Full-Bodied Group Life (Part 1 of 2)

It might sound strange to describe group life as being full-bodied. For example, I like my coffee “full-bodied,” but what does it mean when applied to community? The big idea here is that within the soil of community our roots grow deeper in Christ than they ever would in our own individual experiences (Col 2:6-7). The composition of this soil is enriched when group members engage in a breadth of spiritual practices that allow them to live out their faith with one another. As a result, a group will fully taste and see biblical community in the way we see it expressed in Acts 2: Rich, robust, strong, well-matured, and even flavorful!

God used the depth and diversity of the Early Church’s life together to put skin on His love for the world (1 John 4:12). Its full-bodied community made the disciples’ spiritual life ever-deepening and their Kingdom impact ever-expanding (Acts 2:46-47). This two-part post will explore several key spiritual practices that can be exercised in community, result in life-transformation, and keep your groups and church on mission. Emphasis will be placed on why community is integral to the nature and outworking of spiritual practices. Also, “growth tips” will be offered on how to strengthen the development of each one in your group life.

  • Fellowship – A “church” is a gathering of ‘called out ones’, as the Greek word (ekklesia) suggests, so it is both physical and spiritual in nature. It is why the reference to gathering in Jesus’ Name in Matthew 18:20 is viewed by many as the starting point for understanding the Church. Groups help believers gather in Jesus’ Name and when they are gathered in His Name, He is present in their midst. When He is in our midst there is power to exercise all the other spiritual practices so that we can respond to God’s work in our lives, our group, and church. Fellowship encourages the growth of all the other spiritual practices listed, which is why we are exhorted to not stop meeting together (Heb 10:25). We find encouragement to persevere and live in a way that is pleasing to God when we have the support of other believers around us.

Growth Tip: Allow fellowship to serve as bookends to your meeting format. Pre-planned fellowship on the front-end helps the group time feel less agenda-driven and more relational because it takes the edge off the start time and allows people to catch up. Fellowship on the tail-end provides a time cushion and allows people to connect more and process through their insights and experiences in the group.

  • Prayer – Prayer is communion with God. Like most of the spiritual practices, this is can be done in private or public. The best historical account of the Early Church gives numerous examples of believers praying together (Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:24, 31; 6:6; 8:15; 12:5, 12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5). Many of the psalms were private prayers in origin, which were recorded in order to be used in corporate worship. When we witness a believer’s communion with God, it can enrich our spiritual growth 4own. Furthermore, we need the prayers of others for our own spiritual well-being. In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.” Oftentimes, prayer provides glimpses of people’s heart condition in ways discussion does not always allow. Some of the most candid moments in community come during times of prayer together. Ministry is oftentimes embedded in this spiritual practice and group prayer helps to unearth it. Prayer prepares the way for holy moments where our fellowship deepens and we minister to one another.

Growth Tip: A couple of ways you can strengthen this spiritual practice with your group members is to introduce prayer during different parts of your meeting. For example, do not always have it follow your Bible study. Include brief prayers in your discussion time and express prayer in different ways (thanks, adoration, petition, and ministry). The more your group gets to know one another, the more freely you can ask different people to lead out in prayer.

  • Worship – Most references to worship in the Bible involve a ‘community’ of believers. It is the expression of our love, reverence, praise, and thanks to God for who He is and all He has done by His amazing grace. As with the other spiritual practices, our own worship can be enhanced in the company of others as we witness the outpouring of their hearts to Him. Worship enriches my relationship with God, it encourages my spirit, and it can communicate God’s life-changing grace to a world that has yet to meet the Creator of heaven and earth (Acts 2:46-47).

Growth Tip: Before you introduce worship to your group, learn which expressions are the most meaningful for each of your group members. This will increase the likelihood of successfully weaving this spiritual practice into your group life and expanding each member’s understanding of worship. Begin by asking them to share their definition of worship and what the most meaningful forms of worship are for each of them personally. For some it will be singing while for others it might be quiet thanksgiving, writing, or some other unique expression. Validate each and share a biblical reference on how it reflects the creativity of the Spirit.

  • Bible Study – Most of the New Testament was written in the midst of two or more and was created to be read aloud and lived out together in the new churches being planted throughout the Roman Empire. The Bible study of the first century was communal in nature and provided a system of education and mutual encouragement for the emerging communities of believers. An example of this bible study discussion can be found in Acts 20:7a, which says, “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion [dielegeto] with them…” (NRSV). Two of Jesus’ most prominent and extensive teaching monologues – The Sermon on the Mount and The Last Supper – were delivered to a community of disciples and within a community of disciples (Mt 5-7, Jn 13-17). Our learning of God’s Word is enhanced by the insights of others; their perspective added to our own brings things into sharper focus.

Growth Tip: Find a way to recognize each person’s input because this has a way of rolling out the mat for others to participate. Acknowledgement encourages involvement. The more free people feel to share, the more energy there will be to your discussions. Also, rotating leadership is empowering for the whole group and draws out the spiritual gifts of each participant.

Discipleship (learning and following Jesus Christ) is a plural activity. The disciples were always together in the Gospel accounts. In fact, in every instance a reference is made to the presence of a disciple…that person is with other disciples. There are 266 references of ‘disciples’ and 28 occurrences of ‘disciple’. Almost every reference of the word being in the singular notes how another disciple was with him or it is Jesus making a point in an illustration He is sharing. However, there is only one case when there is talk of a disciple being alone and that is when Peter was denying Christ. What do you think this says about the importance of community for believers?

In the next post, we will examine four more spiritual practices that will help enrich the soil of your group life so that more people will follow Jesus whole-heartedly and impact others with His love and message.

Top 10 Questions

These self-evaluating questions were developed with the intention of giving group leaders a compass to make sure they were staying on track with helping a group to connect, learn, and serve together so it could impact the world with the love of Christ:

CONNECTING

  1. Does every person in my group feel that I care for them and know how to contact me for help?
  2. Does each person have a friend in the group that shares a common interest or life stage?
  3. Did our last new person feel welcomed and included in our group and within our friendships?

LEARNINGCLS Graphic

  1. Is each person in my group reading their Bible and praying everyday?
  2. Am I including God’s Word and prayer in our group meetings and communications?
  3. Are most of the people in my group learning more of God’s Word each week? If not, is there a good reason why?

SERVING

  1. Is everyone in my group regularly serving in ministry?
  2. Does each person in my group know their God-given gifts and understands how they are using them to build the church?
  3. As a community, are we serving together at least once a semester outside our regular rhythm of meetings?

NEXT STEPS

10. Has each person in my group completed the Spiritual Health Assessment[i] within the last four months? Have I helped them connect to their next step for spiritual growth?

The big idea is that if a group is connecting, learning, and serving together – it will impact world with Jesus’ love and message. The goal of the group leader is to equip and inspire each group member to take their next step in their walk with Jesus Christ. Develop questions that will help your group leaders to stay on track with encouraging practices that lead to your desired outcomes of healthy group life!

[i] Check out the Transformational Discipleship Assessment for an example of a spiritual health assessment that helps to determine spiritual strengths and weaknesses with the goal of making disciples.

Group Leader Prayer Guide

Leadership Pastor, Jim Egli, endeavored to discover what makes the difference between thriving and stagnant groups. His research involving over 4,000 group leaders came to the conclusion that praying leaders have faster growing groups. This inspired me to create a tool that group leaders can use repeatedly each month to help them build healthy group life and ultimately impact more people with Jesus’ love and message.

GL Prayer Guide

Now create your own Prayer Guide that you can give to your leaders so their groups can grow in strength and influence for the Kingdom of God!

Cultivating Disciple-Making Environments for Everyone!

Groups make room for friendships that encourage spiritual growth. Healthy discipleship flows from healthy community with others walking with Jesus whose love for one another is a light that attracts those who are trying to find their way out of the darkness. In fact, the Lord commonly uses a community of believers to bring seekers to Himself (John 13:34-35, 17:20-23; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 2:13-20, 4:11-13; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 4:12, 17). Community is also the greatest influencer in how people follow Christ.

Every group member can become more like Christ when the group leader champions the elements that lead to healthy disciple-making environments. What is necessary to help people in all different places in their spiritual journey grow closer to Christ together?

  • Authentic leadership – Nobody influences the atmosphere of a group – positively or negatively – more than the leader. What makes a group leader successful is their love for God and love for people that expresses itself with unguarded authenticity. Authenticity creates common ground where people of varying places of spiritual maturity can meet together, dialogue about God’s Word, and grow spiritually.
  • Healthy relationships – Relationships are the engine of discipleship. When a person wants to connect in a group, do not consider the type of group, location, or even the curriculum to be the most important factors. Rather, it is the group dynamic, which is borne out of the relationships among the people in that group. Unhealthy relationships release toxins into the group’s ecosystem, which can be detrimental to strays, seekers, and believers alike. However, if relationships are healthy, the experience and effect of the group dynamic will be as well.
  • 3-D group life – Depth perception enables us to see the world in three dimensions. Similarly, there will be ‘depth’ to everyone’s group experience if thealthygroup1hey are loving God, loving people, and loving the world around them. This happens through the flexible arrangement of elements like fellowship, prayer, Bible study, serving those inside and outside the group. Healthy environments are always in flux, changing and growing. The same is true of healthy groups as well.
  • Missional-orientation to group purpose – Every group has a purpose. Group leaders can cultivate disciple-making environments for everyone if they bring a missional orientation to it. For example, there’s a big difference between discipleship and disciple-making in the mind of the ‘Average Joe’. The former typically arises from those within the group who also happen to be the beneficiaries of this purpose (internally-focused). The latter redirects the emphasis to those beyond the group creating a more externally-focused group culture. This in turn creates an environment that helps everyone take their next steps in growing closer to Christ so be sure to balance the group’s inward nurture with external focus and action.
  • Engaging curriculum – This was deliberately put last on the list. A mistake made by many leaders is allowing group curriculum to define the ‘depth’ of the group. Plenty of groups use “deep” or “meaty” Bible study material and go nowhere inside or outside of their group. What is also true is there are plenty of groups that use material more mature believers consider to be “milk,” but because of the leadership and relationships among those in the group, people are strengthened in their faith. “Mixed” groups tend to find more help from group curriculum that helps them engage in God’s Word, apply it to life, build relationships among group members, and encourages them to share their spiritual discoveries with others beyond the group experience.

Avoid compartmentalizing people on the basis of what stage of spiritual maturity you think they are in. No such advice has been given in the Bible since the birth of the Church. If anything, we see the opposite. Time and again, seekers or new believers resurrect groups of ‘mature believers’ because of the healthy challenge and vibrancy they bring.[i] On the other hand, those who need more guidance and instruction as they take their initial steps in following Christ can find great help from those who have been walking closely with Jesus for many years.[ii]

It’s difficult to conceive of a better way to follow Jesus and pattern our lives after His than bonding with others in a group and traveling together in our journey of spiritual growth. We can help people in varying places of spiritual maturity come together in groups by communicating that “groups” are not a ministry program. Nor are they something to be added to a list of recommendations for healthy Christian living. Rather, groups are ‘the other half’ of how the Church can be the Church in all the fullness and vibrancy God intended (Acts 5:42). Thankfully, they provide a strategic way for every person to grow closer to Jesus regardless of how much progress each one has made thus far.

[i] Oftentimes, those who consider themselves more mature and want “more depth” or “more meat” are the very ones who need more action when it comes to putting feet to their faith (John 4:32). Groups that tend to fade out are those that are made-up exclusively of more mature believers not reaching out beyond their own circle of fellowship.
[ii] People who are looking at the Scriptures with new eyes and applying it to their lives in fresh ways oftentimes see things longer-term believers have forgotten or missed altogether. Just because somebody has not been walking with Jesus for several years does not mean they cannot grasp what is being said in the Bible. Seekers are not stupid. Thank goodness for us all that the ‘deep truths’ of God’s Word are simply put: Love God, love people.

To Invite, or Not to Invite: That is the Question!

Sometimes group leaders wonder if they should invite a person into their group who is not as spiritually mature as the other members or who could potentially disrupt the good dynamic they have going. If the group has already agreed to be open, I almost always say ‘yes’. Satan is not in the habit of luring spiritually lost people into the company of Christ-followers because that’s where they can encounter God’s life-changing Presence (Matthew 18:20).

inviting1Rather, group leaders ought to cover the invitation in prayer and trust God with the outcome. We can’t control how somebody responds to an invitation to come to a group, but we can control whether or not we take the risk. Plus, when fear is the driving factor in not doing something in cases like this, it’s probably the better to choose the action that requires faith. So I counsel groups leaders to pray, choose to do the most loving thing, and trust the guiding influence of the Sovereign power of God with the outcome.

In cultivating environments that make disciples of people at different stages in their spiritual journey, it is crucial to first respect God’s work. The truth is, God is already at work…

  • Building His Church – What that looks like is the building of community. So try to respond to what He is actively doing in your church’s community life and nurture the way things are already naturally moving. Do not over-engineer or complicate the discipleship process with too many steps. Community is the soil that helps people to sink their roots in Christ so focus on planting people in the fertile ground of those who are already growing together in Christ. What is already happening in and through your church that is effectively reaching people for Christ and building up your community? Explore how you can tap into or build on that.
  • Through His Word – God’s Word is living and active so as you facilitate bible study, assume that biblical truth is actively transforming those who are hearing it. Instead of explaining the truth to group participants, expose them to the truth and lean on the group’s collective wisdom to discover what the Lord is communicating to each individual heart. When seekers or new believers are a part of your group’s bible study, trust that God’s Word will speak to them.
  • Drawing people closer to Himself – God loves people and He is more concerned about their spiritual journey than you ever could be so be diligent to find out how He is working in a person’s life. Then be careful not to presume or prescribe too much. After all, discipleship is not really an orderly process. Just look at the Gospels.
  • Encouraging relationships – Let God bring the people to your group that He wants to. Shepherds are to protect their flock from wolves…not other sheep. If an actual shepherd were to see a lone sheep approach his flock and attempt to nudge itself into it, could you imagine him kicking it out? Of course not! He would probably think to himself: “Hot dog! I just got a new sheep. My flock just increased and I didn’t even have to work for it!” Shepherds are to protect their flocks from decreasing, not increasing. Trust God with the dynamic of your group and the meeting space to accommodate those He wants to bring.

If we look to the account of the Early Church in the book of Acts as our model, we see people in all different stages of their spiritual journey helping one another take their next steps in following Christ (Acts 2:40-47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 8:4-8, 25, 9:31). In the next post, we’ll look at how group leaders can cultivate disciple-making environments that help everyone in their walk with Jesus.