A “Community Devotional” based on 1 Thess 2:1-16

  Scriptures    Reference to the Importance of Community  
1 Th 2:1The believers in Thessalonica knew Paul because of how he lived among them. The following chapter gives us an instruction manual of sorts on how we can be an effective witness among our neighbors. At the outset of his letters and extended blocks of teaching, the apostle uses language that reminds those who will hear his message that they’re family. The Lord uses the role of the small group leader to bring guidance and instruction at times. When you feel led in this way, recall how Paul speaks to his audience. When we use ‘family language’, it reminds our listeners that “we’re all in this together” and that “we’re all on equal ground.” It expresses humility, which opens hearts to hear and receive instruction. Paul knew this and following his example here can strengthen one’s leadership and sense of community within the group.
1 Th 2:3Paul exemplifies transparency in this verse. He discloses the motivations of his heart and explains the intent of his actions. Even though the recipients of Paul’s letter ‘knew’ him (cf. vv. 1-2), the apostle doesn’t hesitate to reaffirm his credibility and sincere love for them. Err toward over-communicating your heart for your group participants. Tell them why you do what you do on a regular basis. This bonds your group and builds trust in your leadership. People need to know your true self and that you’re being real to them. As mentioned in the introduction to this update, this kind of truth-telling is an “indispensable element to effective evangelism.”
1 Th 2:4Like the apostle, we too are people entrusted with the gospel. This means we are to take care in communicating the Good News. When our concern is focused on those receiving the message we’re less concerned about ourselves. Paul was totally for those receiving the Good News. He knew it. They knew it. As a result, communication lines were laid through which the Gospel message could flow freely. People have to know our hearts to trust us. How can your small group know your heart? How can the neighborhood in which your group meets know your heart? Reflect on how you and your group can be transparent with one another. Then discuss together how your group could express this transparency to people who are not yet a part of your group’s gatherings.
1 Th 2:5-6aPaul was without masks and guile. He did what he did for God, not personal profit. The way he lived among them proved this to be true. When our lives and actions are directed away from ourselves with the benefit of others in mind, people stand up and take notice. It requires purity of heart and the sincere expression of one’s faith. This is how the biblical community of the early Christians found favor with God and all people (Acts 2:47a). It is no different today. How can your group practice other-focused ministry within and beyond its gatherings?
1 Th 2:6b-7It is important as believers to do everything in our ability to not be a burden to others. There will inevitably be times in life we will need the help of others to carry our burdens (Galatians 6:2). Small groups provide an ideal means of support in this regard. Believers ought to aim their lifestyle toward the nurture of others, particularly those who have yet to cross the line of faith or who are young in the faith. This was the missional trajectory Paul set his life on. Piggy-backing on Paul’s analogy from this verse, a mother’s care for her little children reflects the selfless love described in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul was trying to capture the ultimate picture of nurturing by referencing the way a mother nurtures her little children. This kind of care was meant to be prescriptive for how believers are to minister to one another and their observing community. Our care for others (as a leader & a group) should express this love. When it does, your group’s actions are truly apostolic, i.e. your group becomes the medium through which people in the community can ‘hear’ the Good News.
1 Th 2:8We demonstrate God’s love when we share our lives with those we’re reaching. Building upon the love a mother shows for her little children (v. 7), Paul expresses his pure delight at sharing the Gospel message and his life with them. His words shared the message and his life showed the message. This is the essence of biblical community. As we pour ourselves out in this way for others the effect is mutually endearing. How could members of your group share their lives with people in their sphere of influence? Think simple & practical: Keep your garage door up, use your front porch / lawn and talk with neighbors passing by, bring a gift for special occasions, etc. See www.serve-others.com for more ideas.
1 Th 2:9Again, Paul identifies with his friends. As he is asking them to recall, he is reminding them of their family ties and his sacrificial service. Genuine gift-giving has no expectation of return. It has no strings attached. The Gospel message needs to be delivered the same way. It reeks when it’s done any other way. The nature of service in Jesus’ Name is that it opens doors to share the Good News. Notice how “preaching the Gospel” was not a ‘one-man show’ for Paul. He did it for a community and he did it through community.
1 Th 2:10When we live according to God’s Word we show we are God’s people. Biblical living establishes our credibility. This takes place over time. The vast majority of the world will look for more than one instance of the kind of living Paul’s mentions here. That’s why community is so important. It allows us to live out the Gospel for the world to see over time. Community encourages perseverance for believers and consistency for unbelievers.
1 Th 2:11-12Paul once again employs parent-child terminology primarily to express his affection and love for the believers in Thessalonica. The kind of leadership Paul displayed to them provides a model for us as small group leaders: Encourage, comfort, and call group participants to put God first in all they do. This of course is not done with a ‘better-than-thou’ attitude – a father wouldn’t interact with his child with that kind of heart – rather as a champion and helper.
1 Th 2:13The Word of God is living and works within those who believe (Hebrews 4:12). Whether or not your group’s defining activity is bible study, it is wisdom to find ways to incorporate it into your gatherings, e.g. do an impromptu devotion by taking a couple minutes to share how a particular verse was meaningful to you the past week or affirmed something you learned through a recent experience. Remember that God’s Word is always at work during your group’s gatherings, especially during times that feel flat.
1 Th 2:14The other communities (churches) of Christians – even those far away – were examples the believers in Thessalonica could follow. The fact they were able to “imitate” suggests there was significant interaction with other believers around the region. Thus, the core of Paul’s missionary strategy involved establishing communities of Christians in overlapping concentric circles that interrelated with one another at many different levels (like intersecting ripples created from individual rain drops on a pond). Small groups need encouragement from other small groups ‘in the trenches’; some of the strongest support comes by example. This is one of many reasons why interconnectedness at the leadership level is so important. The health of your small group is tied directly to that of other groups within our church. You can help to build up the larger community of which you’re a part by sharing the stories of what God is doing in your group with other leaders around you.

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!