Friday, April 28, 2006

Sola Scriptura

Continuing my series to highlight some of the creative discipleship opportunities our leaders have created, I want to focus today on the new group Sola Scriptura.

Chad and Robin will be leading their group through the book of Acts this summer. There will be discussion on the text, but there will be an emphasis on Scripture memory.

Often, we just give lip service to the important spiritual discipline of memorizing Scripture. The participants of this group, however, will be immersed in it all summer. I am so excited to see a group totally focused on this piece of the Learner dimension of discipleship. And they have a theologically and historically fun group name!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Buzz About Groups

Next week, National Community Church is hosting the Buzz Conference. I wrote an article for the Buzz Factor Newsletter on small groups that buzz. An excerpt is posted below.

The Buzz About Groups

Heather Zempel

“Compel them to come in.” That’s what Jesus told his disciples to do in Luke 14:23, and that’s what discipleship is all about—compelling people to enter into community and grow closer to Christ. But when it comes to encouraging people to jump into the environments we have created for that process—small groups—it seems less like compelling and more like pleading, begging, prodding, and groveling.

I have a strong conviction: God created us for community. I absolutely believe that the adventure of following Christ was designed for people to do together. But I am also forced to face the harsh reality that most people don’t naturally jump into church small groups. If we truly believe that people are hard-wired for community, then why do we have to talk until we are blue in the face to convince them that they need to plug into one of our wonderful church small groups?

How do we make our small groups buzz so that people are drawn into them?

Click here to read the entire article.

Back in Town

I am finally getting settled back into life after my pilgrimage to Disneyworld. Yes, a pilgrimage. You laugh, but I am half serious. You see, my favorite part of Disneyworld is EPCOT Center. Yeah, that’s the park everyone else hates. But I love it because it’s one of the places where I fell in love with science and technology. It’s the place where I decided, in the 7th grade, to study biological engineering in college.

It all began at The Land Pavilion, which most people consider the most boring part of the most boring park in Disney. For me, it was a land of limitless possibilities. In the Land Pavilion labs, they experiment with environmentally friendly biological systems, including sustainable agriculture, hydroponics and aeroponics, integrated pest management, biotechnology, and aquaculture. I'm getting excited just saying those words. At the back of the lab, there were a couple of experiments in particular that caught my attention. A Disney-USDA-NASA partnership was exloring options for life support systems in space. They were growing plants in lunar and martian simulated soil and in low gravity environments. I thought, "I don't know what this is called, but this is what I want to do!"

At that time, there were only a handful of colleges offering biological engineering as a degree option. And there were only a handful more by the time I reached college. I chose LSU.

Although I am no longer drawing my paycheck by doing that stuff, I still love it. And it’s part of the path that God led me down to get me to where I am and what I am doing today.

What does this post have to do with discipleship? Nothing, really. Except that we should expect the unexpected in our lives. We try so hard to lay out a path of spiritual growth for people that is linear and predictable. But God rarely works like that.

I think we try a lot of times to give people directions. Go to this class then that class and then plug into that small group then lead this ministry...

I don't know that directions help on these curvy paths God sets before us. Instead of trying to straighten out the path and artificially plant road signs, we need to understand the importance of relationship. What people really need in their discipleship journey is a guide. A friend that can go along the journey with them

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Disney Bound

Nope, it's not an interest group for the fall. It's my vacation! Just wanted to give a heads up that I am taking off for a few days to explore Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland. And a few other parks.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Discipleship on the Courts

I am excited about the launch of the Enter Into His (Tennis) Courts group this summer. Yep, it's a small group for people who want to get together every Saturday to play tennis.

I believe that you can create community faster by playing together for one hour than you can over a year's worth of discussion-based meetings. I can learn the most about people by playing with them and praying with them.

So what makes this a small group? There's no Bible study?

This is what we would call an "interest group" in the free market small group system. Some interest groups include Bible studies in their activities. Others do not. The goal is to create community around a shared activity and then begin to disciple those people. Most of Jesus' discipleship did not happen with his disciples huddled around Old Testament scrolls. It happened when they were doing life together. Fishing, going to parties, road trips. Every interest group leader has one goal: to help each member of their group walk one step closer to Christ over the course of the semester.

There might be non-Christians in the group. For that person, the leader's goal might be to share the Gospel, share their testimony, or invite them to church. For Christians that just aren't interested in Bible studies, the goal might be to help that person recognize the importance of reading and studying the word of God. Sometimes, groups like these are the best ways for newcomers to get connected to the Body of Christ.

First and foremost, it's about creating environments where people can connect to the Body of Christ and connect to God. The goal is always discipleship. But the wineskins can look different.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Creative Groups

Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to highlight some of the small groups that are gearing up for the summer semester. The biggest complaint against the free market small group system is that they are not Bible studies. I want to demonstrate how discipleship is possible through every type of group-- from our inductive Bible studies to our social justice groups to our tennis groups.

If you have creative small group ideas or examples, please use the comment thread to let us know! This is a place for us to learn from one another.

Inklings Reloaded

We are gearing up for our summer semester of small groups, and I am doing a series to highlight some of our groups. We implement a Free Market small group model which gives us lots of latitude for creativity. All of our groups are focused on discipleship. But the group wineskins take on many shapes and forms.

One of my favorite groups for the next semester is Inklings Reloaded. Last semester, Aaron and Heather led a group on the Chronicles of Narnia called "Beyond the Lampost."

This semester, they will be studying Mere Christianity.

Back in the day, Lewis’ and Tolkien’s discussion group in Oxford, England was called "The Inklings." As Aaron and Heather continue to lead their peeps through the work of Lewis, they are honoring him by renewing and reinventing The Inklings group.

The Inklings will be Reloading every Thursday Night on the 3rd Floor of Ebenezers Coffeehouse.

This group really demonstrates the effectiveness of free markets. Last semester, Aaron and Heather gathered a group of people who were interested in the Narnia books. A group like that is appealing even to folks who don't yet know Christ. Now that community has been established and is growing, Heather and Aaron are taking them one step deeper by studying Mere Christianity.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Galatians and the Washington Monument

It's hard to define our small group "model" at NCC. It's an odd hybrid of free market and traditional cell sprinkled with a little G-12. But in spirit, we are free market. That means we do not have a set curriculum or type of group. We encourage our leaders to get a vision from God and then run with it. Then, we focus our discipleship efforts on our leaders.

Our deadline for summer group registration just passed, and it's always amazing to me to see the group ideas that roll in. I want to highlight a few of my favorites over the next few days to give people an idea of the types of groups that are possible and the amazing creativity that can be unleashed in a free market system.

God at the Memorials
Robin will be leading a study on the book of Galatians at a different Washington memorial every week. It will start out with a discussion of the history behind the book of Galatians and the history of DC. Then, the group will set out to study a different chapter at a different memorial each night. The memorial chosen will be tied into the theme of the chapter. This will not only be a great Bible study, it will also be a great place for our summer interns to plug in as an opportunity to see the city.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pass Deadline Week

It's "Pass Deadline Week" here at NCC. Actually, it's supposed to be "Pass Deadline Day," but our leaders like to stretch it out as long as possible.

What does that mean? Every semester, we issue a new magazine listing all of our small group and discipleship opportunities. We used to call it a "pass" because there was a metro theme attached to it. Now the word "pass" doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but the nomenclature has stuck. Pass deadline day is the deadline for submitting groups to be included in this magazine.

Each year, we spoof a different magazine that fits with our discipleship theme or goals for the year. Last year, we focused on community and teamwork, so we spoofed Sports Illustrated. This year, we introduced our discipleship map, so we are spoofing National Geographic.

The summer semester begins on June 4, and we will distribute the pass and begin promoting summer groups two weeks before that.

Happy Pass Deadline Week!

Friday, April 07, 2006

My Vision Journey

For the past several weeks, we have been exploring the importance of and principles related to vision over at the Thursday Leadership Lesson. I;ve been sharing some of those thoughts over here, as well, because I think vision is critical to what we do as pastors.

Today, I want to take a step back and share with you some of the most valuable lessons I have learned about vision.

1. God's Vision is Bigger Than My Vision
Isaiah 55:9 says, "For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts."

I have learned that God's vision will always be bigger than my vision. As a 4th grader, I thought my vision of producing a live-action video of Carman's The Champion would be the adventure of a lifetime. Thankfully, God's vision is bigger than that. And he wants us to dream dreams that are big enough for him to work in. Once your God-given vision gets to the point where it is overwhelming, ask God to stretch you a little more. God can accomplish more in us and in others than we can possibly imagine.

2. Visions Take Time
I have learned that a vision takes time. A long, frustrating amount of time. Every vision has a waiting room where God prepares us for the work he wants to do.

Nehemiah sat for about 5 months in the waiting room of his vision. David was anointed king as a teenager but only assumed the throne after years of serving, fighting giants, and dodging arrows from his boss. The Israelites waited for 400 years between the prophets and the birth of Messiah.

The story of Abraham gives us great lessons about vision timing. Think about Abraham and the promise God gave him to be the father of many nations. In Genesis 12, God asked Abraham to make a significant sacrifice: "Leave your country, your relatives, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will cause you to become the father of a great nation."

So "Abram departed as the Lord had instructed him." (verse 4)

Fast forward some years. In Genesis 15:5, God repeated the promise, "Look up into the heavens and count the stars if you can. Your descendants will be like that-- too many to count."

And "Abram believed the Lord." (verse 6)

Abraham obeyed. He believed. For years he waited for a son. The vision originates from God. It is our job to believe, embrace, and obey. But the reality of the vision occurs in God's time, not ours. If we try to force it outside of God's time, we wind up with an Ishmael problem (read Genesis 16; I could write a whole post just on the Ishmael issue!).

Finally, at the age of 100, Abraham became the father of Isaac.

Waiting on a vision is typically a time of preparation. Don't try to speed through it. Anchor down and ask God to help you become the person he wants you to be.

3. Visions Die Before The Live
I have learned that visions typically go through a death phase before they live. Let's go back to Abraham. He finally saw his vision come to pass when he was 100 years old. Then, in Genesis 22, God came back with another request: "Take your son, your only son-- yes Isaac, whom you love so much-- and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you."

What? You've got to be kidding me! We all understand the theological importance of this story. We get it-- foreshadowing of Christ and the new covenant and all that. But hundreds of years before Jesus, this was a real story happening to real people. You can see and hear Abraham's shock. After all those years. Leaving everything behind, obeying, faithfully believing, seeing it through...and it all leads to this moment.

Of course, we all know the story. God provides a substitute- a ram in the thicket. But it's so easy to read this story with that in the back of our brains. At this point in the story, all Abraham knows is that God has asked him to kill his vision.

What must have been going through Abraham's head as he packed up all of his altar and fire equipment. What did he tell Isaac? What did he tell Sarah? What did he tell God?

Visions die. Why? I think it's because God wants to test our hearts. He wants to make sure our focus is directed towards him first and foremost. What do we love most-- God or our vision? What takes priority- time with God or time on the vision? What will be sacrifice-- God's presence or the vision?

Don't get discouraged if and when your vision dies. Hold onto God. He is in the business of reversing the irreversible.

4. Visions Need Image Stabilization
I have learned that visions require image stabilization technology. We talked a little about this at the Leadership Summit. Many binoculars now come with image stabilization technology. Canon’s website says, “Shaking occurs naturally when you hold binoculars for an extended period of time. Wind, muscle fatigue, and even excitement can contribute to 'binocular shake.' The more powerful the binoculars, the more pronounced the shake appears. It’s tiring on your eyes, it’s distracting, and it makes getting a good, sharp focus simply impossible.

We need image stabilization for good vision. Over time, we get tired. Or we are blown about by the environment we are in. Or sometimes we just get so excited about the vision that we forget about God!

God gives us SAP image stabilization technology for our vision- Scripture, Accountability and Prayer. Root yourself in the Word of God, immerse yourself in a group of people who love you but love God more, and pray like it depends on God. I am so thankful for the NCC zone leaders because they are a source of image stabilization for me.

5. Visions Come to Those Who Follow Well
I have learned that I must serve the vision of another before God will entrust me with my own vision. In college, I desperately wanted to lead a small group. I loved people. I loved the Bible. My church was cell-based and I had whole-heartedly embraced their vision of discipleship. But they exerted a high-level of control (no free market system there!), and I was passed over twice for small group leadership. When I finally got to lead a group of my own, it happened by default because the leader they put into place instead of me just stopped showing up for group.

That was a frustrating time because I knew the gifts that God had placed in my life and I felt stifled in many ways. But I also knew that God would never entrust people to my leadership if I could not be a good follower. For three years, I tried to faithfully serve under my leaders. Some were great. Some were not so great. And I can honestly say that was one of the most rewarding times in my life. First, it taught me to follow well. Secondly, it taught me patience. Thirdly, God was able to test my heart. And finally, my vision actually grew and became more refined.

Jesus said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." As leaders, our first job is to follow. Christ first. Spiritual leaders second. If you are faithful to follow well the vision of another, God will assemble your own team for the vision he has given to you when the time is right.

6. Visions Make Us Lonely People
I have learned that there is a loneliness in pursuing vision.

Think about Joshua and Caleb returning with the only good reports on the Promised Land.

Think about Joseph sitting in the bottom of that pit. And later in a jail cell.

Think about David huddled in the back of a cave to escape the man who holds the position that should belong to him.

Think about Jesus as he prayed in the Gethsemane.

It doesn't matter how many people buy into your vision or how many people are on your team. You will always go through periods of loneliness in your vision. Why? Because a God-given vision will orient you against the mainstream. You will have to run against the status quo.

No one is ever going to be as excited about the vision as you are. That makes sense and it's okay. Just know that going into it. Leadership in general can be lonely. Pursuing a God-given vision is sometimes the loneliest task in the world.

7. Doors of Opportunity Lead to Vision
I have found that pursuing vision has more to do with stepping through doors of opportunity than it does with setting goals.

Most of you know me. I am a big-time goal setter. You can hear it coming, "You never hit a goal that you don't set." But I have found that next steps in vision generally come in the form of doors of opportunity rather than a goal list. I think we need to set goals because it keeps us moving. It's easier to turn around a bicycle that's going the wrong way than to change the course of one that is stationary.

I set a life goal once: to provide pastoral care to 30 small group leaders. I could have reached that life goal through a series of systematic steps. But in reality, I reached in when Pastor Mark led me to the door of full-time ministry. And I walked through it.

When I think back on some of the key experiences in my life, they were often the result of walking through doors of opportunity. I never pursued a job in the U.S. Senate; I enountered a door of opportunity and walked through it. I always wanted to go to Jerusalem but never had a plan for getting there; an email came to me that became a door of opportunity. Going to grad school-- not a big goal-- I just walked through a door of opportnity.

Ask God to open your eyes to the doors that are around you and to give you wisdom as you make life decisions.

8. The Sustaining Force of Vision: Christ Alone
I have found that there is only one motivation that will sustain us: an intense love for Christ and a desire to see God praised by all people.

Psalm 22:27 provides the sustaining motivation for many missionaries: "People from every nation will bow down before him." Dr. John Piper said, "Missions exists because worship does not." Missionaries may be motivated by love for people, concern for their welfare, or because they feel "called." However, the only motivation that will sustain them is a desire to bring more worship to God.

In 2 Corinthians 5:11-19, Paul reveals his reason for ministry: "It is because we know this solemn fear of the Lord that we work so hard to persuade others." He loved Christ. In verse 13, he says, "If it seems that we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God." He desired to bring God glory.

I am motivated to do what I do by many things- the life change I see in people, the new groups that form, new leaders that emerge, great staff meetings, win sheets, summits, the encouragement I receive from people. But honestly, there are days when those things just don't cut it and will never sustain me for the long haul. On those days, I have to say, "God, I am doing this out of love for you. And that's it."

Puruse your vision. But above all else, pursue God.

Please post anything you have learned or would like to share about vision.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

One Anothering

We read the phrase "one another" a lot in the New Testament. We are encouraged to serve one another (Galatians 5:13), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), and encourage one another (I Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13, Hebrews 10:24). In Romans 12, we are commanded to honor one another, be devoted to one another, and live in harmony with one another. We are told to "love one another" at least 10 times.

That's what discipleship boils down to: one anothering.

I had one of those days today. I hung out with one of my zone leaders for almost 4 hours. We had planned to meet for a little while to talk about some ideas she had for ministry. That turned into lunch, a walk, and some ice cream. It was a great day for me to do that because today was a pretty clear day schedule-wise. The past few weeks have been insanely busy, so I was planning to do some studying or brainstorming this afternoon. But spending time with Leslie proved to be the best possible way to invest the day. We encouraged each other and hopefully learned from each other. It was one-anothering. And I think it's probably pretty similar to what Jesus did with those 12 guys that eventually changed the world. But instead of eating fish while floating in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, we were eating Chick-fil-A at Ballston Common Mall.

It's the ministry of "being with" people. For those who are called to pastor, this is one of the most valuable things we can do.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Marriage Matters

We just introduced a new event at NCC- Marriage Matters. It is similar in form and purpose to Northpoint Community Church's Married Life Live. Northpoint has a fantastic site for pastors who are interested in starting Married Life Live in their churches.

Our Marriage Matters will be held 4 times a year, and the events are strategically tied to the launch of our 3 semesters or the beginning of May Term.

Our purposes are as follows:
  • Provide opportunities for couples in our church to connect
  • Provide on-going opportunities for couples to intentionally wok on their marriage
  • Encourage couples to plug into small groups
The theme of our first Marriage Matters was Vive La Difference: Celebrating Our Differences. The basement of Ebenezers was decked out like a French bistro, and the food had a distinctive French flair. My husband, Ryan, and I served as the emcees, guided the 60 attendees through table talk, games, and creative elements. Pastor Paul shared a short message on navigating and celebrating differences in marriage.

We have identified 5 core Biblical values that are vital for a healthy marriage. At each Marriage Matters, we will choose one of those values as the "big idea" for the night. Each event will have its own unique theme (Summer BBQ, Italian, Luau, etc) and a new set of emcees and creative elements.

Summit Time

Last weekend was our big training day for leaders. Each year, we take all of our leaders on an anunal leadership retreat. At this year's retreat, we unveiled the theme for the year, Journey: Expect the Unexpected. And we introduced our Discipleship Map.

Three times a year, we gather all of our group and ministry leaders for "summits," which are smaller versions of the retreat.

Our summit formula is pretty simple:
  • Connection- we provide breakfast for our leaders. It's a small way of saying "thanks" for investing their Saturday morning into ministry, and it creates an environment where leaders can connect with one another.
  • Worship- we recognize that worship is critical for establishing a good leadership environment. Good leaders begin by leading themselves well. That means they find margin to connect with God.
  • Vision- Pastor Mark shares with our leaders at each summit. Our leaders are on the frontlines of pastoral care for the church. They need to know what God is teaching him, where God is leading him, and what's on the radar screen for us as a church.
  • Leadership Development- at every leadership summit, there is a teaching time. We strategically tie this in to the topics discussed at the Retreat. The 2005 retreat focused on being a team. So we talked about qualities of a team player at the summits. At the 2006 Retreat, we talked about how your prepare for your journey (i.e., you take a map to chart a course, you take a compass to navigate, you take a tent to rest, you take others for community, you take a flashlight to illuminate the way ahead, etc.). During the 2006 summits, we will continue to use journey metaphors to talk about important disciplines or skills in the life of a leader. At this most recent summit, we talked about Binoculars: Clarifying and Enlarging Your Vision.
  • Leader Appreciation- we always try to find a way to appreciate our leaders. We have not done a stellar job on that in the past. But we have recently realized the importance of recognizing the good work that our leaders are doing. I throw moonpies to leaders that I use as examples in my talk. At this last summit, I recognized an NCC Visionary Leader and gave them Spy Kids Night Vision Goggles.