Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's Your Priority?

Today in his message, Pastor Brent talked about being deeply committed to God, and specifically he said that we can't honestly say that we're committed to him when we're not committing our money to him. If God has our hearts, he gets our wallets as well.

We tend to cut ourselves a lot of slack and make allowances for ourselves when we fall short. Most people give themselves the benefit of the doubt on a regular basis. Researchers call it "the self-serving bias."

For example, in one survey, 90% of drivers rated themselves as "above average" in their driving skills compared to other drivers, and nearly 50% placed themselves among the top 10%. Of course, this is mathematically impossible, but it's one example of the self-serving bias.

I came across an interesting article this week that provided an example of the self-serving bias among pastors, when it comes to their assessment of the spiritual condition of their congregations, compared to what their congregants actually report about themselves. Most pastors have a rosy outlook when it comes to their members' spiritual condition, but the members themselves reveal a rather different picture. The results are rather striking, and it's definitely worth taking a look at the full article. But here are some of the things that were particularly noteworthy to me:
  • Only 23% of all Protestant churchgoers, and only half of evangelicals (which are known for making a stronger emphasis on things like this) indicated that their faith in God was their highest priority in their lives. So that means most Christians--and half of evangelicals--ADMIT that God is not #1 in their lives.
  • According to the survey, in forming their opinions, "few pastors rely upon criteria that reflect genuine devotion to God." Most pastors utilize external indicators such as worship attendance, serving in a ministry, and comments made immediately after the worship service. While these can be important factors in a person's journey of growth, it is also true that positive outward behavior can mask inner ambivalence, or even outright disobedience or unbelief.
  • In the section labeled "Activity That Does Not Concern Churches," among the list of important criteria that pastors downplay or ignore altogether are
    • tithing/generosity,
    • personal evangelism/outreach,
    • life change subsequent to the conversion experience
    • how visitors to the church are received
    • whether people experience the presence of God in the worship service
When I look at our description of a Fully Devoted Follower that the elders and I have developed together, I am pleased to see that we are on the right track. We have put together a list of criteria that actually assess the level of a person's devotion to Christ, and it includes every single one of the essential characteristics that this article says most churches ignore.

We don't want to have a self-serving bias when we evaluate the health of our church, and we don't want individuals in our church to have a self-serving bias when they look at their own health. We want to see accurately so that we can know what our true condition is, and so that we can work on the areas that need attention the most.

It is right for us to think this way, according to God's word: "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." (Romans 12:3 NIV)

So where are you on your journey? Are you where you need to be? Or do you have some growing to do? Do you truly make God your first priority in life? What will it take to get him there?

For many of us, it starts with letting go of our love of money, which is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10). The best way to get rid of money's hold over our lives is to start giving it away. You see, our God is a very practical God.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Small Group Changes

In this process of getting ourselves focused on our mission of meeting people where they are and leading them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus, the first area that we're examining up-close is the area of small groups (Reaching Over). We'll be also giving special consideration to our worship services (Reaching Up) and our ministry teams (Reaching Out) in the near future, but the elders and I felt that small groups was the right area to direct our efforts first.

One of the first things that we realized is that we have a lot of great Life Groups that are already established, and wonderful things are going on in them. But most of the time we don't know what those wonderful things are.

  • We are uncertain who belongs to each of the various groups,
  • We usually find out after the fact when a topic of study changes,
  • We don't know when groups are experiencing problems... or breakthroughs,
  • We aren't aware of many of the life changes that are taking place in our groups, except we sometimes hear about them in a round-about or haphazard way.
So we knew that we needed to apply some communication tools for our Life Groups. We now have a regular mechanism for keeping in touch with our Life Group leaders so that we can provide support and encouragement, as well as stay connected with what's happening in our groups.

Another need that we noticed is that there was no consistent plan for life change in our groups. It's not that lives weren't ever being changed, and that no one was ever growing--only that the growth was not a result of a focused, strategic effort, and therefore, not as great and fruitful as it might otherwise be.

So we came up with some across-the-board standards for our small groups and shared those with all our small group leaders at a special training session last week. If you're in a small group, your leader will be sharing these with you soon. There's nothing that should strike anyone as surprising or out-of-place for small groups, but we believe it is helpful to be clear about the purpose and nature of our groups in order to avoid any unmet expectations, unspoken agendas, or unnecessary conflict.

Finally, we realized that it is probably difficult for some people to take the step from attending worship to joining an established small group. After all, there are innumerable obstacles to overcome:
  • the awkwardness and uncomfortableness of breaking in to a group that already knows each other and is familiar with each other
  • the anxiety about whether I'll really be accepted or welcome (despite what people say)
  • the unknown expectations of group members--will I be called on to pray out loud? answer a question I don't know? reveal uncomfortable things about my life?
  • fears about what will happen when people discover "the real me"
  • concerns about whether these people are trustworthy enough to keep my confidential information confidential
  • and on and on....
So we asked, How can we help people take the step of moving from just attending to being a part of a small group? And the answer we came up with was Learn Groups.

Learn Groups will be short-term small groups that will tie into the message series that we're working through. So if a series is four weeks long, the Learn Group will be four weeks long. If a series is six weeks long, the Learn Group will be six weeks long. This gives people a chance to "test drive" the small group concept without making a lengthy commitment. They can get used to interacting and learning in a group setting with minimal risk. At the end of each Learn Group, we'll be encouraging anyone who is not part of a Life Group to "graduate" into one of those established groups.

We've also made the decision to change our Journey Classes into Journey Groups. If the purpose is not simply to impart information, but to aid and assist life change, we feel the format for the Journey Classes needs to be shifted to a group format. There are several reasons for that:
  • Breaking the teaching into shorter, more manageable pieces helps people absorb and digest the information better, rather than our previous approach to download four hours of information in one sitting.
  • Giving time in between each session allows people to practice and experiment with what they've learned so far without piling on more information that they're not ready for.
  • Giving an opportunity to practice allows for more intelligent questions, feedback, suggestions, and comments from the Journey participants, as well as a chance for encouragement, support, and camaraderie within the group.
The first Journey Group will be kicking off Sunday November 1 and going through November 22. It's the Journey 201 Group, which examines the habits that are necessary for spiritual growth. We'll be talking about the habits of prayer, time in God's word, personal worship, tithing, and fellowship. Even if you've already taken the Journey 201 CLASS, you're welcome to try out the Journey 201 Group--I think you'll find that you will enjoy it more and get more out of it in this group format.

To sign up for the Journey 201 Group, email me! There's no cost for the group.

Small groups are an integral part of our process for leading people to become fully devoted followers of Christ because they are the best tool that we have for helping people acquire authentic relationships with other Christians, which are essential for growth. Small groups help foster relationships that are focused directly on life change and provide the safe space for the kind of honest and deep conversations that are appropriate to relationships with a purpose.

If you haven't found a small group, now is the time! Call the office (784-5388) to sign up for a group, or send me an email at