Friday, October 30, 2009

Mess and Transformation

Where people exist, mess abounds. Which means that small groups are messy. I live in a world where mess abounds. My church is about 60% single and under the age of 35, and many of them work jobs that have political overtones or undertones. The three issues I find myself addressing over and over again: 1) appropriate relational and sexual boundaries, 2) how to approach alcohol Biblically and responsibly, and3) how to navigate tricky political issues with people whose passions and jobs are fueled by them.

I’ve discovered the hard way, and I’m beginning to discover in a hopeful way, that mess and transformation are directly proportional. There is always a link.

Sometimes mess is the byproduct of growth. When systems are working properly, there will be a messy byproduct. For example, if a car is running, there will be exhaust. It’s the natural and expected byproduct of a working system. Several years ago, a young man attended a small group training class that focused on the need for transparency among leaders. He decided to put that into practice. Which meant he had to confess to a pastor that he struggled with same-sex attraction. The growth in his life—a desire to be more transparent—resulted in some messy byproduct—a confession that had to be engaged. Because he learned and grew, mess came out. The good news? The mess led to transformation. That young man grew through the mess and today serves as a sought-after leaders in the group ministry at his church. Mess is the byproduct of growth.

Sometimes it works the other way around and mess can be the catalyst for change. Mess happens and it causes people to grow as a result. Think about compost piles. They don’t do their job unless trash is heaped on them regularly. Several years ago, a leader met with me to let me know he was stepping down from leadership and submitting to spiritual authority for accountability and growth. He confessed that he had been hanging out with his small group one night and had a bit too much to drink. The result was behavior inappropriate for a Christ-follower, much less for a leader. He submitted to a process of accountability and growth which catalyzed spiritual growth in his life, and his transparency and response actually caused those around him to respect him more. Mess happened, which catalyzed a growth moment, and transformation happened. Today, he's back in leadership with more maturity and more respect from those he leads.

Mess is the byproduct, the catalyst, and the environment of transformation. Mess means that change is happening, is right around the corner, or will happen if we engage it correctly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lessons From the Pig Farm

I learned an important lesson about dealing with messy community and messy discipleship at a pig farm in southern Louisiana. When I was a graduate student in the biological engineering department at Louisiana State University, I took a class called bioreactor design. Bioreactors are used to grow cells and tissues and are systems that transform raw materials into useful products. The class focused on understanding the variables and catalysts of the reactions that transformed inputs into productive outputs—like turning chemicals into medicines and wastewater into wetlands. It was about designing a system in which transformation was catalyzed.

Toward the end of the semester, each of us was required to participate in a project that brought together all the principles we had learned. While the majority of my classmates were designing systems that working with snazzy equipment and studying reaction kinetics for cranking out important products like pharmaceuticals, I was sloshing through the mud and poop of Ben Hur Research Farm every day to take samples from the treatment lagoon at the swine animal feeding operation. In other words, I was drawing samples of pig crap out of a pit.

Here’s the deal. Pig farms stink. I mean, they stink really badly. And most of the farmers treat the waste in treatment lagoons. My goal was to reduce the stink. My project was to determine the variables and kinetic parameters (width, length, depth, retention time, flow, volume, etc) for the reactions in the lagoon that broke down the waste and converted it into useful product—fertilizer—and to come up with new lagoon designs that maximized those reactions. Does that make sense? All this pig poop was being flushed into a alagoon…and I had to make it less stinky.

But here’s the deal—I quickly learned I couldn't do anything to directly address the stink. Instead, I have to focus on creating an environment in which the stink was most effectively and efficiently converted into a useful and beneficial product. The point was not to focus on the stink but to focus on the environment. To design an environment that fostered change and maximized transformation.

In the church, we tend to want to focus on the stink. The sin, the mess, the conflict, the “whatever” that we perceive to be inhibiting growth and community. And we think if we point at it and say firmly enough “stop” that it will go away. Or we try to ignore it away. In reality, we need to approach things like that bioreactor design class. Acknowledge that mess (poo, crap, bad stuff) is a natural by-product of life and work to create environments that catalyze change.


There are lots of free giveaways here on Wineskins for Discipleship this week. In addition to the free leaders kit of Sacred Roads, we are giving away tickets to the Lead Now event (in Dallas and over 40 satellite locations) next week!

I can't believe I get to be a part of such a stellar lineup of speakers! This conference is unique in that it focuses almost exclusively on missional living in our world today. Even the small group track focuses on being the light of Christ in our communities rather than hiding that light in the homes where our small groups meet!

I’m going to give away two Conference tickets to the 10th person who emails me. Be sure to put “LeadNow’09 Tickets” in the subject line. So what are you waiting for? Send your email now!! I’ll announce the winner as soon as they winl.

If you don’t win, don’t worry you can Register Here.

Main Conference Site is at Irving Bible Church :: 2435 Kinwest Pkwy :: Irving, TX 75063

See The List of 40+ Remote Host Sites Here

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Messes of Biblical Proportions

Community is messy, and it's been that way since the beginning. Let's just think about some messes of Biblical proportions.

God created. Everything was good. Butthree chapters in, mess happened. Eve disobeyed God, encouraged Adam to join in the mess, and sin mess happened. Fingers got pointed and relational mess happened. The inevitable results of sin are proclaimed and life mess began.

Then we move to Cain and Abel. I would say jealousy and murder amount to mess.

Noah—built a huge boat to house the few remaining fragments of creation mess that God wanted to maintain. Later, he got himself drunk and his sons discovered him naked. Which resulted in some family breakdownMess.

Then there was Abraham claiming that his wife was not his wife and navigating water resources rights with his nephew, Lot. There’s Isaac and Rebekah playing favorites with their sons Jacob and Esau, thereby producing life-long (and history-altering) sibling rivalry. Then Jacob favoritism to his own son Joseph, which resulted in another family meltdown.

Let’s fast forward a few hundred years to Moses. I like to think of Moses as the first small group leader in the Bible—but look at these people he was charged with leading. They don’t follow instructions. They complain. And they forget the miracles they see in a matter of hours- they are completely ADD. It’s a mess.

Fast forward a bit more to David. I think of David as the second small group leader in the Bible. In 1 Samuel 22 we read about David running for his life and then hiding in the cave of Adullam. Then Scripture tells us that he was first joined by his family. And then he was joined by men who were in trouble, in debt, or just discontented. Great. Talk about a dysfunctional group. First of all- family. Then add on the Extra Grace Required people in the form of those who were in trouble or in debt or just plain discontented. Mess. How many of us feel like that’s our small group? Right? And think about David's other messy relationships. David and Saul. David and Uriah. David and Bathsheba. David and the prophet Nathan. David and his son Absalom. Okay, pretty much David and everyone.

Skip over to the New Testament. Jesus was born in the mess of a stable—a cave where animals were kept and fed. Placed in a stone feeding tough. Jesus called 12 men to follow him- fisherman, tax collectors, political revolutionaries—who bickered over who was going to be greatest in the Kingdom.

In Acts 15, the apostles had to meet in Jerusalem to sort out theological mess. Paul and Peter had issues. Paul and John Mark had issues.

The majority of writings in the New Testament are there because the early church was messy. Look at the church in Corinth—all the stuff that was happening there. Incestuous affairs, lawsuits, divorce and separation, idol worship, big egos, doctrinal fighting, sexual promiscuity, people getting drunk while celebrating communion. And you thought your small group was messed up.

And the midst of the mess...

As we read these stories, we see the hand of God writing his own story in them and through them. Emerging from the mess is the fingerprint of God writing the hope of the Gospel and the story of redemption in history.

Proverbs 14:4 has become one of my organizing metaphors in regards to group life:

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox.

You can have a clean barn with no animals in there. But you aren’t going to get much done without animals.

You can have a tidy group as long as no one is in it. But community requires that we show up. And showing up means bringing our mess.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Small Groups are Great...?

Small groups are great...and then the people show up.

Once upon a time we heard a pastor give a stirring message on the theological, ecclesiological, and practical importance of life in community and we left with a newfound conviction that small groups are great. An announcement was made from the pulpit about the need for new small group leaders, and we decided to put our convictions into practice because we were convinced both spiritually and experientially that small groups are great. We courageously attended leadership training classes and left with a passion to change the world through the greatness of groups. We saw our group promoted in print, in word, in pictures and we approached the night of our first meeting with a holy anticipation. Small groups are great!

And then people walked through the door.

It might not happen on the first night. It might not happen in the first month or even in the first year, but at some point, our well-tended "great" group experience begin to fall apart. The chairs are set, the snacks are ready, the lesson is prepared, the service project is planned... we are doing everything we need to do as a leader. And all of a sudden, we realize that there are some things no one ever told us about leading small groups. The nice thoughts about growth and friends and transparency and community fade into the newfound realization that groups are messy.

What do you do at that moment? The moment you realize that groups are messy will become the defining moment of your leadership.

Here's the scary news: small groups are messy because groups are made up of people and people are messy. Community is messy because it’s about broken people hauling their brokenness and stink and baggage and moving in with you.

Here's the good news: mess might be exactly where God wants you to be to become the person and the community that he created you to be.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mindy Caliguire: Leading From a Healthy Soul

These are notes from Mindy Caliguire's (check out her site here) talk at the Willow Group Life Conference.

Matthew 16:24

v.26- what good will it be to gain the whole world but forfeit your own soul.

I once thought that the most important skills for leading a small group included things like good listening skills, knowledge of Bible, welcoming people, willingness to guide people, communication skills, measure of spiritual maturity, etc.

Those things are important, but today my answer about most important qualification for small group leaders has changed. One quality that a leader must have if the group is going to be effective in transformation. The leader must be leading from a healthy soul.

What is a healthy soul?
Saved and alive. It has been brought to life. Whether you realize it or not, your soul has the capacity to have a quality of life. It requires nourishment.

Do you know yourself? There was a symptom that indicated that my soul was not well and I ignored it. I went through a season where I had become totally out of touch with the woman God had created me to be. Because I ignored that, I was sidelined from my own life and ministry for a season. In hindsight, this was a way God was dealing with my heart...saying it's not so much what you do for me but who you are with me.

We must recover the importance of the redeemed soul.

Following Christ should not result in a diminishing interior life, but sometimes the demands of leadership results in that.

Symptoms of Neglected Soul
  • Apathy
  • Judgemental spirit
  • Insomnia
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Isolation

Symptoms of Healthy Soul
  • Joy
  • Confidence joined with Humility
  • Safety
  • Purpose
  • Energy
  • Attentiveness

Are pace of life and healthy soul indirectly proportionally? Mutually exclusive?

We should allow the health of our soul to guide the pace that we keep. Allow your pace of life to be submitted to how God is leading you. We may need to do make some radical changes in our schedule. Biblical simplicity: God is our focus and we allow everything else to emerge from that relationship.

David Johnson: Real Formation for Real People

These are notes from David Johnson's (from Church of the Open Door) opening talk at the Willow Group Life Conference.

Real change can be hit or miss.

Ron Sider notes that most evangelical Christians are not different from the culture in the following areas:
  • in money
  • sexual ethic
  • racism
  • divorce
Philippians - work out your salvation through fear and trembling-- not work for your salvation but work out your salvation.

To encourage spiritual formation, we typically tell our people to
  • Get into a group
  • Get involved in spiritual disciplines
These are standard answers and good answers. But you can be doing these things but still not be transformed. So what is the key?

Here are three I've thought of:

1. We have to be authentic
2. We have to be courageous
3. There has to be grace

If there isn't an environment of grace people will never find the courage to be authentic.

Matthew 5-- Blessed are those who mourn. There are 9 Greek words for the concept of mourning. This one has to do with authenticity-- Blessed are those who start getting out here (into the open) what is going on in here (in the heart, in the secret places of life). Basically, it's blessed are those who quit pretending.

"I refuse to live in the dark anymore, I'm going to live in the light of what is true of me." People who live like that are being changed. Because they are courageous and authentic.

Grace is the only thing that has ever given us the courage to bring out in the light what we tend to hide in the dark. What if we knew there would be grace and healing about that thing we just can't talk about?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Win a Free Sacred Roads DVD Kit!

Hey-- want a chance to win a free leader kit of Sacred Roads: Exploring the Historic Paths of Discipleship, my new small group study published by Threads? The leader kit includes a member book, a DVD with video clips to jump start discussion in your small group, and a CD-Rom with leader helps, music, audio files, and more.

Winning is easy. All you need to do is post an entry on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter telling your readers about this Threads giveaway and linking them back to this post. Then, come back to this page and post a comment linking to your social network post. We will randomly choose one winner from those who posted to receive the leader kit.

Let the games begin!

Shoe Box Trip

I love Operation Christmas Child! Pack up a shoebox full of toys, candy, socks, shirts, toothbrushes, and anything else you can stuff in and send it to a kid around the world for Christmas.

Threads and OCC are sending one young adult or young adult leader on a mission to impact the hearts of needy children with a simple gift and the powerful message of salvation through Jesus Christ. Check out and tell us why we should send you on a shoe box distribution trip! The winner will be chosen based on their compelling story. I would love to go myself, but I'm not sure I could win the compelling story contest. I know I've got some blog readers who could, though!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Perspective: Mess or Masterpiece?

In the movie Clueless, Tai asks, "What's a Monet?" And the budding young art historian Cher responds, "It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess."

Georges Seurat took the messy form even further, blending art, the science of optics, and color theory into neo-impressionist forms of pointillism or-- as he preferred to characterize it-- chromoluminarism.

Up close, it's a mess of dots.
Step back a few paces and the picture comes into view as the eye optically mixes the colored dots into new colors.

And step back further to get the complete picture.

Mess or masterpiece? Perspective makes all the difference. And that holds true when we face mess in our community life, as well. The Church-- the Body of Christ-- the Family of God-- is composed of a bunch of dots all jumbled up together. And it often looks like a complete mess. And yet when God is holding the brush, the mess somehow transforms into a masterpiece.

When we encounter mess in our small groups, ministries, Sunday School classes, places of community life in our churches, the first thing we need to remember is perspective. How does God view the situation? What might He allow to emerge from the mess? Perspective can transform the scattered fragments of our lives from mess to masterpiece.

** Oh yeah, and I checked off another life goal today. Got to see Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte up close...and a few paces back...for real in person.


Ryan and I took off at the beginning of the week for a quick vacation in the Shenandoah mountains. Vacation for us included the following:

13 miles of trail hiked
10 hours of Settlers of Catan played
4 hours of movies watched
2 bears sighted
Lots of meat (a few pounds) and 1 apple pie consumed

Friendly black bear

Friendly Deer
Great scenery

Friday, October 16, 2009

You Thought Your Small Group Was Crazy

When Paul wrote his first letter to the church at Corinth, he had to address some pretty messy and sticky situations. Think about it-- incestuous affairs, lawsuits, divorce and separation, idol worship, big egos, doctrinal fighting, sexual promiscuity, people getting drunk while celebrating communion, etc.

And you thought your group was crazy. The reality is that community and discipleship are messy. It's always been that way. In fact, Paul wrote the majority of his letters to churches that were experiencing messy situations, and he was willing to step into the mess and embrace what God was doing in the midst of it. He realized that mess could be the catalyst for, the byproduct of, and the environment for transformation.

We could learn from the way that Paul frames his response. He begins his letter to these crazy people by saying, "I cannot stop thanking God for all the generous gifts he has given you" and he ends the letter with, "My love to all of you in Christ Jesus."

Thoughts for the Day

These are random...but two favorite things I read today:

“Jesus had a habit of collecting disreputables; he called them disciples.” (Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality)

"Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn't really know very much." (Paul, letter to the church at Corinth)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tools for the Tour Guide

We need fewer spiritual travel agents and more spiritual tour guides. It's easy to sit in a comfortable climate-controlled office and tell people where to go, how to get there, what to do once they are there, and what they might see. It's totally different to change into the hiking shoes, strap on the pack, and go on the journey with people.

Sacred Roads is about exploring the historic paths of discipleship. Walking the roads of spiritual growth and picking up ideas along the way. Tools for the Tour Guide-- a recent blog series-- gives ideas and resources to those who are leading, guiding, and interpreting for others. Small group leaders, discipleship pastors, Sunday School teachers, etc.

In case you missed them, here are the posts:

Sacred Roads: The Adventure of Discipleship
Historical Amnesia
Making Disciples Relationally
Making Disciples Experientially
Making Disciples Intellectually
Making Disciples Personally
Making Disciples Incarnationally
Making Disciples- NEXT

Wednesday, October 07, 2009



I'm heading out in just a bit to join the rest of the NCC team at the Catalyst Conference. Looking forward to connecting with new friends, old friends, and seeking God with our team. I'll probably take a blogging break while I'm there and post some highlights next week.

If you're in Atlanta, I hope to see you at there! Come by the Lifeway booth or Threads booth to check out Sacred Roads!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

More Slides

The Sawyer/McClure clan headed back to Cox Farms on Friday, and I couldn't resist sneaking out of the office for half a day to join them!

My little buddy and I got to tackle the BIG BIG slide that day!!

After five slides down, I didn't have the strength to tote her all the way to the top again, and she pitched a little fit when she realized she would not be conquering the big hill anymore. But we were able to distract her pretty quickly with some smaller slides and some calves that needed feeding. I was proud of my little buddy!!

Sabbath Ideas

I really hated/enjoyed talking about Sabbath at NCC this weekend. It's fun inviting people on a journey of discovery through the Scriptures and re-imagining ancient rituals, but it's terrible knowing that I now have 1500 people holding me accountable. :)

It's been really fun seeing Twitter tweets, blog posts, and emails about how people are celebrating their Sabbaths and experimenting with new ways of filling it. How are you celebrating Sabbath?

Here is a link to the message.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sliding Into Fun

I took my 2-year old niece to Cox Farms on Wednesday to pet some animals, enjoy a hayride, and face our fears on the giant slides! I was super proud of her for taking such big risks for a little girl. She totally bypassed the "kiddie zone" to go right for the big kid slides. I swear she was the smallest kid taking the plunge.

With Papa, Mommy, and Nana on the hayride.

With Aunt Heather on the "little" slide.
Flying solo down the big slide...right before a total wipeout.

Let the Journey Begin

Sacred Roads hits the shelves today!! Take a trip to your local Lifeway store or pay them a visit on the web to get your own, personal copy! My family and I are planning a little field trip later today.