Marks of a Healthy Small Group

Last year I read a book by Chuck Swindoll called, The Church Awakening. It is a great read and I will one day write about many of those insights. Acts chapter two is the platform for a lot of what we understand about the first church. Today I’m thinking about small groups in the church, so here are seven marks of a healthy small group, based on Acts 2:42-47.

1. Healthy Small Groups Study the Bible: Small groups in the New Testament studied the Bible together. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching …” Of course, we know the teaching of the apostles is what we call the New Testament today. They lived in an oral culture but they were still studying lessons from the apostles.

I have recently discussed with Skip the possibility of publishing Talking Points or Points to Ponder to further get into the Bible. These pages can be distributed, printed out and used by small groups during the week. These will include questions related to the Scriptures and sermon they heard on Sunday with additional verses to consider.

The idea is for people to focus on one Bible truth at a time. People can handle only so many new truth units each week (like a truth from the sermon, one from the Sunday School lesson, one from a devotional). Too often we teach too much. If someone goes to church whenever the doors are open, they can end up with perhaps a dozen different Bible truths. You may be thinking, “My life can’t change that much” so let me focus on a truth that supports the largest church activity, worship.

2. Healthy Small Groups Share Life Together: The book of Acts says the early believers were devoted to fellowship (Acts 2:42), which means they were serious about their friendships. Notice the Bible says they were devoted to the fellowship, not just to fellowship. In other words, fellowship is not just something the church does; we are the fellowship.

Jesus calls us to be committed to one another (I’ll post something about all the “one another” verses at a later date). It is through small groups that we learn the skills of relationship. Small groups are laboratories of love, where we learn to obey the command of Jesus to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

3. Healthy Small Groups Remember Jesus Together: The Bible says the early believers devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The “breaking of bread” in this passage specifically refers to the Lord’s Supper or Communion. In the early Church, they did not take Communion in a large worship setting. They served it in small groups. Communion is only for believers, so a small group setting helps make sure only believers will take part.

4. Healthy Small Groups Pray Together: The Bible says the early believers devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42). Jesus taught that there is a power to prayers spoken aloud for each other, and he made an incredible promise about small groups of believers: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). In the intimacy and confidentiality of small groups, we can pray for each other as we share our hurts, reveal our feelings, confess our failures, disclose our doubts, admit our fears, acknowledge our weaknesses, and ask for help.

5. Healthy Small Groups are Generous: The Bible says these small groups gave “to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45). Small groups allow us to help each other with practical needs. Can I loan you a car? Can I provide you with some meals when you are sick? We tend to centralize ministries, creating a food pantry or a counseling center, but this wasn’t the New Testament model. The early Church had decentralized ministries, getting the help directly to where the needs are.

6. Healthy Small Groups Worship Together: The Bible says the New Testament small groups worshiped together, “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47). We need to worship God more than once a week, and small groups offer an opportunity to worship together.

7. Healthy small groups witness together: As these small groups met together, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). They were inviting others to join them. One of the proofs of a healthy small group is that it reproduces for two reasons: so a small group may add members, and so a small group may also birth (or help start) another small group.

Small groups can be creative in outreach. Rick Warren tells of a story where one small group pooled their money and bought season tickets for the San Diego Chargers (for everyone in the group, but they also bought some extra tickets). They go together to each game, but they also use the extra tickets to invite others to come with the group. They don’t start a Bible study at the game; they just have fun, but that allows them to say, “This same group meets on Tuesday nights for Bible study. Would you like to join us?”

At King’s Grant we have no rooms to start new classes, so we are now forced to get creative. I can’t wait to see where God will lead us as we get back to the basics of small groups meeting outside of our 9:45 Sunday School hour.

The Son of a Pharisee

It’s probably a verse you have come to know over the course of your Christian life. We quote it around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and use it to remind parents of their responsibility to raise godly children; it does not happen just because we take our kids to church.

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6

For the parents of the apostle Paul, these were not simply words of a short verse worth memorizing; they were the foundation of family life. In a Jewish home, it was not the job of the mother to teach spiritual things to the kids, it was the father’s responsibility, who learned it from his own father.

Philippians 3:5 tells us a bit of Paul’s early childhood: circumcised on the eighth day, a part of the children of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, and even a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” The readers understood that Paul meant nothing but Jewish influence surrounded him in those early years.

The Code of Jewish Law states that “it is the duty of every father to train his children in the practice of all the precepts, whether biblical or rabbinical” and “to guard his children against any forbidden act.” Paul’s father took this responsibility very seriously.

Looking back through New Testament eyes, we tend to put Pharisees in a negative light, since Jesus had so much conflict with them and they ultimately schemed the crucifixion of Christ, but in the first century the Pharisees held a position of great honor. I wonder if Paul spoke from experience when he penned the words to the Ephesian church that fathers must not exasperate their children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

The Jewish historian Josephus (under contract with the Roman Empire) wrote the Jews lay greater stress on the training of children than on anything else; as one of the most important duties.

Being a Hebrew was not just about religion, or a way of life, but it defined who you were, how you thought and how you felt about life. It affected how you dressed (even the wearing of phylacteries – Exodus 13:9) to what you celebrated (the regular ritual and feasts).

So men, has there been a time in your life when you delegated the task of spiritual instruction to your wife, thinking that religious stuff was for women, or raising the kids is primarily woman’s work? I challenge you to make sure you rethink that position and learn from the life of Paul that religious instruction is the father’s role in the family. There is a phrase that should haunt each of us, “Like father, like son.”

While I don’t want to discount a miracle of God working in our kids lives, but how can we expect our children to mysteriously be right with God one day, or stand up for godly principles, if we ourselves are not right with God? We must model what a relationship with God is all about and train our kids in the way they should go. They might choose another path later on, but it won’t be for a lack of instruction on the father’s part when they were young.

So, what do you need to do to better model what a relationship with Jesus is all about? How well do you know the Bible and the teachings of Christ? Can you pass on the stories and teachings at appropriate times throughout the day, helping your kids know that Christianity is not just something we do on Sundays? Can you quote Scripture in front of your kids, and challenge them to memorize verses as well? How can you relate the teaching of the Bible to the struggles and situations in their daily lives? Have you set up a time each day to read Scripture, a devotional thought and pray? It’s never too late to get on the right path.

What Defines You as a Believer?

Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church to help instruct the new church on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. One topic he addressed is the problem of division among the Christians in Corinth. For whatever reason, these believers were not getting along, and were dividing up into little cliques rather than living as the unified church of Jesus Christ. Take a look at this passage:

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)

One of the central factors for their disunity in Corinth was the tendency of these new and therefore immature believers to bring into the church elements of their culture that were inconsistent with the Christian life. For instance, in their previous “pagan” experience they were led into “religious mysteries” by a special person designated as a spiritual guide. They strongly identified with this mentor as their doorway into “the divine.” For others, certain Corinthian converts may have studied with a certain philosopher whose teaching and personality defined their intellectual and moral lives. So it felt natural for the Corinthian Christians to identify themselves according to the one who introduced them to Christ, perhaps Paul, Apollos, or Peter. But they must have been extremists because they seemed to define themselves in terms of the old human mentoring relationship, which was threatening the unity of the Christian community in Corinth.

Are we so much unlike them? For some people, denominational identity (or nondenominational identity) says who we really are as Christians. For others, it is our theological position or perhaps the teaching of our favorite theologian. Denominational or theological distinctions aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are harmful when they threaten our unity in Christ. If I let my identity as a Baptist become so elevated that it threatens my relationship with Methodists or Presbyterians, then I am falling into the same Corinthian trap. We have our theological differences based on interpretation of Scripture, but our identity in Christ brings unity. My identity as a Christian is my relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything else pales in comparison to this essential fellowship, through which we are bound to others who have put their trust in Christ.

On Facebook, they give the opportunity to display one’s religious preference. On questionnaires there may be a question asking the same. How often do people use the word “Christian” when asked their religious preference, rather than Catholic, Baptist, or nondenominational?

How do you define yourself as a Christian? How important to you are denominational labels? Have you ever identified so thoroughly with some Christian leader that it threatened your relationship with other believers? How can we be unified in Christ when we who have put our faith in Jesus differ theologically?

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We Are Iron Men

People love superheroes, and this season brings back a long awaited sequel, Iron Man 2. This is easily one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, and Tony Stark is back and badder than ever.

Before becoming Iron Man, millionaire playboy/inventor Tony Stark simply cruised casinos, consumed alcohol and amassed sexual conquests as wildly as James Bond. Unlike 007, however, he didn’t stop warlords; he armed them. That is until a missile demonstration ended with Stark’s capture by a murderous Middle Eastern dissident who ordered him to build a weapon of mass destruction. He escaped by using the materials to make tricked-out battle armor. In the process, Stark had the Marvel Comics equivalent of a Damascus Road experience. He repented of his past and pledged to help the very people he’d been hurting, aided by a novel power source and high-tech exoskeleton that conforms to his body Transformers-style.

Something else about Iron Man’s unique origin story makes it special: No radioactive spider bite. No exposure to gamma rays. Stark wasn’t accidentally endowed with new skills. Rather, his heroic journey mirrors an arrogant sinner coming to grips with his own depravity, choosing to change and battle the forces of darkness.

The movie is full of cool gadgets, sarcastic humor, mega-explosions and special effects everywhere. I would just about give my right arm to suit up and dominate evil dudes in Iron Man fashion.

Obviously that is not going to happen, but there is an armored suit available to Christians that in many ways provides the same protection and weaponry, one that lights up the spiritual world like Stark in a village full of terrorists. Here is the description of the conflict we face:

    1. Put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:11)
    2. Defending against the powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:11)
    3. The real struggle is spiritual (Ephesians 6:12)

      The war that Paul describes here is not against earthly terrorists, communists, or anything that is flesh and blood. This conflict is in the spiritual realm – and it is not for the weak or the wimpy. Every day the unseen forces of Satan and his army are arrayed against you. They are firing off the missiles of deception, discouragement, temptation, and opposition, so you’ll give up the battle and your calling.

      We need to make sure that we are properly fitted with this suit from the closet of your soul, so let me walk through the steps that Paul gave us:

      1. First, put on the belt of truth – which means speaking/ living truthfully and with integrity (Ephesians 6:12).
      2. Next, position the breastplate of righteousness – which is living in obedience to God’s will and his Word because He has completely forgiven you (Ephesians 6:14).
      3. Don’t forget the boots of readiness – which is a willingness to share the gospel message with anyone, anywhere, anytime (Ephesians 6:15).
      4. Raise up the shield of faith – which is hiding behind the promises of God when Satan sends a onslaught of lies and temptations your way (Ephesians 6:16).
      5. Protect your mind with the helmet of salvation – which is a constant remembrance that the penalty and power of sin is broken in your life, so don’t believe the negative messages from the devil that you are guilty and worthless (Ephesians 6:17).
      6. Finally, be sure and draw the sword of the Spirit – which is God’s Word (Ephesians 6:17).
      7. Along with prayer (Ephesians 6:18), this is your offensive weapon to strike the heart of the enemy with incredible force. So powerful in fact, that this is the result:

      We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5).

      Picture an army of believers who are protected with the very armor of God and armed with His living Word. God uses this mighty force to stop spiritual terrorism and start a revolution for His cause – making disciples who make disciples!

      We are Men of Steel, and we can choose to be Iron Men, choosing to leave the old life behind, and make ourselves battle-ready for the sake of God’s kingdom. Suit up and make a difference.

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      Do You Love God Enough?

      My Sunday morning Bible study is taking a fresh look at Peter and how his life often mirrors our own at various times in life. This week we are looking at the denials during of Peter on that dreadful Good Friday, and the restoration that took place after the resurrection.

      BTW, have you ever considered why that day is called “Good Friday,” knowing what happened to Jesus, the crucifixion and all? Long ago I saw a B.C. cartoon that put is perfectly. BC and Grog were pondering the meaning of the term: “Why do you call Good Friday, “good” — a term oft misunderstood. You who were saved by the blood of his cross — you can call Good Friday good.”

      There are important times in our lives when we either stand up for what we believe or cave in to the pressure around us. Peter saw himself as the kind of man who stands firm, but he overestimated his commitment on at least one occasion where he denied even knowing Jesus.

      Though there is often a heavy price to pay for being uncompromising about our faith, the price of caving in is heavier. The good news is that even when we fail, God doesn’t give up on us. In fact, those who fail are exactly the kind of people Jesus came to redeem and restore.

      Pledge: Matthew 26:17-35
      The disciples were as human as anyone, and one night they got proud and jealous. When Peter declared that he would never deny Jesus, even if everyone else in the room did, he probably didn’t cultivate many warm, fuzzy feelings among the disciples. In fact, the text implies he was saying he was more faithful than the other disciples, which was likely quite offensive.

      Peter could have simply said, “I will never forsake you,” but he didn’t. He compared himself with all the others and affirmed that he would be the strongest and most faithful of the disciples. As Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” And Peter would soon land hard.

      In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter quotes an Old Testament passage about God opposing the proud but giving grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34). He then urges his readers to humble themselves under God’s hand in order that they might be lifted up at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6).

      1. In what ways did Peter experience the realities of this passage? In what ways have you?
      2. How have you seen spiritual pride manifested in Christianity in general? In our church? In your life?

      Denial: Luke 22:54-62
      In a time of trouble and fear, Simon the Rock denies ever knowing Jesus, three times. Fear of people’s opinions or their swords tend to do that. It diminishes God’s power and messes with our perspective, and then makes us unwise.

      Luke records an interesting detail of Peter’s three denials. When the rooster crowed, “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61). Remember the first time Jesus gazed at Peter was when they first met (John 1:42) when followers were gathering around this Messiah. Jesus saw Peter’s potential underneath his rough exterior and called him a rock. Now, on a cold night years later, as disciples are scattering and abandoning this Messiah, Jesus again gazes into Peter’s soul. And Peter leaves and weeps bitterly (Luke 22:62).

      1. If Jesus stood before you right now and gazed into your eyes, what do you think he would see?
      2. Knowing that your heart is laid completely bare before him, how would you feel about being in his presence? Why?

      Restoration: Mark 16:7; 1 Corinthians 15:5; John 21:15-17
      Peter’s denial of Jesus was dramatic and devastating. Perhaps more than any other disciple besides Judas, he failed. Not only did he abandon Jesus in a crisis moment, he vocally disowned him. His confidence in his complete faithfulness had proven unfounded.

      In at least three instances, Scripture provides a glimpse of God’s mercy toward Peter after his failure.

      First, there is a small but important mention of Peter in Mark 16:7. When three women arrive at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, an angel tells them Jesus has risen and then gives them instruction: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Clearly, God had plans.

      Next, Peter is apparently the first disciple to see Jesus after the resurrection, alone. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:5 that Jesus first met with Peter before meeting with the rest of the disciples, as though the two of them had an important matter to discuss apart from the group.

      Finally, toward the end of John’s gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Three times (John 21:15, 16, 17), perhaps once for each denial, he asks Peter if he loves him. Peter takes advantage of the opportunity to counter each of his denials with a confession of love and loyalty. He is not only forgiven but fully restored.

      I wonder if Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him enough. I suppose it is one thing to love Jesus enough to believe in him, but it is a whole new level of commitment to love Jesus and do something about it. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and the response is affirmative, but if loving him is true, a command follows, “Then tend my lambs, shepherd my sheep and tend my sheep.”

      1. What’s the difference between forgiveness and restoration?
      2. Have any of your failures caused you to doubt God’s willingness to restore you? Why or why not?
      3. Under what conditions do you normally forgive someone? Is there any failure too great for you to forgive?
      4. Do you love God enough? I mean enough to risk getting out of your comfort zone and do something great for his kingdom?
      5. What might Jesus be asking you to do to demonstrate your love for him?