Essentials for Success

During this Sunday’s sermon, we will return to the theme of the Lord as shepherd, probably most familiar to us in Psalm 23. The sermon will be available on Holston View United Methodist Church’s website.

Today’s preparatory text:

Mark 6:34 (NLT)—Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.


By Chuck Griffin

When I first established the Methodist Life website, I had two basic intertwined purposes. One was to provide Wesleyan meditations through the “Life Talk” blog, and the other was to create a space for basic small group information. Both, I hoped, would encourage deeper, more communal discipleship.

The Rev. ‘Debo Onabanjo’s Monday LifeTalk contribution, combined with my preparatory work for this Sunday’s sermon, caused me to think about the basics of living as Methodists once again. Most of us are aware there are big changes coming—in a little over a year, we hope to see the activation of a denomination firm in its support of traditional Methodist principles.

As we consider our verse from Mark today, I want to reassert something, a forecast that frankly has annoyed or perplexed at least a few of my fellow conservative Methodists. This impending division, and all the strife surrounding it, will prove useless if we do not become a different kind of church than the UMC currently represents.

It is not enough to say, “We are traditional,” and then think everything is fixed once we’re operating under a new name and logo. Like the excited but confused crowd waiting for Jesus’ boat to arrive, we have to relearn how to hear the one true shepherd’s voice and function as a unified flock.

Early Methodists were good at this. First, they took the Holy Bible seriously, intelligently approaching it as the inspired word of God. They let it guide them in their understanding of the earliest church doctrines, and then they did their best to live their lives according to those principles. In particular, they met in small groups, holding each other accountable regarding their regular engagement with God and their pursuit of holiness.

Let’s remember that the current United Methodist Church already is traditional—on paper. If we were still living as people of God’s word, bound tightly in communal accountability, no changes would be required to our Book of Discipline. I believe we would be a force against the creeping secularism infecting parts of the global church today.

In a new denomination, we still can be such a force, but we who call ourselves traditional Methodists have to understand that most of us fail to live according to the Methodist model, at least in America. (We have much to learn from our more communal brothers and sisters in places like Africa and Asia.)

How many of us are truly immersed in God’s word, treating the revelations there as a life-or-death matter? How many of us find ourselves committed to a properly organized Christian small group, one determined to reach lost sheep and grow its members into reflections of Jesus Christ’s glory?

Restless sheep, gather into flocks to listen to the shepherd’s voice. Listen intently, as Christ still has great compassion for us. He will teach and guide us, and we will move as one.

Lord, as you do new works through the movement called Methodism, keep us rooted in your very biblical truths about community and holiness. Amen.

On the Outs

Psalm 69:1-5 (NRSV)

To the leader: according to Lilies. Of David.
Save me, O God,
    for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
    with waiting for my God.

More in number than the hairs of my head
    are those who hate me without cause;
many are those who would destroy me,
    my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
    must I now restore?
O God, you know my folly;
    the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

There is more to this psalm, but let’s deal with the initial feeling being expressed, one I suspect many of us have experienced.

When we are little children, the feeling comes out in a song: “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, going to the garden to eat worms.” (If you learned to sing it a little differently, there are many variations.)

I wonder if any teenager has managed to get through puberty without feeling unfairly ostracized and opposed from every direction. And yes, most of us know that even as adults, we can find ourselves on the outs and wondering why.

As the psalmist is noting, it’s particularly painful when we come under attack for doing what we are certain is in accord with God’s will. We shouldn’t be surprised, however—Scripture is clear that our relationship with God will bring us into conflict with the world.

Recovery Strategy, Part 1: Keep our hearts attuned to God, who loves us more than any human can love. God will not abandon us as we do our part to work within the divine plan. It’s okay to complain a little, like the psalmist. God can handle it, and God will let us know if we are somehow off track.

Recovery Strategy, Part 2: Stay in community with godly people, even if that community is no larger than a group of three or four. Search the Bible together, pray together and encourage each other.

Remember, the kingdom is not only coming, it will come in full.

Lord, sustain those who would work on your behalf in all sorts of worldly places. May they exude a light from you that astonishes and attracts others. Amen.

Specific Gifts

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 12:28 (NLT)

Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:
first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages.


Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve referenced spiritual gifts while preaching, and last Friday I issued an invitation to those of you who might want to learn more about your gifts, regardless of whether you’re a regular part of Holston View UMC. Today, please let me provide you with just a little more detail.

There are lots of ways to assess spiritual gifts, some formal, some informal. At previous churches, I’ve used the “3 Colors of Your Gifts” book and tests as part of an introductory church class for visitors and new members. I like these materials, and most people have found them useful. I think such a formal approach is at least a start in the right direction.

These tests usually work best in a small group setting, with a leader who has some training in the materials (I do). If you also have an interest in small groups, it’s fun to use spiritual gifts discovery as a starting point for a group.

Whether your search is formal or informal, you of course want to start with prayer. Simply ask God to reveal to you the gifts that will make you a more effective Christian. If you’re going the informal route, at least talk with a pastor and with other mature Christians around you about how they see God working in you, and consider how what they say lines up with a list of scriptural gifts, like this one:

Trusting your likes and dislikes is an important part of your discernment. If you find yourself on a planning committee and not really happy about it, you’ve learned something—you probably lack the spiritual gifts that go along with such service.

That’s okay! Don’t give up, just change up how you serve, and find what gives you joy while bearing fruit for the kingdom. Again, trust the guidance of mature Christians around you.

I promise you this: No sane pastor or church leader will try to prevent you from exploring different forms of gift-based service. We never have enough people in the church doing kingdom work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We want you to find your place, and in the process, find the kind of joy that helps you experience eternity now.

Lord, thank you for the ongoing grace you pour on us in the form of spiritual gifts. Help us to see how we fit into your plans to change the world. Amen.

Small Groups Save Lives

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

The above headline makes a bold assertion. In the past few weeks, I’ve talked about how small groups restore people to God, keep people in a tight-knit community and help their members grow as disciples.

And yes, when times are tough, when much is at stake, small groups save lives.

One example is how small groups save the lives of leaders. While the idea of modern small groups is of course not fully formed in an ancient text, we see the basic concept at work in Exodus 18:13-27. Here, we are deep in the story of Moses and how he leads the Israelites out of Egypt.

At this point, Moses has been reunited with his wife and children, who have been staying with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest. Jethro is astonished by the miracles God has performed while liberating the Israelites from Egypt, but he is also concerned about how Moses is trying to handle every problem on his own.

“This is not good!” Jethro says. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too.”

Jethro’s advice is pretty simple: Find men you trust, men with high moral standards, and group the people under them to help. Moses takes the advice, at least initially.

Sadly, Moses eventually burns out anyway, the stress of leadership proving to be too much. A fit of anger while leading the recalcitrant people ultimately costs him entry into the Promised Land. No matter how smart we may think we are, we all need wise companions as we make our way through this broken world toward God’s kingdom, particularly if we are called to lead.

Small groups save lives in more direct ways, too. Churches structured around small groups have been able to do great kingdom work in the midst of terrible evil.

For example, if you don’t know the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, you should take time to learn more about it. This little French village, working mostly out of its small Protestant church, was able to save thousands of Jews from deportation and extermination during World War II. What fascinates me is how the people of Le Chambon said they never needed a planning meeting or a vote to figure out what to do.

Well before the war, the pastor had put in place a biblical system for teaching and communication. He taught a small group of leaders, each of whom then taught their own groups.

When genocide began to happen around them, the people knew biblically what God called them to do and they simply did it, using their established small-group system. They passed Jews back and forth, keeping them safe without ever having to discuss out loud what they were doing.

I once saw an interview with a church member from that era. She said that a knock might come in the middle of the night, and a church member, child in hand, would say, “Please take care of this one.”

Trust of the church, and a common biblical understanding of the need to love others in risky ways, had been established via the small groups long before the war broke out. The church members very naturally said yes to such requests, without hesitation.

Through their small-group system, they knew when to hide their charges in the woods. They knew how to call them back into the houses by singing a song. Forged papers quietly made their way from house to house, allowing many of the Jews to flee to the safety of Switzerland.

Le Chambon reminds us of the powerful, life-saving response we can make to evil when we follow common-sense biblical strategies.

Lord, grow us in our understanding of how to structure our churches along biblical lines, so we may be ready when people around us are suffering and in need. Amen.


I also have an invitation for you today. I am organizing a weekly online small group. If you want to participate, let me know. You do not have to be a member of Holston View UMC, where I am pastor, to join. It would be helpful if you are comfortable using Google Meet, or if you think you can become comfortable after a little guidance. Contact me at chuck@methodist.life.

Once I’ve worked out who is interested, we will decide together when to meet, and we will establish a particular focus for the group. We of course will be spending time in the Bible.

Cut to the Heart

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Acts 2:37-42 (NRSV)

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.


Most preachers would sacrifice their eye teeth or maybe even other body parts to see sermon results like what is recorded in today’s Bible reading. The report comes in the midst of the Acts account of the first fully developed Christian sermon.

Delivered by Peter shortly after the Pentecost experience, the sermon establishes the goal of any act of evangelism, be it carried out by the professional preacher or any other Christian. At some point, we want our audience, even if it’s just an audience of one, to be “cut to the heart,” asking pertinent questions about how to be saved.

Yes, there is an art to all of this. There are rhetorical flourishes that are helpful, communications techniques that shift and change from era to era and culture to culture. The core of the message remains the same, however. The need to repent of our sins and submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has to be declared.

We struggle in bringing people to Christ, I think, because we have shied away from getting to the point. Meditate on this today: “Am I comfortable declaring my belief in Jesus Christ to someone who needs to hear this truth?”

As you meditate, don’t treat the question as a theoretical possibility, as if it’s an outside possibility that you might encounter a lost soul one day. Frankly, if we are out in the world at all, we encounter lost people every day. When we fail to engage those who don’t know Christ as Savior, it’s a safe bet we’re not comfortable doing so.

If you’re wriggling a little as you read this, I may be able to explain why. You may be equating what I’m talking about with “cold evangelism,” the declaration of the gospel to strangers. Cold evangelism is really hard to do—Peter was successful because God preceded the apostle’s preaching work with powerful signs from the Holy Spirit, triggering mass curiosity.

On a day-to-day basis, most of us must rely on a different approach. For starters, if you identify a person who needs to know Christ, it helps to befriend that person. If you’re genuine in your desire to befriend that person despite his or her “otherness,” you will eventually earn the right to talk about your beliefs in an easy, straightforward manner. It’s been my experience that people will signal to you that it’s time to talk about Jesus Christ by asking you pointed questions.

If the idea of that moment unnerves you—well, you might want to spend a little time studying how to talk about your faith and answer the more pressing questions that nonbelievers raise. I think these skills are best developed in a small group dedicated to evangelism as its primary mission. If you want to join such a small group or learn how to form one, let me know.

Just remember, if you want people to be cut to the heart, you at some point have to cut to the core message about what we believe.

Lord give us eyes to see and ears to hear those who need to know you, and give us your wisdom and courage to speak the truth, knowing your loving grace arrived in their lives long before we showed up. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 5

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 28:20b (NLT): “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Having spent most of this week exploring what makes small groups healthy and effective for the Kingdom of God, I thought I would offer a few personal observations this Saturday. Ah, let’s just go ahead and say it—these are Chuck’s opinions, whatever they are worth.

I am convinced that small groups are critical to Christianity in America. Without another “Great Awakening,” we will continue to see churches shrink and die as our older members pass away. The remaining Christians will be a small-but-serious bunch, many of them grouped in house churches no larger than what I’ve been describing these past few days.

If there is another American Great Awakening—an event we should pray for and work toward—it likely will be built around vibrant small groups. The small group structure has historically been a part of explosive growth in the church, and there’s no reason to believe that important structural feature will go away.

So, one way or another, small groups will be the defining characteristic of the American church future, whether Christianity proves to be an integral part of our culture or a remnant of what used to be.

I don’t think for a minute that Christianity will depart from this earth. Belief in Christ is spreading like wildfire in other parts of the world. I would, however, like to think that my own culture will continue to participate in the kingdom in a lively way, rather than becoming a secularized dead zone.

It also would be sad if the particular strain of Christianity known as Methodism continues in its widespread failure to embrace the system of small groups that once made the movement so effective.

So, I leave you with an invitation. If you’re called to be in a small group, or perhaps even lead one, let me know. We will make that happen, whether you are a part of the local church I serve or somewhere else.

Lord, may a new fire be ignited in your American church, and please don’t forget your Methodist children as it happens. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 4

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

James 5:16-20 (NLT)

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.


No guts, no glory.

That’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the most difficult part of being in a small group, the mutual Christian accountability that should develop over time. As Christians grow in love and trust for each other, they also find themselves better equipped to talk about really important, personal stuff, sins included.

When it happens, it happens in a fairly natural way. No one has to force this new level of spiritual intimacy. Someone in the group is in pain, and finds she or he loves and trusts the others enough to courageously speak about the details of the ongoing struggle.

The other group members, in turn, hear this beloved individual’s words without judgment, offering to do what they can to draw God’s healing, forgiving grace into the situation.

Once the group becomes comfortable with such moments happening, it also is time to take more seriously what has formally driven accountability in small groups for centuries, the asking of agreed-upon questions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, provided recommended lists of questions throughout his ministry. There were 22 accountability questions in the “Holy Club” he and his brother Charles established in 1729.

These questions remain useful, and modern lists abound, too. One of my favorite accountability questions is at the end of Chuck Swindoll’s list of seven for male clergy: “Have you just lied to me?” Apparently pastors might hedge or lie in answering the first six, but surrender on the seventh.

If you don’t understand the level of trust and love that develops in a healthy small group, questions and accountability probably sound terrifying. Just remember, you won’t be drawn into mutual accountability until the group is ready and willing, and when that happens, the moment will be a joy, not a burden.

As I mentioned in Day 2 of this series, the level of closeness that develops, improperly understood, can cause a group to stop drawing new people in. Properly understood, these bonds should be the great motivator for reaching out to others.

God’s healing, forgiving love, transmitted via the Holy Spirit within the group, is the great gift we are called to share!

Lord, give us deep Christian relationships, the kind where we can grow into the people you would have us be. Amen.


Note: It has come to my attention that some people don’t fully understand how links work within an online article. You can click on places where the text changes color, and another window will open, giving you more details.

Small Groups, Day 3

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT): “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.”


I’m going to say what you probably expect a pastor to say about core practices in a small group: We need to read our Bibles and pray for each other.

I hope I can also clearly communicate how prayer and Scripture take on new life in the context of a small group. If you find prayer difficult, or if you find sustained time in God’s word unrewarding, it may be that you’re not cut out for the life of the lone-wolf Christian. (Few are.) You need a pack.

A successful small group usually has a specific mission-within-a-mission, the overarching mission being to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. With that broader goal always in mind, a group might exist to focus on outreach to a particular segment of the community, or to bring people together who have the same set of skills or interests. A general exploration of the Bible and a mutual agreement to pray for each other would still be important for the education and spiritual bonding of the group, however. The Bible and prayer keep us on mission.

I can testify as to how much fun it is to explore the Bible in a small group, and how incredibly sustaining it is to know others are praying for you each day.

It’s also exciting to figure out as a group how to make that exploration. I’ve been in groups where we’ve tried various techniques. Once, a group used a book focused on the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We would read a portion during the week and discuss our questions about what we had read at our weekly meeting. It was great!

So great, in fact, that we got another book by the same author. It stunk! About four weeks in, we gave up on it, but then we tried something different, something that might sound boring to the uninitiated. We started direct study of individual books of the Bible, buying journals that contained Scripture on one page and an empty ruled space on the opposite page.

When we came together each week, we shared what we had circled, underlined, questioned and commented on. Those ruled pages were sometimes surprisingly full. And we learned a lot together. Perhaps more than anything, we learned to take Scripture very seriously—we experienced God working through the Bible to shape our attitudes and actions.

By the way, I was the only clergy in that all-male group, and the lay people had a variety of education levels. Some had been Christians for decades, others for only a short time. It was a great mix, and everyone contributed. New Christians have a particular knack for asking the difficult questions.

Yes, “read your Bible” and “say your prayers” amount to very basic advice. But they are basic for a reason, and I’m convinced we best understand why in a small group.

Tomorrow, I want to focus on what is both frightening and rewarding about small groups: achieving mutual accountability.

Lord, open your holy word to us in new, dynamic ways, and when we pray together, may we be one with your Spirit. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 2

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT): Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”


As we continue an exploration of what makes Christian small groups effective, I’ll propose what I think is their greatest existential threat, short of the devil joining. The members, having begun to enjoy some level of spiritual intimacy, will want to “close the circle,” keeping new people out.

Now that I think about it, that may be how the devil gets in!

Small groups are, of course, Christian in their mission. And regardless of how a group may define its specific reason for existing, it has to continue carrying out the “Great Commission,” Jesus’ mandate that we make and grow new disciples.

So small group members find themselves maintaining a strange tension. They want spiritual intimacy, and at the same time, they want to be drawing what are essentially strangers into the group where secrets are sometimes shared.

To succeed, the members from the start have to be deeply intentional about growing and then splitting, birthing a new group. And frankly, this is where American Christians seem to struggle more than Christians in other, more communal cultures. I have witnessed and heard stories of small groups locking down, fearing they will lose something precious if they let new people join.

I recognize the instinct. We have to understand, however, that what we lose is what is sometimes called “organic growth,” the development of the body of Christ, where the Holy Spirit best goes to work in the world. A locked-down small group is like a dead cell in a body.

If each small group successfully draws enough new members to split each year, the number of small groups in an area can grow amazingly fast. You may remember geometric growth from math class: 1 becomes 2, 2 become 4, 4 become 8, 8 become 16, 16 become 32. Most churches would love to be able to say that in five years, 32 healthy small groups containing 150 or 200 active, thriving Christians would exist in their congregations.

I personally think it’s ideal if the first true small group in a congregation focuses on understanding how to evangelize, either reaching those who have never heard of Jesus Christ or re-energizing those who have fallen away. That way, evangelism DNA should remain in each new generation of small groups.

Along these lines, every small group needs both a dedicated leader and a leader in training, someone ready to depart with the new group when it’s time for a split. Having a leader in training also emphasizes the group’s seriousness about splitting.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider some core practices of small group members, the kind of activities that ensure the group remains truly Christian.

Lord, we don’t always get excited contemplating math, but we know what we’re really talking about is vibrant, vigorous life, the greatest blessing in your creation! Renew us with a deep understanding of how quickly the kingdom can grow, if only we cooperate. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 1

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Hebrews 10:23-25 (NLT): Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.


Christian, do you want to let go of pain and thrive in faith and love?

One major goal of the Methodist Life website is to encourage a resurgence in small groups as the basis of the Methodist experience. I’m going to take a few days to explore this concept. If you’re not in a Christian small group of some sort, I hope you will sense the restorative power of participating in such a group, which sadly has become a foreign idea for most American Christians.

I suppose this aversion to serious fellowship is not a new problem. Our Hebrews text above, with its phrase, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do,” is strong evidence that even the earliest Christians could be distracted from the life-changing impact of deep interaction with other believers.

Sunday schools are great, as are other educational and social groups within a church. They have their specific purposes. Don’t confuse these with small groups, however, which were the basis of the original Methodist movement that swept the world

Here’s the first major small group characteristic: “Small” is taken seriously. Most small group leaders would find that eight members are the maximum if everyone is to participate in a healthy way. The Discipleship Bands program begun at Asbury Theological Seminary recommends even smaller groups of three to five people.

If you don’t fully understand what the experience is supposed to be like, the restricted size should give you a clue. Over time, people meeting in weekly small groups should begin to have personal and confidential conversations about their faith, including their struggles. In this safe environment, Christians can find encouragement and mutual support.

Let’s be realistic—it’s hard to sit in a room with 20 people and have deep conversations about our struggles. We naturally fear that someone will gossip. In fact, when we’re really struggling, one of the loneliest places we can find ourselves is in a room full of people. If we’re going to open up to others, a tight circle of people is better.

That said, I also don’t want to scare you regarding what might happen in that private room (or these days, in that secure online meeting site). If you’ve never been in a small group, don’t think that people are going to put you in a headlock and force you to spill your secrets.

Spiritual intimacy takes time to develop. But when a small group of people understand from the outset the importance of maintaining confidentiality, they will achieve spiritual intimacy more quickly than you might think. Most groups begin by working out a covenant so rules and appropriate behaviors are clear.

Tomorrow, I’m going to explore what might at first seem to be a paradox. Small groups need to stay small, but at the same time, they’re constantly trying to draw new people into deeper Christian discipleship. Once we learn to maintain this tension, remarkable things can happen.

Lord, if you are calling us to a deeper relationship with you as we walk with others, let us sense clearly how we are to respond. Thank you for Christians who are willing to help each other grow. Amen.