Leaders Always Tell Stories

Leaders always tell stories.

I've spent the last several days working with several of InterVarsity's rising leaders.  One of them was the famous J. Alex Kirk (who blogs over at piebaldlife.blogspot.com).  Alex tells stories all the time.  Put him up in front of a group and a story will come out.  Sit next to him at lunch and he'll rivet you with a story.  Ask him to be quiet and - you guessed it - story.

Alex's story-telling skill and his leadership influence are woven together.

Leaders always tell stories.

Some leaders tell the wrong stories.  They tell boring stories, demotivating stories, confusing stories.  Some of us have a lot of work to do in this arena.

The choice isn't to tell stories or not to tell stories.  The choice is to tell right stories or wrong stories, attractional stories or boring stories, inspiring stories or demotivating stories, actionable stories or confusing stories.  Do it well or do it poorly.  Not doing it isn't an option.

Leaders always tell stories.

Joshua told a very important story in Joshua 24.  God's people had pushed through the land and were about to be called to recommit themselves to the Lord, to put aside strategies designed to manipulate the gods and to trust God to provide and protect.

Joshua recounts the history of the community is such a way that it's unimaginable that anyone would choose the gods of the land over the God of Israel.  But he still gives them the choice.

By the time Joshua's done telling the story, the people choose to serve God, even knowing the cost.

As leaders, we have long lists of things we want people to do.  If you aren't seeing the results you want, are you telling the right stories?

As leaders, we have long lists of things we want people to value.  If values don't seem to align, maybe you aren't telling the right stories.

As leaders, we want the people we love to love the God who loves them.  If that isn't happening, what stories are we telling?

Leaders always tell stories.  What stories are you telling?

Past success gets in the way

High on their success at Jericho, God's people pressed on to conquer another section of the land.

The battle at Jericho stunned the already fearful nations that lived in the land of promise.  They had heard that the people of Israel were crossing the border of the Jordan, but they were unprepared to see the mighty city of Jericho collapse. 

Israel, well, you can imagine how the people felt.  A small group of immigrants toppled a giant city.  God helped.  Actually, he did most of the pushing, but they were included.

And this success gets in the way.

The people of Israel become over-confident.  They charge off to take over the small city of Ai.  Joshua doesn't even bother to go on the scouting trip.  Only a small portion of the army goes.  Most importantly, they don't consult God to see if this is a wise move or if he will fight this battle with them.

Their past success made them assume God would be with them in this next venture.  But that assumption is not an easy one.  God is no tame lion. 

The battle at Ai goes poorly.  God's people scatter and run away from the small city.  Thirty-six soldiers are killed.  The hearts of Israel melt.

Sometimes, our past successes get in the way.  We lock in to strategies, thinking they're permanent when they were temporary.  We ignore context.  We forget the significance of God's impact and presence. 

In the most beautiful way possible, God is with us, Immanuel, Jesus the Christ.  We should never doubt that God is truly with us.  But we shouldn't take his presence for granted.

In the desert, God's people looked to him for provision every day in the form of manna.  In the land of promise, they still need to look to him, to look to him for help, for strategy, for wisdom, for rescue.  And we stand with them.

Don't let past success get in the way.

What does following God look like now?

I'm in a pretty fun Small Group this week: Brian Chang, Alex Kirk, Rene Aguirre, and John Lin.

We're studying the story of Joshua in New Area Director Training this week.  Yesterday, we looked at Joshua 5 and the story of Jericho.

This was a huge time of transition for God's people.  They had spent a generation wandering in the wilderness, learning to depend on God.  They followed the Ark of the Covenant around, were fed by God by the manna, and flourished.

On the bank of the Jordan River, they celebrated the Passover for the first time in 40 years, dedicated themselves to the Lord and ate food from the Promised Land.  Then the manna stopped.

A huge question show up at this part of the story: what does following God look like now?

As the not so small group of Israelites cross the Jordan and move into the land of promise, this is the question that has to be answered: what does following God look like now?  As my NADT Small Group moves into our new roles, this is the question that has to be answered: what does following God look like now?  On the other side of every transitional jump, this question must be answered.

Are you on the edge of a transition?  What does following God look like now?

Practical Guidelines

Lauren and Robert had some great ideas in the comment section yesterday (or the day before).  The whole conversation about money and hoarding can be a tense and vague one (at least, when I'm having it).

I have a tendency to want to keep things vague in an attempt to keep them from getting too tense.  But both Robert and Lauren brought some practical guidelines to light.

Lauren raised a question about the amount.  Somewhere between $2 and $2 trillion dollars, hoarding becomes a sign of distrust in the Lord.  Maybe the problem isn't with saving, but with saving too much.

And this is a fuzzy idea.  How much is too much? 

When buying life insurance, I bought enough to pay off the mortgage and to give Amy some time to grieve without having to worry about money.  I feel like it's the right amount.  Not too much.

But for saving, for retirement stuff, getting to the "too much" is tough.  Is it too much to have enough in my retirement account to provide clean drinking water (via biosand filters) to 1,500 people?  Well, that's not enough to support my family in retirement.  If I keep saving at this rate, I'll have $700 / month to live off of when I retire.  How much is too much?

I think, Lauren, that you're totally onto something with the idea that saving becomes hoarding when we gather too much.  My problem really is that I don't know how much is too much.  And even if I did have a number in mind, I wouldn't trust that number. I know my tendency to be foolish and greedy.

Maybe we could work with our Small Groups or close communities and come up with (admittedly arbitrary) numbers to use as cost-of-living caps and savings caps.  Could you say, when I make $40,000/yr I'll stop increasing my standard of living and give the rest away?  Could you say, when I've saved $500,000 I'll stop saving for retirement and increase my giving?  Maybe.

This echoes something Robert said in his comment.  He's very attentive to his motivations - why am I saving? - and this awareness allows him to save (or not to save).  If his motivations start interfering, start dragging him away from the Lord, his savings will be dumped like a load of Hutt spice from a space freighter being chased by Imperial stormtroopers.

I love Robert's idea but don't trust that I'm ready to be aware enough to notice that first sign of going astray or disciplined enough to do the deep surgery required if that cancer should manifest itself in me.  Practices like the ones Robert and his family use (giving more than they save, cutting giving as a last resort, etc...) are incredibly wise.  But I wonder if they would be enough to protect me?

God is more concerned about who we are becoming than about what we are doing.  Behavior isn't the main thing.  But our past behavior is a good indicator of our future direction.  I'm hesitant to make plans for tomorrow that require me to behave radically differently than I'm behaving today.  I'm concerned that, if I purpose to be generous tomorrow but am not today, when tomorrow comes I won't have developed the sort of life and character that supports generosity.

I don't know what to do about this (yet), but I am at least aware of the problem/temptation.

Thanks Lauren and Robert for your generous and thought provoking comments.  I'll keep thinking about this.  You do the same.  :)

A Generous People?

There's a pretty big homeless, jobless community in downtown Madison.

I walked past a man today who asked me if I had any change.  I told him I didn't (I actually didn't), but that I'd be back in a little while and would have something for him.  When I got back to the spot, he was not there.  Another man had come and taken his place.

For some reason, I didn't give any money to the new man, even though I was willing to give some to the one who had asked me earlier.  I wonder if I was being generous or if some other force was at work in me (guilt? pride? laziness?).

Money is tighter nowadays.  Jobs are harder and harder to come by nowadays.  So many of my former students are out of work.  Many of my donors have lost jobs.  After a long, long search, my good friend Lou just landed a teaching job and he really deserves it.  He worked hard for it and will be great teacher.  But his good outcome is an all too rare one in times like these.

Times like these surface our relationship with money.  It's easy to appear generous when money is flowing easily, when you have plenty.  But to give the widow's mite, that takes something else.

Amy observed once that I started tipping less when we shifted to paying for food with cash.  Was I generous because the money didn't feel like real money?

Generosity is beautiful.  God is generous to us and to many.  When people are struggling to find work, when people are straining to make ends meet, I wonder what would happen if a church were a generous church, if God's people became known as a generous people.

Are we a generous people?

So, maybe I shouldn't hoard wealth for the last days?

The word "εθησαυρισατε" is a troubling word.  It means to accumulate, store up or hoard riches.  It shows up in James 5:3, as in "ethesaurisate en eschatais hemeraivs" or "You hoarded wealth for the last days."

James sees this as a problem.

Here're some possible explanations as to why:

1) You can't take it with you.
Wealth and the accumulation of your earthly life has a very limited and short-term value.  How often do you see a hearse dragging a U-Haul? 

2) You can't use it in the afterlife.
Maybe people thought they'd buy their way into heaven or a more comfortable afterlife.  "Hey, St. Peter!  I'll give you a beautiful, black BMW and a library of books if you hook me up with mansion near the river."

3) You can get distracted by it.
"All that is gold does not glitter" said Tolkien in reference to Aragorn.  Our focus on the things we can store and carry may distract us from less tangible, more important things.

4) You can get tangled up with it.
The money in my 403(b) isn't available.  Don't ask.  Not even if you're doing something amazing for God or important for someone in need.  These tangles on behalf of tomorrow keep us from being generous today and who knows if we'll feel like being generous tomorrow.

5) You might lose sight of your rank.
"Money can buy happiness" according to Daniel Tosh.  "Money buys jet-skis."  A large accumulation of money may make us happy, may make us feel comfortable, may make us feel secure, as if we are beyond life's fluctuations.  A treasure trove may make us feel that we deserve special attention, like the frequent customers who justify their persnickity coffee order on the grounds that they come in every day (yes, I worked "grounds" into the coffee example on purpose).  No amount of money can make you the Lord of the Sabbath.

Why do we hoard our money?  Why do I put money in a 403(b)?  What are we doing?

Wait until tomorrow (or don't)

There's always a compelling reason to wait until tomorrow.

I've been reflecting on the James 5 passage we looked at in Small Group last night.  One of the questions raised had to do with hoarding.  Is it wrong to hoard your wealth?

Wealth hoarding conjures up mental images of Scrooge McDuck and his swimming pool full of coinage or a Leprechaun with his pot-o-gold.  But what about savings, retirement?  What about investing your money today so you can give more tomorrow?

For many people, tomorrow never comes: not because they die, but because they change.  The Small Group we were visiting was full of people with bright tomorrows: two new moms, one expecting, two medical residents, some folks just starting business careers.  What is tomorrow for them? 

The medical resident could say that "Tomorrow" will be when they finish residency.  But when "Tomorrow" comes, there will still be a tomorrow.  What was enough yesterday, might not satisfy tomorrow.  The line might begin: "Once I'm established in a practice" or "Once I have my own practice" or "Once I retire."  Tomorrow's always over the horizon.

This is a challenging idea for a Small Group to wrestle with.  Is delayed obedience disobedience?  What do we do with this idea?

Is it a Sin to be Rich?

Tonight, we visited Matt and Lauren's Small Group.  We studied James 5.  It was an interesting, but tense discussion. 

Someone drove a BMW to Small Group.

James pounds on the rich in the fifth chapter of his epistle: "weep and howl for the miseries which are coming upon you," "your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you," etc. 

He paints with a broad brush stroke.  He doesn't just confront the abusive rich or the unethical rich or the greedy rich.  Just the rich.  And he doesn't define rich.

I mean, someone drove a BMW to Small Group.

All through Small Group we were ducking and diving like James was actually in the room with us busting paintball caps left and right.  We hid behind chairs and under couches like thieves trying to escape the watchful eye of a security guard.

We aren't the rich Small Group.
Isn't it really the heart that matters?
God gave us the money, it's his fault.
Well, we don't want to be the judgemental Small Group. 
My conscience is clean.
I know a guy who's rich and generous.
We shouldn't do anything out of shame.
If I don't say anything, Small Group will end quicker.
I need the BMW for work.

That was our night in Scripture.  James is unflinching and hard-driving and difficult to escape.  The BMW parked outside might as well have been the big, black, beautiful elephant sitting in the center of the room. 

How do we read James as a Small Group?  I don't exactly know.

What I do know is that without Small Group, we just wouldn't read James.  At least, we wouldn't read all of it.

Failure to connect

I had lunch today with the small group of Staff who serve with InterVarsity in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Over lunch, I was trying to tell Brad about a Small Group I was involved in during that gap summer before I went to Oxford.  It was through USF.  The guys all played Age of Empires II (but I wasn't up to their level, so I wasn't invited to join).  And that's it.  That's all I can remember.  That and the fact that I gave them my tent after I decided that I was too much of a wimp to be a camper.

I was in and around the Small Group for a couple of months and I can't remember anything.  I can't remember anyone's name.  I can't remember what we studied or where we met.

My only interaction with the Small Group was at the weekly meetings.  Therein lies the problem.

If we fail to connect with people personally, relationally, the content of our Small Group will richochet off of them.

God told us all sorts of things about himself, but to be honest, if he hadn't connected with us through Jesus, I doubt we'd have paid a lot of attention.  When God becomes abstract and disconnected, he gets forgotten.

I feel like I keep circiling back to this idea of connection over and over again.  But it's so essential to our Small Group strategy and it's so essential to our theology as a movement. 

Failure to connect is failure.  Period.

Who's your Daddy?

God is someone who - according to the Bible - both brought us into existence and has some say in how we should live our lives: Creator and Authority.  Genesis 1-3.  There it is.

But God's not the only one who was involved in bringing me into existence.  He's not the only one who has a say in how I live my life.  Who else can make these claims?  That's right, los Padres (parents, not the baseball team).

I find it so interesting that God chose to claim the title "Father" as well as Creator and Authority.  Father is Creator and Authority with relationship and maybe commitment and maybe even love. 

I can't imagine not being able to call God "Father."  Can you?

Some folks I know can't imagine God being Father to be a good thing.  Their fathers left them hurt, left them angry, or just left them.  They can picture God as Father, but that isn't a good thing.

The concept of fatherhood is rapidly becoming a fuzzy concept in our culture.  Absent fathers, step-fathers, bad fathers and father-figures all clutter the landscape of our culture.  And this fuzziness isn't new. 

In the Bible fathers lie, steal, use, and abandon their kids.  Fathers teach their kids to sin, set them up for trouble and do all manner of crazy ridiculousness.

Maybe, by calling himself "Father," God is re-forming our concept of fatherhood.  Maybe that's what Paul means when he talks about fatherhood in Ephesians.  Maybe God is Father - not cold Creator or austere Authority - for our good.  Maybe the beautiful parts of fatherhood reflect something beautiful in God.

It's worth exploring.


New marketing media create new opportunities to reach out to people.  They also create a great deal of churn and static in your communication network. 

What does this have to do with your Small Group?

We want to have Small Group invitation strategies that are effective.  How do people connect with your Small Group?  How are you inviting people to your Small Group?

The number one reason anyone goes to anything is because someone invites them.  We say this all the time. 

But Facebook and Twitter and texting provide us with new ways of inviting people to things.  And this is where we have a synchronization problem.  Technically, you can invite people to events and to Small Group using these media.  But are the invites meaningful?

To have a meaningful Facebook invitation, you need to have an already established Group or Fanpage that provides meaningful content.  An Event isn't enough.

To have a meaningful Twitter invite, you need to have a content-rich feed.

To have a meaningulf text invitation, you need to make it personal.

New media do not provide substitutes for relational invitation.  You can use Facebook and Twitter and texting and (maybe) even a blog and a podcast to establish and deepen a relationship, but they are not substitutes for relationship.

If you want to use Facebook and Twitter and texting to invite people to your Small Group, make sure you use them properly, relationally.  Synchronization is essential.

Bad Calls

You can't keep from making bad calls. 

Bad calls have been in the sporting news a lot lately.  A few weeks ago, Jim Joyce made a mistake that cost a pitcher a perfect game.  This morning, Koman Coulibaly made a call that cancelled out the go-ahead goal in the US-Slovenia World Cup match.

You can't keep from making bad calls.  Small Group leaders miss things.  Small Group leaders assume things and assume wrongly.  We can't pay attention to everything and we can't process everything that happens in our Small Group.

You can't keep from making bad calls.  But you can control what you do next.

Joyce owned his mistake.  Coulibaly hasn't yet.

We want our Small Group communities to be the sort of loving, grace-filled places where you can make a bad call and own up to it.  We want people to be able to make mistakes.  That's part of learning.  That's part of growing.

Joyce received forgiveness for his bad call.  Coulibaly hasn't yet.

You can't keep from making bad calls.  What matters most is what you do next.

Special Occassions

Today's my anniversary.  Four years ago, Amy and I swapped vows at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke.  It was a special occassion.

Special occassions provide great opportunities for Small Group members to bond.  Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, baptisms, holidays, graduations, take your pick.  All provide opportunities for a Small Group to bond.

Today I received several notes from my new co-workers in the Florida Division, wishing Amy and I a happy anniversary.  The Divisional leadership team is run like a Small Group and I feel cared for, even though I don't know these folks well yet.

Jesus celebrated tons of holidays with his Small Group, with the 12 disciples and the band of women who traveled with them.  Holidays and special occassions aren't just for your biological family.  If your Small Group is becoming some kind of meaningful community, don't miss the opportunity presented by occassions.

Father's Day is coming up.  As is the Fourth of July, Labor Day and someone's birthday.  What impact will these occassions have on your Small Group?

The Self-revelation of a Small Group Leader

I struggle to share information about myself.  Maybe it's shyness.  Maybe it's years and years of Small Group leading and pastoring.  Maybe I just think I'm boring.

Sharing your own story is a wildly important thing for a Small Group leader to do.  But, if you're a Small Group leader and you're anything like me, you love to hear people in your Small Group talk.  The easiest way to get a Small Group talking is to ask them about themselves.  And it's easy to edge yourself out in the process.

I've been reading Barth's commentary on Romans recently.  One of his big ideas is that Jesus, as God-the-Son, is God's revelation of himself.  Apart from Jesus, we would know God only distantly, abstractly.  Barth goes as far as to assert that, without his self-revelation through his Son, all we would know of God was his wrath. 

I'm not sure what to make of Barth's theology, but I know that, even as self-revelation is vital for me as a Small Group leader, it's vital for God.  The people we care for in our Small Group need us to take the first step, opening ourselves to them, even as we need God to initiate with us.

Over the years, I've learned that being shy is no excuse not to share about yourself.  Neither is "no one's interested" a sufficient excuse.  And no Small Group leader is too boring to need to share.  Share your story.  Build your Small Group.

The Amazing Throw-a-verse

Have you ever had someone throw a verse in Small Group?

Maybe you make a claim, lay out some sort of theological idea, and they throw a verse.  Sometimes, verse-throwing comes with an "Aha!" and a "Gotcha!" kind of attitude.  Sometimes it comes with an open, conversational feel, a respectful "You've thought about this a lot.  How did you incorporate this verse..."

The Gotcha attitude shuts down conversation in Small Group.  People get defensive.  People jump in to fight rather than discover and explore and talk.

The Respectful attitude still presents a temptation to the Small Group.  If the person hasn't thought about that verse, will they say "I don't know" or "I haven't thought about that" or will they hem and haw and bs their way out of the corner.

I don't do a lot of verse quoting in Small Group.  I don't remember verses, but phrases and words and context.  Can I immediately give you proof-texts to disprove limited atonement?  No. 

But a good Small Group won't put people on the spot, won't say "Answer this now or never."  If we're a community, we can circle back to our conversations. 

We are a community. 

We can circle back.

Traveling Mercies

We're on the road today, so if you're wondering how you can pray for us, we're just asking people to pray for traveling mercies.

What the heck are "traveling mercies" and why do Christians love to ask other Christians to pray for them?

God, send St. Christopher to protect us as we travel (for my Catholic readers).
God, we know that you have a plan for us.  Protect us if you want (for my Reformed readers).
God, we're praying, so the power meters for your angel armies should be maxed out.  Protect us from demonic temptation and quality literature (for my Peretti readers).

Is that what you pray for when someone asks you to pray for traveling mercies?  What do you pray for?  Why?

The End of Small Group

The word "end" has many different meanings.

What is the chief end of Small Group?
"End" means purpose

How does a Small Group end?
I'm not sure.

We're moving to Florida tomorrow.  Our Small Group is going to help us load the truck.  Some folks from our Small Group are going to drive down with us and help us unload down there.  But Small Group has ended.

We no longer meet weekly.  We no longer study the Bible together formally.  But we are a part of something, a community, something like a family.  Maybe that's the end of Small Group: to create a community that never ends. 

That's what God is doing in the world. 
That's what God is doing through us.
Creating a community that never ends.
That's why we built our Small Group.
That's why your Small Group matters.

How to do Application in Small Group Bible Studies

Making use of what you know
It will cause your faith to grow

(See previous post if unfamiiar with IV Dorkiness)

Quality Small Group Application adjust the corporate life of a community (and the individuals in it) to the revelation and will of God.  We live differently because we know and love God.  As we grow to know him better and love him more, our Small Group communities will change.

Here're some question categories Small Group leaders can use when leading the Application phase of a Small Group exploration of a biblical passage:

Small Group: Application

So many students think we read the Bible in Small Group primarily because we want to be better people.  "Go to Small Group.  Read the Bible.  Do what it says.  Period." 

That's one appoach to Small Group Application.

But that approach is dead wrong.  If we become better people as a result of our Small Group Bible reading, woo hoo.  Side effect.  We read the Bible in Small Group because we want to know and love God.  We want to know who he is and what he's done.  We want relationship with him, love.  And knowing and loving God can and should shape our behavior.

We must always shape behavior through the love and knowledge of God.  The Bible was not written primarily to shape the behavior of Small Group communities.  The Bible was written to shape our love and knowledge of God.  To use it for another (even related) purposes is unwise.  We tend to manipulate.  We fall prey to selection biases.  We get the letter but miss the Spirit.  We end up with dry, dead, guilt-ridden, shame-bound Small Group leaders.

But we must engage in Application.  God wants us to adjust our lives to his rhythm, to see the place our lives have in his story and live well.

As with Observation and Interpretation, here's a list of the the costs of failure to do quality Application:
  • A Small Group may get buried under a load of guilt
  • A Small Group may ignore important theology
  • A Small Group may think the Bible is irrelevant
  • A Small Group may fail to impact life beyond the meeting
  • A Small Group may get bored with the Bible
  • A Small Group may miss opportunities to link behavior with theology
  • A Small Group may develop cult-like tendencies
  • A Small Group may create huge boundaries to outsiders
  • A Small Group may fail to help its members head toward maturity
  • A Small Group may miss a calling from God
  • A Small Group may become repetitious
  • A Small Group may become repetitious
Yes, I used the repetitious joke in three posts.  I liked it.  What can I say?

Ap-pli-ca-tion...making use of what you know

Just in case there was any doubt that InterVarsity people are huge dorks: check out this video on Small Group Application from InterVarsity's 2100 Discovery Series on Small Group Bible Study.

Small Group Application details tomorrow.

How to do Interpretation in Small Group Bible Studies

You are a Small Group
Don't get thrown for a loop
Believe when I say
The Bible's for today

Tell me why
Ain't nothing but a theory
Tell me why
Ain't nothing to take lightly
Tell me why
I never want to hear you say
The Bible's just cliche

[Enter boy band]

Quality Small Group interpretation aims to bring to the surface the meaning of a passage: to the original readers and to us today.  Small Group interpretation should build on the observation phase.  Folks in the Small Group should build and test theories as to the meaning of the text.

Here're some question categories Small Group leaders can use when leading the Interpretation phase of a Small Group exploration of a biblical passage:

Small Group: Interpretation

If your Small Group has done high-quality Observation, what do you do next?

Some Small Group leaders jump straight to Application.  That application is usually something along the lines of "Have more faith and be more obedient."  Have you ever walked out of a Small Group Bible study thinking "So all God cares about is me trying harder?" 

But the Bible actually rarely prompts us to just try harder, to try harder to believe, to try harder to obey.  One of the big failures of the Christian movement in the 20th century is that - without compromising a faith-grace soteriology - many pastors pushed for an abstract-Pelagian praxis.  But that's another story.

Peter jumps out of the boat: What's your boat?
Daniel gets thrown into the lion's den: Where's your lion's den?
Jonah gets swallowed by a whale: What's your whale?
Abraham sacrifices Isaac: Who's your Isaac?
David kills Goliath: Who are your giants? (metaphorically: no killing expected)

But why?  Why does he jump?  Why is he in the den?  Why is he in the water in the first place?  Why sacrifice Isaac?  Why kill the giant?

We skim over these questions in Small Group to our detriment.

As with Observation, here's a more thorough list of the costs of failure to do quality Interpretation:
  • A Small Group may miss the main point (main points are very important)
  • A Small Group may encourage unwise imitation of cautionary tales
  • A Small Group may grow into a faulty view of God, people, the church or the world
  • A Small Group may miss a challenge to the culture we live in
  • A Small Group may waste quality Observation
  • A Small Group may lack the foundation for quality Application
  • A Small Group may miss opportunities to grow in love for God
  • A Small Group may lose a chance to connect emotionally with a passage
  • A Small Group may squander a chance to engage someone new to Bible study with the depth of God's word
  • A Small Group may become repetitious
  • A Small Group may become repetitious
What does it all mean?  Data without interpretation rattle uselessly inside the human heart.  Knowledge puffs up.  Interpretation provides us with structure, perspective, stability.  We interpret all the time.  Let's take the time to do it well.

Intermission: Memorable is the new Excellent

I'm breaking up the Small Group Bible study series.  We'll pick up with Small Group Interpretation tomorrow.

We had a minor disaster take place at our house this week.  We had a collapse: the foundation (and outer wall of our basement) on the back third of our house.  There's mud and dirt everywhere. 
We called a contractor.  Actually, we called four.  None of them has been out to see our house.  One of them will eventually get our business.  But we're not expecting to be thrilled.

Contractors always do this.  They don't return calls.  They drag their feet.  They don't do customer service.  We've asked several people from our Small Group and no one looks forward to calling a contractor.  Or a plumber.  Or an electrician.  Or a roofer.

The contractor who comes out may do an excellent job.  The work may look great.  We may be very pleased by the work.  But that's not good enough.

John Wesley said "Excellence honors God and inspires people."  There's some truth in that statement.

But so often, in our pursuit of Excellence in the Work, we let other things slide.  And these things can overwhelm the Excellence in the Work.  They can leave our customers, parishoners, employers, and Small Group members deeply frustrated and dissapointed.  Even if we do the Excellent in the Work.

We need to find our way to Memorable Work.

How to do Observation in Small Group Bible Studies

There's something happening here.
What it is ain't exactly clear.
There's a piece of Scripture over there
To understand it we've gotta take care

I think it's time we
Stop, Small Group, what's that sound? 
Everybody look what's going down.

[Enter electic guitar]

Good Small Group Bible study hinges on quality Small Group observation.  If a Small Group leader asks good observation questions, everyone in the Small Group looks down at the text.  That's how you know you're doing it right.  There's a time for eye-to-eye contact.  The observation phase isn't it.

Tonight, I'm going to pass along the 5 Essential Observation Question Categories for Small Group.  Then I'll share some of my favorite staples.  Master the art of Small Group observation and your Small Group will love getting into Scripture together.  I guarantee it (or you can contact me for a full refund).

Small Group: Observation

Over the last year or so, I've grown to really enjoy detective stories: PD James, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers.  I've yet to attempt Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes, but I did see the movie.

One of the things I so enjoy about these stories is that the authors create suspense through foreshadowing.  Throughout the stories, they give you clues to solve the mysteries.  Pay close enough attention and you might unravel the mystery before Dagleish or Father Brown or Lord Peter.


Attention to detail is as crucial for Small Group Bible study as it is for mystery novels.  If the detective ignores evidence, has a failure of observation, the wrong person gets accused.  If the Small Group fails to observe, bad things happen.  I briefly mentioned this yesterday.

Here's a more thorough list of the costs of failure to do quality observation:
  • A Small Group may miss the main point of the passage
  • A Small Group may obsess over a minor point in the passage
  • A Small Group may mistakenly treat a minor point like a main point
  • A Small Group may get the main point, but miss the opportunity to discover the main point itself
  • A Small Group conversation may devolve into argument
  • A Small Group conversation may devolve into contradiction
  • A Small Group may fail to give people unfamiliar with the passage opportunities to participate in the conversation
  • A Small Group may lack the data needed to move on into Interpretation and Application of the passage
  • A Small Group may become repetitious, having the same conversation every week
  • A Small Group may become repetitious, having the same conversation every week
Every Small Group, when studying the Bible, does observation. 
The challenge is to do it well.

The Inductive Method for Birthing and Cooking Up Conversation in Small Group

Amy got really sick just before Will was born.  She gained 20 pounds in fluid in a week.  Her blood pressure shot way, way up.  Something was wrong.  Even though Will's due date was June 7th (still not here), he had to be born.  As we joked about in Small Group: Vamanos!

The doctors and nurses induced Amy.  That's one inductive method.

I love to cook, especially for my Small Group.  The science behind it fascinates me.  Did you know that people cook with magnetism now?  Someone decided to put Joules first law to work: current passing through material that's conductive can generate heat.  Turn the burner on and you can touch it with no problems (unless you're Iron Man).  Put a cast-iron skillet on that same burner and it gets hot almost immediately.  Magnetism is awesome (check out this article).

This cooking method, well, can you guess what they call it?  That's another inductive method.

We want to approach the Bible, not to have our opinions confirmed, but to connect with God in all his truth.  We want to hear what's really in the passages we're reading in Small Group.  If they challenge us, that's okay.  If they confront us, that's okay.

The approach to studying the Bible in Small Group that best brings it alive and provokes conversation is, you guessed it, another inductive method.

This is the method we use.

Still looking for inspiration

The doctrine of inspiration is proving slippery to pin down (especially with my theology textbooks packed up for the move to Florida).

Bill Hunter and I had an excellent conversation about inspiration today.  One of the things that came up in our conversation was the importance of intent.

What if the doctrine of inspiration meant that God included everything he wanted us to know in our Bible?  If that's what it means that the Bible is God's word, then our task in Small Group becomes searching for what God intends for us to hear from the passages we're studying.  What did God intend us to get?