Serving the church in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeSome churches see growth groups as subsets of the whole church. Others view church as the sum of all the growth groups. Whichever direction we’re coming from, it’s helpful to consider the relationship between the groups and the wider church. There are some things that the growth group can do more effectively than the larger congregation and vice versa.

Perhaps the greatest strength of a growth group is the emphasis on relationships and the opportunity to be more personal and specific in ministry to one another. In larger churches people can easily get lost in the crowd. People may not see the need to contribute or the opportunities that exist for them to use their gifts. If things always seem to get done by someone somehow, then we may not feel there is much for us to do.

There are two significant ways that growth groups can work to serve the church. The first is by seeking to encourage and equip each member of the group to use their God-given gifts to serve God by building the church into maturity. The second is by the group collectively seeking out ways to serve the whole church according to its mission and needs.

Before we look at these opportunities, it’s important to stress that Christian service should flow from the gospel. Christ came first to serve us. He brought us into relationship with God through his death, and gave us his Spirit to enable us to serve him out of love. If we overlook, or assume, the gospel then people will end up serving out of guilt, obligation, or some other wrong motive. Such motivation and thinking will destroy the Christian and the church. It’s not about what we have to do for God, it’s about all what God has done for us and others. Let’s seek to keep Biblical perspective.

Encouraging people to grow their gifts in service

Growth groups provide a more intimate environment for people to learn to serve one another. Ministry grows and develops as people look to the needs of others and consider how they can use what God has given them to meet these needs. Leaders should seek to make the most of the opportunities to spur on the members of the group in ministry to each other. Why not set the goal of every member of your group being actively involved in Christian service—this term, or this year? Your group could be just the place to start. Here are a few ideas to get you going:

  1. Bible study: Different members of the group may benefit from the opportunity to prepare and lead studies in the group. This can provide a good training opportunity as the leader assists in preparation or provides feedback afterwards.
  2. Hospitality: People can learn to exercise hospitality by hosting the group from time to time. They can also be encouraged to have people to meals, invite others out, and create opportunities to share in each other’s lives.
  3. Supper or meals: A member of the group can take responsibility for organising this. Everyone can contribute food and drinks as they are able. It helps for this not to fall to the leader to make all the arrangements.
  4. Prayer: Each member of the group can be encouraged to share matters for prayer, and to pray for the others. Ask people to keep praying for matters throughout the week. Someone could take on the role of prayer coordinator.
  5. One to one: People can be encouraged to meet individually with others in the group for a particular purpose. A new Christian might appreciate doing some basic Bible studies with an older Christian. Someone going through a tough time might enjoy regular support and prayer. A person checking out Christianity might be willing to read through a Gospel with someone.

It’s worthwhile for leaders to take the time to get to know the members of their groups so that they can encourage them into areas of service, and to persevere in their service. Consider these questions: Are people currently serving in an area of church life? Do they have gifts in children’s or youth ministry? What evangelistic opportunities do they have at work? How do they go about reading and applying the Bible for themselves? Do they show initiative in service? What examples have you seen of them sacrificially putting themselves out for others?

If you can’t answer many of these sorts of questions about the members of your group, then arrange to connect with people on a more personal basis. Perhaps, you could spend the next term having a different group member, or couple, over each week before the group meets so as to get to know them and further the ministry conversation.

If your church has a formal process for encouraging people into Christian service, then leaders can help facilitate their members being involved in this. Our church offers ‘serve chats’ which explore issues of gifts, ministry experience, training, and needs and opportunities. Leaders can encourage their group members to engage in these chats or offer to conduct one themselves.

It’s also helpful for leaders to be aware of the needs and opportunities in the church. Pastors should keep leaders informed of the needs for musicians, Sunday School teachers, people to visit nursing homes, people to pray in church, church welcomers, people to host evangelistic courses, and the like. This will create a dialogue within the life of the group and church. The church makes known its needs and the group identifies who is gifted, interested, suitable and available. Likewise, leaders should stay turned to ministry training opportunities and encourage the right people to participate.

Growth groups have another advantage for encouraging Christian service. Each week people open the Bible, learn of God and his grace, and are moved to change and put their trust in God. Sometimes this has very specific ministry application and the leaders and their groups are able to follow this closely with members of the group. For example, if the application area has to do with giving generously to the gospel, then the group can help people work through what it means to give generously and how specifically to make it happen at church.

The group serving the church

Some churches arrange ministry responsibilities in rosters or teams based around growth groups. Our evening church engages the groups in setting up and packing up church on a rotational basis. It’s too big a job for one or two people, and it gets the growth groups serving together. Similar things have been arranged with hosting newcomers courses, with groups providing refreshments, welcome teams, and other areas. There are all kinds of possibilities.

The danger of the ‘group rostered on’ approach is that it may not account for the particular circumstances or gifts of the group members. It could lead to service out of duty rather than coming from a particular passion to serve. Sometimes there can be resentment simply from being rostered on. If things are arranged this way, then it’s important for good communication with the members of the group.

Another angle on groups serving the church is where the initiative comes from the group itself. We encourage growth groups to discuss together whether there are practical ways that the group can be serving the church. Perhaps the group could enquire of the pastors or church leadership team about the needs and opportunities that they could meet collectively. It might be a one-off project, or an ongoing commitment.

There is a power in collective thinking and action. It helps people to be dependent upon one another, to value each other’s gifts and difference, and to cooperate to achieve something greater than people could do on their own. People get to see one another in ministry and this tends to spur each other on further in our service.

There are many examples of how groups can serve a church. A group could organise a church camp or a social event. They could coordinate an outreach event, or visit a local nursing home. Perhaps, they could offer a baby-sitting service to parents in church who rarely get time off. They could provide specific support for a missionary serving overseas. They could commit to additional prayer for a particular need of the church.

The service doesn’t need to be limited to the church either. We are wanting to see our family, friends, neighbours, workmates and others come to know Jesus personally. The group could decide to coordinate an event to help people understand Jesus better. They might see a need in the local school or community, such as catering for a breakfast club, or buddying with disadvantaged kids, or gardening support for the elderly. They might join together to help provide support and finances for a local chaplain.

We want to encourage our growth groups to be nurseries for Christian service. People can learn to look around and see the needs of others to know Jesus and see the needs of Christians to be loved and grow into maturity together. The growth group provides a wonderful context to match the gifts that God has given to the opportunities for their use. Let’s not take for granted or waste what God has so generously given.

10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.  (1 Peter 4:11-12)

Multiplying leaders in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeswiss_army_knifeswiss_army_knifeswiss_army_knifeWe’re forever feeling the desperate need for more leaders. The shortage of leaders to cope with the growing demand for new groups, the exit of leaders moving on for reasons of work or the like, people dropping out of leadership when their lives change due to relationships, the attrition of leaders who’ve been serving for years. These are all reasons that we keep banging the drum for more people to sign up as leaders. They’re all reasonable reasons, but they’re not THE reason we should be committed to multiplying leaders. There’s a better reason by far…

We want to keep spreading the great news of Jesus Christ, because this honours God and it leads to people’s lives being transformed.

God’s word changes people. It keeps reminding us that we are not at the centre of the universe – God is! He is number one. He deserves all honour and praise. God has given us the great news about Jesus Christ so as to rescue people from despair and darkness, and to bring them into life and hope. We want to keep multiplying leaders so as to keep this news in front of people. We want more and more people in groups being encouraged to honour God, to trust God, to live for God. We want our groups to grow together in the truth of God’s word, in love for one another, in prayerful dependence on God, and with a passion to see others reached with the good news of salvation. We want to equip leaders who are focused on doing their part in building God’s kingdom.

The maths we are looking for is multiplication. We don’t want to divide leaders, nor do we want to subtract them. But it’s not enough to simply add leaders either. Our goal is for leaders to grow leaders to grow leaders. If one leader grows one leader in one year, then we have two. If the two leaders grow one leader each in one year, then we have four. If the four leaders grow one leader each in one year, then we have eight. You see how it can work.

If only the first leader adds one leader each year, then in ten years you have eleven leaders. But if every leader adds one leader each year, then in ten years you have over one thousand leaders! This is the power of multiplication. Of course, this is an ideal world. It doesn’t allow for drop out, attrition, failure to train, poor systems, and everything else that gets in the way. But what potential and it all starts with just one leader.

If this is going to happen, then multiplication needs to be built into our DNA as churches. We should not only seek to add a leader, but to add a leader who will add a leader who will add a leader. We need to communicate a vision for multiplying leaders. When someone is recruited and trained as a leader, we should be calling them not simply to be a leader, but to be a recruiter and trainer of more leaders, who will do the same.

Jesus didn’t just call men to himself. He called men to call men (and women and children). The Apostle Paul didn’t simply call Timothy to succeed him. He called him to this continuing task…

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.  (2 Timothy 2:2)

Teasing this out, Paul is saying: ‘You Timothy (#2) take my words (#1) and entrust to reliable people (#3, #4, etc) who will do a good job teaching others (#5, #6, etc).’

Not counting the many witnesses, there are at least four generations, and six or more people, involved in this responsibility. Paul is looking to the future. This is his last letter. He’s nearing the end of his ministry and he’s passionate about the ministry of the gospel continuing. He wants the gospel to be protected and the way to protect it is by ensuring its faithful spread.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the Wollomi Pine. It was thought to be extinct, until a very small population of trees was found in the wild in NSW. The species needed to be protected, so what was the strategy? Fence off the small plantation to protect from outside influence? Would this ensure its survival? No. The plan to preserve the Wollomi Pine involved planting seeds everywhere. Nurseries, greenhouses, in the wild, wherever a patch of ground could be found. The key to its survival was its spread. It’s the same with the gospel. We guard it by passing it on to others who will keep doing the same.

What does this mean for our growth group leaders? It means we seek to keep growing leaders, not to meet our needs, but to guard the gospel, to honour God, and to see people’s lives transformed for eternity. So how do we do it?

Leaders on the look out

We want all our growth group leaders to be on the look out for more leaders. Sometimes we might see ready-made leaders just waiting for an opportunity to be asked or step up. This can happen due to people changing churches or being trained in another ministry, such as a university group, but not yet serving as a leader at church. However, more importantly, we should be looking for opportunities to grow new leaders, so as to keep multiplying.

There are a few things to look for in seeking out suitable people. I suggest looking for FAST people. Such people are faithful, available, sacrificial, and teachable. They show their commitment to the group by turning up each week. They do more than turn up. They’re seeking ways to serve others, following up people during the week, asking about answers to prayer. You’ll find them in the kitchen doing the dishes. They go out of their way to offer lifts to others. They show restraint in Bible study, not dominating the discussion, but contributing thoughtfully. They offer to lead a study here and there and ask for feedback and help. They look for ways to serve at church or in the group and they’re open to being trained.

Connecting with core people

Having identified potential leaders, we need to invest in them. Engage them in thinking about leadership and give them opportunities to grow. If there are one or two people in the group who could fill this role, then we suggest talking with them. Excite them about the potential to become leaders a little way down the track. Spend extra time with these people. Perhaps have them for a meal before the group now and then, or catch up for a coffee. You could talk together about how the group is going and how they could take a role in preparing to lead. You could pray for the members of your group. Maybe they could meet one to one with someone else in the group to pray and read the Bible. They could take a responsibility for some organisational role in the group such as coordinating meals, or sending out prayer points. It will help to give them opportunity to lead some studies or coordinate the prayer times. If they’re inexperienced at leading studies, then you could meet with them to help and provide suggestions and support. Give them helpful encouragement and feedback afterwards. Remember, you want to build leaders, not cut people down. So be thoughtful and considerate.

Apprenticing leaders

We want to encourage all our group leaders to seek to identify and purposefully get alongside one or more others in their group each year for the purpose of multiplying leaders. Some churches describe this process in an official or organised manner as ‘apprenticing leaders’. This is what we want to be doing, whether it’s ad hoc, informal, formal, or whatever. The apprenticing strategy has great strengths. It’s on-the-job, highly relational, contextual, personally targeted, intensive training. The apprentice gets to learn from the practitioner by becoming a practitioner also.

This can also reveal a weakness of apprenticeship training. It depends very much on the quality of the trainer. If the current leader sets a poor example, fails to invest time, neglects their leadership responsibilities, or has a maverick attitude to leading in the church, then these problems can sometimes be reproduced down the line. For this and other reasons, we recommend complementing the apprenticeship approach with a training course.

Training courses

Most training courses begin with a curriculum to be transferred to the participants. The key is to identify what should be in the core curriculum for growth group leaders. Two courses stand out in our experience. Both are reviewed on this site: Growth Groups and Spice it Up. Growth Groups is the longer and more detailed of the two courses. Spice it Up is briefer, but seeks to incorporate wisdom from both Growth Groups and Leading Better Bible StudiesOver the years many of our training courses have drawn on material from these and other sources.

These courses rightly focus mainly on the preparation and leading of Bible studies as the core component in the life of the group. We believe the emphasis should be here, because this is how God changes our hearts. However, we desire our growth groups to be contexts of prayer, pastoral care, every member ministry, promoting the gospel, training, supporting the church, and more. For this reason, a tailored training program that addresses the range of growth group issues is required.

We suggest that a course be conducted at least once a year, with sufficient time to prepare new leaders to begin leading in the year ahead. Third term seems ideal for this. We can build on the apprenticing work that has begun in the earlier part of the year, and give opportunities to put things into practice in the later part of the year. The hope will be that trained people will go on to become leaders, but this should never be assumed. We may discover that some people are not suited to serve in this way.

Multiplying groups

If we are going to multiply, or even add, groups in our churches, then this will require leaders to move from one group to another. There are a number of possible approaches:

  • groups disband at the end of the year and an increased number of groups begin in the new year, incorporating new leaders
  • some leaders are kept back from groups at the start of the year, so as to lead groups as needed later in the year
  • apprentice leaders take over the leadership of the group they belong to, while the existing leaders leave to start another
  • newly trained or apprentice leaders leave a group to start another group
  • the group divides into two with newly trained or apprentice leaders taking one half and the existing leaders the other

There are strengths and weaknesses with all these approaches. Disruption to relationships and the welfare of existing groups should be avoided where possible, but we will need to prepare for some discomfort if we are going to keep growing the growth groups ministry. Good communication, no surprises, sufficient time and preparation for change will all help.

Not just groups

The strategy of multiplying leaders is not just for our growth group ministry. Our goal is for every area of service within the church to embrace the culture of multiplication. Let’s keep training and equipping one another to build the church of Jesus Christ through evangelism and edification, for the sake of God’s glory.

Who could you get alongside to equip for ministry? How can you pass on what you’re doing to others? Not doing much? Then whom could you ask to train and equip you?

Life together in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeWe’ve previously seen how the Bible describes pastoral care in growth groups as being under God, leading God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God. Pastoral ministry looks back to the Good Shepherd dying for his sheep and looks forward to the return of the Great Shepherd who will gather his sheep for eternity. These are the trig points that give us bearings for caring for one another. Pastoral care should be shaped by teaching and modelling God’s word of grace, and by prayerfully depending on the power of God’s Spirit to change people’s hearts and minds. These are the priorities of the one true Shepherd, God himself, and they should shape the priorities of our churches and growth groups.

Family relationships

As we seek to live out God’s word of grace in our lives this will profoundly impact how we live with one another as God’s people. We’ve been called into God’s family as his adopted children. We’re now united with brothers and sisters in Christ having the same Spirit who unites us to each other.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:3-6)

When we gather in our growth groups we get to share in a small family gathering. We catch up with each other, hear what our Father has to say, we’re reminded of the awesome work of our Father’s number one Son, and we attend to family business together. We also hear what’s been going on in each other’s lives, seek to encourage and spur each other on, celebrate family joys and share in family worries and sorrows, and we bring our requests and offer thanks to our heavenly Father.

Families exist even when they’re not together. This means our growth groups have opportunity to express our relationships in Christ throughout the week in other ways. Obviously, we see each other at church. This is a natural place to catch up and connect. It’s worth thinking about what you can follow-up from your group meetings at church, and vice versa. It helps to build relationships by connecting with one another over meals, coffees, and doing social things together. If you have space in your calendar, there is great value in catching up with different members of the group on a rotational basis. It’s amazing how much better people know one another simply by spending time chatting over dinner every now and then.

One way of turbo-charging relational connections in your groups is to spend time away as a group. A weekend away at a holiday house will often be worth a year of weekly meetings in getting people comfortable with one another, and deeper into each other’s live. Meals together on a weekly or monthly basis, occasional social nights, prayer and testimony evenings are all ways of strengthening the bonds between the brothers and sisters in your group.

Some families are big on remembering special events. Perhaps you could create a calendar for your group and celebrate each person’s birthday, wedding anniversary, or other significant special occasion. Discover each person’s favourite cake or special ice-cream or whatever as a way of showing you care.

The Apostle Paul provides a model of family-type pastoral care in the way he went about his ministry to others. He taught, dialogued and reasoned from the Scriptures with the people he served. But he also invested his life into them. He used words and life to communicate with integrity the life-changing message of Christ. Take a look at the family language in these words he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:

7 Just as a nursing mother cares for her childrenso we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.  (1 Thessalonians 2:7-13, 17-20)

Whether you are a leader or a group member, we have the opportunity to invest in each other’s lives. As Paul worked night and day for his ‘growth group’, it won’t hurt us to put ourselves out for each other, to go the extra mile. Let’s seek to put each other’s needs before our own. What can you do that would make a practical difference in the lives of one or two of your brothers and sisters?

Well functioning families spend time doing things together. Dysfunctional families sometimes pass like ships in the night and grow apart in the process. I understand how busy we all are, and it might be that your relational ‘dance card’ already seems very full, but it will make a big difference to others, especially those who are new to your church or group, if you spend time together. Do you share similar interests? Maybe you work in a similar area, department or business. If you are going bike riding, catching a movie, having a night at the pub, inviting friends around for a barbecue, going for a Saturday site-seeing trip, playing touch footy, scrap-booking, joining a gym, hanging out in a cafe after church, heading to a sporting event or concert, or whatever else you’re into, then why not think about inviting others from your group?

Encouragement

If we care deeply for our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will want them to share eternity with us. We’ll want them to run the race, to keep trusting in Christ, and to reach the finishing line rejoicing in their Saviour. If you’ve ever run cross-country, long distances, or even marathons, then you will appreciate the importance of support from others. Sometimes it’s the spectators who’ve made the effort to get alongside the track and cheer you along. Sometimes it’s your fellow runners who encourage you. It’s so helpful to have a running buddy who keeps pace with you, urges you up the hills, or sticks with you when you hit the wall. It’s tough trying do it all on your own.

God wants us to be there for each other. As we run the race, we shouldn’t have to do it alone. We’re urged to keep up with one another often. We need each other: the support, the encouragement, the help along the way. The Christian life is tough and there are so many obstacles and difficult times that we need to spur each other on. The writer to the Hebrews is focused on Christians making it all the way to the end, remaining reliant on the grace of God in the gospel, and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. In the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he urges his readers:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  (Hebrews 10:23-25)

We are urged to consider how – to think in advance – about how we can keep each other living and growing as followers of Jesus. This begins at home before we gather in our groups and at church. Who will be there tonight? What’s going on in their lives? What was it we prayed for them last week? I must remember to ask them about it. (Hint: it helps to keep your own prayer diary, jot notes, pray during the week, and follow up with people.) I wonder how they are getting along with their boss who’s been giving them a hard time? Have they had an opportunity to share what they believe with their class mates? Speak with them about what you’ve been praying, ask for other things to pray, show a spiritual interest in one another. Time to stop cruising. If the best we do every time we meet is discuss the footy, grumble about work, and engage in small talk, then we are missing out on wonderful opportunities to love one another.

You might notice that some people in your group are struggling. Perhaps some have doubts, others are being tested by their unbelieving families, some are battling the weariness of chronic illness and rarely get to the group. How can you encourage and spur on these brothers and sisters? You could commit this to prayer, make regular personal contact, put your mind to ways that you could be helpful. Each member of the group can do this sort of thing. You don’t have to be the leader to be an encouragement to others. Anyone can and should do it. The love and support of group members shows the family of God functioning well.

Care in a crisis

A crisis in someone’s life is an opportunity for the group to show love to their brother or sister. There is no end to the types of crises that happen to people. Here are a few crises we’ve experienced in our groups…

  • someone losing their job
  • unrealistic workload expectations placing massive strain on health, family, or involvement in church
  • bullying at work
  • a serious illness to a group member or someone in their family
  • child acting out or refusing to go to school
  • injuries in a car accident
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • sleep deprivation following the birth of a child
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • serious doubts over the Christian faith
  • relationship troubles such as a broken engagement or marriage
  • extended family putting pressure to turn from faith in Jesus

There are many more issues and I expect you could continue this list. These sorts of crises test families. They need to rally together, assess their resources, change the way they function, take on new responsibilities, and sometimes seek external support or expertise. It’s very similar for a growth group. A crisis is an opportunity time for the group. They can step up a gear, plan how to collectively offer care, pray together, and offer genuine practical help.

We’ve seen some groups do this very well. One time when my wife was bed-ridden with a difficult pregnancy our group arranged shopping, baby-sitting, cooperated in leading studies and took other initiatives that helped our family. Another group had a member hospitalised following a heart attack and the group helped with visits, practical help, and set up a buddy exercise program and roster. Couples with babies often appreciate the support of meals in the first few weeks. Sometimes people have paired-up to read the Bible, pray, and talk through issues with another person. My experience is that our groups often rise well to a crisis.

However, sometimes the needs of a person are beyond the capacity of the group to cope on their own. They may require more people to be involved due to the magnitude of the problem. They might need greater expertise than they have in their group. A marriage break-up, legal issues, psychiatric illness, or domestic abuse are the types of matters that require the involvement of other qualified people.

We recommend sharing these needs with an appropriate person in the church. Maybe you could raise matters with your growth group mentor or coach, a pastor on the church staff, or a specialist pastoral care team, depending on whom you have in your church. These matters will often need to be referred to people beyond the congregation. At this point the role of the group should be to provide support, love, prayer, and care for the person/s rather than seeing itself as responsible to provide the specialised help needed. They might have further tough times ahead, so your care will be very significant.

Care when it’s chronic

Not all significant needs remain crises. Sometimes the matters are ongoing for weeks, months, or years. There are real and often painful issues that simply don’t go away. Again, growth groups have the opportunity to provide ongoing loving care for these people or families that can make the world of difference. These are some examples of chronic care needs that we have experienced in our groups…

  • ongoing depression or mental illness
  • psychiatric disorders
  • chronic back pain or other physical illness
  • physical or mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or downs syndrome
  • families members who have chronic needs, especially children or ageing parents
  • chronic fatigue, long-term insomnia
  • eating disorders
  • bereavement, especially the loss of a spouse or child
  • prolonged unemployment
  • ongoing legal battles

Once again there are many more expressions of chronic difficulties facing the members of our groups and families. The love and care of growth groups is so valuable. Often these people become irregular, occasional, or non-attending members of our groups. Don’t forget them or give up on them. Stay in touch. You can call, visit, write, help out in practical ways. It can help for the group to coordinate its efforts. Find out what you can pray for them each week, ask in advance and follow it up afterwards. Remember them when the group does things that are different, especially if they weren’t at the group to find out. Make sure they hear about the special social night or weekend away. Let them know the news of the group: who had the baby, who is heading on a short-term mission trip, who’s friend has become a Christian, who won the netball grand final, and so on.

Maybe there are people in the church with ongoing chronic needs whom you could adopt as partners to your group. Ask your pastor or pastoral care team who might appreciate you connecting with them. Again, you can go the extra mile with these people. Maybe they’re shut in through illness and would love visitors, or to be taken out now and again. Perhaps, someone would love you to visit, read the Scriptures, pray and talk with them now and again. We adopt missionaries into our groups, so why not do something similar with those in need who can’t actually make it to groups. You know, there might even be people who’ve been burned by groups in the past, who through your love and kindness find their way back into a growth group where they experience the love of Jesus in practice.

As with those experiencing crises, some of these chronic needs will involve the wider church community or the specialised help of people outside the church. This is important.  As groups and individuals we need to recognise our limitations. Our role is to provide the ongoing relational love and support throughout their journey.

One particular issue to consider, is how these people are affected by holidays and the changes that happen with our groups from year to year. If a group stops meeting or disbands, don’t forget the people you’ve been caring for who haven’t been making it along. Talk together as a group about whether you continue to offer group support during breaks, whether individuals maintain support when a group disbands, or whether you need to discuss this with a pastor or coordinator.

Growth groups, not therapy groups

Our growth groups are primarily about growing followers of Jesus. This has an eternal focus anchored in the present. It is very easily to allow the immediate, obvious, pressing needs of people to overshadow their eternal needs. Jesus understood this pressure and temptation as he was confronted daily by suffering, struggling, needy individuals. He often chose to relieve people’s suffering and to care for them in practical ways. His compassion was unsurpassed.

However, Jesus came on a bigger mission than emptying hospitals. He came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and how people could experience healing of their sins for eternity. We see Jesus alignment with these priorities throughout the gospels.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’  (Mark 1:32-38)

Jesus chose to leave the pressing needs of people in one town, firstly to spend time praying, and secondly to go elsewhere to proclaim the eternal message of hope for all who turn to God. He came to seek and to save people who were truly lost. He came to call people into his kingdom. He placed the eternal needs of people over, but not to the exclusion, of their earthly needs. We see this distinction in the incident when some mates bring a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed.

Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, 11 ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

I assume that the forgiveness of this man’s sins were far from the thinking of the four mates. They had seen or heard about Jesus healing serious illnesses and disabilities, so they did all they could to see their friend get a piece of the action. How surprised they must have been when Jesus simply forgave his sins. Yes, Jesus forgave sins and then healed the man, but don’t forget one action lasted for eternity and the other only a few years. Forgiveness is the only gateway to healing that lasts for all time.

It can be easy to be dominated by people’s crisis and chronic concerns. We can even build a culture where needs becomes the way to get each other’s or the leader’s time and attention. This is not healthy. Let’s not lose the ministry of the word and prayer. And let’s invest in building leaders and the capacity of our group to serve and care for one another, as this will result in people’s temporal and eternal needs getting the love and support they need. Let’s keep God’s perspective in our growth groups.

Pastoral care in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeHaving been professionally trained as a social worker, I made the assumption for many years that pastoral care was the term for social work in the church. It was about visiting the sick, providing for the poor, counselling the messed up, befriending the lonely, caring for the needy, and helping people with their problems. This was the stuff pastors should do. Preachers preached, but pastors took care of people’s social, relational, physical, emotional (and sometimes spiritual) needs. That’s what I thought and, to be honest, I think most Christians I knew would have agreed with me. The trouble was that I’d never examined the Scriptures on the topic. We need to look at God’s definition of pastoral care, and allow his Word to shape our pastoral priorities.

As we consider the role of growth groups in the life of a church, we’ve identified pastoral care as a priority for groups. But what does this mean? What expectations should we have of the groups and their leaders? What will it look like for a group to take pastoral care seriously? Well, we need to be clear on how the Bible describes pastoral care. Pastoral care in the church and growth groups must be shaped by God’s plans as revealed in the Bible. What is the emphasis of pastoral care in the Bible?

God – the Shepherd

The word pastor comes from Latin word for shepherdPastoral ministry is the ministry of shepherding God’s people. It’s a leadership picture that uses the image of the shepherd to describe the roles and responsibilities of those who lead God’s people. It’s an idea that starts with God himself. God is the Shepherd and he leads his sheep where he wants them to go. Arguably the most famous description of this comes from Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

In this Psalm the Shepherd leads, guides, feeds, comforts and protects his sheep. The Shepherd ensures the eternal security of his sheep.

The image of the shepherd is also applied to Israel’s leaders. They are to lead, guide, feed, comfort and protect the people by teaching and living out the Word of God among them. They fail dismally on this front. Instead of watching over the sheep, they feed on the sheep and destroy them. God holds the leaders accountable for this, and declares that he, himself, will replace these oppressive shepherds. God will act to save his sheep and provide for them.

7  Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  (Ezekiel 34:7-11)

God specifically promised to send one special shepherd. This new shepherd will be the Messiah in the line of David and he will rule over and care for God’s people.

23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.  (Ezekiel 34:23-24)

This remains the hope for God’s people throughout the Old Testament, and it’s not until the New Testament that we meet the one promised by God.

The Good Shepherd

Jesus fulfils God’s promises made through Ezekiel. He is the Davidic Messiah, the Good Shepherd who will rescue the sheep. He will not only gather in the lost sheep of Israel, but also people from all nations and he will unite them together under him. The amazing thing about this Shepherd is that instead of slaughtering the sheep, as Israel’s leaders had been doing, he allows himself to be slaughtered in their place. To mix the metaphors, the shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 

God’s plan in saving and caring for his sheep extends from Jesus to others who will lead under Jesus’ authority. Jesus as shepherd remains the model to follow.

Shepherds/pastors

The book of Acts introduces us to the beginnings of Christian pastoral ministry. As the gospel spreads and churches begin to grow, leaders are put in place to oversee the congregations. The Apostle Paul spent three years pastoring the church in Ephesus, and he uses the image of the shepherd/pastor when encouraging the Ephesian elders to continue his work. The church is precious to God. It’s purchased with his blood. It belongs to him. Pastoral care of God’s own flock is very important. Knowing this, Paul urges the Ephesian elders to teach God’s word of grace, so as to see the church growing into maturity, standing firm against false teaching, and persevering into eternity. This is to be their pastoral care. Paul had devoted himself to this responsibility and he now calls the elders to do likewise.

28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 ‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

With the spread of the gospel and the establishment of churches, people are regularly being equipped and appointed to oversee and care for these congregations. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are particularly helpful in understanding pastoral ministry. In fact, they are often described as the pastoral letters. Paul is looking to the future, raising up leaders, shaping their priorities, emphasising both life and doctrine, character and teaching. He is working to ensure that the gospel remains central to the life of the church. It’s worth taking the time to read these three letters very carefully in order to understand pastoral priorities.

The Apostle Peter also encourages pastoral care in the churches. He is concerned about the heart of the pastor/shepherd and calls his fellow elders to allow the gospel to shape their attitude to ministry. They are to be willing, generous, and eager servants as they exercise pastoral ministry among the flock, all the while looking forward to the return of the Chief Shepherd, the true Senior Pastor, Jesus Christ.

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Pastoral care

From this brief overview of shepherd/pastor ideas in the Bible we can distil some important ideas.

  1. God is the ultimate shepherd/pastor who promises to lead people into eternity with him.
  2. Jesus is God’s appointed shepherd/pastor who gives his life to bring people into relationship with God.
  3. Shepherd/pastors lead others by gospel-shaped teaching and modelling the application of God’s word of grace in their lives.
  4. Therefore, the goal of pastoral care is: under God, to lead God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God.

I suspect this is probably not the way we would have described pastoral care. It sounds more like a ministry of evangelism, teaching, discipleship and encouragement. And yes, it is. This is what flows from the pastoral heart of God. What God is doing in our world isn’t limited to the next ten, twenty or even seventy or eighty years. God is gathering his people for all eternity. He’s keen to see them secure in his grace in this life, so that they will enjoy his full blessing in the next. As Newton wrote in Amazing Grace: ’twas grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home and when we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun. Pastoral care is a ministry of God’s grace for a few years, focused on people enjoying God’s grace for a zillion years. This is the perspective we must carry.

In growth groups

If growth group leaders are to exercise pastoral care among the members of their groups, and if the people in our groups are to pastorally care for one another, then they will need to look backwards and forwards. Backwards to the saving grace of God in the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. Forwards to the Chief Shepherd returning to usher his people into glory. These are the trig points that give us bearings for our pastoral care.

The leader will be concerned first and foremost that every member of the group has become a member of God’s flock. Is each person in our group a Christian? Are they trusting in God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus? Are they submitting to Jesus as the one who rules and directs their lives? If someone is not a Christian, then the most caring pastoral thing we can do for them is to help them to understand and respond to the gospel. This will likely mean praying for them, catching up with people one to one, reading and discussing the gospel together. There might be questions and doubts to resolve. If there are a number of people in the group who aren’t Christians, then perhaps the whole group might focus on these matters together.

Leaders, do we know where people are at? Have we taken time to get to know people, to understand what they believe, where they’re coming from, what they’re living for, what they’re trusting in? Maybe it’s time for some quiet conversations. This is the starting point for pastoral care.

The leader will desire to see each member of the group becoming more and more like the Chief Shepherd. Bible study will be central to this, as we seek to nourish and strengthen the members of our group in the grace of God. Not Bible study so as to know about the Bible, or even to know about God. We will examine God’s Word together, so as to get to know God himself. We want people growing together into maturity. This isn’t measured by how many theological books we’ve read or the Bible verses we’ve memorised. It’s not how much we know, but how we respond to what we know. It’s about being gripped by God’s grace and letting it shape our thinking and speech and behaviour. It’s about the wonder of the gospel freeing us to walk in God’s ways by the power of his Spirit. It’s about not being tossed around by false ideas. It means not being lured away from God by the idols of this world. It’s seen in patiently keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and the things of eternity. This is what pastoral care is about.

Pastoral care will involve praying. We can’t bring about spiritual change. That’s the work of God’s Spirit. We need God to bring about deep inner transformation, and therefore we pray. We are weak and so we pray for God’s strength. God’s strength to persevere through trials and difficulty. God’s strength to stand firm against temptations. God’s strength to remain faithful in the face of persecution. God’s strength to work through our fears and doubts and struggles and selfishness. God’s strength to run the race to the end. And so we pray.

Pastoral care is gospel-shaped. It’s Bible-nourished. It’s prayer-dependent. This is God’s idea of pastoral care. We are seeking to grow leaders who will care pastorally for the people in their groups and encourage their groups to develop relationships where people care pastorally for one another. Please encourage the members of your group to become pastoral carers.

But I’m sure you are left with a few questions…

So what about things like visiting the sick, counselling, offering hospitality, providing practical helps, supporting couples or parents, caring for the elderly and orphans and widows? Aren’t we called to carry each others burdens? Isn’t this still pastoral care? Shouldn’t we be focusing on these things? Aren’t we expecting our growth groups to provide ‘practical’ care to one another?

This is the topic of another paper: Life together in growth groups.

Rhythm in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeAs I write this post, our growth group is taking a break. We’re not meeting this week. It’s the school holidays, between terms 1 and 2. Last week we had a social night, this week we won’t meet, and next week we’ll launch back into things again in term 2. Taking a break can be helpful. It’s not that people don’t want to meet. It’s more that a week off here and there, and changes now and again, helps keep things fresh. There are great benefits to be found in oscillating intensity and renewal. As Bruce Millar writes in Your Church in Rhythm‘Life is not a marathon but rather a series of sprints and rests. If churches try to keep a constant pace, they build up higher and higher levels of stress.’ (p141)

God has designed our world with rhythm. We have four seasons each year, at least in my part of the world we do! The moon gives us monthly rhythms, a fact that matters to fishermen at least. God has given us a weekly pattern of work six, rest one. Our days are balanced by night and day. Such rhythms give light and shade to our lives. They reveal a time for this and a time for that. They show the value of variety. Our school system rides these rhythms, with its 4 terms a year, 10 weeks a term, 5 days a week, three sessions a day. Years are broken up with summer breaks, terms with 2 week holidays, weeks with weekends, days with recess and lunch breaks. We’d do well to learn from the wisdom of those around us and go with some of the natural flows.

We want our growth groups to remain fresh, interesting, varied, and engaging. We don’t want leaders burning out before their time. We want to prevent groups fraying at the edges because people are bored with the same old same old. We want to encourage strategies for group life that energise rather than drain. So what can we do?

NB. Most of the following suggestions first appeared in my post Why churches should stop small groups

Yearly cycles

Starting and stopping our groups each year, helps people to pace themselves. It allows time to build relationships and it also offers an opt-out when the relationships aren’t really working, or we simply want to get to know others. Life changes each year. We move, we get new jobs, our kids get older, we enter into new relationships. These changes often mean people should move to a different group.

Consider carefully when groups begin. Our church often waited until March, when uni students got back into town, but this frustrated others who were looking for a group in January or when school started. It might be wise to advertise a number starting times. But equally, set a stop time, so that the group can finish on a strong note, people can be thanked and farewelled, celebrations can be shared. It’s not good when groups simply taper out and dissolve. This can be a recipe for hurt and disappointments. We need to stop our small groups well!

This is not to say that we should dissolve our groups every year. Some groups will continue for years and remain healthy. But giving people some time out at the close of the year can be very healthy. Taking a break from the group can function like an annual sabbath to enable everyone to have a rest – pastors, leaders, participants and their families. Sometimes, short term summer holiday groups can fill the gap for those who need a group during this period.

Term-based cycles

There is much to be gained by arranging our groups according to seasons, and often the most obvious is school terms. While not everyone’s life is shaped by terms, it does have the benefit of pacing the life of the group. We can oscillate between 9-11 weeks on and 1-3 weeks off. It gives the leaders and the group a break. It gives parents time to do things with their children during the holidays. People get time off for other things and don’t resent their group for always demanding their time.

It can also be helpful to match these groups with the program of the church. If the teaching is term-based this allows integration across the church. A short teaching series is offered in the school holidays and the groups get some time off. Larry Osborne, in Sticky Church, suggests that breaking between terms gives the groups an opportunity to take stock, reevaluate how the group is going, and sometimes to help people transition into another group if things aren’t working out. Stopping our groups in the holidays can also give space for doing other things with the group, perhaps a social outing, a special dinner, or a weekend away. If we want people to stay excited about the groups, I think there is great value in stopping our groups at the end of each term.

Weekly cycles

If our groups go for 9 or 10 weeks followed by a break, then we should plan how to use these weeks. Are we following the sermon series? Will the group need some variety over this time? Perhaps, a 4-1-4-1 plan to do studies, with a night of prayer in the centre, or a dinner together, or combine with another group in the church for a night. The church might encourage groups to do something different in one of the terms, perhaps encouraging the groups to do a training course, or to choose their own studies. If so, then we need to communicate well ahead and prepare people for the changes.

Sometimes the group will face a particular crisis and we need to break with the timetable or plan. Maybe a member is in hospital and the group will choose to stop a week so everyone gets a chance to visit. It could be a big issue that is facing the group that needs addressing, so we might stop the program and give this issue the attention it needs.

Daily cycles

It’s also worth considering the basic shape of each group meeting. How much time is given to catching up with each other, sharing needs or joys, learning and discussing God’s word, praying for one another and other things? Does the group share food together – a meal or simply refreshments? Is the group excited about how it uses it’s time?

People are creatures of habit and they build their expectations on their experiences. If a group always starts late and finishes after the agreed time, people will start coming late and often still get irritated when the group goes overtime. If we stick to the group’s agreed timetable, this will build confidence in the group and create a less stressful environment. If you need to, then agree together on extending the time we meet, otherwise we should stop our groups on time!

I hope reflecting on these rhythms will help increase the joy and decrease the stress in our growth groups!

Prayer in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeOnce upon a time I used to be part of a Bible study group. We’d spend most of our time studying the Bible together. The problem was we often spent so long looking at the Bible and talking together that we rarely allowed much time to pray. So we changed the name to Prayer and Bible groups. And you know what? Prayer was still frequently edged out by everything else. I wonder if your experience has been much the same.

We want our growth groups to be relational communities. People connecting with each other, getting to know each other, taking an interest in what’s going on in each other’s lives. However, the primary relationships aren’t those that we share with each other, but the relationships we share with God. We gather because we belong to God. We’ve been adopted into his family and God is our Father. Jesus has given us access to his Father, so that we can relate to him as our Father. This is a wonderful privilege. We can come before our Father in heaven at any time and in any place, through the mediating work of Jesus. For this reason we desire to express our dependence upon God and our fellowship together in growth groups through prayer.

I want you to imagine a different scenario with me for a minute.

You are part of a company think tank, gathered in a boardroom to come up with plans and changes for moving the company forward, helping each person in the company to improve their contribution, and using the vast resources of the company to bring these things about. The name of the company is Microsoft (assume you are happy with this!) and Bill Gates has agreed to come to every think tank meeting, and authorise the use of his resources to enable every venture that will improve the company. You meet together, read over the company documents, talk things over, come up with some astounding ideas, realise you’ve used nearly all your time, forget that Bill is in the room, ask him for nothing, and head off to try and do everything yourselves.

What a mistake! Forgetting the most important person in the room! Failing to speak with him, ask for his help, draw on his resources… even when he’s promised to give you more than you could ever imagine! It doesn’t make sense, does it? And yet, isn’t that what we do with God our Father, every time we meet and fail to pray. It seems to me that the key to praying in our growth groups is to remember who God is, and to take seriously his invitation, in fact his command, to pray.

We will spend some time in this paper, looking at the Bible, seeking to understand our God, because it is God himself who invites us to pray. You could use these Scriptures as a guide for your growth group in approaching God in prayer together.

The God to whom we pray

The Holy God

The Bible reveals God to be a Holy God who will not tolerate evil. We cannot come into the presence of God without fear for our lives. It is no simple thing to come before God to pray.

Isaiah shows us the problem when he is brought into the presence of God, presumably in a vision…

 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  (Isaiah 6:1-5)

Habbakuk knows the dilemma of sinful people seeking to be heard by a righteous and holy God…

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.  (Habakkuk 1:2, 13)

God, himself, says through Isaiah to the people of Israel…

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!  (Isaiah 1:15)

And Isaiah speaks to the people about God…

1 Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.  (Isaiah 59:1-2)

So what hope do we have? Our lives are tainted by sin and selfishness. How can we presume to come before God in prayer?

On the basis of God’s grace and mercy, love and forgiveness. This is how! And it’s the only way. God enables us to pray. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. We need a saviour.

Our Saviour

God, in his kindness, has made it possible to come into a relationship with him. He has dealt with our sin, and invites us to trust him, submit to him, depend upon him, and speak with him.

God made it possible for Isaiah to stand before him…

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  (Isaiah 1:6-7)

God makes it possible through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, for each of us to be made clean, to have our sins forgiven, God’s judgment lifted, and to gain access to God.

Looking ahead to Jesus, God spoke through Isaiah announcing…

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.  (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Because God is the Saviour, like the Psalmist, we should delight to call on him…

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.  (Psalm 116:1-2)

Jesus has given us access into the throne room of God. His saving work enables us to boldly approach God with confidence and ask him to help us in our weakness and need…

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Permission to pray is a wonderful gift from God. God invites us to enjoy a new relationship with him. And this is a special, personal, and familial relationship. We’re granted the privilege of relating to the Holy God as our Father.

Our Father

Before Jesus leaves his disciples he prepares them for the relationship they are to have with his Father in heaven…

23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. 25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”  (John 16:23-28)

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  (John 20:17, my emphasis)

Paul reminds us that by God’s Spirit we are able to relate to God as our Father…

15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  (Romans 8:15-17)

As God’s dearly loved and adopted children, we have the privilege of coming to him in prayer. Jesus gave this model for prayer…

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

Jesus asks us to remember the all-surpassing goodness and generosity of our Father, and so to bring our needs before Him…

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Through Jesus Christ, and the work of God’s Spirit, we are brought into a relationship with God as our heavenly Father. He calls us to speak with Him, to bring our needs before him, knowing that he will shower his good gifts upon us. God is both willing and able to answer our prayers according to his perfect will. He has our absolute best interests at heart. There is nothing that can thwart his good plans and purposes. So why wouldn’t we pray?!

What to pray

When Jesus was asked how to pray, he responded by telling his disciples what to pray. The Lord’s prayer, as it has become known, gives us a template to pray, as Jesus instructed. We approach God as Father, we desire his honour in all things, we seek his will to be done, we ask him to shape our priorities, enable us to live lives that honour him and reflect him in this world. In other words, the first thing we discover about how to pray, is to have our prayers shaped by God’s own agenda.

According to God’s will

As we seek to pray as Jesus instructed, we desire to have our prayers shaped according to God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. Jesus, himself, submitted his will to the Father as he prayed…

42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Luke 22:42)

How can we know the will of God? By reading it! We should allow Scripture shape our prayers. The Bible reveals God’s plans and priorities. It reveals God’s wonderful promises. Scripture shows us how to live and speak and think in according to God’s revealed will. The Bible also contains many prayers, that give us an insight into what matters matter to God and his people. We can even pray the content of Scripture as we ask God to make it live in our hearts and minds.

As we study the Bible in our groups, allow the passage you have been examining to shape the prayers that follow. We don’t want to be mere listeners to the word, but people who put into practice what we’ve learned. Let’s ask God to transform us in the light of what we’ve just read.

Bring our needs before God

We’re invited to bring our anxieties and worries and requests to God. Even though God knows what we need before we ask, he calls us to open up to him…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  (Philippians 4:6)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.  (1 Peter 5:6-7)

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  (1 John 1:8-9)

Nothing is too big or too small to bring to God. Whatever burden is on our heart, God invites us to hand it over to him. Whatever we need, God wants us to ask him for it. And God’s word equips us to ask in accordance with God will. The more we grow in our knowledge and love of God, the more we will understand how and what to pray for things.

These verses above give guidance about the attitude we should have as we pray. First, we should trust God rather than clinging to our worries. God is the one most able to resolve our worries, so leave them to him. There’s no point you and God doubling up! Secondly, we’re called to humble ourselves before God. He alone is God. He is the Holy and Righteous One. He is the Judge and the Saviour. He is the Creator and we are the creature. He is the Sovereign Lord over all creation. He is our Father in heaven. Our Father! Humility, requires first and foremost that we acknowledge our sin before him and seek forgiveness. Thirdly, we’re urged to be thankful as we pray. With all that we know of God, and what he has done and will do, we have great reasons for thanksgiving. So let’s ask God, with gratitude in our hearts.

Sometimes our needs are deeply troubling. Sometimes we just don’t know what to pray. Sometimes we’re unable to pray in our frailty and weakness. It’s a wonderful comfort to know that God will help us in these times, so don’t stress…

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.  (Romans 8:26-27)

And what awesome promises follow these words…

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  (Romans 8:35-37)

In our groups

As we focus on the will of God in bringing our requests to God, how should we actually pray in our groups? Here are some suggestions…

  1. Allow sufficient time to pray each week. This means limiting the time in the Bible, or chatting, or sharing prayer points, so that we actually pray. Sometimes we may wish to begin the time together with prayer, so as to give it priority. Some weeks we may set aside the majority of the time to focus on prayer for an extended period.
  2. Let our understanding of the Bible shape our prayers. Draw points for prayer from the passage we’ve been studying together.
  3. Show care for each other by inviting people to share their needs with the group, so that we can pray together for these matters. It can be helpful to write things into a prayer diary or leave them on the whiteboard for the following week. This way we can follow up on how God has been answering our prayers.
  4. Tune in to how comfortable people are with praying out loud in a group. Some may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with doing this. It’s important not to put people under pressure. Going round the circle can make things awkward for people, so it might be better to seek volunteers to pray. Breaking into twos and threes can help our prayers to be more personal, and make it easier for the shy members of the group to contribute.
  5. Pray for needs outside the group; such as current events and issues, our communities, our governments, our churches, our pastors, link missionaries, and more.
  6. Pray for people to hear the truth about Jesus. Let’s ask God to change the hearts of our friends.
  7. Help people to understand we are talking to God, not seeking to impress each other.

Set an example

Prayer is unlikely to be a priority for the group if it’s not a priority for the leader. Let’s come before God ourselves, thanking him, confessing our sins, and bringing our needs before him. Let’s do this regularly and wholeheartedly. Pray for the members of our groups and, like the Apostle Paul, let them know we’ve been praying for them and what we’ve been praying.

Further reading

Karen and Rod Morris, Leading Better Bible Studies, chapter 5
Colin Marshall, Growth Groups, chapter 8

Don Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation
Richard Coekin, Our Father
Graeme Goldsworthy, Prayer and the Knowledge of God
Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God

Bible study in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeGrowth groups have commonly been called ‘Bible study groups’ and not without good reason. Studying the Bible together is at the heart of what we do. It’s by no means the only thing we do in our groups, but it is central. Studying the Bible has a purpose. We’re not seeking to fill our heads with facts about God, but to fill our hearts and minds with the knowledge and love of God. Studying the Bible is about relationship, about getting to know God, and living in relationship with him. It’s not a bunch of people sharing our best ideas about God. Rather, it’s about listening to God speak in his word, the Bible, and responding to his revelation by trusting him and changing the way we live.

God’s revelation

It’s important to recognise how the Bible views itself. We should come to terms with the Bible on it’s own terms, not what we might like it to be. Rather than being the best inspirational thoughts of human beings about God, the Bible claims to be unique expirational thoughts from God himself. This is seen most clearly in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, when he writes:

15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:15-17, my emphasis)

The word translated as God-breathed is theopneustos, literally ‘God-spirited’. While the Bible is made up of 66 different books, with a variety of human authors, there is one ultimate author behind it all. God has spoken. The Bible is his breathed-out word.

We find the same perspective in other parts of the Bible. The Apostle Peter wrote:

20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  (2 Peter 1:20-21)

Two authors at work: the human writer and God. The ultimate author is God himself, and the writer is God’s prophet, or mouthpiece. The Holy Spirit has a message for us, and the Bible authors have passed this on.

The Bible therefore is a prophetic book. Not in the commonly understood sense of predicting the future, though some parts of the Bible clearly do this, but God speaking a message through human beings. This has always been God’s purpose, ultimately preparing us to receive the complete and final revelation of God in his Son, Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews begins his letter with these words:

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

God has much to say to us. The Bible is his message, handed down through various people in various ways at various times. But God’s ultimate message to us is found in his Son. Jesus Christ shows us God in all his glory and he reveals what the purpose of life is all about.

The implications of understanding the nature of the Bible are very important. We need to sit under the authority of Scripture. Rather than judging God’s words by our standards, we should allow God’s word to critique our minds and hearts. As we study the Bible in our groups we should anticipate having our ideas challenged and changed. We should be willing to give up our preconceived ideas about God and have them replaced with God’s revelation of himself. It’s a word of love, grace and hope, for it leads us to Jesus, and through him into relationship with God. It’s a word that, when embraced, will bring satisfaction for our souls.

A transformational word

The Scriptures quoted above also give us insight into the purpose and power of God’s word. If we begin reading the Bible at the start, then the power of God’s word shouldn’t surprise us. God speaks and life comes into existence. This was true for the creation and it is equally true for new life in relationship with God through Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:15 reveals that Scripture is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The Bible shines a light upon Jesus Christ. He is the main topic and focal point of the Bible. Jesus is the fulfilment of all God’s promises and everyone who turns to him and trusts in him will be saved from God’s judgment and brought into relationship with God.

Expect people to be changed as they study the Bible. For some the change will be revolutionary. People will discover how God loves them, and has acted to save them. They will view the events of Jesus death and resurrection with wonder and amazement, They will humble themselves before God to accept his gift of forgiveness and life. What a wonderful reason to study the Bible in our growth groups! People entering into the joy of eternal life. And people being reminded of what they have believed and encouraged to continue their trust in Jesus.

We also see that all Scripture, not just our favourite passages, are useful for making us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As we study any part of the Bible there are two types of questions to be asking: i) Wise for salvation type questions; and ii) thoroughly equipped for good works type questions. To put it in other terms: How does this part of the Bible help me to understand what God has done to bring me into a relationship with himself and what should this relationship look like? This has to do with understanding and responding to the gospel of Jesus.

Our salvation has a purpose for life now. We’ve been created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared for us to do. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Ephesians:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  (Ephesians 2:8-10, my emphasis)

We are emphatically not saved by doing good works, as if we could ever do enough. But we are saved, through Christ Jesus, in order to do good works. God has a plan and purpose for our lives, here and now. He calls us to live as his people, to make a difference, to impact others for good, to bring blessing to those around us, to build up his people, to seek the welfare of others, to honour God. This is what the saved life is about. And notice again what Scripture does: it makes us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).

Why wouldn’t we study the Bible in our growth groups, when it can do this? It can lead us to Christ and equip us for life with Christ. The Bible not only has authority from God, it is sufficient to equip us for living in relationship with God. We don’t need to be seeking new and special revelations from God. He’s given us everything we need. We aren’t left to the whims of the gurus and priests. We don’t need to try and find our own way in the dark. The Bible can make us thoroughly equipped. If we believe this, then we will keep calling one another back to the Scriptures. God’s word will be a lamp for our feet and a light on our path.

How to study the Bible

The key to knowing how to study the Bible is knowing what the Bible is and what it can do. It’s the same with anything. Take dynamite: we should understand what it is, the impact it can have, handle it with care, and keep it away from unstable people with matches! Likewise, we should recognise the power of God’s word. The Bible can lead people to a saving relationship with God as they come to trust in Jesus. Scripture can fully equip people to live lives that are pleasing to God. So let’s handle it with care, with humility, with expectation.

It starts with the leader

As leaders, let’s prayerfully come before God, asking him to enable us to understand the message of the Bible, grasp it’s implications, and put it into practice in our lives. It must start with us. We lead with example and with words. If we haven’t taken the Bible seriously and applied it to our own lives, this will come across in our studies. They will be half-baked, superficial, and academic. Application will be forgotten or tacked on at the end. We should be impacted by the Bible ourselves first and foremost.

Many of us will be leading studies that have been prepared by someone else. This doesn’t excuse us from preparation and personal application in advance. Ideally, we should come to the growth group having already been profoundly impacted by the passage we will be studying. It’s not a bad idea to keep a notebook where you can write down what you have learned from the Bible, and how you plan to respond.

Engaging the group

Your job isn’t to give a sermon in your lounge room. Someone else can do that at church. We are seeking leaders who will help the members of their groups on a journey of discovery from the passage of Scripture. It’s important for people to learn how to understand and apply the Bible for themselves. We don’t want them dependent on preachers and commentaries. Growth groups provide interactive opportunities for people to get into the Bible in creative ways together.

Four elements to Bible study

  1. Bible study begins with observing what the passage of Scripture is saying. For this we need Bibles open and we will keep encouraging people back into the text to see what it says. There are so many creative ways to do this. Don’t be limited to question and answer strategies. Take a look at the resources listed below for some excellent suggestions.
  2. Secondly, we need to understand the message of the passage. What is it actually saying? What’s the big idea? How do the various parts support this understanding? Are there words, phrases, ideas that people don’t understand? Get the group working together to grasp the message clearly.
  3. Thirdly, we need to grasp the implications of this part of God’s word. How does it change my understanding of God? Of Jesus? Of what it means to be a Christian? Of how I trust God in the difficult times? Of joy in the face of suffering? Of things that I can be tempted to replace God with? And so on. This is about bridging from the message of the passage to it’s implications for how I understand God, his word, and my response? Some of this work will help build our theology (our understanding of God), some with challenge our wrong ideas, some will strengthen our right understanding, some will lead to significant changes in our thinking and practice.
  4. Lastly, and this is the goal and purpose of the Bible study, we should consider how to apply our understanding of this passage. This is what should happen in relationships. As I discover my friend loves drinking coffee, then I can offer to make him one or take him to a great coffee shop. Understanding leads to action. The beauty of studying the Bible together in groups is that we can support each other to take action. We can gently encourage each other to take the Scriptures seriously. We can pray for the changes Tom is seeking to make. We can ask God to help Jenny as she struggles to trust God in an area of her life. We can spur each other on to love and good works, because this is what the Bible study is all about. As it says in Hebrews 10:23-25:

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Throughout the week

Most groups only meet once a week. Some meet less frequently than this. We encourage the leaders of growth groups, together with all the members of these groups, not to see things stopping and starting on a weekly basis. The Bible calls for real change, not just answering questions correctly in a study once a week. It’s about ongoing transformation. So when we see one another at church, let’s continue to encourage each other. You might ask a friend how that change they were planning to make with how they relate to their boss is going. You could send an email saying that you’re praying for them. You could offer to catch up over a cuppa and talk more about what you were learning in the group and the difference it’s making to each of your lives. Make it real!

Further reading

Colin Marshall, Growth Groups
Michael Hanlon and James Leitch, Spice it up
Rod and Karen Morris, Leading Better Bible Studies