Small Groups With Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities

Small Groups With Purpose: How To Create Healthy CommunitiesThere are, in every industry, certain books that serve as cornerstones – manuals of the trade, if you will. If you want to fix a car, you buy a Chilton’s Guide. If you’re working in any psychology-related field, you need a DSM-IV manual. And if you’re in small group ministry, ministry leadership, or you simply want your own small group to thrive, you need to have the new industry standard manual, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities.

Steve Gladen, Pastor of Small Groups and Spiritual Maturity at Saddleback Church since 1998, has just released the very book I’ve been hoping for. He addresses the biblical foundations of community, group life, discipleship, and how small groups relate to the larger church context. According to Gladen, “A healthy small group is a community of people who challenge each other to become all that God destined them to become.” That is certainly the goal, but as Steve points out, “unless you know what the target is, you can’t hit it.”

But this book doesn’t stop with the foundation, Steve continues onward to help any church leader build an entire small group ministry. He presents the spiritual growth assessment tools and paradigm graphics that have shaped Saddleback’s small group ministry to number well over 4,500 groups and 30,000 people. He covers the five purposes and demonstrates how each can be woven into the fabric of small group life.

Good books answer good questions, anticipating the needs of the reader in advance. Steve devotes the latter part of his book to doing just that. Should you use Sunday School or small groups? How can you recruit more group hosts? What do you do with kids? How do you practice the purpose of worship in the setting of a small group? These are the kinds of questions I’ve asked repeatedly and answers are sometimes tough to find. Steve Gladen provides them and answers many more pertinent questions as well.

Small Groups with Purpose is written by the industry’s thought leader on the subject, but it’s written for leaders at every level. I would put in at the top of my list of “must have” resources for beginning group leaders, Pastors, and everyone in between who is or hopes to be involved in small group ministry. Now that it’s on the market, it’s indispensable. Get it. Read it. Mark it up, and apply it so that you can begin creating healthy communities today!

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Check Out the Midnight WordPress Theme

If you’re into building church websites or blogs with WordPress (like I am), and you’re pretty handy with customizing WordPress themes, you may want to check out the newest premium WordPress theme from StudioPress: Midnight Theme.

Here’s a screenshot…

StudioPress Midnight Theme

Before you buy it, do understand that I think the “simplicity” of premium theme frameworks is often overstated. I always feel bad when people buy a theme I recommend and then struggle to customize it. It is best to use premium themes only as a starting place, and only if you have a basic working knowledge of html, css, and WordPress as a content management system.

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Road Trip! Who’s With Us?

In 20 days or so, we’ll be pulling out of Laguna Hills, California in our Penske truck and heading to northwest Arkansas to start planting Grace Hills Church. I love road trips!! I especially love road trips when I meet interesting people along the way, and that’s why I’d love to see you along the way.

There are some amazing churches and church leaders scattered along this 1,560 mile journey and if you’re one of them, I would love to meet you, hear your story, and pray with you for your ministry. We won’t have long to spend at any one stop but if you are located close to our route, I’d love to have a great cup of gourmet truck stop coffee with you. We’re leaving July 5 and need to reach our new home early on July 8.

Check the map below and see if we can connect!

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So if you can connect, email me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook, or use this old-fashioned contact form.

More Meetings to Come

I will also be planning a trip around the state of Arkansas during the week of July 11 – 15 to cast the vision of a church planting movement to Pastors and leaders, so I’d love to meet with my fellow Arkansans then. I’ll be in Florida in August and plenty of other places in the interim as well. I’d love to hear from you!

Rick Warren On the Most Important Thing Your Church Will Ever Do

PlantingI was thrilled when I receive Pastor Rick Warren’s article for this past week’s issue of the new Pastor’s Toolbox. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel the threat of extinction is too close or that we’re just too individualistic, but the American church is obsessed with self-preservation and has failed to multiply and replenish the land with vibrant new fellowships. Listen to what Pastor Rick says is the most important thing your church will ever do

Church planting is part of Saddleback’s DNA. We’ve started at least one church every year since the beginning.

It is simply who we are. We believe that mature churches are just like mature plants or mature people: they bear fruit.

You can tell an apple tree is mature when it starts growing apples. You can tell a Christian is mature when he or she starts winning other people to Christ. And, you can tell a congregation is mature when it starts having babies—planting other churches.

I believe any definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include the planting of new congregations in addition to growth by the conversion of unbelievers. If we’re not reproducing, then it is a sign that something is unhealthy in our congregations. As I’ve often said, a church’s health is measured by its sending capacity, not its seating capacity.

Regardless of size or location, your church can help start new congregations. At Saddleback Church, we started our first church plant when we had 150 people coming to the weekend services. The truth is, it doesn’t take a megachurch to start new churches.

Jesus doesn’t expect us to produce more than we can, but he does expect us to produce all that we can by his power within us.

God has called us to the great task of planting a new church but we are absolutely determined to do more than plant a church. We want to plant a church planting church, a multiplying movement that begins with a vision of launching other churches as soon and as often as possible.

What has baffled me is that as we’ve cast this vision to potential supporters, so few are eager to get involved – not so much with our church plant, but with any church plant. We assume that the “big” churches or denominations can handle it. But the truth is that from the era of the New Testament, local churches have initiated the process of launching “daughter” churches.

Every church has something to give, and I want to echo Pastor Rick’s challenge to get involved. You don’t have to send out half of your membership to be involved in church planting. It can be as simple as…

  • Send your Pastor to visit a church planter or two for the purpose of encouraging them.
  • Send a small group to help a church plant reach out to its community (but make your own arrangements).
  • Partner with a new church plant for $100 per month for three years, or go all out and commit $30,000 per year for three years.
  • Bring interns alongside your leadership and offer to make a contribution to their preparation for being involved in church planting.
  • Work with denominational missions leaders or church planting networks to birth a new church out of your resources.

You can start small or dive in, but decide today that the Great Commission is more than just sending money to foreign fields. It’s also about reaching everyone around us as well, and few strategies work as well to expand the kingdom as church planting.

And on a personal note, we have a goal of raising $80,000 over the next six months and while we’re over halfway there, we still need to raise another $30,000 or more, so if your church can help, I’d love to hear from you.

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Every Pastor Should Read ‘Note to Self’

Note to Self by Joe Thorn“Preaching it” is easier than living it. This creates significant problems when our speaking talent outweighs our personal character. Therefore, it is imperative that we, as shepherds, shepherd ourselves – that we hear the Word, do the Word, and preach to ourselves first. That’s why I love Joe Thorn’s book Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Re: Lit Books).

We often buy books to help us prepare sermons. You should buy this book to help prepare yourself. The book is divided into three sections, all revolving around the gospel. The first section leads our hearts to assume a posture of praise. The second teaches us how the gospel impacts our relationships with other people. The third reminds us of the impact the gospel should have on self. Here’s a line we need to hear concerning our wives…

You should seek to be the brightest representation of Jesus she sees, as you represent Christ as Savior and servant to her. That would look like seeking her out when you get home from work, instead of seeking solace for yourself. It means affirming her calling and gifts, listening to her, speaking words of encouragement to her, and at all times working for her good. Jesus loves you this way, and in like manner you are called to love your wife.

The gospel is not simply a salvation message intended for people who are lost and apart from Christ. The gospel is the central core of all that we are in Christ and all that we do for Christ. Believers need to be fed from the message of the gospel, and this book drives it home in the hearts of those of us who are most at risk for taking the gospel for granted – preachers.

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How Can I Be Legalism Free?

I like rules, lines, and boundaries. I feel safer if I have clear parameters, which explains my love for graph paper. I like it when everything is nice and tidy. The problem is, life isn’t always nice and tidy. People around me don’t always play by my rules, and I’m the biggest boundary breaker of them all.

It would seem that the alternative to rules-based living would be no rules living, rebellion, and abandonment of moral restraint. But what if that isn’t the best alternative to legalistic living? Jesus’ greatest confrontations happened with legalists who not only lived by rigid sets of rules, but quickly judged others by those rules as well.

The New Testament message – the gospel – is one of liberation from legalism, but it isn’t an encouragement to rebellion either. It’s about being free to really live. But how? How can I really live a life free from legalism and still grow into the godly character that Jesus saved me to be?

Establish Some Foundational Principles

We can know certain things to be true, no matter what. They are unbreakable absolutes that cannot be compromised. For example…

  • God’s Word, the Bible (including the “Law”), is perfect, good, without any mixture of error, and therefore completely trustworthy as the basis for living life.
  • Holiness, complete maturity, and Christlikeness is God’s goal for every believer in Christ.
  • Legalism never gets us to that goal. (So let’s move on…)

Diagnose Thyself

My name is Brandon Cox, and I’m a legalist. At least I still struggle with the remnants of legalism in my life. I guess I’m a “recovering legalist” who still slips into the old frame of mind sometimes. In fact, I think we all tend toward legalism to varying degrees and the longer we’ve been believers, the more susceptible we are.

How can you tell if you’re a legalist? Here’s a quick checklist…

  1. I determine whether God likes me or not based on how well I’ve kept the rules.
  2. I might acknowledge I was saved by grace alone, but I think my effort has something to do with staying saved.
  3. I tend to pray less when I fear that God is probably mad at me about something.
  4. I think I’m disqualified from the Christian faith because I’ve messed up, in spite of the fact that I’m still alive and breathing.
  5. I tend to notice the “bad behavior” in others without giving thought to their past pain, poor upbringing, or unknown circumstances.
  6. When other sinners suffer for their choices, I hear a tiny voice saying “serves them right.”
  7. I’m more passionate about the rules I find easy to keep, and minimize the ones I personally struggle with.
  8. I’m all about being “in the Word” but sometimes fail to let the Word get into me.
  9. I love going to Bible study more than serving or witnessing because it “feeds me” and makes me feel more spiritually mature.
  10. I recognize that traditions are not necessarily biblical… unless they’re my traditions.

Thoroughly self-diagnosed yet? Let’s talk about the cure.

Heal Thyself

You need to know, up front, that you’ll never completely get over being a legalist. Since the garden of Eden, God has been all about grace. It explains why God made coats of animal skins to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. And since the garden of Eden, we’ve tried (with Satan’s help) to re-write the gospel to somehow include merit. As humans, we are rules addicts.

But we can break free. Jesus invites us to His freedom…

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.

~ Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Paul developed a distinctive theology of freedom.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.

~ Galatians 5:1 NLT

Here are some steps to take…

  1. See your sin for what it is. It’s an offense to God to sin. No, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over past mistakes, but you also shouldn’t vindicate yourself on the basis that sin “isn’t a big deal.”
  2. See Jesus for whom He is. He’s your sacrifice. Nothing you’ve done could have prevent Him from going to the cross just for you. He’s the only perfect and righteous Savior.
  3. See the cross for what it is. The cross was where He died for your sins. In other words, your sins are paid for. Stop trying to pay the debt yourself. Every time you do, you ignore the cross and insult His sacrifice.
  4. Embrace grace. Revel in it. Bathe yourself in the idea of it. Roll around in the concept that you are free… free indeed!
  5. Embrace grace… more. Don’t stop thinking about it. Read about it. Read about how Jesus showed it. Understand that you’ll never totally understand it, but don’t stop trying.
  6. Show grace. In fact, mob people with it. Show it when you don’t feel like it, when it doesn’t make sense, and especially when it would feel better to do otherwise.

I recently joined the People of the Second Chance. No, it’s not a cult. It’s just this…

People of the Second Chance gives voice to a scandalous movement of radical grace in life and leadership. We challenge the common misconceptions about failure and success and stand with those who have hit rock bottom in their personal and professional lives. We are a community that is committed to stretch ourselves in the areas of relational forgiveness, personal transparency, and advocate for mercy over judgment.

We are not ashamed of our scars, wounds, or failures and leverage them as a source of strength and character development.

People of the Second Chance have experienced a second chance so we actively support social justice organizations and advocate for the vulnerable, forgotten, and left behind.

We are People of the Second Chance.

We extend grace in our relationships, workplaces, and in the world.

We refuse to be victims and are not defeated by our past. We courageously open ourselves to personal forgiveness.

We sacrificially give our time and resources to the work of renewal, restoration, and social justice.

You don’t have to join a movement, attend a Bible study, or wear a badge. Just embrace grace! Celebrate it and never look back. You can be legalism free. Jesus said so!

Also, if you’d like a nice downloadable pdf of this, check out the same post on the Grace Hills Church website.

Dear Church… Go and Multiply

My friend, Stephen Gray, has recently made a comment on Twitter that has really hit home with Angie and I…

Church multiplication is a spiritual decision of a church to put the needs of a desperate world before self-preservation.

And that reminds me of another thought offered by my mentor, Grady Higgs…

Churches should be born pregnant.

Multiplying SeedThe book of Acts traces the amazing work of the Holy Spirit through the apostles and it records the numerical growth of the church in its earliest ages. What is interesting to read is that in the first few chapters, God was adding people to the church. Then in Acts 6, there is a division and the leadership gets spread around to seven newly ordained leaders. Suddenly, the church multiplied.

The same is true on a broader scale in Acts 8 when persecution came under Saul and people were scattered around everywhere preaching the Word. The early church was willing (or rather forced by persecution) to lay down its instinct toward self-preservation and begin the work of multiplying.

Multiplying (planting other church-planting churches so that a local church has children and grandchildren) is a scary thing. Why? Because it costs money, takes time, consumes resources, and causes us to devote a little less time to maintaining what we have. But it’s God’s way of aggressively growing His kingdom.

One of the values we’re building into the core of Grace Hills Church is multiplication. We’ll immediately be bringing interns and residents alongside us to learn and grow, whom we will then send out to lead church planting teams elsewhere. We want to be involved in the planning phases of our church’s first baby before our first year of worship services is over. In this way, we’ll be a kingdom-focused “teaching hospital” that has a global understanding of what God is doing in our world.

I’ve already received the question plenty of times, “why plant a church around other churches?” If you’re asking that, you’re thinking too much about geography, buildings, and all the things a church is not. The fact is, there are very few if any places in America where large and overlapping circles of people haven’t yet been reached and changed by the gospel’s influence. And I think we can agree that the number of church buildings physically present in a community is absolutely no gauge of the level of genuine life-transformation that has or has not taken place.

If your church hasn’t been intentional about investing in planting another new church within the last three years, repent and make a change today. Abandon any scrambles for self-preservation and unselfishly invest your resources for the growth of the kingdom of God. I’d hate to be a church sitting on piles of uninvested resources the moment Jesus comes back.

What would we say? “But Jesus… at least we kept our doors open!”

Photo Credit: Raymond Shobe