A “Community Devotional” based on 1 Thessalonians 1

Scriptures

Reference to the Importance of Community

1 Th 1:1 The only time we find Paul alone is when he was subjected to forced isolation. Otherwise, you see the apostle with his missionary companions. The Gospels and letters that make up the New Testament were composed by two or more, delivered by two or more, and received by two or more. They were by a group for a group. Consider writing a short message of thanks and encouragement to another group this next month.
1 Th 1:2-3 Prayer is the primary expression of our dependence upon God and outlet for our interdependency with other believers. The act of praying for one another is both a practical and “super-communal” action that empowers believers to live for Christ and make a difference in the world for Him. Here and elsewhere in his letters, Paul shares his love and appreciation for his brothers and sisters in Christ through prayer. Thus prayer is a critical aspect of how we love one another and build biblical community. In fact, biblical community cannot grow without prayer. Consider asking each person in your group to take ‘ownership in prayer’ for an aspect of the Acts 2 dynamic to grow and be strengthened.
1 Th 1:4-5 Right away, Paul declares what he and his friends at a distance hold in common: Union in Christ. The church in Thessalonica was established because Paul and his fellow workers planted themselves among the people there. Notice how his self-references in this verse take on the plural form. The Holy Spirit used the witness of their words and lifestyle to impact the recipients of the Gospel with power and conviction. In other words, Paul and his traveling companions lived out the Gospel as community within a community trailblazing a path of salvation to the hearts of the lost. They lived in Thessalonica for the sake of their neighbors and apparently, their witness was obvious and memorable. Ponder July’s outreach idea and how your group can have a similar presence in your community.
1 Th 1:6 Paul and his friends took Jesus’ commission (Mt 28:19-20) to heart and really modeled the Gospel to their host community. They did so in the face of serious resistance and rejection (Acts 17:1-9). He not only told them the Good News, He showed them the Good News. There are consequences for everyone who receives Christ. For most people, they want to know they’re not going to be alone ‘on the other side’. Paul and his friends brought this reassurance for the Thessalonians who were apparently experiencing “severe suffering” as a result of their new-found faith. They provided the encouragement and the example for being a follower of Jesus Christ. Their ‘other-focused dwelling’ within Thessalonica opened a channel through which God’s Kingdom could advance. A “community on mission” is God’s plan for each local church and small group. How could your small group be such an example that onlookers would welcome the Gospel with joy, even in the face of resistance? Here is a group activity you might want to do this month: Think of what needs & desires your small group could meet of people within your sphere of influence and then brainstorm how you could communicate (dare say, “advertise”) this in your community.
1 Th 1:7-10 Thessalonica was a very large city and strategic crossroads for trade and communication. Paul knew this and leveraged its influence for the spread of the Gospel. There was enough interaction happening among cities at that time that this fledgling church proved to be of great influence early in its existence even to new churches over 100 miles away. Just as Paul was an example for this community so this community of Christians was an effective witness to other church plants. Their faith, like Paul’s, manifested in loving efforts that influenced unbelievers and inspired believers. (cf. v. 3). The way their lived out their faith spoke for itself. Small groups provide the way to bring the living presence of the Good News to people who might not want to look for answers to their spiritual questions at a church service, at least initially. Ask the Lord to give your small group insight and inspiration on how it can be an encouraging example to other Christian communities. This chapter also explains why it is so important to share the stories of what God is doing in your small group with the leadership of your church: Encouragement (believers) and influence (unbelievers). God uses story-telling to develop and expand the community life of His Church. Here’s an easy way to partner with Him in doing this: Record stories of life-change you witness in your small group and then ‘pass it on’ to church leadership to be shared with others.

The Power of True Rest

How your small group leadership can be sustainable and strong

Rest takes discipline. That might sound strange to some, but it requires intentionality to maintain a consistent rhythm of spiritual practices to rest well. We’re accustomed to thinking of Bible reading and prayer as spiritual practices, but “rest” does not usually make the list. It should. Sabbath is a critical piece to this, but if we’re not resting in other ways, we can inadvertently misuse this sacred time and miss the divine intent of it.

The importance of rest for small group leaders cannot be emphasized enough, especially in a world that is increasingly fast-paced and filled with unlimited distractions. For over 20-years, I’ve gotten to serve as a pastor. Twice I’ve “hit the wall.” In other words, I got so depleted that I wasn’t able to continue in the same way I had been until I took time to care in new ways for my own soul.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen to many church staff and volunteer leaders because the demands of ministry always outpace people’s ability to meet them, whether you’re shepherding a small group of people or a local church. Far too many of us learn the hard way. As my friend Lance Witt puts it: “You cannot live life at warp speed without warping your soul. When you run fast and hard and long, eventually you will drain your soul…Running on empty will eventually lead to cynicism, disillusionment, and burnout. You are not the exception.” (High Impact Teams) Your life and leadership will suffer in the blur of a hurried life.

Small group leaders are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of being influencers in the spiritual lives of the people circled up with them. In order to be spiritually healthy and effective, your soul needs rest. These five practices will help you to wisely prioritize your relationships and make deposits into your personal life so that your service as a small group leader can be sustainable and strong:

  1. Recognize Sabbath-rest weekly – Ruthlessly guard this day each week. It means setting boundaries, saying ‘no’, and some degree of planning to keep potential interruptions at bay so that you can let yourself to be loved by God. (Heb 4:9-11)
  2. Read and reflect on God’s Word daily – Slow down and allow biblical truth to truerestsimmer in your soul so that you can experience His restorative rest. Make your devotional life personal for yourself before making it practical for others. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
  3. Rely on the Lord and the help of others – Alongside “slowing down” is another essential ingredient to rest: Solitude (Mark 1:35). Commune with God and listen for the Holy Spirit’s gentle whispers (1 Kings 19:12). Rally friends around you who will faithfully uphold you in prayer and help lift the load of your leadership responsibilities. By not trying to do it all on your own, you’ll empower others in ministry.
  4. Remember God’s promises and power – Recalling truths like these will replenish your spirit and empower you in your small group leadership:
    • God is building His Church – plant people in the fertile ground of those who are already growing together in Christ. (Mt 16:18)
    • God makes things grow – be faithful with what the Lord has called you to do and entrust the results to Him. (1 Cor 3:7)
    • God is always with you and will never leave you. (Deut 31:8)
    • God’s Word is alive and active – trust His truth to transform hearts. (Heb 4:12)
    • God wants all people to know Him and will meet them more than half-way (1 Tim 2:4; James 4:7-8). His amazing grace woos those humble enough to see their need for Him.
  1. Refresh yourself regularly – Find out what fills your tank and do it. What brings you joy and makes you feel alive? Is there variety to your routine beyond recuperating from being poured out for others? (Php 2:17)

True rest necessitates the nurture of our most important relationships beginning with Christ and flowing outward to our family, friends and others the Lord has put in our lives. Our most central relationships influence all the others, so a shallow relationship with God or a struggling marriage will affect how one leads others at work or in ministry. Sadly, by neglecting their innermost relationships, leaders end up forsaking their souls.

Jesus Christ is the One who enables us to live inside-out with Him as our source rather than allowing the pressures of life to turn us inside-out. Your soul will only find rest in Jesus who said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

You will find rest for your soul when you come under Jesus’ direction and learn from Him. True rest makes space for the Holy Spirit to do His refining and transformative work in your soul. As a result, you will be healthier, more joyful, and effective in your spiritual leadership. You owe it to God, yourself and loved ones, and the people whose spiritual growth you are influencing through your small group leadership.

Unlocking Balanced Disciple-Making

Balance has always been elusive for me in ministry. Earlier on, I grew skeptical of it because I pictured it as being something that literally meant I was giving equal time and attention to multiple things but somehow not cheating anything. Life rarely allows this luxury. So when I heard balance applied to small groups, my instinctive reaction was “Nope – that’s just setting leaders up to fail.”

If we’re honest, we’re probably not doing all of the things we’ve learned that we should be doing in our groups. People connect and grow together regularly through some form of fellowship, Bible study and prayer in most groups. Far fewer develop a plan for building in other spiritual practices, different expressions of worship, and outreach to make a group experience well-rounded, or dare I say, “Balanced!”

Over time, however, “balance” for me became less about maintaining perfect equilibrium, and more about planning ahead on how you can incorporate activities that are commonly omitted from group life, but vital to the health of it. You need to have a plan to have balance.

The group leader is the person responsible for driving the process of developing a plan with the group about how they will be intentional about including spiritual practices that do not normally occur in their gatherings. I’ll share a few pointers on how group leaders can lay the groundwork for balance by planning ahead for it followed by practical ways members can pursue balanced group life together.

Laying the Groundwork for Balance

  • Pray – The most powerful thing you can do to facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives is to pray specifically for your group members to exercise faith and take steps to grow ever closer to Jesus!
  • Have a Sidekick – You need a close companion who sees the vision of balanced group life and understands the “why” behind it before you share it with the group. This is important because you need feedback and somebody who is in the room with you affirming the dream as you share it with everyone.
  • Maximize your Kick-off – Be highly-relational, but very strategic during your first session of a new study or season as a group. Get to know each other better, but be sure to discover how each person would like to grow as a result of being part of your group. Help them unearth their spiritual growth goals before diving into curriculum.
  • Have a “Locker Room Talk” – Before an important game, a coach will get the players fired up by telling them why he sees them being victorious and what they need to do to get there. Is a group’s life together any less important? Of course not!
    • Start by explaining how a well-rounded group will support each member’s personal transformation and help everyone grow stronger spiritually. Then share how the Lord has a purpose in each one playing a part in fulfilling it because of how He has gifted them (more on that in a moment).
    • This builds buy-in to the vision, increased participation in living it out together, and consequently, the group will have healthy longevity and greater impact.

balance2

Balancing Group Life Together

  • Serving Together – Engage in a service project or group outreach at least once per season / semester. Present this idea at the outset of your group and schedule it in advance. You might choose to do this in place of your group meeting for a week.
  • Worship Together – Click HERE to access ideas for “Unleashing Creative Group Worship.”
  • Remembering Together – Celebrate communion once per season / semester – Talk with your church’s leadership to learn about how you can do this in your group.
  • Confession – Some spiritual breakthroughs necessitate confession, which opens the way for God’s light to shine on the dark places sin wants to remain hidden. As a group deepens its bonds with one another, subgroup by gender to minister to one another. Refer to Ed Stetzer’s article on “Accountability Questions” for examples that you can select and use in your own group.
  • Spiritual Gifts – If you believe that every Christ-follower has been graced with spiritual gifts to build up one another as the Church then don’t you think He has a purpose in them for your group (1 Cor 12:7)? Group members provide the necessary feedback and encouragement for one another to identify their God-given spiritual gifts and begin to use them in faith and boldness. Step-by-step guidance for group leaders on how to have conversations to help members find and use their spiritual gifts can be found HERE.

This last point is a master key to balanced discipleship in your group. Maybe the Lord has a unique purpose for every group that is unique to it based on the supernatural composition of spiritual gifts represented in its group members. Maybe every group has its own divine palette of colors that can be mixed together to produce a one-of-a-kind work of art to the glory of God.

If this is so, it stands to reason that a group will experience “balance” as each member of it works in concert with one another to make his or her own special contribution to God’s mission in the world. Group leaders can catch a vision for unlocking balanced disciple-making when they tap into the spiritual growth goals and gifts the Lord has planted in their group members.

Planning Leader Training in the Fall

Instituting Leadership Equipping Rhythms

Training is not a one-time exercise with group leaders. It is one among many facets of how you provide ongoing care and development for your leaders. This is important to remember as you look ahead to the fall and consider how you want to equip your leaders to start and stay strong with their groups.

The fall is a primetime opportunity to invite people to start or join a group. However, before somebody can start their own group, they need to be vetted and trained. Don’t make this a complicated process because you want to make it easy for people to engage in your community life (as a leader or participant) any time of the year. At my church, we tell people they can begin the process of starting or joining a group 365 days of the year and we will come alongside of them to help.

How you train depends on who you’re training. For pre-existing leaders, it’s more about connecting with other leaders, celebrating Kingdom wins, and delivering targeted training with an inspirational element. For new leaders, the training component would be more intensive, ensuring everyone is equipped, clear, and excited about their next steps. Another whole article could be devoted to how you choose to identify, invite, interview (screen), and initiate new group leaders – all of which will influence how you train new leaders.

There are two general pathways: Initial orientation and ongoing equipping (leadership communities) and here are the suggested topics you could cover with each:

Initial Orientation

(Greater frequency, smaller gatherings)

Leadership Communities

(Less frequency, larger gatherings)

·      Why Groups? (biblical references & benefits)

·      How Groups Support Your Church’s Vision (Dream) & Mission (Purpose)

·      What’s a Group? (definition, types, etc.)

·      Role & responsibilities of a Group Leader

·      Group leadership (reporting) structure & how groups are organized at your church

·      Leadership Investment Rhythms (how leadership & resources will help you)

·      Best practices for well-rounded group life

·      Guidance for your first gathering

·      How your group can be missional & transformational

·      Introduce to their coach/community leader

·      Q&A

·      Welcome & prayer

·      Connecting with other leaders (include food)

·      Optional: Fun element (ice-breaker type game / mixer)

·      Appreciation (share a life-change story)

·      Inspiration (how your achieving your church’s vision)

·      Value-adding skill development (determined by feedback from leaders)

·      Sub-group by “coach-leader” relationship or affinity for more specific / relevant conversations

·      Regroup for final announcements & next steps

A third option is “turbo groups.” This is a short-term group experience designed to build relationships and leadership among participants, each of whom start with the expectation they will launch out and lead their own group. (The list of topics covered under “Initial Orientation” can serve as an outline for a turbo group, an example of which is available through Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com HERE.) This can be a first step toward developing a core team that will ultimately serve the growing body of groups at your church.

Lastly, there are three keys to success to keep in mind as you’re planning your equipping experiences:

  1. Awareness over Assumption –Don’t assume you know what your leaders-in-training need. Survey the people you plan to invite before you invite them and find out what would make your training timely, relevant, and most meaningful to them. The best experience for participants is when they walk away with their felt-needs addressed and burning questions answered.
  2. Interaction over Information – Reserve your training time to engage and talk with participating leaders and promote peer-learning through conversation versus unilaterally dispensing information in a lecture format that you could alternatively convey digitally so they can refer back to it repeatedly and customize it for future use.
  3. Rhythmic over Sporadic – It instills confidence in your leaders when you preplan predictable rhythms for initial orientations and leadership communities. Think through how to thread training throughout the ebb and flow of your church’s unique family and ministry calendar. Schedule a full year’s worth and then communicate all of your dates together with a clear explanation of why it’s important they’re a part of leadership gatherings. At my church, we offer new leader orientations every month and leadership communities for active leaders every other month.

You might even have an annual gathering or retreat with all group leadership to celebrate what God has done, love on your leaders, and cast vision for the year ahead. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to this so find what works best for your church and stay with it for at least a year. Don’t change things too often on your leaders or your voice will begin to lose its potency.

One of things I’ve learned to stress with leaders, especially as they get started, is the importance of communicating with the person who looks after them (e.g. a “coach” or “community leader”) and staying connected with the larger community of leaders at your church. The foundation for this to happen consistently begins with monthly “connects” between coaches and their group leaders, which can happen in the way that’s most convenient for your leaders.

Satan loves to isolate leaders. Whereas God sets us apart for His work, the enemy strives to set us aside from God’s work. When leaders begin to withdraw from community themselves, the devil knows victory is within sight and their soul-care becomes a long, painful uphill battle. Conversely, when leaders are interconnected relationally and faithful to communicate with one another, it forms a shield wall the enemy struggles to penetrate.

Plan ahead and create predictable leadership equipping rhythms that provide on-ramps and touch-points to ensure everyone continues to run healthy and strong. This fall can serve as the entry-point for leaders to connect with one another and plug into a larger system for ongoing care and development of all of your leaders!

Small Group Leader Self-Care

Spiritual leaders must take decisive action to be healthy in order to be prepared to confront the inevitable temptations, personal attacks, potential burnout and other hazards of the ministry. These ten recommendations are relevant for all small group leaders and coaches who want to be healthy and effective in ministry for the long-haul.

  1. Read & Reflect on God’s Word Daily

Contend for a daily devotional life. Not only will this secure your healthy growth, but it will ensure the healthy development of biblical community in your group (Psalm 119:105). A group’s life together will likely only go as deep as the life of its leader. If you do not already have an ongoing devotional life, start small and develop it incrementally. Here’s an interesting fact: Sheep feed on dew that collects on grass very early in the morning and the water these creatures slurp up at dawn satisfies them through the whole sun-scorching day (Psalm 5:3). Give God the first fruit of your time, and find your strength in Him (Psalm 119:114, 147).

  1. Pray Daily

Talk with God and listen for His guidance each day. The more you cultivate a closeness with your Creator, the healthier you will be for your own well-being, your family, and everyone you influence in life. Be mindful of how He is always with you and will never leave you (Deuteronomy 31:8). This will help you to be more conscientious and inclined to communicate with God repeatedly throughout the day rather than it being a ritual that happens just once a day (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is key to having a growing relationship with the Lord, which is what God wants far more than anything else from us.

  1. Invite a Few Trusted Friends to Pray for You

You and your group are a target of the enemy and prayer coverage is an absolute must. Ask a few trusted friends to pray for you and your family regularly, especially those you know are faithful to intercede in prayer for others. Make a point to give them an update and share specific things to pray about at the beginning, middle, and end of each season of your group’s life together. There’s no season in ministry where we don’t need someone to stand in the gap for us.

  1. Replenish Yourself Regularly

Take refuge in Jesus. When you feel like your energy level is beginning to wane, let your selfcare2co-leader or a friend in your group know. If you’ve already met as a group for a few seasons, you might let your whole group know. Invite them to pray for you and carry responsibilities that have begun to be taxing on you. Don’t make the group “your ministry.” Ministry should be mutual and happening among all group participants. If it isn’t, instigate change! Get away at times, find rest, and be sure you’re regularly participating in the worship and teaching offered in your weekend (temple courts) service. Honoring the Sabbath each week is just the beginning.

  1. Recognize God’s Work

Remembering what the Lord has done and is doing builds your faith and the faith of those around you. I need to continually remind myself of who God is and His promises to stay strong. For example, I can plant and water, but God is the one who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:5-7). I can use my gifts and abilities to build up the Church, but God is the one who is actually building it in such a way that hell itself won’t triumph over it (1 Cor 12:7; Mt 16:18). I also like to recall that God’s Word is fully inspired, living and active and does its work in people as they engage with it (2 Tim 3:16; Heb 4:12). Recognizing how God is already at work within your group is worshipful and helps to develop a more spiritually mature perspective in those around you.

  1. Resist Getting in the Middle of Conflict Prematurely

If someone comes to you with a complaint about another, find out right away if they’ve spoken with the other person first (Matthew 18:15). If they haven’t, redirect them to talk with the person they’re having tension with. If the first condition has been met, do not entertain an accusation made about another individual unless it is brought to you by at least one other, independent source (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1b).

  1. Draw Appropriate Boundaries

Be available to your group members, but lovingly draw boundaries when necessary. God wants you to be whole just as much as He does others and ultimately self-care is obedience to Him. It’s also okay to set time limits on phone conversations or one-on-one meetings you have with group members; just let them know at the outset of your conversation that you have up until a certain time that you’re able to connect with them.

  1. Don’t Meet Alone with the Opposite Sex

Spiritual leaders must avoid every appearance of evil for their sake and for the sake of others (Romans 15:2; 1 Corinthians 10:24, 32-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:22). Wisdom is not putting yourself in a situation where you could stumble (1 Cor. 6:18; 2 Tim 2:22) so if someone of the opposite sex wants to meet outside your group time, let them know your spouse, co-leader or a trusted group member will join you too. It’s not about being religious or legalistic – it’s being prudent (Proverbs 27:12).

  1. Don’t Try to Do Everything Yourself

Empower others in your group to help carry the responsibilities that come with leading a group and identify a co-leader who can team up with you sooner than later. Give them small tasks to begin with that ideally align with areas or gifting or interest that they have.

  1. Don’t Try to Please Everyone

You’ve undoubtedly heard it said before, and it’s absolutely true: You can’t please everyone! You will become depleted and discouraged if you try. If somebody is not happy with your leadership or the group, talk directly with them about it, pray together, and trust the Holy Spirit with the outcome. Release the person, letting them know it’s okay to agree to disagree and for them to go a different direction. Keep your coach informed of any challenges like this so they can support you and help mediate next steps. Your concern needs to be for the whole group so don’t let one person derail the vision God has given you for it.

Remember: You’re serving God on behalf of the group (not the other way around). The Lord wants to grow you through your experience as a group leader…not use you up and leave you on empty so be sure to take care of yourself! Your life and leadership will be stronger as a result.