Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A Church of Small Groups

Small group ministry is rooted in the Bible and in church history and has always been a part of church life. Small groups allow a level of intimacy that enables evangelism, spiritual growth and one-another ministry; a level of intimacy that can bring about genuine life change.

Small groups are biblical. Jesus called out twelve to be His disciples. He spent a lot of time with them, taking every opportunity to teach them the principles of kingdom living. They were, then, to go out and make other disciples
(Matthew 28:19-20.)

The earliest expression of the church is seen in Acts 2:46-47: "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

The believers met together in intimate groups in their home and publicly celebrated in larger groups. Is it a coincidence that
Acts 20:20 talks about preaching in public places and from house to house or is this a message for the year of the Coronavirus?

There are historical precedents as well. When the Roman authorities repealed the laws that outlawed Christianity, church life became more organized and centered around a building and professional clergy. But throughout history people would continue to meet in small groups for prayer, Bible study and spiritual growth. Their emphasis was on “heart religion” and the church as a community. As these groups grew in number, spiritual maturity, and influence, they would often renew their churches and lead wide spread revivals.

Small groups became part of the institutional church through Sunday school. Sunday school provided an intimate climate for Bible study and assimilation into the church life. It was used by most denominations by 1930 and involved 75% of churchgoers by 1956. The Sunday school program is credited for the phenomenal growth of Baptist churches in the 20th Century.  It was where Christians were discipled and new leaders were discovered and developed.

Soon small group evangelism and discipleship spilled out of the church and into military bases and college campuses through groups like Navigators and Campus Crusade. With a different purpose, Alcoholics Anonymous began as a Christian group that brought people together for prayer, reliance on God and mutual accountability and support. Other similar programs soon followed. The success of both support groups and discipleship groups  is rooted in peer leadership and taking ministry to the people.

Expanding Bible study beyond Sunday morning and outside the church building removes many unnecessary obstacles. On the other hand, there are advantages to the traditional Sunday school model. You can go to worship and Bible study on the same day and there are programs for children and teens. It is, also, easier to administrate. The best path for most churches is to continue Sunday school and expand it beyond the walls.

Small groups can be formed in homes, at your work place, or in a public setting (like Starbucks, McDonalds or the Library.) These groups usually involve Bible study but service, support and fellowship also play an important part. They are centered on God and intentional about spiritual growth.

Baptist Temple is going to make strong effort in the post-pandemic era to build a church of multiplying small groups scattered in the community and gathered on Sunday. This is not a new strategy for us but, rather, a renewed focus.

Here are two great books on the subject for further study:

Friday, April 24, 2020

Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America

Robert Lupton opened an important line of conversation with his book Toxic Charity. The longtime urban minister taught churches to move beyond immediate relief to working on long term solutions to the root causes of poverty. In fact, he says, “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”

His second book on the topic, Charity Detox, offers results-oriented, practical strategies. I recommend both books to all Christians, especially those involved in charitable ministries.

I also recommend Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America. This is a collection of short stories of the people Lupton met while he lived in the impoverished Atlanta neighborhood where he ministered. Stories of heartbreak and hope reveal Lupton's heart and serve as a backdrop for his other books. It is inspirational for folks who work with the urban poor as scripture passages and parables come to life. The other two books demonstrate the how. Theirs is the Kingdom reminds us of the why. It is a quick and worthwhile read.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


God has had His hand on Baptist Temple from its beginning. He has protected us and enabled us to do ministry through numerous global, national and local emergencies. Through each one Baptist Temple has listened to God and adapted to the new opportunities revealed within the challenges.

Prior to the COVID-19 emergency, Baptist Temple was strongly positioned for ministry to our community. We had turned our most visible asset, our buildings, into a hub of important services for our community. In doing this, we multiplied our ministry capacity while dividing our expenses. We efficiently and effectively served the spiritual and physical needs of our community. During this time of social distancing, we still operate essential services through our early learning center and funeral office. Meanwhile, our solar panels quietly provide energy for our community, our cell tower keeps folks connected, and our radio antennas keep security alarms on line.

We are ahead of several trends that church consultants have identified for the 21st Century.
  1. Moving from an attractional church model to a missional one. This is a part of Baptist Temple's history and so much a part of who we are that we are surprised and disappointed when a church is not missional.
  2. Today churches are built to accommodate 300 worshipers at a time. Large arenas are a Baby Boomer phenomenon whose passing is being accelerated by COVID-19. It seems our sanctuary size fits the new ideal.
  3. Multiple worship times are the new expectation. We have offered as many as seven services from seven different churches in multiple languages and styles.
  4. A rule of thumb for worship spaces was that filling to 80% of capacity was comfortable. The new post COVID-19 capacity is expected to be 60%. People want more space.

Another of our strengths that, while not a trending, is still God-pleasing, is focusing outreach on the people that other churches overlook: older adults, the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled. While our efforts have been delayed for a season, we have nearly completed our inclusive playground and we will bounce back stronger than ever.

Robert Newman came on staff shortly before the pandemic. This is a clear example of God's hand. His many skills and talents include those that have expanded our internet media communications just when they were most needed. COVID-19 has pushed many churches into the 21st Century and this will become a growing part of our communications process. We are on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest. We also communicate regularly though our email newsletter, blog, video conference, telephone and mail.

Paths to the future include close contact and small groups. Our phone angels call each of our people on a weekly basis, maintaining close communication while we are apart. When we return, small groups will be a core discipleship strategy. This is not new for us. Sunday school has been at the heart of the explosive growth of Baptist churches for nearly a century. At the same time, parachurch groups such as Campus Crusade and the Navigators used small groups to disciple young people on college campuses and military bases. AA and other 12 step programs use them to help people cope with their pain. Almost all of our members have had experience with one or more of these groups.

I envision a combination of church-based groups, home groups, lunch-time Bible studies, etc. They will be integrated by a support system of training and coaching. The goal will be to help people grow to be more like Jesus, wherever they are on their walk.

Another path for the future is Stephen Ministry. Our highly trained Stephen Ministers will meet one on one with folks who need a little extra grace for a time. The path to the future is a continued focus on the Great Commission:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”
Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Thank God for Fleas

Corrie Ten Boom
One of my favorite stories in The Hiding Place features Corrie Ten Boom learning to be thankful is all things from her sister, Betsie. They were in a prison camp without much to be thankful but the Bible says, “ in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NKJ)

They were thankful for being together, for having a Bible and, even, for the crowded conditions that created an environment where more women would hear the nightly Bible studies. Many women gave their heart to Jesus as a result. When Betsie gave thanks for the fleas, Corrie objected, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

“‘Give thanks in all circumstances,” Betsie corrected. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”

Weeks would pass before Corrie would learn the reason why they were so free to witness, without interruption, in the barracks. The guards were avoiding the terrible flea infestation. “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, NIV)

It can be hard to see God's hand in difficult circumstances but we know that revivals have come in the midst of troubled times. The Reformation came when the church had strayed from Biblical teaching. A prayer revival exploded in New York City following the 1857 stock market crash. Good Friday led to Easter Sunday.

How will God use the bleak circumstances of our current situation? Paul used arrest and imprisonment as an opportunity to witness to jailers and judges. He wrote letters to encourage the churches while way.

God is still at work. Let's look for ways to join him.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Celebrating Communion at home

Also known as the Lord's Supper and the Eucharist, scholars have argued for centuries over the theology of communion but all agree that it is important. Most of us understand that there is something more than just the bread and wine present during this ritual instituted by our Lord.

Communion is rooted in the celebration of Passover, commemorating God's rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It was while celebrating Passover with the Apostles, that Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, passed the bread and the cup around and said, “do this in remembrance of me.”

Jesus changed the purpose of the celebration. Now, instead of the ritual slaughter of a lamb, Jesus would offer himself as the final and perfect atonement for our sin. Like the rescue of Israel from bondage in Egypt, Jesus rescued us from bondage to sin.

Jesus never asked his followers to remember his birth. He did instruct us to remember his death and resurrection. Communion is a powerful dramatization of the gospel, using all of our senses.

Passover was celebrated in the home. It was an intimate celebration. It is appropriate, today, to celebrate communion in small groups at home, even if it's just family. Especially during this time when church gatherings are ill advised and we approach Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

All you need is bread and grape juice or wine. Reading this Bible passage would be appropriate but many others would work as well

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: 
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, 
took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
 “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; 
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, 
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I Corinthians 11:23-26 (NIV)