By Lindsey Goetz, Curriculum Specialist, Writer, and Children’s Director at First Presbyterian Church of Aurora, IL
The Hearts Alive Year C–Winter curriculum takes us from the beginning of December all the way to the beginning of March. During that time we will celebrate the season of Advent, the season of Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism and Transfiguration of Jesus.
The curriculum follows the lectionary readings from Year C, with many of the lessons being based on the Gospel of Luke. Children will have the opportunity to experience the anticipation of Christmas with beautiful lessons that repeatedly illustrate the theme of waiting for Christ’s coming in interesting and fun ways. Additionally, they will walk with Jesus as he performs his first miracle at a wedding, as he preaches words of hope and encouragement and hard words of warning. The season wraps up by reminding children of the call Jesus issues to them to live as his disciples, loving our enemies, and turning to the cross.
As always, the same passages and Big Ideas are studied across all three age levels, providing an excellent opportunity for churches to encourage and equip families to follow up with their children throughout the week at home. Each lesson combines solid, Christ-centered teaching with creative and interesting discussion topics, games, activities, and crafts. This season also includes many colorful illustrations to ignite children’s imaginations and opportunities for children to consider and experience some more contemplative moments in well considered, age-appropriate responses to the text.
As I have looked through each age level of the Year C Winter curriculum, I am so excited to take this journey with the children in our church. I was reminded of all the reasons we chose Hearts Alive– in addition to things I have already named, you will find more of the solid, Gospel-centered orientation, the creative, hands-on activities, and the child-friendly, colorful illustrations that we, have come to expect and treasure about this curriculum.
If you are a Children’s Minister or Sunday school teacher who uses Hearts Alive, we would love to invite you to join our Facebook group where you can get access to weekly audio recordings of Bible Backgrounds to share with your Sunday School Teachers, video tutorials on selected crafts, and a community of people who will benefit from the wisdom you have to share about how Hearts Alive works in your context. Email [email protected] to be added to the group.
The optimal environment for life change is a small group.
We’ve all heard that line for years. Most of us have said that line so frequently that it is now an automatic response when we hear a counter opinion. And yet…is it really true? And if it is true, is it a given? Or does something have to happen to cause the life change? If it is true, what are the conditions that make it true?
These are your questions too, right? If you’re the small group expert at your place, aren’t these questions at least bubbling up from time to time when it’s really quiet in your office? I know this has been a steady inner dialogue for me over the last years.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the optimal delivery system for life change is a small group. You can read a little more right here about what I think. I just have gotten to the point where I’m very pragmatic about the steps that lead to life change. See…I’ve found that it’s not automatic. There are some ingredients that must be present to produce life change. You know it too. Here’s one of the most important ingredients:
Whatever you want to happen at the member level, must be part of the experience of the leader. Another way that I say it is that “whatever you want to happen at the member level you have to do to and for the leader of the group.”
Here’s what I mean. If you want the members of your groups to feel cared for, then the leader of the group will have to know how to care for them and actually do that. After all, a person can only give away what they already have. Does that make sense?
Here’s another. If you want your members to experience loving accountability, then the leader of the group will have to know how to do that and actually do it. How will that happen? The leader will have to be experiencing that in their own life.
Are you tracking? It’s a no-brainer, right? Makes sense, doesn’t it? Whatever you want to happen at the member level, you have to do to and for the leader of the group. The leader can only give away what they have.
And what follows naturally is this question: How will the leaders of your groups experience what you want them to be able to give away? My contention? Somehow you will have to do to and for your leaders whatever you want them to provide to the members of your groups. End of story.
How will that happen? Because of the limitations imposed by span of care realities, in most cases you will not be able to personally provide that to all of your group leaders. After all, “everyone needs to be cared for by someone, no one can care for more than about 10.”
The obvious answer to this dilemma is some kind of coaching or mentoring solution. In that obvious answer is a whole series of posts. But here’s the point for starters. Whatever you want to happen at the member level must begin in you. Ultimately, it begins with you. If you’re running on fumes, if you’re only what you need to be on the very surface of your life, that’s what you’ll have to give away. And that my friends is at the core of the life change question.
Mark is the Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. He’s also the founder of SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services that help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries.
Halloween has gone from being a relatively minor children’s holiday of the late 20th century to now, a major commercial event for adults as well as children. While most Americans view it as a day of family fun and dressing up, some pagan groups use it to celebrate idolatry and even devil worship. Since the origins of Halloween are rooted in Celtic or Druid pagan practices, it leaves many Christian parents asking the question, should we celebrate Halloween?
For the ancient Celts, the calendar year ended in fall with the close of the harvest. The festival of Samhain marked the beginning of winter and was associated with death. It was during this time that adherents believed that heaven and earth were very close and the souls of the dead along with other bad spirits came back to earth.[i] Families welcomed the presence of their ancestors but attempted to ward off evil spirits by dressing in costumes and offering sacrifices to their gods with huge bonfires.[ii]
How did the early Christians react to Halloween?
The Church has never shied away from dealing with the influence of paganism. When the Celtic lands finally embraced the Gospel in the 9th century, the church in her wisdom turned Samhain into a feast to celebrate those who had lived and died in the hope of Christ. By placing the feast of All Saints the day after Halloween, celebrations changed from an emphasis on fear of death and evil to a celebration of the holy (Hallow) men and women who worked to spread the Gospel and sometimes give their lives for it. Samhain didn’t lose the fun aspects of bonfires and dressing up (as saints) but shifted the meaning to giving God glory.
Emphasize a holy Halloween for your children
Tell children the history of Halloween and what it’s supposed to be about. Highlight how the pagans lived in fear and were reaching out to empty gods until they came to know the one true God who would be the ultimate sacrifice, the hope and perfect love that cast out all fear[iii]. Jesus conquered death so we need not fear it[iv].
Some great memory verses for Sunday school lessons on Halloween include:
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them[v], because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
1 John 4:4
“Overcome them” are spirits that do not acknowledge Christ. God’s spirit rests upon us and is much greater than the evil one. We only need to dress up in the armor of God to defeat him.[vi]
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
And we are in the one who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Children, be on your guard against idols.
1 John 5:20-21
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Appeasing empty idols like the Celts. did not bring them salvation or open the doors heaven, only Jesus could do that by his sacrifice on the cross.
Celebrate the story of all the saints
Consider using the Sunday closest to Halloween or All Saints as a true Christian celebration. Ask the children to dress up as heroes and heroines from the Bible or saints and talk about their stories. Many denominations remember Martin Luther and the religious freedoms won during the Reformation on All Saints Day. While we have a tendency to talk about St. Patrick in March, he was the one who first brought the light of Christ to the Celtic peoples of Ireland. If you’ve never read his book Confessions, his aching words of humility and love for Jesus are inspiring. St. Boniface brought the Gospel to the Druids in Germany as well as many others.
Talk about what it means to live a holy life and how we becomes saints. It is also a great opportunity to ask the children who are the saints in their lives today and how do those individuals show the love of Christ to them and others.
Keep things in perspective
Some Christian families prefer alternative activities to Halloween or avoid the occasion all together. If you do choose to dress up and trick or treat, don’t make too big of a deal for it. By setting the tone, that this secular holiday is fun but not worth too much time or money we keep its lesser importance in perspective. The most important celebrations in our homes should always emphasize that we belong the Lord and that’s where we invest our time.
The three persons of the Trinity have always existed together. The Old Testament revealed God the Father to mankind and the New Testament revealed Jesus to the world. After Jesus returned to heaven, Jesus and the Father fully revealed the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. They sent the Holy Spirit to finish what they had started. As we wait for Jesus’ return, the job of the Holy Spirit is to prepare a glorious, global Bride for Jesus, who will rule and reign with Him, sharing for eternity the inheritance Jesus received from the Father.
The Holy Spirit had been prompting dozens of men to write about the coming of the Messiah for 1200 years. Now the time has come! Finally, the offspring of Eve would crush the head of the serpent as the Spirit had Moses write in Genesis. The virgin would conceive and birth a son called Emmanuel as the Spirit had Isaiah write. The Son would be born to us called Eternal Father, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor! Now, the mighty One was to be born in Bethlehem as the Spirit had Micah write.
Since God is One God in three Persons, all three members of the Godhead do everything together, but they assign one Member of the Trinity for certain purposes and times of history. God is the Initiator, Jesus the Liberator and the Spirit is the Facilitator.
The Holy Spirit is God, He is Lord and He lives inside every true follower of Jesus. But He is so humble, so meek that He always points us to Jesus and the Father. He is a complete Person, just as Jesus and the Father are but His personality is to only to do what the Father commands and what the Son provides by His grace won on Calvary. The better we know the Holy Spirit, the more we fellowship with Him, the more we will do the will of God and glorify Jesus.
Today, let’s investigate the role of the Holy Spirit in creating the wonderful event we call Christmas, the Birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God into human flesh. The Holy Spirit played a key role in the events of leading up the Christ’s birth.
Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.
Note that the Holy Spirit was filling the body of John even in the womb. Let no one ever say that an unborn baby is not a full-person deserving all the protections of any person. God saw fetus John as a person who needed to be filled with His Presence.
16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
John had a high calling. No one else had it. He was to prepare Israel for the three year public ministry of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was sent into the womb of Elizabeth by the Father and Jesus to make sure John was spiritually ready to fulfill His calling. Jesus’ Birth Foretold: Luke 1:26
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 3
0 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 3
3 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.
Now John 3:16 says God the Father sent Jesus to save us, but it is the Holy Spirit Who makes Mary pregnant with Jesus—not the Father. Just in in creation of the world that Gen. 1:1 records:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters…
God the Father commanded a world to be born and the Holy Spirit was hovering over the water world of earth like a hen over an egg that needs to hatch— seemingly to birth the lands of the world and the creatures of the world. Here in Luke’s Gospel, God the Father commands that Jesus be born of Mary and the Holy Spirit empowers the birth by “overshadowing” Mary and making her pregnant with the DNA of the Father.
The Holy Spirit & John’s Family: Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy (filled with Spirit?).
Look how the Holy Spirit used Elizabeth to encourage this teenage girl carrying a child that most people would think was conceived out of wedlock. She was probably dreading what her family and neighbors would say as they noticed her belly getting bigger with child. So, the Holy Spirit lifts her spirits by this amazing prophetic word from Elizabeth. No wonder Mary stayed there three months while Elizabeth finished her pregnancy. Three months with this Spirit-filled woman and her Spirit-filled unborn baby strengthened Mary as she returned to her town of Nazareth. At 3-4 months of pregnancy, she would be showing. Now the gossip would really start. But Mary was ready now to face it after the ministry of the Spirit through Elizabeth. After John is born, his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:67) and prophesied, saying:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways… (Luke 1:76)
That is only part of one of most beautiful Messianic prophecies in the Bible—from the mouth of someone whom God struck dumb due to his sin of unbelief nine months earlier. This story about Zacharias reminds us that the Holy Spirit refines and corrects us, and ultimately uses us in spite of our failures and weaknesses. We must never grow weary of God’s discipline—because in the end, we will emerge with a message from Him.
And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel.(Luke: 1:80)
Why Were John & His Parent Filled with the Holy Spirit?
Can you imagine the bittersweet joy of old parents raising an active child? By filling them with Himself, the Holy Spirit comforted and strengthened John and his parents for the unusual and difficult life ahead for all of them. The Spirit also began to disciple John even in the womb for the gigantic role he was to play in revealing the Messiah Jesus to the world. God wanted every Jew to be ready to receive Jesus the Messiah so He commissioned John to get them ready by his prophetic preaching. The Holy Spirit did that for baby Jesus. What ramifications does this have for us as parents and the work of the Spirit in the lives of our children?
Conclusion & Applications
At Christmas each year, all Christians celebrate the time when God the Holy Spirit and an illiterate teenage girl formed a partnership that produced the Savior of the world, Jesus the Messiah. That partnership has not only allowed us to become children of God but it has become a model for all of us now who follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit made Mary pregnant with Jesus. The Holy Spirit wants to make us “pregnant” with the life, character and power of Jesus in our daily lives to others can know Jesus, too. So what is the Holy Spirit wanting to partner with you in this Christmas season and beyond?
Learn about the power of the Holy Spirit in spiritual preparation for Christmas with: The Spirit-Filled Life small group Bible study. Discover how the Facilitator is Emmanuel–God With Us and has already empowered you to bear Christ into the world.
In his excellent book, The Mystery of Children, Mike Mason reminds us that “Jesus wants us to become like children because our spirits lived closest to the surface during our childhood. In childhood our hearts are the most transparent, most vulnerable, most malleable.”
He goes on to say: “Growing up usually means covering up our spirit more and more with flesh. God wants us to become the person we really are inside, the person we were born to be. Becoming childlike involves peeling away the masks to get back to the real, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed face beneath.”
When we’re born, God makes us totally dependent on parents or caregivers for the first five years of our lives. Our parents become like gods to us. In a perfect world, this would be a good thing.
Now, let us paint a scene that happens when a child reaches five years of age. The child goes up to his mom and dad and asks, “Mommy and Daddy, what is God like?” (Even if this question never gets voiced aloud, the child’s spirit will ask it and draw its own conclusions.)
The parents might look at their child and say, “You know, God is a lot like us—he is loving and kind and patient. He is proud of you and is always there when you need him. You are a treasure to him and he loves you no matter what. He likes to spend time with you and he sings a special song over you at night that is just for you. And out of his love, he disciplines you to help you grow.”
Imagine the wide-eyed child who hears these words from his mom and dad. Wow! This is great news, almost too good to be true. With parents like these, can you see how easy the transition would be to how that child sees Father God?
It is a daunting responsibility to know that we mirror God to a child. This means we will need to depend on God a lot (and that is what He wants).
The biggest influence on how a person sees God often is not their knowledge of the Scriptures. Often it is the representation—or misrepresentation—of God which that person saw mirrored by their parents.
We can’t begin to count the number of people who have told us, “I know in my head that God loves me, but I don’t feel it in my heart.” This is the great disconnect that the Father wants to deal with in each one of us.
One pastor, after counseling with us for a week, vulnerably shared in his Sunday message that even though he knew God loved him, for the first time he experienced a profound revelation of “Jesus loves me, this I know” deep within his heart. Wow! To say he was transformed by this experience doesn’t do it justice.
This is the Father’s really, r-e-a-l-l-y good news in action.
Jerry and Denise Basel are the founders of The Father’s Heart Intensive Christian Counseling Ministry, www.fathersheart.com, and authors of the acclaimed book, The Missing Commandment: Loving Yourself (Expanded Edition), www.jerryanddenisebasel.com.
We’ve all fallen into bed at night, so exhausted from the day’s activities that we dose off mid-prayer. Mornings too can be a flurry of activities as we prepare our children for school, catch the morning traffic report and weather, and mentally rehearse for the work day ahead. Not surprisingly, a rich spiritual life comes by taming the uncooperative and easily distracted flesh. We must make an act of the will to embrace the self-discipline of prayer. The structure of a daily devotional has helped me to focus and dedicate a set amount of time to scripture reading and prayer. The following are threebenefits that have enriched my life since I began this practice.
Thinking Deeply: The best devotionals ask questions and have opportunities for journaling. They ask me to examine my behaviors in light of the scripture passage. Sometimes I realize that I have neglected people or areas of my life that need my attention. Hebrews 4:12, reminds me that being immersed in God’s word is not for sissies. His word holds up a mirror to our sinfulness. Not in a hell fire and brimstone rulesy sort of way, but in a “I want to love you deeply and be beautiful for you” way.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
God’s word is alive because it keeps teaching me and reminding me of his promises. No matter how much I study the Bible, he never ceases to amaze me with some new insight into his wisdom and truth. Two thousand years having passed doesn’t negate the relevance of his plan for my 21st century life. That alone, is worth waking up to discover.
A Closer Walk: The beautiful old hymn about a closer walk with thee, sums up what a life of faith should be. I daily look to the Lord for strength, as well as guidance. To begin my devotional, I take a moment to examine my day and all the people or situations I encountered. I ask myself, did I love, did I forgive, did I support, and when necessary, did I let go? I ask God for forgiveness when I didn’t and vow to make things right as much as I can. In the same way at the end of my devotional, as I prepare for the morning I think about what are my priorities? Does my ‘to do’ list reflect those priorities? I have yet to have one single day where I behaved with perfection. As a matter of fact, I’m still figuring out what perfection is, however, if I boast of my weakness, I trust in Paul’s words that God’s power will be made perfect in it. (2 Cor. 12:19).
Quiet: We are bombarded by input day in and day out: 24/7 news, radio, Facebook, text messages, Instagram, work, customers, emails, idle chatter, and noise. When do we turn it off? Once you begin taking time for devotionals and incorporating quiet meditation, you will crave this daily oasis of silence. Sometime I just sit in God’s presence without saying a word. Kind of like “Son-bathing,” I just soak in his presence. Occasionally, he talks to me, sometimes I just feel his peace and know that everything is going to be okay.
The more time we spend with the Lord, the more we become like him. When we know God’s peace, our own being can radiate God’s presence into a chaotic, broken world.
What if the difference between success and failure lies in the few steps between the sanctuary and the lobby? That’s what I witnessed about a year ago. The much beloved founding pastor of a multi-site, megachurch invited his congregation to open their homes and invite their friends to join them for a six week study the church had produced. The curriculum was awesome. The pastor did the teaching. The topic was relevant. It was a sure thing, but don’t be so sure.
At the close of the service, the pastor made an impassioned appeal for his members to take the next step and start their own group. But, it wasn’t just one next step, it was 20-30 next steps out to the lobby. That evening a crowd of 1,000 adults netted 18 groups. All of our hearts sank.
The pastor had said the right words. He was presenting the right offering at the right time. The church was familiar with small groups. Why the poor result?
Over the years, I’ve seen great messaging become ineffective simply by the distance between the invitation and the response. The best curriculum, the strongest leadership or even the most carefully crafted appeal can all unravel in a matter of minutes if the wrong step is given in recruiting group leaders. A few simple nuances can net a profound effect.
At that church, we made a quick change. Rather than prospective group hosts responding by signing up in the church lobby after the service, the new next step involved no steps at all. The response was simply to take out a card and sign up right there in the service. The cards were collected at the end of the service. The result went from 18 groups to 248 groups in less than 24 hours. The final result over the next three weeks was 1,100 new groups across all of their campuses.
I am convinced most people only think about church when they are sitting in church. Any effort to send people to the lobby or God forbid send them home to sign up on a website simply does not work. By the time well intended church members hit the threshold on Sunday morning, their stomachs have raced to lunch and their minds have raced to evacuating the premises as soon as possible. The moment has gone.
The closer you connect the invitation to the response, the better the response. If the invitation is made in a service, then collect the response in a service. If the same invitation is made by a video email at midweek, then collect the response in the email. By simply providing a link in the email, a willing member can click the link and sign up to start a group right on the spot.
In a perfect world, church members would go home, login to the church’s website, and sign up electronically. No fuss. No sign up cards. No data entry. Simple. That world does not exist. To send someone from the service to the lobby or to their computer to sign up is equal to making no invitation at all. The reverse is also true. To send an email midweek asking for a response the following Sunday is just wasted megabits.
Think like the people who sit in your rows.
What’s available to them in their row?
Is there a response card or do you create a card?
Do they have a pen?
Who will collect the cards? Are they placed in the offering, collected at the end of the service, or handed to an usher on the way out?
Maybe pen and paper doesn’t cut it. What else do they have? What about their cellphones? Can they send a text to a designated number (not yours!)?
When you send an email invitaiton, can they fill out a survey or a web form?
Missed opportunities occur when you can’t adequately collect the response. These thoughts may seem elementary. They may seem unnecessary. You may feel you are getting a good enough result from how your collecting responses now. Or are you?
Allen White has devoted the last 25+ years to helping people find Christ, make meaningful connections, grow in their faith, and find fulfillment in ministry. He has successfully launched hundreds of groups as an Associate Pastor. Additionally, he works with Brett Eastman and Lifetogether, coaching hundreds of churches of all sizes and denominations over the last 10 years. He has a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Missions and a M.Div.in Christian Education. He and his family live in Greenville, SC.
We’ve talked many times about assumptions. If you’ve been along for much of this adventure, you’ve probably read more than your share of articles on assumptions. If the idea of assumptions is unfamiliar to you, I’ve linked to a few of my favorites below.
I’m thinking about my assumptions about small group ministry today because of a question a reader asked me recently. Their question was so obviously the wrong question that it caused to me to wonder why in the world they are doing what they’re doing.
You can ask the wrong question, you know. Albert Einstein famously said,
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
Identifying the right question is a critical skill. And that caused me to reflect on my assumptions.
Here is a list of my assumptions (about small group ministry):
1. There is no problem-free solution.
Early on I looked for problem-free strategies. Eventually I realized there are no problem-free strategies. Every strategy, system and model comes with a unique set of problems. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have. See also, The Pursuit of Problem-Free.
2. Unconnected people are one tough thing away from not being at our church.
Every delay at connecting them puts many of them in jeopardy. Putting off the connecting opportunity in order to line up some timing issue increases the likelihood that for certain unconnected people the window will close. See also,What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?
3. The optimal environment for life-change is a small group.
9. Whatever we want the members of a group to experience, the leader has to experience first.
This makes coaching or mentoring an essential ingredient for any small group strategy. Coaching is only initially about teaching technique. It is primarily about doing TO and FOR the leaders whatever you want the leaders to do TO and FOR their members. See also, The End in Mind for an Effective Coaching Structure.
10. Prioritizing the launch of new groups connects the largest number of unconnected people.
What question was so obviously the wrong question?
The essence of the question was, “Have you written anything on how to best connect people with (existing) leaders? One of my greatest issues right now is connecting people on a Sunday with (existing) leaders.”
What makes that the wrong question? Easy. Emphasizing connecting unconnected people with existing leaders (who already have groups), leads to connecting the fewest unconnected people. Prioritizing the launch of new groups (via a small group connection, GroupLink, etc.) leads to the connecting the largest number of unconnected people.
Mark is the Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. He’s also the founder of SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services that help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries.
BEST PRACTICES: “A procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.” Webster
You can learn a lot by studying the best practices of thriving small group ministries. You can improve your results by adopting the best practices of thriving small group ministries. Occasionally, you can improve your results by adapting the best practices of thriving small group ministries to fit your context. I say occasionally because adapting most commonly strips away the design elements that produce the results you hope to attain.
Note: In the spirit of “there’s an upside and a downside to everything,” you will never produce break-the-mold innovation by emulating perfectly a best practice.
5 of the best practices of thriving small group ministries:
The senior pastor is the champion.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn this. It is just the way it is. There is a reason the two most thriving small group ministries are Saddleback and North Point. Rick Warren and Andy Stanley figured out a long time ago that people do what the most influential person in the organization promotes.
Another important element of this best practice? The average attenders of Saddleback and North Point couldn’t pick Steve Gladen and Bill Willits out of a line-up because they lead their small group ministries from behind the scenes. Small group leaders and coaches know them. But the public face of the small group ministry is the senior pastor.
Think about it: Is your senior pastor the champion? Or does someone else play that role?
Thriving small group ministries are promoted year-round
Do you have an annual small group push? Maybe at the end of September? Or in early January? You need to know that thriving small group ministries are year-round endeavors. They are promoted 52 weeks a year. There may be times of greater emphasis, but highlighting group engagement is never out of season.
Thriving small group ministries are always looking ahead to the next opportunity to connect to a group. They are also highlighted year-round in the language of message illustrations and stories of life-change.
Churches with thriving small group ministries rarely miss the opportunity to reference the prominent role of small groups in their strategy. Don’t believe me? Try listening for the drumbeat in a North Point or Saddleback weekend service.
Think about it: Does your church promote small groups year-round? Or is there a groups campaign every year?
Churches with thriving small group ministries ministries clarify what is most important
They may have more on their menu than small groups, but there is no mystery or confusion about what is most important. If you have any doubt, a quick look at the websites of churches with thriving small group ministries will confirm this. A look at their weekend service program and verbiage from the stage will provide conclusive evidence.
Emphasizing the importance and priority of small groups forces deemphasis of anything and everything else (that might cause confusion about first steps or next steps.
“Should I do this? Or this?” is an uncommon question in churches with thriving small group ministries.
Think about it: How clear is the importance and priority of small groups in your church?
Thriving small group ministries are budget priorities
Want to build a thriving small group ministry? Take a look at your church’s general budget. Can you tell from the budget that small group ministry is important?
The budgets of churches with thriving small group ministries are powerful indicators. And it is very important to note that their small group ministry budget explains their results (as opposed to their results being rewarded with budget increases).
Think about it: Does your staffing structure (which is a function of the budget) indicate that small group ministry is important? Or does your staffing structure indicate something else is really more important?
Does your website indicate small group ministry is important? Is it easy to find out about the next connecting opportunity or learn about small group involvement?
Does your on-campus promotion (signage, kiosk, welcome center, first step experience, etc.) indicate small group ministry is important? Is it clear to unconnected attenders?
Does your facility reservation and availability indicate small group ministry is important?
Thriving small group ministries deliver a robust experience
Getting connected and doing life together may be the beginning, but it is not the destination. Making better disciples, life-change, becoming like Jesus, doing what Jesus would do, is the end in mind.
Thriving small group ministries deliver a robust experience. Far beyond closing the back door, small groups are designed to help group members become steadily more like Jesus, experiencing (and practicing) the one-anothers as a way of life.
Think about it: Do examples of groups that “get it” stand out? Are they commonplace (happening all the time)? Or extraordinary (the rare, out-of-the-ordinary group)?
Mark is the Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. He’s also the founder of SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services that help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries.
Teachers can listen to Bible Background’s from each week’s Hearts Alive Sunday School lesson, even in the car. Below is a link that will be updated on Wednesdays for the following Sunday’s lesson. Enjoy!
Children, like adults, are spiritually formed in their day-to-day comings and goings, as they play, learn, and grow. We are formed by what we do and what we love. What a parent does at home will have much greater and lasting impact than what we can hope to accomplish in a one hour Sunday morning class. As those who love and work with children, we can each share our own stories of joy and sadness over the ways we have witnessed the shaping power of the home in the lives of our own families and of the children in our ministries. Most Children’s Ministers, agree– if the parents aren’t on your team, your ability to impact the life of the child is going to be limited. What are practical ways that we can include, and engage parents in the work of discipleship, both for the sake of their child’s spiritual formation and their own?
We must continually place before parents a vision of the great responsibility and privilege that the discipleship of our families is.Those of us who have had small children at home can remember what it is like to be overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks and unexpected circumstances that come along with raising a family. Throw in a job or two, schooling, and a few other commitments, and “church” can quickly become another item on a checklist of “Things Good Parents Do.” What are some practical ways to vision cast?
Communicate to the parents how your programming is designed to support or enhance what they are doing at home. When we came into our new position, we sat down and thought about how each element of our ministry fit together to serve, support or resource parents and families. If it didn’t, we have changed it, or are in the process of changing it so that all that we do can be maximized by parents for the discipleship of their children.
Foster places (shared meals, online communities, playgroups, etc.) where stories can be shared of how parents are seeing God at work in their homes and in the lives of their children. When you hear a story like this from a parent in your ministry, celebrate with them and then provide a space for sharing with the community.
Work with other staff and pastors to come up with a plan for how spiritual formation can happen at your church. Some churches organize this by grades or ages while others organize it by life events or milestones such as baptism, confirmation, beginning school, etc. Let parents in on what your thought process is so that they can play off the structure you are using as they plan for discipleship in their home.
Take the Pulse Consistently
I still remember the first few weeks after we brought our first child home from the hospital. Just as I was feeling like I had gotten the hang of things, something would change–she would sleep a longer or shorter stretch, need to eat more or less than before, all because she had reached a new milestone. With the transitional nature of parenting, the needs, struggles, and joys will be different for each family– month by month and year by year. How are you keeping tabs on the families in your congregation to ensure that they are encouraged, equipped, and prepared for the next bend in the road?
Home Visits— While possibly not practical at extremely large churches, my husband and I have found home visits to be foundational to the ministry we do with families in our church. Our goal is to visit each family in our congregation once every 1.5 years. These visits provide space to connect, to see how discipleship is working in the varying contexts within our faith community, and to listen to the struggles, joys, and needs of the people we are serving.
Parenting Mentors. Some churches pair more experienced parents with younger parents for a mentoring relationship. This provides an opportunity for life-on-life encouragement and equipping, as well as decentralizing the work from just the staff.
Surveys: Either on-line or in person, keep asking what families need.
As a Children’s Minister, I have found that I am often “in the right place at the right time” as it relates to children and the resources available to parents who are seeking to disciple their children faithfully. In fact, many companies will send us free copies or samples of resources simply because of our job title. My husband and I see it as an important part of our role to vet these resources and to pass the quality ones along to the families in our congregation. There are so many more high-quality resources available to parents and families than there were even just 5 years ago. How do you connect parents with these resources?
Start a well-curated resource library: With the shuttering of many brick and mortar Christian bookstores, it can be difficult to evaluate and choose resources without being able to hold them and flip through the pages. By using free samples and purchasing used books from Amazon, we started our own library. Parents at our church are able to check out books and other resources before purchasing.
Introduce resources to children during programming as appropriate. Our family loves the Sing the Bible with Slugs & Bugs CD’s. Every single one of us. My not-yet-two-year-old will call out the refrains of songs from the backseat as she hears the first notes coming through the minivan speakers. When I discovered that few people in our church were familiar with Slugs & Bugs, I looked into booking a concert and purchased all the CD’s for our children’s ministry. We then made Slugs & Bugs the soundtrack of our Summer Sunday School and our Summer Kids Club (VBS). At the end of the summer, we had Randall Goodgame come for a Slugs & Bugs Sing the Bible Live! Concert. By then, the kids who regularly attend Sunday School were superfans. More than just passing on a great resource, this thrills me because many of Randall’s songs are just straight Scripture. In our children’s ministry, we have memorized well over 10 verses this Summer, just by singing. Knowing that those children have the very words of God deep in their hearts is beautiful and life-giving and makes those challenging weeks seem worth it.
Book Clubs- Select a small number of books or other resources and invite people to sign up for parenting or family “resource clubs” for feedback. Depending on the resource, families can get together to analyze, troubleshoot, rejoice, and encourage along the way.
To be honest, this is the area where I struggle the most. I highly value communicating with parents, but I am also tired and often fall short of my grandest plans for excellent parental communication. I would love to hear what it looks like for you to communicate clearly with the families in your church regarding the material and experiences their children are having. All too often I fear my “take home sheet” is trampled on the floor before a parent ever lays eyes on it.
Plan ahead— Planning ahead allows you time to communicate events, programs, and even curriculum to parents in a way that respects their time while also giving them the chance to make parenting within the context of the local church a priority.
A communication survey: ask parents how they would most like to receive information, how often, and what kinds of things they want to know. And the dreaded question “How do I keep those papers from ending up on the floor?”
Follow Through With Action
Obviously, communicating with parents in a culture where all of us are overworking and under sabbathing is difficult. It takes counter cultural persistence and effort. But the responsibility we have to children and families to faithfully serve, equip, and walk alongside them in the journey of discipleship is well worth the effort. How do you keep families in the loop? What are you planning to try after reading this article? Are any ideas stirring in you?
Lindsey is a Hearts Alive writer and curriculum specialist. She and her husband are the Children’s Directors for First Presbyterian Church of Aurora, IL.
We asked this question to our Hearts Alive writing team. Their answers inspired and amazed us. We hope that their testimonies remind you of the awesome responsibility we all have as Children’s Directors and Sunday School teachers. Thank you to David Sanford for sharing his story with us today.
Q: Did you have a relationship with Jesus as a child?
A: Unlike most other Hearts Alive writers, I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. Just the opposite. My father is still an atheist. His lectures were always the same: “There are no rules. Don’t obey anyone. Don’t even obey me.” When I fully committed my life to Jesus Christ at age 13, however, I found out my family had a rule: You can’t be a Christian. So, I was kicked out of my dad’s side of the family for 37 years. It was pretty surreal.
Then again, I was old enough to vividly remember reading the Bible cover to cover the first time. Imagine not knowing even the most famous Scripture stories. When I got to the beginning of Genesis 45, I wept at Joseph’s heartfelt love for and forgiveness of his brothers. When I got to the story of David and Goliath, I cheered. When I got to the story of David and Bathsheba, I felt so ashamed to bear his name. When I got to the end of Revelation, I put my Bible down and thought, Wow, I didn’t get all of that. So, I picked it back up and started over. Nobody had told me to read only three Bible chapters a day, so I read it cover to cover in as fast as 27 days. Except for one stretch, I’ve continued reading it avidly all of these years.
Q: How did that affect your childhood or teen years?
A: Coming to faith in Jesus Christ changed the whole trajectory of my life. I have a lot of cousins about my age. So, I know how my life would have turned out without Christ. Thankfully, the Lord has won one family member after another to Himself. I only wish we all would have done so as children.
Q: How did you get to know Jesus?
A: A friend in my neighborhood invited me to attend his Sunday school class. He stopped going after a while, but I’ve been in the church ever since. That’s the difference between hearing the truth and really listening to it. That’s why I’m so jazzed about the Hearts Alive curriculum. It brings Scripture stories to life for children. And not just as great literature, but as life-changing gospel truth. One of our core objectives is to see children fall in love with Jesus. I’m so thankful for Mrs. Rosemary Phillips, my first Sunday school teacher, who helped me do just that. Again, it literally changed the whole trajectory of my life.
A Children’s Director’s Guide to Recruiting and Maintaining Sunday School Teachers
By: Deborah Bell Rodahaffer
Eighteen years as a Director of Christian of Education, mentoring Christian educators, and today, as Minister for Parish Life, have taught me that recruiting Sunday School teachers and all who serve should begin in prayer. I pray that God will send me the right person for the position. When a candidate does come my way, I ask that person to pray about his or her commitment to this ministry.
Some Children’s Ministries put a notice in their church bulletin to recruit teachers. However, I have found that “scouting” for teachers has worked in my ministry. What I mean by this, is I observe prospective candidates for several weeks and see how they interact with children and adults. If they have good people skills and a servant’s heart, I invite them to serve. I prefer candidates who have been active in the church for at least a year. Think outside of the box when looking for teachers. Some of the best Sunday School teachers I know are lawyers, artists, gardeners, librarians, college-aged parishioners, and dads.
I find that a one on one meeting in one of the church meeting rooms is the best environment for both you and the candidate to discern if this is the ministry for them. Here is a guideline for what I cover.
Offer a written job description outlining expectations including time commitment and go over each point with candidate allowing ample time for questions.
Always use the word ministry rather than volunteer. Leading children to love and know God may be the most important ministry of your candidates’ lives.
Acknowledge that you value this candidate’s ministry before it even begins because you entrust the candidate by offering a sacred responsibility in leading children.
Be clear about YOUR role in his/her ministry. (You will provide training, curriculum, materials needed each week, advocacy, and on-going support.)
Have sample curricula available to look at together and send home with candidate.
Tour the Sunday School room where the candidate will teach/lead.
Candidates may be reluctant to accept position because they do not feel “qualified”. Remind candidates that with God’s help everything is possible and that you prayerfully considered the candidate for the position before you approached them. Together you will make the experience of teaching young children exceptional for students and teachers. Accept the candidate’s “yes” or “no” response with love knowing that you both entered this process of teaching/leading children through the power of prayer and through that, the decision will be the right one for both of you.
PARENTS AS SUPPORT
Do not ask a parent to teach in his or her child’s class. Unless a mom or dad of young children has a real desire to teach, allow them to be involved in other church ministries until their children are older. Do encourage parents to be part of a Sunday School support ministry that can help you outside of the classroom. This team is vital in helping purchase supplies, pre-prepare arts and crafts activities, providing snacks, and hosting events for teachers.
Maintaining and helping your teachers to grow in their ministry is as important as finding the right people to teach. The following ideas may work in your ministry, they worked in mine:
Regular training sessions with all teachers (with lunch, dinner, or dessert is best) Have frequent discussions about their teaching including all questions they have about lesson plans, scripture readings, etc. Send them articles or recommend books that will help them in their ministry.
Immediately respond to any situations involving children or guardians where you need to take the lead.
Make quick weekly check-ins with teachers by email or text (What was best about your Sunday? Any concerns about students, family members? How is your week going?)
Create an environment where teachers have a minimal amount of prep work. Make sure that you or your support team have decorated, cleaned, set-up classrooms each week. Crafts and activities along with a prepared snack should be ready to go. Have “restroom runners” so that teachers do not need to stop classes in progress (reminder – bathroom doors should be propped open when children are in the restroom). Teachers should be able to focus on teaching and being present to the children.
Encourage the faith life of your teachers with opportunities for bible study and retreats. Take a personal interest in them and make it a habit to pray for and with them.
Help teachers to focus. Remind teachers that teaching younger children needs to be fun. When children have fun, they will want to be present and they will retain more of what they learn. What is most important about Sunday School with younger children is that the children feel safe, feel valued, and know that God loves them.
It is important to commission church school teachers in front of the congregation the Sunday before or the Sunday church school begins. The Rector/Minister and Christian Formation Director should participate in the Commissioning. As teachers we are evangelizers and this critical role should be elevated. Other means of recognizing teachers is by highlighting their ministry with bulletin board displays with photos and short bios (include comments from children and parents) or including them in newsletters that go out to the congregation.
Send notes or cards to your teachers (birthdays, anniversary of teaching start date) or small gifts from time to time. Say “thank you” every chance you have because that is the best way to honor anyone’s ministry.
Debbi Rodahaffer served as Director of Christian Formation for children, youth, and adults at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Louisville, KY, for eighteen years. She currently serves as Minister for Parish Life at The Episcopal Church of the Advent, Louisville. During her twenty years in lay ministry, Debbi served as president of Forma: the network for Christian Formation, and as a three-time deputy to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. In the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, she served as chair of the Christian Formation Ministry, on All Saints’ Conference Center board, on the Standing Committee, and on The Commission of Ministry. Debbi currently serves on Kanuga Conference Center’s Christian Formation Conference Planning Team and hopes to have an opportunity to talk with you about all things formation and hospitality next June 2019 at Kanuga, Hendersonville, NC.
Of all the Scriptures, some of the most profound talk about coming to God like a little child. No matter how old we get, the Father still refers to us as children. He adopts us as His own, and even if we surrender our lives to God at seventy years of age, we still come as a child. After all, in our culture we adopt children—not adults—and that’s how it is with God.
Jesus was very clear on His position regarding children and the kingdom of God. Mark 10:13–16 tells us: “The people brought children to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus was irate and let them know it: ‘Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.’ Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.”
You can almost see Jesus hold the little ones in His arms, place His hand on the head of each child, and bless each one. Notice they have done nothing to earn His love.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus said He did only what His Father was doing (John 5:19). Furthermore, Jesus said that when we see Him, we see the Father (John 14:9). So when Jesus says come to God like a little child, that’s exactly what we want to do! There is no virtue in being childish, but we should never outgrow our childlikeness.
As His child, God first wants us to be vulnerable, in a position of recognizing our need for His care and protection.
Second, God wants us as His children to trust Him—to trust that He made us, knows us, loves us, is with us, and enjoys us.
Third, God wants us to remember no child is fully developed —let alone perfect. As children of God, we are always in a process of growth, which our Father understands and accepts.
Fourth, God made us to be dependent on Him, with needs such as love, affection, acceptance, and a sense of belonging. God highly esteems dependence as a characteristic of our ongoing condition and position with Him. We never outgrow our need to lean on Him, to be weak so that He can be strong on our behalf.
Fifth, children are valuable, unique, and special to God Himself. He planned for us from the beginning and knit us together in our mother’s womb. There has never been and will never be another person like you or like me.
This last point speaks to the fact God has a specific purpose in mind for you and me. By inviting others to become children of God, we certainly fulfill that purpose and bring much glory to His name.
Jerry and Denise Basel are the founders of The Father’s Heart Intensive Christian Counseling Ministry, www.fathersheart.com, and authors of the acclaimed book, The Missing Commandment: Loving Yourself (Expanded Edition), www.jerryanddenisebasel.com.
By Hearts Alive! contributing writer Michelle Van Loon
Our world at times is coarse, confusing, terrifying, and dangerous. (It is also beautiful.) Most of us feel powerless when we read the headlines or watch the news. Too often, our lives and communities are affected by decisions made somewhere else by people we’ve never met. There are wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, and the simmering uncertainty of when a radicalized, bomb-wearing individual might decide to detonate themselves in the middle of a sporting event.
I recognize the yearning to escape from it all. The desire to protect our children amplifies those concerns. I’ve felt the longing to shield my kids and to hide my family from the big, bad world. Our responsibility as parents is to do all we can to protect our kids from harm as we seek to disciple them in the way of Jesus. Love for them and for the One who gave them to us compels us to do both.
Not long ago, I ran into Annie. We had both home schooled our kids during the 1990’s, sharing enrichment classes, field trips, and curriculum tips as we journeyed together. At our recent reunion, we traded notes about what our adult children were doing. She observed that few of the kids we knew back in the day were coloring in the lines their parents had drawn for them when they were young. A fair percentage of them had chosen to pursue a different lifestyle or partner than their parents planned for them. Some were no longer walking with Christ. With great sadness, Annie told me she’d assumed homeschooling would give her a button she could push in her children’s lives to ensure they’d always stay on the straight and narrow. As they’d become adults and begun making their own decisions, she was shocked to discover there was no button.
Jesus chastised the Pharisees for building their lives around the idea of a button—a formula that would guarantee a happy outcome. There is nothing new under the sun. Whether it’s a strict lifestyle designed to keep the world at bay or innocuous- sounding messages or books that promise “Seven Steps to a Happy Marriage” or “How You Can Have a Winning Family,” the notion of a formula is a lure for most of us. Our formulas reflect a sense that a God-honoring life will require extra effort.
But these “outside in” remedies fall short of God’s purpose for us. There are no shortcuts, or sure-fire guarantees. He desires us to be holy, and that process can only happen from the inside out—in each one of us as individuals, and among all of us who are walking the narrow road with Jesus day by day.
Born to Wander will be available on July 3. You can order here.
Before he dies, Moses speaks to the people of God gathered in the wilderness. It’s been 40 years since they rebelled against God, and most of the generation that disobeyed has given up the ghost.
And yet, when Moses speaks to God’s people, he recounts the stories of their rebellion and wandering in the wilderness as though they actually had been there. Perhaps one of the places we see this most clearly is in Deuteronomy 5:3-4:
“The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire…”
In Reformed traditions, when we baptize infants, we are marking them as a part of the people of God before they have the ability to make that choice for themselves. Indeed, we baptize them because we believe that they don’t make that choice for themselves; God is the one who has moved towards them in grace. I love that the baptismal liturgy we use at our church rehearses the whole gospel, prefaced with the words, “For you, little child.”
Other traditions have a similar aim in mind when they dedicate babies—they are saying to a family and to a child, “We are here for you, praying for you as you grow, and your story is bigger than you are.”
Let’s explore four principles for parents, children’s ministers, and those who worship in communities of faith with children as we seek to help children grow up into this identity as part of God’s people, as participants in what Michael Goheen calls “The True Story of the Whole World.”
We teach the Bible as one big story.
How can a child see herself as a part of God’s story if she doesn’t know it? As those who love, serve, and parent children, we must faithfully work to build Bible literacy in the children we shepherd. This includes teaching specific stories from the Bible, certainly, but it also includes connecting each of those stories to the bigger story. Children’s Ministers and Sunday School teachers do well to find curriculum that is gospel-centered, that helps teachers and parents point to Jesus in every story and strive for God-centered biblical application, rather than distilling each passage to a few moralistic talking points.
We regard them as a part of God’s people now
It seems straightforward, but we help children grow up understanding themselves as a part of God’s people when we treat them like a part of God’s people. When we make space for them to serve, and give, and participate alongside the rest of God’s people in the work of the people, we help children understand that they belong to the people of God now. In our church, each time we take the eucharist, the children are welcomed forward with the rest of the congregation to receive a blessing. No matter how shy my daughters seem at that moment, the wonder in their eyes gives away the profound impact the simple act of having a cross traced on their forehead and words of blessing spoken over them. It is an act and experience that they carry with them into their playtime throughout the week. Such a welcome opens a child’s eyes to the possibility that she could even see herself in the greatest story of all time.
We preach the gospel to one another in our households.
Once, I was in a group of church leaders when someone pointed out that I continually brought up the gospel. This was profoundly encouraging to me as someone who misunderstood the gospel for many years, to have come to a place where it so resonated in my heart that it came out my mouth frequently enough that someone else commented on it. This should be what our households are like—gospel-saturated places where every member of the household daily lives in and drinks in the Gospel. As adults, we must pray and train our eyes by regular study of the Word of God to see the gospel played out around us. As we do this, we must grow daily in our ability to recognize the movements of the grand narrative of the gospel (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) in our day-to-day lives and point them out to our children and the young people around us. When we do this, we help the young people among us to see God’s story in real-time; we give them the wonderful gift of understanding that the greatest story of all the world is still being told. And it involves them.
We invest in intergenerational relationships.
One of the key factors that determines whether or not a child will remain faithful to the Lord as they grow into adulthood is the presence of quality relationships with adults other than their parents who know and love the Lord. We help children see themselves as a part of God’s big story as they get to know people at different points in their faith journey who can testify to the work of God in the world and in their lives. These kind of relationships take intentional work, but the payout is worth the work. In her book Children Matter, Scottie May writes that the simple but intentional act of looking into a child’s eyes and saying, “I’m glad you’re here today.” is a great investment in the sorts of relationships that will form a child’s identity as one of God’s people.
Any parent, aunt, uncle, friend, teacher, or grandparent who has had a child approach them with an armload of books can testify that children naturally love story. As those who love and serve children, then, let’s make it our aim to lovingly and graciously teach children the Word of God, by which they may come to know him and to see themselves as a part of his wonderfully big story.
I had the privilege of interviewing a fairly large group of third to sixth graders at my church. Each child sat on a “hot seat” and answered five questions. The first four answers were easy: name, grade, number of siblings, and how many years they’ve gone to church.
The final answer was a little tougher: talk about when it’s hard for you to trust God. I was amazed at their responses. First, they had a much shorter list of reasons than adults usually do. Second, several of the children honestly and sincerely told me, “It’s always been easy for me to trust God.” You should have seen the smiles on their faces.
What could possibly ruin such wonderful, child-like trust in God?
Sadly, it’s very possible for a child to grow up in a faith community, learn lots of Bible stories, sing lots of songs, memorize plenty of Scripture verses, say all the right things, look good—very good—and yet lose his or her faith.
Sometimes, it’s the individual’s own choice.
Sometimes, however, it’s because of the sinful, terrible choices of adults the child should have been able to trust.
Scripture couldn’t be clearer that anyone who repeatedly or severely harms a boy or girl or young adult by sinning against them—physically, psychologically, socially, sexually, or spiritually—is in grave danger of God’s judgment. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 18, verses 5 and 6.
Anyone who welcomes a little child like this one in my name welcomes me. What if someone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin? If they do, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be drowned at the bottom of the sea. (NIRV)
Believe me, ancient Jewish men feared drowning above all else. Even experienced fishermen like Peter and Andrew, James and John, were scared to death of drowning. Sure, some like Peter could swim, but that wasn’t a given. There certainly was no Michael ben Phelps back then. Even if there were, imagine a judge ordering a crew of Roman sailors to take you 10 miles out into the Mediterranean Sea, tie a 100-pound milestone around your neck, and send you to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker.
Peter and his fellow disciples shuddered at the thought. It should make us shudder too. Why? Because Jesus warns each and every one of us that such a fate would be much better than causing a child to lose his or her faith in Jesus Christ.
The point Jesus is making is crystal clear: Don’t let your attitudes, your words, and/or your actions soil or steal the God-given faith of a child.
But perhaps Jesus’ warning should also cause us to think of other smaller ways we can cause children to begin to lose faith—by our critical attitudes, hypocrisy, self-centered living—anything that doesn’t truly reflect Christ-like, child-like kingdom living.
I’m not talking about being perfect. Instead, I’m saying that a child’s faith grows, not diminishes, when an adult apologizes to the child for, say, losing his or her temper.
When it comes to sharing the love of Jesus, let’s always make sure it includes children. And then let’s do all we can to guard their trust in Jesus.
The Faith of a Child
Some claim a small child’s belief in God doesn’t really count. But that’s not the case. The apostle Paul could say to Timothy, “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15 NIV).
True, children can’t understand everything they’re taught. So? There is nothing wrong about a child’s inadequate concept of God or of the Christian faith. After all, 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV) says: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” The Bible doesn’t criticize a child’s way of thinking. The One who made us knows us.
“…May God give you ears to hear His loving voice, his loving voice speaking all around you, all around you, and deep inside.”
Every night, a lump forms in my throat and I blink back tears as I finish singing “The Song of Blessing” to my three daughters. It strikes me anew every night that I’m praying that the God of the universe would open the ears of my children to his voice, that they would hear him. As a parent and as a children’s minister I feel very keenly my responsibility to help children learn that God is speaking–by his world, by his Word, by his Spirit– and that they can hear him. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at,” the Lord said to Samuel when he went looking for a King; “people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” And I wonder if a vague memory floated through Samuel’s mind–of a young boy, lying on the temple floor, who heard the voice of God at a time when the word of the Lord was rare. Scripture says that this was before Samuel knew the Lord, and it was Eli who helped Samuel recognize the voice of God. Hebrews 1 tells us that God has spoken, once and for all, by his Son. How are we, as those who love, serve, and worship with children, helping them to listen for God’s voice?
We Let Them Hear God’s Voice in Scripture:
We refuse merely to entertain children when they come to worship with the gathered people of God. Whether we remove them from the worship service or not, our primary aim is not to entertain them or even to teach them character traits or moral values; our goal is to declare God’s word to them. He has promised that his word will not return without accomplishing its purpose. Are we equipping children and giving them the opportunity to hear and to study God’s Word?
We Minister to the Whole Child.
Effective children’s ministry applies the truth of the gospel to situations that matter to children now. By treating children as people who belong in God’s family now, who are being joined to Christ now, and who have the ability to hear God now, we honor the image of God in them, help them to see how the gospel applies to all of life, and train them to listen for God’s voice every moment of every day.
We Show Them Jesus.
I’ve already mentioned the Hebrews passage that reminds us that God has spoken to us by his Son–and what a beautiful, true Word he is! The author of Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. So if we really want to hear God, we listen to Jesus–his words, his silences, who he listened to, and who he loved. The best thing we can do for the children we minister to is to be an arrow that points daily, hourly to the ultimate authority on who God is and what he does– his beautiful Son.
We Create Space for Them.
Children’s ministry programming must offer space for children to hear from God as he speaks to them by his word. We should be wary of always dictating the form a response should take, of minimizing concerns children raise, and of hurrying children along from one activity to the next. Instead, we should create space for children to hear God’s voice in his word and help them to become comfortable resting in that place through prayer, singing, or creating something that helps them give attention to what they have heard. We must provide ways in which they can be reminded of what they have heard throughout the week. (The Live it All Week sheets from Hearts Alive equip parents excellently to create this space in their homes.)
If we hope to raise and to serve children who are aware of God’s voice and listening to it, we must be people who do those things as well. And maybe that’s why I feel the lump form in my throat each night as my heart aches for my children to know the loving voice of God, to be people whose lives say “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Maybe it’s because as I pray this prayer for my children, I’m also praying it for myself.
Lindsey Goetz is a mom to three fierce and lovely daughters, and she and her husband David serve as Directors of Family Discipleship at First Presbyterian Church of Aurora IL, where they are enjoying Hearts Alive with their Sunday School classes. Lindsey and David also host The New City Families Podcast, creating space for conversations about family discipleship, to the glory of God for the good of our city. Lindsey currently loves cold brew coffee, neighborhood walks, and reading to her daughters.
Hearts Alive Writer, Michelle Van Loon is our guest blogger this week. She explains to us the connection between Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Jewish feast of Shavuot.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)
There was context for his words. They were smack-dab in the middle of counting the Omer, numbering in prayer each day between the pilgrim feasts of Passover and Shavuot. Those feasts were two of the three times each year the Chosen People needed to present themselves as one in Jerusalem at the Temple. (The third was the fall feast of Sukkot.) Jesus’ words to them reflected the fact that they were going to be in Jerusalem for the Shavuot. I’ll be covering Shavuot in more detail next month, as it will begin this year at sunset on June 11th.
However, the Western Church will be celebrating the event that happened on the first Shavuot after Jesus’ resurrection this Sunday, May 15th. The Eastern (Orthodox) Church will be marking Pentecost this year on June 19th.
The Jewish festal cycle and the Christian calendar each offer holidays that are meant to serve as an on-ramp into the intersection of time and eternity. These moments and dayspoint us beyond our own everyday agendas and connect us with our place in a bigger, more beautiful story. I’ve been blogging a 5-minute intro to each major holiday and season in both the Hebrew and Christian calendars. Today, I’m offering an overview of the feast day of Pentecost. This celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church ends the Easter seasonand inaugurates the long calendar period of Ordinary Time. (I’ll be covering Ordinary Time in a subsequent post.)
Before his arrest, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would be sent to his followers. Fifty days after Jesus was crucified, God immersed them in the resurrection life of Jesus, filling them as he’d once filled the Holy of Holies in the Temple and supernaturally empowering them to proclaim his glorious grace.
Pentecost is drawn from the Greek word pentekostos, which means fifty. It references the fifty day period between Passover and Shavuot.
Pentecost had a place on the yearly Christian calendar from the second century. Pasche, the observance of the resurrection, was the name for the entire fifty-day period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. By end of third century, Pentecost was the name given to the final feast day of the fifty days. Over time, a liturgy and an eight-day vigil leading up to Pentecost formed around the day. These holy days were second only to Easter in importance for early believers.
Because the date of Pentecost is calculated based on the date of Easter via the lunar cycle, the earliest date in the Western church for Pentecost is May 10th, and the latest date is June 13th. In these churches, Pentecost Sunday became an alternate day for baptisms for those who could not be baptized on Easter.
Pentecost is directly tied to the date in which Easter is celebrated each year. It’s considered a “moveable feast” as it is not anchored to the Julian/Gregorian calendar. Because the date of Pentecost is calculated based on the date of Easter via the lunar cycle, the earliest date in the Western church for Pentecost is May 10th, and the latest date is June 13th. In these churches, Pentecost Sunday became an alternate day for baptisms for those who could not be baptized on Easter.
Pentecost had a place on the yearly Christian calendar from the second century. Pasche, the observance of the resurrection, was the first name for the entire fifty-day period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. By end of third century, Pentecost was the name given to the final feast day of the fifty days.
Paul uses the language of Shavuot, the Jewish festival with a focus on offering of the first fruits of the new wheat crop, to speak about the resurrection of Jesus to his friends at Corinth:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:19-26)
Liturgical churches use the tried-and-true order of service for Pentecost Sunday. (Here’s a link to a selection of liturgical prayers for the day.) Low-church (churches that don’t use a formal liturgy for corporate worship) Charismatics and Pentecostals seek to live in Pentecost’s reality every day, thus, they don’t tend to mark the day. Those from other low-church traditions interested in celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the big C Church may find some inspiration for service planning here.
And for all of us, Audrey Assad’s achingly lovely prayer, Spirit Of The Living God
By: Sara Buffington, Hearts Alive Sunday School Curriculum Writer
This spring has brought a new hobby to our household: vegetable gardening. My seven-year-old, who prior to this was only interested in toys involving batteries, has fallen in love with growing our own food. We are only beginners, and we are learning as we go.
Last week an “accident” befell our tiny chili pepper plant. We had had a thunderstorm, and the rain and the wind had toppled the plant. “Mommy help!” my son cried. “Our plant has fallen over!” Anxiety turned to relief as we straightened the plant and applied more soil around the base. A few days (and another rainy and windy day) later, the plant toppled again. When it happened a third time, I knew we needed another solution.
Feeling like a genius, I ran to the kitchen to dig out an old chopstick and a twist tie from the junk drawer. We “staked” the plant by shoving the chopstick in the soil next to the delicate stem. We entwined chopstick and plant together with the plastic twist tie. Now the chili pepper stays erect during howling wind and rain.
Jesus was fond of the agricultural metaphor: scattering seeds, the grain of wheat, and staying connected to the vine. Like plants, we grow, we take root, we live, and we die. As I staked that little pepper plant with my son, I thought about how he had things in common with it: they are both young, they both have shallow roots, and they both need someone or something to help hold them up.
When we, as teachers or parents, care for a child and teach them about God’s love, we can be the chopstick that holds them up as they grow. As believers, should we not support one another? In time, their faith will strengthen, and their roots will deepen. May our prayers for them echo Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: “Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong” (Eph 3:17 NLT).
Jill Turner helps Hearts Alive Sunday school teachers understand the background for each week’s lesson. Many of our users have commented on the value of this component and how it leads to more meaningful discussions with students.
Why do children love Jesus so much? In the Gospels, it’s clear that they loved Jesus because He first loved them. Jesus wasn’t posing for future artists when He invited children to gather around Him. Actually, He didn’t have to do any coaxing. Children loved Him. So did their parents, who were eager for Jesus to bless their children.
Like a beloved uncle or grandfather, Jesus would put His hands on their heads and pray for them. I can imagine parents reminding their children, “Do you remember when Jesus prayed for you?” What a treasured memory.
It’s sometimes said that adults who love children at heart are really kids themselves. That is, they’ve retained the best qualities of their childhood.
While some grown-ups love to be around kids, some apparently don’t. There’s no question which when we look at Jesus.
Jesus loved to be with children. During His three and a half years of ministry as an adult, we see Jesus giving an amazing amount of priority to ministry to children. Jesus talks with children, something only parents and grandparents usually did in that culture. Jesus commends the faith of little children who, in that culture, were sometimes considered incapable and unable to truly embrace religious faith until they were almost teenagers.
Not only that, but we see Jesus blessing children. We see Him feeding them. We even see Jesus using a little boy’s sack lunch to feed the multitudes and send 12 hefty baskets full of leftovers to help feed others.
Beyond that, we see Jesus healing boys and girls who are demon-possessed and curing others who are sick and dying. He even resurrects a 12-year-old girl who had just died and an older boy who had died a few hours earlier.
In his preaching and teaching, Jesus said that children are a strategic, essential part of his kingdom in heaven and on earth. In so many words, Jesus told his disciples, “Listen, my kingdom belongs to kids.” Not only that, but Jesus goes on to say, “Unless you become like a little kid, you can’t even get into My kingdom.”
What is Jesus talking about? Well, what are kids good at doing? They’re good at receiving. When you’re a small child, your mom and dad give you some food. What do you do? You receive it. Your grandparents send you a birthday satchel with five shekels in it. What do you do? You receive it. God gives you a sunny day to go outside and play. What do you do? You receive it.
The same thing applies when it comes to God’s kingdom. Can you work really hard to get a part of God’s kingdom? No. Can you be good enough, for long enough, to get a part of God’s kingdom? Again, no. Can you pay lots of money to get a part of God’s kingdom? No. That’s what grown-ups would try to do. Jesus says, That’s not the way to get into My kingdom. My kingdom isn’t like that at all. To get into My kingdom you have to get down lower—humble yourself—and trust Me.
What do you have to do to get a part of God’s kingdom? That’s right. You have to receive something. Or, specifically, Someone.
In all we do with children, let’s be sure to cultivate their love for Jesus.
The first series of the trilogy, The Crucified Life, begins the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and calls the corporate body back to the central purpose of Lent, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples. The teaching and reflections invite us into the daily process of dying to self in order that we might fellowship in His sufferings of Good Friday and thereby attain the joy of Easter–unity with the Christ in His glorious resurrection.
But our new life doesn’t end there. In many churches, Easter Day is a glorious celebration of worship; yet mysteriously the church goes right back to the normal routine just as things are about to get exciting! Easter is meant to be more than one day–it is meant to be an entire season of hope and renewal. That’s why the second book in the series, The Resurrected Life, explores how everything changes in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
The activating and energizing power behind both the Crucified and Resurrected Life is the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit-Filled Life, the third in The Christian Life Trilogy, explores the activity of the Holy Spirit calling us to Christ, gifting us for service, and pouring out the love of God in our hearts that we might carry that love to the world. Discover what it means to “walk in the Spirit” on a daily basis.
Our hope and prayer for you and your congregation is that these materials would be used by God to bring the life of Christ to your church in an exciting new way. As you gather in small groups and in corporate worship, may the dynamism of the living God stir your hearts with His truth, fill you with hope, and equip you with power. We invite you on this unique walk through the Christian journey, from Crucified to Resurrected to Spirit-Filled Life!
This post is the first in a two-part series on the basic tenets of The Christian Life Trilogy for those who wonder about, or want to share information about the Trilogy with their friends, neighbors, or church leaders.
The ebb and flow of the Christian life is a rhythm of God’s people moving back and forth from small group gatherings of fellowship, prayer, and study to larger group gatherings of corporate worship and celebration. All of the great missionary expansions of the Gospel involved just such movement–from small groups of Christians meeting together for mutual support, learning, and prayer to the larger corporate gatherings of praise and exhortation. Consider the example of the early church, recorded in Acts 2:42-47:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Notice the spiritual and numberical growth the early church experienced as a result of their mutual support and devotion. When Christians share their lives together with one another, the Lord Jesus manifests His presence among them–God is glorified.
In many ways, the small group meeting and the large gatherings on Sunday are interdependent, mutually beneficial to one another. The small group held in isolation from larger corporate worship can become isolated, unholy in its pursuits, and misguided by personalities and the whims of a few. In the same way, the large group gathering gains its passion and dynamism from the energy, accountability, and love fueled by small groups.
Bring the two together in a congregation and the Lord will add day by day those who are being saved–new life, new creation!
The Christian Life Trilogy seeks to foster the small group life of a congregation, but always with the aim and end of gathering the whole family back together in larger corporate worship and celebration. In this way, the series hopes to encourage a return to the things of first importance in the church–communal life and the heart of the message of the Church: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Therefore, we undertake this journey, following His command together to “remember His death, proclaim His resurrection, and await His coming in glory.”
The structure of the series reflects the pattern and heart of the Christian life. Every year, we calendar our lives around Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost, recognizing that Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension form the heart of Christian belief and reveal the heartbeat of God for the people of God.
There’s a bumper sticker that some of you may have seen, it says: Salt Life. I imagine this to mean a life dedicated to spending as much time as possible at the beach: swimming, tanning, jet skiing, surfing, fishing, basically celebrating sun and sand. This coming week’s Palm Sunday lesson in our Hearts Alive curriculum for kids is about The Servant Life, and if you are reading this blog as a Sunday school teacher, congratulations! You are already immersed in Servant Life. As a servant, you know that there can be days that it is a thankless job. You sacrifice a leisurely morning in bed to the rush of preparing for class and sometimes dealing with the behavioral issues of other people’s children. There are those rewarding moments when you see the difference that knowing Christ can make in a child’s life, but most of the time, you will not witness the fruit of your labors. You won’t see the comfort that God brings to a child when he faces a small social challenge or even a full blown crisis in the future. Yet let me assure you, that seed is taking root. God’s Word never returns empty and will accomplish what HE desires (Isaiah 55:11 NIV).
The opposite of the Servant Life is the King Life, and He who is the worthiest, King of all Kings, spurned this life while He lived on earth. It is the life that many in the secular culture sing about… Greed, power, pleasure, cutting down others, being successful, demanding respect and adulation. It is a me-focused life. This week’s Heart’s Alive lesson is a great opportunity to ask ourselves and our students to reflect upon which lifestyle we have chosen for ourselves. Are we little “kings” always demanding to go first, to speak the most, never to wait, and always have our way? Or do we follow the example of our Lord who washed others feet and died a horrible death on the cross to pay a debt that He certainly didn’t owe, but gave out of love. The King Life seems more fun than the Servant Life, but this is a temporary delusion. Lasting fulfillment and happiness is always found in serving others.
“The greatest among you will be your servant.” Matthew 22:11, NIV
“My Father will honor the one who serves me.” John 12:26, NIV
“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” Acts 20:35, NIV
The Crucified Life is a seven week study focusing on the Seven Last Words of Jesus. The study is intended to begin a process that leads to surrender to the Lord, leading to a closer relationship with the Lord. The Crucified Life is meant to bring forward and answer questions of the importance of Lent. As you navigate through The Crucified Life, you will gain more insight into why we go through the practice of Lent and how Lent brings us closer to the Lord, by celebrating His death and resurrection. Find out what it means to walk in The Crucified Life this Lenten Season, and watch the below video to learn how to lead your congregation through this study together. In this post we are sharing a summary of the webinar video below on quick launching a church-wide small group Bible study. The Rev. Charlie Holt, along with The Rev. Allen White and Theresa Summerlin, walked through everything you need to know about launching a church-wide campaign, specifically with using The Crucified Life materials for Lent. In the webinar the team talked with people who are starting a small group, answering questions that arise from experience and planning. If you have questions about starting your small group and preparing your congregation for a transformational Lent, start by checking out the video!
Watch the video below:
The role of the Senior Pastor in The Crucified Life is to align the congregation to the Holy Season. If your Senior Pastor is not on board with the alignment, reach out to Fr. Holt here and he will gladly speak with you and your pastor on the increased congregational engagement and other benefits of church-wide study.
Applying The Crucified Life as a Church-Wide Study
The Sunday before Ash Wednesday, also known as Forgiveness Sunday, is when to launch The Crucified Life. This is the first time your small groups meet for this study. On this Sunday, as a church-wide study, the sermon should focus on forgiveness. Then, the following Sunday would be Salvation Sunday, focusing on the Thief on the Cross passage, and the sermon will be on the theme of salvation. Each theme from the Daily Devotional books could be a theme for a sermon. Reinforcing a theme from the video teaching could be another source of inspiration. Or even preaching on a topic that you feel was missing from the teaching, to broaden the discussion and truly connect with each week’s study.
Make a box with a slot in the top out of cardboard. Setup a large cross and beneath it place the Sin Box. Have the congregation write down the things that were stirred up through the course of The Crucified Life and put them in the Sin Box. In this way we give our sins to Jesus and lay them at the Foot of the Cross. Then burn the box as the new fire for the Easter Vigil Service.
Recruiting the Hosts
We all have a small group! If your congregation is uncomfortable hosting and inviting people they don’t really know into their home, then have them start with family and friends. Getting to know the Lord with family and friends will create deeper more meaningful bonds with each other. Another great way of supporting groups is rotating hosting locations, whether in different host homes or going to a coffee shop. This will help remove some burden from a single person, and create opportunities for more hosts to discover themselves.
For the next two Sundays, work hard on recruiting hosts, then the two Sundays before Ash Wednesday should have a focus on recruiting participants. Help connect hosts and participants that are missing that connection or don’t know as many people in the congregation. One fun and different way to make new groups, from The Rev. Allen White, would be to challenge the people of previous small groups to give up their group for Lent to form new groups. As he says, it’s not a typical thing to give up, but it is a great way to create new connections in your congregation.
The church staff and leadership might often want to be in a group together, but have them break out and create groups as mentorships. Using church staff to get groups started is another great way to find hosts to get small groups off the ground, and from there groups can grow.
Host Sign-Up Form
Have ushers hand out this sign-up form and pick them up during offering. This direct ask is a fast and successful way to collect interested hosts!
Goals are Great!
The key is having a goal! If you don’t make a goal, you won’t hit one. Set a goal for the number of hosts and the number of participants. Even if you don’t hit the goal, you might get close and you will have something to aim for in the future.
In the webinar, The Rev. Allen White and The Rev. Charlie Holt explain what it looks like to have a church-wide campaign and address the keys to a successful church-wide campaign. And of course, we hope you take interest in our small group curriculum, The Christian Life Trilogy, which is designed to align the heart of the Gospel with the heart of the church year.
What is the Key?
Aligning the Hearts of the Church, Christian Faith and Our Church Year
Why Is Alignment Important?
The importance of alignment is taking what you learn on a Sunday into the week. Most people will forget the message of the pastor in the first 24 or 48 hours. Often by Tuesday, the lessons of the Scripture will be lost. By tying the small group Bible study into the Sunday worship, we are once again exposing ourselves to the topics that will enrich our lives, as well as giving us the opportunity to discuss with others and identify practical applications of these lessons. This builds the momentum of the transformation.
What Are the Benefits of Alignment?
Your church becomes unified when everybody is learning and expanding on the same topics, at the same time. The greatest benefit of alignment is growth. This is best done in small groups, so each person has the chance to speak up, ask questions, and truly engage with the Scripture. This growth springs from the interaction and deeper discussion. Small groups create an opportunity for more people to participate. Gathering together as a small group of friends adds to the ability to grow as disciples, in and out of the Church.
Fr. Holt took the opportunity to grow his congregation one Lenten Season. Rather than having a speaker host a teaching during the week, his church studied The Crucified Life. On a typical night with a host speaker (a great one at that), the Wednesday night attendance would reach a maximum of 100 participants. However, when they did a small group campaign studying The Crucified Life, they had 40 groups meeting around the city, with 400 participants! That is even more than Sunday attendance! Small groups get more people involved and more people to become disciples of the Lord.
Small groups can meet any time, this is much more practical to increase participation. You can meet anywhere, Fr. White even had a small group that met on a commuter train. Finding a time for a small group to meet that fits the schedule of 10 or so people is much easier than a church-hosted mid-week teaching that must fit the schedule of the whole congregation.
Setting God-Sized Goals
What Goals to Set?
The first time starting a church-wide campaign, you want to see about 50% of your people connected in groups. These are your early adopters, the people that could end up becoming part of your leadership team in future small group campaigns. The next campaign season should build another 25%, and then it will grow from there.
Those who begin a small group campaign together will continue to grow together through this experience and build in discipleship. These people who study together become friends, involving each other in social activities and outings, as well as service ministry. “It’s easier for people to cross the threshold of a home than it is to cross the threshold of a church,” says Fr. Holt. A small group is a great way for new people to become more spiritual. It is less overwhelming to first join a small group before attending a church worship. Gathering with friends is a perfect way to introduce new people to a relationship with God through this friendship.
Preparing and Planning: Key Considerations
How much time does it take to plan a church-wide campaign? Six to 10 weeks ahead of time is a great place to start. Bible Study Media recommends following these three phases:
Recruit leadership team – one month to build your team
Recruit small group hosts – one month to recruit hosts
Recruit participants to be in the groups – one month to gain members
This can be condensed into a shorter timeline, but this order is what we’ve found to be the most successful in the implementation of The Christian Life Trilogy. The key is to build your leadership team and a group of hosts, then give people enough time to arrange their schedule to become participating members of a small group.
Building Our Community
Who Makes a Small Group Campaign Champion?
Find one person to be a coordinator, maintaining administrative duties; this is the Campaign Champion. This person keeps everything going, working with the pastor and beyond. The Campaign Champion should be organized, detail oriented, interested in people, and have a fire for the vision of the campaign. They should push the timeline toward success!
The Leadership Team’s Role
Prayer Team Coordinator
Spiritual Gifts of Your Small Group Leaders
Building a leadership team is very important to the success of your church-wide campaign, no matter the size of your church. When you have a group of leaders that is already excited and sees the vision, getting the ball rolling on the campaign will be much easier. And hopefully, the people on the leadership team will host a group, which means from the start you have 3 or 4 small groups ready to be established.
One thing about small groups that is so wonderful is you really get to see people use their gifts. These are the spiritual gifts that God has given them. The gifts of a great small group host are warmth, leadership, ability to delegate, and charisma, but they don’t have to lead the discussion every week. If you have the strength to gather a group, you have the strength to keep that group alive. The best small group host is not one who teaches, but one who offers hospitality.
Remember to always set God-sized goals for discipleship. The best way to create a small group campaign is to start with the leadership, the people that will help carry the vision to reality. When finding hosts, keep in mind that the perfect host is one who enjoys bringing people together to grow as a group. The greatest gift of all is watching as your small groups grow with transformation. Learn more about starting a church-wide small group campaign with The Christian Life Trilogy!
At Bible Study Media, our mission is to faithfully spread the message of the Bible. We are happy to answer any questions you might have about Christian formation and Bible study curricula; please reach out to us here. We will continue to produce information on starting your own Bible study groups, so stay tuned!
We recently held the first webinar of this season’s series, “The Keys to a Successful Small Group Campaign.” In the first webinar, “What is a Christian Life Trilogy Campaign & What Does Small Group Bible Study Look Like?” author of the Christian Life Trilogy, The Rev. Charlie Holt discussed the importance of aligning a whole church with small group Bible study and how to plan for a small group campaign. To check out the video of the webinar, click here!
What do we mean by alignment?
A church-wide study, bringing into union all the different ministries and life of the church. The Crucified Life, The Resurrected Life and The Spirit-Filled Life are written to correlate with the Lenten Season, which is before Easter Day, then Easter Season, and then after Pentecost Day, which is 50 days after Easter.
Why is alignment important?
If we do this study in alignment with the regular pattern of the Christian year, it makes tremendous sense to the people who are going through the study. Allowing for deeper exploration and discussion of themes touched on in large group gatherings. Also, by following the Christian year, there is an opportunity for the whole congregation to work through the heart of the Gospel together at the heart of the Church year.
3 Steps to Building Our Community
Obtaining 100% congregational involvement and building small groups require planning. Now is the time to begin planning for a Lenten campaign and study! Think about this in three ways:
2. Recruit Small Group Hosts and Facilitators – H. O. S. T.
Use this acronym when deciding the right hosts and facilitators to recruit for your small groups:
Heart for other people
Open your home
Serve something simple
Tell a few friends!
3. Invite Small Group Members
Have the hosts encourage and invite friends from the different parts of their life to join the small group discipleship. Remember that everyone already has small groups in their lives, people with whom they would like to spend more time and become greater disciples of the Lord.
Your Launch Timeline
Follow this timeline to plan your campaign. This is the optimum timeline to organize and plan for a launch date on Forgiveness Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Leadership Team: November – December
Build your leadership team, and have meetings with this team. Make sure your leadership team is your “A-Team.” If you are working toward 100% congregational involvement, put your best people on this projects. The leadership team should be very involved and invested in the life of the church, and a voice of the church.
Senior Pastor/Leadership Onboarding
Prayer team coordinator
Small Group team coordinator
Communications team coordinator
Set God-sized Goals and Plan
Small Group Hosts: December – January
One thing you can do is use Christmas Eve to recruit hosts and members. Promote your small groups while you promote your Christmas Eve service. This is the perfect time to give people a next step in growing their relationship with God. This will help grow your church’s membership involvement throughout the year.
Sneak Peek for Existing Hosts
Small Group Members: January – February
Having a connection event to help small group hosts to recruit their small group participants. This gives your whole church an opportunity to participate without leaving anyone out.
Build Anticipation Christmas Eve!
Forgiveness Sunday, February 11, 2018
Creating Your Goal and Making it Exponential!
As a leadership team, setting goals are important to get 100% involvement. When you are considering how many small group hosts you need, be sure to consider the number of groups you will need. Start by considering how many people come to church on a Sunday. If you have 100 people on average for weekend attendance, divide that by 10 people in each small group, and you would need to have 10 small groups with 10 group hosts. Even for small churches it is very accessible when you look at it this way.
Experienced in small group ministry and instructing how to create successful small group ministries, Rick Warren says, “You can structure for control or for growth but you can’t do both.” One reason people don’t like to use small group campaigns is because they fear the loss of control. They want to manage the environment by keeping things at the church location and having one teacher. Doing small groups you lose this ability to control by inviting lots of people to get involved. You don’t know where those small groups are going to be, but the more people that get involved, the more growth you will see. Making small groups worth the loss of control.
Pastor or Priest Engagement
If you are going to have a church-wide campaign, it is critically important to receive the support of the senior pastor, priest, or rector of the church. If you need help with getting your pastor interested in small group Bible study, Rev. Holt is happy to help. Please feel free to reach out to him, and he will work with you and your pastor to discuss engagement. Contact Rev. Holt Here.
What is your pastor interested in?
Having a hard time getting your pastor onboard for your envisioned campaign? Sometimes there are barriers. When you are casting vision to your pastor, think about the things they are interested in.
Increased connection (Pastoral/Fellowship need)
Increased spiritual growth (Discipleship need)
Increased attendance (Worship need)
Increased serving (Ministry need)
Increased giving (Stewardship need)
All are results of SMALL GROUPS!
How Do I Reach My God-Sized Goal?
Plan a Launch: Crucified Life in Lent 2018
Recruit Your Campaign Team – NOW
Set Your Goal – with your leadership team
Recruit your Small Group Hosts – Dec/Jan
Connect Your Congregation into Groups – Jan/Feb
Coach Your Hosts for Success – Ongoing
If you would like to join in our next webinar of the series, to pose your questions and receive feedback, register here:
We recently held the first webinar of this season’s series, “The Keys to a Successful Small Group Campaign.” The first webinar is titled, “What is a Christian Life Trilogy Campaign & What Does Small Group Bible Study Look Like?” In the webinar, The Rev. Charlie Holt, author of the Christian Life Trilogy, discussed the importance of small group Bible study and how The Christian Life Trilogy will aid in transformation, growth and friendship. To check out the video of the webinar, click here!
1 Corinthians 15:1-4
The things of first importance are the foundation of The Christian Life Trilogy, following the Heart of the Gospel. Paul tells us that the most important news is the death of Jesus Christ and His rising to new life. The pattern of the Christian life is one of dying to self with Jesus, in order that we might be raised by him and filled with the Holy Spirit. The Christian Life Trilogy is a transformational process focusing on the things of most importance.
Our call to discipleship is to walk the way of the Cross, which means dying to self. This is the place it must begin, as dark as it might seem. You cannot be reborn until you have taken up the cross and died to self with Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We resist change, because it involves losing something, but change also brings growth and new beginning. “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort,”Dr. Brené Brown says.“You cannot have both.” The Christian life is not going to be a comfortable life, it will involve change and aspects of ourselves that will be lost. But we will work to become the new thing that God would have us to become.
7 Words from the Cross
The seven last words of Jesus are the process that leads us to surrendering our lives to Jesus. Through the seven weeks of The Crucified Life you will better understand this process. Beginning with forgiveness, we will study through salvation, the relationships we all have, the distress of temptations of our flesh nature, with abandonment we think about external problems, challenges and suffering in life. Ultimately, we move to a place where we are working toward surrendering our lives to God, leading to the finish line of triumph.
Forgiveness Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
Salvation Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
Relationship Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
Distress I thirst.
Abandonment My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Reunion Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
The other side of transformation is the Lord making all things new. The Risen Lord can make all things new once we have surrendered our lives to God, as he did for us. To surrender, we must overcome our worldly doubts and fears. We must let go and allow God to lead us in this new life.
Making All Things New
What becomes new with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? He wants to give us a new life, a new temple, a new body, a new covenant, a new creation, a new day. We experience these themes as we work through the scripture study each week. Gaining understanding of what becomes new and how this newness applies to our lives as we follow Jesus in The Resurrected Life.
Ultimately, the plan of God is that we might be filled with the fullness of God through the Holy Spirit. So, what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? This begins with the baptism through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, after which we are adopted as children of God. The Holy Spirit works in our lives and our hearts to transform us internally, like a butterfly from a caterpillar. Manifesting the fruit of God through love, joy, peace, patience and kindness. The Holy Spirit equips us with the gifts we use in the service of God’s kingdom. The Spirit of God empowers us to do amazing things, with more power than we have on our own. And through this learning and growth we become God’s anointed Christian people.
We have had over 200 congregations in 8 different countries go through these studies. One thing we hear the most is that The Spirit-Filled Life is their favorite study, of course it is! This is the study in which we are fully engaging in the Christian Life and closest to the fullness of God. But you cannot get to The Spirit-Filled Life unless you walk the way of the cross and experience that ever important death of self.
Baptized The Outpouring of the Spirit
Adopted The Calling of the Spirit
Transformed The Fruit of the Spirit
Equipped The Gift of the Spirit
Empowered The Work of the Spirit
Anointed The Mission of the Spirit
If you want to be part of the upcoming webinars of this series, please register here:
Now that you have learned more about the themes of The Christian Life Trilogy, try a free sample to get a taste of the transformation. If you haven’t already, check out our recent post about small group study in early Christianity and the benefits of developing small groups: here. Next, we will go over the importance of church-wide study and how to plan your small group campaign. If you have more questions about The Christian Life Trilogy, please get in touch.