Category Archives: Pray

The Best Small Group Curriculum

Over the past 35 years I have used lots of great books and curriculum in leading small groups and discipleship groups—some of them written by me. Thinking of all of the good material I have used, my favorite small group curriculum now is The Good & Beautiful God, by James Bryan Smith.goodnbeautiful

My friend small group author Greg Bowman commended the book to me several years ago. Based on Greg’s enthusiastic recommendation I picked up the book and started to read it. As I started into it for some reason I thought, “What’s so great about this?”, and I didn’t make it past the first chapter. Then last year our senior pastors, Hap & Di Leman, gave me and all of our senior leadership team a copy of the book and worked through it with us chapter by chapter over coffee on Wednesday mornings. The book thrilled me and was tremendously helpful in accelerating my spiritual journey.

More recently I went through the book with four other guys in a men’s discipleship group early on Wednesday mornings. The biblical principles in the book again were life changing for me and them. As one of the guys expressed, Read the rest of this entry

My Favorite Small Group Curriculum

My favorite small group curriculum right now, the one I find myself recommending over and over to small group leaders, is Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton. I love it. It’s a six-session DVD curriculum on how to connect with God through simple spiritual disciplines.

There are two reasons I love it so much. First, the content is great. Barton makes spiritual practices so accessible and doable. She puts the cookies on a low shelf. In my opinion, the book is kind of a “Spiritual Disciplines for Dummies,” so to speak, which I really appreciate. The second reason I like the DVD curriculum so much is that it minimizes the length of the video segments and maximizes learning and practicing the disciplines. Each session has two short video segments—the first one is on the principles or disciplines themselves and is followed by discussion. The second segment explains how to do a discipline, and then you practice it.

The exercises work! People really encounter God, which is cool and moving.

There are actually three components to the curriculum. First, there is the DVD, which is great and costs just $31.99. Second, there is a “Participant’s Guide,” Read the rest of this entry

Make Disciples Who Make Disciples

I’m a small group enthusiast and always will be, but the longer I have done ministry the more convinced I have become that the heart of it all is making disciples who make more disciples of Jesus.

A Youthful Worship Band Leading La Viña

Last Sunday my wife Vicki and I took a group of our pastoral interns and visited a church that does an amazing job of making disciples—La Viña Communidad Cristiana of Mundelein, IL. A few years back La Viña was a small, struggling church with 45 people, 5 men, 10 women and 30 children. The pastor Homero Garcia almost quit. But inspired by Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-8, he decided to give the church one more year.

Providentially in that year, the pastor was himself discipled by a Brazilian seminary student who became a part of their church. After making prayer and discipleship central in the church, in the intervening years it has grown to become a vibrant congregation of over 500 people that has planted a half a dozen daughter churches.

What has been key to their growth? Two things: intentional life-on-life discipleship and a clear pathway for spiritual growth. Read the rest of this entry

10 Practical Principles for Knowing and Living Out God’s Will for Your Life

How can you know and live out God’s will for your life? Here are ten practical things I’ve discovered that have made a big difference.

  1. Put first things first. What is God’s will for your life? First of all, it’s that you love him (Mark 12:29-30). That’s a simple principle, but it took me a long time to learn it. It really came home to me a couple of years ago when I applied for the job that I have now. I actually applied for this job three times before I got it. I was pretty disappointed the first two times that I applied and was rejected, but as I prayed about it, I sensed God say, “Jim, my primary will for your life is simply that you love me. What’s stopping you from doing that?” So I committed myself anew to take time with God, to enjoy him, and fall more in love with him. I’m glad I didn’t get the job the first two times because it helped me to focus on my real job in life.
  2. Love others. Paul says it so clearly in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. You can have extraordinary abilities and do amazing things for God, but if you don’t love others it amounts to absolutely nothing. Learn to love others joyfully, deeply, sacrificially. It’s a life-long journey, I know. But it’s the only thing that matters in the end. These first two principles cover at least 90% of knowing and living out God’s will for your life. The following 8 principles can address the remaining 10% of it.

    Read the rest of this entry

Slow Down (and Accomplish More)

Last Sunday evening I visited our church’s School of Kingdom Ministry which is a weekly three-hour program that trains people in supernatural ministry like healing and prophecy. As usual, the first half of the class was teaching and the second half was practice. At the end of the teaching portion of the class I spoke briefly and then the group broke into two groups for practice: half of us were to do “power evangelism” praying for strangers around town and the other half were going to help pray for people in healing rooms.

I quietly slipped out, feeling slightly guilty, and did neither. Instead, I went home to get time with my wife Vicki. It’s not that I didn’t want to do one of the practical ministry exercises; it was simply that I had done too much ministry already in the previous week. Lately I’ve been feeling like God is telling me to slow down to allow more time for relationship with him and with others.

When I got home, Vicki and I decided to walk to the Dairy Queen and get cones. A Chinese friend who lives nearby saw us as she drove by and asked us if we wanted a ride. We told her “no thanks,” that we were enjoying the gorgeous weather, and we preceded walking. She drove off in the direction of her house. As we continued walking we texted her, inviting her to get her husband and join us at DQ. She then walked to DQ from her home and got there shortly after we did, but without her American husband. When we asked her why he hadn’t come with her, she said that several weeks ago he had contracted Bell’s Palsy and that the left half of his face was paralyzed and that he didn’t want to go out in public. She also told us that her parents whom we had recently invited to our church’s Chinese ALPHA course had just received Christ as their Lord and Savior at the ALPHA Holy Spirit Day and that they were being baptized this week on Easter Sunday at the Chinese church near our neighborhood. She excitedly shared how their lives were changing and how joyful they were about what God is doing in their lives. She invited us to their baptism.

Read the rest of this entry

Fasting & Feasting

Last night my small group spent the bulk of our meeting just sharing testimonies from the church’s 21-day fast which ended on Sunday. It was a rich time, people really opened up and shared deeply with each other. Almost every adult in the group participated in the fast. There was a lot of variation in what people actually did. A few did the Daniel fast but others cut out sweets or meat or coffee or some combination of those.

People were surprised at how much they enjoyed the fast and how God worked in deeper ways. Most people were making changes in their diet following the fast based on their experiences and their improved health. One guy who typically has several headaches a week, only had one during the entire 3 weeks.

Some people saw significant breakthroughs, but I think the most moving testimony was from a couple who were praying for three specific things. They saw breakthroughs in none of them but they truly feasted on God in new ways during the fast and finished with an assurance that God was in control and would eventually come through in all three circumstances. The husband was especially elated because he felt like for the first time in many years he was hearing God’s voice. And the wife was thrilled that she now has a husband who is listening to and hearing God. This made a big difference in a health crisis that occurred unexpectedly in their family in the middle of the fast.

Everyone was agreed that the church should continue to do corporate fasts and some people were strongly suggesting that we do them more than once a year.

Of course, we don’t have to wait for a church fast to fast and pray together as a small group. I remember the first time I fasted with a small group. We were in a small group in our previous church in Texas. We weren’t the leaders of the group, we were just members, and the leaders of the group left to help plant a new church. Everyone wanted to continue the small group but no one wanted to lead the group. At that time, my full-time job was being a small group trainer and consultant. So, of course, everyone wanted to know if I would lead the group. But besides having a full-time job and four growing children I was in the middle of a Ph.D. program. I felt like I simply couldn’t take this on on my own. So I told the group that if someone would fast and pray for the group each day of the week for a month, I would lead. No one in the group besides my wife Vicki and I had ever fasted but seven people stepped forward. (We only had eight adults in the group!)

God responded to this group fast and people’s seriousness in seeking him. That group which almost ended multiplied five times in the next two years!

What has been your experience with our church fast or a small group fast? What insights or testimonies would you like to share?

Ask and You Will Receive

We’ve seen God do lots of cool stuff in our small group lately. Someone’s severely damaged knee went from extreme pain to pain free, another person’s leg was lengthened 1 1/2 inches when they went forward for prayer on Sunday, a friend on our group’s blessing list has come to Christ and is actively involved in the church.

Jesus said simply, “Ask and you will receive.” Praying is one of the most important jobs of a small group leader. How do you cultivate prayer in your life and in your group?

Here are some small things we do to keep connecting with Jesus’ presence and power.

  1. Vicki and I have written the names of all of our small group members on 3×5 cards that we often pray through together in the mornings before I leave for work. We pray for five or six cards each time and have specific things written down that we are asking God for.
  2. I have a list of the guys on a note on my iPhone that I use to pray through once a week or so.
  3. We get to bed on time so that we can get up early and take daily time with Jesus at the start of the day.
  4. We use a “Blessing List” in our small group each week to pray for our friends that need God. Right now our group has two blessing lists that we use weekly. The men have a list and the women have a list. (See the early blog entry “Pray Weekly, Eat Monthly” if you want to learn more about using a blessing list.)
  5. We try to keep our study and worship time relatively short so that we have ample time for ministry time (and snacks!).

That’s it. Nothing profound. But we’ve found we need to keep asking if we are going to keep receiving. What are you doing to keep bringing your small group, its members and friends to Jesus in prayer?

Pray Weekly, Eat Monthly

Our small group’s outreach is going exceptionally well right now and I thought I’d share with you what seems to be working. It’s pretty simple, really. We pray weekly for our friends that need God and we do a cookout or potluck each month.

Pray weekly: This is really very simple and doesn’t take long in our weekly small group meeting. Right before our Bible discussion, I hold up a laminated 11×17 inch piece of card stock that says “Blessing List” at the top. (Click on the words “Blessing List” if you’d like to download a PDF of the list.) We have asked each person to add one friend’s name to it—someone who needs Christ and who lives near by. After I pull the list out, we talk about it briefly and I briefly pray over the list and the people on it. Another alternative is to move people into pairs and have them briefly pray for the persons that those two people have put on the list.

You might ask, “Isn’t the list awkward when you have guests?” Good question. That’s why it’s laminated. So as to not make someone feel put on the spot, we can easily erase someone’s name before pulling it out. Having it laminated also allows us move someone’s name up and down on it’s openness scale.

Several weeks ago a small group member brought an unsaved friend who’s name was not yet on the list. When my wife pulled out the list that evening, the person asked that we add her name to it and begin praying for her. Who doesn’t want blessing prayed over their life? I don’t know exactly where this guest is in her journey, she told the group, I believe in God but I haven’t been baptized. You could add my name to the list.” We put it near the top on the scale.
The other thing you discover when you use a blessing list or do some form of weekly prayer is that your members really do care about their unreached friends and family members and appreciate the chance to pray and work together to reach them.

Eat monthly: Everyone likes to eat and it’s very non-threatening for someone to come to a cookout. Last night we had a cookout and our host had invited a non-Christian friend. That person asked if she could bring some of her friends. She came and brought four other non-Christians with her! We perhaps set a record last night. There were 12 adult guests (plus a few of their children), most of them non-Christians.

So, that’s my simple advice. Pray weekly for your unbelieving friends and do something fun involving food each month.

What are your thoughts, questions and advice on small group outreach?

Planning with Your Core

I think every healthy small group has a core of people who are closer and more committed than most of the members. Jesus’ small group did. He had twelve close followers, but if you look closely at the Gospels, sometimes he is just with his core—Peter, James, and John (i.e., Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33).

Right now is a good time of year to get together to do some planning and praying with your core.

The core of our group is Vicki and me, our hosts, and our intern. Our hosts invited the core over for a cookout on Sunday to plan for the weeks and months ahead. We hung out and talked. We took time to minister to one person. We ate grilled chicken, steak, pasta salad, and cheesecake. I think I’d forgotten why we got together, but then Vicki said, “Aren’t we going to talk about small group?” So we got out a pen and paper and did some talking and planning.

We talked about what time we would meet (7:15pm this fall instead of our previous time of 7:00). We planned three regular small group meetings, one party and one outreach event for September. We decided to work with SeniorCare, our church’s nursing home ministry, again as a small group this year. We talked about distributing responsibilities better this year instead of the leaders doing too much. We talked about how different members were doing and what new people we should invite. This discussion probably only took about 30 minutes but it was extremely helpful and set the course for our group for the fall.

Who is the core of your group? Have you met with them to chart your course for the weeks and months ahead? What questions or suggestions do you have about making plans for the fall?

Pray, Invite, Eat, Repeat

How do you grow a small group? I think it comes down to four simple actions: pray, invite, eat, repeat.

One reason why I want to write on this is because growing our own small group this year took persistence in these principles. We started strong with three committed couples. Then three other individuals joined us. But those three didn’t stay past our fall Outflow series and one of the core couples moved to Italy. Someone else joined us and for what seemed like a loooong time we had five people if everyone showed up.

What do you do when you have a great group and you just need more people?

Pray. We kept asking God to send us people.

Invite. This can’t be overemphasized. Everyone needs to be in a vibrant small group. Really. Some of them don’t realize it though! Some do. So you invite lots of people. We and our host invited people at the Vineyard, our friends, and even people in the grocery store. Some people we invited repeatedly. I remember one week when we were having a potluck that Vicki and I figured if everyone came that we invited that week we would have 20 additional people. One came. Eventually, though people started visiting and some of them kept coming back.

Eat. Food is important to small groups for lots of reasons, one is for drawing people. For some reason it’s less threatening and more fun for people to visit when you are having a potluck, cookout or party. So eat often. Last month our group had a potluck. This week we are having a cookout.

Repeat. These principles work but they sometimes take time. Persistence is important. Hang in there!

If you want your small group to grow—and you do, right?—I recommend that you pray, invite, eat, and repeat.

What advice do you have for others on growing a small group?