Freedom: An Encouragement for Small Groups

“For freedom Christ has set us free…” (Galatians 5:1a)  

It certainly feels like Paul’s words to the Galatians are at odds with our current situation. For most of us, we’ve never had our freedoms so drastically limited as we have during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Has Christ’s work been overcome by this disease or our leaders’ decisions? “Of course not!” you might say, “that’s not what Scripture is talking about.” And you would be right. But, then why have we become so obsessed with what we can’t do right now?

If we keep reading, Paul addresses the underlying struggle:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Galatians 5:13

Our flesh wants the control back it thought it once had and enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, our freedom to move about and function the way we did before COVID-19 gave us amazing opportunities we’re missing now. But if you find your mind clouded by thoughts of what you’re being kept from, or your actions paralyzed by the inability to do your normal routine, you may be missing some of what Jesus set you free to be and do, both now and perhaps before.

Instead of what we can’t do, let us focus on the unexpected opportunities and blessings our Savior has provided even in the midst of our current situation.

This is where Small Group comes in.

Often, for our gaze to be lifted, we need fellow travelers on the same path to point out where we’ve lost focus, arm us with Scripture and help us see how to move forward. And we need an initial forum to exercise our freedoms through loving service. Our group, like others, has struggled to find its rhythm in this new paradigm. But lately we’ve started shifting from what has been lost or changed to all the possibilities our freedom affords to love and serve each other, and it’s exciting! 

Here’s just a few things we’re trying during this season:

  • We are beginning a new group study format where each couple “owns” one of the weekly discussion questions to help everyone one be heard and involved amidst the often awkward and uncomfortable video conferencing.
  • Borrowing from an old group experience, we have launched a “Double Date Challenge” to encourage couple’s to build deeper relationships through face-to-face (but legal!) pairings. The creativity has already started flowing to balance safe and responsible activities with our craving for in-person community. For example, bring-your-own picnic on blankets six feet apart.
  • And while challenging, we’ve continued to look for opportunities to love and serve our community together, like writing letters to local nursing home residents who are unable to have visitors.

There are no limits to the amount of love Jesus is giving you, so be encouraged! Your freedom to love and serve each other is still fully intact, and with eyes on our Lord’s example and his Spirit empowering us, it may even be enhanced!

Don’t give up meeting together, no matter how awkward or emotionally unsatisfying.

And don’t let what you can’t do stop you from all the things you can do with the freedom we have in Christ!


 

031: How to Have Real Community in a Digital World

Our community has been ordered to shelter at home and engage in social distancing. As a church, we have suspended all in-person gatherings until further notice. But, does that mean you have to miss out on real relationships? On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Karl Garcia and Jon Crump about how to have real community in a digital world.

RESOURCES:

Video Conferencing Tools: Skype, Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Duo,

Virtual Group Best Practices

Wanting to join a group?

Repent and Believe: Loving God with All Your Heart

This book is Book 5 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key beliefs and practices every disciple of Jesus needs to repent and believe.

Buy this resource on Amazon

Here For You: The Erin Contreras Story

 


“Growing up, I had a really rough childhood, the type that comes up in the news,” Erin Contreras said. “I mean, I went to 23 different elementary schools, so there was no stability or time to go to church.”

Even with so many variables in her life, Erin always felt the presence of someone there for her. She believed in God even though no one in her family was guiding her.

“[He was] who I called out to in my times of need,” Erin said.

When Erin met her husband, Eli, her thoughts of God faded into the background. Although Eli grew up with a really religious background, Erin didn’t have a foundation that stuck. In 2007, a coworker invited Erin and Eli to attend Clear Creek Community Church. Eli, with his strict traditional religious background, was skeptical upon seeing “a bunch of hippies” in jeans and flip flops, but ultimately they decided to regularly attend Sunday morning services.

“We didn’t have any community,” Erin said about their early experience at Clear Creek. “It was a very transactional relationship. We went, we punched our card, and we left.”

Just before the Conteras’ second son was born, Erin was involved in a traumatic home invasion where the intruder tried to kill her and kidnap her oldest son while she was nearly 9 months pregnant. The only reason she was able to escape at the time was because the intruder thought she was dead already.

“It just left me so broken… with such bad PTSD,” Erin said. “I had Max two weeks later and, after that incident, our marriage just fell apart.”

With the ensuing depression Erin experienced, the foundation she and Eli had as a married couple crumbled. On top of that, Eli lost his job.

“The depression cut me so deep. I lost sense of reality. I lost sense of who I was,” Erin said. “We stopped going to church because… I just felt abandoned [by God].”

After the incident, Erin sought relief from her trauma and depression through medication and therapy, but she often felt alone. It seemed impossible to find other people who could identify with what she had been through.

“There weren’t any support groups for ‘Housewives of PTSD’” Erin recalled. “Either you’re a soldier [struggling with PTSD] or you don’t have it.” She had no one else in her circles who could relate to her experience. As a couple, Erin and Eli were never comfortable talking about Erin’s feelings or how her therapy was going.

“All Eli ever wanted to know was how I was doing because he just loved me so much,” Erin said. “But I could not talk about it at all. I would become too emotional, and it was too much for me… I just held it all in, and it was like a cancer.”

No longer trusting God, Erin isolated with her kids, wrapping them up in her self-protective armor. But, Eli’s response to the home invasion was the complete opposite.

“My husband, in that tragedy, found faith and I lost it,” Erin said. “He saw that somebody was there – somebody kept me alive.”

Erin and Eli continued to struggle, leading them to separate and no longer communicate with one another. They were headed towards divorce at full speed.

“We didn’t have family support. We weren’t in a small group. So that was just the path we were going down,” Erin said. “But my husband, out of desperation, started going to church again because he didn’t know what else to do.”

This time, Eli took a step in faith and joined a men’s small group. When the men would pray at the end of every group, Eli would ask for prayer for his marriage and prayer for his wife.

“At that time, I wanted nothing to do with him,” Erin said. “But Eli kept going to small group and prayed for us.” Erin freely admits that it would have been easier for Eli to just leave her completely. But Eli’s small group encouraged him to love his wife, even at her worst. Toward the end of the life cycle of the small group, Eli was ready to get baptized.

Erin finally agreed, and at Eli’s baptism, she met his small group.

“I saw that they were all married men,” Erin said. “And it broke my heart because I saw how happy all those married couples were, and I knew that they knew my story. I knew they knew what I was going through.”

Shortly after Eli’s baptism, he asked Erin, “What do you think about maybe coming to church with me on Sunday?”

Despite her fears of something happening her kids, she took a step.

About a month later the Contreras were still going to church together every Sunday. Erin and Eli had talked about moving back in together, and six months later, they were living together again. When another GroupLink happened, Eli suggested they join a small group for married couples.

“I was like, ‘I do not want to be in a married group. First of all, we’re barely married at this point. We just started living together and… the last thing I want is some hypocritical Christian telling me what I should be doing in my marriage.”

But Erin eventually agreed because she wanted to find some sort of hobby to do with her husband, though they drove separately to group each week.

“I didn’t want to go there to make friends,” Erin said. “I [didn’t] need churchy people in my life.” Within the first few meetings, the group members were already sharing their backgrounds and stories, and when it came time for Erin to speak, she was frank.

“I was like, ‘Basically, I’m not here for you guys. I don’t want any part of this. I’m just here for [Eli].”

Erin calls it “probably the worst introduction that anybody’s ever had,” but she didn’t think her life and marriage were anybody else’s business. But, she found that the group members were willing to receive her exactly where she was at.

After a while, Erin and Eli started riding to small group in a car together, which turned out to be catalytic for their marriage.

“I never thought the car ride would be the biggest thing, but it’s really where he and I became husband and wife again.”

They would talk about their thoughts on the current small group study, and it was the first chance in a long time to connect with one another about something deep. In those moments, without their kids and without distractions, Erin and Eli began to develop a friendship again.

“It just opened up a narrative… where we couldn’t before talk about how we were doing,” Erin said. “It got to the point where we’d get home, and we wouldn’t get out of the car. We’d just sit in the car and talk more for another 15 or 20 minutes. And so, I really think that those car rides were the most special time we’ve ever had.”

After going to small group for about a year-and-a-half, Erin got severely sick one summer and had to endure seven surgeries within a single summer. It was during this time that Erin’s perception of small group took a dramatic shift.

“They just really poured into my family,” Erin said about her group members. “They brought us meals. They checked on me daily. They would check in after every surgery asking, ‘Do you need help with this? Do you need us just to run to the grocery store?  What can we do for you?’”

The Contreras’ small group community intimately entered their lives during one of the most critical times for their family.

“I had never experienced anything like this,” she said. “Even when I had both of my kids, it was just me… alone. There was nobody who came over. There was nobody who brought meals… It was a shift. I belonged.”

Something about this love in action softened her heart. Air rushed back into her lungs. She still wouldn’t describe herself as a believer at that time but just going with the flow. Then one day, something that Eli and her Navigator had both said just clicked.

If God wasn’t there, then why are you angry at him?

“I was angry because I felt abandoned,” Erin said. “Eli had tried to tell me this many times. He would say, ‘Well, how can you feel abandoned by somebody that was never there to begin with?’

It finally made sense to Erin. You can’t be mad at somebody who isn’t there.

“I mean, if I’m angry at somebody then obviously there’s somebody in my heart that’s always been there… that’s when I really started believing.”

Erin got baptized in March 2018.

“[My baptism] was just another moment where I was like, ‘I’m still doing life with these people. These people are still pouring into me. They’re still here for my children. For my husband. And it was a really beautiful thing to have my community with me.”

Another part of her recovery has to do with her current job opportunity where she teaches music at a Classical School. She has the privilege of talking about God’s beauty every day.

“My whole job is to point out what is true, good, and beautiful in this world and how that all points back to God,” Erin said. “And not being a believer, I wouldn’t have the job that I have. I wouldn’t be able to form these little lives or these connections with these kids.”

Three months after Erin’s baptism, she took a huge next step by starting to serve in the music ministry at Clear Creek. Once someone who slipped in under the balcony and out before the end of the last song, Erin now uses her gifts to play the keyboard and sing on stage.

“You have to be so vulnerable to be on stage worshiping because you’re not just putting on a show for everybody. You’re worshipping withthem.” And each time she serves, she thinks about the people who might be sitting under the balcony.

“Music is one of those things that engages everybody,” Erin said. “So I always pray before I go on stage, Use our music to touch somebodyOpen somebody up.”

Erin found, and continues to find, places where her true passion and talent can encourage others to align their hearts in worship, no matter what their own circumstances might be.

7 Keys to Developing Authentic Community

(adapted from Repent & Believe: Relying on God’s Power)

People experience community around shared values. That’s why there are book clubs, internet forums, and fantasy football leagues. But you don’t have to share multiple common interests to experience Christian commu­nity with people. Rather, Christians have a unique opportunity for commu­nity because we share our deepest value and highest treasure, Jesus Christ. We can experience Christian community when we connect with others who worship and follow Jesus. But we must do more than simply attend church services together to develop community.

Small groups are one strategy for developing Christian community. We hope that everyone who attends a small group experiences the wonder­ful benefits and joys of Christian community, but they might not. It takes time to develop community, and it takes more than just time to deepen community.

Here are some keys to develop and deepen community:

  1. Keep Showing Up

Community requires time. The number one reason people give for not being in a small group is the same reason given for not exercising: they don’t have time. When someone does determine to make time for small group, they sometimes have expectations that they are going to “get something out of it” every time they show up. But like exercise, the only way you get something out of it is when you make time for it and keep showing up. And yet just showing up regularly is just the beginning.

  1. Take Risks

Relationships include risks. Committing to show up at someone’s house feels like a risk. Getting together with new people, answering questions about what you think, and telling people what you believe are all risks. Disagreeing with someone is a risk. Sharing a prayer request is a risk. Pray­ing out loud with others for the first time feels like a risk. There are risks in every relationship where there is love, respect, mutuality, and service. But these risks have rewards. Over time, trust deepens and opens the door to the biggest risk.

  1. Be Known

All people want to be fully known and fully loved. We want people to know our names, our stories, our hopes, our thoughts, our feelings – our innermost selves. But because we have been hurt before, some of us are not transparent enough to be known. Like Adam and Eve, we cover up our nakedness with fig leaves of image management. Thus, we don’t feel loved, because we have to be known to feel loved. Otherwise, when some­one shows love toward us, we might think, “But if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me.” Developing and deepening Christian community includes the process of becoming known over time. Ultimately, when you are known and loved, you become the person God intended you to be all along. We tend to take this process of being known very slowly, until a catalyst accelerates the process.

  1. Run to the Train Wreck

A train wreck might be suffering, marital stress, a health crisis, a wayward teenager, or any number of other things. When a train wreck comes in a small group, it often helps the group get honest. But in the midst of strug­gle, the sense of community in the group grows deeper, faster. We might say that groups just meet together until the first train wreck in someone’s life, then they come together to experience real community. We are more likely to stop managing our image. Everyone gets real. The key seems to be that when the train wreck comes, the people in the group run to the train wreck. They don’t avoid it or throw platitudes at those suffering, because they know, love, and serve one another.

  1. Gospel First

In Christian community, instead of giving one another good advice in the midst of a struggle or personal challenge, we bring the gospel first. The first step to bring the gospel is reminding one another of how God longs to meet us in our sin and suffering with mercy and grace. So we turn to God in prayer as a group. We seek his wisdom in Scripture. We remind each other of promises from God.

  1. Serve One Another

When we experience Christian community in a small group, we grow in our ability to serve one another. In community, it’s not all about us. At times, our sole purpose is to serve one another. According to Hebrews 10:19-25, we continue meeting together so that we can stimulate one another to love and good works and encourage one another. When our group demonstrates the commitment to truly serve one another in a way that we are all growing closer, deeper, and stronger in our love for God and others, we get to experience the rare and beautiful gift of community in the way God intended it.

  1. Have Faith

We must believe what God says about community. The church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5). He is in the midst of his people (Luke 17:20-21). Where two, or more, are gathered in his name, he is with us (Matthew 18:20). We believe together, grow together, and endure together. And if we believe that Christian community is a vital part of worshiping and following Jesus, we will rearrange our lives in order to experience it.

My prayer for you is that you experience the kind of Christian community described above. As community deepens and ages, it becomes one of the greatest gifts we receive in this life. While it’s a gift from God, we contribute to the development of this community too by the way we treat one another.


 

Go & Multiply: Sharing the Gospel in Word and Deed

This book is Book 4 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key beliefs and practices every disciple of Jesus needs for going and multiplying.

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004: The Power of Small Group: The Stories of Karl Garcia, John Amato, and Matt Jones

In this episode, Karl Garcia shares his story about connecting with a Clear Creek small group and the role it played in his faith journey. Karl also sits down with two entrepreneurs, John Amato (on location at John’s restaurant) and Matt Jones, about their stories when it comes to the importance of small group in their lives.

 

Love & Serve: Living Interdependently

This book is Book 3 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key the belief and practice every disciple of Jesus needs of loving and serving.

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Listen & Obey: Hearing God’s Voice

This book is Book 2 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key the belief and practice every disciple of Jesus needs of listening and obeying.

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Repent & Believe: Relying on God’s Power

This book is Book 1 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key the belief and practice every disciple of Jesus needs of repenting and believing.

Buy this resource on Amazon