Author: Jayson Larson

EMPOWER 2024: Pastor’s powerful testimony headlines CP luncheon

IRVING—John Meador, lead pastor of Cross City Church in Euless, offered a simple-yet-powerful reminder to the capacity crowd at the Cooperative Program luncheon on the final day of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention 2024 Empower Conference: “God is faithful.”

Meador delivered the luncheon’s keynote address, sharing personal stories of God’s faithfulness from his 17.5 years at Cross City—although he admitted having experienced God’s provision at every church he has served.

“In 45 years of marriage and 40 years of pastoral ministry, it never ceases to amaze me to see how God moves,” Meador said, “ … to move people’s hearts to give in such a way that churches are funded, pastors are paid, mission dollars are sent, and missionaries share the gospel all over the world.”

He shared how at previous churches where he served, he had seen God enable congregations to pay off massive debt incurred before his arrival. Cross City’s story provided a more recent illustration of God’s faithfulness as the church embarked on a 2016 reset.

In 2004, Cross City—then known as First Euless—had $6.7 million in debt with no repayment plan and no lead pastor. Bill Anderson, a former pastor, returned as interim and challenged the congregation to give more, restore missions giving, and retire the debt. When Meador arrived as pastor in 2006, he said he realized the wisest thing he could do was allow the momentum to continue that had already been established through a renewed effort to give.

Within 28 months, the church was debt free. “We burned the note,” Meador recalled.

By 2016, Cross City was giving more than 20% to missions, with at least 10% going to the Cooperative Program. Yet building renovations were needed and the reset vision involving significant ministry expansion—including a northwest Tarrant County campus—would cost $30 million, four times the church’s budget.

Meador said he recommended temporarily reducing CP giving from 10% to 7%. Then a church member called him.

“Faith is not doing less. It’s doing more and expecting God to accomplish what He wants,” the godly man told the pastor.

After three sleepless, prayer-filled nights, Meador returned to the committees he asked to slash the missions budget and admitted he was wrong, promising never again to ask for a reduction.

“It was a decision that needed to be made,” he said. “The question to ask [is]: How do we trust God in all of our decisions so that the decision is financial but faith-oriented?”

After extensive planning, Meador and Cross City launched its Generations campaign, sharing the master plan in 2019. By March 1, 2020, people prepared their commitments to the campaign. Then COVID hit and, beginning in mid-March, the church paused in-person worship for 11 weeks.

“It was not a comfortable way to begin a fundraising campaign,” Meador said.

But God provided miraculously, despite the pandemic. “It was a humbling and awesome time,” Meador said. With God’s provision and through the generosity of His people, the church received $7.5 million in unexpected designated giving, as well as other funds raised through the sale of some church property. This opened the door for the church to move forward with its efforts to launch a satellite campus and fund other ministry efforts related to the reset.

“We saw God fully provide everything we needed and do more while we gave more to missions,” Meador said. “God is truly able to make all grace abound to us.”

It’s not lost on Meador that Cross City might have missed such a blessing because of his own willingness to consider giving less to missions.

“One phone call made me walk by faith,” he said. “ … Trust God with your decisions. Trust God with the money He has provided. He is able to do above and beyond all that we could ask or think.”

In closing the luncheon, SBTC Executive Director Nathan Lorick encouraged churches by reminding them CP giving contributes to advancing the gospel across Texas, the nation, and the world.

“The Cooperative Program is the only thing under God’s kingdom where you can be where you are and all around the world at the same time,” Lorick said. “It is not a program. It is a people.

“In a day in which culture would say step out, I am asking you to lean in.”

To truly care for your flock, you must lean in

Shortly after arriving at his first pastorate, a friend of mine hosted a dinner at the parsonage for his church. As the members of the church trickled in, the same phrase was repeated: “So this is what it looks like inside here!”

No, my friend’s new partners in ministry were not being nosy about his decorating style. They were simply reacting to being in the parsonage for the first time. You see, during the 20-year tenure of his predecessor, many had never been invited to step foot in the pastor’s house, located just 30 yards from the church.

It’s not possible to provide effective pastoral care while keeping the flock at arm’s reach. I would suggest that while one can carry out the actions required for pastoral care without any particular emotional investment or relationship, caring for our people holistically requires much more. How do we nurture these necessary relationships?

Cultivate a heart of gratitude

In Philippians 4, Paul says, “Whatever is true, honorable, righteous, holy, pleasing, or praiseworthy, if there is something that is virtuous and if there is something worth praising, think intently about these things.” While this is a command for all Christians, it is a non-negotiable for pastors because it undergirds our care for our congregation. When we cultivate a heart of gratitude and think intently about the best in our people, it makes it much easier to care for them—not just through action, but through emotion as well.

Gratitude sets the tone for a positive relationship. Moreover, gratitude can be contagious. If you lead by example, your people will recognize you are not simply doing your job in caring for them, but that you truly appreciate them. That paves the way for them to develop reciprocal gratitude. It is a beautiful thing to see a pastor and a church member who each view the other with genuine thankfulness to the Lord.

Be vulnerable

Through personal experience, warnings from others, or simple personality preferences, some pastors develop a wall between themselves and their people. They are “on” when they are around their flock, and they will rarely, if ever, let their flock see behind the curtain. Perhaps you’ve even heard the phrase “mask of ministry.”

This sort of artificial relationship would be troubling if spotted in one of our members, but it is no less troubling when it shows up in our own lives. If you always wear the mask, don’t be surprised if your people never truly know you—or if you don’t know them either. Choose to be vulnerable. Let your members see behind the mask. Is there risk here? Of course! But it is the same risk you ask your people to take when you challenge them to be vulnerable and open with other believers.

Invest in their lives

A pastor choosing to invest in his members will look different in each church. For some, this can be as simple as learning the names and prayer needs of your people. But if you are able to invest more, do so, knowing that the pastoral dividend will be great. Bring a meal after a hospital stay, show up at birthday parties, invite your people to come watch sporting events with you … the options are truly endless.

Have patience

The last ingredient is time. Gratitude, vulnerability, and life investment are all necessary ingredients for caring for your people well. But much like stock, this investment requires time to bear the greatest fruit. A pastoral relationship with these key elements can yield wonderful fruit, but a relationship that has faithfully incorporated these elements for years will yield a much greater harvest.

So, faithfully tend to your flock knowing that your investment, vulnerability, gratitude, and patience will yield their greatest fruit in the years ahead.

 

EMPOWER 2024: Lyons urges ‘holy resilience’ at multigenerational Women’s Session

IRVING—How should Christian women meet life’s challenges? With “holy resilience,” according to author, and teacher Rebekah Lyons.

Lyons served as the featured speaker at the 2024 Empower Women’s Session held Monday at the Irving Convention Center. The crowd that gathered to see her was diverse—including mothers with infants and toddlers, senior citizens, and every age in between.

Lyons, author of Building a Resilient Life and the devotional A Surrendered Yes, shared the story of her family of six—which includes two children with Down syndrome: the couple’s oldest son and their youngest child, an adopted daughter. Popular culture maintains that resilience merely means to bounce back, she said. “Jesus tells us the opposite: ‘In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.’”

Brokenness is universal, she added: “Any kid, any marriage, any home life, any relationship—we are all broken people in need of a Savior.”

Lyons said resilience is a consecrated daily act and not “naïve optimism.” At its heart, resilience is “a belief that Christ has truly overcome the world.”

Unexpected tests

A move to New York City challenged Lyons and her family in unexpected ways. She began having acute panic attacks, times of sheer terror that strained relationships with loved ones. She became afraid of elevators, subways, trains, and crowds—circumstances impossible to avoid in New York.

In researching her struggles, she learned that confronting one’s fears and entering spaces provoking fear cause physiological changes in the brain, enabling the growth of neurons. Avoidance of difficult things, she found, has a different growth effect.

“When you avoid fear, it grows,” she said. “God isn’t calling us to be fearful.”

Over time, she discovered an utter dependence on God that enabled her to survive. Through that process, she learned to stop being a “control freak” and came to understand God had a purpose in her tears.

“If you can’t grieve, you can’t be comforted,” she said. “If you are crying, there’s a good chance you are on the road to healing.”

Five rules of resilience

Lyons’s experiences led her to develop five rules of resilience, the basis of her book, Building a Resilient Life.

The first rule of resilience is to name the pain. “Ask Jesus to get in the middle of that place of pain,” she said, recommending a rhythm of confession like that of David in Psalm 139. “Tell God the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The enemy dwells in the secret. He wants to keep you there.”

Secondly, Lyons urged the audience to shift the narrative from what is broken to what is whole. “We are all broken and it’s Christ’s mercy and kindness that invites us to bring anything to Him … No conversation [is] off limits with God,” she said.

Third, to develop a holy resilience, one must embrace adversity, moving toward, not away from, obstacles. “The reason we can … embrace adversity is not because we are the savior but because we are governed by the one who is,” she said.

The fourth key is to make meaning. Lyons reminded listeners they are reflections of God’s glory. God has willed our various stories so His glory might be displayed in us. “No two of us look alike,” she said. “That means your imprint on this world was ordained by God Himself.”

Finally, Lyons called for the audience to endure together to become resilient. She stressed the importance of community, calling for emphasis on relationships rather than possessions.

“You show up. You keep showing up,” she said. “You don’t just drop [off] a casserole and run.”

EMPOWER 2024: Gaithers, Jeremiah, Reavis exalt Jesus during Classics Session

IRVING—A crowd of over 1,800 enjoyed the Classics Session of the 2024 Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Empower Conference, featuring the Gaither Vocal Band and pastors David Jeremiah and Herb Reavis Jr.

The event, held Monday at the Irving Convention Center, is planned each year with senior adults in mind. The Gaithers led off the session with an hourlong concert featuring their gospel quartet sound and later returned for another 40 minutes, after which SBTC Executive Director Nathan Lorick presented Bill Gaither with a plaque commemorating his long impact on the kingdom of God.

‘God has something for you to do’

Speaking from Romans 13:11-14, Jeremiah—pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, Calif.—preached a message he called “Live Like You Were Dying,” emphasizing the urgency of “getting better” in your Christian walk.

“The only way you deal with the darkness is to shine the light,” he said, referring to verse 12. He went on to suggest four ways to resist and overcome the world’s influence on our lives:

  1. Watch vigilantly (v.11): Quoting Matthew 16:3, Jeremiah asserted, “It’s important to understand the times so that we know what we ought to do.” In the context of Romans 13:11, he emphasized the imminence of Jesus’ return.
  2. War valiantly (v.12): “You are the light of the world,” Jeremiah said to his listeners, noting that Jesus has left His followers to carry that mantle. “Walk as children of light, not like you used to be.”
  3. Walk virtuously (v. 13): This verse lists a set of sins—carousing and drunkenness, sexual impurity and promiscuity, and quarreling and jealousy. “We can’t be just like everyone else,” Jeremiah said, noting that such sin can make us useless to God.
  4. Wait victoriously (v. 14): “Be watching for the return of Christ,” he urged. “Put on Christ. Intend that He goes where you go.” Jeremiah said other Christians in our lives can provide strong safeguards so we can “kick sin off [our doorsteps so] it won’t end up in [our] house.”

In conclusion, Jeremiah urged his hearers to stay holy, stay healthy, stay humble, and stay hungry.

“God has something for you to do,” he said.

David Jeremiah preaches from Romans 13 during the Classics Session of the 2024 Empower Conference Monday at Irving Convention Center. SBTC PHOTO

‘Does Jesus have all of you?’

Emphasizing the lordship of Christ, Reavis—pastor of North Jacksonville Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.—turned to Philippians 2:5-11 for his text.

“Jesus does not want to be your co-pilot,” Reavis said. “He demands first place in your life.” To illustrate his point, Reavis noted Jesus is called Lord more often in the New Testament than He is called Savior.

He drew from his text two reasons everyone should make Jesus Lord:

  1. Because of what He gave: From verses 6-8, Reavis noted Jesus was in the form of God prior to the incarnation, but “emptied Himself of all outward trappings of majesty. … He clothed Himself in the body of a peasant carpenter … and stooped low to become obedient to the point of death … to death on an old rugged cross.”
  2. Because of what He gained: Jesus’ terrible suffering on our behalf is in stark contrast to God’s exaltation of the risen Christ. God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name and title above all others. “On the field of battle … there was only one standing, robed in white, with the keys of death, hell, and the grave,” Reavis exclaimed, “and that was Jesus Christ, whose foot was on the neck of the enemy!” We should, therefore, “live like Jesus is alive forever more.”

“This truth,” Reavis said, “demands a practical response: I should bow my knee and confess Him as lord. His will becomes my will; His aims become my aims.

“You have all of Jesus. Does Jesus have all of you?”

 

EMPOWER 2024: ‘God absolutely loves you”: 18 saved as Student Rally draws massive crowd

IRVING—In only its second year, the high-energy Empower Conference Student Rally drew double the crowd—nearly 750 students and youth leaders from 70 churches—as the inaugural event did one year ago. But that wasn’t the most important number.

Before the night ended at the Irving Convention Center, 18 students gave their lives to Christ following an invitation offered by evangelist Ryan Fontenot, founder of RAGE Ministries.

“The world says find yourself … identify yourself. … Jesus says, ‘Deny yourself,’” Fontenot said. “Jesus is not signing up to be your co-pilot. He doesn’t ride shotgun. …He came to take over your life.”

Fontenot’s gospel invitation was preceded by his sharing a humorous anecdote about the first time he told his eventual wife he loved her. He then pivoted, addressing an even greater love: the love of God evidenced in Luke 5.

“Those words—‘I love you’—are thrown out kind of casually. … We have all these things that we say we love,” Fontenot said. Referencing Luke 5:27, which recounts Jesus’ calling of Matthew, Fontenot added, “This story gives us a full picture of the love of God. I want you to know tonight that God loves you. God absolutely loves you.”

Just as Jesus pursued Matthew before calling him, Fontenot said, “The love of God finds us right where we are.” Many of those Jesus sought and called to salvation were in difficult life situations, including those who were demon-possessed and a woman caught in sin.

“You come to Jesus in order to get right with God. You don’t clean yourself up first,” Fontenot said.

Not only does God meet us where we are—He also invites us to where He is, Fontenot said. “Jesus loves you. Jesus will meet you. Jesus won’t leave you right where you are.”

Fontenot added that when God calls people, He calls them to fully surrender all aspects of their lives. That surrendered life “changes us forever.” Matthew, a tax collector, left behind an entire business to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, fishermen, “jumped ship” and did the same.

Jimmy McNeal leads the more than 750 students and leaders in worship during the Empower Conference Student Rally. SBTC PHOTO

In doing so, those men experienced literal life change. Fontenot urged students who have already made a profession of faith to examine their own lives to see if there is evidence of change, asking them to evaluate their music playlists and other forms of entertainment, their attitudes about church, and their desire—or lack thereof—for the Word of God.

In addition to Fontenot, the rally featured illusionist Zak Mirz and worship leader Jimmy McNeal.

Mirz warmed up the group with a series of illusions heavy on audience participation. Students expressed amazement as Mirz made impossibly correct guesses, manipulated silver coins, and created artificial snow. As McNeal and his team led from the stage, students sang, raised their hands, and worshiped enthusiastically.

Exclaimed McNeal, quoting Psalm 150: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

 

A powerful way to edify your church

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” — Revelation 1:3

Normally, before we preach through any book of the Bible at our church, we have an introductory sermon. For longer books I preach an overview sermon, and for shorter books I will read the entire book and preach a shorter sermon.

As we were preparing to preach through the book of Revelation this year, Revelation 1:3 continued to come to mind. I thought about how amazing it would be to read the entire book of Revelation as a church, but my hesitation came from its length: 22 chapters, 404 verses, 11,472 words (in the English Standard Version). However, after reading it aloud (which took almost an hour, much longer than my 35-40 minute sermons), I couldn’t be happier that we did or more confident in our decision to do so. We knew this would be a new experience for many, so we shared four reasons with our church as to why we did:

Scripture is God’s inspired, inerrant Word

1 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12
While I am full of excitement to preach the depths of God’s truth from Revelation over the next few months, this is better than any sermon I’ll ever preach. I’ll be honest: reading this book will take significantly more time than an average sermon. But there is no better use of your time than to spend time reading God’s inspired, inerrant Word.

Publicly reading Scripture is biblical

1 Timothy 4:13
The public reading of God’s Word is modeled in the Old and New Testament (Exodus 24:7; Deuteronomy 31:10-13; Joshua 8:34-35; 2 Kings 23:1-2; Nehemiah 8:3-4; Luke 4:16-21). In fact, in Nehemiah 8, Ezra read the law to God’s people from sunrise to noon. But it’s not just a biblical practice that brings blessing: it’s a biblical command (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27; 1 Timothy 4:13).

Reading entire books brings understanding

Luke 24:27, 44-45; Acts 8:30-35
Each book of the Bible is a complete literary unit. Therefore, knowing what happens in the book provides context to help us understand each smaller part within the whole. Not only should we read books completely, but reading the whole book in one sitting furthers our understanding of the content and purpose of each book and how it fits into the larger story of Scripture.

Faith comes from hearing God’s Word

Romans 10:17
God’s Word is powerful, for by it the universe was created (Genesis 1). And while creation declares God’s glory, God’s Word is what revives the soul (Psalm 19:1-7). This is why the Holy Spirit inspired men to record the 66 books: “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).

After reading this book, we received numerous words of encouragement from members and visitors. Even though it took almost an hour to read the book, everyone’s ears were tuned and their eyes were glued to the page (especially the youth). I cannot wait to see the fruit this will bear on our church in the coming months and years.

Pastors, read entire books to your church on Sunday mornings. It may take a long time, and you may need to change your service around a little bit to allow for more time. But it will edify, strengthen, encourage, challenge, and bless your church. You won’t regret it.

Hundreds of students gather for first M3 WKND of the year

EULESS—Cold weather didn’t deter nearly 700 teenagers from attending the first of four M3 WKND events held Jan. 12-13 at Cross City Church. The event was hosted by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention student ministry staff.

M3 WKND is designed to encourage, equip, and empower students to share the gospel wherever they go and with whomever they encounter. The remaining M3 WKND events are scheduled for Jan. 26-27 in East Texas, Feb. 2-3 in Austin, and Feb. 9-10 in Amarillo.

“We will never know the full extent of the fruit of M3 WKND 2024,” SBTC Student Associate Brandon Bales said, “but we do know the fruit of God’s work at this event: 32 professions of faith, 41 committed to be baptized, and 14 placed their ‘yes’ on the table to serve in ministry, missions, or leadership in the local church. To God be the glory.”

The weekend kicked off with a concert—but not the type some students may have been expecting. As the event timer ticked down to zero, students began to cheer, clap, and shout in anticipation of the loud, musical kickoff that often accompanies student events. Instead, they were met with a concert of prayer, with songs and time set aside to focus their attention on Christ. After an object lesson on the filling of the Holy Spirit, students were asked to assume a posture of prayer to seek God. For the first 90 minutes, students, leaders, and others in attendance prayed and sang, petitioning God to fill them with the Holy Spirit so they can be bold in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone anywhere.

Bales said the sight of hundreds of teenagers praying was “chilling—but in a good way.” One student pastor in attendance added, “This is what a revival generation looks like—on their hands and knees praying for God’s power and pleading for the lost around them.”

The weekend was packed with opportunities to equip students to share the gospel. On the first day, students attended two main sessions and two breakout sessions. The main sessions focused on the Lord’s prayer and the urgency to share the gospel. The breakouts targeted core issues students face every day, including the problem with evil; the intersection of science, politics, and faith; bridging the culture gap with authenticity; starting a campus ministry; and reaching unreached people groups.

SBTC Student Associate Brandon Bales speaks during M3 WKND, held at Cross City Church in Euless. SBTC PHOTO

Students also participated in a block party designed to help them socialize. The block party included obstacle courses, drift mini-bikes, jousting, a mechanical bull, and food trucks. But the main point of the block party, Bales said, was to show teenagers they are not alone in the mission to fulfill the Great Commission. One student pastor in attendance said, “It’s a joy watching our students interact with students from other local churches.”

The final element of an M3 WKND is the send-off. But just as the weekend started with a twist, Bales said it ended with one, as well. Instead of the hype and light show that typically concludes the event, a send-off rally was held to help students focus on the words of Jesus as they prepared to head back to their communities and schools: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have taught you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

What I learned while waiting on the Lord

“Snap out of it!”

My wife’s loving rebuke hit me like a ton of bricks. For six months, I had nursed a sense of self-pity over my inability to land a role as a lead pastor. In my mind, I was completely prepared to transition from a support role to a lead role on a church staff, but after sending out 25 resumes, I was a mess.

My wife’s tough love brought me back to reality and began a learning process that helped me land my dream job. Here’s what I learned while I waited on the Lord to open that door:

Get clarity

It’s tempting to jump at the first ministry opportunity that comes your way and apply for every opening that pops up on the ministry job boards, but before you submit your resume, you should clarify your calling. Write out your ministry philosophy, identify your spiritual gifts, and settle key theological convictions. As much as possible, clarify what kind of ministry God is calling you to do. Is He calling you to plant or revitalize? Has He gifted you to preach or serve in other areas of ministry? Is He calling you to an urban, suburban, or rural context? One of my mentors put it like this: “If you could do anything that would maximize your joy and God’s glory, what would it be?”

Pursue character

As you wait for your next ministry assignment, relentlessly pursue godly character. After all, the New Testament teaches us character is the most important qualification for church leaders (1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:6–9). Recent history warns us of the peril of church leaders allowing their giftedness to take them further than their character can keep them. Only God knows what kind of conflict or obstacles you will face when you begin your new work. It could be that, in His kindness, He is preventing you from taking on a new role before you’re ready. Get honest with yourself and God about your character deficiencies and seek the spiritual transformation you hope to bring to others.

Find a coach

Don’t seek out a coach for their network or the opportunities you think they might bring your way. Instead, look for someone who can help clarify how God has gifted you and identify blind spots in your life. You may already have a trusted pastor in your life who would be more than willing to meet with you for lunch at least once a month. Show up with questions and take notes. Tell your mentor how you believe God works in your life and ask him to pray with you about your next steps. If you don’t have someone you feel comfortable asking to lunch, consider joining the Young Pastors Network cohort.

Make connections

Since many churches call pastors based on recommendations from people they trust, landing a new ministry role can often come down to who you know. You must develop connections with pastors and ministry leaders in your area and across the state. You can do this by attending local association meetings or the Empower and Equip conferences and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Annual Meeting. Introduce yourself to guys you don’t know and ask them questions about their ministries. You may meet someone who knows of a ministry opportunity that would be a good fit for you or that God will use to bring further clarity to your life.

Learn contentment

It’s easy to fantasize about a new role that fits your gifts, but that kind of discontentment undermines our ministries by keeping us from the good work God has called us to do where we are. If we believe God is sovereign over our ministry calling, we should strive to be faithful wherever He plants us. Jesus sees the faithful ministry of men who are content to serve where He calls them and promises to reward those who prove faithful. He put it like this: “One who is faithful in a very little will also be entrusted with much” (Luke 16:10). Before you start to look ahead to what may come next, give yourself completely to serving the Lord right where you are.

After my wife confronted me about my selfishness, the Lord taught me these lessons the hard way. Brothers, if God can help a guy like me, I know he can do it for you, too.

Shaping powerfully effective small groups

While small groups represent a key ministry in many churches, using them effectively can be a challenge. This is especially the case when it comes to training small group leaders. Over the past year and a half, our church has reevaluated our approach to training and has created a process for better preparing and equipping leaders. Here are some general steps we have developed:

1. Selection

Before small group leaders are trained, they must be chosen. This is not a step churches can afford to skimp on. In fact, it’s the most important step. Training, small group structure, and curriculum can’t make up for an unqualified leader.

What, then, should churches look for in a potential leader? The most important criterion is character. A potential leader should have a good reputation both within and outside the church. Their lives should be marked by a pursuit of godliness and a commitment to help other believers grow in their relationship with Christ.

Training of small group leaders begins in the ordinary work of discipleship within the life of a congregation, and pastors and other leaders should keep an eye out for congregants who evidence this pattern of life. This also means the number of small groups within a church should be governed by the availability of godly leaders.

Beyond character, churches should have a clear set of qualifications for small group leadership by which they can evaluate potential leaders. These will likely include basic communication and social skills necessary to facilitate group activities. These are not technical competencies, but rather the kinds of things that can be developed in many individuals. They aren’t universal skills, however, so leaders will need to make a habit of looking for individuals who display these abilities—or at least the potential to develop them.

2. Orientation

If small groups are to be an effective means of ministry, there must be a consistent and shared vision for the role they play within the life of a congregation. As with most churches, the heartbeat of small groups in our church is mutual discipleship. But we are very intentional in promoting small groups not as a requirement for membership, but as one extension among many as part of the church’s core work of discipleship. This is based on our conviction that discipleship finds its center and source in the church’s Sunday gathering, and all other activities of the church flow from that center. Michael Lawrence, a pastor in Oregon, wrote an article about using small groups to cultivate fellowship in a way that is similar to our church’s model.

While this might seem unexceptional, it is significantly different from how some churches use small groups. For example, in many larger churches, small groups function as the center of Christian “community,” operating primarily to mitigate the anonymity that can characterize a larger church context and often being required of members for that reason. This is a fine and noble use of small groups, but it can sometimes create an incentive for individual members to look to their small group as the center of their life together rather than the church’s worship gathering. To avoid this tendency, and since our church is small enough that anonymity is not a problem for us on Sunday mornings, we have chosen a different vision for small groups. I explain this not to present our approach as a universal model, but as an example of how a vision for small groups should be intentional, strategic, and clearly communicated to small group leaders.

3. Preparation

Since the heart of our small groups is mutual discipleship, we center their activities around the ordinary means of grace—namely Bible, prayer, and fellowship—as part of their regular gatherings. This means, at a minimum, small group leaders at our church must be prepared to 1) lead a Bible-based discussion, 2) facilitate a time of prayer, and 3) coordinate a regular gathering for the group in which these practices can take place.

The first of these is the most challenging. Anyone who has ever tried knows that leading a group discussion is a special skill. There are several pitfalls leaders can fall into in this regard. On the one hand, they might try to lead discussions as free-for-alls, using vague, general questions that don’t lead the discussion anywhere. On the other hand, they might have a very clear sense of where they want the conversation to go and will merely ask leading questions rather than questions that provoke shared reflection by the group. Or, if they find awkward silences unbearable, they might attempt a few questions before kicking into lecture mode and end up teaching a lesson rather than leading a discussion.

In my opinion, churches should devote a substantial amount of training to leading effective, Bible-based discussions. There are many resources available along these lines, but two I have found particularly helpful are Orlando Saer’s Iron Sharpens Iron: Leading Bible-Oriented Small Groups that Thrive and Colin Marshall’s Growth Groups: How to Lead Disciple-Making Small Groups. The former is a short book packed with helpful advice on navigating a Bible-based discussion. The latter is a 10-week training course that includes opportunities for trainees to practice leading such discussions. Both resources cover other important areas of small group leadership, as well.

4. Implementation

The training of small group leaders should not end once they are assigned to a small group. As leaders continue to grow through experience, pastors can play an important role in their development by maintaining strong lines of communication and by providing additional resourcing opportunities.

Strong lines of communication (for me, this means regular conversations, coffee visits, and lunches with small group leaders) carry two primary benefits. First, it provides pastors with an opportunity to continue shaping the vision of small groups and to provide more specific guidance when and where needed. Second, it helps pastors better fulfill their shepherding roles by giving them a better awareness of how members are doing and by providing a context for small group leaders to relay pastoral concerns to the church’s leadership.

Training of small group leaders is also facilitated by continued resourcing opportunities. At our church, we host two small group leader meetings per year, which always include a refresher on the vision and strategy of small groups within our church as well as specific training topics. These meetings also provide opportunities for leaders to share insights and advice with one another.

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits all approach to small groups, at least not when it comes to specifics. But where small groups exist for the purpose of mutual discipleship, what makes for successful groups is what makes for successful discipleship in general. In such cases, much will depend on the ability of churches to select qualified leaders, orient them to the unique function of small groups within the lives of their congregations, equip them to lead others in the basic practices of discipleship, and continue to support them in their discipling roles.

 

 

Six things to consider as you navigate your first year of pastoring

So many thoughts run through my head as I reflect on my first year as a pastor. I’ve served in two churches as lead teaching pastor, and the first year at each was among the hardest of my life. More than ever, I was slapped in the face with the crippling effect of what is probably my greatest idol: people-pleasing.

On the other hand, the first year at these churches was among the best of my life. It’s interesting how God does that sometimes. I’ve never been more face-to-face with my own sin and selfishness, and more amazed at God’s incredible grace shown to a 25- and 30-year-old pastor. The expectation of preaching the Word of God every single Sunday has grown me so much in the midst of studying and preparing. I’ve never so directly had to face the conflicts between my own vocational ambition and simply obeying God and seeking His glory.

I preached 48 sermons each of those first years, saw core people leave the church, new people come in, been complemented more than ever before, and criticized more than ever before. Even with so much good linked with so much difficulty, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I did a few things well and also made some mistakes. I had a list of priorities, some of which were in good order, and some of which weren’t. Six brief exhortations for the first year pastor (or for more experienced pastors) based on my experience:

1. Love Christ.

More than anything, treasure Jesus. Cherish your identity and status as a child of God. There’s nothing greater than Jesus, and His love for you is not dependent on your performance as a pastor. Rest in this. Spend ample time in the Word, but especially in your first year as a teaching pastor.

2. Preach the Word.

Preach the truth. Don’t be ashamed of God or avoid certain parts of Scripture. Preach and teach all of it. God will be glorified and your people will grow spiritually. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 15 years of pastoral ministry, it’s that God’s people love God’s Word (at least most of the time).

3. Get to know your people.

Spend time with your members, deacons, and small group leaders. Do this not just for leadership purposes, but to get to know them personally and grow to love them as the flock God has entrusted to you. Learn their names, get to know their families, and care for them.

4. Make disciples.

Find a few men, even just one or two, to spend regular time with one on one. Read Scripture together. Pray together. Read through a great book together. Spend a year with these men with the goal of spurring them on in their faith. You will never regret immediately investing meaningful time into a few men.

5. Find a mentor.

Do. Not. Do. This. Alone. Find someone inside or outside the church who will call you on your weaknesses and speak truth to you. A retired pastor or an older pastor down the street could be a good option. I cannot emphasize this enough. You need someone you can call without hesitation to let you vent or give you advice.

6. Go home.

When you go home, do your best to truly go home. Don’t check your email while you’re with your kids. Don’t let your mind wander and be distracted by church things. Focus on your family. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but that’s what they should be: rare exceptions. Go home not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.

These thoughts may not be new for you, but I pray you will take them to heart. There’s nothing more important than grounding yourself in Christ, especially in your first year of ministry. Find good rhythms, carve out time to have date nights, and exercise.

May God bless you and keep you as you shepherd His church!