A Christian Response to Tragedy

How do you respond when you hear of some grave and terrible tragedy that has taken place?

  • Like 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by Islamic terrorists.
  • Like a plane crash somewhere in the Indian Ocean without a trace.
  • Like a drunk driver hitting a family as they drove to church, killing their youngest child.

How do you react?

  • Do you shake your head in disbelief at the evil in this world?
  • Do you silently reflect on God’s sovereignty?
  • Do you pray for those directly involved in the calamity?

If you are like me, you might do all of these things at any given moment in response to some tragedy. But like me, you might find Jesus’ response to a similar question in Luke 13 confounding.

At that time, some people came and reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And He responded to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed—do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well!”

In this chapter, we learn that very recently Pilate had murdered a few Galileans in the Jewish temple … truly a heinous and evil crime. Someone preumably asked Jesus to comment on this event, and to some, his response may have been more shocking than the crime itself.

  • He didn’t denounce Pilate.
  • He didn’t comment on the lives of those who were killed.

Instead, He encouraged those asking to look within: “Unless you repent, you, too, will perish.”

At first, this seems like an odd or insensitive response.

But in reality, it’s a very compassionate response, for it humbles all of us as it forces us to remember that death in some form awaits us. Only repentance by grace through faith in Christ rescues us.

So shake your head in disbelief at the evil in the world.

Reflect on God’s sovereignty.

Pray for those involved in calamities.

But also heed Jesus’ warning.


Unity. Purity. Generosity. Three Reasons to Gather this Week

Your small group is comprised of people who have been set apart by God to be holy. He made them holy by means of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They are saints. They belong to God. And God has given them everything they need to fulfill His mission until Jesus returns. He will keep them strong in their battle against sin and a world that is increasingly hostile to the faith.

But your small group is full of people who forget these things. They stop telling themselves these things. They try to take matters into their own hands. They occasionally fall back in love with their old sinful habits. They succumb to the pressures of temptation and relinquish the progress they’ve made in their quest to change the world for Jesus.

It’s with these two realities in mind that you gather together on a regular basis as a group. They are saints who are also sinners; victors who often feel defeated. So what purposes can your group have given these realities that will not go away until Jesus comes back? First Corinthians gives us at least three purposes to keep in mind when you gather as a group.

1. Strive for unity.

“Now I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction” (1 Cor. 1:10). Few things can deflate an embattled, frustrated, and fatigued Christian like a small group that does not relationally mirror the unity they have in Christ. Conversely, few things can encourage brothers and sisters more than coming to a place where they know at the very least they have Jesus in common, and that clearly matters more than anything else in the room. Don’t waste your small group trying to unite around something other than Jesus.

2. Strive for purity.

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul confronted multiple kinds of sins devastating the church and its mission. Sexual immorality, a lack of discipline or accountability, lawsuits, arguments over peripheral things, a lack of concern for the welfare of members in need — all of these things and more wreaked havoc on the church, and they do the same in our groups. The corporate worship environment rarely allows for the kind of personal accountability Paul calls us to in this letter, but the small group environment exists for this kind of personal accountability. Don’t waste your small group pretending sin isn’t real. Strive for purity.

3. Strive for generosity.

Part of Paul’s ministry at the time he wrote this letter was to gather a monetary collection from many other churches for the church in Jerusalem. It’s a theme he carried over into his other letter to the Corinthians as well. Why? Because financial generosity is a powerful testimony to Jesus’ generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Don’t waste your small group by pretending the needs of the world aren’t great. Strive for generosity.

Should your group strive for these things, you’ll be serving one another and the church at large well. And if you want to study these things further, head over to smallgroup.com and sign up for a free preview. You can quickly customize a series of studies on these topics and texts that is perfect for your group, so you know you won’t be wasting your time together as you strive for unity, purity, and generosity.

This article originally appeared at the LifeWay Groups Ministry site.


Three Philosophies for Resourcing Small Groups

“All of the Bible is always good all of the time.”

I first heard that statement in a meeting with other pastors visiting Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. We were discussing how pastors should approach their sermon preparation, and how discipleship pastors should approach what their small groups study.

The answer: “All of the Bible is always good all of the time.”

This truth is liberating, for it reminds us that no matter how we go about setting up our small group ministry, as long as we keep the Word of God at the center, we make progress.

Sermon Based

For example, some small groups gather to study the Bible in a way that is tied to the message preached at the service. Using a discussion guide written by the discipleship pastor, group leaders facilitate a discussion based upon the message from the service. Proponents of this method often view the weekend message as the “front door” to the church for a guest. Studies like these help draw in those marginal attendees and make for a more comfortable experience for them since the discussion is based primarily on what everyone heard at the service.

Let Your Leaders Plan

Still other churches let their group leaders plan and teach what they want. They might choose a video-driven study, a short-term study on a given topic or book of the Bible. Or they might subscribe to receive Bible study curriculum from a trusted source of excellent content such as LifeWay. Whatever way they choose, group leaders have freedom in this environment to chart their own course for their groups.

Long Range Planning

Still others might prefer to plan out a long scope and sequence for their groups to study. They might choose to walk through certain books of the Bible for a year, choose various topics to study, or do both over a longer period of time. Planning and purpose are very important variables for churches that take this approach.

With so many ways to set up a small group ministry, there are also many products to help support them. One web-based tool, smallgroup.com, gives churches and their group leaders the ability to create studies for all of these scenarios. Sermon-based groups can quickly customize existing studies to fit the message; church leaders can grant all of their group leaders access to create their own studies; and church leaders can build a scope and sequence by text or topic (or both!) for as far out in to the future as they please.

Regardless of how you set up your groups or equip them study God’s Word, the important thing is that they are studying God’s Word. “All of the Bible is always good all of the time.”

This article originally appeared here: http://www.lifeway.com/Article/what-should-your-small-group-study

Sitting in Worship: Front Row Rocks!

Earlier this week, I wrote about how much I enjoyed corporate worship sitting in the back. But sitting in the back is an anomaly for our family, for we usually sit in the front.

Here’s why.

  1. We can hear the whole congregation singing. Though we’re closer to the stage and the music is a bit louder and not perfectly positioned for where we sit, the sound of the congregation singing is comforting and encouraging to me. I’m not alone!
  2. There’s no escaping the elements of worship. When the stage is nearly within reach, fewer elements in worship go without notice. We gain a deeper appreciation for all the “little things” that go in to making service faithful and true to the God we worship.
  3. Related to #2, we pay better attention to worship while up front. This means we tend to need to discipline less, and that all are more engaged with the sermon in particular.

As you can see, there are advantages to both sitting in the front and back.

Regardless of where we choose to sit, more problems erupt when we think someone’s in our seat!

Sitting in Corporate Worship: It Pays to be a Back-row Baptist

I worshipped with my boys last weekend. Our daughter was in nursery, and my wife served in the preschool department, so the men were left to their own devices.

In a breach of protocol, we sat in the back, and I liked it.

Here’s why I liked sitting in the back for worship.

  1. I could see that there were many more people worshipping with me without awkwardly turning around or craning my neck backwards. Not only did I get a better gauge for how many are attending, but I saw many people I knew that I had no idea were in that same service.
  2. I could hear better. We have an excellent sound system and a simple chapel-like worship room, so sound is not an issue. That said, I could hear those leading worship better. I think I was in a better line to the speakers, but I also think it was because I was behind everyone singing.
  3. I could hear myself sing better. This is related to #2 above. Without other voices washing over me from one direction, and without more volume coming at me from the front, I could hear my own contribution to worship. Interestingly, few if any others were singing around me.
  4. I could discipline better. “Discipline” is a strong word, but for whatever reason, I felt more comfortable correcting my boys as they veered into behavior inappropriate for worship from time to time. Near the end of the service, they both got “the giggles” and could not pull it together. It Only 1 row was disturbed when they went to the bathroom to laugh it off. I imagined them snorting down the aisle had we been up front and thanked God we were back-row Baptists that day.

Later this week, I’ll talk about the advantages of sitting in the front, but let’s not mock the back-row Baptists. They know a lot more than we give them credit for.

Instilling Core Values in the Congregation

Do you know what distinguishes your church from all others?

Are you able to articulate those things that define a person’s experience at your church?

If your answer to those questions is “yes,” then you know your church’s core values. You can state with honesty and authenticity the things that provide a clear and complete picture of the everyday behaviors essential to your church’s identity.

As important as it is to define your core values, if the members of your church are not clear about them, those values are worth little more than the paper they are printed on. To that end, consider these three powerful yet simple strategies for instilling your church’s core values.

  1. Preach the language. Pulpits, lecterns, music stands, and high-top tables will always rank highly among the most effective means of communication, but all too rarely do preachers and teachers infuse their messages with the core values. For example, imagine that one of your church’s core values is “intimacy with Jesus.” When preaching through a series on spiritual disciplines, take advantage of the opportunity to instill your core value by using the phrase “intimacy with Jesus” in place of more common phrases that could be true for any church (such as “having a quite time” or “reading your Bible”). If a core value is “intimacy with Jesus,” those other things will be necessary, but they are not your core value in and of themselves. Preach the language you want your people to embody most.
  1. Live the language. The apostle Paul unequivocally states that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Too often we assume that mind renewal occurs in a classroom, when the reality is that much of our transformation takes place as we experience and share what we are learning. Assume one of your core values is “city renewal.” Church leaders who do not (1) provide opportunities for their people to experience and share city renewal, through such things as ministry to the homeless, and (2) provide chances to talk about those experiences miss out on powerful opportunities to instill their core values.
  1. Study the language. An often overlooked yet powerful opportunity for infusing your core values into the congregation is through a regular small group gathering for fellowship and Bible study. The problem is that these groups are often dependent upon volunteer leaders, people who often do not know or embody the core values to the same degree as the church staff. These leaders may not have the confidence to own your church’s core values, apply them to the texts being studied, and clearly communicate them to their groups. That’s why we recommend smallgroup.com, a custom Bible study tool that gives you and your group leaders access to a vast and growing library of studies you can customize for your group. With smallgroup.com, you can infuse the language of your core values into the fabric of every study your groups complete. Group leaders can be quickly and easily equipped with a study that truly speaks the language of your church and more deeply imbeds your core values into its people.

Core values that are not preached, lived, and studied don’t remain core values for very long. Drive them deeper and deeper, week in and week out, as your people gather, go, and grow.

This article originally appeared at LifeWay’s Pastor’s Today.

Is Your Church Over-Programmed?

One of my favorite memories from a family trip to Disney World is of one of my son’s eating a grotesquely large wad of pink cotton candy from one hand, and a soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone from the other.   This delectable diet, in partnership with cool weather and short lines at the happiest place on earth, created a seemingly irreproducible sense of euphoria in my son.  For at least 30 minutes, he was on Cotton Candy Cloud Nine.

Predictably, mere minutes after completing his “lunch,” my son’s demeanor went from angelic to demonic.  One minute, he was joyfully skipping from ride to ride, willing even to hold his younger brother’s hand.  The next, he was horribly whiny and complaining of hunger.  And what did he want to eat?  Cotton candy!

It’s an understandable urge.  The cotton candy had made him feel so good while he was eating it, that he reasonably concluded what he needed to feel good again was even more cotton candy.  Fortunately for him, he has a mother and father who understand his real need: a diet more grounded in protein and veggies than carbs and sugar.

Churches, especially those in the south, can have their own version of cotton candy: ministry programs.  Churches can be committed to giving leaders and people a steady diet of sugary events and “ministries” that leave them feeling great about themselves and their church, but do little of substance with regard to evangelism and discipleship.  Churches committed to this ministry model report sizable numbers at these events year after year, yet fail to grow numerically in corporate worship or in Sunday school (or small groups).  Leaders in these models spend far more time coordinating, training, and administrating than they do equipping, discipling, and modeling.

The urge to maintain the ministry model of the cotton candy church is understandable.  “Success” is easier to define and quantify.  Members tend to gauge church leaders more positively when events like these go well.  When “success” happens, it feels good for a while.  When the feeling goes away, plans for the next event just around the corner are drawn up and set into motion, guaranteeing we will feel good once again, soon enough.

Do events like this have their place in church ministry?  I believe they do, especially in the deep south.  There’s nothing wrong with a sugary snack every now and then, and such a treat may be just what a church family needs from time to time.

Yet church leaders must be careful to feed their people a steady diet of substantive ministry opportunities that are personal, relational, evangelistic, and that deepen one’s understanding of the Gospel.  In this way, the church enjoys its occasional treats, but takes the deepest pleasure in occasions more aligned with its vision to fulfill the Great Commission.

For more on evaluating the “programminess” of your church, check out Drew Dixon’s article here.