Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Potted Proverbs: watch the watch!

The study is flowing, the conversation is sharp, funny and moving by turn.

Someone raises an interesting question that everyone wants to comment on. Someone shares a deeply moving need that everyone wants to pray for.

You look at your watch, and it's 10.45.

"Whoa!" you cry, "time these little piggies were all tucked up in bed for the night." Some members shoot out of their seats and head straight for the door. Others linger in the hallway talking by the open door. You stifle a yawn, close the door and switch on the TV to wind down before you go to bed. The light doesn't go off until 12.45.

Sound familiar?

Time can just rush by at a homegroup when things are going well, when enthusiasm and interest seem to be sky high. But did you notice the warning signs in the little scenario above? "Some members shoot out of their seats and head straight for the door."
Before you read on, just pause for a moment and consider what the typical timings for your group meeting might be.

1. Know your group
The enthusiasm and interest of some members can make us blind to the real timing needs of others. In my current Home Group, there are some single men and women who work in the city, a student, a mother with three young children. Even though they are interested and engaged, I often catch stifled yawns from a couple of them. The reason is that their working life means that they rise early, and are often so shattered by 8 or 9 at night that they are really no good for much else than curling up with Cocoa after 9.30. So even though it might seem to be spoiling the fun for everyone else, you really owe it to them to finish in time for them to get home.
Before you read on, just pause for a moment and think about your current group members. Who finds it difficult to turn up on time? Why is this? And whose life situation might mean that they really need to get home by a specific time?
2. Understand how people learn
By and large, people's minds work best in small doses. An hour, or an hour and a half means that everyone will be still able to concentrate and be engaged with the subject (so long as you keep it on track, and don't allow too much digression). Sometimes extending the time you are talking doesn't actually add anything to what people are able to learn and process in an evening.

Sometimes less is more.

3. Leave them hungry for more
I never tire of telling people that good Christian work is nearly always long term, low-key and relational. The real benefits to a Christian's life and discipleship is about growing over a long period of time in fellowship with others - rather than through spectacular one-off events. That is, although individual evenings can have a significant influence, as the Spirit speaks to them from the Word of God, the cumulative effects of being part of a group that prays for each other and works through larger parts of the Bible together is much greater overall.

That has an implication for how you run the timing of your group. It is better long term to leave them hungry for more at the end of an evening, rather than go on for a long time and leave some exhausted. And that's because people will want to come back week after week. Whereas, in the scenario above, everyone will have agreed that they had a great time, but the following week, a couple of people may be thinking: "great time, but I was so exhausted the next day, I fell asleep at my desk," or I'd love to go, but I was so ratty with the kids the following day, that I can't face it."

Have a game plan
My game plan is to start the study at 8.15, pray at 9, and have and allow people to leave at 9.15. I try to make it easy for people to leave who need to. I try to allow those who want to stay for a while to do that. It doesn't often work like that, but having a game plan in mind will help reduce the likelihood of straying into injury time at the end of a long day.

It may feel a little "unspiritual" to work to timings like this. But experience has taught me that ignoring ground rules like this is simply unloving to some group members. So...

Have a clock within your eyeline. Make sure that you have a game plan, and...

Watch the watch!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

potted proverbs: The main thing is the main thing

What kind of home group leader are you? A hippy, an engineer, a gardener or a schoolmaster?

Over the next few weeks I want to unpack (there's that word again!) some of the different leadership styles we may have, and try to work out what the pros and cons are.

Giving some thought to your style of leadership, and how you relate to others and just "be" with a group of people can be very instructive to working out your blind spots in making your home group go with a zing.

I asked the same question in a parenting seminar I ran with a friend a couple of years ago, and it opened my eyes to some dark truths about myself, and how I influence others.

Let me be up front. I pretty much default to Hippy mode when I'm with groups of people. I just love the journey so much, that I'm tempted to forget the destination. I think people in my homegroup have a great and memorable time, but I need to make sure that I have planned, prepared and have firmly fixed in my mind where we need to get to as we open God's word together.

Because, as I have written here, the key purpose of a home group is that we encourage one another with the Word of Christ. When we look at a passage of Scripture, it is God speaking to us - and he has something very important to tell us. It's important for us as leaders to be committed to that, because our social culture is pushing in exactly the opposite direction. Our culture values the  expressing of opinions and ideas and  does not like saying anybody is wrong - especially in matters of morality and spirituality.

But genuine Christian believers are committed to the truth of the Bible as God's Word. This is the only genuinely Christian position, because our master Jesus was committed to that too -  and a servant is not above his master. John 13:16. So we are committed to the belief that the truth of Scripture is objective. It is not about "what it means to me", but "what it means."[full stop]

That's why the Proverb of the title is so important for you, and for my fellow hippies in particular, as we lead a homegroup. Our job in preparation is to come to a conclusion about the main thing that the passage is saying, and to build our discussion, questions, and programme for the evening around the main thing. The main thing is the destination of our time together. Because it is what God is saying to us right now from the part of scripture we are looking at.

Hippy homegroup leaders may start with a destination in mind - albeit a vague one. But as we set out on the highway in our minibus to visit the doctor, we are intrigued by a sign that says "Museum of curiosities 5 miles" and turn off the road. And after spending some time there, we see a sign for "The world's best Cajun restaurant, 3 miles" and slide off in that direction for a while. And then we stop by a lake because it has a beautiful view, and we watch the sun set together. We had a great time. But we never made it to the doctor, and our problems remain un-diagnosed, un-treated and unresolved.

It can be the same with homegroups. We move from one interesting and absorbing distraction to another, and everyone has a great time. Except we never get to where we were going... If you are on holiday, that doesn't especially matter. But when the destination is hearing something really important that the creator of the universe, your saviour and Lord has to say to you, it is shockingly rude and disrespectful. The main thing is the main thing.

Good preparation is always the key here. If you are writing the study yourself, come to a conclusion about the main point, and try to write a summary sentence for what the Bible study is about - your best hit at The Big Idea of the passage.

If you are using a published Bible-study guide, try to choose one that helps you with this. Some studies are just a series of questions that open up the content and logic of the passage, but do not try to focus down onto a single, central idea. The Good Book Guides are a good example of published guides that structure their studies this way.

That's not to say, of course, that you should deny the opportunity to look elsewhere as you work through a passage, and follow some interesting side roads for a while. Nor is it to say that, as you discuss the passage together, you may begin to see that the big idea is a little different from how your first saw it. But the truth is, that if you start without a destination, it is likely that you will end up going nowhere.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Monday, 9 May 2011

Join me at CRE

Just a brief notice to mention that I am leading a seminar at the Christian Resources Exhibition in Sandown (to the SW of London) tomorrow morning (Tuesday 10th May). It's called Building Better Homegroups, and is advertised like this:

Top tips, Biblical insight and innovative ideas to make your home bible-study group go with a zing!

It will be a quick romp through some of the material on this site, together with some other stuff that is yet to be posted here. Be great to see any of you there. It's in the Ayrshire Room starting at 11am.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Thrilled - so sharing!

Front page - send your friends!
Sorry - this is only very tangentially about home group leading, but I was so excited about it, that I felt I just had to share it with anyone who I'm connected with.
We (that is, The Good Book Company that I work for) have just launched a new website designed to help people with questions about faith have them answered in a straightforward and simple way.
Would love you to check it out, pass it on, blog it up, tweet it down, facebook it across, and generally big it over. It has been know for some people to actually speak to each other face to face about things as well - weird but true!
Be massively grateful for feedback, as the development of this site will be a long-term project for us, but here are some of the things we've tried to do well that is new or unique:

  1. Simple, biblical, modern. Our review of other gospel websites out there that are "non-Christian friendly" basically produced a pretty patchy haul. Some of them do some things extremely well, but few embody a strongly biblical approach, and at the same time are attractive, have decently shot video content. They tend to be text heavy, and hard to navigate. Hoping that we have done some of those things well. The aim was simplicity, clarity, and ease of use, with longer text things being secondary to the video content.
  2. International faces and voices. Variety of backgrounds. We've got some big hitters in there, but plenty of "ordinary joes" as well.
  3. Ongoing development. We've a plan to continue development over the next 5 years to make sure that it remains up to date, with changing content. 
  4. We aim to help local churches do the work of evangelism - rather than do it ourselves. The site is designed to support local churches in their evangelistic efforts, by providing a resource that supports your work, and points people who find the site randomly back to local churches where they can hear the gospel in the context of the gospel community.
  5. Designed to work "gently" with CE, but not a platform for its naked promotion. If you don't know it, Christianity Explored is an Alpha-style course that takes people through the Gospel of Mark. It's huge worldwide, but not that well known in the US yet. In other words, there is some CE course content in there, but we hope it is subtle enough that even churches that are not using the programme will find this website a great resource for helping others towards faith.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Potted proverbs: we've aversions to versions

Compulsive comparison disorder
We were boldly plodding our way through Philippians and making great progress until we came to 3 v 3 -- and the evening descended into utter chaos. I won't cloud the issue with the rather complex questions that came out of that particular verse, but the problem was that we had too many Bible translations around the table for our own good.
"He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words" 1 Tim 6 v 4

The blessing of translations
In the developed world, we are blessed with an extraordinary number of brilliant translations that help us get to the core of what the original text of the Bible is and means. We have literal word for word translations in the tradition of the AV, RV, RSV - the most modern being the New King James, and the English Standard Version.

And we have what are called the Dynamic Equivalence translations that try to translate phrase meanings, rather than words. The versions, like the now almost universal NIV and the New Living Translation (NLT) gain readability, at the expense of their making some decisions about interpretation for us.

And finally there are the paraphrases that do a lot of interpretation, and are more concerned with delivering the impact of the Bible using punchy language and modern idioms and expressions. Like The Message and before that the J B Phillips translation and the Living Bible (or the Living Libel as Ian Paisley used to call it).

Taken individually and together, these translations are a wonderful blessing to us. They help us see the richness and the nuances of the original Bible text. They give insight into what a difficult passage may be talking about, and, in the case of the Paraphrases, suggest brilliant ways of expressing these truths in pithy memorable ways, or even illustrating them with word pictures.

The curse of translations
But when you have a variety of translations around the table, especially when you are with young Christians, or even with those who are not yet Christian, they can be a curse. What could be a fantastic opportunity to talk about the challenge and nature of Christian discipleship, turns into a painful slog through the various semantic registers of the word "Confidence" - the whole study grinding to a halt as we run out of time, energy and willpower.

The tragedy is that the really brilliant things we could have been talking about have been hijacked by the fact that we have too many translations round the table. At their best, they can enlighten discussion. At their worst, they can completely derail it.

My solution? Simple.

Insist that there is a main translation that everyone works from in the group. Choose the translation you use, according to the lowest common denominator. And if "the least of these in the Kingdom" can only cope with the New International Reader's Version, or the excellent NCV, then that's the version to use. For most groups this will mean that you gravitate towards a well used standard version like the NIV.

Of course, un your preparation you will, as leader, make sure you have a look and a read of the passage in a variety of the above translations, so that you will be able to give a steer if a question is raised, without going off on a tangent.

And you won't ban people from using other translations. It's just that you will insist that there is one translation that you all default to. That way, you will spend your time talking about the substance of the passage, not nit picking over the details.

Do people think this is the right approach? What versions do you prefer to use, and why? Answers on a postcard (or alternatively, click the button below).

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Brilliant April Fools

The company I work for ran a hilarious spoof advert for a new product - the pre-thumbed Bible here.

Well worth reading the reviews that people independently created - shows that we all recognise the subtle "point scoring" that can take place in Christian circles. Here's my favourite:
 I was so excited about this having been embarrassed in group Bible studies for years. Having bought this Bible though I was disappointed. Major passages of Leviticus had been highlighted and annotated, it wasn't long before everyone in my home group realised it must be a fake. No-one ever reads Leviticus. 
Hoping that the joke is not a reality in any Home groups that you might lead. Be interested to know if it is...