Funerals have a way of clarifying your perspective.
Perhaps it is because we do PowerPoint at funerals these days and we are visually reminded of a life that has passed before us.
Perhaps because it was only 6 weeks ago we were walking the golf course and Jean said to us, "I have been having some headaches lately, I think I will go see a doctor and have them check it out." Six weeks later she was dead.
Perhaps it was because it was personal with me. She was in my Bible study. My small group. My home.
Perhaps because it was Jean. No one seemed more alive. No one smiled as much, laughed us much, kidded as much. She drank deeply from life. She seemed to burn the candle at both ends and yet not get burned. No one seemed more alive than Jean. Now, she is dead.
Perhaps. I am not sure. I just know that Jean's funeral has had a way of clarifying my perspective.
I am reminded that none of us has forever.
"Life is a vapor," the Bible says. A mist. Here one moment and gone the next. That is what the Bible says life is.
Next time you pour yourself a really hot cup of coffee, try this little experiment. Watch as that steam rises gently from the surface of the coffee. (It has to be really hot coffee to work.) Blow gently over the surface of the coffee. See the steam dissipate? That is my life and yours. Here one moment and gone forever.
It is so easy to feel like we will live forever. It feels like we have forever to serve the Lord, to love our kids, to make a mark, to do something for God. We don't. It is here one minute and gone the next. Life is a vapor.
Whatever I want to do for God I need to do NOW. I don't have forever. Time is limited. Life is passing. Live with passion.
I am reminded of the value of small, really small, groups.
Several hundred people attended Jean's funeral. There was a sharing time that was rich and meaningful, lasting about half an hour. A few-mostly the family--spoke of stories of a life-time--times when Jean was growing up and days long ago.
Most spoke of a more recent days. Quite a few pointed to a specific time frame of about 6 years ago. Several got up and said, "I have known Jean about 6 years, and. . ."
Then, one friend, Tim, reminded us why so many spoke of this same time frame of six years.
Six years ago we moved back to Las Cruces to start a church. We had moved to Lubbock and lived there for 9 months. Things didn't work out as well for us there as we had hoped, and it was good to be back home again. We had both kind of grown up in the desert of New Mexico and it just felt home to us. (I lived my younger years on the mission field of the Philippines.)
My first book deals with the fact that most of the time when churches build buildings the process of building that building will kill the growth the church is trying to provide for. A curious little unexpected bend in the road that kills the momentum of most growing churches.
There are a lot of reasons for this dynamic that I won't go into here. Because of this dynamic, I had long thought, "What if we were to start a church that meets on Saturday night using someone else's church building?" Then, when we run out of space, we can move to a bigger hall. If part of the people won't move with us, we can leave a group behind and become a church planting machine.
Great idea, except for one thing. It didn't work. We couldn't get a crowd, at least not a big crowd, to show up on Saturday night. I did two ten-thousand piece mailings. I think two couples came to one; Only one to the second. Jean, along with her husband, Bob, were one of those couples.
Week after week our little group of 20 or so had church on Saturday night. We would have a worship service--sometimes there were more in the band than there were in the audience. We then had Sunday School (We called it Bible Study sense it met on Saturday night)--all the adults together, while my wife and I taught the kids.
We went out to eat nearly every Saturday night after Bible Study. We'd pick a different restaurant every week. We hauled in a beefed up sound system, as well as some drums and other instruments, so it took us a little while to break down everything before we enjoyed a meal together. The whole evening was pretty long: setup, the service, Bible Study, tear-down, dinner. It was a 5 p.m. -10 p.m. event.
And six years later, at Jean's service, people were still talking about it. Tim summarized what many of us felt, "It feels like we lost a family member."
Quite a number of us stood up and shared of relationships that began in those days. It was no planned thing. It is just that, in a really small church, you get to know the same people pretty well. No one falls through the cracks. Everyone is noticed. Everyone is remembered. You can make a big deal out of each person's birthday and life. Relationships deepen in inverse proportion to the size of the group. Really big groups are small on relationships. Really small groups are big on relationships.
We wanted to reach people. An idea eventually surfaced to merge with the youth group of First Baptist Church and form what we call the "Rock the Flock 9.3.0 Service." We started with our 20 plus about 50 youth from First Baptist Church. In the first two years the congregation doubled to about 150. In the next year, it doubled again, and has more than 500 on many Sundays these days.
By every measure, it has been a smashing success. It is living testimony to the power of the gospel poured into new wineskins. Something like 4% of teenagers are Christians today. Something like 85% of all people whoever come to faith in Christ do so before they leave their teenage years. These two facts don't portend a very positive future for the church.
The default mode for churches ought to be for all churches everywhere to start a contemporary, seeker-driven 9.3.0 service with LOUD rock and roll Christian praise music and preaching targeted toward 16 year olds. I have seen it grow many a church. Again, my first book talks about that.
But, that is not today's subject. In fact, what I am thinking about these days is not about what we gained in going from 70 to 500 in five years through a contemporary service at 9.3.0 on Sunday morning, it is about what we lost.
Six years later, at Jean's funeral, many of us spontaneously reflected on the days when our group was small. We never got over those relationship-rich days.
This is why I love small groups. Small groups allow the church to grow big, yet still remain small. It allows for an exciting crowd at a worship service, and an intimate gathering at a restaurant, in a Sunday School class, or in a home.
Our last Bible Study
It will be a long time before I forget our last Bible Study with Bob and Jean. (Bob assured me after Jean's service to let him know when my schedule slows down and we can get going again; I look forward to that.)
There were only four of us that night, kind of small by Mr. Double-Your-Class standards. A lot of people pooh-pooh the significance of a small group, at least of a really small group of 4. But I will remember that night for a long time.
After refreshments, we watched Andy Stanley on the big screen. Then we talked about it a bit. I don't actually remember what the content was about. We went out and took a walk on the golf course near our house after the discussion. After they pull the flags at night, walkers can get out and get some fresh air walking the golf paths. We spoke of a recent trip Bob and Jean took back home to see their kids. Some good things, a few painful things inappropriate to share here. The kind of conversation that doesn't happen in a group of 20.
But, in a really small group, people get honest. In a really small group, people are more open. In a really small group real people connect with what is really going on in their real lives. In groups of 20 there is a lot of trivia that is shared. In groups of 4 there is a lot of life that is shared. Probing questions lead the conversation deeper and deeper into what is really going on.
The Church Growth/ Double Your Class side of me doesn't think too much of a group of 4. But I will never forget that night. Jean's funeral has given me that perspective.