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An Encouraged Life Group

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An Encouraged Life Group

Several years ago, our Life Group/Bible Study group happened upon a helpful and heartening new way to do “Bible Study.” We are not sure how it developed but we have all benefitted greatly from this new way of meeting. We meet once a week on Tuesday evenings. This type of meeting works for a wide range of personalities, from quiet and shy to the socially outgoing. We don't attract and cater to a certain type of person. This group would not exist in the secular world and if it did would not have a nearly unanimous excitement about it. God has blessed us.

There was nothing terrible about our group at the beginning. It mostly consisted of a few of us asking questions based on some scripture we had been reading and a few others sharing what they had read that week. A few of us were on the same annual reading plan, so there started to be some excitement when someone else brought up scripture I had just read. I remember wanting to interrupt them and say, "hey I made a change in my life this week because of that verse". I was so encouraged that I was experiencing spiritual growth in the same area of scripture they were, maybe even on the same day and I'm getting to hear about it. But more importantly they were sharing a verse I had read only days ago, not needing to recall something I had read months or years ago.

Soon I started to really look forward to meeting with everyone. I didn't fret all week about having to muscle through an hour of small talk or feel like I was going to have to participate in a group discussion about some topic I knew nothing about. All I had to do was remember what I read that week. We were talking about the scripture I had just read, prayed over, and by God's grace, lived it in some way.

Somehow, we went from a few people sharing, to a self-organized circle moving clockwise from Dave (because he is always impatiently ready with his Bible on his knee.) Throughout the week when I read my Bible I would begin thinking about what I might share. It changed the way I read, it made it immediately actionable in simply my ability to share it. This is where convictions hit me. How can I share this without living it? I am accountable to my share. How do you share a verse about "Praising God" and not be convicted about how little you have done it?

From 6-7pm we eat dinner together. The host family, there are four of us with homes that can accommodate everyone, plans the meal and most of the Life Group participants brings something to help with the meal. Taco bar, lasagna, hamburgers, deli sandwiches, enchiladas, etc. The meal usually is excellent and the ladies, mostly, take the lead. The guys do the barbecuing when it’s the fare.  Clean-up is usually a group project; paper plates are the general rule. We’ve learn to keep it simple for the most part.

At 7pm we are mostly in the living room sitting in a large circle ready to share.

We have all been following a read the Bible in a year reading plan. Most everyone adheres to this plan in some degree. However, it is not a necessity to follow the plan to be part of the Life Group.

We begin with one of our more gregarious and genial members, Dave, who always has something exciting to share from his Bible reading that week. We proceed from Dave to the next person, either on his right or left, depending on who is most ready to go with a share. Each one in turn shares for 2 or 3 minutes what they have read that impressed them from their Bible reading for the week. From time to time someone will ask a question, which I try to answer quickly and judiciously, or someone else will comment and answer also. We try to keep the discussion short so that others can share. We do not want the sharing to digress into a Bible study. That may sound strange, but sometimes in-depth kinds of querying can be counterproductive – everyone stating their opinion with nothing really accomplished. And the newer believers feel lost in what they think might be trivia.  We try and not miss the trees and forest because we are uncovering and looking for bugs under the bark.  I try and quell that kind of discussion. Not that there isn’t a place for it. Just not in Life Group. Sometimes those discussions follow the group meetings one-on-one.

After we have gone around the circle we pray. I ask for special prayer requests and usually receive a few, but we are careful that the sharing doesn’t go for more than a minute or two. We’ve all been in studies where the sharing takes up all the time for praying.  Folks are encouraged to bring their requests to God for others to hear and pray about also. We also pray about some of the things that have been shared from the Bible reading. I particularly try and remember the biblical truths shared and pray accordingly. I am try to model praying the Bible.

One note: if someone doesn’t feel comfortable sharing, or hasn’t had a good week of Bible reading they just say “amen” and we move to the next person. Of course, if someone says amen two weeks in a row it is noted and they are encouraged that two is the limit! All in good humor, but with a touch of seriousness.

The meeting concludes at 8pm. Most of the time people stay and chat for quite a while, but others who need to go can.

Why we like this model:

1. People are held accountable to read their Bibles by group encouragement. You want to keep up on the reading because YOU want to be in sync with the group. It's not the leader pulling you aside and asking why you are not participating. When they read during the week they are compelled to think about what they are reading that would be good to share with the group. Everyone in our group is now a regular Bible reader! Wow! I am fine with a Bible study leader prodding me to keep up on some book we are on, or asking everyone if they filled out their study guide questions. Nothing is explicitly wrong with that. What is different and amazing about our group is that even on days I am swamped with work, in a bad mood, or just tired; I want to show up and have something to share. I am disappointed when someone else in the group has nothing to share, and so I have made myself accountable to others simply because I have assumed some accountability over them. I want them to share, therefore I need to share. Looking forward to other peoples' thoughts on a matter (unless they are an expert on the subject) is not a natural quality of mine and is counterintuitive to me, but clearly this is different. It's not a "man on the street opinion poll", it's a supernatural connection to others that God has led me to care about, because they care about Him and express it through the sharing of His words and how they are active in their life.

2. The meal fellowship follows the example of Jesus and the early church. Much of our meal fellowship is driven by the Bible reading and what’s happening in our lives. I remember a time when "casual" conversation about God with others, even at Church, was not common. Most of my life, even at church people would rarely even want to engage conversations on the Bible unless it was a Bible study or Sunday School class. I think this is a big deal and it had reminded me to do it more! Meal fellowship is perfect for this kind of interaction.

3. Praying without sharing encourages more praying and less getting it off our chest in front of a group of people. If we have a personal struggle or sin, we can share that one on one in a more appropriate setting during the meal or after the large group meets. Funny thing is that my shares are almost always veiled confessions. I don't need to confess as an explicit prayer request. I don't know that the two must always be tied together. The scripture convicts me in my failures of faith and leads to some articulation of what I learned from it in my share.

4. Many folks shy away from Life Groups because of the intimacy with a group of people that they don’t really know that well. We do not demand or require intimacy with all the people in the group. We aren’t required to share our feelings with everybody, in fact, we might be accused of even discouraging it. Deep intimacy, unraveling of life-long issues, is not our intent in the group meeting and that makes the group disarming, there is no pressure to "fit in" by sharing every aspect of your life. There is a spiritual intimacy that has developed naturally. Through sharing I have a better understanding of where my fellow believers are in their understanding of God's word and how it's impacting them. My mother-in-law visits the group from time to time and she asked me once if we shared our feelings in the group. I told her most definitely no. She said that was very nice.

5. The Bible study leader isn’t the focus of attention. The Word of Christ in the Bible is the focal point. The Bible study leader isn’t the one preparing, everyone in the group prepares. However, central coordination and moderation add stability since everyone knows there is someone to get us back on track if we drift into a long discussion. It is also good to know that if someone really misinterpreted scripture that there is someone that can gently bring them clarity or table the discussion for a better time. That’s why an elder appointed leader is essential.

6. I usually try and not correct an improper interpretation, unless it is egregious. If someone has a detail wrong, that’s ok. We are not there primarily to correct but to encourage Bible reading for life, and life to the encouragement of the saints. I’m getting better at this-hopefully. Since the group has such a wide range of Biblical maturity it often self corrects without an open rebuke. Even if someone is bent on a fringe interpretation (outside of heresy) the group at large will hear the supported position from the leader. This protects the weaker brothers.

7. Everyone is encouraged by the faith and the life of Christ that everyone comes to share. We see the life of Christ in the others as the light of the Gospel of Christ in the Word is read and explained in their lives. This is the best part of the group meeting. It is sometimes easier to see Christ in others than in yourself. That’s why we come together: Encouragement / Fellowship in Spirit. I was going to meet people on a spiritual level, we were going to be not only talking about God's word, but how it was impacting us. I was not going there to hear Dave's answer to study guide questions, I was getting to hear what God lead Dave to in the Word and often it was the classics like John 3:16 or verses I know so well I have become deaf to their potency. Even if it was just Kim or Josh or one of the kids saying, "I read this passage and it was great". It would convict me in my simple agreement. I know that whatever book we are in is Chris's favorite, well, second favorite after Isaiah. I'm thinking about these guys and their walk with Christ. God has given me this group that encourages me even when I am at home alone reading thinking about what they would say about a passage. Even some of the questions about confusing scripture or controversial subjects seem to lead back into personal encouragement. For example, we may get tied up in the Law from time-to-time but we quickly take it back to the one who fulfilled it, and what that means to us, and how we live.

8. We have a great mix of ages and life stages in our group: older single saints, older married saints, young married saints with small children, singles, students, older mature saints, older new believers, younger believers excited about the Christian life. I think is very healthy for our growth in Christ and our tendencies to over-emphasize our own life stage issues. My kids and I benefit from Point #7 being expressed from a 25-year-old man to an 80-year-old woman. I get to show my daughter not only other women as inspiration to her but to see men of every age loving and obedient to Christ, a quality I pray she will have in a husband on day. My son gets to interact with Godly men of all types, construction, fireman, retired, and office worker. He has prototypes of all his areas of interest. Charles Drew’s comments are worth noting, “‘Church’ is not an event. It is people–people whom God calls us to love. What is more, it is in a very important sense an involuntary community of people: we don’t choose our brothers and sisters–God does. And sometimes (oftentimes) those people are not terribly compatible with us–not the people we would choose to hang out with. But it is this very incompatibility that is so important, for at least two reasons. First, learning to love the people I don’t like is by far the best way to learn how to love (it’s easy to love people I happen to like). Second, the church is supposed to be a sociological miracle–a demonstration that Jesus has died and risen to create a new humanity composed of all sorts of people.” A Journey Worth Taking by Charles Drew

9. New people are incorporated easily in a group like this. Everyone is family. The meal breaks the ice. They can easily say amen during the sharing. Nobody shares their deep dark secrets or sins in the group. The group has remained very open to newcomers. They come often. We also encourage group members to invite others, especially neighbors and unbelieving friends. It is a great environment to see what true, friendly, open and Christ-like Christian community is about. Without new-comers we will become stagnant, ingrown, and eventually die. The Life of Christ should and will give life to others.

10. Some of the older kids sit in the circle and share a verse by memory or read a verse from their family Bible reading time. They are treated as equals and are accepted as everyone is in the group. This encourages everyone else, models Christian parenting for the singles in the group and encourages the kids as they listen and share. They may need to head to the other room for a bit to get the wiggles out, but when they come back, sit down and recite a verse or ask a question they are simply another one in the group.