Guiding: Leadership in Live-it-up

This post is the sixth post in a ten part series ... Small Group Leader Training. For more posts in this series check out the series frontpage

The Live-it-up stage is the smooth sailing stage in the life of a Small Group.  The metaphorical plane is at cruising altitude and the skies are clear.  So, what now?

Leadership in this stage is fairly intuitive, but that doesn't exempt us from temptations.

During the Live-it-up stage, Guiding is the ideal leadership behavior.  The Leader has become a member of the Group and the Group generally knows what to expect for their time together.  The Group needs a Guide, someone to keep them moving and in the right direction.

The Group does not need a Boss to order them around.
The Group does not need a Guru to tell them what to think.
The Group does not need a Superhero to inspire them.
The Group does not need a Savior to fix everyone's problems.
The Group does not need a Party-planner to entertain them.

The Leader continues Pursuing people in the Small Group, but at this point, everyone (or at least most people) is engaging in Pursuing as well.  This is also an echo of that Modeling behavior the Leader engaged in through the Start-up stage ... people generally do what they see their Leaders do (if you give them enough time and opportunity).

Guiding is simple.  Get discussion rolling, keep it on track, keep it moving, cue transitions between segments (ie. from sharing to Bible study to prayer to 4-Square ... whatever).  The skill set includes asking open-ended questions, paying attention to conversational flow, mapping out the main point of a passage, steering conversation into the main point, and encouraging sharing and participation.  It's a lot, but it's pretty simple.

What does guiding a Group look like for you?

The next post in this series will explore Visioneering, the leadership stance I find most helpful when leading a Group in the Wrap-up stage in the life of a Small Group. I'll post a link here as soon as it is published.

Pursuing: Leadership in the Shake-up

This post is the fifth post in a ten part series ... Small Group Leader Training. For more posts in this series check out the series frontpage

Let's talk about the Shake-up ... the awkward teen years of the Small Group life-cycle.

What do you do when your Group hits the Shake-up?

Most of us don't expect the Shake-up.  We expect an upward trajectory.  Sure, the first couple of weeks ... the Start-up ... it's going to be awkward.  But after that ... we're surprised.

We live in the mist of the myth of progress.  Technology will make work easier.  Life gets more and more comfortable for each succeeding generation.  We expect a more just, verdant and peaceful world.

But the reality of life is more complex.  And Small Groups are no different.

As people open up, weird stuff starts to happen ... Shake-up. 

Personality conflict.  Hurt.  Sin.  The dark side of the coin.
And the bright side of the coin.  Growth.  Friendship.  Mission.

Our tendency is to hunker down, set up shop in the Start-up stage and continue the leadership behavior that got us here: Modeling.  Looking at the bright side of the coin, this makes sense.  And looking at the dark side of the coin ... well ... perhaps we just need a little more team-building, a few more icebreakers! 

But this doesn't work.  Tensions build.  Momentum wavers.  And eventually people stop showing up and our Groups disintegrate ... or drift along stale and shallow, bumping against the bottom and grinding until not even we Leaders want to show up.

This is why Pursuing is so important. 

Pursuing is a Leadership posture that extends beyond Modeling.  When we model, we do what we want our people to do (set the tone).  But when we pursue, we do more than we expect them to do, more than they've been trained to do.  This is where the mantle of leadership rests heavy on our shoulders.

Pursuing behaviors can include taking initiative to get to know people deeply, remembering names and stories, going out of your way to show that you care and that the members of the Group belong.  Pursuing behaviors can also involve a lot of asking probing questions and listening attentively and compassionately.  [My favorite book to work on this skill set is Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry]

We don't ask Group Leaders to be therapists, but we do ask them to care.

Have you ever seen a Leader excel at Pursuing?

The next post in this series will explore Guiding, the leadership stance I find most helpful when leading a Group in the Live-it-up stage in the life of a Small Group. I'll post a link here as soon as it is published.

Modeling: Leadership in Start-up

This post is the fourth post in a ten part series ... Small Group Leader Training. For more posts in this series check out the series frontpage.

The unwritten / oft-written rule around my ministry is "Never ask your people to do something you are unwilling to do yourself."  This applies to evangelism, discipling, going to conferences, taking notes during a sermon ... just about anything.

I value this principle because I believe that Leaders set the tone.  Over time, Small Groups begin to look like their Leaders.  Just as trees produce fruit after their kind and animals produce offspring after their kind, Leaders produce people that look like them.

This is one of the reasons Modeling is so important.

When we model, we show the folks in our Small Groups what participation in the Small Group is supposed to look like.  "How deep should I share?  How long should I pray?  What kind of humour is appropriate (if any)?"  That kind of stuff.

And in the Start-up stage of the life of a Small Group, your people are looking to you to set the tone, to create the culture.  They don't know each other.  They don't know what the Group's supposed to look like.  They may barely even know you.  But you're the Leader.  Three weeks from now, they will do what they've seen you do.

Modeling sounds simple, but in practice it is so counter-intuitive.

We struggle with this.  We want people to share and be vulnerable, so we hold back, trying to give them room to talk.  We want people to engage with the discussion and Bible Study, so we hold back, trying to give them room to talk.  And these behaviors are great.  Just not in the Start-up stage.

In the Start-up stage, the Leader creates room for people to talk by talking.  Isn't that strange?  Just as the bride and groom set the wedding guests to cake eating by smashing cake into each other's faces, the Small Group Leader has to take the first step.  Share the first story.  Make the first observation.  Pray the first prayer.

This is what it really means to break the ice.  The Leader walks out on the frozen pond and jumps.  Often alone.  Jumps until the ice breaks.  A week.  A month.  Five minutes.  Different Small Groups take different amounts of time to join the leader in the water beneath the ice.  But the Leader has to go first.

Going first is frightening.  "What if I do something wrong?" 
Going first is confusing.  "What am I supposed to do?" 
Going first is risky.  "What if I'm rejected by the Group?" 

By going first, the Leader takes responsibility for that fear, confusion and risk ... and overcomes it.  And, let's face it ... of all the people in the circle, the Leader has the least to fear, the smallest amount of confusion and is really taking the fewest risks by going first.

This is why, when new Group Leaders tell me their Small Group isn't sharing, isn't digging deep, isn't being vulnerable, I always ask about modeling.  It doesn't solve every problem, but it is the single best leadership practice for a Group in the Start-up stage.

Where have you seen a Leader really embrace Modeling in the Start-up stage?

The next post in this series will explore Pursuing, the leadership stance I find most helpful when leading a Group through the Shake-up stage in the life of a Small Group.  I'll post a link here as soon as it is published.

Leading a Living Small Group

This post is the third post in a ten part series ... Small Group Leader Training. For more posts in this series check out the series frontpage.

Small Groups have a life of their own.  They're conceived, they're born, they go through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood and then into retirement.  Some may live 6 weeks.  Some may live 6 years.  But they are alive.

Small Group Leaders need to know that their Small Group is alive. 
This impacts how we lead.

--------------------

Three images

Push a car.  At first, you build momentum ... push and push and push and the car moves slowly.  Then the car starts rolling and needs guidance, so you run around to the front, reach through the window and steer.  If you run to the front too soon, the car stops rolling again and you have to start over.  If you time it right, you just go and go and go.  And then you need to stop.  You can jump in front of the car but I wouldn't recommend it.  You can drag the back bumper.  You can jump into the seat and hit the brake.  Push a car.

Coach a team.  Pre-season is always rough.  Passes get dropped.  Coverage lapses.  Coach teaches.  Players are getting to know each other.  And over time tempers flare.  Jealousy and competitiveness and desire to win combine in a storm and Coach pulls the team through until everyone knows there's no "I" in "team" and we play together.  And the team clicks.  And games get won.  And then the season ends.  Coach a team.

Have a child.  Screaming.  Sleeping.  Diapers.  Toys.  Teething rings.  Baby gates.  Dada.  Shoes.  Slightly bigger shoes.  Haircuts and Kindergarten and Daddy and t-ball and lost teeth and bedtime pushed back to 9pm and Jr. High lockers and Dad and prom and college and home for the summer, work, Thanksgiving, adultfriendchildequal.  Every stage calls for something different, something new from us as parents.  Have a child.

--------------------

Small Groups have a life of their own.  They have stages, a life-cycle.  And every stage calls for a little different leadership from us Leaders.

In InterVarsity training we talk about four-stages:
  1. Start-up
  2. Shake-up
  3. Live--it-up
  4. Wrap-up
[This is our adaptation of Tuckman's Stages of Group Development]

When we recruit Small Group Leaders, we cast a vision for a Small Group in the Live-it-up stage.  Friends gathered together.  Deep conversation.  Spiritual growth.  And we tell our Leaders that we want them to be the "Guide alongside" rather than the "Sage on the stage." 

But Small Groups don't start out in the Live-it-up stage.  And some never get to that stage.  They fizzle out and collapse.  And one of the reasons this happens is because our Leaders don't know that the Small Group needs a different kind of leadership in the first two stages.

If you can learn to adapt your leadership to the life-stage of your group, you'll be on your way to a healthy Small Group, the sort of group we dream of leading.  [This principle of adaptive leadership applies to car pushing and coaching and parenting as well]

How have you seen leaders adapt their leadership to match the life-stage of a Small Group?

The next four posts in this series will focus on the four different life-stages of a Small Group and the leadership paradigm that required by each stage.  The first stage is The Start-up and it requires the Leader to Model. (I'll post a link to it here as soon as it is published).

Small is the New Large

This post is the second post in a ten part series ... Small Group Leader Training.  For more posts in this series check out the series frontpage.

Every year, hundreds of college students shelve their faith in Jesus. 

We like to think that it's because of the worldview challenge presented by the University.  This gives us an enemy.  The evil professors!  Corrupting our youth!  Evangelicals thrive when we have enemies.

But I've seen very few students drop their faith because of an intellectual challenge.  Not really.  That may be the story.  But dig a little deeper and you hear two more reasons, reasons closer to the heart of the problem. 

The first reason has to do with personal pain.  I won't comment on that here.

The second reason has to do with boredom.

All their lives, these students have sat in rows to learn.  School.  Church.  Youth Group.  Flashing lights and loud music have entertained them, educated them, led them into the Christian life.  Their circles expanded, from family to Sunday School to Big Church and Camps and Conferences. 

"Large" served and blessed.  I'm grateful for "Large."  But "Large" gets boring.

You can only grow so much through "Large."

The crowds loved Jesus, then turned on him.  They kept demanding more of him.  New teaching, more miracles, salvation!  And the mob got what they wanted.  But not what they expected.  Salvation through the cross.  The miracle of the resurrection.  The gospel ... new teaching, costly and free.  Small.

Few people saw the crucifixion.  A dozen.  A few hundred.  Fewer than gather to hear the celebrity preachers of our day.  And no one witnessed the resurrection.  There was no spectacle there.  No flashing lights or loud music.  Jesus didn't have a flesh-colored mic wrapping from his ear to the side of his chin.

But millions have heard the gospel.

Small and Large go together.  Hand-in-hand.  Jesus didn't send the crowd away ... he fed them.  He taught them, cared for them, longed to gather them in.  And still he focused his ministry on the Twelve and on Peter, James and John and again on Peter.  He travelled all over, but kept coming back to the home of Mary and Martha.  Large and Small.

I don't know how to do "Small" with high school students.  It's a challenge.  Robert Leatherwood managed to do it at Van Dyke, but I've rarely seen it repeated.  "Large" is easier to do with almost everybody.  Who doesn't have an hour a week to be entertained, educated and fed (spiritually)?

But if "Large" is failing us ... and it is failing us with college students ... Small is thriving.  Communal living.  Mentoring.  Accountability.  Local churches planting local churches and never becoming mega-churches.  Micro-churches.  Yes ... even Small Groups.

Small is cheap, but costly ... it costs time and emotion.  It's bigger and more expansive, drilling into the places lights and loud music can't reach.  It's irreplacable and fun.

Small is the new Large.

Where are you involved in Small?

The next post in this series will be on Leading a Living Small Group.  That's right, I think Small Groups have a life of their own and a life cycle all their own.  I'll post the link here after I get it published.

Series: Small Group Leader Training

I'm so excited for our Small Groups to start!

In the next month, InterVarsity in South Florida will launch 16 new Small Groups with 10 first time leaders.  We've done some training and we'll do a lot of in-the-field mentoring, but the start of school is a great time to refresh and expand Small Group Leader's skill sets.

Additionally, I've had the opportunity to help with some of the training for Crossway Church's Community Group Leaders.  These guys will be leading sermon-based groups out of local homes, providing environments for spiritual growth and friendship.

As I've immersed myself in training materials over the last few weeks, I thought it could be fun to share it with you.  Sharing this material also helps me tighten my grip on it.  Thanks for reading!

Here is an outline for this series (links will be added as post are published):

InterVarsity has invested a lot in me, training me how to train Group Leaders.  Many thanks to Joe Ho, Jimmy Long, J. Alex Kirk, Lee Simmons, Evan Keller, Bill Robinson and my leaders and co-leaders at Duke IV (Clint, Krista, Carrie, Gary, Patrick, Nikki, Joshua).

I also wanted to send a shout out to the 20Somethings Small Group.  I've never been a part of a more meaningful community. 

Note: This series draws on several excellent sources (as usual, little originality here) ...
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Small Group Leaders' Handbook: The Next Generation
Small Group Leaders' Handbook: Developing Transformational Communities
Coaching Life-Changing Small Group Leaders

Sanctification and Switching Teams

Once upon a time there was a woman who worked the grill at Burger King.  She made minimum wage, worked nights and weekends and always smelled like fries. 

Out of nowhere she's offered a job in a great kitchen, Bern's, Ella's, somewhere fun, working alongside a master chef, cooking amazing food for grateful people.  All her dreams came true.

But one week into the new job, she stops going to the amazing kitchen and starts showing up at Burger King again.  She didn't get fired, wasn't asked to leave ... they still want her in the amazing kitchen.  But there she is, flipping burgers.

--------------------------------------

Once upon a time there was a man who played quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.  He grew up watching them.  Smith running touchdowns.  Irvin jumping over defensive backs.  But that wasn't the team this year.  This year, they stunk. 

Just before his contract is about to expire and he was going to be forced to leave the NFL, this quarterback received a job offer to play for the Washington Redskins, straight off their Superbowl-winning season (hey ... I said "once upon a time").  He'll have the best running back in the league, an all-star receiving corp and an offensive line that literally weighed a ton.  On top of that, he would get to play under the league's most legendary coach.

But shortly into the season, the man is seen walking around in a Cowboy's jersey.  He shows up at Cowboy's practices and sits in the stands.  When the Redskins played the Cowboys, the man seemed intent to throw interceptions, as if he were still a Cowboy.

--------------------------------------

This is part of the image of sanctification Paul uses in Romans 6. 

We used to work at one place, used to play for one team ... now, in Christ, our loyalties have changed.  The change in loyalty naturally comes with new behaviors.  It wouldn't make sense to go back to your old way of life.  This makes for a powerful motivation for sanctification.

What other motives for sanctification have you heard?

For a great, short overview of Scriptural passages on sanctification, check out this article: "What is Sanctification?"

Fundraising, unreturned calls and taking it personally

Fundraising makes all kind tweaks on our souls. 

Some tweaks are wonderful: increased trust in God, heart-space for community to participate alongside us in mission, things like that.  But some tweaks are painful, a self-centered insecurity.

What happens in your heart when someone doesn't return a phone call to you?

More often that I'd like, I get this sick feeling in my gut: they're avoiding me because they think I'm calling to ask them for money.  A wave of shame preceeds a shadow of self-doubt.  Am I just calling to ask them for money?  Am I a mooch? 

The hardest part about fundraising for me isn't the lack of control, it's the shame.

And the real facts don't seem to matter.

It doesn't seem to matter that my donors see themselves as supporting the ministry (not giving a handout).  It doesn't seem to matter that people are excited to give to what we're doing.  It doesn't seem to matter that in my years of campus ministry I've never made a call "just to ask for money".  Shame isn't a rational emotion.

Rationally, I know that people don't call back because they're busy, they forget, they lose numbers.  I know that they're probably happy to hear from me, probably intend to call me back.  But that doesn't seem to matter.  If any emotion can be rational ... well ... shame isn't a rational emotion.

And so I take it personally when people don't call me back ... not anger, but shame.

You may never fundraise, but this taking-it-personally is a universal human trait.  It may be a phone call or an e-mail or a social snub.  Who knows? 

Have you ever experienced shame associated with taking it personally?

Book Review: Bossypants

Disclaimer: I know I wrote a book review yesterday (Muy Macho really challenged stereotypes, brought different perspectives and gave me some stuff to think about) and I promise I won't do another for a while.

I'm a Tina Fey fan.  I admit it.  SNL.  Mean Girls.  30 Rock.

Her memior, Bossypants, hit bookstores in the spring and has been climbing it's way up best-seller's lists.  The book contains snapshot stories from Fey's life, moving briskly and pausing for jokes and insightful reflection on feminism, leadership, cultural trends and motherhood.

I read Bossypants cover to cover in just a few hours.  I laughed, read sections to Amy and nodded along.  In terms of comedy memoirs, I'd say it's as good as Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, but not as sad.  It's definitely worth a read.

Here're some things to look for ...

Bossypants raises women's issues in a way that is engaging, funny and insightful.  Coming of age, engaging in a career, climbing vocational ladders, leading (ie. wearing the Bossypants), managing success and motherhood ... Tina Fey touches on all of these topics.  I feel like I better understand half-understood snippets of conversation I've caught with my wife, female friends and co-workers.  [I'll pass the book on to friends just for Fey's reflection of formula, breastfeeding and having another child ... so great!]

In Bossypants, Tina Fey also manages to leverage vulnerable confessions to share insights into the world and culture.  From her high school friendships with gay men to her job interview at the YMCA to her Sarah Palin SNL sketches right up to her tension with career and motherhood ... Tina Fey shares what she's learned without skipping over the messy stories that helped her learn.  Memoirs are, by necessity, self-centered, but Bossypants manages to avoid being self-serving.  And doesn't a display of humble vulnerability help you trust an author, a leader?

Lastly, Tina Fey writes in her own voice and cleanly.  This is phenomenally difficult to do.  It takes a lot of talent to write in your voice, but not write like you talk.  We do all sorts of things when we talk that don't lead to fun reading.  Bossypants avoided all of the pitfalls and made for a fast, fun read.

Good for a beach read.  Good for a book group.  Great for a Saturday afternoon.

Book Review: Muy Macho

What does it mean to be a Latino man?

Machismo as a concept proves difficult to pin down.  Stereotypes and generalizations muddy the water.  Angry, silent, violent, passive, aggressive, unpredictable, passionate, virile, tough, domineering, swagger, hyper-masculine.  You may find these qualities in Latino men.  You may find these qualities in men of any ethnicity, from any background.

Ray Gonzalez gathered 16 essays reflecting on Latino masculinity and published them in Muy Macho.  You'll find the essays filled with honesty, powerful images, and tough stories.  The men talk about their childhood, their mistakes, how they've tried to come to grips with machismo and the men's movement.

Some things I loved in Muy Macho

In these essays, Latino masculinity was imaged and described in terms of personal history and relationship.  Latino men are what they are in community, in familia.  And the community deeply impacts the way machismo gets expressed. 

This way of talking about masculinity contrasts with Anglo authors whose reflections on masculinity echo throughout the evangelical landscape (Bly and Eldredge and, to a lesser degree Miller).  The Latino essayists don't reach back through ancient history or abstract definitions or even pay much attention to big sociological trends.  Their focus is more narrow, more personal, reflecting the communal values of our culture.

Most of the struggles and fears these men wrote about had to do with relationships.  More narrowly, they focused on fatherhood.  Their fathers.  Their sons.  Martin Espada's essay "The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son" especially captured this focus, memories of watching his father, awareness of his son watching him.

I also found fascinating the essayists' insights into displacement and its influence on Latino men.  Isolation, exile, a desire to fit in, a refusal to assimilate ... these themes weave throughout the essays, a bass line holding the song together.  Omar Castaneda's "Guatemalan Macho Oratory" highlights the dissonance between macho speech and Anglo speech.  Jack Lopez' "Of Cholos and Surfers" tells a second-generation story of cultural conflict.  Ricardo Pau-Llosa's "Romancing the Exiliado" captures the relational dysfunction (and opportunities) created by displacement.  Any of these essays would justify the price of the book.

Some things in Muy Macho I wish were different

This essay collection was phenomenally well written, but trended toward the literary.  Some of the essays were almost incomprehensible.  Some were disturbing without apparent purpose.  Some voices were missing.

Perhaps a project like this wouldn't work if it incorporated younger voices or 3rd generation voices or non-literary voices.  They essays were eye-opening, but I wonder how deeply they reflect my family, how accurately they capture the real world.  Contrasted to Pearl Fuyo Gaskins' What are You? (my favorite book on bi-racial identity) and her interview / echo approach, Muy Macho felt a little one note.  A guitar has a lot of diversity (6 strings), but it's not a symphony.  I'd love to see Muy Macho expanded, updated.

Additionally, I wish the book had more of a timeless quality about it.  Written in the midst of the now defunct men's movement, a lot of the conversation in the book sounds dated, moldy.  None of us beat drums shirtless in the woods to find our masculinity ... at least ... not anymore.  But this quirk can easily be forgiven.

Are you reading anything good?

Guilt is the enemy of gratitude

I drive a nice truck, a 2007 Chevy Avalanche. 

It was a generous gift from my Dad, has saved me a ton of money and has helped more people move than I can count.

But I find myself feeling guilty about having the truck.

The guilt started with the gas mileage / environmental footprint.  But that was nothing.

As a missionary and a person in ministry, the guilt hung over my head.  How can I ask people to support my ministry when I drive a vehicle with leather seats?  Aren't we supposed to be poor, look poor?

I've told people so many times that the truck was a gift, my appreciation has been chipped away.

This is the way guilt goes.  Guilt around gifts chips away at gratitude.

A car.  An education.  A relationship.  A job.  God's love.  Guilt.

Guilt springs to life when we feel we have something we don't deserve.  In this, it is a frequent companion to grace.  God gives us life and love we don't deserve.  And sometimes guilt just overwhelms us.

We respond to guilt in unhealthy ways, don't we?  We soak in the guilt, cower.  We hide the gift or ignore it, hoping the guilt will get bored and wander away.  We rail against the guilt, claiming we deserved the gift, that the gift was a payment.

But some gifts refuse to let us cower.  Some gifts refuse to wander away.  Some gifts are so clearly gifts that no one can confuse them for payment.  Some gifts are so great, our only appropriate response is gratitude.

The gospel of Jesus tells the story of a great gift from God.  The gospel calls us to gratitude.  Gratitude, not guilt, not shame.  Gratitude, worship, attention.  Isn't that better than guilt?

So perhaps gratitude is a right response to all gifts: love, health, work ... even a truck.

Do you find that guilt makes it harder for you to be grateful?

On False Choices

Don't you hate it when you're forced into a false choice?

Republican or Democrat?
Coke or Pepsi?
Attractive or Intelligent?
Raise taxes or cut spending?
Complementarian or Egalitarian?
Conservative or Liberal?
Science or faith?
Duke or UNC?
Justice or mercy?
Diet or exercise?
Edward or Jacob?
Friend or enemy?

False choices attempt to eliminate the middle ground, to ignore choices beyond the dichotomy.  It's possible to be neither a Republican nor a Democrat, to prefer Ironbeer over Coke and Pepsi, to be both attractive and intelligent (see my wife).

Our lives are full of false choices.  For the most part, this is because we need efficient ways of navigating the world.  Restricting our options (even arbitrarily), allows us to preserve mental space for more necessary tasks.  Psychologists call these false restrictions "heuristics" (see my post on generalizations for more on this).

But heuristics fail us.  They free us from expending the energy it takes to create new options and the exhaustion that comes from belonging to multiple tribes, but they also entrap and enslave us, are also used to manipulate us.  And some people present false choices for exactly this reason ... they benefit from our restricted pool of options.

What do you do when you are presented with a false choice?

What good is a hometown prophet?

Have you ever struggled to follow Christ close to home? 

Your hometown knows your story, has seen your mistakes, pushes your buttons and lets you get away with things you wouldn't do in other places.

How do you share the gospel with a brother you've beaten up?  How do you talk about biblical wisdom with someone who has changed your diapers?  How do you talk about responsibility with a child you've let down?

We are all tempted to withhold the distinctly Christian parts of our lives.

But this temptation hurts us and hurts the people who know us best.

When we hold back, we twist our understanding of the gospel of Jesus. 

The gospel tells us that living a godly life is beyond our ability.  We haven't always lived in a way that pleased God.  That's why we need a savior!  And the gospel tells us that, in Christ, God accepts us even though we don't live perfectly.  God accepts us (as Paul argues in Romans 6) because we are united to Christ.

When we hold back, we also create pockets of life where we are prone to temptation. 

Think of it this way ... imagine a friend whose husband consistently took his wedding ring off before he went to the office.  Sure, he can put the ring back on when he returns to his car at the end of the day, but still ...

Now, the ring is just an image.  Who cares if he wears a ring or not?  But the idea, that a man could pocket his commitment to his wife while at work without consequence and temptation, just doesn't sound wise.  Does it?

When we hold back, we also miss opportunities to bless our hometown.

Our families, neighbors, co-workers ... they need us to push back against our temptation to hold back.  That distinctly Christian part of our lives has been planted in us (in part) as a prophetic witness to those closest to us.

Whether they know Jesus or not ... but especially if they know Jesus ... the people closest to us see something of Jesus in us.  More clearly, they see something of the gospel of Jesus in us.  If Jesus could love someone like us, if Jesus could transform us the way he's transforming us ...

A prophet may not be honored in his hometown, but we're not looking for honor, right?

Where are you tempted to hold back?

How to receive the Kingdom of God like a child

"Child-like faith" ... we've all been told we need it.

Jesus tells his disciples to let the children come to him because the Kingdom of God belongs to people like them.  And so we try to figure out how to become more like children.  But what does that mean?

Anti-intellectual ... no.  Curious ... maybe.  Trusting, innocent, hopeful, easily surprised, high capacity for delight, bringing no personal merit ... who knows?

We could spend a lot of time trying to figure out and emulate child-like faith.  But what if that was never the point?

When I look at the grammar of the passage, Luke 18, I wonder if we aren't missing something:
But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

Reading it, you can see why Christians starting asking questions about child-likeness.  The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  If we could only become "such as these," the kingdom of God will belong to us.

But read closer.  "Receive the kingdom of God like a little child" could have other meanings.

Think about it ... where do you position yourself?  Are you the child, receiving the kingdom of God?  That's the traditional interpretation.  Who else could you be?

What if you were one of the disciples?  You had just been chewed out, gently, for failing to receive children.  Are you going to put yourself in the place of the child or in the place of the person receiving the child?

Still not clear?

Let's add some words ... the traditional reading adds "receive the kingdom of God as if you were a child or in the same way a child receives things."  What if we read instead "receive the kingdom of God in the same way you would receive a child"?

Would that be useful?

Instead of wrangling with what child-like faith looks like and trying to have it, what if we tried to receive the kingdom of God like a child?  You know how to receive a child ... or you can figure it out.

How do you receive children?

This post is one of several reflecting on Luke 18, which the InterVarsity Florida Divisional Staff Team studied during one of our days together this Fall. Don't worry, this is the last one from DSC.

Turning children away

The disciples turned the little children way.

We see them do it and know, just from the rhythm of the gospels, that it's going to turn out to be a mistake.  Turning people away from Jesus always seems to be a mistake.

But I resonate with the disciples.  I too have people I'm tempted to turn away.

In the previous two stories in Luke 18, we've heard about God's justice and his mercy.  God has shown kindness toward two of the three ancient protected classes: widow and foreigner.  The third protected class - orphans - comes into view here.

Orphans, and children in general, are the class of people we most protect as a society.  We'll put our widows in nursing homes and erect electrified, razor-wired fences to turn immigrants away, but abandon kids ... turn them away ... not here.  "Monsters" that's what we call people who hurt children.  We protect them fiercly.  And so, this action by the disciples is almost incomprehensible to us.

But perhaps they had understandable motives.  Laying hands on healthy kids may not have been a high priority (mission limit).  The kids, with their lives before them, might come back later, freeing the disciples to minister to people closer to death (time limit).  Jesus is clearly called to preaching and savioring, so maybe he shouldn't do kids' ministry (gift limit). 

And before we condemn the disciples, remember that many churches won't welcome crying babies on the front row during the sermon or in the center of the Bible Study circle.  We all have limits.  Priorities, opportunities and calling influence who we feel we can welcome.  So we turn people away. 

But we have to be on guard against the subtle pull of favoritism.  If we're not careful, we'll never find ourselves prepared to receive children.  And God seems to find that troubling.

Why do you think it's important that Jesus welcomed children?

This post is one of several reflecting on Luke 18, which the InterVarsity Florida Divisional Staff Team studied during one of our days together this Fall.

Justice in line with God's character

How can God both do justice for the widow and show mercy to the tax collector?

This is a tension we find in Luke 18.  When God claims to be better than the Unjust Judge we cheer.  When he promises to exalt the humble and sinful, we breathe a sigh of relief.  When he does both, we scratch our heads in confusion.

A just God would have to punish the tax collector, right?

Those of us familiar with the gospel of Jesus know that Jesus absorbs the punishment for all of God's people when he dies on the cross.  But, even then, is that "justice"?

A "just" judge does as much as possible to only punish the guilty.  A "just" judge doesn't punish the victim or the victim's family or any innocent.  As least, not in the sense the word "just" is normally used.

And so I wonder if there isn't another way of thinking about justice.  What happens if we make this the starting place for our run around the analogy circle?

Justice, in Luke 18, has more to do with God's posture toward his people.  Justice allows for favoritism and is not fair, but the favoritism has more to do with mercy than advantage.  Justice is concerned with setting things in order, putting people where they belong, restoration.

And justice has meant this, in some cultures.  "Shalom" for the people of Israel meant peace and harmony and, yes, justice.  "Dikaiosyne" for Plato and the Greeks had a lot to do with social contribution and righteousness and order and, yes again, justice.  Why does it have to mean "everyone gets what they deserve" to us?

American society has been constructed according to a framework of intrinsic rights and (to some degree) civic responsibility.  Fairness in getting and giving is the ideal (if not the reality).  So much good has come as we in the US have leaned into this framework, particularly for the poor and women and ethnic minorities.  But even this framework has limits.

In God the Just, justice and mercy abide together.  If our conceptions of justice don't have room for mercy, perhaps we have yet to discover what it means that God is just.

What do you think?  How do justice and mercy go together?

This post is one of several reflecting on Luke 18, which the InterVarsity Florida Divisional Staff Team studied during one of our days together this Fall.

Smuggling values as works

"God loves me because I do good and avoid doing bad things"

Few, if any, evangelical Christians would make a statement like that.  We've been trained too well.  The echo of Luther's protest against Rome continues to ring in our ears and in our theology.

We know how to respond when we see a passage like Luke 18, where the Pharisee stands up to pray and says:
God, I thank you that I am not like other people - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
We know that the Pharisee's fasting and his attention to the tithe won't get him anywhere with God.  We know that his pride and self-exaltation, his looking down on everyone else is offensive to God.  And we look down on him.

Taylor Bodoh, the InterVarsity campus minister at FSU, pointed this our during the Florida Staff Conference.  We Protestants know better to smuggle in our works as righteousness, but we don't cease to be smugglers.

We have perfected smuggling values as works.

We value Scripture, justice, evangelism, worship, theology, multi-ethnicity, reconciliation, preaching, personal holiness, families, compassion, children.  You could make a long list.

And our temptation is to think that the love of God rests on us because we carry these values.  We don't pay indulgences, but we indulge in pride.

The gospel of Jesus calls us to abandon our reliance on everything other than his life, death and resurrection as we seek reconciliation with God.  Works, values, theology: all these flow from the gospel, but will never replace the gospel as a means to connect us to God.

What do you think would happen if we ceased priding ourselves in our values?

This post is one of several reflecting on Luke 18, which the InterVarsity Florida Divisional Staff Team studied during one of our days together this Fall.

Is God like the Unjust Judge?

Describe God.  What words or images come to mind?

Exalted.  Powerful.  Supreme.  Not needing help or validation.  Mighty.  Awesome.  Brave and bold.  Capable.  Sovereign.

The Christian God is an amazing god.

But do we see God clearly?

In Luke 18, as I mentioned in yesterday's post on desperate prayer, God is contrasted with an unjust judge.  Through this contrast, we are challenged to see God in a different way.

In the passage, Luke makes a "how much more" argument.  It's a classic structure.  If you like ground beef, how much more you must love filet.  If your co-workers think you're smart, how much more must your mom brag about you.  If sinful parents know how to give good gifts, how much more will your Heavenly Father give you exactly what you need.

If the unjust judge - who is selfish and disinclined to give justice - acts in response to the widow's persistence, how much more will God - who is generous and inclined to give justice - hear the cries of the people he has chosen.

God brings justice.
God listens to his people.
God sees to it that his people get justice quickly.

This picture of a God who is involved, concerned, active often clashes with our view of him.  In response to the evil we see in the world, we think that God is uninvolved.  In light of our pain, we see God as preoccupied.  In the midst of our throwing ourselves into service, we act like God has left us to work for him without his help.

Our theology tells us better, but our lives betray us (as does our worship music).

A god who is only exalted, only transcendent, only focused on his own glory is not the Christian God.  The Christian God knows blood and dirty diapers.  The Christian God knows sweat and hard work and sore feet.  The Christian God knows friendship and betrayal and pain and loneliness ... cross, death, grave ... and joy and confusion and hope and life.

This is the God in whom we are called to place our faith, the God who sees and cares and helps quickly.  He is not like the Unjust Judge.  He is trustworthy.

But, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?  Will we even recognize him?

This post is one of several reflecting on Luke 18, which the InterVarsity Florida Divisional Staff Team studied during one of our days together this Fall.

Not more spiritual, but more desperate

What keeps us from persistent, day-and-night prayer?

Our Divisional Staff Team from InterVarsity in Florida studied Luke 18 this afternoon and this question came up several times: "What keeps us from prayer?"

In the first part of the passage, a widow approaches a judge looking for justice.  The judge refuses to help her for some time, but eventually caves, bent by her persistence.  And God, who is more just than any judge, will do the same for us.  So, in Luke's logic, Jesus' disciples "should always pray and not give up."

But we struggle to do this.  To pray persistently.  To "cry out to him day and night."

Stacy, our new Divisional Director, zeroed in on one of the reasons why we struggle to pray:
it's not that we're not spiritual enough, it's that we're not desperate enough.

We secretly believe that we're one more hard day's work away from breakthrough.  We think we're one idea away from turning a corner.  We think that we're supposed to do it - whatever "it" is - on our own.

We've been told all our lives that if we just put our minds to it - whatever "it" is - we can succeed.  We've been told in the church that God has given us gifts and time and talent and treasure and that the ball is in our court.  We have been told that we can do it, whatever "it" is.

So, we're not desperate.

And so we turn on our spirituality.  I mean that in both ways.  We blame our troubles on our lack of spirituality, turning on our spirituality as the culprit and cause of our struggle.  We also try to become more spiritual, working on our theology and personal holiness. 

But what if our problem is not our spirituality?

What if our problem is that we're trying to do something we weren't supposed to do in the first place, something that's reserved for God to do?  Maybe it's convincing a friend to follow Jesus.  Maybe it's dragging a neighbor away from an addiction.  Maybe it's getting someone to apologize and ask forgiveness.  We push against our limits and stifle desperation.

Perhaps our lack of prayer is the symptom, not the cause of our trouble.

Where do you see yourself pushing against your limits?

Who is this ministry environment for?

I wrote a post last week about jokes in a sermon and got this thoughtful e-mail in response from a family friend:
I love jokes in a sermon because I think the unbelievers relate to someone who is humorous and sets them at ease. When I bring an unbeliever to church it also makes me at ease. I want my friend to want to come again.
She has certain expectations for her ministry environment.  She expects the church service on Sunday morning and the sermon to be accessible to folks who don't know Jesus.  And I love that.

So many Sunday morning environments are geared toward a Christian-only crowd, a grew-up-in-church-only crowd.  We're surprised when our people don't invite their friends to church.  We're surprised when our friends don't want to come to church.  Why are we so surprised?

Christian churches have been scrapping for years, arguing between "seeker oriented" and "seeker sensitive" and "seeker aware" models.  These theoretical conversations impact real people.

And I think it's interesting, telling, eye-opening to see that something as small as telling a joke can help someone feel comfortable in a church.  And a joke can help someone feel comfortable inviting a friend.

If you're strategizing about your church service or campus ministry meeting, asking "Who is this ministry environment for?" is a great place to start.  If what you're doing isn't drawing in the sort of people you want to connect with, consider making a change.  But remember, the change can be as small as telling a joke.

Think about your church service or campus ministry meeting ...
Who is this ministry environment for?

Out of context experts are not experts

What are you an expert in?

Maybe it has to do with your job.  Maybe it's a hobby or an interest. 

Can you think of something?

Being an expert is fun. There's a thrill to feeling your expertise grow, the thrill of progress.  And you can really help people if you really know what you're talking about.  And on top of that, who doesn't like having people turn to them looking for answers?

But you can't be an expert at everything.  And it's so tempting to act like in expert even in contexts where you aren't an expert.  This happens all the time.

Just today I caught my self acting like an expert.  I was at the doctor's office.  For a sore toe.  Lame, I know.  I thought I knew what was wrong ... thank you WebMD ... and just wanted the doctor to see me and give me a brace or something.  But I'm no medical expert.

The doctor asked me if I had gout.  I told him "no" ... firmly ... then realized I didn't know what gout was.  Why was I talking like an expert?

Out of context experts are not experts.

Working in ministry, we see this all the time.  Many college professors love to jump fields, talking about religion and philosophy with a borrowed air of reflected expertise.  Our faces turn red over out-of-context lectures and books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  How dare they act like experts!

But we turn around and do the same thing.

Where do you think this pull to act like an expert comes from?

3 Tricks to Improve Your Public Speaking

Some people have a natural gift for public speaking.

I don't.

Nerves tie my stomach in double knots.  Sweat pours into my eyes.  I s-s-stutter and lithp.

But I keep working on it.  And so can you.

Here are 3 tricks that I've found helpful as I've worked on my public speaking:

1)  Practice. Practice. Practice.

You can't get better at speaking if you don't speak.  You can read books, study, take classes ... but if you don't put yourself out there, your growth will be slow and you may not discover the things that are holding you back.

I've found that frequent practice makes the difference between getting beat up and getting better.  Speak once a year and you're repeating.  Speak once a week and you're building.

Try making an aggressive speaking goal.  Speak every week for a month.  Speak 50 times in a year.  Speak in 10 different locations.  Practice.

2) Review

Few things make me feel more uncomfortable than listening to a recording of myself.  Video ... fuhgeddaboudit.  But these tools help.

When I re-listenend to my sermon from last Sunday (yes, another sermon on Jonah), I noticed some weak spots ... an idea that I skipped over, a failure to pause after telling a joke, a word that kept getting accidentally repeated.  I can work on these things, but I wasn't aware of them until I heard them on the replay.

Take the extra time to review your speaking.

3) Call for back-up

My secret weapon as a speaker is my wife.  Amy is supportive and honest.  She is willing to give me feedback and knows when to give it.  And her opinion matters to me more than anyone else's.

Find someone (or a team of someones) who can debrief your speaking.  They'll make you better.

What other tricks have you used to improve your public speaking?

Contribution: the secret to conflict resolution

Have you ever had a fight that feels like it's going nowhere?

I've had one of these fights over the last week.  One of the worst ever.  And this fight is causing me to think about and review what I know about conflict resolution.

And the idea that I find most helpful is the idea of Contribution.

Contribution says that we've all done something to make this fight happen.  Done and left undone.  We may have different contributions and some may be more significant than others, but we've all contributed.

As long as one party maintains total innocence, the barrier to reconciliation remains high.

I think this is one reason God took on flesh and died on the cross (and I know this is a controversial idea).  When Jesus died on the cross, he became sin, as such became a sinner and through this owned fully a huge slice of humanity's contribution to the brokenness we see in the world.

As a holy God and a moral innocent, Jesus could have stood apart, demanding he made no contribution, taking no guilt onto himself.  But he didn't.

How much more should we, who are truly contributors, own our share in our conflicts?

What do you think would happen if, when we experienced conflict, we were able to identify and own up to our contribution?

Writing jokes

I love writing jokes.

Not knock-knock jokes or two-guys-walk-in-to-a-bar jokes.  More like stand up jokes.  Set-up, set-up, punch.  Story, story, twist.  Crazy, sane, crazier ... why are you laughing?

I love the rhythms of stand up.  I love the connections you make along the way, creative sparks, bridges to the people who are listening, the shift forward in your seat this isn't what I expected.

But jokes can also distract.

Jokes can pull you out of a moment, can leave you remembering the punch line in the sermon rather than the point of the sermon.  It's a risk, one I take, but one that doesn't always pan out.

What do you think about jokes in a sermon?  Helpful?  Distracting?

Yet another sermon on Jonah

I haven't had one of these to share for a while.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to stand in for Jon Elswick and preach at Crossway. 

Talking to Jon beforehand about ideas, Jon asked me what I had been studying, thinking about and wrestling with in Scripture.  I've been studying Romans, but I'm not up for preaching that yet.  I've been thinking about multi-ethnicity in Ephesians, but my focus is campus.  That leaves Jonah.  I never seem to stop wrestling with Jonah.

And my struggle with Jonah is all bound up in Chapter 4.  God keeps poking Jonah.  Why?

I wrestle with this question in this sermon (and reference Will's awesome green Crocs) ...

Here's the sermon: http://aspen.nowsprouting.com/crosswaychurch/podcast.php?pageID=14