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When Small Groups Get It

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Today I knew for sure that my small group “gets it.” We have been together for quite a while now. Members have come and gone and we have worked through many different studies, but today I was reassured that the members of our small group have figured out the essence of the small group experience.

A few days ago Rick sent a group text asking us to pray for his wife as she took a very important test that could affect the future of her career. (Rick is not his real name, and yes, I did get permission to share this story outside of the group.) Today He sent another group text just to let us know that she had passed her test and they appreciated our prayers. Immediately, we all began to text our congratulations and words of support. As I looked at those text messages I was overjoyed as I realized these people are sharing life together. That’s what small groups are all about.

I hear you saying, “John, it was just a couple of text messages about a test! That’s not that big a deal.” Well, that’s kind of my point. It’s not the earth shattering revelations or the mind blowing discoveries from studying together that make the group so powerful. It’s the day in and day out sharing of life. It’s the celebrations over passed tests or a kid’s touchdown last Friday. It’s the empathy over family problems or frustrations on the job. It’s about rejoicing together and mourning together and living in harmony (see Romans 12:16).

It doesn’t really matter what you call them, “Small Groups,” “Life Groups,” “Cell Groups,” “Home Groups,” etc. Whatever label you apply to them their goal is the same, and it’s simple. Small groups provide a way for people to connect and then share life together. It’s not about the curriculum, or the series, or the food, or the setting. It’s about the people.

The fact is, if you are a person you need people.

You need a connection with others that goes deeper and means more than a kind word and a handshake during the greeting time on Sunday morning (see Acts 2:46).

As a matter of fact, I would argue that we are “doing church” best when we are in small groups. Sunday morning worship is important. It’s vital to the life of the church and the faith of the believer, but it is in small groups that we are best able to be the church. In small groups we live life together and encourage each other to fulfill our gifted roles in the body of Christ (see Hebrews 10:24-25). Andy Stanley is the well-known pastor of a large church. Comparing the way the congregations meets on Sundays and how they meet in small groups, he recently said in a podcast, “We are famous for our rows, but the strength of our churches is what happens in circles.” In rows we can worship together and learn together, but in circles we can love one another, take care of each other, encourage one another, and carry out all of the other “one another” commands in scripture!

Small groups are not complicated. They are just groups of 8-14 people who get to know each other, take care of each others, learn and grow together. It’s just a few people sharing life together. We get it now. How about you?

My Ministry Plumb Lines

plumbA carpenter or mason might use a plumb bob attached to the end of a string to form a plumb line. The bob pulls the string into a straight and vertical line. Whatever is built along that line is completely vertical and said to be “true.”

Over the past 30 years of ministry, I have established 5 plumb lines that guide my ministry. Anything that does not “line up” with these principles must either be adjusted or rejected.

Here are my Ministry Plumb Lines:

  1. God deserves our best. We serve an awesome God Who is worthy of the very best we have to offer. Settling for the easiest thing or the most convenient way is not enough. He deserves only our best efforts.
  2. We need to focus on church health instead of church growth. The church is more of an organism than it is an organization. Like many organisms, the church can grow in unhealthy ways. Since it is the Body of Christ, we must do all we can to make sure that it is healthy. When the church is healthy growth will happen, but growth in itself cannot be our goal.
  3. We do church best when we do it in small groups. Worship is vital to the life of the church and the life of the believer. However, in corporate worship we miss the opportunity for true fellowship, that is sharing life together. Small groups allow for that opportunity. It is in a small group of some kind that we learn, grow, and serve most effectively.
  4. Worship is about what we do for God, not what the church does for us. Many people misunderstand the purpose of corporate worship. That time is not primarily about what you can “get out of it,” or about the kind of music you like the best. Real worship is about God’s people giving God glory through sacrifices of praise. It’s really about Him, not us.
  5. The local church should have a positive impact on it’s community. God placed our church in the community in which He intended it to be. We are to be salt and light to that community. The church should be actively involved in the community and should work to make their community a better place for all their neighbors.

The Savior Died

The first line is not original. It is often heard from the pulpits of African American congregations. It is that line, however, that inspired the poem:

 

SaviorDied

They hung Him high and stretched Him wide
His Father turned away and His mother cried
His enemies mocked Him and His friend stood beside
The crowd cheered and the soldiers jeered, but He never replied
False leaders were relieved and faithful followers were terrified
A perfect sacrifice was required and only He was qualified
The Lamb was slain and God’s wrath was satisfied
The sun went out and darkness was applied
They ripped His body and pierced His side
One thief believed and the other denied
Angels wept and demons tried to hide
Sin was atoned and sinners justified
So men could live, the Savior died

 

6 Great Ways to Use Your Cell Phone in Church

cell-phone-in-churchWhen you come to church, don’t turn your cell phone off! Sure, you want to mute the ringer during worship, but don’t turn off the phone. There are some great things you can do with a cell phone that will help you and your church grow! Here are just a few of the best ways to use your cell phone in church:

  1. Check in to reach out.  Years ago, Monday was outreach night. We would come to the church to get a list of “prospects” and then go out in the community and visit with those prospects to invite them to come to our church. To be honest, I never did like Monday night visitation. Today, one of the best means of outreach is right there in your pocket. When you arrive at church, “check in” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. When your followers, friends, and family see that you are at FBC West, that tells them that something worthwhile is going on there, and that if they decide to come, they know you will be there to help show them around!
  2. Tag and hashtag. When something special is going on at your church, post or tweet about it and be sure to tag the church which will drive people to the church’s page or profile. Also, use a hashtag that identifies your church, like #FBCWest. One of the best ways to use social media in church is to quote your pastor or teacher when he/she says something that inspires you. When you post a quote, tag the speaker and use the church hashtag. That is a powerful way to expand the ministry of your congregation and spread the good news beyond the walls of your church. Worship hint: In order to avoid being distracted by all of the pics and notifications in your social media apps, you might prefer to write down the quote in your notes app, and post it when worship is over. 
  3. Read the Bible — there’s an app for that. Don’t you hate it when the preacher says, “Open your Bible to…” and you realize that your forgot to bring your Bible? Well, you never have to worry about that again, because you can have the Bible right there on your phone (and let’s face it, there’s no way you’re going to forget your phone). Not only is it more convenient to carry  your Bible on your phone, but it’s also much easier to find the exact text you’re looking for. Now you don’t have to feel like you’re in a race to get to the passage before the deacon next to you does. It’s easy to just open the app, tap on the book, chapter and verse and start reading. There are a number of different Bible apps for IOS and Android. My favorite one is full of options like reading plans, highlights, bookmarks, notes, verse of the day, audio, and the best part is it’s free! Look at bible.com
  4. The givin’ is easy. In 1934 George Gershwin wrote an aria for the opera, “Porgy and Bess,” in which the singer declares, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.” We can adapt that idea a little and say that in church today, it’s summertime and givin’ is easy. You don’t have to check off a bunch of nosy questions on your envelope in Sunday School any more. You don’t even have to remember to bring a checkbook so you can put a check in the offering plate. All you have to do is go to the church website on your smart phone and give online, or better yet, just give your tithe and offerings via text! It’s really that simple. A while back we realized that most people don’t carry checkbooks anymore, and a lot of folks don’t even carry cash these days, so passing the plate on Sunday doesn’t give them a way to participate in worship through giving. We fixed that, so now if you want to give to FBC West, just pull out your cell phone and text a dollar amount to 254-221-7191. The first time you give this way, you will fill out a simple form, and from then on, it’s summertime and the givin’ is easy!
  5. It’s worth noting. The easiest way to take notes on a Bible lesson or Sunday morning message, may be right there on your phone. You can take notes in a word processing app that you downloaded, or in the notes app that came with it as part of the operating system. I use mine all the time and find it very easy to refer to my notes later because they are always with me, instead of in a notebook that I only pick up on Sundays. For serious note takers, I highly recommend the app called Evernote which is chock full of amazing options and will link with all of your devices so you can easily get to your notes no matter where you are.
  6. Coming soon: YouVersion Events. This is an exciting app that we are going to begin using at FBC West later this summer. It is actually part of the Bible app I described earlier. With it, we will be able to put a basic outline of the message directly in your hands and you will be able to fill in the blanks and add your own notes. We can also use it to show you images or scripture references from the message, share our announcements, suggest web links and other resources to follow up on that week’s message, and more. It will also give you an easy way to share ideas, events, or parts of the message with your friends.

Obviously, during worship you don’t want to let your cell phone distract you or anyone else from really worshipping and learning, so you have to use some self-discipline to make sure you stay connected to the Lord and the church. In other words, wait until later to text those emojis or make that call. Wait until later to crush that candy or stalk your friends on Snapgram or Instachat. Faceworld and the Twitterverse will still be there when you get to them after church, and let’s be honest – LinkedIn is just boring anyway.

This is not about sitting on the front row making sure everyone sees you on your cell phone. This is about using the technology we have in a way that honors God, and helps us grow and minister to others. (Just for fun, see the video that was produced a few years ago when our phones got “smart” and started infiltrating our church experience.)

See you Sunday, fully charged and ready to go.

Gunshots and a Helicopter

It was Labor Day weekend and I was working outside in the flowerbeds. I had my earbuds in as I listened to an audio book on my cell phone. I thought I heard something so I took out the earbuds and realized that I was hearing gunshots. Soon a helicopter flew over my neighborhood. Over the next few minutes I heard more gunshots and watched the helicopter circle over our neighborhood a number of times.

Gunshots nearby and a helicopter circling overhead would have been scary if I lived in a big city, but I don’t. I live in West. Actually I live just on the edge of town. Where I live, gunshots on Labor Day weekend just mean it’s dove season. And a helicopter circling over town on that particular weekend just means West Fest is having another successful year and folks are enjoying their sightseeing flights over our great little town.

It was good to be reminded of just how blessed my neighbors and I really are.

#WestIsBlessed

3 Suggestions to Help Teachers Start the New Year

In our local school district, the first day of school is this Monday. The first day of school is always hectic. Frightened, confused students and parents all show up at once and everyone has more questions than answers. It would be easy for teachers to get overwhelmed on that first day. You meet so many different students who have so many different needs and are on so many different levels intellectually, emotionally, and developmentally, that you wonder, “How in the world am I supposed to be able to connect to all of these kids at once?” Soon the behavior problems begin to appear and you struggle with the best ways to guide students who don’t want your guidance. They need limits, but push those limits constantly. And then there are the parents who should be in your corner, but seem to work against you at every turn. You work after hours and weekends with little or no break-time during the day. Unfortunately, current trends in our state laws seem to make this difficult job even more difficult. You deal with all of this for a salary that is not close to what you deserve. Educators have a tough job, without question. I admire and respect people who continue to show up for work day in and day out even though it is a hard and sometimes thankless task.
When it gets tough, let me challenge you to think of three things:
1) Remember when you were a student. It wasn’t really that long ago was it? Now you walk the halls with the assurance and confidence that comes with adulthood and a title by your name. But you can remember how big and scary those halls looked when you were a kid. You remember the constant fear that you might do something or say something that would make the other kids laugh at you. You really wanted the other kids to like you, but you were quite sure yet if you liked yourself that much. You remember that you wanted attention, but at the same time, you just wanted to fit in. That’s a pretty hard balance to keep! Remember how you saw the world differently than you do now? Part of that was due to a lack of experience, and part of it was due the simple biological fact that your brain was not yet fully developed. Younger students are trying to figure what is real, and older students are trying to figure out who is real! You can relate to your students more effectively if you can remember what it was like when you a student yourself.
2) Celebrate your victories! I’m not talking about getting the equipment you wanted, or the schedule you fought for, or more money for supplies, etc. Those are not your real victories. Why not? Because those are not the reasons you became a teacher. Your victories are much more subtle, yet immensely more meaningful. Many teachers never notice them, which is a shame. When your student finally understands the simple fundamental point that you’ve been stressing for weeks, you have just won a victory! When your student asks a question that lets you know the student is actually thinking, you have just won a victory! When your student has the opportunity to know what it means to accomplish something worthwhile, you have just won a victory! You get the idea. Look in the right places for the real classroom victories – and celebrate every single one of them!
3) Never lose you muse! I have to admit, I am probably exaggerating the use of the word, “muse,” but what I am saying is, “Never forget what inspired you to become a teacher.” Why did you choose such a difficult profession? It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the fame. It wasn’t because everyone would love you. What motivated you to become an educator in spite of the challenges? I bet I can guess. I might be off, but for most educators who read this, I bet I can tell you how you were motivated to enter into a life of education. My guess is that somewhere along the way there was a teacher who connected with you. Maybe it was no big deal at the time, but looking back, there is one or two teachers who come to mind. They opened a new world to you, or at least they found a way to shed some light on the world around you. Their influence affected you and now you want to have that influence on others. Don’t get discouraged with things like schedules, regulations, work hours, and bus duty. Those are not the things that define you because they are not what brought you here. Focus on why you teach! You teach because someone reached you by teaching! Soon you will face a classroom of students ready to be taught. Here is your opportunity! This is what you’re about. They may never thank you, and you may never realize it, but you are about to impact someone’s life! It’s what you were made to do. Somewhere down the line, a few years from now, some of those students will look back and realize that you inspired them. Perhaps they will go on to inspire others, and your influence will outreach your own life!
The first day of school can be overwhelming at times. You will meet kids with ADD, HDD, OCD, ODD, and a couple who seem to be DOA. It will challenging and scary. You may even feel the urge to cry a little, but hang in there. You’ve got this. On the last day of school, you will feel the urge to cry a little again, because you have built relationships with those little monsters and you love them and hate to see them go! Until that last day of school gets here, remember what it was like to be a student, celebrate your victories, and NEVER lose your muse!

Disaster Donations: 4 Issues Nobody Talks About

When disaster strikes, you feel compassion for the victims. You want to help, but what can you do? The easiest things you can do are pray and give. Your prayers really do make a big difference, but what happens to the money you give? Do your donations to disaster victims really help? I can tell you from first-hand experience, that your donations are absolutely essential to their recovery! Do not let negative media reports or social media posts deter you from generously giving to those in need. However, when you give, you do need to know a few things about what happens to those donations.

West Fertilizer Plant Explosion 4/17/2013

West Fertilizer Plant Explosion 4/17/2013

When the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX killed 15 people and damaged or destroyed half of our town, I began to work to help our community recover and I learned a lot about that process. I won’t take time here for all of the lessons I learned, but I do want to point out 4 issues related to disaster donations that I had to learn the hard way because nobody ever talks about:

1) Organization for Distribution of Funds

There are two types of entities which can appropriately distribute funds after a disaster. In some cases, the city government can distribute funds, however, usually there is a nonprofit organization that assumes that responsibility. As I understand it, a city can distribute donated funds to its citizens by categorizing them and giving certain amounts to people in each category. For example, if you lost a loved one you receive a specific amount; if you suffered an injury, you receive a specific amount; if you lost your house you receive a specific amount, etc. Funds can be distributed quickly that way, but many needs will be overlooked and recipients may have to pay income taxes on the money they receive. If a 501(c)(3) “nonprofit organization” distributes the funds, donors can receive tax deductions, victims’ needs can be assessed on a case-by-case basis to make sure the donated funds meet needs in the most efficient ways, recipients will not pay income taxes on the money they receive, and the nonprofit organization can coordinate with other entities and to increase resources for victims. After the bombing in Boston, the city had a unique partnership that allowed them to used both types of entities for donation distribution. The city oversaw the distribution, but a 501(c)(3) was formed as the fiscal agent. That was the first time that an organization was approved as a 501(c)(3) for the purpose of “lessening the burdens of government” in disaster fund distribution. (See this blog post by the lawyers of One Fund Boston.) In our case, the only person at City Hall who might have been able to organize a fund distribution program, our City Secretary, was one of our first responders who was killed in the explosion, so our only option was to take the advice the Texas Department of Emergency Management and establish a 501(c)(3) organization.

2. IRS Policies Adversely Affect Victims

The IRS has published a document in which they explain how a 501(c)(3) organization can distribute funds after a disaster. You can find that document here. Unfortunately, the IRS argues in that publication that a nonprofit organization cannot distribute money to people just because they were victims of a disaster. Instead, the victims have to demonstrate their need.

“Under established rules, charitable funds cannot be distributed to individuals merely because they are victims of a disaster. Therefore, an organization’s decision about how its funds will be distributed must be based on an objective evaluation of the victims’ needs at the time the grant is made.”  IRS Publication #3833, p. 11
“An organization must maintain adequate records to show that the organization’s payments further the organization’s charitable purposes and that the victims served are needy or distressed. Charities must also maintain appropriate records to show that they have made distributions to individuals after making appropriate needs assessments based on the recipients’ financial resources and their physical, mental and emotional well-being.” IRS Publication #3833, p.13.
In my opinion, those statements establish a bad policy. I think donated funds should be distributed appropriately, based on what was lost, not necessarily on the proof of need. In other words, victims of a disaster should receive donated funds regardless of whether or not they have a savings account. When we have a bad law or bad policies, we have three options: 1) we can ignore the law and risk being penalized or punished, 2) we can accept the law and abide by it, or 3) we can abide by the law, but try to change it. I choose the third option. I am working on a plan in which I hope to contact the appropriate decision makers and encourage them to amend the current IRS regulations so that a 501(c)(3) can help victims of a disaster if the victims can demonstrate loss, instead of need.
3. Disaster Relief Is Not The Same As Disaster Recovery
There are two major phases in disaster response. The first phase is short-term disaster relief. The second phase is long-term disaster recovery. The first phase begins immediately as volunteers, local charities, churches, and government agencies all work together to establish safety and provide essentials like food, shelter, and clothing. There is not a clear transition from the first phase to the second, but they overlap as the community gradually moves into long-term recovery. In this phase, people need assistance with medical bills, insurance claims, utilities, construction, legal issues, etc. While the first phase can last a few days to a few months depending on the nature of the disaster, the second phase can last a few months to many years. When you give money, your donation will either be used for short-term disaster relief, or long-term disaster recovery. If you give to a local church or an established charity, that money will most likely be used for immediate relief. If you give to the big, well-publicized funds that are established after a disaster happens, you will most likely be giving to the long-term recovery efforts. Because of the IRS restrictions described above, the 501(c)(3) will only be able to distribute funds that meet long-term needs.
So should you give to churches and local charities or should you give to the big funds that are established after a disaster? The answer is give to both! The needs are real in both phases. You just need to understand which phase you are supporting. Do not expect that money given to a local church will last long enough to help someone pay their medical bills, or that money given to the big fund will be immediately available for victims to get food or clothes. The recovery efforts in West worked well because we had a tremendous outpouring of donations and resources for short-term relief and we received generous donations for long-term recovery as well. In the first few months, millions of dollars were distributed through monetary gifts, gift cards, vouchers for gas and food, prescriptions, clothing, and many other goods and services. Then when victims started construction, or received medical bills, or needed to replace vehicles, etc. the long term funds were there to help.
4. Forced Mortgage Payoffs
There is an all-too-common practice that is completely unfair and we need to find a way to keep mortgage companies from further victimizing people in this way! The scenario that bothers me looks something like this:
Let’s say Joe has a good job, makes his mortgage payment every month, and carries good insurance on his home. A terrible disaster destroys his home, but he will be alright because he has insurance, right? Not necessarily. The mortgage company steps in and takes all of the insurance money to payoff the mortgage! Now Joe, who did everything the right way, has no house, and no money to pay for a new one! The mortgage company got theirs, but Joe is left out in the cold.
I think that as long as Joe continues to make his mortgage payments, and as long as he can prove to the mortgage company that he is rebuilding a house that is comparable to the one that was lost, he should be able to use his insurance money to accomplish that. The mortgage company can even hold the insurance money and disburse it to the contractor as appropriate. When it’s all done, Joe will have a house and the mortgage company will be exactly where they were before the disaster. Actually, they will be better off, because the house will be worth more since it is newer, and if they ever have to foreclose they will make more money off the deal! If you ever experience a disaster, or if you have opportunity to advise someone else in a disaster, warn them of this practice and try everything you can to communicate with the mortgage company to avoid this devastating trap.
We need to start conversations about these four issues so more people will be aware of them before the next disaster strikes. We also need to encourage law makers to make some changes that will help victims in the future.