mantaining the status quo.

I won’t go so far as to say that safe, established groups can’t reach out; I won’t go so far as to say that they don’t evangelism.  But it takes on a very different character when you’re out of the same-old, same-old.

An established group, based on my experience, is likely to feel safe to folks who are already pretty close to God.  A friend of a couple who have been attending a small group might join an established group.  A couple who have been attending church for a year might go.  A person who feels like their world view, politics, socio-economic status, would have a comparitively easy time walking into a group that’s already been established.

We should all want to do everything we can to move people closer to God.  I love that I get to put people in established groups.   It’s awesome that so many groups welcome as many people as they can even after the covenants are signed.

But we’d be leaving behind a lot of people if we didn’t multiply.

Because a smaller, new group is easier to join for the people who need it most, it’s much more likely that they will join.  This is not just about keeping people in their comfort zones.  It’s about operating in the real world where seekers– and all of us– are free to do what we want. 

Furthermore, splitting a group gives a little incentive for people to evangelize.  It creates an occasion to reach out, gives some members the kick in the butt that they need.  There are people who will work harder at reaching out when they are in a smaller group, when they have a reason to want it to be bigger… Again, maybe not pretty, but it is reality.

Perhaps the most important reason to break groups up is because it grows even the established members.  There is a tendency, after a while, to settle into stale-mates that don’t help or challenge anybody.  Creating lots of new relationships isn’t easy… But it is valuable.

How do we reach out?

This is my third and final attempt at getting my brain around God’s expectations that we reach out to the world around us.  See the preceeding two postings for the beginning of this train of thought (though I think each will more or less stand on it’s own.)

How do we do it?  How do we reach out?

            There are so many who are lost and hungry.   There are so many ways that we are lost and hungry, all of us.

            And if we chose only one of these countless problems,  we could give every dime we have.  We could spend our every waking moment trying to solve some problem.  We could sacrifice ourselves and our careers and our families.

            And we would not even dent the problem.

            What can we do?  Why should we bother?  It won’t change anything, will it?

            There’s this story that they tell us as they train us to be Special Education teachers.  It’s a story of a guy walking on a beach.  It seems that sometime before, a storm came up and washed all these star fish on to the sand.  The tide was receeding but the star fish were left behind.  They were dying on the beach.

            And this guy, he was looking at the hundreds and thousands of star fish.  They stretched out, as far as the eye could see.

            And this man,   he was picking up the star fish.  And he was tossing them back in, one by one.

            Somebody approached the man.  He said “There’s no way you could ever get all these star fish back into the ocean.  You’ll never save them all.  It does not matter if you spend all day today and all day tomorrow and even the day after that.  You’ll never finish the job.”

            Now the guy, he had a pretty good answer.  He looked down at the star fish in his hand, and he said “It doesn’t matter?  How can you say it doesn’t matter?”  He tossed the star fish back in.  “It means everything to the star fish I just tossed back in.”

            That guy on the beach, he was reaching out.  There were people who said it didn’t matter.  But it mattered to the ones he impacted.  It mattered to the star fish who made it back in. 

            I think this is a pretty good story.  But I think the reality is even better.

            But I have to say that I think as followers of Christ we make a mistake sometimes.  We miss out on how great the truth really is.  I think if this was a story we’d find in a Christian fiction book, the man would be likely to  come upon that scene and drop to his knees, and he’d cry out to God.  He’d pray for all those lost star fish. 

            If this were a Ted Decker or Frank Peretti book, angels would zoom in from out of the sky.  They’d life the star fish with mental telepathy.  In one tremendous motion, they would splash down back into their home.  The star fish and the angels would rejoice.  The story would end happily.

            But let me ask you a question…

            How many times have the lost and alone been like star fish at your feet?  How many times have you seen hurting and brokenness?  How many times have you prayed your heart out for them?

            If you’re like me, you’ve done this a lot.  Probably too many times to count.

            And let me ask you another question:

            How many times have the angels come?

            Probably not very many.

            This can leave us feeling scared and lost and alone.

            We can feel that God doesn’t care.  We can feel that his promises are false…

            But does God promise us these angels that will come and do the work of reaching out in our place?  Ted Decker might promise them.  Frank Perretti might promise them.  But does Jesus?

            Many of us know the story of the fishes and loaves.  But do we take it seriously?  Jesus did almost the exact same miracle twice.   And the story of these miracles appears in all four gospels.

            We read eight tellings in total, of Jesus feeding the hungry.  I have to wonder what would be so important about this that God would tell it over, and over, and over again.  I think it’s because the point is so important.  I think it’s because the point is so easy to miss.

            So what’s the point?

            I’m glad you asked.

            Let’s look at the story:

            The disciples are like us.  They see a need.  And it appears they’re worried about it.

            They are further like us.  They ask the Lord for help.

            And here’s where things get interesting.

            The things that Jesus actually said are not the sort-of things Jesus usually says in Christian movies.

            Jesus says “You do it.”

            And the disciples… They don’t do it.

            The people closest to Jesus, the people who are supposed to be in the know… They miss it.

            And even when they come close to getting it, they don’t even seem to realize it.

            In the book of John, we are told: 8Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 

 We, the people who are supposed to be closest to Jesus.  We miss it, sometimes.

            Don’t get me wrong.  I love prayer.  And Jesus is real.  He is alive and he is the object of my worship.  But he said something important.  Something important that his followers then and now miss.  He said “You do it.”

            Who got it?

            The person who got it was a kid with his lunch.  If he’d been a few years younger, maybe he would have pulled that gross cracker right out of his mouth.

            A detail that appears in these stories all 8 times is that Jesus brings the food before God.

            Once he did that, we get the special effects.  Once that boy reached out with what he had, God stepped in.  He multiplied it, and multiplied it, and he multiplied it. 

            Right now, we’re asking the question, “How do you reach out?”

            And the answer is this:

            You turn what you have over to God.  And God will take care of the rest.

            Sometimes you reach out like a toddler with wafer in your hand.  And sometimes you reach out because you need to be picked up.  But either way, you just… reach out.

            When you reach out, Jesus is with you.


            When you are imprisoned, and naked and hungry, Jesus is with you.  And as people treat you, so they treat him.

            When you are healing, and saving, and setting the captives free… Jesus is with you.

            Jesus never asked you to solve the world’s problems.  Jesus gave you everything you have: your talents, your time, and your treasure.  He knows better than you how little you have.

            But he just wants you to start.  He wants you to do what you can.  He’ll do the rest.  You pull the little cookie out of your mouth and offer it to somebody.  You hand over your lunch.  He’s the one who’s going to feed the thousands with it.