First Dates and Road Trips

You all know that I am the guy in charge of small groups at King’s Grant, so I want to make sure that I address why small groups are so important.

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On this Mother’s Day, I want to remind you that the FAMILY is the ORIGINAL small group. Think about what is accomplished in a family.

  1. Relationships are developed.
  2. Chores and workload are shared.
  3. Family members are protected and encouraged.
  4. Family and individual events are celebrated.
  5. There is a balance of time in working and playing.
  6. Children are birthed and raised.
  7. Children are nurtured and educated.
  8. Children are taught to become social beings in our society.
  9. Children become more independent and move out to begin their own families.
  10. Disagreements or a rouge family member, the so-called Black Sheep, bring grief and hurt to the rest of the family.

If it were not for faithful moms and dads, the family as a small group is not going to thrive or survive. To have a successful family it involves commitment by each parent, a shared vision, common goals, cooperation, patience, forgiveness, encouragement, and love (which is spelled T-I-M-E).

As was see the role of the family, I see a great comparison to the ministry of small groups. Let me broaden your understanding of families AND small groups by using two illustrations:

First dates: Think about the emotions that a first date evokes (fear, panic, shyness, self-consciousness, worry). There is pressure on a first date when the point of the date is to get to know the other person and they are supposed to get to know you.

There are the obligatory exploratory questions (Where are you from? What are your hobbies? Where have you lived? What is your major? Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your family? Siblings? Parents? What’s your dad like? Will he like me? (Guys, you know this is always in the back of your mind, or at least it SHOULD be if you want to date my daughter!).

Then there are the awkward responses, trying to look good, to look and act cool, make sure there’s nothing stuck in your teeth, any zits acting up? we want to make a good first impressions, (Is my deodorant still working? Does my breath smell bad? Is my hair sticking up?).

There is attention to the atmosphere and the place you go (quiet conversation, comfortable lighting, soothing music, attractive surroundings), after all, THIS could be leading somewhere. The point of a first date is to be alone; the relationship we are trying to develop is exclusive.

The same is true with church meetings. Think of a time when new people are stepping into the church, or into the faith community. Just this week we started three new small group classes. We want to make a good first impression so that people will come back for the second week (basically, will there be a second date?). There can be ice breakers to get to know other people. There can be sub-grouping to develop more conversations and lines of communication.

In Sunday School, we talk about our classes being open and welcoming of new people, but let’s face it, to new people, it often feels like showing up at someone else’s family reunion. It’s pleasant enough but the first date doesn’t always go well and many people choose not to takes a risk, or become vulnerable, or reach out. They just say, “It’s not for me” or “The topic or class is not of interest to me” or “I’ll attend if nothing else comes up” or “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” The desire for anonymity often keeps people from getting connected.

Road trip: This is where you grab 10 random people who don’t know each other, and they get stuffed into the back of a van and head off to a certain location. I remember doing this in college; we had one of those out-of-state mission trips; 10 days of serving in downtown Detroit. There were freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors all together; not really knowing the people at all. It was nervous at first. Some were not too sure if this is what they wanted to do, but…

Twelve hours later when they get out of the van, how are they? Excited, laughing, there are inside jokes about Bob’s stomach ache for eating too many sunflower seeds, the tire blew out and the driver forgot his Visa card and everyone had to pitch in to buy a new tire, something happens inside that van as you move toward your destination. What is so different?

Everyone has a common goal, no matter how different each person is, when they open the door at the destination, they are excited to be there since they were on a common mission.

There is also something different about everybody, too. Everyone came for a different reason. Joe came because he wanted to do missions in the inner city. Ted came to see what it was like outside of the South. Judy came because she was stressed at school and needed to get away from campus to relax. Bob came because Judy was going and she’s kind of hot, so Bob wanted to sit next to her in the van. But remember that Bob ate too many sunflower seeds and got sick so his game was totally off.

So, when our small groups are so much like a first date, how can we make them more like a road trip? We need to create a context where we can build community, because that’s what it is all about. So often our goal is to build a larger Bible study class, when our goal should be to build a safe environment where authentic community can happen.

Starbucks is a great example: When you’re a regular at Starbucks, the barista knows your name, and you know theirs. Starbucks is more than a supplier of a great cup of coffee, it becomes a part of the daily routine for many people.

Every once in a while you might see it on the tables; a little card that promotes career opportunities at Starbucks or perhaps some other restaurant you’ve been to. Not that you were looking for a job, but perhaps you noticed what it said, “Create community: make a difference in someone’s day.” Since the topic of community is of interest to you, let’s pick up that card and read what’s on the back. “When you work at Starbucks, you can make a difference in someone’s day by creating an environment where neighbors and friends get together and reconnect while enjoying a great coffee experience.”

Starbucks appears to see itself in the business of doing more than selling a premium cup of coffee. It is part of their corporate purpose to create environments that connect people so meaningfully, it changes the quality of their lives. Now THAT seems familiar. The church needs to have such a mission statement!

According to the Starbucks website, they are selling the “Starbucks Experience,” there are even books written about it: one I found had five principles of the Starbucks Experience:

  1. Make it your own
  2. Everything matters
  3. Surprise and delight
  4. Embrace resistance
  5. Leave your mark

These can certainly be developed and found applicable for the church.

As far as the experience, are we as a culture are buying it. Starbucks is one of the 10 most trusted brands in the world. From a company whose primary product is coffee beans, they are selling coffee and promoting connection. Their success tells me that we are a culture of people who crave relationship.

Today the mission of Starbucks is this: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

So, what are we going to do in the church? Just like at Starbucks, we have to LOVE what we are doing for the community. If we don’t love what we do or love the community in which we do it, no one else is going to love and sense that community we say that we want to develop.

When you are truly in love, you go to great lengths to be with the one you love. You’ll drive for hours just to be together, even if it’s only for a short while. I remember going to visit Kim who had gone home on a college break, at Thanksgiving. I drove what should have been two hours just to spend time with her, yet it took longer because my car was a 1961 Corvair that had an air-cooled engine that tended to overheat on longer trips, especially ones that involved driving through the mountains. And think of the stupid things you do: like inviting her to a state championship game playing in her city, when one team was a rival to YOUR high school, and then she goes with you, and she doesn’t even like football. But with her being a band person, I seem to remember leaving after the halftime show, freezing our tails off.

And then there are the special times together. You don’t mind staying up way too late to talk. Walking in the rain is romantic, and not annoying. You’ll willingly spend a small fortune on the one you’re crazy about. When you are apart from each other, it’s painful, even miserable. Kim was doing summer missions here at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, while I stayed in my college town working as a youth pastor at University Baptist Church. I HAD to drive all the way up here to see her, for a couple of days. That special someone is all you think about; you jump at any chance to be together.

In his book God Is the Gospel, pastor John Piper essentially asks whether we are in love with God:

The critical question for every generation is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”

How many of you heard those words and thought, “You know, I just might be okay with that?” If you are as deeply in love with God as you say you are, you know you could never be satisfied in a heaven without Christ.

Sometimes a statement like that might evoke fear and guilt, but personal experience has taught me that actions driven by fear and guilt are not an antidote to our being casual toward God. I hope you realize that our only motivating factor is love.

Don’t we all crave love? And isn’t that what God wants from us, to crave this relationship with Him as we crave all genuine love relationships? Isn’t that what brings Him glory; when believers desire Him and are not merely slaves who serve Him out of obligation?

There is often a great disparity between how we feel about faith and how we are meant to feel. Why do so few people genuinely find joy and pleasure in their relationship with God? Why do most people feel they have to either pay God back for all He’s done (buy His love) or somehow keep making up for all their inadequacies and failures (prove their love)? Why are the words of Psalm 63:1-5 not an honest reflection of our lives on most days?

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

The solution for lukewarm living isn’t to try harder, fail, make bigger promises, only to fail again. We can’t muster up more love for God. When loving Him becomes an obligation, we end up focusing even more on ourselves.

As believers, we are called to surrender everything for Christ, and many churchgoers are not particularly thrilled with surrender. Beth recently led a Bible study on surrender, and it was confirmed that it is not something we really understand, like it is a sign of weakness to raise the white flag.

We can’t change without God’s help. The answer lies in letting Him change you. Remember His counsel to the lukewarm church in Laodicea? “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). His counsel wasn’t to “try harder,” but rather to let Him in. James puts it this way, “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8).

This is a fact: we need God to help us love God. And if I need His help to love Him, who is a perfect being, I definitely need His help to love people. Something supernatural must happen in order for genuine love for God to grow in our hearts.

Jesus tells us that the world will know that we are his disciples, that we have love for one another, but how does God know that we have love for HIM?

Look around at the Christians you may know. How would you define what a follower of Jesus really looks like? Perhaps your list looks something like this:

  1. Careful student of Scripture
  2. Zealous and active in their stand for God
  3. Appetite for worship and prayer
  4. Consistent in worship attendance
  5. Practices Scripture memorization
  6. Not afraid to pray in public
  7. Active in the local church
  8. Fasts and tithes regularly
  9. Has desire to stand against blasphemy and ungodliness
  10. Has firm grasp of basic foundational theological truth

For a long time I thought this is what would honor God and help me become more like Jesus. But look again; these are behavior traits not of Jesus’ disciples, but of His chief opponents, the Pharisees.

I’m convinced that real-life discipleship (becoming more like Jesus in character and attitude) is what happens between the gathering times at church. What are people like at home, at school, in the lunchroom, in the office, on dates, at parties, in the locker room, in the boardroom, on the computer, or the after-school job? What are they like when no one is looking? Do they demonstrate unconditional love, joy, peace, patience, concern for others, kindness, servanthood?

Real-life discipleship is marked more by footprints than by monuments. For me, discipleship focuses on long-term commitments rather than a one-time decision to “accept Christ.” It is forward motion, a journey, a marathon. People may look at imperfection and failures of so-called Christians, but remember that the word disciple means learner, not expert.

So, if these characteristics don’t describe a follower of Jesus, a disciple, a Christian, what does?

A fully devoted disciple of Jesus is actively:

Depending on the Spirit: A person who is actively depending on the Holy Spirit to transform and empower him/her to walk as Jesus walked (John 14:26 – But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you).

Interacting in Community: A person who is actively interacting with other believers in a small group for mutual care and spiritual formation (John 13:35 – Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples).

Submitting to His Lordship: A person who is actively submitting to Christ’s Lordship in every area of his/her life (Luke 6:46 – So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?).
Communing with the Father: A person who is actively developing intimacy with God through the spiritual disciplines (John 8:31 – Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings”).

Investing His Resources: A person who actively sees himself/herself as a steward of his/her resources (time, treasure & talents) rather than an owner, and invests them to advance God’s work (Matthew 6:20-21 – Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be).

Participating in Service: A person who is actively participating in acts of service toward those inside and outside the church for the glory of God (Matthew 20:27-28 – and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many”).

Leading People to Christ: A person who is actively seeking opportunities to share his/her faith with lost people through his/her personal style of evangelism (John 4:35 – You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest).

Expanding the Kingdom: A person who is actively committed to a ministry of multiplication both here at home and abroad (Matthew 6:33 – Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need).

So, the purpose of this message is to encourage us to love, love God in such a way that HE knows that we are his disciples. The 3:16 Scripture passages for this morning have a logical progression.

  • John 3:16 – God so loved US that he gave his only Son so that we might have everlasting life.
  • First John 3:16 – This is how we know love, that Jesus gave his life for us, we ought to lay down our life for others.
  • Revelation 3:16 – After a while, our love and passion for God can and usually fades, we don’t get cold toward God but we become lukewarm. The only reaction that Jesus has for this sort of casual relationship with him is to spit us out of his mouth, literally vomit out lukewarm water. Oh, how he longs for us to be either hot or cold.

This message is for all of us.

If you don’t know Christ personally, it is time to accept his invitation. He is knocking at the door and wants to come in and change your heart. It’s time to stop closing the curtains, hiding quietly behind a locked door, waiting for Jesus to go away like we treat a Jehovah’s Witness who comes to our door. It’s always at an inconvenient time, you have other things on your list to do that day, but your decision to follow Christ is one that you can put off for only so long.

As the famous evangelist Billy Sunday once said, “It’s payday someday” and one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. It’s not that everyone will be saved, but everyone will one day acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Some will do so in the presence of God in heaven, while others will recognize this fact while they are eternally separated from God, because they chose to gain the whole world and forfeited their own soul.

Perhaps you are a believer but you recognize that your love for God has faded. You want to get back to your first love, reignite the passion that you once had for God. Today is the day to get things right with God. Don’t put it off until another day.

There are some in here that have never really experienced Christian community because you are involved in “drive-by church,” you float in and out of the worship experiences at your convenience and actively avoid getting involved in the lives of other believers. You can’t understand the Starbuck’s Experience of developing community if you never stop by the store. When is the time you finally tell yourself that you are going to get involved in a small group? It’s for personal development, spiritual growth, and to practice the 31 “one another” commands of the New Testament (I’ll save that for another day). Commands to

  • Love one another (John 13:35, 13:34, 15:12, 15:17, Romans 13:8, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 4:9, 2 Thessalonians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:22, 4:8, 1 John 3:11, 4:7, 4:11, 2 John 1:5)
  • Be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50, 1 Thessalonians 5:13)
  • Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
  • Build up one another (Romans 14:19, 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Accept one another (Romans 15:7)
  • Admonish one another (Romans 15:14, Colossians 3:16)
  • Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13, 10:25)
  • Comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
  • Pray for one another (James 5:16)
  • Serve one another(1 Peter 4:10, Galatians 5:13)

How can any of this being done in the context of a corporate worship experience? We can only obey THESE commands of the Bible by participating in a small group.

If you’re ready to get connected to THIS church, why put it off another week. Join this congregation by requesting membership, attend a Connections Class, or talking with me more about what it means to be a member of this congregation.

Right now, this time of dedication is for YOU to do business with God. You know when he’s knocking on the door of your heart. Open the door and allow him to come in and change your life forever.

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