The Trouble With Small Groups

The trouble with small groups today is they are focused on curriculum, study, and discussion. Curricula produced for small groups assumes that study and discussion forms people as disciples of Jesus Christ. What they do is help Christians learn about the Bible, theology, Methodism, etc. But the people are rarely changed. This approach to Christian formation is akin to giving a group of people who want to learn to play the piano a series of studies about the piano and how the piano is played. At the end of several months of study and discussion they are very well informed about every aspect of the piano and piano playing. When they sit down at a keyboard they know where all the notes are, but they have no idea how to make music with the instrument they have devoted so much time and energy studying.

While study groups certainly have value, and should be included in a disciple-making small group system, they are unlikely to form disciples of Jesus Christ. The groups are wonderful places for fellowship, and members may develop relationships of love and trust with one another. But the curriculum and relationships formed are centered in the interests of the members or group leader. Small groups focused on delivering information end up forming consumers of religious goods (curriculum and books) provided by religious professionals rather than disciples of Jesus Christ.

The trouble with most small groups is they assume human beings are “fundamentally thinking things” (see You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith). They assume that disciples are formed by what we learn and can know about God and the Bible. To see the problem with this assumption, especially regarding discipleship, we need to look to Jesus. When Jesus noticed two would-be disciples following him he didn’t turn and ask them, “What do you believe?” or “What do you know?” He asked “What do you want?” (John 1:38). He invited them to follow him and “come and see.”

Jesus knew that humans are essentially desiring beings. That’s why he asked them “What do you want?” and then invited the two to follow him to his home where they could see and experience him. Jesus didn’t give them a book to read and discuss among themselves. He invited them into his home to share his life, to learn and imitate his habits. Jesus knew that when his followers shared his life and practiced his habits they would become like him. When others looked at the lives of his followers they would see Jesus.

I have three suggestions for addressing the trouble with small groups:

  1. Dispel the belief that we are fundamentally “thinking things.” We need to approach Christian formation from the same place the Bible does. We are creatures of desire. “You are what you love.” We are moved by our desires, what we want, much more than by what we know. People coming to the church want to experience God who became one of us in a Jew from Nazareth, Jesus.
  1. Adopt a congregational rule of life. “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast). I recommend the General Rule of Discipleship, which is a contemporary summary of the Wesleyan rule of life known as the General Rules:

    To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  

    The General Rule of Discipleship is simple and easy to memorize. It is balanced and practicable. And it helps members follow Jesus by guiding them in doing what he told his followers to do (see Matthew 22:37-40 and John 13:34-35).

  1. All small groups studies set aside up to 1/3 of each meeting to mutual accountability for how each member is practicing the congregation’s rule of life and prayer. For example, if a small group study meets weekly for 90 minutes, then it sets aside 30 minutes for each member to give account of how they have practiced the General Rule of Discipleship in their daily lives. Each member could select an accountability partner with whom they share their account during the meeting and, perhaps, they could be in touch with one another throughout the week for mutual encouragement in practicing discipleship.

John Wesley knew that religious knowledge must lead to the formation of habits he called “means of grace” (acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion). Such habits form character he called “holy tempers.” The Apostle Paul called them “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Habits also form our “affections.” When we do what Jesus told us to do his love becomes part of us. We love what and who he loves. This becomes possible only in small groups that allow relationships of love and trust through the practice of mutual accountability and support for loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving who God loves. Wesley called this way of love “holiness of heart and life.”

Wesley described small groups as being people “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”

Small groups that contribute to disciple formation need to do more than study and discuss. They need a balance of learning and accountability and support for practicing the means of grace (acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion) and the formation of holy tempers which lead to “universal love filling the heart and governing the life.” The process of learning and accountability builds relationships of love and support centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Balanced small groups help the congregation keep its baptismal covenant and faithfully pursue its mission to equip Christ-followers who join Christ and his mission in the world.

(To learn more about the Wesleyan way of Christian formation and discipleship see:

Sermon 92: “On Zeal”
Sermon 85: “On Working Out Our Salvation”
“Advice to The People Called Methodists”
“Thoughts Upon Methodism”)

Are You Ready?: An Advent Sermon

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

christpantocrator

Christ the King

Matthew 24:44

Are you ready? Christmas is less than a month away. There’s so much to do.

But that’s not what Advent is about. The lessons for the first Sunday of Advent are about a different type of preparation. It’s really more about readiness for the coming of Christ.

The Christ we are preparing for is the one who was Mary’s son, born in a manger, worshipped by shepherds and magi from the east. He’s also the one who lived with Joseph and Mary as refugees in Egypt because Herod wanted him dead.

The Christ we are preparing for is the one who was baptized by John. He fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days. Then he showed up at his hometown synagogue to proclaim “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.

The Christ we are waiting for was accused, tried, and convicted as a common criminal. He was condemned and crucified. On the night before he died Jesus had dinner with his disciples. When the supper was over he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it and said, “Take and eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and shared it with his disciples saying, “Drink from this all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The body of the One we are preparing for was laid in a borrowed grave. But death could not keep him. On the third day the women went to his grave to anoint his body. They found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. The risen Christ greeted the women and told them to go and tell his disciples that he is alive. He encountered a couple on the road to Emmaus. He accepted their offer of hospitality for the night. When they sat down at the table he took the loaf of bread, gave thanks and broke it. AT that moment the couple realized who he was, and he vanished. They immediately ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with Jesus’ disciples.

The Christ we are preparing for is the crucified and risen One. This is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Advent when he said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” Matthew 24:44. Are we ready for his coming? When the risen Christ comes the kingdom of heaven will come to earth.

How do we prepare for the coming of the Risen Christ? The short answer is we remember we are baptized and pursue holiness of heart and life. By this I mean we obey Jesus’ teachings (summarized in Matthew 22:37-40) guided by the Wesleyan rule of life: The General Rules.

With God’s help, we renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin. We do no harm and avoid evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced.

With God’s help, we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We strive to do good by acting mercifully to all people, especially the poor, people who are sick, homeless, prisoners, lonely, and outcasts. As Christians, we are called by Christ to be friends with the poor, vulnerable, and voiceless people of the world.

With God’s help, we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord, in union with the church which he has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. We stay close to Christ and receive the grace we need to obey his commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love who God loves, as God loves them. Our hearts are opened to receive the grace we need to live this life because we are people who worship, we are fed by the Lord’s Supper, we pray and search the Scriptures daily, and we empty ourselves of all but love when we fast and pray.

With God’s help, we live as faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world. We witness to Jesus Christ in the world and follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Advent is time for the church to remember we are an eschatological people. We are a people who look with hope for the coming again of the risen Christ who is Lord and Ruler of the universe. The church calendar begins by looking to the future, the telos or end of time and coming fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth it’s good to remember who he is and who he calls and equips us to be. That’s why Advent is a good time to remember we are baptized and recommit ourselves to living as citizens of God’s kingdom.

An Advent song by Bob Dylan

 

Poverty and the Church

John Wesley took Jesus seriously. He devoted his life to obeying Jesus’ commands to love john-wesley-1God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and love his neighbor as himself. Jesus defines “neighbor” as everyone loved by God, which is everyone, anywhere in the world. Wesley also knew that God has a preferential option for the poor. That is why the Methodists movement began among people who lived in poverty. He preached Jesus’ good news to the poor. He told them Jesus teaches they are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

This was a radical message in eighteenth century Britain. It’s also a radical message in twenty-first century America. It’s radical because the dominant culture teaches everyone the poor are lazy and immoral. Their poverty is the result of bad decisions and behavior. It’s all their fault. Therefore, they do not deserve assistance or a hand up. It’s better to make them lift themselves up by “their own bootstraps.”

Wesley understood otherwise. First, he knew that God loved all people, especially those who suffered in poverty. And that God required people who possessed wealth to share with their neighbors who had little or nothing. Wesley knew that the vast majority of the poor were the victims of unjust systems of oppression. They are not lazy or ignorant or immoral. The poor are created in the image of God. They are worthy of love, dignity, and justice. Wesley devoted much of his life serving and advocating among the wealthy and powerful people of his day, especially within the church. He believed Christians should live so they are good news to the poor.

My favorite podcast, “On The Media” from WNYC, recently did a five-part series on poverty in America. I encourage you to listen and learn:

#1: The Poverty Tour

#2: Who Deserves To Be Poor?

#3: Rags To Riches

#4: When The Safety Net Doesn’t Catch You

#5: Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition

Does your congregation expect members to know people who live in poverty?

How does the congregation reach out to poor people and families to make them feel welcome and valued?

How does the congregation provide services for and advocate for and with poor people and families?

A Disciple’s Journal 2017

A Disciple’s Journal 2017: A Guide for Daily Prayer, Bible Reading and Discipleship is now a-disciples-journal-2017available. It is a devotional resource designed for individual and small group use.

A Disciple’s Journal contains a daily lectionary developed by the Consultation on Common Texts. The daily Scripture lessons are based on the Revised Common Lectionary. Two lessons, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, are provided for Monday through Saturday. All four Scriptures are included for each Sunday.

In addition to the daily lectionary, we provide space to record your acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion. Under the daily lectionary for each week of the year you will see the Jerusalem cross at the center of four quadrants, one each for acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion.

On the facing page you will find excerpts from the works of John and Charles Wesley. All of the John Wesley excerpts for 2017 are from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. The Charles Wesley hymn stanzas are selected to align with the Sunday Scriptures.

A Disciple’s Journal 2017 provides resources for morning and night prayer. Prayers for every day of the week come from the Book of Common Prayer, which was the prayer book of John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodist movement. You will also find prayers composed by members of the Consultation on Common Texts for each week based on the Scripture lessons read in Sunday worship.

To help broaden your prayers A Disciple’s Journal 2017 contains “A Cycle of Intercession.” It guides you to pray for various people, leaders, the Church, and the world throughout the year.

 

Covenant Discipleship Groups

A Disciple’s Journal 2017 is an excellent resource for Covenant Discipleship groups. Most groups have a covenant clause that commits members to daily prayer and Bible reading. The Daily Lectionary gives you Scriptures from the Old Testament and the New Testament for each day. It also supplies two Psalms for each week. Read one Thursday through Sunday and the other Monday through Wednesday. The Journal helps you to maintain balance and diversity in your daily Bible reading.

The General Rule of Discipleship appears each week below the daily lectionary and just above the Jerusalem cross. Record your acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion in the quadrants. This will help you to remember what you’ve done, and not done, during the weekly meeting.

You will also find space to record prayer concerns, questions, reflections, and insights for the week.

 

Small Group Curriculum

A Disciple’s Journal 2017 is an excellent small group curriculum resource. Here are some examples of how the Journal may be used to help form disciples of Jesus Christ in small groups:

  • Advent, Lenten, and Easter study groups read the Scripture lessons for each day of the season and discuss the various themes, ideas, and images that emerge when they meet. Pray the prayer for each week along with the recommendations in the Cycle of Intercession.
  • Groups may read and discuss the excerpts from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection for each week.

 

  • Read, reflect, and discuss the hymns of Charles. His poetry is a rich resource for study, theological reflection, and prayer.

 

  • Adopt the General Rule of Discipleship as your group’s rule of life. Use the Journal to record how you have witnessed to Jesus Christ in the world and followed his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The General Rule provides the agenda when the group meets. Begin with a prayer, read one of the Scripture lessons for the day, ask “What is God saying to us in this lesson today?” The leader then asks each person in turn, beginning with himself or herself, “How is it with your soul?” The General Rule of Discipleship guides each person as they respond to the question. The group prays for each person after they’ve shared their response. The meeting concludes with singing a hymn, sharing prayer concerns, and praying the prayer for the week from A Disciple’s Journal. Quarterly identify a specific area of the General Rule each person, or the group, wants to focus and grow; review the group’s prayer concerns and goals.

             Copies of A Disciple’s Journal 2017 may be ordered online here. It comes in three editions: print, EPub, and Kindle. A nice feature of the EPub and Kindle editions is they include the full text of A Disciple’s Journal 2017 and the full text of all of the Scripture lessons. All the Scripture lesson citations are hyperlinked, enabling you to quickly jump between the Journal and the Scripture lessons.

I have used A Disciple’s Journal for my daily Bible reading and prayer for several years. It keeps my life and work grounded in Scripture and centered in Christ and his mission. I pray it will be a blessing to you and your small group. I’ll close with the following passage from Hebrews:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:23-25).

Black Lives Matter!

My heart is breaking for the growing number of black men and women killed by police: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others whose names do not make into national news. I’m also troubled by what seems to me to be growing racial animosity expressed by fellow Americans who look like me: middle aged white men. In particular, I’m bothered by the pejorative response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement is one of the responses to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. I’ve always seen it as a constructive, sometimes boisterous, movement of black women and men to remind fellow Americans that their lives are just as valuable, meaningful, and full of potential as their other citizens. Unfortunately, many Americans are not aware of the nation’s long history of enslavement and oppression of black people. And, in spite of the advances of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s, 60s, & 70s, and the election of the first black President, racism continues to be a serious problem they must confront daily. As a white, middle-aged, man who is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, the Black Lives Matter movement has caused me to examine my own racism.

To help with this process I re-read one of the books that had a big impact on me during my M.Div. studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. Two books by Dr. James Cone helped me understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, my own racism, and the experience of my black sisters and brothers. I recently re-read his Black Theology & Black Power. The other book that proved to be very formational for me was Black Theology of Liberation. Reading Cone led me to the works of John Wesley. Both of whom are, of course, Methodists.

I am convinced that John Wesley would be a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. He would have been very pleased with the recent Racism Gathering hosted by the Division on Ministry with Young people in Dallas. A group of young black and white leaders from across The United Methodist Church met to develop resources aimed at helping the church address a problem endemic to nation’s culture.

How do I know Mr. Wesley would support the Black Lives Matter movement? Reading his powerful treatise, “Thoughts Upon Slavery” published in 1774 Wesley explicitly says and argues that black lives matter as much as white lives. He argues there is absolutely no justification for the practice of slavery or the slave trade. Throughout the essay Wesley makes clear that African women and men are equal to people of European descent and deserving of dignity, respect, and justice. He knocks down every “justification” for slavery. At one point he writes:

The inhabitants of Africa, where they have equal motives and equal means of improvement, are not inferior to the inhabitants of Europe; to some of them they are greatly superior. … Certainly the African is in no respect inferior to the European.

Thoughts Upon Slavery” is Wesley’s unqualified condemnation of slavery and racism. He convincingly argues there can be no justification for the enslavement, oppression, and denigration of African people. All are created in God’s image. All are loved by God. All are saved by the blood of Jesus. All are welcome to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.

After reading “Thoughts Upon Slavery” I am convinced John Wesley would be an active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a white man and leader he would condemn and work to organize people to resist the racism that is endemic in North American culture, churches, and institutions. To those who say “All lives matter!” he would say: “Certainly all lives matter. But in the United States, which for over three hundred years has enslaved, oppressed, beaten, and killed black bodies, you need to be reminded over and over and over again that black lives matter.

North American Christians, and United Methodists in particular, need to learn to read and interpret Scripture from the perspective of oppressed people. We need to remember that the God of Jesus Christ is the God of Moses who set his people free from slavery in Egypt. Wesley believed and preached that God loves all people and offers salvation for all. And the same God favors the oppressed, the poor, the refugees, widows, and orphans. The North American United Methodist church is a majority (over 95%) white denomination. This means Scripture and the gospel are interpreted from a perspective of privilege. “Whiteness” and privilege are the norm. White United Methodists are not reminded of the color of their skin every day. We don’t have to have “the talk” with our children about how to behave when confronted by a police officer. We don’t have to daily confront racism. This is why Mr. Wesley would insist that the majority of United Methodists need to be regularly reminded, Black Lives Matter.

More than being reminded, United Methodists who are striving toward holiness of heart and life need to join with Jesus Christ in the struggle against the evil of racism. Local congregations promise to equip members to keep the Baptismal Covenant by “accept[ing] the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” A simple and powerful way to keep this baptismal vow and to grow in holiness of heart and life is to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which he has opened to people of ALL ages, nations, and races.” When we obey and follow Jesus in the world we reject the evil of racism in all its forms and join him in the work of resisting it in the church, in your home, neighborhood, town, and nation.

Three New Covenant Discipleship Resources To Be Released SOON!

My colleagues and friends, Melanie C. Gordon, Chris Wilterdink, and I have written some new resources for Covenant Discipleship. Discipleship Resources will publish them soon, maybe in September!

We are very proud of these books. They will be valuable resources for helping United Methodist congregations with their mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world:

Joe Iovino at UMCOM recently did a podcast with the three of us. Check it out:

 

Acts of Justice

2016 is a general election and General Conference year. Acts of justice are very much on my mind. Jesus Christ calls his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-37) and to be ambassadors of reconciliation and justice (2 Cor. 5:16-20). Followers of Jesus are people who witness to and work for forgiveness, reconciliation, and the common good. Justice means that all people have access to life and the means to fully participate in community life. It is at the center of what Jesus means when he proclaimed the “kingdom of God” (e.g., Mark 1:15).

What does this mean for Jesus’ followers today?

A disciple’s primary loyalty is to Jesus and the kingdom of God. It means we must not be captured by any political party or ideology. Jesus’ disciples are guided more by the sermon on the Mount and the kingdom of God than by the platforms and candidates of the Republican, Democrat, or any political party. Christians are called and baptized into Christ and citizenship in God’s kingdom.

The second vow of the Baptismal Covenant helps us understand the nature of acts of justice as being central to discipleship:

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

It’s important for us to remember God sets us free from the power sin and for a life of self-giving love. God gives us freedom to live fully as citizens of his kingdom. We are set free to become fully human, like Jesus, as sisters and brothers in God’s household. Christ sends us into the world to be agents of his power, which is self-giving love. This love is lived and experienced as justice. God’s love equips us to resist the powers and principalities that are revealed as evil, injustice, and oppression.

One practical act of justice is to be an informed voter. God sends us to participate as responsible citizens in the world he loves. Followers of Jesus evaluate candidates to see how well their positions align with justice-love exemplified in Jesus and the reign of God.

As we prepare to decide who will get our vote we ask the following questions:

  • Will the candidates’ administration be good news to the poor, voiceless, and vulnerable people of the nation and the world?
  •  Do the candidates’ policy proposals care for creation?
  • Will the candidate assure the nation is a responsible agent of reconciliation, peace and justice in the world?

Because we live in the world, Christians need to be regularly reminded their primary allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom. The Baptismal Covenant and Covenant Discipleship groups help to keep us centered in Christ and his mission.

What are you and your Covenant Discipleship group doing to “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”?