AN ACTS 2 MODEL FOR LIVING INTENTIONAL TRANSFORMATION

At SAINT PAUL United Methodist Church of Fremont, transformation does not happen by accident.  Recently having gone through a visioning and branding process, we have come to understand ourselves as a church that centers all that it does on the three core values of INSPIRATION, INCARNATION and INTERSECTION.  Through these values, we aim to live intentionally.  For us, INSPIRATION is embodied by our dynamic worship services where the songs touch people’s hearts and the Spirit fills and leads us to glorify God.  We are intentional about teaching God’s Word and seeing people’s lives being blessed and hearts being changed.  Additionally, INCARNATION is affirmed in our ministry by the absolute belief that Jesus becomes present in our midst in real and relevant ways. As such, we believe that we too need to dwell in community and be incarnate in a world that we are called to love and change.  Essentially, SAINT PAUL is where Jesus’ story becomes our story, and our story engages the world for relevant transformation.

namuwilliams-stpaul-heritagesunday2011-IMG_3822eBut perhaps the most significant of our values that really defines SAINT PAUL is that of INTERSECTION.  We are a diverse group of people.  We come from all walks of life and represent many different backgrounds, and yet, we have come to cross paths at this wonderful church.  We share in real life and real faith, and we experience together the blessing of how the story of Jesus intersects with our lives for empowerment and transformation.  We believe in living together in community and deeply sharing in authentic relationships of encouragement and accountability.   And there is no better way to do this than in small groups that reflect the nature of the Acts 2 church where “All who believed were together and had all things in common…” (Acts 2:44)

At SAINT PAUL, our small group ministry is alive and flourishing, and it is really the lifeblood of our congregation.  It is where we see intentional transformation taking place on a regular basis.  Of course, this should not be news to anyone.  We have probably heard from many church growth seminars about how “we need to grow small in order to grow big” or how “small groups are the answer”.  Indeed, we have found that it is in small groups that people’s lives are really being touched and transformed.  We utilize a house church model where there is a holistic approach to growing disciples spiritually – studying scripture together, sharing in fellowship both within and beyond the actual small group meeting, forming deep and meaningful connections through mutual caring and prayer, and reaching out to the world by committing together to mission and service projects.  When all of these aspects of discipleship are practiced, growth happens.

We have found that small groups are able to do far more than simply what worship can do on Sundays.  Whereas worship can often become reduced to a “spectator event”, small groups spur members to participate fully.  There is an active engagement of all of the members, since the leaders have created an intentional place of both “comfort” and “challenge”.  And finding the balance between these two is critical to effective and fruitful small group ministry.  At SAINT PAUL, we take accountability seriously, and just as the Acts 2 Church gathered together often with “glad and sincere hearts”, we aim to do the same.  Sincerity, or authenticity, is encouraged.  People speak their minds, and people share their brokenness.  Leaders offer support and, more importantly, a listening and receptive heart that embraces everyone’s sharing that eventually gets fed back into how the community is ultimately defined.

Speaking of leaders, we are also intentional about offering regular and ongoing training and support so that they are always equipped and never burnt out.  Once a month, I meet with an amazing team of dedicated shepherds who have been called to gather and guide, love and lead the people in their respective groups.  I cannot say enough how important it is to have the right leaders in place.  And I thank God for each and every one of them.  They are absolutely dedicated to this vision of ministry through small groups.  They pray and they prepare.  Their passion is simply amazing!

Currently, we are participating in a church wide study of Adam Hamilton’s book, The Way.  By having every single small group go through this study during the season of Lent, we are able to build unity in our congregation and create a meaningful and relevant connection to the Sunday worship experience where we are preaching through the same book.  All this is to say, that at SAINT PAUL, our goal is way beyond just gathering people into smaller groupings.  Our goal is intentional transformation.  Our goal is growth and consistency.

IMG_3535ewI often hear from the people of SAINT PAUL how our small group ministry has touched and changed their lives.  They share with me stories of how when they were struggling with some of life’s greatest challenges, it was the support and prayers of the small group that made all of the difference.  Others share with me how much they have grown in their faith and how much they have increased in their knowledge of the Bible.  And still others testify to how their small group is simply their “family”.  It is the place where they find belonging and acceptance.  For me, every time I hear of such stories, all I can do is smile and think about the Acts 2 Church – that first century community that was so committed to Christ and committed to each other – and thank God that same spirit is alive and well at SAINT PAUL!  We are “Living IT” and being transformed! Intentionally transformed!  Praise God.

Some questions to consider:  What are the core values of your ministry that define or are lived out in the context of community?  How do you ensure that such values are at the center of your small groups?  How do you train leaders to be effective agents of transformation and be consistent in holding your values accountable?  And how do you create a culture where the members of the small groups are going deeper in Scripture and being more intentional about accountability?

____________________________________________________________________________________________

KIM-SUN-HEE_150x230 (1)Rev. Sun Hee Kim currently serves as the Minister of Discipleship and Leadership Development for Saint Paul UMC.  Her work focuses primarily on the development of small groups and the training of its’ leaders.  She also works with the young adults at Saint Paul and is actively engaged in the growing OpenCircle Alliance in our conference.”

Small Group Vitality

God has richly blessed our small group ministry. What is the magic recipe for your small groups to be successful? I don’t know. I can tell you why I think some of our small groups are successful. I believe we have to invite Jesus to our small group endeavors. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” (CEB)

I am prone to compartmentalize my life in order to remember everything. Small groups or gatherings of other Christians allow me to break down my compartments and share my life with others. We are a Christian community and are not made to live this life alone. Small groups and gatherings are a safe, non-judgmental place I can go to love and feel loved aside from my weekly visits to church for worship, study, and gatherings. My small group participation is like visiting my family away from family. We laugh and celebrate, cry and mourn together. Just like my biological family, I can rely on my family in Christ to love me, scold me, and make me whole because Jesus is there to guide us on our journey together.

So is there a secret to this? I don’t think so. God made us all different, and these differences allow us to come together for His good. We must love, respect, and communicate in order to be successful. Don’t leave anyone out and don’t be afraid to try something different or new every once in a while. Now a few words on becoming “clickish” – just don’t do it! Jesus was always welcoming and so should you! We are all in this together for God’s glory so let’s let Him use us!

This doesn’t have to be rocket science. What can we do to make our small groups more open to accepting others?

______________________________________________________________________________________

Michael IIMichael Ridgeway
Director of Christian Education
Sparks United Methodist Church

THRIVE

Living in Authentic Christian Community

There were about 12 people in the group ranging from ages 17 – 80.  I was the 17 year old.  In this small Christian community was a couple that had been married over 50 years and another over 25 years.  There was a young mother of two children and various other people from very different stages and experiences of life.  We really didn’t have anything in common except that we were followers of Jesus.  We met for 12 consecutive weeks and the experience changed my life.

It was an experiment in practical Christianity.  Each week we sought to live into the previous week’s discussion about what it meant to be a disciple of Christ.  When we returned the following week we shared how that experiment went and discussed a new aspect of the Christian life to “try-out” the next week.  I received so much from each member of that group even though none of them was close to my age.  They even said that they received much from me even though we were far apart in years.  Somehow God used this most unlikely grouping of people to communicate Christ’s presence, guidance and life.  We became a real community in a few short weeks.

This phenomenon is miraculous – but ever since that small group experience 36 years ago, I see it happen all the time.  Where two or three gather in Christ’s name, He is there and the group becomes something more than people meeting.  It becomes a means of grace where Christ ministers to each person through the others.  People thrive in small groups like these because they embody the essence of the church – people who are growing as apprentices of Jesus, who love, serve and know God.

We are made to thrive in Christian community.  Most of us can experience that most directly in a small group that is designed for this purpose.  For many people, however, the biggest stumbling block to being a part of a group is time.  We are such busy people that we have a hard time fitting everything in.

Small groups that thrive are not meant to be something that we add on to an already busy schedule.  When they are healthy, these groups integrate life and make living well possible.  Through Christian community we draw closer to Christ who is the Lord of every aspect of life.  The closer we move Him to the center the more we find a healthy rhythm.  The more we push Christ to edge, the more chaotic is our life experience.  Christ brings order, direction, energy and purpose to all that we do. The busier your life, the more you need a small group in which to thrive.

How to contribute to your Small Group.

  • Come expectantly
  • Come prepared.  Have a daily habit of devotion.
  • Be mindful of one another between meetings.
  • Listen for Christ
  • Be honest
  • Be consistent (make it a priority)
  • Share at the level you are ready
  • Keep confidentiality

Questions for reflection and response

Share your best small group experience.  What made it work?

What is your biggest obstacle to participating in a small Christian community?

How can a small group help you practice the spiritual habits that can draw you closer to Christ?

________________________________________________________________________________

blakebusick_resizeRev. Blake Busick
Pastor
First UMC, Santa Rosa

What is the state of your soul?

I believe in small groups. But, understanding the importance of small group ministry in our faith communities is so much more than counting the number of small groups in a congregation, or how many unique persons are attending a small group – in fact, I’m not sure that investing oneself in a small group is a ministry, at least, in the traditional sense of the word.  Instead, I think our commitment to live in covenant relationship with others is a fundamental expression of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ – it is a condition of the heart and spirit, rather than a set of things we do together.

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist tradition, understood this distinction quite well.  He developed his system of classes, bands, and societies, not as a new small group ministry initiative, but as a means to support a movement of the Spirit that was already alive and well among the people of 18th century England. The purpose of the Wesleyan small group was simply to ask this primal question of faith: “What is the state of your soul?” Wesley understood that honestly reflecting on this question in the context of a vulnerable, yet safe community will change our lives forever, … something like this:

            Fred Craddock, that great preacher and biblical scholar, tells a poignant story of going home to Tennessee, back in the 1960’s.  When he was home, he always went by to see his good friend Buck, they had grown-up together.  Buck owned one of the restaurants in this small town.  Fred would go in, get a piece of chess pie and a cup of coffee.  “How ya doin’ Buck?” he’d say.  Every year it was the same.

            But this particular year, oh around 1963, Fred went in, but, it was different – “How ya doin’ Buck?”

            Buck said, “Hey Fred, let’s go for some coffee.”

            Fred said, “What’s the matter.  Isn’t this a restaurant anymore?”

            Buck said, “I don’t know.  Sometimes I just wonder.”

            So, they went for some coffee.  They sat down at this other diner in town and pretty soon Buck said, “Did you see the curtain?”

            Fred said, “Buck, I saw the curtain. I always see the curtain.”

            You see, what he meant by the curtain was this: There were a number of buildings in that little town; they were called shotgun buildings.  They were long buildings and they had two entrances, front and back: one’s off the street, and one’s off the alley, with a curtain and the kitchen in the middle. Buck’s restaurant was in one of those buildings.  If you were white, you come in off the street; if you were black, you come in off the alley.

            Buck said, “Did you see the curtain?”

            Fred said, “I saw the curtain.”

            Buck said, “The curtain has to come down.”

            Fred said, “Good. Bring it down!”

            And then Buck said, “That’s easy for you to say.  Come in here from out of state and tell me how to run my business.”

            “Okay, leave it up, then.”

            Buck said, “I can’t leave it up.”

            “Well, then take it down.”

            Buck said, “I can’t take it down.  Don’t you understand?”

You see, Buck’s in terrible shape.  After a while he simply said, “If I take that curtain down, I lose a lot of my customers.  If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.”

“What is the state of my soul?” I grew up in the land of shotgun buildings, and I understand Buck’s struggle.  In fact, I can name the people in my life, all whom I love, who stand on both sides of that terrible struggle, … and the struggles that continue to this day.  I also know that I managed to “save my soul” (even in the midst of terrible, heart breaking struggle), because of the covenant relationships in my life, … those small, safe groups of faith and meaning that accepted me just as I am, while challenging me to live more fully into the image of God in which I was created. I thank God for those “small groups” that changed my life forever.

Current demographic studies tell us that approximately 50% of the people living in the communities surrounding our churches in the California-Nevada Annual Conference identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”  So, … much like 18th century England, the Spirit is alive and well among the people which we are called to serve. And, much like Wesley and the people called Methodist, we are called to support the movement of the Spirit in our midst.  The good news: we don’t have to create it; we just need to nurture this movement in new and creative ways.  The better news: I am willing to bet that the fundamental question is still the same, … “What is the state of our soul?”

___________________________________________________________________________________

92F892831AC547D480D33F5CFC2AF106_Rev_Greg_Bergquist1_webRev. Greg Bergquist
Conference Superintendent for Leadership Development
California-Nevada Annual Conference