5 Ways Community Groups Have Changed Our Church’s Culture

In the Fall of 2016, my church launched community groups. For us, community groups are multi-generational, home-based, sermon discussion small groups. We’ve been encouraged by the great participation from our church body, but now several months into these groups, I’m encouraged to observe how these groups are changing our church’s culture and equipping the saints. Here are a few anecdotal observations about the ways community groups have changed our culture at Forest Hills Baptist Church.

1. Community Groups Provides a Ripe Environment for Disciple Making

I’m convinced that programs don’t make disciples, people do. We’ve designed our community groups to be as bear-boned in their structure as possible. The intention was not to create another complicated program for people to follow, but to form an environment in which personal disciple making happens. By the grace of God, we are beginning to see such disciple making occur. Members are discussing their struggles and seeking encouragement for one another. Relationships have grown out of these community groups, nurturing a culture of personal disciple making.

2. Community Groups Have Increased Attention for the Sunday Morning Sermon

The climax of our worship each Sunday occurs when the Scriptures are opened, and we hear and respond to the word of God. Because these groups are sermon-discussion based, its encouraged community groups participants to listen carefully to the message. They listen to the pastor much more intensely and digest the material through copious note taking. Knowing that they will be gathering with their group that night to discuss and apply God’s word, the accountability of community forces them to engage with the sermon personally.

3. Community Groups Form Multi-Generational Relationships

Many churches struggle with an age chasm between generations. Many churches still structure their disciple making strategy around age-segregation. I’m convinced such practices are misguided, and can actually hinder Titus 2 type relationships from developing within your members. When all the older men and women are sequestered off from the younger members, how will such disciple making occur? We’ve sought to be intentional in forming community groups at the start with a multi-generational ethos. In the majority of our groups the 70-year old saint is meeting with the young mom with a brood of children. By bringing the old and young together, this has already begun to bring unity across generations.

4. Community Groups Stir Missional Fervor

Many of our community groups are beginning to think together how they can reach their neighbors for Christ. I’ve been encouraged by one group recently who has taken it upon themselves to provide meals for a neighbor who just welcomed a new baby into their home. Such outreach has begun to occur organically, without any prompting or prodding from the pastoral leadership. It turns out that as people live life together in community, they look for ways to share the Gospel and reach out to others.

5. Community Groups Have Provided a Pathway for New People to Get Connected

One of the greatest challenges as a pastor is helping people go from Sunday morning visitors to community participants. Community groups have provided an excellent first step in helping new people get connected to the life of our church. It provides a safe and non-threatening environment to built relationships with other members in our congregation. It also allows our members to utilize their gift of hospitality to open their homes to outsiders, something the New Testament very much calls us to do.

Life in Community

God has used community groups to bring spiritual growth in our church. As our people live together in community, dig into the Scriptures together, and care for one another, changed lives are the inevitable result. Though we are only a few months in, it’s encouraging to see the way Community Groups have begun to change the culture at Forest Hills Baptist Church. If your church offers something similar to community groups, I’d encourage you to get involved. After all, the Christian life cannot be lived in isolation, but we must habitually meet together, so that we can encourage one another as we wait for the day of the Lord to draw near.

If your a member of Forest Hills and your reading this, and your not in a community group, what are you waiting for? Sign up for one online at our website!

My Four Year Parenting Anniversary

Today is my firstborn’s fourth birthday, or my four year anniversary of being a Dad. Those four years feel both like an eternity and a breeze in the wind all at the same time. Since my son first came into the world four years ago, we’ve added our first daughter to our home (who will be two next month) and a second little girl on the way. The last four years brought good days and bad days. On the one hand, I’ve stood in shock of a temper tantrum with such volatile flailing that you’d think the demons of hell have taken hold of this child. On the other hand, I’ve received more kisses, hugs, and I love you daddy’s than any heart could hold.

God has given me the gift of fatherhood, and with that comes the painful revealing of my own sin. Second only to my marriage, nothing reveals the sin of my own heart like fatherhood. Yet, God has sanctified me through the journey. I never realized how selfish I was until I had another human life depending on me. God has taught me to die to myself and to take on the form of a servant to my family.

However, the most overwhelming part of the parenting task, is the eternal ramifications at stake. Indeed, God has entrusted me not only with keeping these children breathing, but nurturing their souls. Compared to keeping them fed and alive, shepherding their souls is far greater challenge. My job as a Christian father is to both proclaim and model the Gospel to my children. However, my children are more apt to pick up their daddy’s patterns of sin than my meager godliness. Each day, my children develop their view of God from daddy’s example. Though they cannot yet read the Scriptures, they learn about God from daddy’s life and teaching. Knowing that such eyes keep watch protects me from thinking I’m ever “off duty” in the Christian life. Thus, I must be cognizant of the hypocritical life that could very well develop between my public persona as “pastor” and the personal persona as “father.” My children need a Father who lives his entire life under the banner of the all surpassing preeimence of Christ.

The Aim of Parenting

For parents out there, we must ask ourselves, “What is the aim of our parenting?” In other words, “Who are we trying to form these kids into being?” I’m afraid many parents greatly miss the mark on this. They are far more concerned about their children’s accolades and GPA rather than their spiritual formation. It’s good to want the best for your kids, and to give them every possibility imaginable, however what kids need more than anything else is a Mom and Dad devoted to Jesus and who centers their home upon Christ. Such children who grow up with parents who read the Scriptures, teach theology, and pray for their children, are blessed beyond measure.

Yet, the aim of our parenting points ultimately towards Christ and his glory. The greatest disciple making any of us will do will be with our children. As God gifts us with these precious children, we invite them to watch our life and our doctrine. We nurture them, love them, and weep over them, begging the Lord to save their souls and use them mightily for the advancement of the Gospel. Children are like arrows in the hands of a skilled archer. We raise them only to release them into the world, praying that the sharpening and training over two decades will bring glory to Jesus.

For me, these last four years of parenting have flown by, and even still I’m reminded of the ticking clock of how little time I have with my children. Every child’s birthday, I’m reminded of the urgency and importance of my work as father that will far exceed and outlast my work as pastor or scholar. May we parents resolve to honor God in our task and fully devote ourselves to the precious work of ministry called parenting.

Be a Friend of Sinners

When Jesus invited Levi to follow him, everything changed. This tax collector was transformed by the savior’s call. In order to express his gratitude and love for Jesus, Levi threw a party in Jesus’ honor. He’s so thankful for Jesus that he gathers all of his tax collector friends and other sinners to come recline with Jesus and his disciples. This quite the party! Here is Jesus the son of God eating and talking with the social outcasts—the sinners. The shock of this scene is difficult for us to fully understand in our culture. Reclining at someone’s table was a mark of friendship, intimacy, and love. It was the place of community, long conversations, and fellowship. It mattered who you ate with in Jesus day, similarly to how it matters which table you sat at in the high school Cafeteria. By eating with people you were identifying with them. No one wanted to eat with these tax collectors and sinners because it meant socially demeaning yourself to spend time with them. Yet, these are the sorts of people Jesus hung out with. He was a friend of sinners.

Jesus’ Evangelistic Strategy

It is here that we see Jesus’ mission strategy. It’s a complicated, super difficult strategy that takes years to master. It’s a strategy that all the church growth experts out there have yet to figure out yet as they develop new ministry program after new program. You ready to hear what Jesus’ missionary strategy was? He ate with people. That’s it. He ate dinner with people. His work of evangelism and discipleship always took place around the dinner table. As Jesus tells us in Luke 7:34, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking.” Meals are community creating events. Meals unite us with other people. Even today, food and drink connects people together. Why else to people gather at bars and restaurants? People go for community and fellowship. There is a reason everyone feels awkward eating alone in a restaurant. God has designed our meals to be times of connection and friendship with one another.

Now Christian’s are known for lots of things, but perhaps what we are best known for is our covered dish dinner. But, while most of our meals at church are with other Christians, look at the company Jesus kept at his meals! He eats with sinners and tax collectors! Now it is good for the body of Christ to come together and fellowship and eat together, but we have to ask the question, how have we strayed from Jesus’ own missions strategy? We’ve so secluded ourselves in the Christian bubble, that we only surround ourselves with Christians. In fact, we’ve intentionally designed our lives so that we have as little interaction with non Christians as possible. We do Bible studies where everyone there is a Christian. We swing the golf clubs with other Christians. We have Christian doctors, Christian handymen, Christian dentists, Christian coaches… you get the point. All of our friends are Christians and the only people we eat with our Christians. We only eat with people who are like us—Christian.

The American Church Has Killed Off Evangelism

No wonder the American church fails in the task of evangelism—we aren’t friends with anyone who isn’t a Christian! Indeed, we design so much of our programs in the church to reinforce the Christian bubble. The church becomes the Smörgåsbord of programs and activities that lead to the cul-de-sac of the Christian bubble. We have Christian golf tournaments, Christian Senior Adult activities, Christian choirs, Christian basketball leagues, Christian baking clubs. Again, you get the point, and I’m aware that I’m striking at nerve at Forest Hills, because this is exactly they way we program, and I think it’s well intentioned, but severely misguided. We’ve strayed so far from Jesus’ simple missional strategy of eating with sinners. We’ve swapped it out with hundreds of activity that all keep us busy but ineffective in reaching the world for Christ. So we can have a busy week at the church with activities, outings, and all the while never speaking once to someone who is not a Christian. I believe the American Church has unintentionally structured itself to kill off evangelism. After all you can not evangelize to non-Christians if you don’t know any non-Christians. Instead of mobilizing Christians to mission, the church has only entrapped them in the Christian bubble.

Eat With Sinners

So what would it look like for you and I to adopt Jesus’ mission strategy? What would it look like if our church began to declutter our programming to free you up to live like this? I hesitate to make such specific application lest I stumble across a sacred cow. So rather than critiquing church programming, I’d rather challenge you as an individual to live like Jesus. Do you want to be a more effective evangelist? Do you want to make an impact in the kingdom of God? What if I told you that you don’t need any formal training or certification and that its as easy as eating a cheese burger? Here is the challenge: eat one meal a week with somebody who isn’t a Christian.

We all have to eat anyway don’t we? On your lunch break at work, invite a co-worker who doesn’t know the Lord out eat with you. One evening invite your unbelieving neighbors over for dinner. Go grab a cup of coffee with a friend in your aerobics class who doesn’t know Jesus. It really is that simple. Be friends with non Christian people. You have to eat, so why not eat with other people who don’t know Jesus?

I’ve failed at this a lot personally over the course of my life, and I still have a long ways to go, but I’ve done my best to keep my lunches booked during the work week. It often means that we have to budget extra in our family budget for restaurant eating, but so much of my ministry is done over conversations with other men over a meal. It is there in those deep conversations with mouths full that encouragement is lavished, admonishment is given, and evangelism happens. So the challenge this morning is simple—who is one person you can invite to a meal this week who doesn’t know Jesus? In your community groups tonight, share the name of that person with your group for prayer, accountability, and encouragement. Work it into the rhythm of your life that you eat with other people, particularly with those who do not know Jesus.

Reevaluate Your Priorities

This may mean you need to re-evaluate your weekly calendar. Most of us are sinfully too busy. We pack our calendars so full with activity that we don’t have time to be intentional in building relationships with non believers. You may have to say no to some other commitments so that you can encounter new people on a regular basis. Use your hobby as a bridge to relationship. Love golfing? Join a group of guys and go golfing with them on Saturday. Love knitting? Join a sowing group in town and meet new friends and share your testimony with them. Love working out? Meet some people at the gym and invite someone out to coffee after your morning workout. Love basketball? Invite your co-worker over to your house to watch the game on Friday night. You get the picture. Evangelism isn’t always just going door to door. Though there is nothing wrong with doing that, but often the most effective evangelistic opportunities we have come through the trust of personal relationship. Be hospitable, friendly, and welcoming to all people. Build friendships with those who don’t know Jesus and through those friendships live out and share the Gospel. Missions isn’t an event and it isn’t nearly as hard as we make it out to be. It’s simply every day Christians doing every day things with Gospel intentionality.

As you are intentional with the Gospel and build those friendships with non Christians, the Spirit will work in the natural ebb and flow of the conversation to open hearts and provide you plenty of opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Be like Jesus. Be a friend of sinners.

A Testimonial: Don’t Neglect the Hard Books of the Bible in Your Preaching

Recently I preached through book of Job in just four weeks. If you are interested you can listen to those four sermons here. Job is the sort of book that is often neglected in our Bible, and due to its difficulty many preachers skip over it. When I first planned on preaching through Job, I had reservations. It’s a lengthy book with a difficult topic. Yet, convinced with its relevance to the lives of my church, I pressed on in my preparation. Job-Rotator

A few weeks into the series  a woman, who I respect dearly, express her initial timidity about my taking on this particular book in just four weeks, but shared with me the positive feedback she’s heard from many of our members through the Job series. I’ve been pleasantly caught off guard how this little book has impacted so many in our congregation, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Spirit of God works the the preaching of the word, even difficult books like Job.

Getting Past Glibness

Now I say all this not to laud my own preaching accomplishments. In fact, I believe the impact of the book of Job had little to do with the preacher at all—neither in the crafting of the sermon nor the delivery. No, I believe the impact of the book of Job on my congregation came from the neglect of teaching on suffering in the church today. People just don't hear message much on how to suffer well. In our consumeristic culture constantly trying to attract seekers, a topic like suffering wouldn't appear to draw much of a crowd.

If we let lost people dictate what is preached in the pulpit we end up with pragmatic, moralistic sermons devoid of the Bible and the Gospel. When we preach to people’s felt needs, our worship become superficial and glib. In order to convince people to be Christian, we plaster on our smiles and talk about how happy Jesus makes us. As a result, many Christians appear robotic and disconnected from the harsh realities in which we live. Sadly, that happiness promoted merely reflects the consumeristic culture, which is how the despicable prosperity gospel teaching infiltrates so many American churches. Lamenting Christians don’t make good billboards for our marketing efforts.

Expository preaching forces congregations to go through tough texts and encounter biblical themes that we might not ordinarily choose. Even still, expository preachers tend to neglect the Old Testament. A pervasive genre in the Old Testament is lament. From Job to Jeremiah to the Psalter, the Old Testament wrestles with depression and sorrow. I believe these sections of Scripture provide an significant comfort to Christians who have grown tired of pretending to be happy all the time.

Proclaim Hope to Sufferers

As an Christian could tell you, following Jesus is difficult. Suffering is a recurring facet of human existence in this fallen, sinful world. Pastors and teachers need to expose our people to these neglected gems, like Job, and teach them to suffer well. As I preached through the book of Job, I knew I was preaching to many who were suffering. Because I know my people, I know that there are suffers present: a man ever-weakening with ALS, women struggling with recurring bouts of depression, the widow who doesn’t know how to move on from her husband’s death, the mother who had to burry her own child, and the fathers laid off and struggling to find work.

If pastors are to be faithful in their task of shepherding they must proclaim the hope of the Gospel even in the difficult afflictions of the present age. We must help our congregation set their hope on Christ, in the midst of the depression and questions.

Worship in Tears of Joy and Sorrow

Thankfully, God has given us a wonderful resource to assist suffers: a savior who suffers with us and for us. Jesus identifies us in the frailty of our flesh and endures the cross of Christ to redeem us and to mend this broken world. Hope is here and is coming. the Bible in not a monolithic book, but is contoured with various writers and genres, styles and themes. This diversity allows us to voice the prayers and concerns of the Biblical writers to God, including those who may be going through the must anguished suffering like Job. We ought not to neglect tough books of the Bible, because they help provide balance to the full range of dynamics within the Christian life. We must learn how to follow Christ when the goodness of God’s providence shines brightly on us, but also when that providence darkens and turns bitter. When our hope is grounded securely in Christ, we can worship God both in tears of joy and of sorrow.