Free Curriculum!

I see today that a good thing has happened. Free curriculum, that due to its source, can be considered doctrinally safe and sound. What follows has nothing to do with the curriculum. I am genuinely pleased that in our capitalistic culture, the time and effort was made to help student ministries the world over with this incredible need.

However, in reading the comments from the press release, “Youth curriculum debuts: 6-year free resource”, by Michael Foust on Baptist Press (http://www.bpnews.net), I do have a concern that the stated goals will not be achieved – and it has nothing to do with the curriculum.

I know, appreciate, and applaud Richard Ross. As a student at Southwestern, I was privileged to have him lead a class when he was only an adjunct professor. He’s been around student ministry a little longer than I have.

I know him well enough to know that he would likely agree with at least some of what I share below.

In the press release, Ross is quoted as saying,

“Our broken culture, the millions of lost in the U.S, and the unreached people groups globally demand that we develop true disciples,” Ross told the Southern Baptist TEXAN, news journal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

“Yes, we need to offer biblical ministry to every teenager, regardless of spiritual condition or motivation,” Ross said. “But every church absolutely must offer a place where those select teenagers gather to truly become world-changing disciples. That is what we are missing today, and that is what we must begin to do — or all is lost.”

While everything Ross shared above is absolutely true, neither he, nor I, have ever seen or used any curriculum that can accomplish this.

Candy Finch, one of the writers of the curriculum is quoted:

“While many churches are doing a great job of discipleship, the truth is that we are losing the majority of our young people,” Finch told the TEXAN.

I also agree with Finch’s statement, but we are not losing them due to the content and quality of our curriculum. We are losing them, in part, because we are depending on curriculum to do what God has called us to do.

Churches that are doing a great job of Discipleship use their curriculum to support their discipleship efforts. Some may even strategically choose or write their own so that what happens in the classroom aligns with what is happening in life.

As a youth minister that was purpose driven before the book was written, I love Richard’s question,

“What is your plan for discipling your core teenagers for six years, from grades 7-12?”

It would be best if your answer to this question was crafted to answer the question posed by Thom Rainer in Simple Church. In his discussion of the imaginary pastor of the imaginary Cross Church, this pastor’s dream was accomplished, in part, because he answered the question: “What does a mature disciple look like?

If you answer this question, and then build a ministry strategy that is designed to accomplish what you imagine, including the scope and sequence of your Bible Study, you have the best opportunity to develop that which you seek.

While I am extremely confident that Ross agrees that this plan must not depend solely on curriculum, the unintended consequence of the offer of free curriculum that promises… to make “teenage disciples who are fully prepared to disciple others — now and for a lifetime.” will not achieve the intended result.

Unless…

There are a couple of scenarios where this promise can be met.

Scenario 1: A Mature Disciple can follow Curriculum.

Because experiential learning is a powerful method, it is likely that many students involved in six years of this study will be able lead others through this study. That is a good thing. It is a really good thing if your definition of a disciple is someone who can lead others through a discipleship curriculum. If this is your definition, then the promise will be met.

You see, as Southern Baptists (speaking for myself) we’re really good at offering Bible Studies, and believing that this simple fact means that we are making disciples. Bible Study = Discipleship. However, the facts don’t bear this out.

We’ve known for decades that a large percentage of students leave the church upon graduation. Many never return. Some return with then have children of their own. All of these students have been in Bible Study. Bible Study that, by and large, was led using some vetted and approved curriculum.

However, we’re now seeing the same thing happen with adults. There is a large number of formerly churched people in the United States that no longer want to be involved in church. It is one of the fastest growing segments of our culture. These people have been in Bible Study for years. Most also in a Bible Study that utilized some piece of curriculum.

And yet we are still seeing our churches close at a rate around 4000 a year. Curriculum will not fix this.

Scenario 2: Mature Disciples Actually Making Disciples (and the curriculum is only part of the process)

Andy Stanley, in his book Deep & Wide, makes the point that classes don’t …”create mature believers. Classes create smart believers.”

Again, experiential learning is a powerful method.

Discipleship is not the process of teaching others what you know, or – often in the case of curriculum – teaching others what you studied so that you could teach this week’s lesson. Discipleship is transferring what you experientially know to others so that they can know it experientially.

I’ve looked through some of the lessons in Disciple6. Great topics. Valuable information. Anyone who purposefully goes through this material will certainly be smarter.

But, how powerful would your disciplemaking process be if your students actually saw you witness well to Muslims so that when you lead them through Session Yellow 23, you and they share the life experience? This disciplemaking would align with your study.

Don’t know any Muslims? Then how about Yellow Session 4 – “Defending the Faith in Society”. If your students only see you passionate about Christ inside the walls of your church, if they have never seen you “defend the faith in society”, you have lost opportunity to engage in disciplemaking, regardess of which curriculum you use. But, if you were to purposefully place yourself, and those students you disciple, in situations where you – and they – can defend their faith in Society, how much more powerful would your Bible study be?

What does a mature disciple look like? Create experiences and opportunities (outside of the church) for those you disciple to give them the best chance at getting there. Create experiences and align your Bible Study with those experiences.

Studying ministry is not experiencing ministry. Studying evangelism is not doing evangelism. The same can be said for (Spoiler Alert: Discple6 topics ahead) Relationships, Ethics, Missions, Service, Prayer, Leadership, Worship, Stewardship.

Smarter. Mature. Pick one.

Richard, to you and all of the authors, I thank you for this great work. To all who would use it, use it well, but don’t depend on it.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bible Study, Discipleship, Small Groups, Strategic Thoughts | Leave a comment

The Problem with My Neighbor

Proximity Neighbor Focus

Proximity Neighbor Focus

I’m not sure what you thought when you read that title, but it would not be unusual if you treated it as a fill-in-the-blank question, to which the response may have been something like, “Where do I begin?”

That’s certainly not true for all of us, neither is it true for all of our neighbors, but we can all imagine it is true for others. In like fashion, even if we don’t have a beginning place of problems with our neighbors, we are not sure if the opposite is not true. Something as simple as the frequency or timing of mowing the grass or where we keep our outdoor trash cans can cause a less than positive opinion. Move on to the color of our house, the noise our kids make, or even the unintended failure to wave a greeting in the past can all color our neighbors opinion of us.

We know this to be true. Those who live next to us know us better than we think they do, just like we know them better than they think we do. We see each other’s comings and goings, values, child rearing skills, hobbies, how we spend our money, and more. And that’s part of the problem. Because we know them, and they know us, they fall into the category of the “difficult” to reach. Proximity breeds knowledge and knowledge is power: power to compare, power to resist, power to reject. A tough crowd for the gospel.

In addition, helping your proximity neighbors is part of the give and take of getting along. They help you, you help them – quid pro quo. If nothing else, it helps to keep peace in the neighborhood. There is inherently something “in it for you” when you help your neighbor and vice versa. Just last week, I asked our neighbors to bring in our trash can after the pickup on Monday, as we would be out of town. They know they can ask the same of us (and have). It takes time and much effort for your neighbor to see that you are genuinely a helpful person. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take the time and effort, I’m just suggesting that it is part of the problem in getting to the place where you can share Christ with them.

Another part of the problem is that we don’t understand Jesus’ instructions about neighbors. While it is absolutely true that Jesus cares about those who live in closest proximity to us, He cares equally about those who don’t.  There are two Biblical passages that we need to understand together.

The first is found in Luke 10:25-37. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan, but for the purpose of this post, let’s call it the answer to “Who is my Neighbor?” And to be very, very clear, Jesus was not trying to teach us anything about those who live in close proximity to us. Let’s pick it up on vs 29:

But he [a lawyer], wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

 Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.  So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’  So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

 And he [the lawyer] said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

 Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

 Jesus could have very easily told a parable about the tough crowd. He could have just as easily talked about the neighbor across the street that was beaten severely when his home was broken into and robbed. He could have talked about the neighbor on the left who ignored the situation, as well as the neighbor on the right. He could have introduced the neighbor across the street that just moved in, who went to take care of the wounded man: …to .. bandage his wounds, pour on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

But he didn’t tell this story. He told a story about a stranger – someone who did not share proximity. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.

  • The One who tells us to go into the whole world to share the gospel never wanted us to condense our concern to our own proximity.
  • He knew the proximity crowd was tough. Look at Matthew 13:53-58

 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

 But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”

And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

 In almost every circumstance where Jesus showed mercy it was to a stranger. It is true that before His time came, many he helped had heard of Him, but they were still strangers, or at the most acquaintances who had seen Him before.

The church could learn much about discipleship in this area from baseball.

Very young players learn the game by hitting a ball on a tee stand. They call it T-ball. They graduate from that to coach pitch. Balls are lobbed in by a coach so they can learn to hit a moving target from someone who is not trying to strike them out.

Neither of these levels are considered the “tough crowd” of baseball.

Then, you move up to the next level. You get a pitcher that wants to strike you out. But by then, you have had enough practice to be able to stand in there and deal with what comes your way. Hang in there long enough, and you can get to high school, college, the minors, and for the very rare few – a shot in the Bigs.

Each step along the way prepares you to be able to deal with what comes your way. Your previous experience makes the next crowd less tough. So why is our first step today in encouraging people to share their faith to point them at one of the toughest crowds they will face? (Family is also very tough for all the same reasons.) And often, we point them, but we do not show them.

We tacitly imply that since God cares for our neighbors (and family) it is solely our responsibility to see to that they hear about Jesus, as if in their decades of existence no one else has or will; as if they will certainly be hell-bound if we don’t tell them – it will be our fault… this is not true!

Why don’t we show them (show, not just tell) how to share their faith in less difficult situations, giving them practice and experience that will be valuable when God does provide an opportunity at the next level.

Here are just some of the other issues with focusing on proximity neighbors instead of focusing on those to whom you can show mercy (service, help, aid, assistance, care) without quid pro quo… doing for others in need who cannot return the favor… strangers.

  1. It just doesn’t add up. Regardless of how big your church and community are, Christians are the minority. If you were to fill up every seat in every church in your town on a given Sunday, it would not be out of line to consider that 75% or more of your town would not be seated. Proximity Neighbor Focus means that up to 75% of your town will not have anyone who is working to share Christ with them, because they don’t have a Christian neighbor.

Of the 25% who are sitting in the church seats, my experience is that less than 10% of those know how or have shared their faith with a lost person. (That is, in part, because they have never had a pastor, mentor, friend, or leader that has trained them and shown them how.) That means that 90% of your town will not hear the gospel from a neighbor, because they have no Christian neighbor or their Christian neighbor is not going to tell them, even with the strong push from their church leadership.

In addition, I don’t begin to know how to factor in the percentages of those in church who are not encouraged to share their faith. If we accept it as fact that there are churches that do not encourage evangelism, then it may be safe to assume that this Proximity Neighbor Focus will effectively influence evangelistic conversations with 1% to 3% of the “neighbors” in town.

Jesus never intended for us to condense our concern to our own proximity. That is not what he meant by “neighbor”.

  1. It can be a waste of time and energy. Another way to say this is, “When do you stop?” The easy answer is “Never”, but that is not the Jesus model. Again, you are not the only person that God can send their way. Your responsibility, if you accept and act on it, is to tell. Their response is between them and the Lord.

In Mark 6:8-12, Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to various towns. Among the instructions he gave them, was to discern when it was time to move on, to stop in that place and go to the next. He said, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (6:11)

If your proximity neighbor doesn’t listen, please don’t imagine that Jesus intends for you to keep banging on them until they submit. To keep spending your time and energy on someone who might hear it differently someday from someone else – perhaps a Christ follower who helps them in a real time of need with no quid pro quo. There are so many more that need your time and energy with the Gospel… it’s OK to move on.

  1. What do you do when you’re done? Let’s say you are one of the rare ones that make it to the “Bigs” – you are ready willing and able to share the gospel with your Proximity Neighbors. Either they listen or they don’t, but you’ve done what you’ve been encouraged to do. All eight of your neighbors have heard about Christ from you. They understand the gospel message and have responded or not.

Now what? Are you done? You no longer have to share the gospel because you’ve shared with your neighbors? Hardly. You apparently have two choices.

1. You can move to a new home so that you have new neighbors.

2. You are now you’re at the place that Jesus taught about and ministered to – strangers and acquaintances. How are you going to do that? We should figure this out because there are so many more of them….

What are you going to do?

the church needs to be The Church. Jesus did not intend for most of us to stand alone. In fact, the church – the body of Christ – should be the source of our ministry together in the community, not just disparate individuals living out the Christ-life and alone serving and witnessing to others. The church needs to foment the spirit of and practice of the evangelistic lifestyle by modeling, training, and creating the reputation for the church that aligns with Scripture.

When Jesus showed up in a place, He quickly created a presence and reputation of help and relief. Remember, he called it “mercy” in the parable? Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. The word of His ministry spread because of the integrity of His reputation. Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. Their word about Jesus was believable because of this reputation.

We live in a culture where the “church” has a different reputation. Thanks to the internet and very public fails of prominent Christian leaders; very public falls of those who preach something other than Jesus, but in His name; and the very real legalism and culture wars within local congregations, the community around us “knows” our reputation even though what they “know” may not align with what we think our reputation is. But get this if you don’t get anything else: If your church is not proactive in the community, demonstrating your real values and heart – your reputation, then you will inherit whatever reputation your neighbors believe all churches have.

As church leaders, you must lead your church to be that place of hope, grace, and relief for those in your community and beyond. You will have to double-down to overcome the reputation that you have been painted with by virtue of the fact that you are a church. Find needs and meet them. Help people in real need. Involve your members in building a reputation that your members can be proud of, so they can, like Jesus’ followers, easily say, “Come and see”, and their words will be believed because of the reputation of the church.

“Come and see” is T-ball witnessing. It is up to the church to create the reputation that will empower the witness. As a believer learns to handle the harder stuff coming in, the reputation of the church will not be as important to their individual witness. But there should always be new believers that need to first step up to the tee.

When people “come and see”, the church needs to be prepared with systems and a process whereby those with more experience can create opportunities to share the gospel.

Experienced believers may even get to the point where they can share with a really tough crowd. This may be, while Paul went to the Gentiles,  all of the other disciples, for the most part, stayed with the Jews. God loves the tough crowds, too. But, in this journey, many others will hear about Jesus along the way.

Does it really matter who tells your proximity neighbor about Jesus, as long as they are told? Does it matter more that your neighbor is told than the neighbor 3 doors down? A church – or churches working together in a community – who provide the reputation, motivation, resources, training and experience necessary for T-ball witnessing through “Bigs” evangelism will be The Church. Many neighbors will be told. Many more than with the Proximity Neighbor Focus. They just won’t all be your… neighbor.

Posted in Discipleship, Evangelism, Strategic Thoughts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

It All Hangs in the Balance

Balance

Balance. This is something that we seem to be moving farther away from. While we tout an understanding of the two Great Commandments – to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39), we seem to have functionally degenerated into a debate on which one is greater. This was never God’s point. Had man not been created, there would be no hearts, souls, or minds, to love Him. And the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul without loving your neighbor. And you can’t love your neighbor as you love yourself without concern, thought, and effort for your neighbor to know the God you love. You may not realize it, but God wants your neighbor to love Him with all their heart, mind and soul, also. These commandments are symbiotic. They are in balance. They are God’s design.

Please don’t assume that by balance I mean equality. The greatest commandment is the greatest. But the second – now don’t bet upset that I name drop here – according to Jesus, is like it: similar, close, in balance. And this simple reality flies in the face of our current and prolific move away from balance. You see, you have to take one position, not two. You can’t hold one position and agree with part of another. You have to choose which one is right. They can’t both (or all) be. And while your emotional identity may be tied to the singular position of your choosing, the eternal lives of the lost hang in the balance. And when we change the balance, their lives may truly be lost.

Early in my ministry, I remember heavy debates on whether “evangelism” or “discipleship” was the most important ministry of the church, and by implication and intent, for individual Christians as well. The passionate debaters would seek sides and identify your side, whether you had one or not. Those who favored evangelism were painted with the abandonment brush – as in, “All you’re concerned about is their spiritual birth… you abandon them so that you can move on to the next spiritual birth.” I even heard it referred to as the highly offensive “spiritual still birth.” Those who claimed discipleship as the greatest value were often painted with the cowardice brush – as in, “You are just afraid to share the Gospel” or the failure brush – as in, “You’ve just taken that position because no one is getting saved in your ministry.” As rounds of debate came to an end, each participant would retreat to their corner, determined to prove the other wrong, rather than seeing that both sides make one whole. And the lives of the lost and the ministries of the saved hang in the balance.

Evangelism comes easier to me than most. Because of the God-invasion in my life, I became a bold and vocal Christian (though sometimes, not in the best of balance). Because He answered a broken-hearted prayer out of my fear of evangelism, that boldness encompassed the sharing of the Gospel. This became and is a passion for me. So passionate, that not only do I want others to know my Christ, I want other Christ-followers to know how to share and how important it is to live lives the align with the message they share. I remember early Tuesday morning breakfast meetings with students, teaching them how to share their faith and debriefing with them on how the previous week had gone. I remember times in our Wednesday night teaching/worship time that students who knew how to share their faith would leave the room with a friend so that they could purposefully and deliberately give that friend an opportunity to accept Christ. I remember taking ministry leaders with me so that they could learn the “how” behind the “what” – the “do” beside the “know” –  that they had studied for years; years in rooms filled with Christ-followers but no new followers.

Discipleship and Evangelism. Loving God and loving your neighbor. Balance. The lives of the lost and ministry of the saved all hang in this. They are symbiotic. This is God’s design. And here, I believe, is an illustration for why much discipleship is in name only. You see, in the memories above, I never used a program – someone else’s creation of resources that were, with the best of intentions, designed, packaged, and sold out of someone else’s experience – experience that I did not possess. You can only lead from where you’ve been. Discipleship is not merely book study – although studying books can be part of the process. If you’ve not gotten your hands dirty, you won’t be able to show anyone else how to dirty their hands. Discipleship is not passing on what you’ve read. Discipleship is not passing on what you’ve been taught. It is not passing on what you merely understand.

Discipleship is passing on what you experientially know by helping others to know it experientially.

I’ve been in churches where leaders talked about the need for evangelism. In particular, I won’t soon forget the lay-leader that spoke to the need, believed in accountability for the staff in this area, and even taught classes on how to “share Jesus without fear”. When asked to share about the last time he had led someone to Christ in his 60+ years of life, he could not think of one. That’s like asking someone about the day they got married and not being able to remember anything about it. Like asking about the birth of their child and not being able to remember anything about it. The likely truth is that such a person has not actually been married or had a child. And the lives of those who don’t know Christ hang in the balance – the balance of know and do. The balance of talk and go. The balance of faith and action. The balance of worship and witness. The balance of evangelism and discipleship.

Faith without works.
Is.
Dead.

Today, the debate terminology has changed, but the message is still the same. It is still Spiritual Us vs Spiritual Them. Even when Jesus’ instructions included to simply “leave them alone” (Luke 9:49:50), we still struggle to realize that telling those without Christ about Christ is a more important pursuit than trying to convince those with Christ that either Calvin or Arminius is correct and the other incorrect. Even though the lives of those without Christ hang in the balance of how we live and communicate today, we spend time trying to convince those with Christ about how and when they will see Him in the future be it pre, post, or a. If their lives really hang in the balance (and they really do), then please stand in front of a mirror (so as to have someone to convince) and elaborate for just a minute or two on this question: How does your understanding of Christ’s return, and your subsequent passion to convince other believers of your position, make any difference in how you love your neighbor as yourself” or in your ability to pass on this experiential knowledge to others? Your neighbor’s lives hang in the balance.

We have, unfortunately, learned to defend our doctrinal positions and Biblical knowledge much like our politicians defend theirs. We’ve learned debate techniques from our favorite Fox or CNN politicos. “My” side is the truth and has value; the other side is not true and has no value. I applaud Christian leaders that resist this pull. Theirs is the effort to maintain balance in a world that increasingly seeks to divide, debate, and destroy. Fortunately for us, God’s word provides the balance we need. Unfortunately, many of the side-seekers most often don’t follow the full wisdom of God in their pursuits. There are favorite passages, powerful passages, and reasoned conclusions based on these passages. However, there are other passages – either ignorantly or deliberately ignored – that can provide greater balance. This proof-texting builds communities and followings, but this debate about words does not build the kingdom.

As time and resources are all the more consumed by the world and culture around us, the church is feeling the squeeze to do more with less, and what often is the “more” is what is expedient or easy, rather than what is required. We have more Bible studies so that we can “know Him more”. We have worship pageantry so that we can “love Him more”. We align our purpose with these priorities – to know God more (a good thing), to love God more (a good thing). We proclaim that we worship in spirit and truth (both good things). But this leaves little to no time for loving our neighbors. Can you feel the pendulum pulled to the God side? Love the Lord your God with all your heart… (a really good thing). But as it is pulled to the God-side, it is pulled away from the neighbor side (not a good thing). Because Jesus said that this side is like the God-side. I will promise you that your available knowledge of and worship toward God will be wholly incomplete without sharing what you know with those who don’t.

Did you know that there are couples that by choice have no children? Absolutely their right. This is their choice. I am confident that these couples love each other. They in fact have a chosen path whereby they can give all of their love and affection to one another. They sacrifice for one another. They enjoy life together. In fact, regardless of their professions, they have greater resources to enjoy life and help others than do couples who have children. And ultimately, their heritage and lineage stops with them. This fact does not impugn their decision to be childless. It is, however, the undeniable and ultimate conclusion that the end of their lives is the end of the line.

Churches whose singular focus is on loving and knowing the Lord their God, do in fact love Him. I am confident that He loves them. They have more resources to spend on enjoying life with Him than churches who expend resources on making and developing spiritual children. And it is the undeniable and ultimate conclusion that the end of their church will be at their lives end. How has it become possible, in some circles, that Calvinism, Arminianism, Pre-millennialism, Post-millennialism, and/or Amillennialism (this is NOT and exhaustive list) consume more time and effort than evangelism?

I will never be one to say that Bible Study and Worship are not valuable; that learning of and loving God are not priorities. However, alone they are out of balance. God desires that we also love our neighbors as ourselves. In like fashion, it will never be my position that you are not entitled to your position. (Please don’t be offended, however, if I choose to simply leave you alone.)

Take a look at scripture and see which characters focused on worship and knowing God’s word to the exclusion of loving their neighbors. What characters spent more time talking about what they believed than living what they believed? What characters spent more time debating the minutiae of God’s Word in deference to the magnitude of His commands? Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Go. Make Disciples. Teach them (experientially). Your ministry, and their lives, hang in the balance.

Posted in Leadership, Purpose, Strategic Thoughts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Literature Windshield

If you have never done this, then give it a try. Find a stretch of road without any oncoming traffic and while moving the speed limit, look AT the windshield. Now, no cheating. This will only take a second. Don’t look through the windshield, look at it. It might even help to find a specific spot to look at.

A normal reaction would be panic! If you don’t feel panic, try it with oncoming traffic (no, not really – don’t try this. Just imagine that there are cars coming at you!) There is an immediate sense that you have lost control of this moving vehicle, that you have no idea what’s coming at you from any direction, because you’re looking AT the very thing that is intended to be looked through. It doesn’t matter if the horizon is bursting with the joy of a purple-mountain sunset or the splashing of a trout filled stream. You don’t see any of that if you’re looking at the windshield instead of through it.

But the windshield is helpful. It allows us to take in all the beauty before us, without the worry of bugs in our teeth or flying objects in our face or wind-ravaged hair. It is a tool best used when considered invisible.

If you have never done this, then give it a try. Become so familiar with the elements of the small group lesson, that you don’t look at the material the entire time. You look through the material at the eyes of the people in your group. You listen through the material to their responses to the questions and their dialogue with one another. You react and respond to the life around you rather than to the next question or activity in the lesson. Here is the splashing of trout and the burst of sunlight that we all crave in our small groups. It doesn’t exist in the windshield; it is on the other side.

Now let me quickly say that the material you choose to use is indeed vital. It can keep the bugs out of your meeting; stop frustrated members from flying in your face, and keep from blowing people away. The material gives you a plan, a way to see and get to the beauty of the group. But let’s stop pointing at the windshield, and point to the beauty beyond.

Many small group leaders are afraid of losing control of their “vehicle.” While God’s Word and relationships are the stuff of life change – the beauty of his creation – we often point at spots on the windshield rather than taking in all that is available in the group. It happens like this:

  • “The first question in the material is….”
  • “We need to get back to the lesson…”
  • “Everybody turn to page 14 for an activity…”

 

These statements (and subsequent page flipping in the material) tell the group participants that the material wants to know that they think; the lesson is interested in their response.

Can you sense the difference in these questions?

  • “Let me ask you a question…”
  • “Let’s relate that thought back to the passage…”
  • “Let’s try something together…”

 

Questions like these are generated by familiarity with the scope and sequence of the lesson elements. But the difference is that the material is “invisible” to the discussion. Eye to eye and ear to ear, participants can grow together with each other and with God.

 

Try this in preparation for your next small group session:

  1. Write down your questions and activities in the order they should occur.
  2. Re-write this list in short-hand and abbreviations. After all, you are the only one that needs to know what the abbreviations mean.
  3. Re-write the list on a sticky note using only one or two words (OK, use 3 or 4 if you need to) for each question or step. By the time of this third draft, you should be able to just glance at a phrase and know what to ask or do. (Writing a list 3 times like this will make you very familiar with the content and sequence. However, you may find you can skip step 2 once you become comfortable with this process. )
  4. Place this sticky note in your Bible next to the passage you will study.

When the study begins, just glance at your sticky note and you will be reminded of the ice-breaker/opening question you have planned. But look at their eyes, listen to their words. Let them know that you want to know what they think and feel. While the group is responding to your question, just glance again at your list, and you’ll know what comes next. And you won’t have to juggle two books in your lap!

Bonus: In being comfortable in what comes next, you will often be able to sense the exact time to move naturally on to the next step. You’ll be able to say something like, “That’s a great question! Let’s try something to see what we can learn about that.” Natural transitions and good eye contact communicate volumes to your group as to what kind of listener you are.

Lead them to the beauty of the relationships in the group. Use your small group material. Use it well. Use it as a windshield.

 

Posted in Bible Study, Leadership, Small Groups | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Illustration and Dissonance

2Tim3.162 Timothy 3:16 tells us God’s Word  “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

  • Teaching – Giving instruction
  • Rebuking – Identifying where a mistake has been made
  • Correcting – How to return to the correct line of action or behavior
  • Training in Righteousness – How to never need rebuking again!

These four useful “angles” of instruction of God’s word can be very helpful in developing engaging and life-changing lessons. The beauty of the Facilitating Discovery process is that it greatly enhances the effectiveness in our culture for communicating the most difficult of the four, “rebuke” and “correction”. People generally will change their mind about something if they discover the truth for themselves. We are all prone to resist rebuke and correction when it comes at us head on.

Here are some other angles on lesson development that may prove useful to you, especially on the more familiar or more difficult passages as they come through your curriculum.

Supportive (and Illustrative) Passages

Other Bible passages that reveal more information regarding the concept of the lesson, or illustrate the point of the main passage can be a significant part of an engaging lesson. Have participants compare and contrast the information in each passage. This is not the same is proof-texting, where you find a trove of passages that use a word or concept out of context from the main passage, in an effort to “prove” some point through and abundance of textual evidence.

Dissonant Passages – As a facilitator, a tremendously effective approach to life changing Bible study is to cause “cognitive dissonance” in the minds those in your study group. Cognitive dissonance is the process where what a person believes to be true is confronted or conflicted by something else that seems to be true, but is in conflict with the original belief. Cognitive Dissonance is especially helpful in correcting misguided beliefs, passages taken out of context, extra-Biblical material, and experiences and opinions that are contrary to Biblical truth. It can also be very effective in reinforcing and establishing Biblical belief systems.

The right Icebreaker can lead participants to express what they believe to be true on the concept at hand. Then, as the passage(s) are studied, the Biblical truth will cause the mental dissonance that will lead to change.

Example: Icebreaker:  What is the Biblical process for dealing with conflict between believers? (If there are believers of any level of maturity in your group, someone will refer to Matt 28.)

Question somewhere in the lesson:  “Explain why you think that Paul did, or did not, sin in Galatians 2:11-14?

CAUTION:  As always, you must stay in context when interpreting the Bible. However, a temporary (deliberate) misinterpretation may affect the desired results. ALWAYS identify the misinterpretation, and it’s place in the process you’ve just completed. Most Christians have heard a pastor employ an effect like this at one time or another. For example, a pastor encouraging his congregation to read along with his sermon passage may say, “According to Romans 3:23, some have sinned. Correct?” While the truth is, ALL have sinned, the pastor as used this technique to cause a little dissonance, to reinforce the truth in the minds of his congregation.

Maintaining context is a huge need in our culture. The concept of a lesson may focus on an experience with context more than on any one Biblical truth.  Helping Christians learn how to “rightly divide” God’s word is always a valuable lesson. Many believers today think that they should interpret the Bible through their on lives and experiences, when in fact, it should be just the opposite: we should interpret our lives and experience through God’s word.

Posted in Bible Study, Small Groups, Strategic Thoughts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breaking the Deep Ice

Icebreakers come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it comes in the form of “the life of the party,” whose spontaneity and humor get everyone laughing together, easing the way into conversation and relationship. Sometimes the icebreaker is a crisis so moving that everyone is willing to jump in and discuss solutions. Sometimes they are questions or activities in which people are motivated to discuss their opinions or experiences.

However, some ice is thicker than others—and you are leading to not only break the surface “get ‘em talking” ice in your small group, but the deeper, harder, more spiritual “ice.” If you can get your group discussing something they’ll discover even more deeply later on—something of much greater impact—you could help break the ice on serious spiritual and emotional issues in peoples lives.

Here’s a few ideas on how to get your icebreakers past the surface:

1. Make them parabolic.

That’s “parabolic” as in “parable.” Jesus used everyday objects, experiences and relationships to illustrate spiritual truths. Likewise, icebreakers that draw on the “everyday-ness” of group members’ lives ensure participation.

These come in basically two types:

a. Gadgets: Sometimes, Jesus had his disciples discover truth among sheep, fish, corn—the stuff of everyday life. They would touch and examine, only to see something spiritual they’d never realized before.

b. Memory: More often, Jesus told his followers to “look,” “remember,” “think.” Because our minds—our “grey matter”—are so powerful, we can “see” things not in front of us, “feel” what has already happened, and “sense” what might really be going on. Jesus often took advantage of these “mental gizmos” to help people discover truth.

2. Make them non-threatening.

Icebreakers should draw out conversation about things most people are always willing to talk about—kids, trips, “favorites,” school, jobs, hobbies. Non-threatening questions are general rather than specific, open rather than closed.

Notice how the “threat level” changes as you read through the following questions. Also note how the questions move from general to specific:

  • What are some issues that Christians face that positively or negatively affect church growth?
  • What are some issues facing Christians in (your state) that positively or negatively affect church growth?
  • What are some issues facing Christians in (your town) that positively or negatively affect church growth?
  • What are some issues facing Christians in this church that positively or negatively affect church growth?
  • What are some issues facing Christians in this group that positively or negatively affect church growth?
  • What are some issues YOU face that affects your role in your church’s growth?

The fact of the matter is, if you ask the first question (or for that matter, any of the first questions), the answers you’ll get will likely be the same or similar to the answers you’d have gotten by asking the last question—but because the pressure is removed, group members are more willing to share it.

People will normally respond out of what they know best and feel most strongly about—and that’s usually something that’s already directly affecting (or has affected) them.

3. Make them purposeful.

Your icebreaker will serve the discovery process best when it: a) generates discussion, b) illustrates the main idea of the lesson, and c) exposes personal beliefs and values. Icebreakers can be a back door to discovering some huge truths about Jesus.

Let’s say your lesson deals with the purpose of the Church. If the desire is to facilitate change, then one icebreaker approach could be: “What do you enjoy about our church?”

You could use a gizmo to introduce the question: Give everyone a brick and ask them to describe those “bricks” that have “built up” their own church experience. Or use a “grey-mo”: “Think back to the church you loved best. What things does our church have in common with that church?”

It’s OK if your initial responses turn out to be me-centered. What will make this a deep icebreaker is the lesson that follows.

Once people have opened themselves up, it’s time to get them to open their Bibles to see what God says on the subject. For example, lead the group in a discussion of what Paul “enjoyed” about his “church experience” in Acts 16:16-40. Then ask, “What are the differences or similarities between our ‘enjoyment list’ and Paul’s?”

This is where life change can happen. Once you’ve openly discussed what you believe with a close group of people, you’re more able to respond with them openly when disagreement or cognitive dissonance occurs. At that point, don’t focus on the disagreement; focus on the change.

“What could we do—personally and as a church—to make our list more like Paul’s?”

Posted in Bible Study, Leadership, Small Groups, Strategic Thoughts | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Role of the Bible in Bible Study

The title of this page sounds a little silly, doesn’t it?  However, how many of your class members actually bring and read their own Bible in “Bible Study”.  In churches across America, the answer is “not many.”  But perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When I was working on my master’s degree, I had a class where the textbook cost in excess of $35 (that would be more than $70 in today’s valuation).  We used one chapter of the book early on in the semester and then never referred to it again.  No one in the class brought their copy of the text book after the third week in class.  Why carry that weight around if we weren’t going to use it?

I had another class where – and I’m not making this up – the instructor read to us every session.  He had written his own text for the class – a full 2” ring binder notebook, of which we all had purchased a copy.  Beginning on the second class meeting, he read the text of the chapter to us in class time.  The futility of this was painfully obvious, as our homework assignment had been to read that same chapter.

That’s the way it went for the entire semester.  If our homework was to read chapter 3, then on the following class meeting, the professor would read chapter 3 to us.  I know of no one that read past chapter 3 for homework or brought their books to class.  We knew the instructor would do all the work for us at the next class meeting.

Bible Study materials are important.  They help provide a balanced plan for Bible Study.  They can provide information and insight into the understanding of scripture.  But they are not the Bible.

Though they are good and helpful things, no one who develops these materials would begin to wish that they would take the place of the Bible.  They are tools to help us know, and know about, our God.  They can be very useful in preparing for Bible Study.

But in too many cases, like the first class above, the real text book is never used, so the class members stop bringing it.  In other cases, the class on Sunday morning is just a repeat of the lesson material that was read the week before class.  In both of these situations, the real text book is missing and the passion for learning is gone.

If the facilitator does not involve the class members in actively reading God’s word, they will see little need to carry God’s Word – anywhere.  But, if members of the Bible study group can be lead to discover God’s Word for themselves, then the Facilitator has done a great work.

People who discover truth are motivated to discover more.  The Bible Study facilitator, by leading the class to read and discover for themselves, can actually help motivate believers to spend more time in the Word outside of Sunday morning, and thereby, empower those in the class to carry God’s Word with them everywhere

In Number 21:4-9, we read of the Bronze Snake that was crafted in accordance with God’s instructions. You see, the people had grown impatient with God’s plan and began to grumble. God sent snakes to punish them and the bronze snake to restore them. If bitten, all they had to do was look up (at the bronze snake) and they would live.

In 2 Kings 18:4, we see that the Israelites were burning incense – an act of worship – to the bronze serpent.  King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent that was used to preserve the lives of the Israelites on their wilderness journey.!

Destroying it was right in God’s eyes.  You see, the serpent was supposed to be a tool – something used in the wilderness journey to remind God’s people where to look in times of trouble.  It was a visible reminder and physical presence to motivate obedience.

It was never intended to be the source.  It was merely a resource.  But when God’s people made the resource the source, it was destroyed.

Commentaries, quarterlies, and books do not have the power to change lives.  God’s word does. They’re not bad, but they’re just resources.

Keep the source the source.

Posted in Bible Study, Small Groups | Tagged , , | Leave a comment