How to Find and Maintain Hope in the Dark Seasons of Life

 

Some time ago, I listened to a sermon based upon Isaiah 45, part of which focused on the fact that God is the One who “forms light and creates darkness,” the One who “makes peace and creates calamity” [Isa 45:7a]—He says “I am the One who does these things” [Isa 45:7b]. This to me was amazing, since we do not typically think that God has anything to do with the darkness we often face—only the light in which we live. But there it is—our God declares that He is even in the dark chaos of our world, and for this reason we can take heart and maintain hope, for all is well with Him in charge.

What the prophet Isaiah is saying in this passage is that if bad conditions exist in our life, they are not there because some evil god has thwarted the good intentions of a kindly but ineffectual god, who would like us to have good conditions but cannot bring them about.

The darkness or calamity may be present in our life because we have sinned against His natural and moral laws, like [Sowing & Reaping], they may be there because by their means we can become more like Him, or they may be there for reasons that He cannot explain to us. But they are not there in spite of God.

What do we need to know?

Ask ourselves: Is it possible that we can gain blessings in our times of darkness that we cannot gain in the times of light?

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2 ESV

Greek word for testing is: δοκίμιον “or” dokimion translates as testing by trials.

Dross is the word silversmiths used for the impurities that would rise to the top as they were trying to make the silver as pure as possible.

Our testing Leads to Purification & Trustworthiness.

Jeremiah 29:11 is a life verse many people have claimed over their lives: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) Understanding the context is key!

The problem we run into is when we approach this passage of Scripture as a security blanket: believing simply that God has a plan for me that is good, so clearly any suffering I’m going through will end soon and then my flourishing will begin! But that is not at all what God was promising to the Israelites, and it’s not what He’s promising us, either. The heart of the verse is not that we would escape our circumstances, but that we would learn to thrive in the midst of them.

Here’s the context: the Israelites were in exile, a punishment from God as result of their disobedience. The prophet Jeremiah confronts the false prophet, Hananiah, who had boldly proclaimed that God was going to free Israel from Babylon in two years.

So Jeremiah calls out Hananiah’s lie, and then states the promise we read in 29:11. God did indeed have a good plan for the Israelites, and it was a plan that would give them hope and a prospering future. Sounds good, right?

The thing is, before he shares this promise, he gives them this directive from God found in verse 7: “Seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” This means we are to pray for our enemies, especially during seasons of captivity and persecution.

This of course was not at all what the Israelites wanted to hear! They wanted to be told that they were going to go home. They wanted to be told that their suffering was going to end. Instead, God’s plan was for them to stay right where they were, and to help prosper the very nation that had enslaved them!

And then came the biggest blow of all. In verse 10, God says that He would fulfill this promise “after seventy years are completed in Babylon.” This meant that none in the current generation of Israelites would ever return to their home.

So, yes, of course God knows the plans He has for us. And ultimately, He will give us a glorious future. But, what we must remember is that the best growth comes through persevering in our trials, not escaping them entirely. And when we can learn perseverance, we will find surprising joy. Even if…

*** I believe there are seeds of greatness in each of us – dreams, goals, talents, and potential that will only come to life in the dark places of our life.

Like a caterpillar that must form a cocoon to undergo the metamorphosis to become a butterfly, what are we willing to go through to become what God intended for us to be?***

So, today I want to encourage especially those of us who are feeling as if it’s dark right now that our God is not as far away as we often imagine. He is right there in the dark with us, and the darkness will give way to the light of day. Seasons prepare us for what God is calling us to do.

Why do we need to know this:

To escape a season of darkness, we can’t be in faith about God doing something in our life and then go around talking and acting like it will never happen.

Key Point: Right now each of us can make a conscious choice to remain hopeful. This is important because our feelings will eventually catch up with our decisions & actions. Happiness not guaranteed but our joy is. This choice is as simple as turning on a light switch.

God has a great purpose for your life. He wants to use you powerfully to impact the people all around you. But in order to step into His purposes for your life, you have to actually take a step, even if that step leads into a season of darkness. Every time we step into another level with God, it is preceded by a choice we make. Each of us has the opportunity to be a catalyst for change in our own life & in the lives of those around us

I love what Job 8:13 demonstrates, “Those who forgot God had no hope.”

“The forgetting of God was not a mere lapse of memory, but the willful decision to live with no regard either for God or for His precepts.”

If you want to be free from deception, you have to precede it by taking the action of obeying God’s Word.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)

If you want your life to be filled with stability & purpose instead of drama & turmoil, it must be preceded by putting Jesus’ teachings into action.

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:24)

Even the times when God tells us to be still, it still requires action on our part. Hardest times! When God tells us to be still, He does not want us to be apathetic, but to do the hard work of trusting & waiting.

“Cease striving/Be still and know that I am God; for I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)

How many times are we waiting for God to do something that He’s already given us the power to do? Ask Him what action steps He wants you to take. It’s always darkest just before the dawn and our Night of Misery can instantly turn into our Day of Blessing!

The problem we run into is we have a limited and finite understanding of our infinite God.

For me in life, it’s often like this: You walk along in faith, doing the next right thing you know to do, then all of a sudden you get a moment of clarity. The mist lifts, and you get a little glimpse of what God is up to. Or, you find out that the light at the end of the tunnel is a speeding train…

Regardless, God’s purposes for your life are so much better than anything you can imagine, and He has the passion and power to bring them to pass. Our job is to co-labor with Him by quieting our heart, so we can hear His voice and then obey quickly. Even if it’s a whisper, God’s voice must be the loudest in our life!

Key Point: If you are in a foggy spot on the journey, don’t give up. Keep pressing in and moving forward. That’s what faith is all about. If you’re going to magnify something, don’t magnify your problems; magnify your God.

I love the story of the Conquistador Cortes when he sailed to Veracruz to take on the mighty Aztecs. His first order was to burn the ships they had just sailed on. He understood that retreat is easy when you have the option. In life, we can’t always be looking for a Plan B; we should instead strive only to follow God’s will for our lives.

The Christian life is a journey along a narrow road. Sometimes the road is straight, while others, it’s hard to see very far ahead. We may get glimpses and impressions of what lies ahead, but in order to discover what’s really there, we have to keep moving forward.

“When we can’t take anymore & darkness overtakes the righteous, light will come bursting in.” Psalm 112:4

I have regularly hit patches where I realize that everything I’ve been doing up until that point, has simply been in preparation for what’s ahead. All of the digging in to learn new things and the relational stretching isn’t really about those things in themselves, it’s about where God is taking you on the journey.

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

Our circumstances don’t change the power or the promises of the Lord. If we truly believed this, we wouldn’t reinforce or listen to what the devil or the world says about us. Our identity and our worth is found solely in Christ Jesus. We are priceless!

On issues like this, God doesn’t always need to speak when He’s already spoken and often in times where it feels darkest, Corrie Ten Boon illustrates the Lord is simply hiding us under the shadow of His wings and it only feels dark because He is so near.”

And sometimes, the path set before us causes us to walk through dark times, but it is in these life-transforming moments when you can find Jesus veiled in the darkness. “Bold faith stands on the shoulders of quiet trust and our worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” Corrie Boon

If I’ve learned anything in my walk it’s that God can use anyone & anything to accomplish His plans.

In Judges 6 & 7 we see Gideon being used by God to do something significant, despite him being fearful and questioning that if the Lord had truly been with them then why had all the bad things been happening.

And Gideon said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” Judges 6:15 (ESV)

God tells him to do the very thing he was terrified to do: “Go into the enemies’ camp.” Now I don’t know about you, but if I was afraid of my enemy, the last thing I would want to do is confront them with only my servant by my side, especially at night! However, if we ignore or question what God is calling us to do, we’ll miss out on His blessings because there are a great many things we cannot attain when we remain in a place of safety.

Sometimes, by focusing on our own comfort, we actually prevent access to the very thing(s) we are asking for. Gideon would receive his courage in the very place he was so afraid to be, & he would hear of his enemy’s dream & fear of the Lord. In the natural, it may not seem safe, but in the supernatural & when we are sent by God, He makes it safe.

What Do We Need to Do?

Ask ourselves what have we kept ourselves from that could quite possibly lead to the breakthrough we have been praying for? What or who is holding us back? Sickness, Pain, Doubt, FEAR

Each of us has anchors in our life and we have previously talked about hope being the anchor of our soul and that without hope, we cannot have faith, since faith is the evidence of things hoped for.

So, when the trials and circumstances of life seem to overwhelm us, the natural tendency is to pull up our anchor and take over control, but if we would instead keep our anchor down and keep our faith and trust in the Lord, we would never be lost or disappointed.

While there are good anchors in our life, there are also bad anchors that we need to cut away because if we don’t, we’ll drift away from God and fall into a life of anger, bitterness, & doubt due to our circumstances.

Zechariah 9:12 puts it this way, “Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope. Even today, I declare I will restore double to you.” NAS translates it as “prisoners who have hope.”

The word prisoner generally has a negative connotation in modern-day culture, but to be a prisoner of hope means we are confined by the promises of God and cannot escape them.

Joseph is the perfect example. He was betrayed by his brothers, thrown into a pit, falsely accused, and imprisoned, but because he remained faithful, he was eventually vindicated, promoted, and ultimately put in charge and used by God to save the people and even his own family from the famine.

Being a prisoner of hope means you can’t get away from it. It’s believing if God is for us, then who can be against us? There is nothing and no one that can snatch us out of His hand, when we remain prisoners of hope.

Key Point: Some things we can only learn in trials of affliction, our character is refined in these fiery trials & our character is much more important than our talents.

No matter what circumstances we are facing, God can turn them around. God’s answers are: “yes, not yet, or He has something better in store,” so we have to get to a place where we trust that His grace is sufficient, that His strength is made perfect in our weakness, and that His mercy endures forever. For every trial we face in life, we will either be delivered from it, through it, or by it.

Abraham and Sarah are also good examples. Romans 4 explains, “All human reason for hope being gone, Abraham hoped on in faith.” It took nearly 20 years for the promise of Isaac to be fulfilled, so just because your promise hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it’s not on its way. Keep praying and seeking God!

The bad breaks we face in life don’t disqualify us from fulfilling our purpose and destiny, but they can surely distract us, causing us to take our eyes of Jesus. God wastes nothing and what He starts, He always finishes!

Key Point: We must never let other people talk us out of promises and dreams God has placed in our heart. Even when things don’t seem to be happening on the outside, doesn’t mean God isn’t working behind the scenes. Also, keep dream-killers out of your circle and don’t just go through trials; learn how to grow through them.

Drifting causes us to lose our passion, it causes us to worry, and be stressed out! When this happens, all we must do is put our anchor back down in God’s hope and remember that when bad breaks and circumstances do happen, it is because there is an enemy of our soul who doesn’t want to see our destiny come to pass.

An anchor also serves a second purpose, specifically when ships are going through storms. When it is lowered, it provides the vessel with more stability, much like outriggers do, as the waves crash against it.

Key Point: If we are not anchored to hope, we will find ourselves anchored to something else so keeping the right perspective is key. For example, when we look at the story of David and Goliath, we assume Goliath was sent to destroy David, but God’s divine plan unfolded by David receiving a promotion when he defeated Goliath. Tests turn into testimony and our messes become our message.

In a like manner, whatever we are facing today isn’t meant to stop us; it’s meant to move us towards our divine destiny. You see, when we are not hopeful, it physically makes us sick on the inside, so we must stay hopeful, especially in our seasons of drought.

Whatever we are facing in life can either become our excuse or it can become our purpose. The enemy doesn’t want us to live free and nothing is a surprise to God. Being anchored to anything besides hope will keep us from our destiny and from fulfilling our purpose, so sometimes we must cut the line to our worldly anchors.

Those with the most hope have the most influence!

The ache of the heart always is hope. What I mean is this: biblical hope is much different than worldly hope. Worldly hope is wishing something would happen, while biblical hope is the joyful anticipation of good or the excitement before something actually happens.

This biblical perspective allows us in the middle of our adversity to have hope. Even while our circumstances may attempt to deny or delay the very promises God has made to us, our hope anchors us to God’s joy and eventually to our breakthrough.

Any area of our life for which we have no hope is a lie! There is no situation we will ever face that we are not prepared for and that God doesn’t have the answer for. Remember, God’s hand is on the thermostat. He controls just how hot the fire gets and how long the trial lasts, so just remember the longer and hotter the fiery trial, the purer the outcome will be.

It’s interesting, when God delivered the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, it was far easier to get Israel out of Egypt, but it proved much more difficult to get Egypt out of Israel. There are many times in life when we want God to do something our way, but the Lord often has a much better way, because only He can see things in us that we ourselves cannot see.

Often, God creates detours around battles we are not yet ready to face. This is one of primary reasons a six-day journey to the Promise Land took the Israelites 40 years. Complain and you’ll remain, but praise and you’ll be raised!

Emotions like fear, doubt, anxiety, and intimidation are not sin; it’s only sin when we start partnering with these thoughts that we begin to sin. It’s when we begin to embrace these feelings that we lose sight of all the tools God has given us & what He wants to do in/through us.

Key Point: The offspring of fear is hopelessness! And anything you need to have in order to be happy can be used by the enemy to discourage and distract us, so hold firmly to what God has placed in your heart, but hold loosely to how He brings those promises to pass.

God has given each of us tools and giftings and sometimes He gives us an acorn instead of an oak tree.

He has a tendency to answer large prayers with small answers to see if we have the stamina, character, and focus to steward the answer He has revealed in small form.

Why Do We Need to Do It?

To become what God intends us to be, He engages us in a process, and He is trying to grow us into the person who can understand the answer without it destroying us. God uses our circumstances to wake us up so we’ll listen and obey.

C.S. Lewis said it best: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, He speaks in our consciences, but He shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

An interesting thing I have found in Scripture is how the demonic realm continually looks for dry places to rest. These dry places are our seasons of pain, isolation, drought, and wilderness wanderings. However, throughout Scripture, we also see rain, rivers, pools, and springs all referring to the work of God and the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah 9:11, “Because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”

Luke 11:24, “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places seeking rest.”

One of my favorite stories is Jesus casting the legion of demons into a herd of pigs found in Matthew 8:30-37; Mark 5:1-20; & Luke 8:27-38. Broke chains. When the demons begged Jesus to let them go into a herd of pigs, He gave them permission. They entered the pigs, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned. Jesus thereby made known His authority and thwarted whatever evil purpose the demons had. Satan seeks to destroy, or counterfeit all of God’s creation.

In the middle of our conflicts, we must remind ourselves that we belong to the Lord & that the most hopeful people are those who remain close to God.

Restoration of God: Job lost everything, and God restored twice what he had lost, the temple of Solomon was destroyed, but when it was rebuilt by Herod; it was twice the size.

Key Point: The concept of restoration in Scripture should make us all hopeful when we experience loss.

If you are in a season of drought and are not getting answers to your prayers:

  1. Talk to God about something He wants to talk about. Sometimes we must first get reacquainted with His voice to allow our heart to burn for what burns His. Begin and end your day with God. Prayer/Praise/Bible
  2. Pray for what God is already doing. Ask for rain, while it’s raining, which aligns your prayer life with His activity and positions you for the next thing He wants you to do.
  3. Praise Him before you get an answer; this is where strength is found. There is an entire generation amongst us waiting to see revival and the power of hope and praise, so they can live a joy-filled life.

We Must Be Prisoners of Hope: Over the years, I’ve learned how to lock myself up in a prison of hope, knowing that God has nothing but His best planned for me. Hope is what has helped me hold on in those seasons when it seemed like His promises would never come to pass.

Hopeful Anticipation: When things don’t seem to be happening, it can be very easy to develop a very negative outlook on life, which then leads to speaking negatively about it. This was a painful way to live life before I learned how to become a prisoner of hope. As I grew in my relationship with God, I learned how to trust Him, how to stand on His Word, and how to stand my ground in prayer when it got tough.

Double for Your Trouble Now: I do realize there are many things in life that can happen to us that aren’t so enjoyable. These seasons can make it difficult to grasp the idea of enjoying life. So, think of it this way: What are you hoping for? What are you expecting in life? What are you looking forward to? Focus on these things; not the past. Don’t forget past; learn from it.

I went through a season where my negative outlook was due to my attitude about all the bad things that had happened in my life. I was stuck in the pain of my past, so I didn’t believe anything good could/would happen in my future. With of all of the negative things that had happened, I was programmed to believe that negative things would always happen. As a result, I lost hope. Remember to draw from your past, but don’t let it draw from you.

But, God was there, and He knew that and over time He kept loving me and dealing with me, promising me what Isaiah 61:7 says: Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours (NIV). That’s a promise for us all…a promise of double for your trouble! Double the blessing!

Hope: I want to encourage you to make a decision to cultivate an attitude of hope in your life. Speak positive things about your future and refuse to be negative. You may not always feel hopeful but don’t give in to your feelings. Catering to bad feelings feeds and empowers them. But standing our ground and not giving in to negative feelings starves them and causes them to lose their power over us. By feeding the Spirit, you starve the flesh. Just ask the Holy Spirit to lead you. Line your will up with His and get excited about serving God. Hope releases the power of the Holy Spirit in these times. God is the Source & the Holy Spirit is the Supply of our Hope.

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Hope in Seasons of Adversity

hope_despair

It’s not a matter of if we will face adversity; it’s only a matter of when we will, so the question now becomes what will we do when faced with challenges and trials of life?

How will we be able to maintain our hope when life seems to be falling apart at the seams and instead of breakthroughs all we experience are breakdowns? Who will we turn to and what will we do when faced with impossible situations?

Remember what Paul said in Romans 8:24: “For we are saved through hope, but hope that is seen is not hope, for why does a man still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Patience leads to perseverance!

The last thing Satan wants is for us to persevere and that’s why he will do whatever he can to steal our focus as we strive to serve Christ.

I love what Phil Daniels says, “Satan can’t defeat us, but he can hinder us by using: accusations, deception, distraction, and discouragement.”

The very things in our life that the devil tries to use to discourage us or make us think God can’t or won’t ever be able to use us are the very things God will use to bring about restoration and wholeness in our life, when we surrender them to the Lord.

Romans 8:28 promises, … That God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” (NLT)

There are times in each of our lives where we are instructed in God’s Word to have faith and to maintain our hope, by simply trusting in God’s will and His timing.

It doesn’t matter what has happened in your past, present, or future; God is bigger than anything we will ever face, but we have to put our hope and faith in Him and then allow His will to unfold in our life.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

F. F. Bruce explains how, “The author of Hebrews first encourages his readers further by reminding them of examples of faith in earlier days. In Old Testament times, he points out, there were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God to rest upon, without any visible evidence that these promises would ever be fulfilled; yet these promises meant so much to them that they regulated the whole course of their lives in their light. The promises related to a state of affairs belonging to the future; but these people acted as if that state of affairs were already present, so convinced were they that God could and would fulfill what he had promised. In other words, they were men and women of faith. Their faith consisted simply in taking God at his word and directing their lives accordingly.”[1]

This passage of Scripture is the only place in the Bible that clearly defines faith. It describes faith as being an act of both the mind and heart.

Essentially, our heart and mind both believe something and we then have the assurance and conviction that it is true.

So what we put our hope and faith in drives our very being.

I tell you this because many of us are either currently in a season of despair and drought, or the effects of that season still fester like open wounds. Who or what is the ointment that will bring relief?

How can we get back to a place where we put our hope and trust in God while we are in the valley of the shadow of death and how can we restore our fellowship with Him as we wander aimlessly in the desert?

It begins with prayer.  (Great pastor, what are you going to tell me next? Is step two reading the Bible?) Yes, and diet and exercise will make you healthy!

This may sound so basic, but it is!

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Daniel. This book of Scripture came alive to me as I studied it and reading how God acted showed His complete sovereignty and His compassion towards those who put their hope and faith in Him.

In Daniel chapter 6 king Darius had risen to power and his officials, in an attempt to rid themselves of Daniel, came up with a plan to prevent any subject from making any prayer or petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to king Darius. This of course would prevent Daniel from dropping to his knees three times a day in order to pray and give thanks to God.

I don’t know about you, but I want the Lord to be familiar with the sound of my voice, so that every time I pray to God it’s not in some sort of crisis mode.

Praying to God is our lifeline and connection to God and it’s crucial in maintaining our fellowship with Him. Daniel understood this truth and would not let the king’s edict prohibit his dedication to this practice.

As a result, in verse seven we read, Then these men came by agreement and found Daniel making petition and plea before his God. Then they came near and said before the king, concerning the injunction, “O king! Did you not sign an injunction, that anyone who makes petition to any god or man within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions?” The king answered and said, “The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked.” Then they answered and said before the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or the injunction you have signed, but makes his petition three times a day.”
Then the king, when he heard these words, was much distressed and set his mind to deliver Daniel. And he labored till the sun went down to rescue him.
Then these men came by agreement to the king and said to the king, “Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no injunction or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed.” Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!”
Daniel 6:11-16 (ESV)

Gleason Archer describes the dilemma for Daniel was whether, “he was going to please man or obey God. Daniel had to choose between loyalty to his Lord and obedience to a sinful government commanding him to perform idolatry. So he was willing to risk his life for the Lord, trusting him for deliverance even as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been delivered years before.”[2]

Daniel cast himself on the Lord, in fact in verse ten the word prayed is found only two places in Scripture.

Hebrew word: ‏צְלָה‎

Transliteration: ṣelâ.           Phonetic Pronunciation: tsel-aw’

The word carries the sense of bowing but also means to “limp as if one-sided.”[3] On his own strength, Daniel knew he would not be able to walk the path laid before him and only by casting his burdens on the Lord would his hope remain.

Like the manna from heaven, God will supply exactly what we need exactly when we need it.

He gives us what we need for the step in front of us, which teaches us reliance upon God and trust in His plan.

Remember, some of God’s greatest gifts have been unanswered prayers.

For many of us, we have not because we do not ask. Even as a pastor, when I read Daniel prayed three times a day, I’m like man Daniel sure prayed a lot!

What I want you to know and what I want you to get in the habit of doing to talking to God and not being afraid of asking Him for help. It doesn’t have to be out loud and it doesn’t have to be in front of people, but I promise you as you become readers and doers of the Word and when you begin to commune with God through prayer, you will begin to see breakthroughs in your life.

The Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon we have against the principalities of this dark world, but when we harness prayer with God’s Word, we become more than conquerors.

Jesus in the desert: Matthew 3:13 – 4:11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple

and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.

And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

I don’t know exactly what Daniel prayed, but I know I would have been terrified at the prospect on dying in a lion’s den.

One of my favorite parts of this story is how God chose to act by closing the lion’s mouth because it was not likely the prayer Daniel lifted up or sort of help Darius had hoped Daniel would receive.

Having the edict overturned or praying to have the courage to die bravely for the glory of God would have seemed like an answer to prayer, but instead, God miraculously chose to shut the lion’s mouth, which shows God acts in such a way that He will receive the most glory.

The world in which we live is a lion’s den. There are people in our life like the high officials of king Darius who would seek to have us taken out. There are jobs and circumstances of life that make us feel like we are living in captivity like a modern-day Babylon.

But, there is also the God who awaits our prayer and plea for help who can save us from whatever and whomever we face. Victory can be ours when we walk according to the will of God and keep our hope in His plan.

Hope takes the word impossible and allows us to say I’m possible.

Helen Keller, who accomplished much in her life, did so not in spite of her blindness but because of it. When asked what would be worse than being blind, she said having eyesight but no vision.

It can be very easy to allow our flaws or past mistakes in life to snuff out any sense of hope. The moment we think we see light at the end of the tunnel, we fall to our knees in surrender when we find out that light is just another speeding train on an intercept course. Wave after wave of disappointment breaks down our resolve as we struggle to keep our head above water.

When God miraculously shows up, He does so in a way that declares His sovereignty and brings Him the most glory.

Maintaining our hope in season of despair, especially when our previous mountaintop experiences feel like a lifetime away is a skill we must master.

Several years ago, I heard a story that was triggered in my mind, when I was reading about Daniel praying and how that word praying was translated as limping as if being one-sided.

The story involved a family that was involved in a serious automobile accident. The mother and father were in the front seat and their 5-year-old boy was in the back. The mother and father escaped with just minor injuries but their son required immediate surgery. When the surgeon finally emerged, he said he had good news and bad news. The good news was their son was alive, but the bad news was their son’s left arm had to be amputated.

For many of us the thought of losing a limb you certainly test the limits of our hope and for me being an avid runner the thought of not being able to do what I love anymore is hard to imagine.

Despite the adversity and challenges that this boy was now forced to face, he did not let it slow him down. In fact, he became fascinated with martial arts especially Bruce Lee, so much so that he convinced his dad to let him take lessons. The father told the son mastering martial arts was hard enough to do with two arms and that he shouldn’t get his hopes up.

After visiting several dojos, they finally found a sensei willing to teach the boy if he agreed to do two things: 1) Don’t ask any questions and 2) Do exactly what he was told to do. For days, weeks, and months the boy practiced only one move, which became very frustrating because he saw newer students learning different takedowns and combo moves. This was hard for the boy to understand, but he remembered the promise he made to the sensei so he kept practicing.

After a year had passed, the sensei told the boy he was going to be enrolled in an upcoming regional tournament. Surprised, the boy said, “But sensei, I only know one move,” to which the sensei replied, “if you perfect this move you will never need another.” When the tournament finally arrived, he saw the competition and grew very anxious, as did his parents.

To his surprise, he won his early matches and advanced to the semi finals. With each match, the opponents grew larger and more skilled, but he remembered his training and stuck to his one move. He would eventually advance to the finals, which looked like a David vs. Goliath scenario. The boy’s opponent quickly scored some early points in the match after landing some hard blows. Shaken, the boy looked over to his sensei and then to his parents in the stands and he got back up. The next time his opponent launched an attack the young boy did his one move and pinned him, making him the champion of the tournament.

After the match, the young boy couldn’t believe he won and he asked his sensei if the competitors took pity on him because he only had one arm. “No,” the sensei told him. He then went on to tell the young boy that the move he had been practicing for the last year was one of the hardest moves in judo to master and that the only known defense was to grab the opponents left arm, which he did not have.

You see, the greatest weaknesses in our life have the opportunity to become one of your greatest strengths, when we trust the Lord and put our hope in Him. When we do, we only need one move. In the case of Daniel, his one move was prayer because he knew those persevere recognize their limitations, but focus on their strengths. Our strength comes from the Father and the same power that rose Jesus from the dead dwells inside every believer. When we pray, Jesus who is seated at the right hand of God, takes our petitions and intercedes on our behalf.

The word sensei is an interesting word. It means those who came before and each of us has a role to play in the body of Christ, the church. The circumstances of our life and the hurts, habits, and hang-ups of our past allow us to speak life and truth into peoples’ lives that are going through similar trials. The time has come to stop allowing yourself to be defined by the mistakes of your past. The very things or accusations the devil uses to make you think you aren’t good enough or that God could never use you are lies straight from the pit of hell and they are in fact exactly what God wants you to use to minister to other people, so they can find restoration and wholeness and so God will receive the honor and glory He so richly deserves.

[1] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 276.

[2] Gleason L. Archer, Jr. and Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 7: Daniel and the Minor Prophets, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 79.

[3] James Strong, Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary, (Austin, TX: WORDsearch Corp., 2007), Under: “6739”.

Confession: Why, if it is so good for the soul, is it so hard?

It is hard to admit to God, to ourselves, and especially to another person the exact nature of our wrongs, but why?

James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Christ has made it possible for us to go directly to God for forgiveness, but confessing our sins to each other still has an important place in the life of the church:

(1) If we have sinned against an individual, we must ask him or her to forgive us. Our unforgiveness actually hinders our prayers and God’s forgiving of our own sins!

(2) If we need loving support as we struggle with a sin, we should confess that sin to those who are able to provide that support. Two are stronger than one and a cord of three is not easily broken.

(3) If we doubt God’s forgiveness, after confessing a sin to Him, we may wish to confess that sin to a fellow believer for assurance of God’s pardon. Guilt and shame run deep with sin and often the last phase of the healing process is helping someone else walk through a similar trial, season, and/or circumstance.

In Christ’s Kingdom, every believer is a priest to other believers and the Christian’s most powerful resource is communion with God through prayer. While many see prayer as a last resort, only to be tried when all else fails, this approach is completely backwards. Prayer should come first because God’s power is infinitely greater than ours, so it only makes sense to rely on it—especially because God encourages and tells us to do so.

We are as sick as our secrets and keeping our shortcomings, resentments, and sins from God is foolish because for starters, He already knows everything we have done and will do, and secondly because He has already declared us not guilty nor condemned, as soon as we turn to Him in repentance and cast our cares and burdens upon the Lord.

I believe the real issue arises when we are told to confess our sins to each other. Most of us know and still feel the sting of betrayal and constantly see people jockeying for position and capitalizing on the acquisition of information. With broken legs we chase perfection and it becomes a sick and twisted game of, “Do you know what so and so struggles with or did?” People then become defined by their mistakes and as a result, most people show up for church with their Sunday masks on and continue portraying a mere façade of truth and what is actually going on.

When we are able to confess our sins, we will discover the grace and mercy of God. God’s grace is receiving something we do not deserve: salvation & forgiveness, and His mercy is not getting what we do deserve: condemnation & judgment.

Romans 3:23-24 explains, “All have sinned… yet now God declares us not guilty… if we trust in Jesus Christ, who… freely takes away our sins.”

When we can arrive at a place where we have no more guilt and shame from our past wrongs, we are ready to face the truth, and to allow God to ease the pain. While pain is a cruel and effective teacher, our misery in the process is optional, because God replaces our pain with ease for His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

The last step in finding peace through confession comes by stopping the blame game and instead choosing to trust God. We have gotten very good at rationalizing and justifying certain areas of sin, to the point where we can say, “This ______ sin is for their own or the greater good.” While this may sound crazy at first glance, I promise you the progression from thought to action and from action to stronghold does not take long and it is a depraved and warped process one can easily get themselves wrapped up in.

Our secrets isolate us and leave us vulnerable to attack. This is exactly where the enemy wants us and like a predator seeking to steal, kill, and destroy the weakest of the herd, he lies in wait for the exact opportunity to inflict the most harm, in an effort to take us out.

The key to rejoining the community and fellowship with God is humility and transparency. While we are created in the image of God, we live in a fallen world, one in which we are called to be salt and light. Only when we are comfortable in our own skin, by discussing the hurts, habits, and hang-ups of our past, will we have the opportunity to come alongside those walking through similar situations. Only by offering them love, acceptance, and forgiveness will we be in a place to then comfort those in need and point them to Christ, the perfecter of our faith and the Holy Spirit, our comforter and counselor.

Lastly, only once we take the plank out of our own eye will we be able to see the world through the lens of the cross and only by maintaining our communion with God will our hearts break for what breaks His. To confess and be forgiven is so freeing, while harboring unforgiveness makes us a prisoner to those we choose not to forgive, much like resentment leads one to drink poison, all the while expecting the other person to die. Instead, we must give it all to God, because His Word promises He will use ALL things for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose and He swears by His own name because there is no name higher!

Small Group Training Guide

Small-Groups

The future of the local church will largely depend on the successful development of a small group ministry, especially since small groups are vital to both growth and discipleship, on the part of the believer, and the church as a whole. According to Rod Dempsey, “Churches that are not functioning in this manner run the risk of becoming inward in their focus”[1] and inward-focused groups die. Additionally, as Phil Zambaro explains, “Loneliness is the most devastating illness of our day [and] I know of no more potent killer than isolation. There is [also] no more destructive influence on the physical and mental health than isolation… [Because,] our hunger for relationships is an identifying mark of our humanity.”[2] This need for relationships and connectivity makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. As a result, this Small Group Training Manual will first define small groups, by illustrating their biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them. Once a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission are formulated, this manual will then address how to grow and multiply small groups, how to develop group leaders, and lastly how to transition from a “with,” model to a “of,” or “is” model using the “S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S.” acrostic.

MOTIVATIONS FOR DEVELOPING GROUPS

Dempsey explains, “The church has a head; the head of the church is Jesus. The church also has members that need to be connected to the head and connected to each other.”[3] Small groups provide the conduit to satisfy all these needs and they also allow for the opportunity of spending time with one another because there is a huge commitment needed to growing and sacrificing as a disciple of Christ. Jesus, Himself said, “Take up your cross,”(Matthew 16:24) illustrating the necessity of commitment and doing life together in small groups. Additionally, the relational aspect of following Christ means followers should join together as brothers and sisters in an attitude of love for one another. This was the identifying mark Jesus said would reveal His true disciples; by the love he or she showed the world (Matthew 22:36-40). Dempsey also points out, “The process must be intentional, individual, and missional in focus, as small groups have the potential to provide and create a perfect environment and context to develop people for God’s kingdom and for God’s glory.”[4]

One’s primary reason for wanting to develop small group ministry must be rooted in love and a desire to fulfill the commandments of the Lord. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ. Dempsey and Earley further explain the importance of, “Loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor [because these] are universal principles. They will work anywhere, at any time, and in any political situation. The key to your success is to begin practicing the principles behind the commands Jesus gave us. Live your life purposefully for God and lead by example.”[5] Another important reason for developing small groups is found in the principle of multiplication. Dempsey and Earley illustrate the strongest churches in the world have tens of thousands of members in thousands of small groups. As humans, and with finite minds, it can oftentimes be hard to fathom the omnipotence of God and His marvelous plan of salvation and redemption. As a result, when most churches are planning areas of ministry, the addition of believers is used as the primary litmus test for success; however, God, as Dempsey and Earley convey, “Has given us an exponential plan to reach the world. The question is… are you following an addition or a multiplication plan? Why should you lead a group? That is easy: to follow His command to make disciples of all the nations.”[6] A final reason for forming small groups lies in the desire for community. As Jeffrey Arnold explains, “Jesus Christ is our first and greatest model for how small groups can stimulate faith and growth in others… [Ultimately,] disciples are made intentionally, disciples are made to be like Christ, and disciples are made in relationships”[7] and there is no better place for these to occur than in a community made up of small groups.

BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR GROUPS

At the heart of the Great Commission is the commandment to make disciples and this instruction is why Bill Hull emphasizes, “The small group is the most strategic training environment used by Christ to make the kind of disciples that glorify God.”[8] Small groups are vital to the future success of the local church and as a small group leader, he or she is essentially engaging in the same ministry Christ Himself was committed to. Small groups have the potential to change lives and there are multiple breakthroughs that will happen in small groups, that rarely happen within the four walls of the church, as Chuck Swindoll illuminates, “[In small groups,] fences come down, masks come off, welcome signs are hung outside the door, keys to the doors of our lives are duplicated and distributed, and joys and sorrows are shared.”[9]

While the Great Commission is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ, the sad reality is many so-called followers of Christ have reduced the Great Commission to nothing more than the great suggestion. However, this command from God points to the small groups as being the perfect environment to develop and train disciples. The early church is a prime example of doing life together. In Acts, chapters one and two, specifically (Acts 2:41-47,) the reader becomes aware of the DNA of early small group ministry. These home churches met together, studied the apostles’ teaching, shared meals together, met each other’s needs, prayed together, had favor with the local people, and went everywhere proclaiming the good news of the gospel. These early churches understood the importance of every person having a role to play in the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 12:21) and the necessity of serving one another. The final passage that illustrates the role of small groups is (Ephesians 4:16.) Here, Paul explains how some followers of Christ are: apostles, prophets, shepherds, teachers, or evangelists, but how each of their primary duties is to train and equip God’s people for the work of the church. The ultimate goal is for believers to grow into the fullness of Christ, as each member of the body contributes to this growth, but it is small groups, which provide the optimal context and environment for this process to take place.

In the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), Dempsey demonstrates, “Jesus took 619 rabbinical laws and pharisaical practices and reduced them down to two simple principles: Love God and love your neighbor.”[10] Jesus Himself was a small group leader, so Dempsey and Earley raise a very relevant question: “If Jesus, the Son of God, chose to strategically minister to a small group, how much more should you and I?”[11] Jeff Tunnell then illustrates, “By sorting out one’s biblical values, [this] will lead to principles and conducts that glorify God and His ways, which ultimately make the gospel irresistible to some and repulsive to others.”[12] By using the Bible as authority, prayer as a means, dependency upon God as one’s posture, and love as the primary motive, Tunnell reveals multiple principles that are consistent with the truth of the gospel. As a result of embodying and devoting oneself to this truth, Tunnell shows followers were devoted to: “following the apostles’ teaching, fostering unity, sharing meals, practicing prayer, corporate worship, celebrating communion, living in community, and sharing generously, [resulting in,] salvations and favor with all the people.”[13]

Hospitality was one of the major things Jesus was known for; in fact, He set the standard. Jesus is repeatedly seen dining and visiting with outcasts. Joel Comiskey explains, “Most of the ancient world regarded hospitality as a moral practice… [And,] eating together in the household was one of the primary ways to share life together as well as to welcome strangers and those outside the household. Most would agree that sharing a meal is the second most intimate encounter one can engage in outside of the bedroom, which is why sharing meals together is such an important principle for small groups. When Jesus chose to send His disciples out in pairs, this approach showed He knew it was not good to be alone, especially in ministry. Comiskey explains when the disciples entered a home, “They were supposed to convert the members of that particular household, and reach the other homes from a base location – rather than witnessing from house-to-house (Luke 10:7). Remaining in a house only makes sense if, beyond the initial proclamation of the kingdom message, the messengers stayed on to further nurture and establish a faith community.”[14] This strategy led to entire households and villages being converted to Christ and new home churches being formed and by modeling this same strategy, small groups meeting in homes are having great success today.

WHAT IS A SMALL GROUP

Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Seek God’s vision and direction from His Word,[15] (Acts 1:8; 2:32-47; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28) which allows the group’s foundation to be set on solid ground. Make sure the lead pastor is in the lead position.[16] Without the senior pastor’s full backing, it will be very difficult for small groups to reach their full potential. Adopt a model that fits who and where you are, as long you are emphasizing: winning people to Christ, helping them grow in Christ, and then sending them out for Christ.[17] Leadership training and recruitment[18] because as Jerry Falwell asserts, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” so this component is vital to the future success of any small group. “Launch the new groups, [while also] providing the leaders with additional training to stay focused and to improve the quality of discipleship.”[19] After careful prayer, planning, and training it is time to launch new groups and according to Dempsey, the best time to do this is after Labor Day, when children are back in school and people are settling into their new schedules and routines.[20]

Two G.R.O.U.P.(S.) acrostics are presented in forming and maintaining small groups. Guided by a leader is the first objective, since, “In order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[21] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[22] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[23] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[24] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry.

Dempsey’s second G.R.O.U.P.S. acrostic entails:

Grow the groups in quantity and quality, paying special attention to new groups. Retrain the leaders to retrain the leaders, through personal mentoring and coaching and reward the right behavior. Over communicate, to make sure the small group leaders are getting enough information from the leaders in ministry. Utilize and develop a coaching structure, (Exodus 18) so the groups stay on target with the vision and mission of the church. Pray, because as Comiskey discovered, prayer was the common denominator in multiplying groups where leaders of the groups prayed at least one hour a day. See God’s blessing as new disciples are being made and remember small groups provide the best place to make disciples, because Christianity is more caught than taught.[25]

HOW TO DEVELOP SMALL GROUP LEADERS

According to Dempsey, “Leaders are grown in small groups, most successful churches have an emphasis on small groups, and small groups are a true representation of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23).”[26] Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[27] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

In developing leaders, there is much that can be learned from the early church model and several strategies can be implemented today. For example, by using Rod Dempsey 4 M’s model: “Model it, by being the paradigm; Mentor it and never do anything alone in ministry; Motivate it by personally giving encouragement to people; and Multiply your ministry by handing it off to others so they can have ownership and run with it.”[28] Leaders must realize Satan works in isolation, but God works in community, so find a Paul who can be a mentor; find a Timothy, someone to disciple; and find a Barnabas someone to be an encourager.

HOW TO LEAD A GROUP

As Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[29] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[30] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[31]

Leadership was paramount in the house church and much can be learned in the way Jesus first trained His disciples, who would become the first small group leaders. Comiskey illustrates, “Because of the growth of the early church, the need for leadership expanded rapidly… and the early apostles provided the overarching leadership, but depended on the house church leaders to shepherd and care for the rest of God’s church. As in the case of Acts 6, leaders who had proven themselves were chosen to care for the needs of the Grecian Jewish widows, and oversee the distribution of food. In many cases, the individual who opened up their home would assume the leadership role and Comiskey attributes Paul’s use of the oikos structure as the perfect environment to develop leaders naturally.[32] In all small groups, Paul taught on the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and develop leadership. Comiskey agrees and explains how, “The early church believed that the Spirit was given to all believers and was actively working through each member.”[33] Interestingly, it would be in the early church that women found themselves on equal footing with men and on numerous occasions presented in the New Testament, women were actually presented as being significant leaders.[34]

Leadership roles in the early church differ from today, in the sense that in the New Testament, there were no bishops-pastor-elder hierarchy and Comiskey explains these terms were actually interchangeable for the same role. Over the years, one of the unfortunate errors is how elders have been transliterated as overseers, instead of being translated as workers of the church. While the early church met primarily in homes, sometimes those individual entities would gather together for larger meetings. Throughout the New Testament, ecclesia was used to refer to the house church gatherings, the larger gatherings, and the universal church, Ultimately, as Comiskey illustrates, “Churches must determine if they are going to view the cell group as the church and the primary care structure for members, or just another program to keep people coming back to the Sunday gathering. If the church chooses to prioritize cell ministry, those cells and cell leaders need to be equipped, coached, and cared for in a cell structure that includes training, coaching, and celebrating together.”[35]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[36] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[37] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.

HOW TO GROW SMALL GROUPS

Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. Arnold illustrates, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[38] When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[39] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[40] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[41] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[42]

HOW TO MULTIPLY SMALL GROUPS

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[43] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[44]

HOW TO DEVELOP/TRANSITION TO SMALL GROUPS IN CHURCH

Dempsey provides eleven suggestions for churches trying to develop or transition to being a church “of” or that “is” small groups: First, the leaders must search the Scriptures and come up with a group philosophy rooted in the Great Commission and Great Commandment to make disciples, to gather together and study the Word, and to meet each others needs and the needs of others. The group must also focus on equipping the saints and growing up to be like Christ. Second, the group must make sure the senior pastor and leadership team share the same vision as the group. This is vital because if the group is not contributing to the vision and mission of the church, they are not truly a part of the church. Third, the group must adopt a model that fits who they are and this is done by engaging the culture, while also maintaining the principles of loving God, one another, and neighbors. Fourth, there must be continual leader training and each person in the group should be mentoring someone else how to do their job, so when the time comes for the group to split, there will people ready to assume leadership roles. Fifth, the group is ready to launch, so times, places, and curriculum must all be in place. Sixth, is growing the group by praying, inviting people and having good quality, which will ultimately lead to quantity. Seventh, is rewarding the right behavior by exhorting and pointing out when people are doing the right thing or go above and beyond expectations. Eighth, is over communicating because as Rick Warren says, “People are down on what they are not up on,” so small groups must continually communicate the why, the how, and the next steps. Ninth, is utilizing coaching structures and a great model to use is the 5X5 model, which spreads the load out amongst directors, overseers, and groups. Trying to do everything alone will always lead to burnout or moral failure, so making sure you have a strong team is vital to the success of small groups because groups are only as strong as their weakest link. Tenth, is pray before, during, and after all small groups because the enemy does not want small groups to thrive because individuals are most vulnerable when they are in isolation. Eleventh, is to see God’s glory. The Great Commission’s command is to make disciples and the one promise we find is when we are in the business of making disciples in small groups, Jesus promises to be there with us.[45]

CONCLUSION

This small group-training manual has shown the need for relationships and connectivity in the disciple making process, which makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. By illustrating small group’s biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them, this manual can be utilized to become a church “of” small groups or a church that “is” small groups. With a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission being formulated, this manual has shown how to grow and multiply small groups and also how to recruit and develop group leaders.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod and Dave Earley. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

________. “How to Transition to a Small Group System.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196616_1 (accessed June 29, 2017).

________. “Small Group Outreach/Mission.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six Video Presentation, 6:36. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196606_1 (accessed June 22, 2017).

________. “Transitioning to Small Groups.” DSMN 630, Course Content, Lecture Notes, Week Six: 1-3.

________. “Why Lead a Group.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196581_1 (accessed May 15, 2017).

Donahue, Bill and Russ Robinson. Building a Church of Small Groups. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

Hull, Bill. Jesus Christ Disciple Maker. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984.

Reeves, Josh. “10 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your City.” May 26, 2017. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/10/11/10-simple-ways-to-be-missional-in-your-city-part-1/ (accessed June 22, 2017).

_________. “25 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your Neighborhood.” May 26, 2017. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/08/23/25-simple-ways-to-be-missional-in-your-neighborhood/ (accessed June 20, 2017).

Swindoll, Chuck. Dropping Your Guard. Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983.

Tunnell, Jeff. “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.” Joel Comiskey Group Website, http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/2011/09/19/biblical-values-and-time-tested-principles-2/ (accessed May 22, 2017).

[1] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, Building a Church of Small Groups (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 24.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 2.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[5] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[7] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18, 23-24.

[8] Bill Hull, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 235.

[9] Chuck Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard (Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983), 22.

[10] Rod Dempsey, “Biblical Foundations,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Two Video Presentation, 7:58. (accessed May 22, 2017).

[11] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 26.

[12] Jeff Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles,” Joel Comiskey Group Website, http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/2011/09/19/biblical-values-and-time-tested-principles-2/ (accessed May 22, 2017).

[13] Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.”

[14] Joel Comiskey. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016), 82.

[15] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 1.

[16] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 182.

[17] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[18] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 183.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[21] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 31-32.

[22] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. (accessed June 2, 2017).

[23] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[24] Ibid., 33.

[25] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2-3.

[26] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[27] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

[28] Rod Dempsey, “Group Multiplication,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 5:57. (accessed June 25, 2017).

[29] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. (accessed June 5, 2017).

[30] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 66.

[31] Ibid., 67.

[32] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 121.

[33] Ibid., 126.

[34] Priscilla Romans 16:3; Mary 16:6; Junias 16:12; Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis 16:12; Julia 16:15

[35] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 185.

[36] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 69.

[37] Ibid., 70.

[38] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[39] Ibid., 34.

[40] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[41] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[42] Ibid., 46.

[43] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[44] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 39.

[45] Rod Dempsey, “How to Transition to a Small Group System,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. (accessed June 29, 2017).

Case Study for Growing Churches in America

churchgrowth

Measuring growth and success in churches is not something new, but given the major shift currently taking place in Christianity’s center, moving from America to nations like: Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, there has been a special emphasis on what is working and what is not working in churches in the United States. Additionally, as Joe Carter illustrates, “Mainliners may try to comfort themselves by claiming that every denomination is in decline, but it is simply not true. While conservative churches are not growing as quickly as they once were, mainline churches are on a path toward extinction. The mainline churches are finding that as they move further away from biblical Christianity, the closer they get to their inevitable demise.”[1] Growth and success can be misleading words, so a proper definition must be established for both. In many cases, growth is assigned to the numerical attendance, while success points more towards community impact, spiritual formation/development, and reproducing disciples. For the purposes of this case study, three of the top five churches, when looking at numerical growth will be evaluated, compared, and contrasted.[2] By looking at the vision and mission of each church, core doctrines, and values, special areas of ministry will be highlighted and gauged to see if one’s numerical growth is representative of their success.

EVALUATION OF CHURCHES

Gateway Fellowship Church, in San Antonio, Texas is the fastest numerical growing church in the United States with an average attendance of 2,332 people, up 187% over the previous year. Virtually doubling in size over the course of a year is not the norm, but Gateway’s senior pastor; John Van Pay attributes this growth to their passion for discipleship. Van Pay says, “We follow a simple process of discipleship, in which friends are encouraged to belong to a small group so they can grow and be sent to start new small groups where disciples are made.”[3] Small group ministry appears to be the primary focus of Gateway Fellowship Church because small groups present the best environment to form friendships, spiritual formation, and reproducing disciples. At the core of Gateway’s vision is love because, “Love finds a need and meets it.” Other areas to serve center around meeting the needs of: single parents, first responders, the poor and elderly, inner-city ministries, and orphan/foster care programs.

Gateway’s website is very well organized, especially for the first time visitor. In addition to stating their doctrine of faith, their core values center on being: “Spiritually Engaged by Walking With Jesus, Having Passionate Purpose, Through the Making of Disciples, and Being Relationally Connected by Resolving Conflict Biblically.”[4] Getting people plugged into ministry, meeting the needs of others, and serving are the driving forces of their marketing efforts and this is likely one of the primary reasons for their tremendous growth.

Red Rocks Church, in Littleton, Colorado ranks fourth in terms of numerical growth. Current attendance is 9,624, up 26% over last year. Founded in 2005, senior pastor Shawn Johnson credits the church’s growth to, “Pursuing God, Making Him Known, Living in Gospel-Centered Community, Serving with Purpose, and Multiplying Disciples.”[5] What makes this church stand out from any other was their choice to use a run-down theme park to plant the church. Pastor Johnson gives God the complete glory for, “Turning this remote and awkward location into a place where people are able to pray, sacrifice, serve, give, and go for the sake of making heaven more crowded.”

Red Rocks Church, “Exists to make Heaven more crowded.”[6] Getting people plugged in and involved in ministry seems to be the primary focus and intent of the website. Their motto is: “One church, with four ways to get involved: Group Life, Sports, Care, and Serving. Pastor Johnson says, ‘Authenticity and transparency are vital for forming relationships and making the Word of God come alive.’”[7] This mindset is not the norm in many churches or pulpits, but this writer believes it is vital for the congregation to know they are not alone in their struggles, trials, and temptations.

Church of the Highlands, in Birmingham, Alabama is the fifth fastest growing church in America, with attendance of 38,346, up 24% over last year, making them the second largest church in America. Pastor Chris Hodges explains, “Our story begins with the dream of planting a church with a simple goal: ‘help people connect with God in a church without letting structure and programs get in the way.’”[8] The main focus of Church of the Highlands is: “Relevant teaching, heartfelt worship, honest friendships, constant prayer, and compassionate care for others. These focuses help Church of the Highlands line up every ministry with the vision and mission, to make sure all efforts maximize people in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ.

Church of the Highland’s website is easy to navigate and despite the large size of the church and multiple campuses, it was not overwhelming finding a growth track or area of ministry/fellowship to get plugged into. Pastor Hodges, “Co-founded ARC (Association of Related Churches) in 2001, which has launched hundreds of churches all across the USA. He also founded a coaching network called GROW, which trains and resources pastors to help them break barriers and reach their growth potential. Hodges is also the founder and President of the Highlands College, a ministry training school that trains and launches students into full-time ministry careers.”[9] These endeavors, coupled with the Highland’s Growth Track, “Guides you to discover your redemptive purpose and live the life God created for you. The Growth Track is made up of four steps that equip you to 1) connect to the church, 2) discover the strengths of your purposeful design, 3) develop your personal leadership, and 4) use your God-given gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.”[10] In addition to the great growth track, Highland’s Small Groups have one, simple purpose: “To bring people together. We believe God created us to live in relationship with others and only then can we live the full life He intends for us. Sharing life through community is part of our design, but meaningful relationships are not always easy to find. That is why small groups exist—to make these life-changing relationships relevant and accessible to you.”[11] Training, equipping, and empowering their members to do the work of the church is one of the primary reasons for this church’s numerical growth and spiritual health and vitality. The one area that really stood out, when looking through the website was not only their commitment to those who called Highlands their home church, but also to pastors and leaders in other churches, who are looking for resources and/or training.[12] In a climate of church versus church or denomination versus denomination, it was truly refreshing to see a body of believers committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, in partnership with other churches.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It was very enlightening looking at the various similarities and differences among some of the fastest growing churches in America. While numerical growth was the determining factor used in the survey, it seems evident the spiritual formation and discipleship for all churches cited are on point with their numerical growth. In recent years, there has been a much-needed shift from focusing on church membership to getting people plugged into ministry and serving. When this occurs, there is a transformation that happens in the life of the believer as he or she taps into their God-given potential. There also seems to be a common thread in all of these churches using small group ministry as the primary place where discipleship, spiritual formation, and relationships are formed. These three areas are vital when assessing the health of a church and also contribute to the spiritual/numerical growth of the church. Each of the churches cited above also offer Española as a ministry and service offered, which is something many new churches have identified as an important outreach. Ultimately, understanding the demographics in one’s area is critical when determining what areas of ministry will be offered. In addition, each of the churches had a clear vision and mission and every area of ministry offered either supported or helped achieve the specific vision or mission. Much of the ministries listed were laity led, which is another trend in many churches and points back to equipping the body of the church to do the work of the church. The sad reality is twenty percent of most church attenders are doing eighty percent of the work, and without a paradigm shift, many leaders and volunteers will burnout because others either refuse or feel ill-equipped to serve. In each of the growing churches, the growth track helped identify the areas of service people were suited for and serving was made a priority for all churches listed. The problem many churches face is how to get the remaining eighty percent of seat warmers to become actively engaged in serving in some form of ministry. For churches that have been around for over five to ten years, this is an ever-increasing dilemma, but one that must be addressed if growth is going to occur. It is all about getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat, and sometimes that means there are people that need to get off the bus because he or she is limiting progress and growth.

CONCLUSION

As Ed Stetzer demonstrates, “Growing churches are showing a great commitment to multiplying themselves, as we see in the development of multiple campuses, and this commitment to multiplication often creates a need for sacrifice. Sacrifice is inherent to the experience of every growing believer—and every growing church.”[13] Sacrifice is also needed for church growth and kingdom growth and churches that understand this principle are poised for God to do great things in and through their congregation. It is sad to say many congregations have the mindset that everything should be about them, while the exact opposite is true. Every service and every ministry must be geared towards the first time visitor and to the people who are not yet serving. The missing catalyst to growth in many churches is helping people discover and refine their areas of spiritual gifting and then plugging them into ministry where he or she can reach their God-given potential in advancing the kingdom of God. This assignment is something every church leader should research and then determine if the vision and mission of their church lines up with the various forms of ministry and fellowship being offered. For some, it will be a wake-up call, while for others, it will help refine and correctly target where God is leading them.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carter, Joe. “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline (accessed June 8, 2015).

Christianity Today Website. “Trends Among Growing Churches.” September 24, 2013 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/sacrifice-is-trending.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Church of the Highlands Website. https://www.churchofthehighlands.com (accessed June 8, 2017).

Gateway Fellowship Church Website. https://mygateway.tv/ (accessed June 7, 2017).

Outreach Magazine Website. http://www.outreachmagazine.com/outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-2016.html (accessed June 7, 2017).

Red Rocks Church Website. http://www.redrockschurch.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[1] Joe Carter, “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline (accessed June 8, 2015).

[2] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-2016.html (accessed June 7, 2017).

[3] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=101 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[4] Gateway Fellowship Church Website, https://mygateway.tv/ (accessed June 7, 2017).

[5] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=40 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[6] Red Rocks Church Website, http://www.redrockschurch.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[7] Red Rocks Church Website, http://www.redrockschurch.com/learn-more/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[8] Outreach Magazine Website, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/view-2016-top-100-church.html?id=2 (accessed June 8, 2017).

[9] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/about/pastor (accessed June 8, 2017).

[10] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/connect/growth-track (accessed June 8, 2017).

[11] Church of the Highlands Website, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/groups (accessed June 8, 2017).

[12] Church of the Highlands Website, https://growleader.com/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[13] Christianity Today Website, “Trends Among Growing Churches,” September 24, 2013 http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/september/sacrifice-is-trending.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Small Group Leadership

small group leader training

As Rod Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[1] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[2] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[3]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[4] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[5] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.

Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[6] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dempsey, Rod and Dave Earley. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

 

[1] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196596_1 (accessed June 5, 2017).

[2] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 66.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 67.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

Definition and Focus of Small Groups

small-group

Small groups are playing a major role in the advancement of the gospel and the spiritual formation of believers. Relationships are key in this process and are extremely difficult to form during weekly services, making small groups the ideal venue for discipleship and ministry efforts. Groups can vary in size, they can be open or closed, and they can meet at the church or off campus. The beauty of small groups is the fluidity of each group’s dynamics. Ideal groups will stay under forty people; otherwise, the group members will not be able to fully express his or her views and each member’s spiritual gifts cannot be utilized when the group gets too large. The overreaching goal of small groups is to function as the body of Christ, essentially becoming His hands and feet in various forms of ministry, by serving both the community and each other.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CLIQUE AND A SMALL GROUP

According to Jeffrey Arnold, “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building His ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group, and through believers, into the world.”[1] Conversely, cliques are characterized by the inward, unfocused, and random nature of undisciplined groups, which are scattered throughout the church, with no emphasis on the Bible or biblical living. Arnold then stresses the importance of small groups saying, “If we do not focus on returning to our biblical roots by building intentional community, we will miss the greatest lessons that our faith offers. As we observed with Jesus, disciples are best made in community. Unlike cliques, these communities are intentionally small, outward in focus, and intent on participating with Christ in the building of His kingdom.”[2] Over time, if small groups do not stay focused on kingdom living and godly principles, they will crystallize, making it difficult for anyone new to join the group, which ultimately turns what used to be a small group into a clique. These cliques are like cancerous cells within the church and can wreak havoc if not brought under the umbrella of God’s grace and realigned to fulfill the Great Commission by enacting the Great Commandment.

DEFINITION OF G.R.O.U.P.

Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic G.R.O.U.P. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Guided by a leader is the first objective as, “Everything rises and falls on leadership…[And] in order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[3] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[4] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[5] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[6] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry. In addition, as Joel Comiskey emphasizes:

To continue to lead a group, multiply that group, and care for the new leaders as a coach, you need Christ’s light and easy yoke. Avoid the common cell leader sins that will damage or even kill your ministry. Make feasible goals; use your team; discover where God’s working, and persist until you see breakthroughs. With this kind of ministry, you will be able to avoid burnout and continue a fruitful cell ministry throughout your life.[7]

FOUR QUESTIONS RELATED TO GROUPS AND CHURCH

Are we introducing Christian disciplines into our small groupings? This is an area many small groups fail to fully utilize because Christian disciplines are more caught than taught and small groups present the best opportunity to learn these disciplines because the members of the group typically spend more time together. If Christian disciplines are not being introduced in small group settings, this is huge missed opportunity to instill key traits in the lives of the other members. Behavior is often emulated, so there must an intentional focus on mentoring and training members of a small group in biblical disciplines.

Are our small groupings building the kingdom or hindering the kingdom? This should be the question one must answer in every form of ministry the church is involved with. If an event or ministry does not line up with the vision and mission of the church, it should not be done. With this mindset, small groups only hinder the kingdom when they crystallize and are merely cliques or when the small groups do not receive full endorsement from the lead pastor. A church of small groups or a church that is small groups will be much more impactful than a church with small groups. Small groups are essentially a mini-version of the larger body of Christ, so the vision and mission of the larger body should be portrayed in the small group DNA as well. However, as Comiskey illustrates, “Small groups and cells have become commodities in today’s church. When someone mentions a cell, what registers is a Bible study, a social gathering, a Sunday school class or anything else (small and a group). And many cell models are even adding to this thinking by liberally sprinkling the word cell over all groups in their church.”[8] This paradigm must change for biblical small groups to have the most impact in advancing the gospel.

Are we training leaders who bring Christian disciplines into small groupings? The sad reality to this question is no. Unfortunately, there are a great many opportunities being missed by not training the younger generations up and mentoring them, so they then too can mentor those who will become leaders one day in the future. Age segregated ministries is detrimental to this process, as many generations have little to no interaction. However, in the small group environment, there is an opportunity to become multi-generational and intentional in training future leaders.

 Is our entire congregation working to develop a disciplined small group mentality? If there is not congregational buy-in, especially as it pertains to developing a disciplined small group mentality, any model will ultimately fail. Churches of small groups and church who are small groups stand a better chance to develop this healthy mentality because it is a major indicator of the church’s health as well. A strong case can be made that churches with an emphasis on small groups stand a much better chance of developing a disciplined small group mentality.

INWARD, OUTWARD, AND UPWARD CONCEPTS AND CONTEXT

Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. In many churches, it is probably closer to 85/15, where fifteen percent of the members are doing eighty-five percent of the work, and this generally translates to giving as well. The interesting principle Arnold illustrates is, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[9] If a part of the human body is dead, it is surgically removed, but in the church, the eighty to eighty-five percent of people who sit idly by taking up passive roles are not treated like a dead or diseased appendage would be. This illustration is profound and to ultimately engage those who are not currently serving or active in the church, small groups are the answer, as long as the groups are healthy, by reaching inward, outward, and upward.

When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[10] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[11] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[12] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[13]

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[14] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[15]

CONCLUSION

Leading healthy small groups is the key to building the church. Much can be learned from the early church model, as people regularly met together in each other’s homes, sharing meals together, providing the apostles and early church teachers the perfect environment to fulfill the Great Commission, by encouraging one another to live their lives with love for one another, and faith and obedience to God. The process of making disciples largely rests on making relationships a priority and this means putting the needs of others ahead of our own. This outward focus is the ultimate goal every individual and small group should be working towards in their walk with Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

_______. “What is a Cell Church?” http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_leader_deadlysins.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

________. “What is a Cell Group?” http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_whatisacellgroup.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “What is a Group?” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196591_1 (accessed June 2, 2017).

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

[1] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 31-32.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196591_1 (accessed June 2, 2017).

[5] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Church?” http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_leader_deadlysins.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

[8] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Group?” http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/resources/cell_basics/en_whatisacellgroup.html (accessed June 2, 2017).

[9] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[12] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[15] Ibid., 39.