Keith, a few weeks ago I watched as John Burke interviewed you at Gateway Church. I am an emerging leader at Gateway and have a few questions for you. First, specifically, why do you think the kind of small group you described is so important?
(You can watch the interview here.)
This one is a great question. And I’ll save your other questions to write about in another blog soon.
In the first place, I want to tell you that for most of my life I hated small groups and refused to be in one. I’m a classic loner in that regard—or rather I was until I surrendered as much of my life as I could to as much of God as I understood and started reading the New Testament. (1) What I discovered was that in Jesus’ three-year ministry the only “structure” he used was one small group of twelve—with the same membership. And that he spent approximately two-thirds of his time with that group of twelve. (2) The only subject or curriculum on which the group seems to have focused was “What is the God really like (whom Jesus called “Father”)? And “how (specifically) would people live if they surrendered their whole lives to the Father and became citizens of the New Kingdom of God (His “reign” over their lives) and how would they live out relationships with the Father, each other and everyone else?”
In that group they tried to do what Jesus did and told them to do, and they asked questions about everything. Since Jesus was living the life (as the first citizen in the New Kingdom), they had him and each other’s experiences to learn from. And besides hanging out watching Jesus, the content of their learning was largely made up of stories (parables, etc.) about how people who were committed to God would live and spread the life and love that Jesus was announcing and inaugurating before their eyes.
The small group was so important that after Jesus left them they chose another member, Mathias, to replace Judas.
And that small group was all Jesus left them. He left no money, no rich donors, no influential people, no buildings and not even a book. (The Old Testament was locked in the synagogue and there was no authoritative New Testament completed until the fifth century.) He had said that their life together could continue after he left because the Personality (the Spirit) they had experienced in him would still be in the midst of them to keep guiding and teaching them.
And it was the same with Paul. He first tried to use the existing churches (synagogues) as his structure but Jesus’ message (and the Christians’ lives) were so different from the life and attitudes of the people in the synagogues of that day that the Christians were usually thrown out. And when they were thrown out, all they had with which to invite (evangelize) the world was to start small groups and replicate the kind of group the apostles had been in with Jesus. He had told them that whenever two or three of them met in his name (i.e. as he would meet), he would be with them. The letters of Paul, Peter, and John were not theological treatises but mostly dealt with specific everyday problems and misunderstandings about how the Father wanted them to live in love.
And the new “family” spread clear across the Roman Empire—mostly one small group at a time—until the Father’s Reign became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire in about 25 A.D. During this time the apostles encouraged and taught the people in the groups by visiting them, writing letters to them and sending lay teachers (like Timothy) to encourage the small groups who met mostly in people’s homes. The subject of these small groups was still mostly about how to live for God, learning how to love Him, each other and other people as they delivered the Father’s invitation to an intimate and eternal life with Him and them.
The bottom line for Paul and John was the commandment Jesus gave the disciples, to love each other. This was so important that Jesus said it was their primary teaching and evangelizing asset. The way Jesus put it was, “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
So I came to believe that our first task as Christians is to learn how to love each other as Jesus loved. And as we experience being loved as we are and loving each other, warts and all, we will not have to be prodded to love the marginalized people Jesus loved, at least that’s been my experience.
Paul described how the transmission of the living/loving way of life that Jesus embodied and taught occurs. It is passed from Christian to Christian in these groups as Paul told the Christians at Philippi in a letter: “Put into practice what you learned from me; what you heard, what you saw and what you realized.” (Phil. 4:9, the Message)
The people in the groups heard Paul (and each other) say he was (they were) trying to live for Christ. They saw him and each other risk reputation and even life for Christ’s cause. And then they realized, “Wow! I can do that, too.”
So to answer your first question, I think that this particular kind of small group is important because this was virtually the only teaching “laboratory” Jesus used to get across how God wanted us to live and learn to enter into a Father-child relationship with God to whom we give permission to be in control of our lives (surrender). And out of that surrendered life we learn how to be in relationship with each other—a way to pray and read the scriptures. And then—out of this supportive, truth-telling, loving culture that develops in the group, we move out into the rest of the world to invite others to step into this loving culture of people who have surrendered their lives to God, and who are allowing God to transform them and the way they relate to others. We invite them to experience this life along with us. But if we are not being transformed ourselves, then the invitation we extend to others will most likely not reflect the reality and love we are being exposed to in the sermons and lives of our teaching pastors.
What I was referring to in the interview with John was a safe small group process Bruce and Hazel Larson and I created where people can go on the adventure of living for God experimentally for thirteen weeks in this kind of group and this perspective of how to live for Christ. The format is so simple that anyone who wants to live his or her life more as Christ wants him or her to live it can have an opportunity to try it in real time with a few others.
We have helped start hundreds of these groups over the years and more has happened to people who have been in these groups than in all the preaching, teaching and book writing we’ve done in the past fifty years.
P.S. Several people at Gateway have started and led some “Adventure” groups. After the closing prayer I have added a copy of a recent letter from a member of Gateway who led a group this year. If you’d like to get in touch with them, let us know and we’ll give you their contact information.
“This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; this time I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts. I’ll be their God, they’ll be my people. They won’t go to school to learn about me, or buy a book called God in Five Easy Lessons. They’ll all get to know me firsthand, the little and the big, the small and the great. They’ll get to know me by being kindly forgiven, with the slate of their sins forever wiped clean. By coming up with a new plan, a new covenant between God and his people, God put the old plan on the shelf. And there it stays, gathering dust.”
– (Jeremiah quote found in Hebrews 8:6)
Lord, sometimes I still wake up lonely and discouraged when nothing is really wrong. Thank you that you have invited us into your family style Kingdom where you can transform us into the creative, loving people you made us to be, so that we can know your peace and be happy living in our own skin. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Letter to Keith
I’m writing to let you know of the profound change that occurred in my small group as a result of doing the 13 week Edge of Adventure group experience create by you and Bruce Larson. Our group went from an intellectual group of socializers to a caring community of honest people who love each other and are committed to walking through life with each other. This 13-week group experience taught our small group how to actively love and live as Jesus did resulting in a profoundly purposeful and vibrant life.
Before this study our small group was literally on the brink of dissolving. We had met together for 2+ years and were “sticking it out” out of a sense of obligation. We were a group of lonely self-centered people who wanted to change but didn’t know how.
As we started this adventure, I noticed an immediate change simply caused by implementing the expectations of this study. There was a safe environment created by the “no cross talk” rule. People who were normally quiet opened up because of the practice of giving each person a chance to speak by going around the circle to answer each question. The confidentiality requirement was a simple, yet critical, element that was referenced many times in the first few weeks as people began to open up and share.
Having you and Bruce on the audio tapes helped set the tone of each meeting in a powerful way. We were able to sense and be inspired by your passion for the discussion topic. We were also assured that it’s okay to have struggles and doubts and that there can be a very real sense of liberation that comes from honestly sharing these thoughts and feelings with others.
I believe that this group experience can be the tipping point for many small groups by helping them develop the community that God intends. When this happened for us, we began to experience a more deep, rich an abundant life. It’s not that life will always be fun and easy, it’s that life’s struggles now have meaning.
My small group was so moved by the changes that occurred during these 13 weeks that we want to share this experience with others at Gateway. We simply can’t hold in the blessings we have received as we feel called to share them with others. We want to share this in any way that would be the most appropriate and helpful. We could split up and each visit other small groups or we could all band together to lead this in a large group format. We would like to discuss this with you and the appropriate leadership at Gateway to see how we could be the best service.
Thank you for this course. It has been a blessing!