Do you think the apostle Peter was nervous before he preached at Pentecost? How many people do you think he thought would respond to his message? Before you answer, remember, there were no churches, Christian organizations, or church history present when this took place. So what do you think? Twenty-five people? Thirty-five people? A hundred people?
Of course we know that more than three thousand people were saved through that first day of preaching! In other words, the first Christian church was a megachurch from day one. So how did the disciples respond to make sure that everyone was cared for and that the initial explosion of growth did not create a chaotic environment that would hamper the spread of the gospel?
Acts 2:46 tells us one of the keys that allowed the church to go from three thousand to countless millions was tribes: "And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart." In other words, from the beginning, the three thousand new converts were divided into small tribes, which met in homes to study together, break bread, and care for each other. This is why it is important for church leaders to understand a second layer of "tribes" at their church, the small group.
At Lake Pointe Church we tell every new member that it is vital for each person to find a small group or "tribe" in which they can become an active participant. This is first communicated at an orientation that is offered once a month on a Sunday evening. The purpose of this three-hour introduction to our fellowship is to help the new member along a clear path of spiritual formation and assimilation. In addition, we share the purpose of the church and expectations of each individual toward fulfilling our mission.
Why make this an emphasis? Because those who only attend the large church gathering tend to remain spectators. By joining a small or even midsize group (which we call Life Groups), they move toward accountability and as a result, greater spiritual maturity. I often say in those settings, "We are not really a large church, we are a collection of small churches, and there is a sense in which you haven't really found your church until you have found a smaller tribe we call Life Groups."
We happen to be a church that believes in on-site, midsized tribes as well as small home-based groups. Many other great churches only offer small groups in homes to accomplish the same ends and many of them do so effectively. We have chosen to offer weekly, on-site, midsized Life Groups that meet immediately prior to or following the worship services. These groups further subdivide into off-site Growth Groups that meet once or twice per month in homes. We believe on-site Life Groups are most effective for the following reasons:
1. Time: When someone gives their time to attend a church service on one day and then must give up a second time slot on another day for their small group experience, they are less likely to do so. However, if they can attend their Life Group immediately before or after a service, even if they are on the property for 2½ hours, they consider it only one section of time. The majority of your most-committed people will give you two time slots a week, not three. If two slots are already required by a worship service and a "week night" small group experience, it is hard to get them to commit the third time slot to serve in a ministry. Others may come to service and serve but will not commit the third hour to the vital community they need to experience in the Life Group. As a result, most churches with only off-site small groups average at best 30 to 40 percent of their adult membership. Churches with well-managed on-site, midsized groups can see a participation rate as high as 80 percent.
2. Childcare: Even the best efforts to provide home-based childcare, which range from "find your own childcare" to "stick the kids in a back room" to "one couple misses one out of every five gatherings," fall short. On-site programming for children is easier to make safe, efficient, effective, and convenient. It is also my personal belief that some of our church members who attend Life Groups have not yet really bought into the small group concept, but they attend faithfully just to get a break from their kids for a few hours each week.
3. Fear and Convenience: It is much easier to ask a new church member to walk down the hall and try out a Life Group while they are already in the building than it is to ask them to navigate their way to a home in a strange neighborhood. And here is the reality. If you go into a room to visit a Life Group on-site and you get uncomfortable, if you do not enjoy it, or if it just goes too long, you can always pretend to go to the restroom and not return. This is pretty difficult to pull off in a home unless you are planning to climb out of someone's bathroom window! I have found that many new paradigm churches today only offer small home groups and do not offer midsized on-site groups. The common argument is that they cannot afford the building costs associated with on-site midsized groups. While I understand their concern, I believe that if a larger percentage of their people were assimilated through the use of midsized on-site groups, the necessary resources to provide facilities for such groups would exist. However, in the few parts of the country where land is so expensive that it becomes nearly impossible to provide the necessary facilities for on-site groups, I would suggest a modified on-site midsized group strategy. Here, the church could provide one or two midsized rooms with a capacity of approximately 80 to 100. The church could then invite several small groups that usually meet in homes to join together with other small groups for 4 to 5 weeks, utilizing those rooms before or after existing services and providing on-site childcare. Those who had not yet connected to a small group could then be invited to check out the collection of small groups meeting on the campus for that month. A new collection of small groups could then rotate on campus the following month. The small groups rotating on campus could be from a selected geographical region with various age groups, or they could be a collection of a particular age group from various regions.
4. Group Psychology: It is a very large sociological leap for a person to take who is enjoying the anonymity of a large group of several hundreds or even several thousands to be thrust into a small group of 8 to 10 people. We have found that a midsize group of 25 to 80 allows the person to acclimate more slowly toward greater intimacy and accountability. After people develop trusting relationships, they are more willing to commit to an additional periodic time slot and the more intimate experiences in a home-based small group. By the way, there are some people whose personality profiles make it almost impossible to move them to the smaller setting without first transitioning through the midsize experience.
In short, it takes less time and courage, and there are fewer childcare complexities involved, in attending an on-site midsized group than a small off-site group.
When Lake Pointe began more than thirty years ago, we started two midsized Life Groups for couples. One group was for those who were over forty years of age and one was for couples younger than forty. In addition, we started one men's Life Group and one ladies' Life Group. This served those who preferred to meet and study the Bible separately from their spouse, those whose spouse refused to attend, or those whose spouse was working in our childcare area at that hour. Today we have a total of 156 midsize, on-site Life Groups that meet each week.
Very quickly we found that more of our people moved into our Life Group tribes when they fully understood the five purposes of these groupings and the needs met there that could not be provided in a larger service format. The first unique purpose of a Life Group is interactive Bible study. Obviously a large service format does not allow an abundance of questions and answers, individual application, and then personal encouragement to follow through on biblical insights. Interestingly, this vital interaction is what many people are seeking to avoid by not attending Life Groups.
Some people fear that by attending one of these groups, they will be asked to read aloud, pray aloud, or answer a complex spiritual question about a biblical passage. This is why we guarantee that Life Groups are interactive on the attendees' terms. They can ask any questions they desire and volunteer to give input as they like, but no one will initiate interaction without their prior approval. Life Groups are a safe place to listen and learn on the participants' terms and at their comfort level.
Because interactive Bible study is a part of the Life Group, all of our Life Group teachers are trained to lead Bible study discussions rather than lecture. They are required to serve as an assistant teacher and attend a four-week training course for new leaders before leading a group. Before they can lead their own group, they are also required to fill out a questionnaire that requires them to share their church background, salvation experience, and doctrinal beliefs.
After interning as an assistant, taking the training course, and filling out the questionnaire, they are then interviewed by our board of elders. At that interview they are asked to verbally affirm that they will be faithful in their giving, be loyal to church leadership, and abstain from the appearance of evil. This is in addition to the commitment they are asked to make to support the values of the church and adhere to basic biblical disciplines that should be a part of every fully developing Christian's life.
The process is demanding because, in a lot of ways, as the small group tribe goes, so goes the church. A staff member or lay volunteer then provides continuing coaching to each Life Group leader to foster his or her ongoing development.
Each Life Group has two leaders, the primary teaching leader and the care leader. While the teaching leader is the recognized and primary spokesperson for the group, the care leader is responsible for helping organize members' care and ministry projects as well as facilitating smaller home-based Growth Groups and accountability partnerships.
The second purpose for Life Groups is fellowship. God's Word makes it clear how important it is to have close Christian friends. Ecclesiastes 4:9 says "Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts." Life Groups provide the environment in which it is more likely participants will develop lifetime and Christ-honoring relationships. If someone has been a member of Lake Pointe for several years and complains of being unable to develop meaningful friendships, I will ask the person about their Life Group participation. Life Groups are where those deeper relationships are formed.
One of the disappointments that I have as the pastor of a larger church is that I don't have the opportunity to know everyone in the church. I'm not the only one who feels this tension. One of the complaints I hear from time to time about Lake Pointe is that we are "just such a large church." People are even hesitant to join such a large church for fear that, unlike the church they attended before Lake Pointe, "they won't know everyone."
But large numerical growth doesn't have to exclude meaningful relationships. I love baseball and I love going to see the Texas Rangers play. Over the years the massive size of the crowd has never bothered me. A big crowd usually means the team is on a winning streak (or that it is opening day). Why does it not seem to concern me that I do not "know everyone" at the ballpark? Two reasons: First, I know that I am a part of a larger tribe called Rangers fans and that for the most part—except for those pesky Red Sox and Yankee fans living in our city—most of the people seated around me, even if I do not know their names, are cheering and hoping for the same outcome. Second, I always attend the game with a smaller tribe—my wife, Marsha, and another couple, our grandkids, or three or four buddies who are also Rangers fans.
The baseball metaphor illustrates a similar dynamic that happens in a local church. It does not matter how large the church gets, if you are involved in a smaller tribe or Life Group with which you are experiencing ever-deepening friendships. Building healthy small group tribes is an essential fellowship component to every tribal church.
The third critical activity that occurs in these Life Group tribes is care. When someone joins our church family, it is our responsibility to care for that person's spiritual, emotional, and, in some cases, physical needs. But, it is that individual's responsibility to put himself or herself in the place where this kind of care takes place. At Lake Pointe that place is a Life Group. It is the Life Group's care leader whose primary responsibility is to organize the tribe members to care for one another.
I do not know when it happened, but at some time in the history of the church, people began to expect the clergy to do all the ministering. I believe that is why 59 percent of the churches in America have fewer than 100 participants, counting both adults and children.1 That is about the number of people for whom one person can effectively care. According to Ephesians 4:12, it is the job of those in the pastor/teacher role to equip the saints to minister to one another. Which is also to say, it is not only the responsibility of church members to put themselves in a place to be cared for, but also for them to position themselves to care for others. It is amazing to me that there are those who become concerned when they do not get the attention they feel they need, but then have no concern about the unmet needs of their fellow tribesmen.
Whenever there is a death, sickness, or another kind of crisis in a Lake Pointe member's life, we can tell immediately if that person has a meaningful connection to a Life Group. When I or another staff member show up, if that person is an active Life Group member, we find there is very little—if anything—that needs to be added to the ministry already taking place. The love expressed by the Life Group is both more meaningful and helpful because of the knowledge that comes from everyone involved having done life together deeply. If that person has not connected to a Life Group, we find most times that the ministry from our staff is the entire ministry they receive.
One of the ways we have empowered our leaders and helped them to be seen as true ministers is by encouraging the observance of Communion in Life Groups. In addition, many times Life Group leaders will baptize the members or family members of their own Life Group.
The fourth unique benefit from Life Group involvement is meaningful service. All of our Life Groups are commissioned to adopt at least one ministry project for their tribe. Many of our groups have taken on multiple projects, giving their participants a variety of opportunities, including those that are local, national, and international. In other words, Life Group members not only study God's Word together, they also put God's Word into action together. There is a deeper intimacy that comes to a tribe when they serve God together.
When our church first began, the connection between Life Groups and individual ministry involvement was not as strong as it is today. In those early days, if you wanted to serve, you did so in addition to the time spent with your Life Group with those outside of your Life Group. Although some in our congregation still find a place of service outside of their Life Group, today most of our people serve with their Life Group.
We have also found that a greater percentage of our members now serve because of this paradigm shift. They are now motivated by an opportunity to fellowship with their tribe, in addition to the feeling of significance that service brings, and the realization that real needs are met by their involvement.
Finally, the Life Group is a critical part of the pathway to accountability. As pastor, I feel it is primarily my job to motivate those who are attending one of our services to engage with a Life Group. In turn, we expect the leadership in Life Groups to encourage their members to take the next step of participating in monthly home-based groups of 8 to 10 people we call Growth Groups. Fellowship, prayer, and support—rather than Bible study—are the primary activities of these home gatherings. Some Growth Groups have also chosen to do ministry projects together for their monthly gatherings. Over time, it is common for these relationships to grow into lifelong friendships and same-gender accountability partnerships that help our people grow to be more like Christ. Proverbs 27:17 says, "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another."
Many of our home-based Growth Groups start out much like a simple supper club. A new Growth Group begins when the Life Group care leader asks those not already connected to a Growth Group if they would like to form a group themselves or have their names put in a hat as new Growth Groups are being formed. It is then perfectly legal, after several months have passed, for an individual or couple to come back to the care leader and say, "I have really enjoyed fellowship with the couples (or singles) you put us with; however, we would like to try another Growth Group now so we can meet more people in our Life Group." That, by the way, is code language for "I do not have anything in common with the yahoos you put me with and I would like to be in a different group." As I said, it is perfectly acceptable for individuals or couples to keep changing groups until they find one with which they have a high degree of affinity. Once this takes place, we pray that they can stay with that group until Jesus returns.
Steve Stroope, Kurt Bruner, and Rick Warren, Tribal Church: Lead Small. Impact Big. (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2012).
Someone once asked Dallas Willard, “If a person wants to grow spiritually, where should they start? Read the Bible? Pray more? Go to church?” Dallas’s answer was completely disarming —and unexpected. He said, “Do the next right thing you know you ought to do. Now when you try that, you may wind up going to church, because you’re going to need some help. Nothing will drive you into the Kingdom of God like trying to do the next thing that is right . . . because you will need help, and you will get it, because that’s where God is.”
So today, from one moment to the next —as the thought enters your mind —do the next right thing you know you ought to do:
Sometimes doing the next right thing seems impossible, even when it’s not. Once, after hearing Dallas Willard give a talk about “doing the next right thing,” a man approached Dallas and said, “I have a rebellious son, and I can’t help blowing up at him.” Dallas told him to simply promise his wife that the next time he blew up at his son, he would contribute $5,000 to his wife’s favorite charity.
Often, “doing the next right thing” will demand a power not currently available to us. Just like with an alcoholic who decides that the “next right thing” is not to take a drink, willpower alone will not get this done. Success will require a new way of life in which we will need to access strength from a Power greater than ourselves.
The beauty of “do the next right thing” is that it often reveals that we’re unable to do the next right thing. That realization drives us to seek God —and we will find him. But first we must be honest about our intentions.
When I lived in Chicago, I decided I wanted to get my body into better shape.
Then I met Doug, a professional trainer and body builder, and we started working out together. It was amazing. I felt like a member of a different and far inferior species. Nancy used to ask, “Can I come and watch you and Doug work out?”
“I can’t make it today,” I’d tell her. “It’s just gonna be Doug.”
“That’d be okay,” she’d assure me.
At one point, I told him, “I’d like to look like you.”
And he asked me, “Are you all in?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You don’t just drift into this,” he explained. “I will lift weights until my muscles ache. I push myself so hard sometimes that I feel like I’m on fire. Some mornings, I hurt so much I can’t bend down to tie my shoes. I monitor every calorie I put in my body. I wake myself up at night to ingest protein when it can best be absorbed. Mostly it takes the courage to face the pain —searing pain. Are you all in?”
Turns out, I wasn’t. I was only partly in. I was okay with not looking all the way like Doug. I have a life. I’m more an admirer than a disciple.
Now, here is our friend Jesus. He’s looking for disciples, people who will surrender their lives —money and reputation and achievements (which we cannot keep) —for a transformed character in a glorious Kingdom that we cannot lose.
It’s not a bad thing to be an admirer of his. But he’s looking for disciples. He promises to be there for us when we do well, and to be there for us when we don’t. Cross his heart. Hope to die.
John Ortberg, I’d like You More If You Were More like Me: Getting Real about Getting Close (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Refresh, 2017).
His Sunday school class began a supper club designed to help members get to know one another and to be a ministry to people outside the church.
Hosting one of the dinners was an ideal opportunity for involvement, but he was afraid to offer. I’m living alone now, he thought. I don’t cook that well, I don’t know much about being a host, and it’s been a while since I’ve had people over. With great hesitation, he finally put his name on the list.
As the day approached, he was amazed when several class members called and volunteered to help him get ready. Some made food, some brought chairs, and others even donated festive decorations. The dinner was a success, and everyone felt welcomed and loved.
Hospitality isn’t just for certain homemakers with large homes or a special knack for party throwing. The same command is given to all believers: “Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:9–10 NASB).
It doesn’t matter how experienced or equipped you are. What counts is offering what the Lord has given you. God uses everything for His glory. Your home and belongings become a blessing many times over when you open them up to someone else.
Charles F. Stanley, On Holy Ground (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 275.
IT has been said by some one that “the proper study of mankind is man.” I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, “Behold I am wise.” But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with the solemn exclamation, “I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.” No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God. We shall be obliged to feel
“Great God, how infinite art thou,
What worthless worms are we!”
But while the subject humbles the mind it also expands it. He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe. He may be a naturalist, boasting of his ability to dissect a beetle, anatomize a fly, or arrange insects and animals in classes with well nigh unutterable names; he may be a geologist, able to discourse of the megatherium and the plesiosaurus, and all kinds of extinct animals; he may imagine that his science, whatever it is, ennobles and enlarges his mind. I dare say it does, but after all, the most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity. And, whilst humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatary. Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrows? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of grief and sorrow; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead. It is to that subject that I invite you this morning. We shall present you with one view of it,—that is the immutability of the glorious Jehovah. “I am,” says my text, “Jehovah,” (for so it should be translated) “I am Jehovah, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”
C. H. Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, vol. 1 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855), 1.
Jeanne and I were vacationing on the West Coast a number of years ago with our son and my coauthor, Bill, just after he had graduated from college. We had a friend there who owned a plane, and one day he asked if we wanted to fly with him out to Santa Catalina Island, off the coast. We accepted, and the next morning we were zooming down a runway, heading up into the skies over Orange County.
After we leveled off over the Pacific, our friend turned to Bill, who was riding copilot, and shouted over the whine of the engine, “How’d you like to try your hand at flying?”
Always one for adventure, Bill replied, “Sure.” He had never flown a plane in his life—but what difference did that make?
Our friend gave him some brief instruction in the art of flying—sort of a “crash course,” you might say. Then he handed over the controls, and Bill was in command. Things went along uneventfully as long as we flew straight ahead. But after a couple of minutes the pilot shouted, “Why don’t you try a turn.”
Bill banked to the left, and suddenly I felt a bit dizzy. A moment later our friend said, “OK, try the other way,” and the plane banked to the right. Now Jeanne and I both felt dizzy. We were quite relieved to see the pilot eventually rest his hand on the controls and level us off before taking over again.
“Not bad,” he shouted to Bill, who was smiling like a Top Gun. “We only dropped about a thousand feet.”
Obviously learning to fly takes a lot more than just handing the controls to someone and shouting, “Have fun.” It requires skills that take years to develop fully. Apart from that experience, you’re taking your life in your hands.
The study of God’s Word is no different. Learning to do it properly is a process that can’t happen overnight. Yet that’s exactly what we do with new Christ-followers when we tell them to get into the Scriptures, hand them a Bible, and expect them to take it from there. No wonder so many give up in frustration.
In this chapter I want to give an overview of the Bible study process. First, I want to define what method in Bible study involves. Then I’m going to show the big picture of where the method leads and where you’ll end up by following it.
Let’s begin with a definition. I define method in Bible study with three statements. First of all, Method is “methodicalness.” That is, it involves taking certain steps in a certain order to guarantee a certain result. Not just any steps; not just any order; not just any result.
The result governs everything. What is the product of methodical Bible study? What are you after? All along I’ve been saying that personal Bible study has a very specific aim—namely, life-change.
So, then, how will you get there? What process will lead to that result? I propose a three-step approach that will guarantee life change—three crucial steps carried out in a particular order.
In this step, you ask and answer the question, What do I see? The moment you come to the Scriptures you ask, What are the facts? You assume the role of a biblical detective, looking for clues. No detail is trivial. This leads to the second step.
Here you ask and answer the question, What does it mean? Your central quest is for meaning. Unfortunately, too much Bible study begins with interpretation, and furthermore, it usually ends there. But I’m going to show you that it does not begin there. Before you understand, you have to learn to see. Nor does it end there, because the third step is …
Here you ask and answer the question, How does it work? Not, Does it work? People say they’re going to make the Bible “relevant.” But if the Bible is not already relevant, nothing you or I do will help. The Bible is relevant because it is revealed. It’s always a return to reality. And for those who read it and heed it, it changes their lives.
So method is methodicalness. But let me add a second statement to the definition: Method is methodicalness, with a view to becoming receptive and reproductive.
Do you want to make an impact on your society? First the Scripture has to make an impact on you. It’s the analogy of the sperm and the egg. Neither the male sperm nor the female egg is capable of reproduction. Only when the sperm impacts and is embraced by the egg is there conception and reproduction.
So it is in the spiritual realm. When God’s Word and a receptive, obedient individual get together, watch out. That’s a combination that can transform society. And that’s what personal Bible study is designed to do—to transform your life, and as a result, transform your world.
A third statement completes our definition: Method is methodicalness, with a view to becoming receptive and reproductive, by means of firsthand acquaintance with the Word.
Once again, there’s nothing to beat prolonged personal exposure to the Bible. It’s vital. Without it, you’ll never be directly involved with what God has to say. You’ll always have to depend on an intermediary. Imagine dealing with your spouse on that basis. How long do you think your marriage would last? The same is true with God. There is no substitute for firsthand exposure to His Word.
Now that you know where you are going, take a closer look at how you are going to get there, at the process itself. Recall that the first step is Observation. That’s where you ask and answer the question, What do I see? In Observation, you’ll be looking for four things:
A term is more than just a word. It’s a key word that is crucial to what an author has to say because it unlocks meaning. For instance, in the gospel by John, the word believe appears no less than seventy-nine times, always as a verb and never as a noun. Do some investigation, and you’ll discover that John uses believe very purposefully. It’s a term that unlocks his meaning.
The same principle applies to every book in the Bible. Each one is filled with terms. You’ve got to learn to recognize terms and pay close attention to them, because they are the basic building blocks with which you construct meaning.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible is not a collection of random sayings and stories that somehow fell together, willy-nilly. Rather, it’s a library of carefully constructed books that display—to those who look for it—two basic kinds of structure.
First, there is grammatical structure. I can almost hear the groans: “Do we have to get back into that? I gave that up in seventh grade.” But if you want to learn how to study Scripture effectively, you must learn to read it with the grammar in mind. What is the subject of the sentence? What is the object? What is the main verb? The more you know about grammar, the more you can get out of a passage.
There is also literary structure. There are questions and answers. There is a climax and resolution. There is cause and effect. There are many other structuring devices. I’ll show you a variety of ways in which the authors have structured their works.
It’s amazing to me how people ignore genre when they come to the books of the Bible. They treat them all the same.
Yet there’s a vast difference between the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms and the tightly argued epistles of Paul; between the grand, sweeping narrative of Genesis and Exodus, and the simple, poignant stories of the parables. There is allegory and love poetry, satire and apocalyptic, comedy and tragedy, and much more. The Holy Spirit used each of these forms to communicate His message. So if you want to grasp that message, you must read each kind according to its proper “rules.” I’ll show you how to do that in later chapters.
Reading for atmosphere involves picking up the setting and feelings from the biblical text. What was it like to be in the author’s shoes? For instance, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Sounds good. But where was he? In the Ritz-Carlton? Not exactly. He was in a foul-smelling Roman prison. And life looks very different from behind bars.
You want to transport your senses into the passage. If there’s a sunset, see it. If there’s an odor, smell it. If there’s a cry of anguish, feel it. Are you studying the letter to the Ephesians? Then join the church at Ephesus, and listen to Paul as he goes down on his knees to pray (Ephesians 3:14–21). This is an exercise for the imagination, not just the intellect. So it doesn’t take professional training to recapture the atmosphere of a passage of Scripture.
Observation leads to the second step, Interpretation. Here you ask and answer the question, What does it mean? Remember, your central quest is for meaning. I want to suggest three things that will help you get the meaning of a passage of Scripture.
If you want to understand a biblical text, you’ve got to bombard it with questions. The Bible is never embarrassed to be asked questions. That doesn’t mean it will answer all of them. But you still need to ask them to determine if they can be answered. I’m going to give you a series of questions to lob at the text that will help you search for meaning.
Obviously, if you’re going to ask questions, you’ve also got to look for the answers. Where will you find them? In the text. Observation will give you the basic building blocks out of which you will construct the meaning of a passage. The answers to your questions will come directly from your observation process.
That is why I say, the more time you spend in observation, the less time you will need to spend in interpretation, and the more accurate will be your results. The less time you spend in observation, the more time you will need to spend in interpretation, and the less accurate will be your results.
Not only must you ask the text questions, not only must you look for answers, but finally you must put the answers together into a meaningful whole. Otherwise you end up with nothing but baskets of fragments.
One time I was asked to speak at a church. “Preach on anything you want,” they told me. “Except Ephesians.”
That seemed an odd request, until they explained why: “Our preacher has spent three years in Ephesians, and we’re just into the second chapter.”
I went out to lunch with some of these people, and I asked them, “What’s the theme of the book of Ephesians?”
They didn’t have a clue. They had all kinds of little details. But their pastor had never put all the data together into a meaningful whole. Result: despite three years of teaching, his congregation had never discovered the meaning of Ephesians.
Integration is the stage where you reconstruct the meaning of a passage after you’ve taken it apart to inspect the details.
Observation and Interpretation lead to the third step in the process, the crucial step of Application. In application you ask and answer the question, How does it work? Again, not does it work, but how does it work? There are two areas to consider.
That can be a very convicting question. As George, the adult Sunday school teacher, told us in chapter 1, it’s so easy to study the Bible and say, “Oh, wow! That’s just what my class needs. Man, I can hardly wait to get there and tell it to them.” But by taking that approach, it is possible to ignore the more personal question, What does this have to say to me? How would this work in my life? Because if it isn’t working in my life, then what authority do I have to share it with someone else? I have a credibility gap.
Of course, the Bible does have implications for others. And it is legitimate to ask, How would this transform their life? How would it affect their marriage and family? Their school life, if they are a student? Their occupation, if they are in the work world? How can I effectively communicate biblical truth to others? I’ll point out some ways to make application of the Scriptures to people in your sphere of influence.
That is an overview of where we are going and how we’re going to get there. Every time you come to a portion of God’s Word, approach it in terms of the big picture:
Observation: What do I see?
Interpretation: What does it mean?
Application: How does it work?
Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 44–45.
Anna felt good about the effect her teaching ministry was having in the lives of the senior high girls. It was the last Sunday of the quarter—the lesson she usually began by saying “Let’s review.” She worked through her list of carefully prepared questions to let the girls tell what they had learned.
The session began with Anna’s own version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” She had a bag full of different prizes that would be awarded, depending on how far each girl went in her list of questions. After reviewing, the class shared cold drinks as each listened to the girls share how they had been able to apply some of the lessons learned in recent weeks. Anna looked at the review as a test of her own teaching effectiveness and as an opportunity to show the girls how much they had learned.
Measuring your students’ progress is one of several benefits associated with the review. Your dreams for your students involve more than just their attending class. Review lets you know what your students are really learning.
You can also use a review to motivate learning. One teacher of primary-aged children routinely began teaching his class by opening a bag of red licorice and chewing on one piece as he taught the story. The children knew that at the end of the story there would be questions—and a long piece of red licorice for every child who could answer the questions. Not only were the children motivated to learn, but also when one child became disruptive, others quieted him, so they could hear the story and get the licorice.
Review also helps you evaluate how well you are teaching. We all need periodic evaluation. In fact, as a teacher, someday you will be evaluated by God (see Jas. 3:1–2).
Review can help you in two ways. First, you can identify the strengths of your teaching, upon which you can build (see 1 Thess. 5:21). Second, you can identify problem areas that need to be addressed as you seek to become a better teacher.
When you review, begin by asking questions related to basic knowledge and comprehension. Part of what you do each week in Sunday School is to communicate the contents of the Bible. How well are your students learning the Bible? Include a few questions each week about previous lessons to see if the contents of the Bible are being learned.
When it comes to Sunday School, simply growing in knowledge is not enough (see 1 Cor. 13:2). You also want to review your students’ attitudes, values and character. As you look at your class over a period of several months, what changes do you see in the attitude and character of various class members? This is not something you can determine by using a list of true-or-false questions. Spend time with your students outside of class to talk about changes in their lives—a great way to review.
A REVIEW OF A LESSON IS NOT AN EVALUATION OF WHAT YOUR STUDENTS HAVE LEARNED AS MUCH AS IT IS AN EVALUATION OF HOW WELL YOU HAVE TAUGHT.
You also want to review choices, conduct and habits. Your goal in teaching is to achieve behavioral change. As your students learn the Bible, the Holy Spirit can use your lessons to change each student to be more like Jesus. While Anna listened to her high school girls talk about decisions they were making in school, she could see how her lessons were being applied in their lives. Personal conversation is the best type of review.
When testing your teaching, take care to choose your questions wisely. Your choices should be based on the following criteria:
Look at these three factors carefully.
You may want to begin your review by looking at a statistics review. As a Sunday School teacher, you may keep attendance and record other information about your students in a roll book. Unfortunately, these records are often ignored after the data have been collected. A review may reveal such things as attendance patterns, punctuality, lesson preparation and outreach. You could keep track of your own special emphasis, such as a memory verse contest or bringing new members.
Informal feedback is a second source of review. Sometimes, others will notice behavioral changes in the lives of your students and share their observations with you. This provides you with an indication of discernible change taking place in those students. Sometimes this feedback may come from students thanking you for helping them through a specific issue raised in the lesson.
Questions are the most common form of review. When you ask questions, your students may not even realize you are evaluating them. Also try beginning a class session with the words “Let’s review” followed by several questions about the previous week’s lesson.
Some students do not test well. You may have some who are learning, but if put on the spot in front of others, they just can’t remember. To get around this, you may want to build your review into a game. As your students focus on playing the game, answering a question becomes secondary.
Written tests can also be used to review. An adult Sunday School class might review by using a personality-profile test. Some teachers use a spiritual-gift inventory to help class members identify their spiritual gifts as a review for lessons on giftedness.
You can also review through projects. The more involved your students become in the class, the better they will learn the important lessons you are trying to teach.
When you review, be careful about forming conclusions on the basis of a single question. Everyone has a bad day, and there could be various reasons why a student couldn’t answer one or more questions. Look for a pattern of results over several kinds of review before making hard conclusions about your teaching or how well your students are learning.
So how often should you review? That’s a tough question only you can answer. Generally speaking, the more often you review, the less stressful the process becomes. Some teachers do a bit of review every week. Others set aside one Sunday every two or three months to review.
Evaluating your teaching is a lot like maintaining your lawn. You cut the grass as often as it needs cutting. You test your teaching as often as it needs testing. Periodic testing of your teaching ministry will be an important part of your personal growth plan as a teacher.
Elmer L. Towns, What Every Sunday School Teacher Should Know (Ventura, CA: Regal; Gospel Light, 2001), 134–140.
The foreman wrote a big “9” in chalk on the shop floor. “What is that?” the second crew asked each other as they punched their cards and stepped onto the concrete shop floor. The foreman smiled, but did not answer. He smiled the smile that says, “You’ll know soon enough.” That question was the buzz that night. The buzz got louder as the truth began to circulate. Someone talked to a worker from the day crew. “That nine is how many widgets the first crew got out the door.” The next morning there was a line through the “9” and next to it, a big, white “10”.
Whatever gets measured, gets done. One of the best ways of rewarding is simply to notice, to pay attention, to acknowledge. Counting is not about ego; it is about caring. As Rick Warren says, “We count people because people count.”
Jesus taught us that a shepherd who had one hundred sheep and lost one would leave the ninety-nine to go after the one. Question: how would the shepherd know if he had one hundred sheep, or only ninety nine? Maybe he just happen to notice that Sally Sheep was missing. Or, maybe he counted. The simplest way would be to count. Counting is not an impersonal expression of bureaucracy or greed. It is an expression of caring.
Proverbs 27:23 Says it plainly: Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds. A good start on knowing the condition of your flock is counting.
One of the most caring things you can do is to measure the church’s indicators of health and growth and report these things consistently to the people.
It is one of the first things your doctor does, isn’t it? He takes your temperature, your blood pressure, your weight. He measures these things against normal standards of health. In other words, he benchmarks them. And right away he can get a general feel for your health. It is not the complete picture; more analysis will be needed for that. But, there is no use in doing the detail work until the broad strokes are painted.
Part of the role of leadership is measuring and displaying the right stuff. We need to be careful not to display too much. Reams of computer printouts never motivated anyone. A 9 on shop floor does. Leadership must distill the myriad of things the business is about down to a handful of things that are easily understood, measured and communicated. These are the essentials that matter.
Measuring makes life fun. Measuring turns life into a game, in the best sense of the word. What would a game be without measurements? Without a score board there would be no game.
I love to write. Every night before I go to bed, I have my computer count the number of words in this book so far. I have a carefully constructed chart of each day’s progress. Here is what it looks like so far. This is what makes writing fun–to feel that you are making progress. I do this on all my books.
Churches measure lots of things: dollars, worship attendance, Sunday School attendance, baptisms, new members, and so on. This is good for background analysis, like all the background statistics in a football game. All those extra numbers make the real numbers more interesting. The real numbers are the ones on the scoreboard. The background statistics normally support the real numbers. Occasionally a team will be way behind in time of possession but ahead in the score. This is rare.
The thing that makes a sport fun is the simplicity of the score keeping instrument. The game is won or lost on one, easy-to-understand scoreboard.
Imagine a football game where a team walked off saying, “We may have not have had as many yards rushing, but we killed them in the air.” While the other team patted themselves on the back by saying, “Our percentage of red-zone conversions to touch downs was excellent. In addition, we had more first downs, and more interceptions. We were clearly the stronger team today.” No. What makes football fun is that one team can say, “We won, 14 - 10!” The simplicity of the score keeping system is what makes the game fun. Everyone understands it. It is easy to display. It makes the game a game. Coaches and interested fans can plunge the depths of other supporting statistics, as they do. Creators of games must keep it simple to make it fun. Churches, too, need a simple, easy-to-understand way of keeping score. This is what makes church work fun. Score keeping puts zest into almost anything. It works on the shop floor and it will work in church. The reason many people don’t find church work all that fun is the scoreboard is hidden in a closet, or, they have the wrong scoreboard.
Some would object that this is serious business. It is not about having fun. I agree. The Bible says to be sober minded. We ought to be serious about those things that are serious. And I am serious about having fun. It ought to be fun to come to church. People like to come to church where people like to come to church. It ought to be fun to do the work of being obedient to the Great Commission. It is fun for me to preach. It is fun to me to grow a class. It is fun to me to lead music. Growing a church ought to be fun. We ought to say with the Psalmist, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’” (Psalms 122:1)
A lot of things make going to church fun. Good preaching is more fun to listen to than bad preaching. It is fun to be warmly greeted. Children have fun in a well appointed nursery with fun loving teachers. It is a lot more fun to go to a church where people get along than to go to a church where people are fighting. It is also fun to go to a church where people know how to keep score.
Most churches have a simple score keeping device, but it is a wrong one. The score most people watch is Sunday School attendance. If we had 100 we feel good. If we have 90, we don’t feel so good. If we have 110, we feel great. If we have 75, we feel awful. This is the wrong thing to emphasize.
The reason it is wrong is that you can feel good about the score most of the time and still not be growing. To put it more bluntly, you can feel good about the score and still not be obedient to the Great Commission. A score keeping device that makes us feel good when we are being disobedient is a wrong score keeping device. The score keeping device should reward growth, not measure relative position to a static number. This system encourages a church to stay on plateau. Perhaps one of the reasons we have so many churches on plateau is that the measuring system encourages it.
Some churches keep score with worship attendance. This has become especially trendy since worship attendance is often higher than Sunday School attendance. We feel better about the score because it is a bigger number. This is not about making us feel good. It is about tracking obedience to the Great Commission. If we believe disciples are made in small groups, this is a step backward. Jesus made disciples in a group of 12. I believe this is how disciples are made. I don’t think keeping score by Sunday School attendance is right. Keeping score by worship attendance is worse.
Let’s get honest. Some people keep score with money. This is not as bad as it sounds. Jesus said your heart and money go together. You could make a theological case for the idea that the larger the offering, the greater effect on people’s heart. Still, I don’t think this is the best way to keep score. It is surely to cause offense to outsiders. The score keeping device may also have a tendency to discolor our hearts. It is a short walk from this score keeping device to the belief that all we are after is money.
Another way to keep score is to measure baptisms. This sounds good. If we believe that people are to be baptized soon after they come to faith, then the act of baptism could give us a pretty good picture of how many people we are moving toward discipleship. In theory this makes sense. In reality it does not. The reality is many people who are baptized have not just been converted. They were baptized when they were 6, born again when they were 12, and baptized again after a revival at 18. What are we counting here? Many people are converted but are never baptized as believers because they feel it would denigrate the baptism they received at birth. In the jungles of Africa, number of baptisms is probably a reasonably accurate picture of the disciplemaking system, but here in America, it has some problems.
I do not believe any of the score keeping methods mentioned thus far are the best way to measure progress toward making disciples. Let me mention two ideas that I think are better.
One idea is to have people make a commitment, on an annual basis, to live the disciple’s life. You may define this in any number of ways. I have defined a disciple elsewhere as follows:
D - Disciplined in his daily devotional life. A disciple’s life is a disciplined life. There is no discipline as important as daily exposure to the word and prayer.
I - Intimate relationships. Growing disciples are involved in several deep relationships that hold them accountable in Christian discipleship.
S - Small group. Small groups are important for fellowship, outreach, and teaching.
C - Corporate worship. Corporate worship is a vital part of the process of creating a mature disciple.
I - Intimate family life. A disciple is a minister. His first ministry is to serve his family. One of the most important jobs of every Sunday School teacher is to produce stronger families.
P - Passion for God. This is a somewhat intangible quality. However, much of what it means to be a disciple is a matter of the heart.
L - Lay ministry. A disciple is involved in ministry in the area of his or her giftedness.
E - Evangelistic concern. Not everyone has the gift of evangelism. However, everyone should be ready, willing and able to share their faith. The heart of the disciple beats for the lost. They should be interested, open and looking for evangelistic opportunities.
S - Sacrificial giving. The disciple’s life is a giving life. This means giving of time and money. More than that, it means giving as an attitude of life.
You may want to define discipleship differently. What I want to suggest is that you do define it. Have people sign up to commit to live that life and keep score. This gives a pretty good overall perspective on how many disciples you are making. By tracking the number of disciples who commit each year and measuring the percentage growth each year, you will have a pretty good handle on your progress.
A more practical way of measuring success is based on the assumption that if people are in a small group, they are in the process of becoming a disciple. There are obviously exceptions to this. Many who attend Sunday School never become disciples. (I will suggest some additional supportive measurements for leadership to monitor in order to offset this reality.) Still, I believe that it is more likely that people who are attending Sunday School are moving forward in the process of becoming disciples than those who do not attend Sunday School. I believe attending Sunday School is good and worthy of being measured carefully. But it is not attendance in Sunday School that we should measure.
I believe Sunday School is a better measurement than worship attendance because I believe disciples are made in small groups. In large group worship, we are in danger of inoculating people against the gospel rather than giving them the real thing. But even if I were to keep score with worship, I wouldn’t do it on the basis of attendance. It lends itself to psychologically rewarding the plateau in the same way that keeping score with Sunday School attendance does.
I believe the best score keeping device to monitor on a week by week, month by month, year by year basis is growth in Sunday School attendance. Not Sunday School attendance measured as a flat number, but growth in Sunday School attendance, calculated as a percentage. If a church had 100 last year in Sunday School on this Sunday and they had 110 this year, this should not be reported as an attendance of 110. It should be reported as a 10% growth. This is not so important week to week, because of the fluctuations of attendance experienced by churches. Percentage growth on a month by month basis begins to be a more accurate picture of progress toward doubling every five years or less. If you want to double your church every five years or less, measure carefully the percentage growth in Sunday School attendance. The scoreboard should look like this:
●3% decline, or
If you try this approach, one thing you will notice immediately is that it is depressing. On average, most churches are on plateau and would report a 0% increase. This is good. We want people to be depressed by the lack of growth. This is far better than looking at a score board that says “100" and feeling smug that we had a good Sunday. I am just as happy with a child who cleans up his room because I made a game out of it as I am with a child who does it out of sheer obedience. I think God will be will pleased with us if we are obedient to the Great Commission, even if our motive was aided by a well-constructed game.
In most churches, I remind you, we do have a game. That is, we do have a score keeping device. Everyone knows if we won today or not. If we were above 100 we won. If we were below 100 we lost. If we hit 100 exactly we tied. Everyone understands the game. This is the sort of game that leads to a plateau. I suggest we change the game.
There is a good reason why we do not change. It is depressing. We ought to be happy that it is depressing. It ought to be depressing to be disobedient to God. When a team realizes they are behind, they work extra hard to catch up. This is what we want them to do. This is what they should do.
If you would double your church every five years or less, you need to constantly monitor the weekly, monthly and year-to-date percentage growth. You need to constantly keep this before the people. It should be bread and butter stuff for active members of the church to understand where you are in terms of percentage growth. You want people to say, “I am not sure what attendance was, but I do know we are up about 15% over last year.”
Fifteen percent growth is the magic number. Fifteen percent growth is what it takes to double every five years or less. In order to achieve this, monitor it and report it constantly in a myriad of creative ways. Make graphs and charts. I used to paraphrase the Great Commission by saying, “Go, therefore, and make graphs and charts of all nations.”
If you have to, get a big piece of chalk and write the percentage growth on the floor.
One other statistic ought to be carefully monitored by the staff and leadership of the church. It is what I call the “Velcro” factor. It answers the question, “How many of our visitors are sticking?” With “Wow!” services and programs and giving Friday nights to Jesus, you can keep this above 55%. In order to double every five years or less, keep the velcro factor above 55%. In addition, if 2% of the people attending your worship services are visitors, then you will easily get on target to double every five years or less. Let me give you an example of a church of 100.
Percent of Visitors
Number of Visitors Per Week
Number of Visitors Per Year
Number of New Members Per Year
Ratio of Membership to Attendance
Number of New Members Attending
Percent Growth Needed to Double in Five Years
The research I have done indicates that in most cases, the reason for a church’s failure to double every five years or less is not in the percent of visitors. It is in the velcro factor. People are visiting and not joining. Suppose this same church has a velcro factor of 20%, which is about average for many of the churches I have researched. Here is the same church, same number of visitors. Same attendance to membership ratio. Same everything except the velcro factor. Notice how dramatically this affects the bottom line.
The velcro factor is the difference between doubling every five years or less and not doing so.
Let me offer another example. I served as Interim Pastor for Scotsdale Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas for nine months. When I came to the church, they had been in a five year decline of about 25 per year. They went from 400 in attendance to about 275 in attendance in 5 years. The velcro factor measured ten percent. Ten percent of their visitors were joining. I taught the principles in this book and Double Your Class. I encouraged the people to give Friday Nights to Jesus and to invite every member and every visitor to every fellowship every month. We went from a 10% velcro factor to a 90% velcro factor. There were actually some months where we had more people joining than we had visiting. Growth moved from 10% decline to 5% growth. In that particular setting, we needed something else to get them on target to doubling every five years or less.
The second measurement that I would ask the leadership to keep up with is the magnet factor. The magnet factor measures how many new people you are able to attract. It is calculated as a percentage of total attendance. If a church of 100 has a family of 4 visit one Sunday, they have a 4% magnet factor that week. If they have none the next week, the average magnet factor drops to 2%. This needs to be about 2%. Notice how much difference this makes on the bottom line. Once again, consider the same chart with a church of 100. Look what happens when they see 1%, 2%, and 3% magnet factor.
The situation in the first column of numbers is roughly the situation we had at Scotsdale. We were having a very high velcro factor, but sill minimal growth. This was because the total number of visitors was less than 1%. The reason for this was twofold. First, the location of the church was terrible. Although it is easy to find it if you know where it is, you have to being going there to get there. Comparatively few people ever drive by Scotsdale Baptist Church. It is one of those situations where they could not afford to buy the land with the better location. By the way, nothing is more costly than cheap land.
If you calculate what this costs the church, in terms of number of visitors and number joining and number attending, the costs are enormous. You could probably make a case for the fact that the increased visibility would be free. since it would be paid for with the money of people who will not now go to the church since they never new about it. One of the most expensive things a church can buy is cheap land.
The other reason Scotsdale had such a low percentage of visitors is because they had been in steady decline for so long. New people know new people and naturally invite them to church. When a church is experiencing little or no growth, it will take a while to build momentum. Growth begets growth. When a church begins to attracts newcomers to the church, these newcomers will, in turn, invite others.
This is something people fail to calculate when considering the benefits of advertising. The first wave of visitors produced by the advertising is just that: the first wave. If those that are brought through advertising are satisfied by what they find, you can be sure they will bring others with them.
By the way, if you are considering moving to a new ministry position, one of the easiest ways to predict the growth potential is by discovering the ratio of visitors to members attending. If they have a high magnet factor and a low velcro factor, it is a very easy situation to turn around.
When you ask these questions, make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Counting the total number of unenrolled attenders in Sunday School is not the point. When I speak of visitors, I am speaking of the names of new people that are viable prospects for involvement in the life of the church. Note:
●Out-of-town guests don’t count.
●A family of 4 counts as 4 regardless of age of the children, since this whole thing is based on attendance.
●A family of 4 that fills out a visitors card 4 weeks in a row only counts as 4.
●A family of 4 that does not fill out a visitors card counts as zero since you have no opportunity to follow them up. Ideas for getting visitors to fill out cards is discussed below.
●A family that attends your Christmas musical but is an active member of another church in town does not count since they are not legitimate prospects for your church.
I would encourage you to keep up with these things as best you can. On the other hand, don’t lose a lot of sleep over the fact that you are not absolutely positively sure how to categorize people. These things tend to work themselves out.
A major obstacle is getting the names of all the people who visit. The first thing I want to say about this is don’t work at it too hard. You want to give people some space to remain anonymous for a while. Some churches use the phrase when they greet guests, “We are not going to ask you to say anything, sign anything or give anything.” This is a more extreme example of what I would say, but it does demonstrate sensitivity to people’s desire for anonymity.
People who keep coming to church will usually want to be identified at some point. They want to start getting your newsletter and find out more about the church. The key thing is to let them know that the visitors cards are available to fill out anytime they want. They may not want to fill out anything the first week. Maybe they will wait till the third week or the third month. Just keep inviting them to “let us know who you are.” Offer them the benefit of receiving your newsletter and staying informed about the many ministries your church offers.
You might want to explain to people what will and will not happen to their cards. If you are going to do an in-house visit, tell them. If you are not, tell them that. We simply told guests that we would like to send them some information through the mail about the various programs the church had to offer. We also called visitors so we told them that. We flat out told them they would not have someone banging on their door. We felt like if they were going to want and expect a visit, we were better off telling them that none would be forthcoming. On the other hand, we knew that many were leery of being visited. We thought we would come closer to getting their cards if they knew we were not going to visit them. Once again, keep score as best you can, but don’t get paranoid. God is the ultimate score keeper anyway. -- Josh Hunt, You Can Double Your Church in Five Years or Less
Hell. It is a forbidden topic of conversation, except in very conservative religious circles. We squirm when it comes up, and we try to change the subject. We avoid churches that talk about it, and we skim over passages in the Bible that mention it. It is about as taboo a subject as incest.
Still, I am curious about hell. Like most people, I have heard all the conventional descriptions — steaming sulfur, raging fire, horrible screams, little red devils that wield pitch forks and taunt the damned. But that is not my interest here. I am more curious about how people land there. I used to think that God sends people there. I haven’t changed my mind on that either, but I also think people choose to go there because they would find heaven an intolerable place to be. If heaven is the place where God is, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.
C. S. Lewis put me on to this idea. In his novel The Great Divorce, he tells the story of a group of people living in hell who take a bus tour of heaven. As they discover, at any point along the way they can choose to leave the tour group and stay in heaven. They are thus given a second chance. It is an extraordinary opportunity. Surprisingly, most of the tourists despise heaven and want to flee back to hell. It is too bright in heaven, too colorful, too solid, and too pure for them. It is so real that it hurts, like sunlight stinging the eyes after one leaves a dark movie theater. What makes heaven horrible to them is that God is there. They want to return to the shadows, as far away from God as possible.
Lewis shows in the novel that the primary difference between hell and heaven is not the temperature or smell or noise or pain. The real difference has to do with who is at the center. God is at the center of heaven. People who go to heaven, therefore, must be willing to live forever in the presence of someone who is infinitely superior to them and who will force them, by the sheer power of his presence, to conform to his greatness. Upon entering heaven, people will have to change. It is impossible not to change when living in the presence of God.
The self is at the center of hell. People in hell can live as egoistically and selfishly as they want, totally absorbed by themselves. As strange as it might sound, they want to be in hell. Hell is the only place where people can play God without any obstacles or competition. As a character in The Great Divorce says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”1 Lewis actually borrowed this idea from Dante, who said that the door of hell is locked from the inside, not from the outside. Hell is where many people want to be.
Jerry L. Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer: Insights to Keep You Praying with Greater Faith and Deeper Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
Most of life is on autopilot. Your life is largely about habits you have made. We don’t make decisions about most of the things we do. We develop a habit, and the habit determines our life. As the old saying goes, “Choose your rut carefully; you are going to be in it for the next 25 miles.” Choose your habits carefully; they are going to determine the quality of your life. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Your marriage is mostly about habits. Ever watch the show King of Queens? Here is a couple that has gotten in the habit of picking at each other. They complain and they argue and fight and they pick—all out of habit. Do you want a marriage like that?
They don’t get up each day and say to themselves, “I think I’m going to pick a fight today.” They certainly don’t say to themselves, “I think I’d rather have a miserable marriage rather than a happy marriage. To reach that goal, I think I’ll complain and argue and criticize all day long.”
They have actually done research on this. You can complain some. You can criticize some. You can correct some. However, the number of complements and praises and ‘attaboys’ need to outnumber the criticisms by a factor of about five to one. If they don’t, your marriage is headed to the toilet.1
Your health is largely about habits. You are in the habit of exercising or not, eating too much or not, and resting too much or not. If you are in the habit of eating a big bowl of ice cream every night and you don’t exercise, you are probably overweight. You are a little depressed about the way you look. You don’t have a lot of energy. All this is because of the habits you have formed.
You don’t get up and make choices about these things every day. You don’t think about whether or not you’re going to exercise. Your habit determines your behavior. You don’t get up and think about whether you eat more calories than you consume or not. You just do what the habit dictates.
Your money is where it is because of habits you have made. Money is an area where it is especially easy to make habits.
We are in the habit of setting aside a certain amount of money every Thursday. We have instructed our bank that every Thursday we want a certain amount transferred from our checking account into a savings account. This makes saving automatic. We don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to stress about it. We don’t have to decide each week to do it. It is just a habit.
About half of Americans are in the habit of spending more money than they make.2 They don’t make the conscious choice to go a little further in debt each year, it is just a habit. Do this for a few years and you will discover that before long you are in a pretty deep hole. One more.
Your walk with God is largely about habits. The book of Hebrews speaks of people who don’t go to church much. The writer of Hebrews says that we are not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some.” Neglecting to meet together is simply habit, as are many of our spiritual disciplines. We either get into the habit of reading our Bibles every day, or I’ll bet you didn’t read your Bible this morning. You probably never even thought about it. If you did read your Bible this morning, you probably didn’t think too much about that either. It is just a habit. A habit that will either draw you closer to God, or push you further and further away.
What if you could change your habits so that they lead you in the direction that you actually want to go? What if you could put success on autopilot? What if you could put it on autopilot to exercise every day, read the Bible every day, eat no more calories than you burn, spend no more money than you make, and any of 100 other things you would like to do to lead you to the life you’ve only imagined.
That is what this book is about.
In this book, we will look at what the Bible says, along with what the latest scientific research reveals about habits. We are going to look at some fascinating stories of people who started habits and maintain them over the long haul.
What we have learned is that success is rarely about trying really hard to do something. It is about learning the skill of starting a habit—which does involve some trying hard for a time. But, it also involves a lot of other skills as well.
For example, did you know that people who eat on smaller plates, generally speaking, eat fewer calories than people who eat on large plates? Did you know that habits are contagious? We tend to do what the people in our group do. There has been a lot of research done in recent years about habits—how to form them and how to break them. We will be looking at this research, as well as what the Bible says about habits.
As important as habits are, you might be surprised to discover how seldom the word habit appears in the Bible. Looking at the NIV, the English word habit appears only five times. Here they are:
The first two deal with the same thing. If your bull hurts someone, you are not responsible. Not unless the bull has been in the habit of doing this. Then, you are responsible. The habit of the bull makes the difference of whether or not you are punished.
The next one is from one of the most humorous stories in the Bible. It is the place where Balaam’s donkey talks to him. Balaam corrects the donkey and the donkey speaks back to him, asking the rhetorical question, “Have I been in the habit of doing this?” You gotta love the Bible! Great story.
The first New Testament instance of the word habit had to do with the church’s benevolence program. The church cared for widows, but was very careful about who did and did not get on the list. Specifically, Paul instructs Timothy not put young widows on the list. The reason had to do with their habits. Paul says that they were in the habit of being idle and being busybodies. Because of her habits, they should be kept off the list.
The last one is a classic, and one we referred to earlier. It has to do with habit of meeting with the church or not. This verse teaches that we should form the habit of encouraging one another daily. By the way, notice the habit is not to sit in straight rows and watch the same event happen on the same stage. The habit is to encourage one another. I encourage you; you encourage me. It is a habit. We do it every day.
Ever wonder why so many of us make resolutions each New Year that we fail to keep? Approximately 45 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 percent succeed.3
In a way, we will spend this whole book answering that question. But, part of the answer comes from one letter: the letter “s” in resolutions. We fail to keep resolutions in part because we have so many of them.
If you want to break a habit or make a habit, you do well to work on one thing at a time. Work on exercise, or getting on a budget, or complaining less than you do, or having a quiet time. Don’t work on more than one.
Amazing things happen when you successfully develop a single habit. Again, they’ve done research on this. People who develop the habit of exercising daily tend to stay on a budget. They tend to drink less and smoke less. It seems that success in one area spills over into other areas as well.4
However, working on several areas simultaneously does not work. There is a verse somewhere that says, “from one degree of glory to another.”5 We tend to focus on the word glory. I’d like to invite you to focus on the word one. It is a reminder that we will do well to work on one thing at a time. Paul said, “this one thing I do,” not, “these 10 things I dabble in.” (Philippians 3:13)
So, here is your assignment. Pick one thing, and only one thing that you would like to make a habit. Conversely. You could pick a habit you want to break. But just pick one. Be very specific. I am working on a project with my church and got a little feedback this last weekend. One man said he wanted to memorize more Scripture. More is not a goal. I invited him to think in terms of setting a goal along the lines of, “memorizing one verse a week and retaining it for at least three months.” This kind of specificity sticks to the brain and leads to success. My goal is to exercise every day. One lady in our church said her goal was to straighten out her husband. Good luck with that.
Once you have success developing one habit, it will be easier for you to believe that you can develop any habit. You can exercise, have a daily quiet time, stay on a budget, quit smoking, and do anything else God puts on your heart to do. We really can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. (Philippians 4:13) It seems, we just can’t do them all at once. One habit of the time, one day at a time. As the old saying goes, “Yard by yard life is hard, inch by inch it’s a cinch.”
I’m going to go ride my new bike now. That is my habit that I am working on as I write. I want to exercise every day. This is day 20. They say it takes about 66 days to form a habit—and one day to break one.
I buried a man recently who is 10 years younger than me. He died of a sudden heart attack. It was a wake-up call for me, and I realized that life is fragile. I am not immune from the same human frailties that affect all men. I work as a writer and it is a sedentary lifestyle. I need to exercise every day.
Josh Hunt, Break a Habit / Make a Habit (Josh Hunt, 2013).
Almost every group will have one or more of what I call “EGRs.” EGR stands for: Extra Grace Required. These are well-meaning but high-demanding people who can derail a group discussion if not dealt with in a healthy, biblical way.
Your group may have at least one member who has a tendency to dominate the conversation. They have been a Christian for a while, and it’s difficult for them to let others express their thoughts first. Here are a few ideas you can try with a dominator:
Opposite of the dominator, the dodger is the person in the group who never enters the conversation. They never make eye contact and seem disengaged with group life. Here are a few things you can do to engage the dodgers in your group:
You will hit topics in your group that will be controversial to some. In fact, if you are committed to studying the whole Bible, that will definitely be the case. When that happens, you may have people in your group who want to debate either side of the issue. Some debate is healthy, and leaders must learn to differentiate between primary gospel issues and secondary issues. On primary issues—for example, the full humanity and divinity of Christ, the reality of Christ as the only way of salvation, and the necessity of sharing the gospel with the world—God’s truth must ultimately be agreed upon. On less important matters—for example, debates about finer doctrinal points like the definition of predestination or views on the end times—it’s okay to leave some disagreement. Ultimately, the goal of your group is discipleship, not mere theological training. Here are a few things you can do to keep that goal in sight:
A drainer is someone who always seems to drain the life out of the group. They are the constant Debbie Downer. No matter what the topic of discussion is that week, they turn it into a conversation about them and their current struggles. A drainer will make other group members hesitant to open up about their own personal lives. Here are a few things you can do to help manage the drainer in your group:
With all of these examples, use Paul’s advice in Ephesians as your guide to the response.
And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Eph. 4:32)
However, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be healthy boundaries in place. Shepherds have a sheep pen where only the sheep may gather. Jesus gave us this picture in John 10:
“Truly I tell you, anyone who doesn’t enter the sheep pen by the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” (vv. 1–2)
There are times when our families must come first. And there will be times when a toxic member of the group may need to step out of the group to receive professional counseling before returning. Hurting people hurt people, and one person can destroy a group if not dealt with in a biblical and honest manner. If this is the case, it’s always best to bring a pastor or church staff member into the situation as soon as possible. The process laid out in Matthew 18:15–17 should be followed in a small group just like in a church.
“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you.”
A group member should only be asked to leave the group after all attempts have been made to restore him to health and fellowship.
Chris Surratt, Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2019).