Friday, December 26, 2008

An Atheist Speaks: "A Good Man Gave Me That Book"

I have a hang-up about the use of the word "witnessing" when it comes to evangelism.  To me, it distracts from our core responsibility to be witnesses to the truth ... to continually bear witness to what we have seen and heard.  

As those who have been redeemed from eternal punishment to a glorious hope, we are witnesses to the incredible grace of almighty God.  To speak always of "witnessing," however, seems to me to reduce our responsibility to the level of activity.  Now, I certainly admit that we need to be involved in acts of evangelism, but an overemphasis on activity can turn us into two-faced caricatures--Christian "actors" in the worst sense of the word.  On the other hand, an awareness that I am Christ's witness 24x7 should bolster an authenticity about me, and hopefully increase both the quality and quantity of my evangelistic activities.

I don't really know much about who this self-proclaimed atheist "Penn" is, but he gives a very stirring testimony below about the power of a loving, sincere witness.  People like Penn are clearly representative of "rocky soil," highly resistant to evangelistic methods.  They will likely never be reached effectively by people who merely "go witnessing."  

It strikes me also that Penn shared this testimony with his followers on YouTube, who are certainly highly resistant to the truth.  It's interesting how this unidentified witness' testimony has mutiplied exponentially through his simple and sincere act of love and obedience.



As a bonus, Penn also gives a rather shocking and surprising indictment of those of us who know the truth and don't "proselytize."  

Hat tip to  The Gypsy Road for digging this up!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Main Effort


I recently expressed my preference for the simplicity of small groups over administering a larger, more sophisticated ministry.  I'd like to illustrate why using an historical analogy.

My son and I volunteer regularly for the National Park Service at the Civil War battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The story of the Union fiasco that took place here is instructive for ministry leaders, as it illustrates the danger of allowing supporting activities to overwhelm a main effort, whether for an army or for a ministry.

In December 1862, newly appointed Union General Ambrose Burnside stole a march on Confederate General Robert E. Lee and moved his army south to Fredericksburg, intending to finally seize the initiative from his famously aggressive opponent.  Lee was able to dig in along the heights above Fredericksburg, however, when Burnside stalled north of the Rappahannock River, setting up a major confrontation.  

Once across the river, Burnside elected to attack the Confederate right flank, where Lee's supply depot at Hamilton's Crossing seemed to offer a potentially decisive point for his main effort.  Strangely, though, due to a confusing and still controversial sequence of orders and interpretations, Burnside's subordinate General William Franklin sent only two divisions against Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's entire entrenched corps.  Then, after this minimalist assault was driven back, Franklin seemed content to hold his line against the river.  

Meanwhile, as he waited in futility for Franklin's attacks to evolve, Burnside gradually fed six divisions into his supporting assault on Marye's Heights, where Lee held an impossibly strong defensive position, with his artillery on the high ground and his infantry behind a protective stone wall.  Thus did Burnside's supporting effort inexplicably morph into his main effort, resulting in over 12,600 Union casualties in an embarassingly ham-handed and lopsided defeat.

To me, this battle holds a cautionary analogy for the church.  As ministry organizations grow, they easily become weighed down and distracted by their growing support functions:  administration, event management, stage management, buildings and other property, meetings and more meetings ... you get the idea.  These become "must-pay" taxes on the ministry's limited resources:  time, money, energy, gifts, focus, etc.  It's distressingly common for evolving organizations to essentially forget why they exist (the mission and purpose we discussed last week) and become preoccupied with, obsessed with, and suffocated by supporting activities.

To quote a familiar adage:  The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.  It was true for General Burnside, and it is true for us in ministry.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

John MacArthur: The Real Story of Christmas

In case we should somehow forget, John MacArthur tells it like it is:

Merry Christmas from all of us at the Philippian Jailer!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

If Paul Had a Supervisor II: The Retraining Plan?

So Jailbreaker, are you saying that the "American supervisor" may have had in mind something like this to retrain Paul in the proper way to build a foundation?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

If Paul Had a Supervisor

Editor's note: The Jailbreaker is the Jailer's newest contributing author. As a missionary to Japan, I think you'll find his perspective quite refreshing, as he challenges some of our cultural assumptions. Welcome aboard Jailbreaker!

Several years ago, some colleagues and I did an extensive study of 1 Corinthians together. The vast majority of us were ministering in the “hard rocky soils” of Asia so we made it a point to meet each year in Malaysia to talk about the issues facing us on the field. Our intent was to go back to the Scriptures together with fresh eyes in order to gain insight, answers, and perspective on the issues we were facing as “practitioners” of the Gospel.

One of the things that stood out to me as I was preparing for our interaction that year was the thought, “If Paul had a Supervisor.” Not sure why that was on my mind, but I imagined Paul getting a visit on the field from his American supervisor and, after a little small talk, being asked the dreaded question: “How’s it going in Corinth?”

I imagined Paul, with the sharp, quick mind that he had, answering without hesitation that he "laid the foundation as an expert builder." However, knowing that most American supervisors are skeptical by nature and would find that answer a bit too vague, it was not hard to imagine the supervisor probing further in order to find out what was really going on in Corinth. As he pressed for more details, I can see Paul taking a deep breath and saying, “Well, to be honest, there are factions in Corinth. Some say they belong to Apollos, some say to Peter...

Not wanting to discourage Paul, the supervisor smiles, places his hand on Paul’s shoulder and gently urges him not to let it bother him, calmly assuring him that the factions will disappear over time if Paul stays on top of the issue. “But tell me, Paul, what else is going on in Corinth?”

“Well, to be honest, there are lawsuits between the believers...” comes the reply. Looking for a reaction, Paul notices a raised eyebrow on his supervisor’s face, but after telling him about all that he’s doing to deal with the issue, his supervisor quickly regains his composure and a warm, reassuring smile flashes across his face. "Is there anything else I should know?"

Though at this point I can’t quite imagine Paul gazing down at his feet like a sheepish schoolboy, Paul nonetheless dumps the truck and begins to tell all, revealing every bit of carnal behavior going on amongst the Corinthian believers. Slowly but surely the tension on his supervisor’s face grows as he listens to Paul outline issues of idolatry, immorality, indulgence, abuse of spiritual gifts, disrespect for leadership, selfishness, bad theology, and a whole host of other issues.

By this time the supervisor is not only in shock, he’s having some real doubts about Paul himself. Not just because Paul had a mess on his hands but because Paul had the audacity to claim that a "foundation" had been laid in Corinth. Chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm perhaps, but this Paul guy is seriously out of touch with reality. Maybe the supervisor is even thinking he made a mistake in sending Paul to Corinth in the first place. Who knows, but if Paul had a supervisor, it’s doubtful his "foundation" claim would be taken seriously in light of the mess on his hands.

Was Paul completely off his rocker or, in spite of the mess, was he seeing something not readily observable to most? If so, what was that “something” that led him to believe that a foundation had been laid for a movement of the Gospel in Corinth? Furthermore, when we think of “foundations” today, particularly in America, what do we usually think of? What insight can we gain from Paul’s understanding of “foundation laying” and what difference does that perspective make as we seek to advance the Gospel in our own communities?

By the way, my name is Bill ("Jailbreaker"), and the Jailer asked me to post from time to time. Since most of my Christian life has been lived outside America, my point of view is a bit different from most in the States and Jailer thought this additional perspective would be helpful to have on this blog. If you have any comments, fire away!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Purpose and Mission

I have been doing a good deal of thinking of late about the distinction between our purpose and our mission as the Body of Christ. It's an important distinction, I think:

The primary purpose of the Body of Christ is to glorify God. Everything we do must serve this purpose, or we are doing the wrong thing.

The Great Commission (and I propose therefore the primary mission) of the Body of Christ is to spread the gospel.

The distinction here is important. Our mission to preach the good news needs to guide our actions, but allows for activities that don't directly impact this mission. On the other hand, any activity that doesn't glorify God should be rejected.

To illustrate, in a military unit I may be given a particular mission (let's say, to secure and hold an urban area in a combat zone). My ultimate purpose is to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." I may participate in activities (eating, sleeping, training, morale building, etc.) that are more or less directly related to my mission. Moreover, there will be members of my unit (the chaplain, the medic, the cook ...) whose roles within the unit are more tangential to the mission than others (say, those of the infantryman, the intelligence analyst ...).

If I engage in activities that don't serve my overall purpose, I'm off course, even if they appear to serve the mission. For example, if I were to participate in a military coup, judging that a different civilian leadership would better serve my mission aims, I would be betraying my purpose for the sake of my mission.

In the same way, the church will engage in activities (worship, prayer, learning, acts of compassion ...) that may be more or less directly related to our primary mission of preaching the gospel to a lost and dying world. We also have members of the body whose particular gifts and talents (nurture, encouragement, teaching ...) tend to lend themselves toward these kinds of "support" activities, no less critical but less direct in their application to the mission of preaching the gospel to the lost.

If, however, in service of our primary mission, we sacrifice our purpose of glorifying God, we are off course ... we are sinning "for the sake of the gospel." For example, if a self-serving pastor seeks to grow a church in order to become wealthy and powerful, he sins. Though the gospel may still be preached and the lost saved, it is in spite of the pastor and not to his credit. In the same way, if the church were to depend on worldly methods (as opposed to trusting Christ) for the success of its ministry may seem to enjoy success, but because "everything that does not come from faith is sin," any glory to God is in spite of the church's actions, not because of them.

UPDATE: Please see the "Comments" for a great discussion on the definition of "mission", etc.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jesus in my "House" -- the published version

The Cypress Times has just published "Jesus in my 'House'". The usual invitation applies (comments, feedback, etc.)

By the way, you'll note that my published articles have a way of starting as blog posts. So do oaks grow from little acorns ... :0)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Small Groups -- Bang for your Buck

I am the business administrator for our little church. I love and hate the job.

I love it because I see opportunities to do things better and smarter, and I've found a way to use certain gifts to make an impact. I also love the people! Truly, this has been a wonderful church for us all around, and so on balance I must say I'm happy to administrate.

Still, part of me hates the position because I see how much of our corporate energy is spent taking care of things that really don't matter very much. Aside from just the business processes of the church (advertising, finances, legal issues, meetings, etc.), I'm thinking of the production side of preparing and stage-managing our church services. I get a close-up view of the effort that goes into putting on a good "show". Forgive me for the cynicism, but often it really feels like that. It's discouraging to see how much of our time can be spent on such things -- essentially "Martha" time when "Mary" time is what's important. And we're just a small church ...

This is where small groups really stand out to me--they're such efficient uses of our energy. The preparation that goes into them is very mild in comparison--and often focused on more important matters, such as time in the Word and prayer. Moreover, the soul-work tends to be so much deeper and more lasting; the encouragement is almost always more effective and permanent; and we are able to shed our over-reliance on worldly methods to achieve eternal goals.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hip-Pocket Materials: Psalm 73

It’s always a good idea to have a few standby topics in your hip pocket for when you don’t have much time to prepare. Psalm 73 is one of my favorite “hip pocket” texts for group devotionals. It’s nicely set up to generate great open discussion about some penetrating issues.

Read the whole Psalm together, but here are some suggestions on where to focus your discussion time.

The first half (vv. 1-14) describes a man frustrated with how the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous struggle. It opens with how the author’s feet had “almost slipped,” and culminates with:

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. (vv.13-14)
  • Questions: Have your feet ever “almost slipped” in this way? Can you associate with the Psalmist’s feeling of exasperation with this kind of injustice?

Then the Psalmist pivots, and brings up an crucial point:

If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children. (v.15)

  • Questions: Have you caught yourself bemoaning your circumstances against the success of people who don’t seem to deserve it? How does this kind of complaining “betray” the children of God?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God;then I understood their final destiny. (vv.16-17)

  • Question: How can entering the “sanctuary of God” alter your perspective on questions of injustice? (Job is a great example here.)

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. (vv. 21-22)

  • Questions: What kind of mindset is the Psalmist describing here? Has this ever been your mindset? What brought it on?

But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. (v.28)

  • Questions: How would you describe the Psalmist's outlook at the end of the Psalm? How was he able to move from his bitterness to this new attitude? (Hint: Go back to v.17 and following ...)

Spend a few minutes in Psalm 73 yourself, and let God lead you through some vital issues of the heart: discontenment, bitterness, complaining ... as well as joy, trust and the eternal perspective. Then consider how you might be able to use this as a baseline from which to lead your small group through some of the same issues.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Church as an NBA Game

Now this is funny! (Note: If satire offends you, please pass this by.)



Hat Tip: Irish Calvinist

Here I Am Lord (v1.1)

My latest Cypress Times article reprises my October 11th post on how God provides direction to our personal ministries through our gifts and through the circumstances He places us in. Kindly stop by, leave feedback, etc.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Andrea: Jesus at Work

Andrea was a faithful attendee at our weekly lunchtime “brown bag” devotionals at the Pentagon about 10 years ago. One day she drew me aside and asked if she could discuss her boss with me. The strain on her face told me much, but she quickly filled in the details. Their work relationship had deteriorated badly, to the point where she dreaded coming to work, and feared her next performance report might reflect the mutual animosity that had developed. We sat down in the conference room and talked about how she could focus on respecting and obeying him as her earthly authority, praying for him, and leaving the results to God. She wept a bit as we prayed together, and walked off with a refreshed sense of purpose.

Within just a couple of days a much happier Andrea pulled me aside to report that her new approach to her boss was already having an transformative effect. She’d just had a heart-to-heart with him, reassured him of her loyalty to him and to the team, and apologized for her recent prickliness. His response was almost instantaneous—like daylight breaking through the darkness. Not only did the atmosphere at work improve rapidly, she felt she’d recovered the quality of her witness for Christ.

A workplace small group can have a remarkable effect, whether it’s in a Bible study, prayer meeting or devotional format. Of course you have be sensitive when pulling one together, since there are ever opportunities to end up on the wrong side of various sensitivities and office rules. Still, it’s an exciting thing to have an active, praying, encouraging, network of believers shining the light and salting the earth at work.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

Every Supporting Ligament

In building a small group, please remember that you're not the only laborer in the field. You have friends and allies all around you ... if you take the time to look.

When I first arrived in California in 2001, I had a plan. There was a Navigators missionary at the base where I was going to be stationed. I'd had great experiences with the Navs, and I was excited to meet Willie and to get started. When I arrived, however, Willie seemed distant and ambivalent about getting together. Confused by this, I concluded God wanted me to move in another direction.

When the opportunity came along, I took over leadership of the local Officers Christian Fellowship ministry instead. God immediately provided a couple of great co-laborers, and things began to grow quickly. We also discovered Russ, a terrific chaplain we could really work with, and the ministry blossomed.

Then suddenly, Willie reappeared! I soon learned from him that he and his wife had been going through some very difficult medical issues, but now they were on the mend, and he was eager to reconnect and get back to work. Funny thing was, I had this new commitment to OCF. How was this going to work?

The answer is, of course, that God had all that figured out. The timing was perfect for a fusion ministry. I really needed someone to disciple some of the guys who were coming to our small groups, and Willie needed a place to get plugged back in. Together with Russ, we forged a truly exceptional team. I have wonderful memories of how God knit that body together and what He accomplished through us!

God didn't send us to compete with other Christian ministries. Rather, from him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16). Are you making the most of your supporting ligaments?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

By George: A Great Thanksgiving Story!

I just received a surprising Thanksgiving call ... one which really demonstrates what God can do even with the most inexperienced, unlikely, imperfect people.

Throughout my three years in the Philippines, several members of my Navigators singles group were involved with a neighborhood orphanage. When this orphanage went through hard times, our rag-tag collection of American and Filipino Christians (not one of us over 30 years old) got together and started a new orphanage. We prayed, appointed officers, filed the appropriate paperwork, hired one of our own as the Director, and took in the kids who had fled the old orphanage. The Christian Home of Joy for Children took form.

CHJC had a short and tumultuous lifespan. The Americans all left suddenly in 1991 following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. We argued far too much, planned far too little, missed many opportunities, and failed to follow through with what we'd started. Eventually, most of the kids melted away. Still, God worked through the faith and the faithfulness of those who remained behind, and of some of those who left.

And this brings me to George, who called me this morning.

As the other kids found other places to go and CHJC slowly evaporated, George remained with the Director's family. Under Helen's care he came to know an American missionary, who helped him track down his American father. His father sponsored him into the US, and today he is involved with a ministry in Savannah, Georgia, where he plays in the band and helps the pastor.

Forming CHJC was an impulsive decision by a young, inexperienced small group under extraordinary circumstances. Its brief existence revealed both our faith over the short term, and our immaturity over time. Yet even our weakness served to demonstrate God's strength, as George can testify today.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. (Psalm 100:4)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankful ... Here in America

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3-8)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Heart of an Encourager

A small-group leader is part teacher, part facilitator, part cat-herder ... but a very large part encourager. Among the most startling books I've read on the topic of encouragement is Larry Crabb and Dan Allender's, "Encouragement: The Key to Caring." What separates this book from the pack is that Crabb and Allender go to the heart of what keeps us from being truly good encouragers--our failure to understand the deepest needs and sinful patterns of both ourselves and those we seek to encourage.

Let's begin with one simple passage out of Genesis. After disobeying God by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam is hiding from God. When God seeks him out, Adam explains his actions: I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself. This simple statement reveals much about Adam's condition, and ours as well. The authors explain:
  1. I was afraid: Adam's core emotion
  2. because I was naked: his core motivation
  3. so I hid myself: his core strategy
We can draw much from this, because Adam is our father--when he fell, we fell with him. Adam's fear is ultimately our own. We fear that we are dying; that we are less than we pretend; that we will fail; that if people really knew us they would reject us; that ultimately, God will reject us because we are not worthy of acceptance. Down deep, fear permeates our inner core. We are afraid, because we are naked.

Adam's nakedness was not a problem until he sinned. God's response is telling: Who told you that you were naked? Adam had no reason for fear until he rebelled. Now suddenly, his nakedness was evident because he stood before God covered in sin. In the same way, we fear to really confront what is deep within us, because to do so would force us to confess our fundamental flaws: What a wretched man I am! And then what if others really knew us? We dare not find out, and so we hide ourselves.

Each of us hides behind different cloaks (or "layers", as the authors say)--the man who is the life of the party is not necessarily hiding less than he who is quiet and reserved. We all find strategies that work for us, so that we find some comfort zone in which we can operate. The problem is, these strategies only mask our core fear of being discovered for being less than we pretend.

The solution is the perfect love that drives out fear. God's unconditional love frees us from the bondage of our fear and gives us the confidence to reach out to encourage others. To the extent that we are open before Him (a lifelong process), and to the extent that He is our true hope and confidence--our streams of living water--we find ourselves able to encourage others. To the extent that we seek to satisfy our deepest needs for love, acceptance and significance in broken cisterns such as man's respect, career success, financial freedom, human intimacy, etc., we deal with our core problem with foolish, sinful, idolotrous strategies.

Encouragement involves a heart of love speaking directly to another's heart of fear. This involves time, patience, commitment, caring ... but before any of this it requires the encourager to have confidence before God. To the extent that I remain fearful, hiding behind self-protective layers, I cannot possibly encourage other fearful, self-protective souls in any deeply meaningful way.

Read the whole book!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Joy of Small Groups

Fort Leavenworth Addendum

With respect to my previous post, I should note that the Fort Leavenworth ministry is one of many military ministries that have been singled out for legal action and public outcry by extreme church-state separationists. While I favor a healthy degree of separation--history teaches us that holding temporal power has a corrupting influence on the church--the efforts of these well-funded and influential groups to completely stamp out any vestige of religion from the public square are clearly unhinged from reality and way over the top.

Please pray for Fort Leavenworth and for all Christians in the military, as this issue has been brewing for some time and has the potential to effectively eviscerate the military chaplaincy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pushing the Limits at Fort Leavenworth

The small groups at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, are the stuff of legend. Every year, Tom Schmidt stands at the "Chapel" table in the processing lines to greet every new student at Command and General Staff College. He offers every one of these 1,000+ mid-career officers the opportunity to host a small-group Bible study as they enter their 10-month courses. Yes, every one. This leads to a lot of rejections, but enough of them say "yes" so that there are 40-50 small groups formed every year.

Tom has learned that you can do a lot with a little willingness to try. All he asks is that each one get a little bit of training and show a little initiative, and then let the Holy Spirit take over from there. Many (if not most) of his volunteers have virtually no experience leading small groups. Some aren't even Christians! But every year they see people come to Christ, deepen their commitments, refresh their marriages, and blossom into their God-given potential. Just by saying "yes" to Tom, and to God.

Because this is staff college, each year these officers graduate and go on to new assignments--many into combat zones. Tom holds "commissioning" ceremonies each year, where these officers are sent out, accepting the challenge to put what they learned at Fort Leavenworth into practice out in the "field", starting and leading new small groups all over the world.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wolves Among the Sheep

During my time in the Philippines, the Navigators military singles' ministry I was involved with suffered through a very tough period. A new church sprang up in the area, with a very aggressive pastor who preached a highly legalistic message. Several of our singles were soon hooked by his charasmatic style and firey sermons. Excited to be part of exciting, and eager to spread the new "knowledge" they were picking up, they soon became a real problem for our ministry team. We recognized this church's teachings as being false, divisive and destructive to the cause of the gospel.

I vividly remember a conversation with Sandy, one of our flock, who extolled her new pastor's virtues: "He quotes Scripture and speaks with authority!"

Most small-group leaders who've been at it for any length of time have experiences like this, where members of the group come in contact with false or controversial doctrine. During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned of false prophets, whom he characterized as "ferocious wolves" who will come in "sheep's clothing." Defending the sheep under your care against the wolves takes wisdom, watchfulness, and some patience.

1. Watch and pray. An important part of your job as leader is to keep your eyes open for false doctrine and heresy, and to bathe your group in prayer at all times.

2. Grow in grace and knowlege. Only by understanding true doctrine can you hope to recongnize what is heresy, what is controversial, and what is merely a difference of opinion about a debatable matter. Spend time in the Word and put yourself under good, challenging teaching, and learn where you can turn when you're faced with a stumper.

3. Don't shoot the sheep! Sandy wasn't a wolf herself--she was the wolf's prey. She followed him out of ignorance, not malice, and eventually escaped and made her way back to the flock. How would it have served her (or the gospel) to have made her out to be the enemy? Instead, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak ..."

4. Embrace diversity. Face it, some matters are disputable. Casting yourself as the group's only and final authority on all doctrine is tedious, even dangerous. You'll stifle conversation, start unnecessary arguments, and lose track of what's really important. Oh, and sometimes you might even be wrong! Often the best course is to let the conversation flow and provide gentle nudges by introducing Scriputure that better informs the discussion.

5. Some infections have to be cut out. When truly heretical doctrine comes up that undermines the central doctrines of the faith, you'll need to correct it gently but directly. Moreover, there will occasionally be wolves among the sheep, or sheep who appear to grow fangs. In those cases, you may need to ask certain people not to discuss certain matters, or in extreme cases to stop coming altogether.

Sandy's church ran wild in our community for a time, but soon its zeal for converts, hostility toward any "competing" church, and general obnoxiousness began to wear thin. The church began to lose members almost as fast as it had grown, and the pastor was soon embroiled in scandals of various kinds. Some of our group's former members, including Sandy, made their way back to us, and we received them back with tears of joy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Post-Election Special - Psalm 146

I have facilitated small group studies of many different cultural makeups, and in many different political environments. Some of the most memorable were in 1998 during the Clinton impeachment, when sympathies in my workplace study ran about 50-50 for and against. Political issues can be an ugly place to go, but there is a way to hold a productive and uplifting small group discussion, as long as the leader comes prepared to keep the group focused on the big picture (gird up thy loins, thou small group leader!). For this week, I recommend Psalm 146:

Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD, O my soul.
I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—the LORD, who remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free,
the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The LORD reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD.


Regardless whether your group members are elated or depressed over this year's election results, the theme of this study is that we must resist the temptation to either idolotry or despair. Instead, we trust and rejoice in our God who reigns.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Confidence Before God: The Three Tests of 1 John

My old friend Daisy writes in with some extra context and wonderful encouragement (see the second comment on the 14 October "Daisy" post). She recalls a talk I gave almost 20 years ago at a youth event where I challenged the kids to examine the reality of their faith. The subject was 1 John, in which I suggested three "tests" that John repeatedly lays down by which we should examine whether our faith is genuine. It makes for a great small-group study or large-group lecture.

The message is perhaps best introduced with 3:21-24: "Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us."

We learn from this that God's Spirit gives us confidence to know we are His, as we believe in Jesus Christ, obey his commands, and love one another. We can further break this down as follows:

There are many ways to lead people through this, but one of my favorites is to simply read them through sequentially through 1 John. For example, I read 1:5-6, then say "let's remember this point by calling this the 'moral test' of our faith." When I get to 2:3-6, I say, "what did we call that test?" I then introduce the 'social test' in 2:9-11, and then on throughout the book. (Hat Tip: I learned this technique from Nels "Bud" Nelson, who discipled me while he was the Navigators missionary at Clark Air Base, Philippines in the late 1980s).

Once you've driven home the point that John is really serious about this by going through the passages above, you can then sum up the challenge and promise of the three tests with 5:1-5: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. "

One final note--John is not preaching legalism nor perfectionism (see 1:8-10). But he is saying that if Christ saves me and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in my heart, it will certainly reflect in my life. If not, like Daisy, I'll need to ask myself some hard questions before God!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Encouragement Practice

One very simple technique I have used to good effect at points over the past 20+ years for building group intimacy is a practical exercise in encouraging one another. This works with a relatively stable group in a closed setting. It would be awkward in a coffee shop, as you'll see.

It begins with a verse or two on encouraging one another, such as Hebrews 3:12-13 or Ephesians 4:29, and an explanation that we're going to practice this type of encouragement in a verbal way. Then on to the ground rules:
  • The leader will introduce an object into "play". In the past, I've used stuffed animals, balls and candles.
  • The leader will pick another person in the room and begin to describe that person's gifts, talents, attributes, and especially personal stories about how that person has been an encouragement to others. The important thing is to use words that are "helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
  • Once the leader has finished describing a person, he or she passes the object to the person just described. It is now that person's turn.

From here, the leader's job is to enjoy the uplifting time together, and to make an effort to involve everyone as the object makes its way around.

A couple of variations I've used include keeping the name of the person being described secret until the object is passed. This can add an element of fun. Also, in certain circumstances I've simplified the matter by drawing names out of a hat and passing them around, as each person describes the person whose name is on the paper. This ensures equal treatment, but you have to be committed to see it all the way through.

I've used this exercise with groups varying from under 10 to over 30 people, including military officers, youth groups, Bible studies ... and once in a secular setting with the "letter girls" from the band where I attended high school (really, they were fighting like cats before the exercise, and the transformation in their attitudes after the exercise was stunning)!

Friday, October 24, 2008

On Those Who Are Not Against You

Many of my readers are likely to be in the military, as that is also my calling. Others may work in hospitals or other places where you are served by chaplains. Chaplains, we find, come in all shapes and sizes. Many will be strong and Biblical Christians, while others may be non-Christians, or something in between and frustratingly difficult to pin down. The question of how to interact with such chaplains is a constant topic for discussion for those of us in military ministries. In general (and within reasonable limits), I believe in working with them to the extent that it advances the gospel, regardless of their theology. Allow me to illustrate with a personal example:

During my basic officer training, I held the position of Chaplain's Representative (or "Chappie"), meaning that I was the liaison between the actual military chaplain's office and the trainees. By this I was able to assemble a weekly small group for busy trainees. We called it "Time-Bust Prayer Time" to accentuate that we would keep it brief because we knew what pressure everyone was under.

Now for the hard part ... our chaplain, I soon learned, was a member of a non-Christian cult, but classified and assigned to us as "Protestant" by the military. What to do? After all, Christ said, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (Luke 11:23) How could I work alongside one who is working against my Lord?

I did so, in short, by turning back two chapters in Luke: "... whoever is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:50b) Notice the contrast--one may be against Christ, but not against you--he or she may in fact be a useful ally in your mission! This chaplain was a bearer of a false gospel, but he was also providing me the avenue by which I could minister the true gospel to my fellow trainees.

I mentioned reasonable limits. At no time did our chaplain attempt to influence or dictate the subject matter of our weekly prayer meetings. You may be amazed to learn that I attended his services, which took place on Sunday mornings at the only "General Protestant" service on our little installation. His sermons were bland and empty, but they were not overtly heretical, and those I wished to reach were there (most having no clue of his theology, as he gave little away). Had he openly preached heresy, I would have certainly drawn the line, as my participation would have implied my agreement, and would moreover have caused my brothers and sisters to stumble. Thankfully it never came to that point.

There will be those among you who object to my choice of tactics here, to which I can only appeal to Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. This for me was "food sacrificed to idols" and caused no one (to my knowledge) to stumble. Rather, I made the decision to use the avenue available to me to reach those I was called to reach, and was able to reach and encourage many in the faith.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reading Through the Bible

If you have a relatively stable, committed group, try a Bible-reading challenge! The New Year is the time to start something like this. Here are some guidelines I generally put out:

1. Count the cost. Reading through Scripture is a great objective, but the time will come from somewhere. Be ready to commit.
2. Remember this is a Bible survey, not an in-depth study. The key is to keep moving. Feel free to skim the genealogies, for example.
3. Don't solve every theological conundrum. You're going to encounter lots of new material. Don't get bogged down every time you don't understand something, or you'll probably never finish. Just file it away as something you'd like to learn more about, and perhaps bring it to the group when you meet for discussion.
4. Link arms. The temptation to quit will be strong, especially if you fall behind. You'll need your group to stick together to keep everyone moving.
5. Don't overwhelm your group if they're not all on board. This is not for everyone nor every small group. There may be many reasons why people can't or won't commit to this. You'll need to either meet separately with those who choose to take the challenge, or be very creative with keeping the others involved without making them feel guilty.

You don't necessarily need to start in Genesis and plow through to Revelation. There are plenty of published plans available. Discipleship Journal has a number of good plans available for a fee, or there are some older ones available for free in the public domain (I've generally used this). The One Year Bible also has some free options.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Jesus in My "House"

Try this as a discussion starter--I got this idea originally from one of the episodes in the Living Proof: Discipleship video series put out by Christian Businessmen's Committee. It goes like this:

Jesus stood at the door to my house and knocked. I opened the door and he came in to eat with me. (Revelation 3:20) I was happy to receive him, but anxious about the state of my house. What would He do when He discovered what a bloody mess it was?

To my joy and surprise, He not only loved me in spite of the mess, He began to help me clean it up. For a while we cleaned together, but eventually I became tired. I wanted Him to take a break. Things were looking pretty good, at least in the living room! But Jesus wasn't interested in popping a Coke and watching TV on the couch. Instead, he pulled out the sofa and told me to get the vacuum.

As the living room began to sparkle, I started to feel pretty proud of myself. In fact, I started to look down on my neighbors, still sitting around in piles of pizza boxes and dirty socks. I remarked on this out loud, but He said, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" Oh.

With the living room looking fairly neat, Jesus moved on to my kitchen. He didn't seem surprised at my appetites, but that didn't reduce my embarrassment! Just having Him there made me aware of how I was filling myself with way too much spiritual junk-food. He started on the dishes while I got busy throwing out the Twinkies.

After a while, I tried to encourage Him to relax, but He said, "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!" He certainly has a way with words. I had to look up "sluggard", but I was pretty sure it meant we weren't going to catching my show at 8:00.

This process of going from room to room and cleaning out the dark corners has continued for as long as I've known Him. It's been harder than I thought at first, though I must say it's been wonderful also, knowing that He really takes joy in our journey together.

From time to time I've tried to lock him out of certain rooms, but He's been more than willing to kick down the door or punch a hole through the wall (He's very committed to this process). At other times He's had to replace large parts of my foundation. Those have been very painful times, and yet I've come to see how they were also so very necessary and good. Still, I don't look forward to them, and there are rooms I really wish he'd steer clear of.

But in a deeper place, I wish something else: "Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." And so I know that this process will never end while I yet live in this house, until I reach the perfect mansion He has prepared for me.

Gregg

Gregg was a fence-sitter, and a source of frustration to me as a young believer full of enthusiasm (and perhaps a bit full of myself). He was a co-worker and a good friend, but he would stick his toe in and out of the Bible study I'd repeatedly invite him to. I tried gentle persuasion and muscular confrontation, but when he left the Philippines I felt in some ways no further along with him than when we'd started. It's a good thing I wasn't in charge.

A couple of years later, I called him up in Hawaii from my station in Okinawa, just to see how he was doing. When he realized who I was, he exclaimed, "Praise God!" I balked ... was this the right Gregg?

Praise God indeed! He had done His work in His time. I was not present at Gregg's conversion, but I'd played my assigned part in sowing seeds, and would continue to play my part in being Gregg's friend. God brought us back together repeatedly through the years, and he remains one of my dearest brothers.

He also remains a silent reminder to me that my God is mighty to save--and I'm not.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gary

Gary was a difficult case for a small-group leader to figure out. When he started attending our military devotional group during a recent Middle East deployment, he wore a very critical demeanor. He was faithful, but his arms seemed to be always folded over his chest, and he wore an intimidating scowl. Another participant once said to him, "I think I've only ever seen you smile, like, once." Gary replied, "That was a grimace."

Still, he seemed to have a solid understanding of the gospel ... so I asked him to lead. In fact, I asked him to organize the devotional for the rest of his time in the desert, while I turned my attention to a couple of other groups that were meeting at the same time. Incredibly, he took to it like a duck to water. His devotionals were interesting, insightful and encouraging. People looked forward to them and attendance steadily grew as we filled up the back of the little coffee shop we used. God used him powerfully.

Before Gary left, he opened up to the group in an amazing confession. He said he had been angry with God over some of the things that had happened to him professionally in the recent past. Leading the devotional was exactly what he'd needed to restore his perspective and refresh his spirit. It was a display of emotion and openness that took us all by surprise, and blessed me tremendously.

Gary was not a devotional leader out of central casting. Instead, he was the example of God bringing together a need, an opportunity, and a gift in His perfect way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Patrick

My dear friend Patrick has become my first "inmate" (a blog follower ... see link along the right-hand side). This gives me the opportunity to tell a great story about him. I remember while we were stationed in Okinawa in the mid-1990s, Japan, Patrick was a close family friend and participated in a Bible study I led on the book of Romans. Patrick was a fairly new Christian, and would get visibly excited about some of the basic truths of our calling, election and salvation in Christ. I distinctly remember being very moved by his response, and thanking him for reminding the rest of us "old heads" that this stuff is supposed to be exciting!

The longer I walk with Christ, the more I need new Christians to remind me of the joy that comes with salvation.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Daisy

My first group leadership "assignment" was in a church youth group when I was just 18 years old. Looking back, it truly seemed like the blind was leading the blind, but it's really astonishing what God can do with very little (humanly speaking)! Years later, I saw Daisy, one of my "kids", at a wedding. She stunned me by introducing me to a friend of hers as "the one who set me on fire for the Lord." This was news to me, and a testament to God's faithfulness to work through a willing heart, even if it's connected to an incompetent brain. Be encouraged--sometimes progress is imperceptible, but it doesn't make it insignificant! I have other stories like this one, which I'll share from time to time.

It's also testament to the wisdom of my pastor, Allen Moran, who saw an opportunity to disciple me as well as launch a youth program. Likewise, be on the lookout for opportunities to hand the baton (even for a week) over to someone who could use the chance to spread his or her wings ...

Update (28 Oct):  Daisy writes in (the following was "promoted" from the "Comments" section):
[Jailer], you impacted my Christian life in many ways, between introducing me to "hip" Christian music like Michael W. Smith to sharing your own spiritual journey. I remember you speaking one evening at church and telling us about a mission trip you went on. You said that someone asked you "if you died today, do you know for certain that you will go to heaven?" You said that you had to think about it at first, but then knew for sure that you believe in God, therefore you will go to heaven when you die. It impacted me so strongly. I didn't know if I would go to heaven at the time you spoke to us if I died. Even thought I was raised attending church all of my life,I had so many questions. I spent so much time in church timing the long pastoral prayers, drawing, daydreaming, and counting the wooden knots in the roof. I didn't understand whatever was being said by the pastor. Your words made a lot more sense to me. I know now for certain that I am going to heaven when I die!  -Daisy
Daisy, you made my day (week/month/year)! Thanks for the encouraging words. :)  Jailer

The Greening of a Discussion Leader

The first article I remember reading that really had an impact on my group leadership was "The Greening of a Discussion Leader", an extract in Christianity Today from a 1982 InterVarsity Press book called Getting Together. It explains how to use open-ended questions to generate deeper, more meaningful discussion and reduce the tension in a group. My favorite advice comes right at the end, though: you don't need to wrap up a discussion! "The whole purpose of the discussion was to stimulate. You'd much rather see people walk out of the room arguing, churning with things yet to say, bothered by ideas they've heard. The best way to accomplish this is to simply cut off while things are going well." Read the whole article.

Monday, October 13, 2008

More Tips for Starting New Groups

Starting out is a very unpredictable period in the development of a fellowship group. A few pointers can help reduce the anxiety:
  1. First, remember it's God's business. You're the foot soldier, not the commander. Let Him worry about the results. I remember once feeling intensely guilty about not being able to make a particular Bible study I'd organized. Leaving it to one of my brothers, God turned out an amazing number of people that week, in part (I believe) to remind me who's running things.
  2. Find a reliable partner. Having at least one other reliable brother or sister committed to the vision is priceless. Last year I started a devotional group in the Pentagon, but it struggled early and I had to sideline it for a few months until God brought me Marc to come alongside and share the load. I took Marc's arrival as God's go-ahead to move forward, and then watched Him bring along Lisa, Bill, Laura, etc.
  3. Don't stress over the lean days. What if you're the only one to show up to your breakfast devotional? Drink a cup of coffee, eat a donut and enjoy a private time with God! If He brings only one person, then He's scheduled that time for you to get to know that person (see #1 above). Next week you may have half dozen show up and surprise you.
  4. Use just-in-time advertising. I try to send out a reminder to my e-mail list with the 5 Ws (who-what-where-why-when) before every meeting. I learn the best times for this (mid-afternoon before an evening affair or before a breakfast devotional the next day, mid-morning for a lunch meeting, etc.)
  5. Keep some hip-pocket material, either for yourself or to give to the other week-by-week leaders. You never know when you'll need something if Plan A falls through. Part of the purpose of this blog is to give you some resources.
  6. Don't get locked into your original plan. Sometimes you can forget why you started meeting on Wednesdays at noon, or you can miss the importance of the 3 guys from the same office who've been showing up (maybe it's time to start another group in or closer to that office). Watch for opportunities to follow where God's going next. If the pillar of cloud moves, be ready to pull up your tent. Go back and see my post "Here I Am, Lord ... Now What?" for a reminder of how to look for God's leading.

ACTS, Popcorn and Psalms: More Hints on Prayer

A friend in California recently reminded me of a very helpful tool in teaching and practicing a balanced prayer life. You'll recall I mentioned the Navs' "Hand" illustration below, but the "ACTS" acrostic is what I learned first and still use: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. What I've really come to appreciate about both tools is the reminder to begin with adoration (or praise), recognizing and honoring God for who He is, which is something distinct from thanking Him for what He has done.

Another favorite technique for group prayer, when time and environment permit, is what's commonly called conversational (or "popcorn") prayer. This method recognizes that corporate prayer can easily devolve into a series of individual prayers, where the "experienced" pray-ers dominate with long, eloquent, or fervent soliloquies while the newer, more timid or just more reserved participants keep silent (or spend most of the prayer time trying to compose an acceptable prayer, hoping to sound competent or at least not foolish). Popcorn prayer begins with a couple of simple ground rules:
  • No prayers over 2 sentences
  • When someone is praying out loud, we're all praying
  • Try to build on one anothers' prayers

Warning: if you bring this into an established group, it will take some getting used to. Some people have never prayed this way, and find it difficult to stop themselves after 2 sentences.

We've even used this quite a bit at home and have discovered our kids open up much more using this kind of open-ended model.

A couple of final notes: First, just to clarify, a devotional setting in a food court or a bowling alley is seldom conducive to this kind of interaction. Second, depending on your group dynamics, you may find it convenient to skip the "prayer request" time when you use the popcorn method, and simply invite people to lift their requests straight up to God ... after all, you're all praying together!

ACTS and popcorn prayer can be used in tandem, with the leader providing the transition from phase to phase. Begin with the leader explaining that you'll begin with adoration, and then at intervals announcing the transition to the next phase (i.e., "Confession!").

Finally, I'm a fan of praying the Scriptures. Psalms are perfect for this, of course, though there are others that can be used. I like to open or close a prayer time with a prayer directly from Scripture.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More on Scripture-Reading Pitfalls and Strategies

If you've had a chance to read my article on John 9, you know I believe it's critical that we know (and help others learn) how to read our Bibles. This is a great topic for discussion in your local group.

When you read the book of Job, you get to meet Job's friends Bildad, Zophar and Eliphaz. Though Job was God's #1 example of devotion to Him, these three set forth to rebuke Job for what they assumed were his misdeeds -- after all, isn't everyone who suffers guilty of sin? They were familiar with God's law, but were themselves rebuked by God for their ignorance and self-righteousness.

Their example illuminates how careless interpretation of Scripture can lead us far astray. Let's start by examining some of the Bible study pitfalls:

  • Bias – "I'm a _____, and we believe that ..." Once you decide that anything God pours out must fit within the container of your identity, you've lost the opportunity to be open to God's teaching. (John 5:37-40, Acts 15:1-35)
  • Fear – "What if I discover something that upsets my comfortable belief system?" You must believe that God's Spirit will faithfully guide you, and that His truth can withstand some hard questions. (John 16:13, James 1:5-8)
  • Impatience – Beware of jumping to conclusions about what Scripture means when it doesn't seem to "fit" within your current understanding -- this is the birthplace of much bad theology. Remember that we yet see and know "in part". (1 Cor 13:12)
  • Arrogance – The idea that my knowledge is complete, and that I can thoroughly explain the mind of God is both sinful and foolish. (Rom 9:20 & 11:33-35, Pr 26:12)
  • Laziness - All of us are guilty of this to some extent, simply by not taking the time to understand God's Word. (Heb 5:12-14)
  • Intellectualizing – Exchanging true communion with the living God for mere head knowledge is a particular danger for those of us who teach! (James 1:22-25, )

We can then talk about some Bible-reading habits we should adopt to avoid these pitfalls?

  • Engage with God – This is an interaction with the Alpha and the Omega -- ask Him to teach you. (Pr 2:1-6, Heb 4:12)
  • Observe – Before you decide what it means, ask: “What does the passage actually say?”
  • Contextualize - Could you separate and randomly scramble all the individual verses in the Bible and not change the meaning? Of course not! That's because the context really does matter!
  • Correlate – Use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Find out what else the Bible has to say about the subject.
  • Interpret – Yes, of course we do this ... but this is much later in the process than usual for most of us in most cases. The problem is not that we don't interpret, it's that we interpret too carelessly.
  • Cross-check – God gave us one another for a reason ... so what do other believers I trust think this means?
  • Apply – Ask God, “What should I do with this information you just gave me?" Then do it.
  • Wait expectantly for more – Sometimes the best response to a confusing passage is, "Please reveal this to me in Your time, Lord." I'm constantly amazed at how a passage will take on a completely new meaning to me many years after I first encountered it.

Resources at the Ready

If you're just starting out, or just want to have some good discussion-oriented resources in your hip pocket, you might want to consider some of the Navigators' illustrations. Some of these, like the Bridge, the Wheel the Hand have been around for decades, but are still very relevant and great conversation starters. Also, if you pass the Devotional leadership torch around weekly, you can hand this to a hesitant participant and ask him to lead a discussion on this subject.

Follow the links to the Navs' site for printable worksheets.

Tactics: Starting Somewhere

One of my favorite tactics for start-ups is to begin with an "anchor ministry" -- something that's relatively easy to maintain and helps identify teammates. I like a devotional format for this for several reasons:
  • It's easy. All I need to lead a devotional is a verse that means something to me. Once I'm done explaining what it means to me, I'll ask a simple open-ended opinion question like, "what do you guys think?" or "has this ever happened to you?" After that I just keep the discussion moving.
  • It's flexible. I've had small-group devotionals in coffee shops, food courts, bowling alleys, conference rooms ... whatever's accessible (and preferably has food/coffee available).
  • It's fast. You can schedule it before work, during lunch, etc. People can come late, leave early, or drop in. I make it a point to spend no more than 30-40 minutes per devotional. If you consistently go long, many people won't come because they "don't have time".
  • It's transferrable. Whenever possible, I pass the leadership torch around from week to week. Besides distributing the labor and introducing some really interesting material, it gets people involved and committed to the group.

Devotionals are especially good for workplace fellowships, which is another topic for later ...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Here I Am, Lord ... Now What?

"Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen." (Nehemiah 9:19-21)

You'll recall from my previous post that asking God to reveal His will, then following His leading is the way to make sure of His blessing, just as the Israelites above were assured of manna and water for as long as they continued to follow the pillar of cloud. Still, absent a fiery pillar in the desert, understanding what He is saying can seem overwhelming. The "Discover" part requires us to examine the circumstances He has carefully arranged for us. Consider the Apostle Paul's circumstances:

"Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16:6-10)

Paul and his companions were gifted evangelists who were commissioned and sent on a mission. When they reached the border of Mysia, they found they could not travel where they assumed they were to go, but instead followed God in another direction, where He greatly blessed their work.

Likewise, God provides us with gifts and talents with which to meet the needs and opportunities He’s placed before us. He makes resources available to us but also places constraints on our service to guide us to where and how He wants us to minister. Think of it like this:

Paying attention to where the circles intersect helps us understand how He is arranging the terms of our service. The dashed lines around the circles remind us that our understanding of our abilities and circumstances may be selling God short--like Moses or Gideon we need to exercise faith in what God can do beyond our apparent limits.

As a starting place toward better understanding the context of God’s direction for your ministry, conduct your own, personal inventory:
  • What gifts & talents do you believe God has equipped you personally, or in the form of your ministry partners, if you have them? (Hint: These are generally areas in which God has given you a special passion and ability. If you're not sure, consider those listed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 as a starting place. We'll talk more about gifts and talents in a later post.)
  • What particular resources has God has supplied you with? (Consider time, money, relationships, material goods, home or access to facilities, health, mobility, family situation, etc.)
  • What constraints has God placed on your capabilities and resources?
  • What special needs and opportunities is God drawing your attention to?
Use this as a way to organize your prayer time. Commit the above questions and answers to prayer and begin a discussion with God. Ask Him to reveal how He has equipped you and for what purpose.

Pray, Discover and Obey

This blog begins with the premise that there is are local leaders out there ready to be commissioned--some have already got started, while others are waiting for something, such as a position to come open or the mysterious "word from the Lord". Once we do get started, we generally try to apply some boilerplate method that we've used or seen used before, or some materials we like. Then we strike out, praying and hoping that God will bless our efforts.

Officers Christian Fellowship turned me on to the very different concept of the Pray, Discover & Obey method of finding out what God wants me to do. It's not really such an novel new idea, but it's remarkable how few of us ever try it: first ask God what He wants you to do, then let Him tell you, then do it. When we follow God instead of leading Him, the blessings come naturally. Check it out!

What's this all about?

Over the past 20+ years, I've had the joy of leading small-group fellowships of many types and in many places: Bible studies, devotionals, workplace gatherings, Sunday school, special projects ... you get the idea! Now I'd like to pass along a few things God has shown me during that time, and invite you to share your thoughts and ideas as well. Perhaps between us we can encourage others to step out boldly and take the lead where they live and work.