Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.

How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality

I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: “I had gay friends,” but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.

What changed me was being a pastor. I was entrusted with the spiritual care of real live human beings. My first appointment was to a small church in rural, red-state, Bible-belt Alabama, which was the last place, in my naiveté, I would have expected to face questions of gender identity and sexuality. (Now, I realize I should have known better—but I should have known better about a lot of things.)

Nor did I expect that God was going to do heart surgery on me through the people God introduced to me. Within the span of a few  months I met several persons who walked into my office and told me either that they were gay or had struggled with their gender identity. One described the way a former church had tried to exorcise him of the demons of homosexuality. He said it was terrifying. Another talked about the way he had finally just given up trying and decided to be promiscuous, which ended badly. Another, taking the Bible literally, cut off his offending member rather than have his whole body cast into hell.

In spite of the pain they brought into the room, they also brought faith of a caliber that shamed my own. I was not worthy to be pastor to these wounded faith giants. I felt both the weight of the moment and an almost giddy sensation that the Holy Spirit was coordinating this whole thing. Sometimes I felt nudged to speak, and other times I felt prompted to hush. Each story was uniquely painful and grace-filled. After describing the burdens they had carried for years and decades, I was astonished that any of these people decided to stick with church. We cried and prayed together.

After one such conversation, my visitor left. As soon as the door clicked behind him I got on my knees, not because I’m a particularly holy person who kneels to pray, but because my legs couldn’t hold me up. I remember saying, “God, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. How am I supposed to think about this stuff? What am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to be this person’s pastor?”

Feeling compelled to read the Bible, I dragged myself to my table and sat down to look at the text I was studying. And I read these words:

“…[the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:4)

I couldn’t catch my breath.

Several things clicked at once: These guys had burdens placed upon them by others (people like me) that had nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus said his interpretation of religious Law, his yoke, was easy and his burden light (11:38). His opponents, the religious leaders, accused him of abolishing the Law (5:17) and ignoring their pet scriptures about holiness and who was “in” and who was “out.” The fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were threatened by his message of an easy yoke, and they made his followers out to be “abolishers of the law.” In response, Jesus  commanded his followers to out-love, out-pray, and out-give his detractors (5:21-7:27).

Choose your yoke- heavy or light?

This is what a yoke looks like.

I suddenly had a new focus for my ministry. I was supposed to be a burden-lifter, one who removes the barriers that religious leaders often put in the way of folks who need Jesus. I read more.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)

Locked out of the kingdom. An evangelical program of hate. There are no better words to describe anti-gay Christianity.

Although I’ve never preached an anti-gay sermon, I had listened to them with a sense of smug approval. Like Paul, I had held the cloaks of people who had been throwing rocks at others. This was my own Damascus-road moment, when I knew that God was not finished bringing people into the kingdom, and God wanted to change my heart and mind. I went back and devoured the story of the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul, and I read with new eyes the stories about the hot-button issues of their day: circumcision and meat sacrificed to idols.

So many things changed for me in the following weeks and months: the meaning of the word evangelize, to spread good news; the meaning of the word salvation, healing; all the words in the New Testament related to yokes and burdens and Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders, and why they couldn’t recognize Jesus’ divine mission because of who  his friends were. Like Paul, I felt that I had been blind, but that God was restoring my sight. As I think about my past, I’m still learning that God was working on me decades before I imagined writing about God’s impartiality.

I’m writing this not to be self-congratulatory. I live with white, male, heterosexual privilege in a world that is oriented toward my success, and I am a relative latecomer to this worldview. I’m writing this because it was being a servant-leader in the church that really changed me—not social pressure, not my academic education. It was being given responsibility for leading others.

Being a pastor is more about being willing to be led by God and changed by the people I meet than issuing infallible decrees from a pulpit, more about admitting I’m wrong and sharing my frailty than pretending I know God’s will on a given subject. One friend describes preaching as a “homiletical wager,” and I’ve come to believe that pastoring, presuming to be a spiritual leader, is bit like gambling with God, where the stakes are very high but I’m betting the game is rigged toward grace.

I also know that plenty of folks have turned their backs permanently on the church, on religion, on Jesus, because they have struggled with heavy yokes and been locked out of the kingdom of God. I’ve had the privilege of helping a few hear the good news in the Good News, and seen them stand up straighter when the yoke is lifted off their shoulders. The church is still a place where prisoners are released and slaves are set free.

There are other pastors out there who keep on tying up heavy burdens that they will never have to lift. They give me plenty of work to do as a burden-lifter. If any of you pastors are reading this, please hear me: the easy yoke is a lot better. Letting prisoners go is a joy. Don’t be afraid of the people who tell you you’re abolishing the law by doing so. Don’t let them make you ashamed of the gospel. Out-give, out-pray, and out-love them. That knot of fear inside you will finally relax, and you may find freedom, too.

New Church Update, July 8, 2012

We had a full house last night! Thirty-eight adults and children gathered for our second worship and planning meeting. We talked about the second aspect of our life together as a worshiping community: Devotion.

Devotion is how we love God as individuals and small groups. The word “devotion” shares the same root as the word “vow,” and it’s about how we commit ourselves to loving God with our heart, mind, and strength. There are many ways that we can open ourselves to grace and allow God to change us, but I focused on four: prayer, study, giving, and meeting together.

While a lot has been written about prayer, and there are many ways to pray, my biggest learning about prayer in the last several years has been how to pray with my body. After meditating with Buddhists in South Korea to praying with hand-waving charismatic Christians there, watching Jews rock back and forth at the Wailing Wall and Muslims bow with their faces to the ground in Cairo, I realized I was missing out on something. Most Protestants learn to pray with their eyes closed and their heads bowed, stationary and silent, like people asleep. But God is not just an internal voice in my head. The living God likes physicality, and when I learned to pray nonverbally by bowing, kneeling, feeling the texture of beads, or journaling, it was like I had discovered a new country. I hope people in the new congregation find new power in prayer as well.

Study likewise is not just piously poring over scripture as God’s Word. It means wrestling with a text, arguing with the authors, questioning things that seem like cliched truths and bumping up against the rough edges of scripture. I wish progressive Christians had been reading their Bibles in California during the Proposition 8 controversy, and in Alabama during immigration. I wish more Christians memorized the verses that say God shows no partiality, instead of just the comforting, misquoted ones about personal salvation (“I know the plans I have for you,” for example, is really “I know the plans I have for y’all.”)

Giving. Man, where to begin. People in Nigeria, and Zambia, and Kenya dance their offerings down the aisles of the church with joy. Here in the richest country in the world, we’re embarrassed to ask for offerings in church. Because we don’t talk about money, we have a hard time asking for commitment. Uncommitted people gripe the loudest and give the least. You don’t have to look much further than two recent contenders for the presidential nomination. Each loudly said that government shouldn’t help the poor—that’s the job of the churches. Neither one, according to their tax returns, tithed. (For the record, both Obama and Romney do tithe).

I would not ask such a person to be the president of my administrative board, much less of the most powerful nation on the planet. If you don’t believe in the mission and ministry of the organization you serve enough to give to it, you should find an organization whose mission you can tithe toward. When I give the first dollar of my paycheck away, I no longer work for Visa, or beer, or the mortgage company. I work for God. If my first thought with my money is how to spend it on myself, then I work for all the petty gods of this world.

Finally, meeting together is part of devotion and how we love God. Theresa of Avila said that in order to know God better, one should frequent the company of God’s friends. It is difficult to be accountable to these other things I’ve mentioned without being part of a community. Even Jesus needed a circle of 12 friends around him, and needed their prayers. If Jesus felt the need, I figure I’d better do the same.

After the sermon, we shared communion. In the response part of our worship and meeting, we did some polling about potential names for the new church, and Angela led the group in making various kinds of prayer beads. The word “bead” actually comes from the word for prayer, because they’ve served as a mnemonic device in many cultures for many centuries for prayer and meditation.

I am excited that people seem to be turned on by what we’re starting here, and that they are beginning to dream about the possibilities available to us. God is doing great things.

John McClure offers great advice on composing congregational prayers.

Otherwise Thinking

Crafting Liturgical Prayers: Part I, Finding the Right Language

I have the opportunity to visit many churches and participate in worship across many traditions. In non-prayerbook churches, prayers in worship are either crafted extemporaneously during worship, or crafted ahead of time before worship. This places tremendous responsibility on the worship leader who has to understand at least four things:

1) the kind of language that is appropriate for public prayer as opposed to private, devotional prayer

2) the forms of prayer that are possible for offering public prayer (collect, bidding prayers, litanies, etc.)

3) the genre of prayer that is being offered at a particular moment in public worship (adoration, confession, petition, thanksgiving, intercession, etc.).

4) the theological elements that go into each genre of prayer.

Over the course of the next few posts, I will address these questions.

Finding the Right Language

The goal with liturgical English is to…

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