How to create spiritually vibrant people

I read this verse in my quiet time this morning:

All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. Colossians 1:6 (NIV) [Emphasis added]

I take “growing” in this context to mean, “numerical growth.” Growth that you can display on a graph. Paul was a numbers guy.

In the next paragraph Paul uses the same Greek word:

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, (11) being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully (12) giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. Colossians 1:10-12 (NIV) [Emphasis added]

The Colossians were growing numerically and Paul prayed that they grow in knowledge of God–we might say, “grow spiritually.”

Question: do these normally go together, or not?

To hear some people talk, you would think they are necessarily separate. “We are not growing much numerically, but we sure are getting close to God and each other.” Or, “We are not about numerical goals; God isn’t into numbers. We just work on going deep with God.” Or, “God has all the people he wants to have at that Bible Study.”

The assumption behind these commonly heard statements is that numerical growth and spiritual growth are opposites of sorts. You can work on one or the other, but it is difficult to get both. The pursuit of one gets in the way of the pursuit of the other. It is hard to have both.

Turns out, this is not true. Groups that are growing numerically are 55% more likely to be in the high spiritual vibrancy group when compared with those that are not growing numerically. Spiritual growth and numerical growth normally go together. It is a rare thing that people are actually growing spiritually and the group is not growing numerically. More commonly, spiritual vibrancy and numerical growth go together.

For a group to say, “We are working on spiritual growth, not numerical growth” is like a football team saying, “We don’t worry about the score; we just try to be good football players.” Turns out, good football players and winning scores normally go together.”

Imagine going to the bank to ask about your account. “I’d like to check my balance.” “Oh, here at Friendly People National Bank we don’t really care so much about numbers. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

Or, imagine you overdrew you account and complained to the bank because you have had a twenty year relationship. How do you think that would go over.

Imagine a weather man saying, “It is going to be nice tomorrow. I don’t really know the temperature, because I don’t do numbers.” (At least he is honest!)

Imagine your son came home and you asked him how he did on the test. “I got some number right and some number wrong, but I don’t really care about numbers, Dad.”

I think it is one of Satan’s greatest lies to suggest that numbers don’t matter. You hear it all the time. “Well, we didn’t have a very good crowd, but everyone was there that was supposed to be there.” Really? God didn’t want more people to hear the gospel, or be trained, or be taught the Bible? I don’t think so.

If you would create really spiritually vibrant people, engage them on mission in pressing toward the goal of advancing the kingdom, reaching people for Christ and growing the church. We grow as we push against something. Growing is not just sitting around the room talking about the Bible. It is also doing. It is spiritual exercise. It is serving the Lord AND learning about God and talking to God.

There is another practice that contributes to spiritual vibrancy.

Conversational Prayer

I was a late-comer to the practice of reading. I remember bragging to my friend Bill that I was in the middle of my college years and I had never read a book outside of assigned reading in class. Bill’s response jarred me, “That is so sad, Josh, you are cutting yourself off from all kinds of knowledge.” I wanted to argue, but I knew he was right. (One of the reasons I believe in conversational teaching is my life has been radically changed like this through conversations.) Sense I knew nothing of books or authors, I asked for a suggestion. It is scary to think about this moment, because had Bill suggested a crummy book, I might have never discovered a love for reading. He didn’t suggest a crummy book. He suggested what turned out to be a life-changing book: Rosalyn Rinker’s Learning Conversational Prayer.

The concepts taught in conversational prayer have been a part of most of the groups I have lead ever sense. This simple practice has been the basis of some of the riches spiritual times I have had in my life. If you have not read Learning Conversational Prayer, run, don’t walk to get a copy. And, here is some good news: I just checked; you can get a used copy on Amazon for $.03. You read that right, 3 cents. Why haven’t you clicked yet?

Conversational prayer is, well, like a conversation. Like a conversation. . .

  • You don’t go around the room and pray; you just pray one person at a time, in random order.
  • You can pray as often as you like or not at all.
  • Like a good conversation, there is balance but not symmetry in the participation. In other words, everyone is participating in a more or less balance way, but it is not like everyone is praying for exactly two minutes each.
  • Some won’t pray at all. That is fine. Just like in a conversation, some people prefer to listen more than talk. I have never been one of those people.
  • If two people start praying at the same time, you do what you do in a conversation. One of you backs off. It is slightly awkward, but you get through it–just like in a conversation.
  • The prayer tends to stay on topic, and then gradually shift to another. Say we start praying about an upcoming marriage retreat. Two or three or four people pray about that. Then there is a pause. People sense that we are finished talking (praying) about that. So, someone shifts the conversation to something else. Perhaps a couple more offer a sentence or two about that. Then the conversation with God moves on to something else.
  • Just like a conversation, there is often short periods of silence. I usually warn people about that: “Don’t be afraid of the silence. Just talk to God. Or just be still and know that He is God.” We are so seldom still. We are so seldom quiet. Don’t you love the verse that says, “Let all the earth keep silent before Him.” We seldom obey that command.
  • One person is assigned to wrap things up. This could be the group leader, or could be someone else.
  • Try to minimize the time you spend sharing prayer requests. (If I remember right, Rinker suggests you don’t spend ANY time in sharing prayer requests; just dive in to praying. Don’t tell each other about the requests, just tell God, and let others listen.) As in many areas of life, balance is a good thing. I say, “minimize” the time you spend in prayer requests. Many groups spend far more time talking about prayer than they spend actually praying. Better to just dive into prayer, as Rinker suggests. But, I think there are some times when a prayer requests requires a little explanation. So, you might want to spend some time explaining things that need explaining.

For more on conversational prayer, you might look at a previous article I wrote here Better yet, read the book–it is three cents! (Plus shipping, of course.)

Question: does conversational prayer help to produce spiritually vibrant people? Turns out it does. Groups that participate in conversational prayer are 63% more likely to be spiritually vibrant compared with those who don’t participate regularly in conversational prayer. Conversational prayer helps produce spiritually vibrant people. But, that is not all it does.

Good things often come together, and a host of other good things come with groups that participate in conversational prayer. They are more likely to have a atmosphere that is positive and uplifting. They are more likely to report accountability around having a quiet time. They worship more often in their groups. The atmosphere is open and honest and encourages transparency. They are more likely to have strong friendships in the group. They are more likely to be growing numerically. They are more likely to feel loved by both the teacher and the group. In every way a group can be better, conversational prayer will tend to make it better.

Why not give conversational prayer a try in this week’s Bible Study group?

Practical Teaching leads to spiritually vibrant people

Practical teachers are more likely to produce spiritually vibrant people — by a wide margin. Groups where the teaching was described as very practical were more than twice as likely to report high levels of spiritual vibrancy.

Groups where the teaching is practical were also more likely to be growing.

I was watching the clock in Sunday School. About five minutes to quitting time. The conversation was interesting–even spirited–but I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going. I raised my hand. My teacher called on me.

“In about five minutes, we are all going to be walking out that door. (I pointed to the door.) What exactly do you want us to do about what we heard today?”

(Aren’t you glad I don’t attend YOUR group?)

That line got to be the running joke in class for months to come. If ever the conversation would get the least bit off subject, my teacher would say, “We need to get back on topic, because I know what Josh is thinking: what do you want to do about what we heard today?”

The truth is, everyone of your students is thinking the same thing. Every week. All the time. What do you want me to do about what we heard today? They may not say it. They may not be as frank as I am (My middle name is Frank). But they are thinking: what do you want me to do about what we heard today?

Every teacher every week ought to provide a clear answer to this question: what do you want me to do about what we heard today?

Practical teaching matters. It was the second most likely predictor of spiritual vibrancy. Those who enjoyed very practical teaching were 125% more likely to be highly spiritually vibrant to those whose teaching was only somewhat practical. Practical teaching matters. Practical teaching produces spiritually vibrant people.

Practical teaching

In some circles, practical teaching is seen in contrast with deep teaching. Deep teaching is spiritual and theological, and, well, deep. Practical teaching is seen as light and fluffy, shallow, and sometimes, man-centered. How-to preaching and teaching doesn’t get all that much respect.

But, how-to teaching is what Jesus taught is to do. This is one of my favorite examples. See if you can find the mistake in this rendering of the Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)

Did you find it? Here I will quote it right. See if you can find the difference:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)

Find it? “Teaching the to obey,” not, “teaching them everything I have commanded.” The difference is crucial. The object is Christian teaching is not to make smarter sinners. It is not to create people who can quote the facts of the Bible buy live like the devil. It is to create people who act like saints. We are out to create people who are a little more loving, a little more joyful, a little more kind, a little more at peace, a little less anxious, a little less angry, a little more like Jesus.

Spurgeon said, “It is a right thing to have practical teaching in connection with sound doctrine, and common-sense in conjunction with deep spirituality.” –Spurgeon’s Collected Sermons – Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.

John MacArthur said, “Paul returns from the lofty heights of theological instruction (chaps. 1 and 2) to the basics of practical Christian living. For Paul, theology was not merely abstract reasoning, but practical truth to affect daily life.” –MacArthur New Testament Commentary – 1 & 2 Thessalonians.

Practical teaching is not an add-on. It is not an extra. It is not optional. It is not just nice-to-have. It is not left to the individual to figure out how to make the application. Application is what teaching is all about. Application is the point. We are to teach people how to. How to pray. How to know their spiritual gifts. How to serve. How to be a good dad. How to give. How to control your tongue. How to beat bad habits. How. How. How. How to live the Life.

Speaking of how, let’s talk about how to teach practical, life-changing lessons.

Good application comes from good doctrine

There is nothing more practical that clear-headed thinking about theology. The book of Ephesians is a great example

  • Chapters 1 – 3 Theology
  • Chapters 4 – 6 Practical application of theology.

If you want to build people of faith, confidence, optimism and high self-esteem, don’t start with how-to. Start with good theology. Don’t talk about the student. Talk about God–how God is all loving and unconditionally accepting. Talk about the fact that we are sinners and God accepts us in spite of our sin. Talk about how the cross made it all right. Once we have those truths straight, we go on to how we can apply those things to our lives.

If we want to help people with their finances, we don’t start with teaching them to buy Quicken. That might come later. We start with God–how God owns everything and He has made us to be stewards. Talk about how the purpose of money is to glorify God. Talk about the poor. Talk about giving. Then, when the foundation is laid we can move on to practical steps to manage money.

If you want to teach people about service, don’t start with a spiritual gift test. Start with God. Talk about how God is a worker. Jesus said, “My Father is always working.” Work is good. Work pre-dates the fall. It is not a punishment. When we are working near the sweet-spot of our gifting, we find fulfillment and joy in life. Lay the foundation of theology, then get practical.

Always end with “so what?” Remember these three letters: YBH (Yes, but how?) Remember my question to my teacher: what do you want me to do about what we heard today.

The opposite can also work. Start with life and ask, “What does the Bible have to say about this?” Give biblical answers, not answers from Readers Digest or Oprah. Illustrated, perhaps, from Readers Digest, but answers from the Bible.

Good teaching is about connecting the Bible to life. It needs to have both the Bible and life. You can start with the Bible or you can start with life, but be sure and include both. Be sure and connect the two.

Distinguish: what we could do and what we are going to do

It is helpful to distinguish between what we could do and what we are going to do. By making this distinction, it frees the mind to think of multiply ways that might help us apply the Word. Ask questions like:

  • What are ten ways a husband could serve his wife?
  • Let’s go around the room and each person state one way we could reduce worry by 50%.
  • Let’s divide into two teams. You will each have two minutes. Let’s see which group can come up with the most different ways we could be involved in evangelism.

Try to emphasize as you are in this phase that we are not committing to do anything. We are just brainstorming things we could do. Because we are not committing, it frees the mind to be creative. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. We are just talking about things we could do.

Then, we ask for the sale: what are you doing to do? or, what do you want to do about what we talked about today?

This application can take of of two forms.

Baby steps and the big order

Often times, the best way to do application is to ask for baby steps. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Sometimes we ask people to live holy and godly lives and they can’t figure out how to get to square one.

The Navigators have a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. The point is not limit your time with God to seven minutes. It is to make quiet time accessible. It is to make it doable. Who can’t set their alarm seven minutes early? It is a baby step. Anyone can do it.

Once you get there, you might have so much fun that you want to do more. But, if the teacher asks for an hour of prayer, it might be so overwhelming that he gets nothing. Sometimes we do well to ask for baby steps.


Sometimes, we ask for too little. We do well to go beyond–way beyond baby steps from time to time. Sometimes we need to ask the group to lay down their lives and follow Christ. Sometimes we need to ask them to quiet being half-hearted. Sometimes we need to ask them for commitment. Sometimes we need to ask for the big order. There is a place in this world for the big challenge.

This is how Jesus operated. At first, he asked for baby steps. He said, “just follow me.” No big commitments. No contracts. No signing on the line. Just follow me.

Only later did he say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 (NIV)

Often we need to ask for baby steps; eventually we need to ask for the big order. You have not because you ask not.

Cost / benefit

I read this in my quiet time this morning: “Honor your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise–“that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3 (NIV)

Whether stated or implied, this is the promise of all commands: that it may go well with you. God gives us commands so that life will go well with us.

If you want to persuade people to apply the teachings of scripture, point out often that the commands are given so that it will go well with us. It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life. This is the subject of next week’s article, and the #1 thing distinguishing classes that create spiritually vibrant people.

Positive atmosphere contributes to spiritual vibrancy

I have read a lot of self-help / pop-psychology books and audio programs over the years. Books by people like Brian Tracy, Ziq Ziglar, Denis Waitley , and Jack Canfield. Reading this kind of literature is like eating fish–it is good as long as you realize you have to throw out the bones. There are a few bones to throw out, but I have found a lot of good stuff in there as well.

I have long thought that preachers would do well to include some of that good stuff–some of that message of hope and optimism and you can to it!

Well, in recent years, we have an example of a preacher who has done just that — Joel Osteen. And, it has worked marvelously. This message of hope and optimism and you can do it has grown to be the largest church in America–almost twice as big as whoever is second. Most pastors, and most teachers could learn a thing or two from Joel Osteen.

Having said that, I am not a big fan of Joel. The problem of Joel is that, well, he has too much of Joel. Is there a medium ground?

I heard the sermon Joel preached the week after September 11. The gist was, “We saw a lot of terrible things happen this week. But you don’t need to worry about those things happening to you because you are a child of God.” Bzzz. Bad theology.

Still, I think we could learn something from someone we might disagree with at times. Most teachers and preachers could lean into being a little more positive, faith-filled, optimistic and hopeful.

The problem with much of the preaching and teaching I hear is that it is too much gloom and doom and you are dirty rotten sinners and need to straighten out and the world is getting worse and worse and we can long for the Leave It To Beaver Days, but they are never going to come back and the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing we can do about it and we were told in the last days terrible things would happen and we just need to hunker down and wait for Jesus to rescue us from this mess. (Is that a run-on sentence?)

That data bears this out. Classes that are marked by spiritually vibrant people at more than twice as likely (125% more likely) to create spiritually vibrant people compared with those who don’t describe the atmosphere as positive and uplifting.

Groups with an atmosphere that is positive and uplifting are also more likely to experience growth.

Question: how do we create a biblical, balanced, hopeful, faith-filled atmosphere that is positive, uplifting, and true to the Bible? I can think of four statements that ought to permeate our preaching and teaching.

We are loved even though we are sinners

Question: does the Bible teach a high view of man, or a low view of man? Is our problem thinking too highly of ourselves, or two lowly of ourselves? My answer: “other, please explain.”

From one perspective the Bible teaches a very low view of man. We are all sinners. The best we can do–our righteousness–is like filthy rags. We do well to humble ourselves before an exalted God.

From another perspective, as the old hymn had it, “Red, brown, yellow, black and white, we are precious in His sight.” We are worthy that the Father would give us the life of His son so He could be close to us. If I gave up the life of my son so I could be close to you, I’d be pretty frustrated if you didn’t feel loved. One of my favorite passages on this is this passage from Zephaniah:

The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV)

God takes great delight in you. He sings over you like a mother singing lullabies over her beloved child.

I did a sermon once on one word. Sometimes we preach an idea. Sometimes we preach a chapter. Sometimes a passage. Sometimes a verse. Sometimes a word: beloved.

It was a messy, meandering message. It didn’t have a lot of structure; no three points and a poem. Just one point: you are God’s beloved. He adores you. He loves you. He likes you. He wants to hang out. I read several passages where the word beloved is used in scripture, tried to explain the context–no brilliant insights from the Greek–just paraphrasing what is obvious from any English translation. The message wandered back and forth from the stories in the Bible to application to today’s life. At one point I said something like, “Maybe there is someone where who doesn’t feel loved. You don’t feel special. You don’t feel treasured. I want to stand before you as God’s spokesmen and ask you to repent. Repent of not feeling loved. Embrace your status before God as loved by God. Embrace your status as his treasure, the apply of His eye. Embrace the view of yourself that God has of you.” The message wandered on like this for half an hour. I think my preaching professor would have flunked me.

It was the most complemented sermon I have ever preached. As I reflected on that I came to realize that I have probably spent too much time in my preaching and teaching telling people what they ought to do and should have done and not enough time telling them they are God’s beloved.

You wouldn’t have to hear me preach very many times before you heard me pronounce one of my favorite words: balance. If the beloved message is all you ever preached, you would not be preaching the whole counsel of God.

We have the mistaken belief that we need to have a little condemnation to make people behave. Romans 8.1 teachers condemnation has no place in the Christian life. No place. It is not condemnation that makes us behave. “It is your kindness, Oh Lord, that leads us to repentance.”

We can do better even though we have failed

A positive, uplifting atmosphere means that we are loved. It also means we can do better. We can beat worry. We can get out of debt. We can develop discipline to spend time in the Word and prayer. We can loose weight. We can restore relationships. We can double our classes and grow our churches. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Too much group talk is just the opposite. It is not positive and uplifting. It is not hope filled and faith filled. It is poor me, we are just a bunch of dirty rotten sinners and we are just like the world and it will never be any better we just have to learn to live with it. Who wants to come to that? How does that create spiritually vibrant people? It doesn’t Spiritually vibrant people are created in an atmosphere that is positive an uplifting.

Not to say that we can be perfect; only that we can do better. We can make substantial improvement. We can be significantly more loving, noticeably joyful, visibly at peace. Jesus really can make a difference in our lives. It is real. It is significant. It is visible.

I knew a man in the Philippines who was, by his own admission, a very bad man. His name was Mr. Gepte. (pronounced as an “H”). He had two wives and 24 children and was mean as a snake. He used to cut people with razor blades just for kicks. You didn’t want to be his enemy. But, Mr. Gepte got saved. My dad says, “I can’t defend this biblically, but it seems to me that some people get saved and some people get really saved.” Mr. Gepte got really saved. He visited his son shortly after he was saved and his son could see the difference. The son said, “My Poppa has a new man inside.” He had never heard of 2 Corinthians 5.17 (“If any man is in Christ he is a new creation. . “) but he observed that his daddy had a new man inside. And, it wasn’t a flash in the pan. My dad later trained his son and grandson in Bible School. The prayer of his life was that all of his 24 children would come to Christ. My parents visited Mr. Gepte on his death bed and rejoiced with him that God had answered his prayer and all of his children had come to know the Lord.

Romans 8.28 is still true

Life is hard. Sooner or later, we all realize it. Life is hard.

I heard this growing up and I got the idea there were speed bumps in life. I am not talking about speed bumps. I am talking about train wrecks. Sooner or later most of us have them. A divorce, the death of a child, the untimely loss of a husband. Sooner or later, it happens to most of us. Life can be really, really hard.

But, Romans 8.28 is still true. God can make all things work together for good. He can take a quadriplegic like Joni and giver her a world-wide platform. He can take Chuck Colson’s jail sentence and turn it into an international prison ministry. He can take the pain of your life and bring good from it.

God is God. That is it. That is enough.

I did a fascinating study of Hebrews eleven a few years back. You know the passage–the famous faith chapter. It is an encouraging chapter. One sound bite after another of people who conquered and overcame through faith. Then, the writer turns a corner. See if you can spot the sharp turn in this passage:

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. 31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. 32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned ; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Heb 11:29-38 (NIV)

Here is my take-away from this passage. When we pray we cannot be certain that God will answer any particular prayer the way we have asked it, except for the prayer for the forgiveness of sins. Sometimes God says, “yes.” Sometimes He says, “no.” Sometimes He says, “later.” Sometimes we pray that He takes this thorn in the flesh from us and He says His grace is sufficient. Jesus prayed, “take this cup (the cross) from me.” The Father said “no.” Faith is not being certain that God will positively answer any particular prayer–except the prayer for forgiveness.

What is faith, then? Here is what it means to me: God is God. That is it. That is enough.

God is God. That is it. That is enough. We can’t be sure He will do this. We can’t be sure he will fix that. We can’t be sure that He will do any particular thing. We can be sure that He is God. He is good. He is wise. He knows all things. He loves us. His ways are not our ways; they are above our ways. We may not like the way He runs the universe at times. We may not like the way He runs the circumstances of our lives at times.

Pastor Kenton Beshore is fond of talking about “double-fisted faith.” He takes the phrase from this passage:

(16) Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. (17) If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. (18) But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18 (NIV)

I draw your attention to these words: “Even if He does not.” I believe that God will deliver us, but even if He does not, we believe that God is God and that is enough. We believe God can heal, but even if He does not, we still believe that God is God and that is enough for us. We believe that God can, but even if He does not. . .

God is God. That is it. That is enough.

People who feel loved are more spiritually vibrant

We move now into the top tier of things that really matter in terms of creating spiritually vibrant people. We have talked about things that didn’t matter very much, things that mattered a little. These things matter a lot.

The first one is feeling loved by the people in the group. Here is the statement: “I feel loved by the people in my group.” People who strongly agreed with this statement were more than twice as likely (111%) to be in the top tier of spiritually vibrant people when compared with people who only agreed, or disagreed with that statement. Creating a group where people strongly agree that they feel loved by the people in the group creates spiritually vibrant people.

Feeling loved also had a positive correlation with the growth of the group

Isn’t this what the Bible says?

Jn 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Jn 13:35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Jn 15:12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
Jn 15:17 This is my command: Love each other.
Ro 13:8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.
1Th 4:9 Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.
1Pe 1:22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.
1Pe 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
1Jn 3:11 Love One Another
1Jn 3:11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
1Jn 3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
1Jn 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
1Jn 4:11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
1Jn 4:12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
2Jn 1:5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.

How can this happen?

I asked my wife to share a testimony:

One of the wonderful things in my life is that I love and feel loved by the ladies in my Sunday school class. Not only do I love them….I’m crazy about them and at the risk of sounding full of myself, I think they’re pretty ga-ga about me too!

The thing is, I haven’t always felt that way. Same ladies over the past few years, but very different feelings. I have been a part of this class for four years, but it took close to two years before I felt a close bond with most of them. You want to know what made the difference between just being a part of something and feeling community? Feeling like a family? Spending time with them. And it’s not JUST spending time with them that made the difference. It is what we talk about and share during that time that builds that “girlfriend” kind of love. It all started when someone in our group had a wonderful idea. The idea went like this…”Let’s all get together for lunch this month and bring a gift for all of the gals who have birthdays during that month.” We all liked the idea and showed up for lunch – I think there were 8 of us-we’ve been doing it ever since.

During those times together we’ve found out that one of our friends lost two husbands in tragic accidents, we’ve prayed with one of our pals whose son was in a horrible accident while serving in the military – that same friend lost her mother who she was very close to. We prayed for her and were sad with her. Our group truly knows what it means to bear one another’s burdens. One in our group has grown children who haven’t spoken to her in years. All of us who are mothers (and not all of us are) grieve with her and do our best to be there for her as friends who understand. This same friend just lost her sister after taking care of her during her last days. We’ve had financial struggles, job changes, and sickness, but we’ve also had celebrations and happy times to share. There is nothing like cheering with a friend when they or someone in their family has experienced victory. When you’ve been praying for them, it’s your victory too!

For me, it’s pretty easy to figure out. You want to love and be loved by those in your small group? Make spending time with them a priority. I know you are busy, so am I, but you’ll figure out a way to make it happen if you really want to. I guarantee it is an investment worth making. You’ll grow to love ’em and think they’re “all that”. Who knows? They might just think the same of you!

Survey says. . .



How to create close personal friends in the group. Here are a few more findings we discovered as we drilled down deeper into the data:

  • Home groups tended to do better and making people feel loved than did on campus groups.
  • Size of the group didn’t matter a lot one way or the other.
  • Discussion groups felt loved more often than lecture-oriented groups.
  • This was surprising. Groups with practical teaching were more likely to feel loved by the people in the group–by a huge margin. Those in practical classes were two and a half times more likely to feel loved as compared with those in content-oriented classes.
  • Groups with accountability were more likely to feel loved than those who didn’t have accountability.
  • Groups that were open and honest and encouraged transparency were over three time as likely to feel loved by the group.
  • Groups that regularly participate in conversational prayer are twice as likely to feel loved by the people in the group.
  • Groups with more activities were more likely to feel loved by the people in the group.
  • Here is a no brainer. People with lots of friends were more likely to feel loved by the people in the group, by a margin of two and a half times!
  • Growing groups were more likely to report feeling loved by the people in the group. (Or, is it the other way around; we can never be sure what causes what.) It may be that groups were people feel loved are more likely to be growing. All we know for sure is that feeling loved and growth tend to go together. The opposite is also true. People are not as likely to feel loved in a group that is not growing.
  • Where people felt loved by the teacher, they are (nearly) seven times more likely to feel loved by the people in the group. This was, by far and away, the biggest differentiating factor we discovered.
  • Having attended a group a long time tends to make us feel more loved by the people in the group, but only marginally so.

Summary: if you want to create a group where people feel loved, concentrate on the following: plan lots of group activities, create an atmosphere of openness and honesty, pray together in conversational prayer, and love the group yourself.

Groups that worship together are 86% more likely to be spiritually vibrant

Rick Warren taught us there are five purposes of the church and five purposes for our lives. They key to life and the key to church is to keep these purposes in balance. Do not emphasize one at the expense of another.

You might be surprised to learn that everyone does not agree on the whole balance thing. (You might also be surprised by this. I heard and early teaching by Rick–back when his church was small, like five or ten thousand–and he taught about the four purposes of the church. He didn’t add fellowship in until later.)

I have heard Bill Hybels say we need to give a disproportionate amount of time an attention to one purpose–evangelism. He says balance does not work. They try to be unbalanced in favor of evangelism.

Steve Sjogren doesn’t believe in balance either. He believes that the purpose of service can be the driver for all the rest. Servant evangelism, he calls it. Service drives the evangelism which gets people in the church where they can be disciples, worship and fellowship. Service drives the train.

From one perspective, you could argue that my plan–the double your class through hospitality plan — is a fellowship-driven plan. Fellowship drives people into groups where they are saved, discipled, worship and serve.

If I understand John Macarthur’s philosophy of ministry, he is all about discipleship through hour-long expository sermons. This is equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. The saints are equipped, the service gets done, the evangelism gets done, worship and fellowship get done. Discipleship drives everything else.

Jack Hayford teaches we ought to emphasize one purpose above the rest as well, but he chooses a different purpose–not fellowship, not service, not evangelism, not discipleship but worship. Worship is the key driving purpose that raises the tent for all the others to work under.

What do you think? Should we:

  • Keep the purposes balanced? (Rick Warren)
  • Emphasize evangelism above the rest? (Bill Hybels)
  • Emphasize service above the rest? (Steve Sjogren)
  • Emphasize fellowship above the rest?
  • Emphasize discipleship above the rest? (John Macarthur)
  • Emphasize worship above the rest? (Jack Hayford)

You might be surprised by my answer: I’d give the nod to putting worship slightly above the rest. It is one of the reasons we start every conference with worship. Why?

  • The Bible says it is fitting. It is just right. It is fitting that the upright would praise Him.
  • Jesus said that if He is lifted up, He will draw all men unto himself. Lifting up seems and obvious allusion to worship. This is the message of Sally Morgenthaler in Worship Evangelism. There is something inherently attractive to the world to see a people enthusiastically adoring God.
  • We are taught that we get close to God through worship. Isn’t Christian living all about getting close to God? What is discipleship if it is not learning to live close to God? Psalms teaches that we enter his gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. We might say, “We get into God’s neighborhood with thanksgiving and into His living room with praise.” We get into God’s are code with thanksgiving and up close and personal in praise.
  • Praise helps us to get the Lordship issue right. Christian living is centrally about who is boss, who is Lord. Worship helps to clear our thinking about this. As we sing, “I exalt you!” we are reminded that He is God and I am not. Discipleship is all about learning to live under the Lordship of Christ. Worship helps us with that.
  • Worship builds fellowship. There is something about the common experience of exalting our one God together that makes us feel closer together. We cannot all get closer to God without also getting closer to each other.
  • Jehoshaphat demonstrates the importance of worship in one of my favorite Old Testament stories. He faces his enemy with the choir leading the army. The enemy is defeated. Gotta love that story. Here is a great line: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. Love it.
  • Worship is just a wonderful experience. Worship at its best is joyful worship. Piper: “He is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” You love to worship, don’t you? It is, for me, more fun than Six Flags. If there were not any redeeming, noble quality about worship, I’d still want to worship because it is so much fun.

Worship creates spiritually vibrant people . Groups that regularly worship together are almost twice as likely (86%) to be spiritually vibrant when compared with those who don’t worship together.

By the way, worship also correlates positively to growth. Groups that worship together are more likely to grow:

And here is some good news. It is easier than it has ever been for a small group to worship together. Used to be, you had to have musicians–someone who could play the piano or guitar or something. Although that is still the preferred approach–nothing like live musicians–we have good alternatives that we can use in the absence of good live musicians.

A simple and easy way is just to bring in a boom box and crank it up. Let me say a word about volume. Volume matters, and more is generally better than less. Having said that, it can be over done. Unless you are teaching youth, you probably don’t want it rock-concert loud. But, you do want it piano-and-organ-and-full-orchestra-and-choir-and-full-auditorium-singing-loudly-loud. You want it loud enough that people can’t hear themselves. If people can hear themselves sing, they won’t sing.

I have experienced this quite commonly in my seminars. We generally start with one worship song. Occasionally I have brought my guitar, but, honestly, although I enjoy playing, it is more worshipful if I leave it home. A good live musician is better than canned music, but in my case, canned music is better.

I use some wonderful DVDs from IWorship. (Technically, I use the MPEG version. This way, you load them all up on your hard drive and you can play any songs in any order, and you don’t have to lug DVDs around. See ) Often, I am not in control of the volume–the sound guy is. Usually they have someone with some musical sense and he or she will get it about right. But, sometimes it is too soft and people just don’t sing. Or, some young guy is back there and cranks that baby up and. . . whoa! It is not worshipful; it is just irritating. More irritating to the older people in the crowd than for me. I have seen them hold their fingers to their ears to block the sound. Not a good sign. A time or two, I have had them walk out. REALLY not a good sign.

Still, let me emphasize, nine times out of ten if the volume is wrong, it is wrong on the side of too quiet, not too loud. Let me say one last time: volume matters. It matters a lot.

Musical style matters too. One musical style is no better or worse than any other musical style. it is a rather egotistical thing when someone refers to a particular style of music as, “church music,” “spiritual music,” or, “God’s music.” To suggest a particular style of music enjoyed by a particular group of people located in a particular geographical location at a particular time in history is special to God and better than music in Africa or South America or music enjoyed five hundred years ago or five hundred years from now is the height of egotism. The music I like is God’s music and the music you like is suspect. Please!

Musical style matters. Some music tunes my heart to sing His praise. Other music makes me laugh. Other music makes me cry. Some music bores me. Some music angers me. Some music makes me want to scream. Style matters.

Style is not the point. The question is not, “what style is best?” But, “How can we lead these people to worship God? What style will help us get these people to God.” Whatever style will do that is a good style.

Quality matters. It is easier to worship God with a piano that is in tune than it is to worship God when the piano is out of tune. It is easier to worship God when the musician knows what they are doing. Look it up; the bible speaks of skilled musicians. Not just musicians with a good heart; skilled musicians. This is why, in my case, I play a video rather than play my guitar and sing.

The worship is going to go a little better with a big, bright, projector and a beefy sound system than it will on a nineteen inch TV with a three inch speaker. I understand there are limits to the quality we can provide. Do the best you can do. Quality matters.

Of course, one thing matters more than all issues of quality: heart. I have a friend, David Delgado who is a fantastic worship leader. Here is how I would grade his skills:

  • Singing B+
  • Guitar playing B+
  • Piano A-
  • Worship leadership A+++

It is all about heart. I know a hundred guys who can sing better and play better, but they can’t bring a crowd to God like David can. It is a gift-a gift that is nurtured and cultivated, but a gift.

One more thing. Don’t limit your worship to group time. Encourage people to live a a lifestyle. Encourage them to do what I do sometimes on Sunday mornings. Get up an hour early, pop in an IWorship DVD. Crank it up loud. Spend an hour with God worshipping before the worship service. Encourage people to listen to worship music as they drive. Invite them to get a guitar and learn to play it. Lead people to love worshipping God.

We will spend all eternity in worship. Let’s get to practicing.

How to create spiritually vibrant people, part 3

I read these verses in my quiet time this morning

  • From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16 (NIV)
  • My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, Colossians 2:2 (NIV)
  • He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Colossians 2:19 (NIV)

What do these verse have in common? I have put the words in bold. These words translate one Greek word: SUMBIBAZO. Gotta love the sound of that word. Say it three times out loud. SUMBIBAZO. SUMBIBAZO. SUMBIBAZO.

The word means to be connected. What these verse tell us is we only grow as we are connected. We don’t grow, can’t grow alone. We grow as we are connected together. John MacArthur comments on this word’s usage in Ephesians 4.16:

The power for being equipped and matured into lovingly authentic proclaimers is not in believers themselves, in their leaders, or in church structure. The Body receives its authority, direction, and power as it grows “up in all aspects into… Christ,” from whom the whole body [is] fitted and held together. The two present passive participles that these phrases translate are synonymous and are meant to express that the close, tight, compacted correlation of function in the Body as an organism is the result of Christ’s power. That does not negate the efforts of believers, as proved by the phrases by that which every joint supplies and according to the proper working of each individual part. Each of these phrases is extremely significant in conveying truth about the function of the Body. Christ holds the Body together and makes it function by that which every joint supplies. That is to say, the joints are points of contrast, the joining together or union where the spiritual supply, resources, and gifts of the Holy Spirit pass from one member to another, providing the flow of ministry that produces growth.

The proper working of each individual part recalls the importance of each believer’s gift (v. 7; cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-27). The growth of the church is not a result of clever methods but of every member of the Body fully using his spiritual gift in close contact with other believers. Christ is the source of the life and power and growth of the church, which He facilitates through each believer’s gifts and mutual ministry in joints touching other believers. The power in the church flows from the Lord through individual believers and relationships between believers.

Where His people have close relationships of genuine spiritual ministry, God works; and where they are not intimate with each other and faithful with their gifts, He cannot work. He does not look for creativity, ingenuity, or cleverness but for willing and loving obedience. The physical body functions properly only as each member in union with every other member responds to the direction of the head to do exactly what it was designed to do. — MacArthur New Testament Commentary, The – MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Ephesians.

Only connected people grow. We would get this straight every time if someone were to say to us, “I have a vibrant relationship with God. Me and Jesus go golfing every Sunday morning.” We might quote the familiar passage, Hebrews 10.24 that speaks to the importance of not neglecting to meet together. I want to misquote this verse to make a point. See if you can catch me. Misquote of Hebrew 10.24 – 25

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (25) Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us meet together and sit in straight rows and watch the same events happen on the same stage–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)

Here is the real verse. See the difference?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (25) Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)

This verse is not a command to come to church as we normally think of church. It is a command to encourage one another. Encourage one another means I encourage you AND you encourage me. It is a participatory meeting. It is not sit in straight rows and watch the same events together. If you are not encouraging and being encouraged Hebrews 10.24 – 25 is not happening. The verse not to let that happen.

Andy Stanley says it this way, “Growth happens in a circle.”

James 5.16a is instructive at this point: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

I take a pretty broad definition of sins here. Somewhere it speaks of sin as everything that falls short of God’s glorious ideal. Everything that is not glorious and ideal is sin. That is quite a bit in my life, how about you? Confess means to talk about it. Get it out in the open. Admit it. Come clean. You don’t have it all together. Your life is a bit of a mess and so is mine. We are all messy, just in different areas. No one has it all together.

This verse teaches us that we move a little closer to the goal (find healing) as we confess. Question: what healing comes to the person who talks to God and God alone about their sin?

Answer: none. We are promised forgiveness in 1 John 1.9. This verse has to do with healing.

As Rick Warren says it, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”

Things in darkness don’t grow. Get them out in the open sunlight and they thrive.

And now, we have the data to back this up. (Did we ever need anything more than the Word of God?)

Here was the statement: “The atmosphere in my group is honest and open and encourages transparency.” Participants who agreed or strongly agreed with that statement were 69% more likely to be spiritually vibrant when compared with those who were neutral or disagreed with that statement.

If you want to create spiritually vibrant people, create an atmosphere that is open and honest and encourages transparency.

How to create an open and honest atmosphere

First, let’s define what we mean. Balance is a good thing. There is a such a thing as too much information. What we are looking for is appropriate levels of openness and honesty, and opportunities to go deeper in other contexts.

How much openness and honesty is too much? When people start to feel uncomfortable. You are a reasonable person; you will know it when you see it. And, this is rarely the problem. Rarely is the problem too much openness and honesty. Most of the time the problem is not enough openness and honesty.

Too many groups spend too much time on theoretical and theological musings about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin when people in the group are dying with issues of depression, boredom, fatigue, relationship difficulties and so forth. Good groups talk about real issues and real life and the people are real with each other. We don’t sit around and smile when we are dying on the inside.

Take the issue of giving for an example. Listen in the next time the subject comes up. You would think, from listening to the conversation, that everyone has been faithfully tithing for years. Then look at any number of sources of data. Look at information on national giving records. Divide your church’s budget by the number of members. Do the math. A lot of us are not tithing–no where close.

But, rarely does anyone ever speak up and say, “I am really struggling in this area. I am not doing all I’d like to do and all I should do. Please pray for me.” And, James 5.16 teaches that until that someone speaks up and confesses that sin to someone, it is not going to get a lot better. You are only as sick as your secrets.

So, how do we create an atmosphere of openness and honesty?

Answer #1: slowly.

In some areas of Christian growth, we do well to do what one old hymn writer said: plunge in today and be made complete. This is not one of those areas. You do well to wade in slowly. Gradually get a little more honest and open and see how the group reacts. Does anyone freak out? Do people know how to keep a confidence? Do they tend to pounce and try to fix, or do they relate and encourage? They may need some coaching on how this works.

Here is another thing. The sharing should be more or less balanced. If everyone in the group is sharing their secrets, there is not a lot risk of someone breaking a confidence. It is called equal vulnerability. I will keep your secret because I want you to keep mine. If one or two people are doing all the honesty, you will have problems.

Answer #2: with grace AND truth.

Grace says, “You failed; we understand. We love you. It doesn’t make us love you one bit less.

Truth says: “We love you too much to leave this way. We are going to speak truth to you. If you keep this up, it could kill you. You could pay a price you don’t want to pay. We admonish you: quite now. We will help any way we can.”

John Ortberg tells the story of bearing his soul to a friend. He told his friend of all the hidden junk that he was so embarrassed about. it was so hard. He talked and talked, pealing back one layer after another. Finally when he was all finished, his friend looked him the the eye and said, “John, there has never been a time I loved you any more than I do right now.” That is grace. We all need that. Not just from God, but from human representatives of God. Your class needs that and I challenge you to create an atmosphere where it can happen.

Answer #3: lead by example.

If you want them to open up, you open up. Tell what is really going on in your life. There is something that is magical about a group that is open and honest and real. But you must set the pace. You must open up if you want them to open up. Again, not too much. Appropriate openness.

Answer #4: monitor the groups reaction to honesty.

There is a tendency to want to pounce and fix. There is a tendency of six people to give simple platitudes about how they can easily do better if they will just decide to do so. Not to say some advice giving isn’t occasionally a good thing–sometimes people want answers, not just Kleenex. Again, balance is in order. But, most groups err on the side of giving too much advice too quickly and not near enough sympathy and understanding. Sometimes, we don’t want answers. We just want to have a safe place to open up and for people to be understanding.

Job’s friends don’t win a lot of prizes for friendship in my book. But, they did start out pretty well. Check this out:

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. (12) When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. (13) Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13 (NIV)

That is brilliant. Did you see it. They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word. Brilliant. Sometimes you need that.

I remember one time I was going through a really difficult chapter of my life, and was having a very bad day. I was near-suicidal. My son came home and found me curled up in a fetal position in bed. It was the middle of the afternoon.

“Are you sick, Dad?”

“No. Not sick. I am just not having a very good day.” [My life was not glorious and ideal.]

I will never forget what he did. How God imparted the wisdom to do this I will never know. This is the grace of God. He lay down beside me, put an arm around me and held me. He didn’t move and he didn’t say anything for half an hour or more. What could he say? He had the good sense to close his mouth and just hold me. I will never forget that day when my son held his daddy on a very bad day.

When someone speaks up and talks about a part of their life that is not all pretty and all together, you might need to do some coaching. You might say something like, “Now, guys, this is a tender moment and Jim has really taken a risk being honest with us. I want us to encourage him in any way the Spirit leads. Resist the urge to give advice that he hasn’t necessarily asked for. Resist the pride of thinking you can fix a problem in three minutes that he has struggled with for years. Think about how you would want to be treated in this moment. Jim, I’d like to start by saying to you, ‘Thank you for your honesty. We all struggle in different ways and to different degrees. This doesn’t’ make us love you any less–in fact, I think I speak for all of us–we have never loved you more than we do in this moment. We don’t know all the answers. We have ideas you might think about, but we don’t pretend to have all the answers. But, we want you to know we are going to walk you through this difficult time. We will pray for you and be there for you.'”

There is one more thing. It is not just about what happens in class. It is in, through, and around class. It is the little cluster of men that hang around afterwards. It is the group of ladies that decide not to bowl that last game so they can get some nachos and visit. It is lunch with a friend. Groups are not just about what happens in groups; they are also about the opportunities that groups create.

If you would create spiritually vibrant people, do all you can to create an atmosphere of appropriate openness, honesty, and transparency. Teach on it. Model it. Coach it.


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