January 24, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
NOW THE BAD NEWS
The third in a series of five.
A father was home with his baby son. His wife was running a few errands and had made sure before she left that he knew he was responsible for watching little Joey. He said that would be no problem but the problem was his attention was really on the ballgame and not on his son. Joey was crawling all over the house, exploring places his mom had never let him get near. Like the top of the stairs.
It was quite a tumble. Thankfully babies are tough. After quite a few tears, Joey was fine. His dad felt terrible. He cuddled his son in his lap and they watched the rest of the ballgame together.
Then his wife came home. She asked if there had been any problems. He couldn’t very well lie. But he figured the way he phrased the truth might make a difference. So he said, “Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that while you were gone Joey took his first 14 steps.”
Most things in life have good news and bad news. You can tell the same story in a way to accentuate the positive or the negative. The general rule is that things are seldom as bad or as good as they first seem. And that’s true of small groups.
This is our third sermon in this series. We’ve been accentuating the positive. We’ve been talking about how wonderful small groups are. They are. I haven’t been exaggerating. I just haven’t told you everything. There’s good news and there’s bad news. Now the bad news. I prefer to call it a note of realism. Three notes of realism actually.
First, it’s harder than it sounds. That’s the reason we haven’t already done this. That’s the reason most churches talk this subject to death and never do anything about it. The truth is it’s a whole lot easier to preach a series of sermons on small groups than it is to get a network of small groups up and running.
It’s hard because it takes leaders. You can’t have more small groups than you have leaders for the small groups. Sometimes that’s the reason churches get stalled. They can’t recruit enough leaders. People who would gladly attend a small group just want someone else to be the leader.
Sometimes churches have enough leaders, but they still get stalled because they don’t have enough people who gladly want to attend. Even when we’re convinced of the value of being part of a group, most of us are living lives that are just about as full as they possibly can be with other things. Saying “yes” to a small group means saying “no” to something else. That can be hard to do.
Another reason small groups are harder than they sound has to do with the way churches typically operate. It takes so many people to fill the committees and do all the volunteer tasks it takes to keep a church going, that there aren’t people or time or energy to do much else.
We have an advantage here. We’ve streamlined our committee structure. We’re operating on the assumption that most of you will serve God in this church in some way other than sitting on a committee. But we still haven’t transitioned into the mindset that the place where church really comes alive is in a small group. That’s where we grow in our faith. That’s where we care for each other. That’s how we reach out and draw new people in. That’s the base from which we go out into the community and serve. That’s where the action is. Most churches never figure that out. And even those that do, have to work at this long and hard over a span of years. This is not a short-term quick and easy way to revitalize our church. It’s harder than it sounds.
Our scripture today is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, facing the hardest moment of his life, knows he needs the community of his small group. He says, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to the point of death. Stay with me. Pray with me. I need you now more than I ever have before.”
Notice that Jesus has a small group within his small group. It’s Peter, James, and John. He spends more time with them than the others. There is a special bond of trust that has developed among them. And now as Jesus faces the cross, he takes them with him. He needs them. What a model that is for us! If Jesus, the Son of God, needed community, how can we think that we don’t?
This brings us to the second note of realism that we need to hear today. The community we seek in small groups doesn’t just happen. It didn’t just happen for Jesus. Peter, James, and John let Jesus down in the Garden of Gethsemane. They disappointed him. He thought he could trust them but he couldn’t. In his hour of need they all fell asleep.
That can happen to us. People let us down when we need them the most. We let people down when they need us the most. That happens all too often. It can be as blatant as sleeping while they suffer. Or it can be more subtle. We can go through the motions of being there for each other. We can have our eyes wide open. It appears that we’re awake. But we’re really sleepwalking.
Scott Peck called this “pseudo community”. It’s false community. It’s the illusion of community. We don’t know each other very well so we have our guard up. We’re going to play it safe. We’re going to test the water before we jump it. And the problem is, all we ever do is test the water and nobody ever jumps in. Nobody ever goes deep in matters of the heart.
Some marriages operate on a safe, superficial level for years. So do many parent-child relationships. Most relationships at work or at school are that way. And a whole lot of small groups settle for pseudo community instead of truly experiencing the trust and the caring and the accountability of true community.
Ralph Neighbour is one of the foremost authorities on small groups. He tells the story of a group he visited as a guest. The leader announced that he had run into Bill at the hardware store. Bill told him that he and Mary were getting a divorce and that neither of them were going to be comfortable coming back to the group. After some stunned silence, someone said that he was in their home just a few days earlier and everything seemed fine. He asked if anyone knew Bill and Mary’s marriage was in trouble. They all shook their heads. Ralph Neighbour asked how long this group had been together. He was told three or four years.
I’m guessing you could all share similar stories. Just being in a group is no guarantee you will experience community in that group. Our natural tendency is to settle for the safe, the innocuous, and the surface level. You’re engaging in small talk and not deep sharing.
And who has time for that? I mean, really! You have carved time out of your week because you’ve decided that this is something important. And week after week everyone is just shooting the breeze. Nobody’s opening up. Nobody’s being real. You say, this isn’t what I signed up for. And you’re right! Small groups are places for true community, taking off masks, sharing fears, feelings, frustrations, failures, hopes, dreams. Challenging each other to grow up in Christ and to not settle for casual Christian living.
But that will never happen unless the group gets past pseudo community. So how does that happen? Here’s the good news in this bad news sermon. It usually just takes one. You can be the one. If you will just be the first risk something scary, it can change the whole dynamics of your group.
Most of us are reluctant to do that. Most of us are desperate to preserve the image that we have it all together. As if we don’t already know the truth. None of us has it all together. There’s no such thing. All of us have hang-ups and worries and problems. A small group is a safe place to be real with each other. No one will judge you because everyone in your group is just as messed up as you are. We’re all works in progress. The only difference between those who have discovered true community and those who haven’t is that those who have have a better chance of being less messed up tomorrow.
By the grace of God, and with the help of others.
Look again at the self-disclosure of Jesus. “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful even to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). If Jesus could be that real to his small group members, why can’t we be that real to ours?
There’s one more note of realism. I’ve saved the worst for last. Some of you have had this happen to you. I have. And if you have you will agree with me that it is horrible. Maybe I should just close with a prayer and skip this third one for fear of scaring you all away. But if I’m going to tell you the bad news about small groups, I can’t leave this one out. It’s only fair that you are forewarned.
At some point your group is going to turn on you. If you’re in a really good group, a group that has gone way past pseudo community, it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time. All these kind, loving, supportive friends whose company you cherish are going to tell you some things you really didn’t want to hear. They are going to identify some blind spot in your life. You didn’t see it. Or maybe you did, but you didn’t think it was that bad. They tell you it’s bad enough, they can’t just gloss over it. They’re not just going to wink at it like your other friends do. They’re going to ask you about it. They’re going to stick their noses right into your personal, private business and they’re not going to back down. Because they’ve spotted something that compromises your devotion to Christ. And since they love you they are going to let you know. And it’s going to feel for all the world like they’re turning on you.
At that moment you’re going to hate your small group. You’re going to regret the day you signed up. You might even quit.
Maybe it’s going to be three or four group members staring at you, waiting for you to explain how you can claim to love your wife when you’re rarely home and even when you are home you’re rarely giving any evidence that you love her. Or you’ve made some decision that was the easy decision to make but not the right thing to do. Or you’ve become enslaved to some addiction and you’re in denial about the power it holds over you.
Not a comfortable moment. Especially since these people who are waiting for what you’re going to say next know you too well to believe your charming lie.
Part of you wants to get up and walk out of that room, but part of you, the part the Holy Spirit has ahold of, is saying: “Wait. They’re not really turning on you. They love you too much to keep quiet. They love you too much to let you continue on this path that’s heading nowhere good. And they love you too much to let you B.S. your way out of this. Because they made a pledge to help you grow up in Christ and this is the day the rubber meets the road. So don’t fight it. Embrace it. Grow from it.”
King David had a small group of prophets who gave him counsel. After his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder to cover up the adultery, one of these prophets, Nathan, told him a story. At first the story sounded harmless but by the time it was over, David realized he had just been hit across the forehead with a two-by-four. You don’t do that to a king. Most kings would have had Nathan put to death. But to David’s credit, he took to heart what Nathan had told him and he repented of his great sin (II Samuel 12).
Nathan loved God and loved David too much to keep quiet. And even though David would have rather he had kept quiet, he knew Nathan was serving him well. Your group members are serving you well when you think they’re turning on you. There aren’t many people around who love God and love you enough to do that.
There are a lot of good things to be said for small groups. And there are also a lot of bad things. But I hope by now you can see that even the bad things are really just challenges that when met will lead to even more and better good things. Small groups are hard work. They are worth it. But as Ringo Starr sang in that song from a few years back, “It Don’t Come Easy.” It’s going to take a lot of prayer, a lot of work, a lot of persistence.
A farmer sent some chickens to his nephew who was just starting to show some interest in the livestock business. This uncle thought owning a few chickens would teach him a valuable lesson in responsibility. However, the boy was careless. In the process of opening the crate, all the chickens got away.
The next day he wrote his uncle a letter. He felt he should explain what had happened. He said, “I did my best to get them all back. I chased them all through the neighborhood, but I only caught eleven.” His uncle called as soon as he got the letter. He said, “You did pretty well to capture eleven of those chickens. I only sent you six.”
That’s the kind of persistence it’s going to take if we’re serious about the kind of small groups that will honor God and make a lasting difference in the lives of people.
Lord God, none of this is going to be more than impassioned talk without you. It’s too big, it’s too hard, there are too many reasons we can’t do this, unless this is truly your will for our church. Unless we humbly and obediently offer ourselves to you. So God, may we all pray real hard about the place small groups are going to have in the future of this church, and may we all pray real hard about the place we are each going to have in these small groups. To your glory and that we might better know Christ, love God, and serve others, Amen.