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Small groups do big things

“Thought should be given to a more extensive use of the Word of God among us.”

With that declaration, Philip Jacob Spener launched into a list of proposals he believed would reform the church. The book, Pia Desideria (“Pious Desires”), was published in 1675 and inaugurated a movement in Germany called Pietism. A “more extensive use of the Word of God” was the first of six proposals from Spener for revitalizing the church, and the one he considered the chief means for church renewal.

For Spener, a more extensive use of the Word of God meant three things …

  • families reading the Bible everyday in the home;
  • pastors reading and preaching through entire books of the Bible one after another; and
  • groups within the church meeting informally for the purpose of studying and discussing God’s Word.

Consider that last one—groups meeting for the purpose of doing Bible study. That was an unusual and revolutionary idea in the 1600s. To us, small group Bible study sounds anything but revolutionary. After all, is there anything more old school than … Sunday School?

We like new. What church leader hasn’t heard of a new strategy that worked somewhere else and wanted to imitate it? New isn’t necessarily a bad thing; new can be good; new may sometimes serve to move the church forward. What we most need, however, for moving the church forward is to stop and look backward.

This is what God said through Jeremiah: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV)

The ancient path is “where the good way is.” The ancient path represents God’s way. God’s way is always the right way; God’s way always works; and God has always worked through His Word. A more extensive use of the Word of God has always been God’s means of reforming His people.

When small groups, regardless of what you call them in your church—Sunday School, LIFE groups, whatever—gather to study the Word of God, big things happen …

Small groups make disciples

Jesus prayed on behalf of His disciples in John 17:17, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth” (HCSB). The sanctification of believers, for which Jesus prayed, takes place by the Word of God.

I’m not suggesting that Bible study brings instant results—the process of sanctification takes time—but God uses Bible teaching to accomplish His purpose in us. Without significant and consistent participation in the study of God’s Word, growth in discipleship will not happen (1 Pet. 2:2).

Small groups build community.

Julie Gorman reminds us why we need Christian community: “Intentionally putting yourself in a place where you are together with other believers in a committed relationship is a discipline that allows you to live out the reality of [God’s] ways and remain open to the transforming work of the Spirit. Being with others will bring out areas needing transformation in us and give us opportunity to live the truth that God reveals to us.” (Community That Is Christian)

Community happens in circles, not in rows. Life changing community happens when we circle around the Word of God.

Small groups impact culture.

When small groups are viewed not just as another program of the church but with a missionary mentality, big things can happen. Groups circled around the Word of God live out that truth and reach out to people far from God.

Small group Bible study transforms individuals who, in community, impact their world.

Spener got this right—an extensive use of the Word of God is what the church needs. We don’t have to keep coming up with something new, we need to make use of what God has promised to bless—His Word. Let’s circle around God’s Word and let it do its work.

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The heresy of worshiptainment

The great heresy of the church today is that we think we’re in the entertainment business. A.W. Tozer believed this to be true back in the 1950s and 60s. Church members “want to be entertained while they are edified.” He said that in 1962. Tozer grieved, even then, that it was “scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction was God.”*

More recently, David Platt has asked: “What if we take away the cool music and the cushioned chairs? What if the screens are gone and the stage is no longer decorated? What if the air conditioning is off and the comforts are removed? Would His Word still be enough for his people to come together?” (Radical)

Would it be enough?

Tozer got it right: “Heresy of method may be as deadly as heresy of message.”

HALLOWEDNESS, NOT SHALLOWNESS

Like Tozer, we should be concerned that so many people in our churches want to be entertained while they worship. We should be concerned when we no longer recognize the difference between the two. And we should be concerned by the growing belief that adding more entertainment value to worship is necessary for the church to accomplish its mission.

I may stand alone, but it grieves me when I see worship services characterized more by props, performances, and pep rally atmospheres than by any sense of divine sacredness; and hallowedness giving way to shallowness.

This is not about worship styles. The issue is not traditional versus contemporary versus blended worship. It’s not about organ versus worship band. That discussion misses the point completely. This is about the heart and focus and intent of worship. The real issues, for me, are these:

1. Who or what is the spotlight really on?
If the figurative spotlight in our church services is on anyone other than God, it is not worship. If the spotlight shines brighter on human performance than on the gospel of Christ, it is not worship. If anyone other than Jesus is receiving our adulation and applause, it is not God we worship.

2. What message are we communicating?
The message of the church—the message the world needs to hear from us—is not, “Come and have a good time,” “Come and be entertained,” or “Come and find your best life now.”

Tozer said: “Christ calls men to carry a cross; we call them to have fun in His name.”

The message of the church is the message of the cross. Lest we forget, Jesus’ cross was a source of entertainment only for those who mocked Him as He hung on it.

3. How are lives changed?
“But our methods are attracting and winning people!” some will say.

Tozer addressed that sentiment: “Winning them to what? To true discipleship? To cross-carrying? To self-denial? To separation from the world? To crucifixion of the flesh? To holy living? To nobility of character? To a despising of the world’s treasures? To hard self-discipline? To love for God? To total committal to Christ?”

THE WORD DOES THE WORK

David Platt and the church he pastored, The Church at Brook Hills, decided to try to answer the question, “Is His Word still enough for His people to come together?” They stripped away the entertainment value and invited people to come simply to study God’s Word. They called it Secret Church. They set a date—on a Friday night—when they would gather from 6:00 in the evening until midnight, and for six hours they would do nothing but study God’s Word and pray. People came. A thousand people came the first time and it grew from that. Soon, they had to start taking reservations because the church was packed full. Secret Church now draws tens of thousands of people via simulcast in over 50 countries around the world—with no entertainment, no bells and whistles or smoke machines.

Why do they come? Platt explained in an interview: “People are hungry for the Word. There’s really nothing special or creative about it. It’s just the study of the Word …. The Word itself does the work!”

People are hungry. They are hungry for a diet of substance, not candy. More of the Word. Deeper into the Word. Less of what Tozer called “religious toys and trifles.”

*Tozer quotes are taken from Tozer on Worship and Entertainment by James L. Synder.
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4 reasons to consider adoption

Not everyone should adopt, but more should than do. I could list numerous reasons to consider adoption, but here are my top 4:

1. 153,000,000 orphans worldwide.

We should not think the orphan crisis is not just an issue for the rest of the world. In the U.S., 400,000 children are living in foster care and 130,000 of them are waiting to be adopted.

Numbers that big are hard to grasp and thus easy to ignore. David Platt: “We learned that orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names. They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they’re not real before you hold them in your arms. But once you do, everything changes …”

2. God’s heart for the orphan.

Responding to the orphan crisis is a biblical mandate and a reflection of God’s heart.

“The Lord protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked” (Ps. 146:9, NLT).

“Give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute” (Ps. 82:3, NLT).

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27, NLT).

3. God’s adoption of us.

The greatest motivation for adoption is to understand that we are adopted by God. “It’s not about us rescuing orphans,” said Francis Chan, “it’s Jesus rescued us.” God’s adoption of us was never His Plan B, it was never a back-up solution. God’s adoption of us was always His Plan A (Eph. 1:4-5). Our consideration of adoption, then, shouldn’t only be about infertility; it’s about responding to the mercy God has shown us. 

4. You can make a difference in the life of a child.

Adoption is not the only answer to the orphan crisis because not all of the orphaned children in the world are not available for adoption. We have to think about other ways to care for orphans. And while every Christian will not adopt, every one of us is called to care for orphans and vulnerable children.

Will you consider adoption or fostering? If you can’t, then what will you do to make a difference in the life of an orphan or at-risk child?

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3 benefits of authentic community

I need community. Real, authentic, biblical community.

Not because I’m an extrovert and get energized by being around people. Not because I need more friends. Not because I’m looking for people to hang out with. These are not reasons I need community.

I need community because I need to stay on mission. I get easily distracted. A community of people who share a passion for the mission of making disciples keeps me on mission.

Real, biblical community is not content to stay huddled in its comfort zone. It does not exist only for the purpose of coming and gathering. People in authentic, biblical community share a common mission.

I need community because I need to grow. I’m not able to mature as a follower of Christ in isolation. God created me to live and to grow in community, and without community my faith becomes weak and stagnant.

Real, biblical community is not content to deal in superficialities. It facilitates life change. I need people will speak God’s Word to me, who love me just as I am but love me too much to allow me to stay that way. Authentic Christian community moves me toward Christ.

I need community because I need love. Real love is experienced only in authentic community. Real, biblical community is one of the most significant sources of God’s grace in our lives.

People in real, biblical community don’t have to pretend to have it all together. They don’t feel the need to put on a public face because in real community there’s unconditional love and radical grace. It’s OK to be real and vulnerable.

The apostle Paul talked about those who hold to “the form of godliness” but deny the power of the real thing (2 Tim. 3:5). We do the same thing with community. It’s easy to hold to a form of community that masquerades as the real thing but lacks its power.

Real community is a way of life, not a meeting on a calendar or names on a class roll. It gets messy and is never perfect. It is neither manufactured nor programmed, but produced by God’s Spirit as gift of grace. It is cultivated on our part by commitment and intentionality and time. And I desperately need it, don’t you?

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Who ought to go as missionaries?

I was a freshman at Union University when I heard Dr. Bryant Hicks, professor of missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speak in a chapel service on the subject, “Who ought to go as missionaries?” That was 30-something years ago. His answer has stuck with me:

1. Those who can.
2. Those who care.
3. Those who comprehend the need.
4. Those who consent.
5. Those who are called.

That same year I also heard Baker James Cauthen speak at a student missions conference about his missionary call. Dr. Cauthen was the executive director of the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention. I can still hear the sound of his voice as he made an impassioned plea:

“Do not do what seems convenient. When you come to the place of decision, you do in your soul what you believe God is saying to you, and commit yourself with firmness to it.”

God used Dr. Bryant and Dr. Cauthen to call me to the mission field. I could. I cared. I comprehended the need. I consented. I was called. And I committed myself with firmness to it.

The call that took me to Africa as a young man still burns in my soul nearly four decades later, though I’m living it out in a different way and different place today.

Some are called to go and serve in other cultures. Others, to stay and support those who go. All are called to join God on His mission regardless of geography or vocation.

John Piper reminds us that we have three choices – go, send, or disobey.

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5 reasons we pack Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes as a family

My favorite time of year has arrived. Football season is in full swing. College basketball is gearing up. The air is turning crisp. The leaves are turning. The holidays are just around the corner. That can mean only one thing: it’s shoebox time.

Every year, my family packs shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. A ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, OCC works like this: individuals, families, churches, and groups fill empty shoeboxes with gifts of toys, school supplies, clothing, hygiene items, and notes of encouragement. The boxes are collected and delivered to needy children around the world. Since 1993, Samaritan’s Purse has delivered more than 124 million shoeboxes to children in 150 countries and territories through Operation Christmas Child.

We choose to participate in Operation Christmas Child AS A FAMILY. Our 6-year-old daughter is involved in every phase, from choosing what to put in the boxes, to buying the items, packing the boxes, and dropping them off at the collection center. There are 5 good reasons we make this a family event.

1. We want our daughter to discover the joy of giving.

A child’s inclination is to think first about getting. Ours is already making her Christmas list, and it grows longer by the day. As her parents, we must be intentional about teaching her the joy of giving. I recommend you go to samaritanspurse.org/occ and, with your child, watch the videos of children around the world receiving their OCC shoeboxes. Through watching these videos, our daughter sees with her own eyes the pure joy that her giving brings to others, and it delights her

2. We want our daughter to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around her.

We’re not doing our kids any favors by leading them to think the world revolves around them. To combat the sense of entitlement that our culture drives into her brain daily, we work to raise a child who is genuinely grateful for whatever she has. Shoeboxes help us reinforce this.

3. We want to foster in our daughter an empathy toward the poor.

In our household we talk to our daughter about what it means to be poor. As we look together at pictures of children living in poverty we talk about what their lives are like and how those kids must feel. We do to foster compassion and so she can have perspective on her first world problems. 

4. We want our daughter to learn that little things can have a big impact.

We want her to realize that you don’t have to do great big things to make a difference in somebody’s life. Even the smallest acts of kindness can have an eternal impact. A small shoebox can be a part of changing children’s lives all over the world.

5. We want our daughter to know that we give because God gave.

Shoeboxes are a great opportunity to show the love of God to children around the world, they’re also a great way to teach our child about the love of God. As we pack our boxes we reinforce the truth that we give because God gave. We love because God loves us. We share to follow the example of Jesus by helping those in need and proclaiming the hope that is in the gospel.

How many boxes is your family packing this year? To learn more go to samaritanspurse.org/occ.

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20 missions quotes that will challenge you to action

As we move into that time of year when many churches emphasize missions, it’s good to be reminded that missions is more than just another program of the church and it’s more than a seasonal emphasis. Missions is an expression of the very heart of God. The Great Commission is, as Hudson Taylor said, “not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.” Here are 20 more of my favorite missions quotes that challenge me to take seriously the call to missions.

  1. “Lost people matter to God, and so they must matter to us.” – Keith Wright
  2. “Let my heart be broken with the things that break God’s heart.” – Bob Pierce
  3. “To belong to Jesus is to embrace the nations with Him.” – John Piper
  4. “We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.” – John Stott
  5. “The Lord did not tell us to build beautiful churches, but to evangelize the world” – Oswald J. Smith
  6. “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.” – Oswald J. Smith
  7. “Go, send, or disobey.” – John Piper
  8. “If the Great Commission is true, our plans are not too big; they are too small.” – Pat Morley
  9. “A congregation that is not deeply and earnestly involved in the worldwide proclamation of the gospel does not understand the nature of salvation.” – Ted Engstrom
  10. “Today Christians spend more money on dog food than missions.” – Leonard Ravenhill
  11. “Every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor. – Charles Spurgeon
  12. “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” – William Carey
  13. “The mark of a great church is not its seating capacity, but its sending capacity.” – Mike Stachura
  14. “Sympathy is no substitute for action.” – David Livingstone
  15. “The reason some folks don’t believe in missions is that the brand of religion they have isn’t worth propagating.” – unknown
  16. “I don’t know how your theology works, but if Jesus has a choice between stained glass windows and feeding starving kids in Haiti, I have a feeling he’d choose the starving kids in Haiti.” – Tony Campolo
  17. “If we love God’s fame and are committed to magnifying His name above all things, we cannot be indifferent to world missions.” – John Piper
  18. “Any church that is not seriously involved in helping fulfill the Great Commission has forfeited its biblical right to exist.” – Oswald J. Smith
  19. “The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.” – Carl F. H. Henry
  20. “Here am I. Send me.” – Isaiah