Can small groups live up to the hype?

Most of the Christian community instinctively acknowledges the importance of small groups.

Practically every church has some sort of program or plan for small groups. Many speak very highly is small groups, calling them the core of their ministry or the heart of discipleship.

It turns out I agree with the potential and promise of small groups but I’ve also become pretty convinced that, in my own churches at least, as well as ones with which I am intimately familiar, the reality has never quite matched the promise. The truth is when the decisions are made, decisions of where to spend resources, what to hold leaders accountable for, where and how to assess progress… at these moments something else usually takes precedence in our churches. We want amazing small groups but we build and train somewhere else.

Thats one reason I’m particularly excited to be embarking on two ventures this summer to see if we can create small groups which deliver on the promise.

1) over the next few months I’ll be working with three different churches to see if we can establish a new trajectory of priority for the small groups in their church.  With each church I’ll be spending 9 or ten hours training their small group leaders to rethink the why and then the how of their small groups.  I’ll be adding some valuable tools to their tool belt and then…we’ll see.

2) at the same time I will be planting a new heavily small group centric church where we’ll be creating brand new small groups with the same training and priority. I look forward to seeing what, if any, difference this approach makes.

As I go, I want to share with you the results and process of both these experiments.

To start with i wanted to invite anyone who’s interested to join us on June 25 to hear more about the Focus Church vision.

Everyone who wants to hear more is welcome and warmly encouraged to come.

We’ll have this meeting Sunday June 25 at 6:30 pm at Paragon Church.
2740 Northern Blvd NE
Unit 102
Rio Rancho.

Pastor Matt Sellers and the elders of Paragon Church have graciously offered this space for our free use at this time

Second, I’d like to share with you a portion of a letter I sent to the Focus Church  launch team. I hope it encourages you

I want to tell you about an amazing thing that happened to us this weekend because it is very much in line with what I anticipate of the community we’re going to build at Focus Church. If you’re in a hurry I’ll just see you on the 25th but if you’d like to hear the story keep reading.

My wife and I drove 2400 miles this weekend, to pick up my daughter (Lorien)’s stuff from Minnesota and bring it back here to ABQ, now that she’s done getting her Master’s and is moving back here: 1200 miles there and 1200 back with one stop in between to sleep and load up.

(Interestingly this means for that mileage, we could have driven all the way to Alaska and still had 200 miles to explore. We could have driven to Nova Scotia, Canada)

On our way back we had driven 67 miles when our car began to overheat. We made this trip (as we do out of necessity more often than I’d like)) on a shoestring budget with no room for car repairs. We were 3 miles outside of Windom Minnesota, population 4,240 and it was Memorial Day. With Siri’s help I called 6 different auto repair shops (all named after the first name of the owner). All of them went straight to voicemail. I began to realize all were closed.

I had to get back to work on Thursday, so the prospect of both spending money we didn’t have, and then not being able to earn money I needed by missing more work was discouraging. My wife and I were both at a particularly low point emotionally. I’d love to say we were filled with faith and expectation, but that would be a lie. We were low on sleep and low on faith. We wanted to trust God, but frankly we were struggling believing He cared at that moment.

In moments like these I feel a fair amount of pressure and an unfair amount of shame and cover the shame by coming up with ideas. At this moment though I felt defeated, particularly felt out of ideas and so I prayed that God would surprise us, do something beyond what we were capable of believing or looking for at this time.

My wife suggested I contact my daughter’s pastor (Darren) in Mankato, an hour away. I sent him a text asking if he knew of any mechanics who might be open. He texted back he’d look into it.

I called a tow place to ask them if any mechanics were open and they confirmed that, while they were open, there were no mechanics who were, but they would be happy to tow me back to windom. I asked him how much the tow would be and found out that for the 3 miles back to windom, it would be 135 dollars. I told him I’d call him back. I had no idea where that money was going to come from. I texted my daughter and prepared her for the possibility of having to come to windom to get us and drive us back to her place in Mankato until the car could get fixed. I had no idea how we were paying for that either.

In the meantime, Pastor Darren texted me back, saying he had managed to talk with both Don and Carl (of Don’s repair, and Carl’s repair, respectively). They were both at home, but somehow he’d reached them and they both confirmed they were not open but he seemed to think taking it to one of them would be the best idea.
Then, out of the blue, he offers to pay for the tow. “Just have them call me,” he said. I hadn’t asked him, nor expected him to do this, but he did.

I called the tow company back and asked them to tow us to Don’s (picking one randomly). While we waited for them, I tried again myself to reach both Don and Carl on the phones that Darren suggested which connected to their cell numbers at home. I got no answer and left messages with both.

While waiting for the tow truck to come, Darren and I texted back and forth and somehow decided to go to Carl’s instead of Don’s. I can’t remember any specific reason we did, but we did. So that’s where the tow truck took us.

When we arrive at Carl’s he does everything he can to lower our expectations. I suspect he’s a gruff guy by personality and he’s clearly tired. It’s after closing time and he’s going out of town the next day. He doesn’t think it’s likely he’ll be able to do anything. I am beginning to think we should have gone with Don, but Carl says he can at least take a look at it tonight since we’re here. I don’t really expect I’ll get any better possibility from anyone else, so I thank him for being willing to look at it. I am truly appreciative but I’m not fully present because I’m 1) praying it’s only a thermostat, cheap and quick to fix and 2) trying to figure out who we’re going to borrow money from to get this done.

“How did you even find me?” says Carl and there’s a hint of resentment in his voice. I am slow to answer because of my distraction and then Carl follows up with, “Wait, are we Christians here?”

My wife and I affirm we are and he nods and says, “Oh, it’s God then.”

I excuse myself for a moment to go arrange with the tow guy (who’s unhooking everything) to call Pastor Darren for payment and my wife continues to chat with Carl. Apparently they have a long and fruitful discussion in which it is revealed (to him) that I am a pastor and (to us) that he also is a bi-vocational pastor. Or at least was very recently.

To make a long story short (“too late”), Carl ends up loaning us his van so we can go to Mcdonalds while he looks at the car. He discovers while we’re gone, that the radiator cap is broken and preventing the overflow coolant from running back into the radiator. He also discovers that the drain plug is leaking. He replaces the cap, and plug. He notices our service engine light is on, checks for error codes. Finds mostly irrelevant things, but does fix one or two other minor things and reset the code. He fills the radiator, and runs the car for half an hour, and it seems fine, so he calls us to say we can come back and test it out. We return and he tells us what he did and that it seems fixed. He gives us the keys and tells us to go drive it for three or four minutes just to be sure, cause he doesn’t want us out on the road without it being fixed.

“How much do we owe you,” I ask, relieved and amazed that we might be able to get out of town tonight after all, but still pondering how we’re paying for this.

“What do you want to pay me?” He asks. This is a terrible reply.

He has clearly done us a huge service and gone above and beyond. I realize what we can pay him and what we want to pay him and what he usually gets paid for this kind of work are probably three different things.

Before I can figure out the answer he hands us the keys and urges us to take it for a drive before we decide. We take it for a test drive and it’s working perfectly. In the meantime I call my daughter, to whom I’ve just given money before we left to see if we can take the money back to pay Carl. It’s only a hundred dollars but at least it’s not a complete insult (I hope).

When we get back to the shop, Carl confesses two things to me. One, he was so tired when I called that he didn’t want to answer the phone, he didn’t want to help. Two, he doesn’t want any payment. He just wants us to pray for him. Of course we prayed for him right there and then.

I told him honestly that he was an answer to prayer, that God had used him as a blessing for us, that at a low point for us, he was there to strengthen our limbs and remind us that God was present and cared. He was an effective and genuine ambassador for Christ at that moment on that day. That’s when I watched this gruff tired old mechanic tear up. What had seemed like an unpleasant burden or duty had turned into a genuine moment of service and heroism, and, I believe (hopefully without presumption) that he realized that by being responsive to Jesus in his mechanic work, he had impacted our lives as surely and deeply as he had ever done with anyone as a pastor. Such a realization of being used by God to spread His grace to others can be an emotional moment indeed.

What does this have to do with us as we build Focus? Two quick points.

1) We all have moments when we need help to continue the journey. My wife and I just wanted to get home and we’d run out of steam (or coolant as it were). Without a certain set of gifts and skills, which we did not possess, we would have been literally stuck in Windom (Or at least Mankato). God recognizes that life is hard and living by faith, while the best we can do, is nonetheless very difficult at times. He tells us in Hebrews that we need to never forsake the gathering together as believers, precisely because at some moment we will each need the strength of others to press on in faith, to continue in the journey.

2) By the same token, it’s also important to understand that as true as it is that we are needy, so also we are gifted with skills, abilities, experience, and spiritual gifts to share the very Grace of God with others around us. As we learn to integrate all of our lives under the headship of Christ we find that any task we do, no matter how menial or large it may seem, can make someone else’s journey possible where it once was impossible. You have the chance every day to do heroic acts, as you submit as servants to Christ, and therefore to others. Such a life lived can be amazing and this is the essence of discipleship.

At Focus Church we are seeking to build a community where discipleship is both formed by and results in this kind of stewardship of God’s very Grace through our love and service to each other and the community around us. Can you imagine being a part of a community where you are free to be both needy and needed? Can you imagine a fellowship where you can be both damsel (or dude) in distress and hero all at once without pretense.

Jesus imagines just precisely such a community with the important understanding that He is the King of such a community and He leads us to help each other learn that our life is everything it is supposed to be when integrated fully under His leadership. This is the job of the church; this is the focus of Focus Church.

So come join us on June 25 to learn how our unusual approach will help us stay focused and by God’s grace arrive at such a vision.

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