Friday, September 17, 2010

What makes groups grow, part 2

Note: this article is one of six articles that eventually grew into a book: Make Your Group Grow. Available here:

I have just completed three months of asking 1031 teachers thirteen question designed to help us understand what makes groups grow. This article is the second in a series of reports on this survey. (Note: this is not a scientifically randomized survey, but rather a survey of group leaders that I filled out surveys online and at conferences.) I divided the findings into four sections:

  • Things that didn't matter hardly at all. (Less than 10% difference in likelihood of growth in the bottom and top group)
  • Things that only mattered a little. (Between 11% and 100% difference likelihood of growth in the bottom and top groups.)
  • Things that mattered a lot. (If you are in the top group in these factors you are twice as likely--or more--to be growing than if you are in the bottom group. Between 101% and 1000% difference in likelihood of growth in the bottom and top groups.)
  • Things that matter most. (If this is true of you, you are almost 11 times more likely to be growing than if it is not. More than 1000% difference in likelihood of growth between the top group and the bottom group.)

Last week we gave an overview and talked about things that didn't matter much. For that article, see This week we will move on to the second grouping: things that matter a little.

#1 - Time spent on group more than time spent on the lesson

I predicted that this would matter. I thought it would matter more than it did.

A Sunday School teacher or group leader is very different from a school teacher. Paul spoke of the idea that "we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children." 1 Thessalonians 2:7 (NIV) and, "For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory." 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 (NIV) Sounds more like a parent than a school teacher.

Jesus' concept of making disciples was largely around what the Navigators call the "with them" principle. "He appointed twelve--designating them apostles--that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach." Mark 3:14 (NIV) His plan for making disciples had a lot to do with spending time--lots of it--with them.

For all these reasons I predicted that teachers who spent lots of time with the students would be growing and teachers who spent lots of time on the lesson would not. Again, I was wrong.

Spending time with students is a predictor of the growth of a class. Teachers who spend more time with their students than they spend on the lesson are more likely to be growing than those who spend more time on the lesson than they do on their students. But, only marginally so.

Teachers who spend more time with students than they do on the lesson are 34% more likely to be growing than those who spend more time on the lesson than the spend with their students.

I have a guess as to why this is true. People who spend more time on the lesson are more likely to be better teachers. People like to hear good teaching. Teachers who spend more time on the lesson are more likely to report that they are four or five star teachers.

This demonstrates that there is more than one way to slice the pie. You can get there through great teaching, or you can get there through spending lots of time with your students.

My pastor and my former pastor are a good illustration of this. My current pastor, Dr. Maurice Hollingsworth is one of the finest pastors I know. He spends LOTS of time "with them." He really love us like a mother or a father would. There are a thousand people who are more active at First Baptist than I am. (We spend about 40 weekends on the road.) But when my dad had triple by pass surgery recently, Dr. Hollingsworth asked about my dad. I don't hear a lot of people going on and on about his preaching, but I have heard a lot of people say, "He sure is a caring pastor." He is a people person par excelance and the church is doing well.

My former pastor was the opposite kind of pastor. (Have you ever noticed how churches will tend to hire opposite kind of pastors, one after another?) He was not much on hospital visitation. I think he did some, but you had to be really sick. (I wouldn't want to be so sick that Dr. Z would come see me!) But, boy could he preach! Wow. He would knock it out of the park every time. And, the church did well.

You can grow a class on either strong teaching skills or strong people skills. Lucky the man or woman who has both. If you are bad enough at either one you are going to struggle. A rule of thumb is to shore up your weakness--make sure you are at least half way decent at both. Then, lean into your strengths. Strengths research suggests people do better by leaning into their strengths than fixing their weaknesses.

#2 Purpose of the group: is it mostly about growing members spiritually, or reaching out to outsiders?

Groups that saw their purpose as more about reaching to outsiders than growing spiritually were 53% more likely to be growing than those who saw their purpose primarily about growing spiritually.

This raises an interesting question. Can you grow spiritually without a deep interest in the lost? Does a deep interest in reaching the lost tend to enhance spiritual growth, or distract from it?

There is a tendency to make false dichotomies where no tension exists. Truth is, you can't grow close to God without caring about what He cares about--the lost.

Here is a Bible trivia question for you--what is the context of this phrase: "Low, I am with you always." That is a familiar phrase quoted from the AV. Do you remember where it is found? What is the context?

I have heard jokes around the idea that this is an admonition to drive, not fly. LOW I am with you always. It doesn't say anything about 30,000 feet.

Do you remember, yet? What is the context? It is the Great Commission. Jesus taught that as we engage on mission with God in the task of advancing the kingdom, pushing back the darkness, we are going to know a closeness to God that no Bible study has ever produced. (Please don't hear me say I am anti-Bible study; I think I have a life that proves otherwise.)

Many have experienced this in the context of a mission trip. There was something that happened on that mission trip that went quite beyond the excitement of jet travel. God was there. As we engage on mission with God in fulfilling the Great Commission, God with us in a special way.

It is one of the many things I love about speaking and writing and serving the Lord. I feel close to God when I serve. You will too. Many of you have.

This is what is wrong with the sit and soak group. A group that wants to just get closer and closer to God and doesn't care one whit about bringing others close to God can't get close to God themselves. God on on mission. Henry Blackaby taught us that if you want to get near to God you must join God in what God is doing. God is moving. If you want to stay near to God, you must stay moving.

A group that is on mission with God in growing and reaching is not only more effective growing and reaching, they are also more effective at getting people closer to God.

#3 Teaching ability

Teachers that are self-described as 4 or 5 star teachers are 68% more likely to report they are growing than those who are self-described as 1 or 2 star teachers.

I don't know about you, but this is one thing that is not a surprise to me. I would have predicted that the better teaching, the more likely the growth.

  • Five star teachers -- 48% growing
  • Four star teachers -- 47% growing
  • Three star teachers -- 37% growing
  • Two star teachers -- 35% growing
  • One star teachers -- 6% growing

This puts to rest another myth you sometimes hear: "We are not growing; I just concentrate on quality teaching." Maybe. But the likelihood is the opposite. The better the teaching, the more likely the growth. The less growth, the more likely the teaching is not all that good either.

#4 Visitation

Regular participation in visitation was a strong positive predictor of growth. Teachers who regularly participate in visitation are 78% more likely to be growing compared with those who never or almost never participate.

It is not quite as strong a predictor of growth as having lots or parties, but that is next week's topic. Next week we will talk about the four things that REALLY matter in predicting the growth of a group.

What makes groups grow, part 1

Note: this article is one of six articles that eventually grew into a book: Make Your Group Grow. Available here:

I have just completed three months of asking 1031 teachers thirteen questions designed to help us understand what makes groups grow. This article is the first in series that summarize my findings. (Note: this is not a scientifically randomized survey, but rather a survey of group leaders that I filled out surveys online and at conferences.)

Before I begin, allow me to say something. (I have always found that line humorous, but you kind of have to think about it.) I don't like some of the answers I found in this survey. I have taught the exact opposite of what this survey reveals at some points. I disagree with some of these findings. But, the facts are the facts and I am going to report them just as they are. If you disagree with the findings, please don't shoot me, I am only the messenger.

I asked thirteen questions. The first one was

1. Would you describe your class as. . .
growing rapidly

This question was used as a point of comparison with all the rest. For example, the next question (which was really four questions) read

2. How would you rate your strength in the following areas on a one to five scale:
Teaching ability
People skills
Spiritual vibrancy
Organizational skill

In each case, I divided the responses into two groups: the high and the low. If there were five possible answers, I threw out the middle ones and just compared the top group with the bottom group. I wanted to see as much contrast as possible.

The question, then, becomes, "Are 4 and 5 star teachers any more likely to report they are growing than are 1 and 2 star teachers?" What would you guess?

I then divided my findings into four groups:

  • Things that didn't matter hardly at all. (Less than 10% difference in likelihood of growth in the bottom and top group)
  • Things that only mattered a little. (Between 11% and 100% difference likelihood of growth in the bottom and top groups.)
  • Things that mattered a lot. (If you are in the top group in these factors you are twice as likely--or more--to be growing than if you are in the bottom group. Between 101% and 1000% difference in likelihood of growth in the bottom and top groups.)
  • Things that matter most. (If this is true of you, you are almost 11 times more likely to be growing than if it is not. More than 1000% difference in likelihood of growth between the top group and the bottom group.)

Here are the twelve predictors of growth sorted in the order of how much difference they make in predicting growth.

Things that didn't matter much

#1 Outsiders or insiders?

I asked how teachers spent their time--on people inside the class or outside. I would have predicted that spending more time on people outside the class was a significant predictor of whether the class was growing. Turns out, I was wrong. Teachers who spend more time on people outside the class than people inside the class were 4% LESS likely to be growing their class.

My take on that is this. If you ignore the people in your class, your class won't grow, no matter how much time you spend trying to get outsiders to join it.

I drilled a little deeper and found something else interesting. I compared those who were on the extremes in this category--those who were reporting spending 80% or more of their time with the class vs. those who were reporting 80% or more with people outside the class. Those who were spending 80% or more of their time on outsiders were 12% more likely to be growing than those who were spending 80% of their time or more with people inside. Still, not a huge difference.

Balance in all things. Jesus taught us to walk the narrow way. We need to minister to outsiders as well as insiders.

#2 Embrace the vision of growing and dividing

This was a real shocker to me. Here is the question:

10. How does your group feel about the idea of growing and dividing your group?
___ Openly embrace the vision of growing and dividing
___ Ambivalent about growing and dividing
___ Mildly opposed to the vision of growing and dividing
___ Strongly opposed to the idea of dividing our group

I taught for several years that if we are going to see a doubling group movement in our county, the groups themselves must embrace the vision of growing and dividing. A group of ten that doubles every eighteen months can reach a thousand people in ten years. Why isn't it happening? We don't want it to happen. The group must embrace the vision.

Not so. There was almost no difference (2%) in the likelihood of growth between those in the top and those in the bottom of this scale. How do you explain this?

Here is my explanation. Imagine you are rocking along, teaching a class, but not pushing them to grow and divide. How aware are you that the group is opposed to the vision of growing and dividing? How likely are you to report that your group is strongly opposed to the vision of growing and dividing? Not so much, right?

Now, suppose you get bitten by the group multiplication bug. You start actively talking to your group about growing and dividing. What kind of response do you expect to get? How aware are you now of the group's resistance to the vision? How likely are you to report that your group is strongly opposed to the vision of growing and dividing? Very likely.

The more the teacher has embraced the vision of growing and dividing, the more likely he or she is to be aware of the group's resistance.

Eventually, as the teacher succeeds in growing and dividing the group more people get on board with the vision.

In short, if a group has embraced the vision it is more likely to be growing. But, the more the vision is cast, the more aware the teacher is of the resistance. These factors offset each other.

The lesson is this: if you want to grow and divide your group, you don't have to wait around for your group to get the vision. Growing groups do not grow and divide because their group has embraced the vision. Sometimes they have embraced the vision and sometimes they have not.

#3 Organizational skill

This is the third thing in the "hardly matters at all" category. Teachers who report high organizational ability are only 7% more likely to be growing than those who report low organizational skill.

Next week, we will look at things that matter.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to Stimulate Better Discussions.

Guest article by Mark Howell

Reminder: Two of my core assumptions are (1) if I want to make it possible for everyone to be part of a group, I need to lower the bar for leaders (and raise the bar for coaches and coaching) and (2) part of lowering the bar for leaders is that I need to provide material that almost leads itself. That said, here is how I train leaders to stimulate better discussions.

Five Keys to Stimulating Better Discussions

First, think ahead of time about where your members need to go… You don’t need to spend a lot of time on this, but it does help to think about the individual needs of your members as you’re looking over the upcoming session. Although this is a challenge in a newer group, it gets easier the longer a group has been together and the more you know about your members. One way you can speed up the process is to have each of your members take the Purpose Driven Health Assessment and develop a Health Plan.

…and tailor the standard-issue questions in your upcoming session to fit the needs of your group. Not as hard to do as it might seem. Often it’s simply a matter of being aware of the needs of your members.

Second, learn to use guiding statements to keep the session headed in the right direction. Guiding statements are simple modifications that can be dropped in right after the question. For example:

  • “Let’s each take 30 seconds to respond to this question.”
  • “What one word summarizes your feelings.”
  • “What does this verse say to you? Boil your response down to one sentence.”
  • “This is a good warm-up question. How about 2 of you giving us your answer.”

Third, rephrase the question and ask it again. If the discussion drifts off topic, it can be redirected by rephrasing and taking a second pass.

Fourth, use redirecting statements as necessary. You may feel a little awkward, but your members will appreciate your help keeping things on topic. For example:

  • “That sounds like something we should discuss another time.”
  • “Let’s keep working on this question. We may have time for that one later.”

Fiftth, recognize and celebrate each baby step along the way. Affirm your members when they take a risk or make progress on the steps they need to take. For example:

  • “That’s great! Thank you for sharing that.”
  • “That is a really important step to share your feelings with the group!”
  • “We’ve taken some steps as a group tonight. I think all of us have acknowledged that we need to have a regular quiet time and we’re ready to give it a try.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sticky Teaching, Part 8

Jesus taught we are changed more by what we say than what we hear:

He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' Mark 7:20 (NIV)

That is why the Bible makes such a big deal about what we confess.

That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Romans 10:9-10 (NIV)

It is not enough to believe. We must confess. The implication is we don't really believe it until we say it. We are changed more by what we say than what we hear.

This is why Jesus asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" It is not like Jesus did not know. He knew that when Peter said, "You are the Christ" he would believe--really believe--and be changed by that message.

This is why I believe so profoundly about the importance of Good Questions as a means of teaching adults. Not that Good Questions are the only way to teach. We need sermons as well. But, we get that in the worship service. We don't need another one of those. If we do need another sermon, John Ortberg will probably do a better job than you or I. What people need is a conversation. They need the opportunity to process. They need the opportunity to confess. They need the opportunity to speak the truth and be changed by it. Good Questions do that.

Here are some of the kinds of questions that are included in Good Questions that Have Groups Talking.

I actually have a whole book on this. It is a FREE 160 page e-book called Good Questions Have Groups Talking.

The Life Exposure Question

Example: State your name and one strength you have as a teacher.

What Does the Text say?

Example: According to Acts 18:25 what three qualities make up great teaching?

Acts 18:25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately.

What does the Text mean?

Example: Does anyone know what is meant by the term, “perdition”?

“How Did They Feel? ” Questions

Example: How did the prodigal son feel as he approached the father near the end of the story?

Jump ball Questions

Example: Is Christian living easy or hard?

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:29-30

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Acts 14:22

“Where are you at?” Questions

Example: How often does the average believer share their faith?

Application Questions

Example: How can we apply this to our lives specifically this week?

“What is in it for me?” Questions

Example: What are the advantages for you of having a daily quiet time?

“What will it cost me if I don’t?” Questions

Example: What might it cost you if you don’t treasure your wife?

Testimony Questions

Example: How did you discover your spiritual gift?

How Has It Worked So Far?

Example: Tell me about how you learned to have a consistent quiet time?

Decision Question

Example: Would you join me in recommitting your life to Christ and to being obedient to the command of God to rejoice in the Lord always.

Accountability Questions

Example: How were you able to apply what we talked about last week?

Those are just some of the questions you can use. You can likely think of more, better ones. However you get there, lead your people to confess the truth and be changed by it.

We learn more from what we say than what we hear.

That is why, I have one more suggestion for you.

Before I make this suggestion, let me ask you a question. Have you enjoyed these articles? Have you been motivated to buy the book? Did you enjoy that? Do you really want to learn to be a sticky teacher?

Here is the suggestion: teach this material. That is right, teach it. Gather a group of like-minded teachers together and teach this material. Why? You learn more from what you say than from what you hear.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sticky lessons part 7

All Jesus did that day was tell stories—a long storytelling afternoon. Matthew 13:34 (MSG)

Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. Matthew 13:34 (NLT)

Again Jesus used stories as illustrations when he spoke to them. He said, Matthew 22:1 (GW)

Where to find good stories

I try to spend about half the time I spend in preparation in formal preparation--reading commentaries and what not. The other half I try to spend in reading trade books. I try to read story-rich authors--people like John Ortberg, John Maxwell and John Ortberg. Did I mention John Ortberg? I really like him.

I used to listen to a lot of cassettes, back in the day. Then, CDs, now podcasts. Great thing about podcasts: they are free! Who doesn't like free? I have listened to every sermon John Ortberg and Andy Stanley have preached in the last five years. All free, delivered to my IPOD.

If you are not familiar with Podcasts, here is the short course. Go to Download ITunes. Go to the store. Don't let the word store freak you out, you are not going to buy anything. Keep your credit card in your wallet.

Search for John Ortberg. Click on the podcast tab. Click subscribe. That is it. You are done.

Of course, it really helps to have some kind of portable listening device like an IPOD. Then, every time you plug it in, it automatically goes out and gets the latest sermons. It deletes the ones you have listened to and adds the new ones. As you might guess, all these settings are customizable, but this is the short course.

You are going to hear some great stories you are going to want to use in your group. How do you find them?


Ever hear the funny story about this preacher who mixed up every story in the Bible into one hilarious combobulated combination of a story? Toward the end it says, "Chunk her down, boys, chunk her down!"

Google this (include the quotations marks; that means, "this phrase exactly"): "chunk her down."

I did it just now and the number one listing was this one:

An older preacher told the story of a young minister interviewing for his first pastorate. The Pulpit Committee had invited him to come over to their church for the interview. The committee chairman asked, "Son, do you know the Bible pretty good?"

The young minister said, "Yes, pretty good." The chairman asked, "Which part do you know best?" He responded saying, "I know the New Testament best." "Which part of the New Testament do you know best," asked the chairman. The young minister said, "Several parts." The chairman said, "Well, why don't you tell us the story of the Prodigal Son." The young man said, "Fine."

"There was a man of the Pharisees name Nicodemus, who went down to Jericho by night and he fell upon stony ground and the thorns choked him half to death.

"The next morning Solomon and his wife, Gomorrah, came by, and carried him down to the ark for Moses to take care of. But, as he was going through the Eastern Gate into the Ark, he caught his hair in a limb and he hung there forty days and forty nights and he afterwards did hunger. And, the ravens came and fed him.

"The next day, the three wise men came and carried him down to the boat dock and he caught a ship to Ninevah. And when he got there he found Delilah sitting on the wall. He said, "Chunk her down, boys, chunk her down." And, they said, "How many times shall we chunk her down, till seven time seven?" And he said, "Nay, but seventy times seven." And they chucked her down four hundred and ninety times.

"And, she burst asunder in their midst. And they picked up twelve baskets of the leftovers. And, in the resurrection whose wife shall she be?"

The Committee chairman suddenly interrupted the young minister and said to the remainder of the committee, "Fellows, I think we ought to ask the church to call him as our minister.

He is awfully young, but he sure does know his Bible."

What a time to be alive! What a time to be a teacher! Every story you have ever heard indexed for you and available free, any time day or night! WOW!

Good Stories and Good Questions

Even though this is true, this is, perhaps, the most time consuming part of my preparation. I read though lots of stories to give my subscribers the best of stories that they can use in their lessons. If you would like your lessons to really come alive, you can do so for $4 a month. ($200 for all the teachers in your church for a whole year!) Every lesson has 20 or so questions, quotes from great commentaries, and great stories that make your lesson come alive.

For more on lessons, see

There you have it: six marks of sticky communication:

1. Simplicity
2. Unexpectedness
3. Concreteness
4. Credibility
5. Emotions
6. Stories

I'd like to add one more. And, happily, it fits the acrostic:

Say Something

Say something: get people to confess the truth. We are changed more by what we say than by what we hear. That is the topic of next week's article.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

May I recommend some literature? (not my own)

I have said it before, I will say it again: I think Lifeway's Masterworks series is the best of the best. And, next quarter, it is the best of the best of the best.

All literature published by any publisher struggles with the same problem: how do you find someone who can write something brilliant about the topic or text? Turns out, this is a very difficult task to do consistently.

Masterworks has solved this problem in the following way. They don't try to find someone to write something brilliant. They find something that has already been written that is brilliant. The Masterworks lesson supplement I wrote today was on Beth Moore's book on Daniel. One could argue that Beth Moore is a brilliant writer. I'd agree. If she is writing the curriculum, how bad could it be?

Masterworks gets this class of writers to write the literature every quarter. They take best selling Christian trade books and turn them into literature. It costs a little more, but it is great stuff!

(OK, I can't resist. Here is my little plug for my lessons: I try to solve this same problem of being brilliant another way. I quote best-selling authors and commentators in the lessons I write. These lessons correspond with Lifeway's outlines and can be used stand-alone or supplemental to Lifeway's outlines. Notes come from people like John MacArthur, Warren Wiersbe, Henry Blackaby, Tony Evans and John Piper.)

Speaking of Piper. John Piper's book Desiring God is arguably the single most influential book I have read in my entire life. And next quarter it will be featured in Masterworks. If I were a Minister of Education today, I would try to get all my teachers in Masterworks next quarter just to study this life-changing book.

Why is this Desiring God so great? Let me allow Piper to speak for himself:

When I was in college, I had a vague, pervasive notion that if I did something good because it would make me happy, I would ruin its goodness.

I figured that the goodness of my moral action was lessened to the degree that I was motivated by a desire for my own pleasure. At the time, buying ice cream in the student center just for pleasure didn't bother me, because the moral consequences of that action seemed so insignificant. But to be motivated by a desire for happiness or pleasure when I volunteered for Christian service or went to church—that seemed selfish, utilitarian, mercenary.

This was a problem for me because I couldn't formulate an alternative motive that worked. I found in myself an overwhelming longing to be happy, a tremendously powerful impulse to seek pleasure, yet at every point of moral decision I said to myself that this impulse should have no influence.

One of the most frustrating areas was that of worship and praise. My vague notion that the higher the activity, the less there must be of self-interest in it caused me to think of worship almost solely in terms of duty. And that cuts the heart out of it.

Then I was converted to Christian Hedonism. In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him. (Don't miss those last two words: in Him. Not His gifts, but Him. Not ourselves, but Him.) Let me describe the series of insights that made me a Christian Hedonist. Along the way, I hope it will become clear what I mean by this strange phrase.

1. During my first quarter in seminary, I was introduced to the argument for Christian Hedonism and one of its great exponents, Blaise Pascal. He wrote:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

This statement so fit with my own deep longings, and all that I had ever seen in others, that I accepted it and have never found any reason to doubt it. What struck me especially was that Pascal was not making any moral judgment about this fact. As far as he was concerned, seeking one's own happiness is not a sin; it is a simple given in human nature. It is a law of the human heart, as gravity is a law of nature.

This thought made great sense to me and opened the way for the second discovery.

2. I had grown to love the works of C. S. Lewis in college. But not until later did I buy the sermon called "The Weight of Glory." The first page of that sermon is one of the most influential pages of literature I have ever read. It goes like this:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[2]

There it was in black and white, and to my mind it was totally compelling: It is not a bad thing to desire our own good. In fact, the great problem of human beings is that they are far too easily pleased. They don't seek pleasure with nearly the resolve and passion that they should. And so they settle for mud pies of appetite instead of infinite delight.

I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of Lewis's stature, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said), but also ought to seek, our own happiness. Our mistake lies not in the intensity of our desire for happiness, but in the weakness of it.

3. The third insight was there in Lewis's sermon, but Pascal made it more explicit. He goes on to say:

There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

As I look back on it now, it seems so patently obvious that I don't know how I could have missed it. All those years I had been trying to suppress my tremendous longing for happiness so I could honestly praise God out of some "higher," less selfish motive. But now it started to dawn on me that this persistent and undeniable yearning for happiness was not to be suppressed, but to be glutted—on God! The growing conviction that praise should be motivated solely by the happiness we find in God seemed less and less strange.

4. The next insight came again from C. S. Lewis, but this time from his Reflections on the Psalms. Chapter 9 of Lewis's book bears the modest title "A Word about Praise." In my experience it has been the word about praise—the best word on the nature of praise I have ever read.

Lewis says that as he was beginning to believe in God, a great stumbling block was the presence of demands scattered through the Psalms that he should praise God. He did not see the point in all this; besides, it seemed to picture God as craving "for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments." He goes on to show why he was wrong:

But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game…

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.[4]

This was the capstone of my emerging Hedonism. Praising God, the highest calling of humanity and our eternal vocation, did not involve the renunciation, but rather the consummation of the joy I so desired. My old effort to achieve worship with no self-interest in it proved to be a contradiction in terms. God is not worshiped where He is not treasured and enjoyed. Praise is not an alternative to joy, but the expression of joy. Not to enjoy God is to dishonor Him. To say to Him that something else satisfies you more is the opposite of worship. It is sacrilege.

I saw this not only in C. S. Lewis, but also in the eighteenth-century pastor Jonathan Edwards. No one had ever taught me that God is glorified by our joy in Him. That joy in God is the very thing that makes praise an honor to God, and not hypocrisy. But Edwards said it so clearly and powerfully:

God glorifies Himself toward the creatures also in two ways: 1. By appearing to...their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself.... God is glorified not only by His glory's being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.... He that testifies his idea of God's glory [doesn't] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.

This was a stunning discovery for me. I must pursue joy in God if I am to glorify Him as the surpassingly valuable Reality in the universe. Joy is not a mere option alongside worship. It is an essential component of worship.

We have a name for those who try to praise when they have no pleasure in the object. We call them hypocrites. This fact—that praise means consummate pleasure and that the highest end of man is to drink deeply of this pleasure—was perhaps the most liberating discovery I ever made.

5. Then I turned to the Psalms for myself and found the language of Hedonism everywhere. The quest for pleasure was not even optional, but commanded: "Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4).

The psalmists sought to do just this: "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (Psalm 42:1-2). "My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Psalm 63:1). The motif of thirsting has its satisfying counterpart when the psalmist says that men "drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; and You give them to drink of the river of Your delights" (Psalm 36:8, NASB).

I found that the goodness of God, the very foundation of worship, is not a thing you pay your respects to out of some kind of disinterested reverence. No, it is something to be enjoyed: "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Psalm 34:8). "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Psalm 119:103).

As C. S. Lewis says, God in the Psalms is the "all-satisfying Object." His people adore Him unashamedly for the "exceeding joy" they find in Him (Psalm 43:4). He is the source of complete and unending pleasure: "In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11).

That is the short story of how I became a Christian Hedonist. I have now been brooding over these things for some thirty-five years, and there has emerged a philosophy that touches virtually every area of my life. I believe that it is biblical, that it fulfills the deepest longings of my heart, and that it honors the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have written this book to commend these things to all who will listen.

Many objections rise in people's minds when they hear me talk this way. I hope the book will answer the most serious problems. But perhaps I can defuse some of the resistance in advance by making a few brief, clarifying comments.

First, Christian Hedonism as I use the term does not mean God becomes a means to help us get worldly pleasures. The pleasure Christian Hedonism seeks is the pleasure that is in God Himself. He is the end of our search, not the means to some further end. Our exceeding joy is He, the Lord—not the streets of gold or the reunion with relatives or any blessing of heaven. Christian Hedonism does not reduce God to a key that unlocks a treasure chest of gold and silver. Rather, it seeks to transform the heart so that "the Almighty will be your gold and your precious silver" (Job 22:25).

Second, Christian Hedonism does not make a god out of pleasure. It says that one has already made a god out of whatever he finds most pleasure in. The goal of Christian Hedonism is to find most pleasure in the one and only God and thus avoid the sin of covetousness, that is, idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Third, Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when we seek Him out of self-interest. A patient is not greater than his physician. I will say more about this in chapter 3.

Fourth, Christian Hedonism is not a "general theory of moral justification." In other words, nowhere do I say: An act is right because it brings pleasure. My aim is not to decide what is right by using joy as a moral criterion. My aim is to own up to the amazing, and largely neglected, fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty in all true worship and all virtuous acts. I do not, say that loving God is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving God: "Delight yourself in the Lord" (Psalm 37:4). I do not say that loving people is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving people: "[Let] the one who does acts of mercy [do so] with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:8).

I do not come to the Bible with a hedonistic theory of moral justification. On the contrary, I find in the Bible a divine command to be a pleasure-seeker—that is, to forsake the two-bit, low-yield, short-term, never-satisfying, person-destroying, God-belittling pleasures of the world and to sell everything "with joy" (Matthew 13:44) in order to have the kingdom of heaven and thus "enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:21, 23). In short, I am a Christian Hedonist not for any philosophical or theoretical reason, but because God commands it (though He doesn't command that you use these labels!)."

Fifth, I do not say that the relationship between love and happiness is this: "True happiness requires love." This is an oversimplification that misses the crucial and defining point. The distinguishing feature of Christian Hedonism is not that pleasure seeking demands virtue, but that virtue consists essentially, though not only, in pleasure seeking.

The reason I come to this conclusion is that I am operating here not as a philosophical hedonist, but as a biblical theologian and pastor who must come to terms with divine commands:

to "love mercy," not just do it (Micah 6:8, KJV), to do "acts of mercy, with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:8), to "joyfully" suffer loss in the service of prisoners (Hebrews 10:34), to be a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7), to make our joy the joy of others (2 Corinthians 2:3), to tend the flock of God willingly and "eagerly" (1 Peter 5:2), and to keep watch over souls "with joy" (Hebrews 13:17). When you reflect long and hard on such amazing commands, the moral implications are stunning. Christian Hedonism attempts to take these divine commands with blood-earnestness. The upshot is piercing and radically life changing: The pursuit of true virtue includes the pursuit of the joy because joy is an essential component of true virtue. This is vastly different from saying, "Let's all be good because it will make us happy."

Sixth, Christian Hedonism is not a distortion of historic Reformed catechisms of faith. This was one of the criticisms of Richard Mouw in his book, The God Who Commands:

Piper might be able to alter the first answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism—so that glorifying and enjoying God becomes glorifying by enjoying the deity—to suit his hedonistic purposes, but it is a little more difficult to alter the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism: That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

The remarkable thing about the beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism is not that I can't change it for hedonistic purposes, but that I don't have to. It already places the entire catechism under the human longing for "comfort." Question one: "What is your only comfort in life and death?" The pressing question for critics of Christian Hedonism is: Why did the original framers of the four-hundred-year-old catechism structure all 129 questions so that they are an exposition of the question "What is my only comfort?"

Even more remarkable is to see the concern with "happiness" emerge explicidy in the second question of the catechism, which provides the outlines for the rest of the catechism. The second question is: "How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort (Troste) mayest live and die happily (seliglich)?" Thus, the entire catechism is an answer to the concern for how to live and die happily.

The answer to the second question of the catechism is: "Three things: first, the greatness of my sin and misery; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption." Then the rest of the catechism is divided into three sections to deal with these three things: "The First Part: Of Man's Misery" (questions 3-11); "The Second Part: Of Man's Redemption" (questions 12-85); and "The Third Part: Of Thankfulness" (questions 86-129). What this means is that the entire Heidelberg Catechism is written to answer the question "What must I know to live happily?"

I am puzzled that anyone would think that Christian Hedonism needs to "alter the opening lines to the Heidelberg Catechism." The fact is, the entire catechism is structured the way Christian Hedonism would structure it. Therefore, Christian Hedonism does not distort the historic Reformed catechisms. Both the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism begin with a concern for man's enjoyment of God, or his quest to "live and die happily." I have no desire to be doctrinally novel. I am glad that the Heidelberg Catechism was written four hundred years ago.

Toward a Definition of Christian Hedonism

Fresh ways of looking at the world (even when they are centuries old) do not lend themselves to simple definitions. A whole book is needed so people can begin to catch on. Quick and superficial judgments will almost certainly be wrong. Beware of conjecture about what lies in the pages of this book! The surmise that here we have another spin-off from modern man's enslavement to the centrality of himself will be very wide of the mark. Ah, what surprises lie ahead!

For many, the term Christian Hedonism will be new. Therefore, I have included appendix 5: "Why Call It Christian Hedonism?" If this is a strange or troubling term, you may want to read those pages before plunging into the main chapters.

I would prefer to reserve a definition of Christian Hedonism until the end of the book, when misunderstandings would have been swept away. A writer often wishes his first sentence could be read in light of his last—and vice versa! But, alas, one must begin somewhere. So I offer the following advance definition in hope that it will be interpreted sympathetically in light of the rest of the book.

Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:

The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love. To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is: The chief end of man is to glorify God


enjoying Him forever.

--Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sticky lessons part 6

I wrote a lesson on Psalm 73 recently:

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold. Psalms 73:1-2 (NIV)

Here is my paraphrase:

I know God is good. . . in theory. But, my life pretty much stinks right now. Why doesn't God do something for me. . . NOW!

I used this story from Warren Wiersbe's commentary:

It was brought home to me when our first child was born. In the hospital God took that child. I only heard the cry of that little one. All she ever did in her life was cry. I shall never forget the day she died. Across the hall from where my wife was, there was a very wealthy couple who had a baby boy, and their rich friends came to celebrate with them. As I drove into the parking lot in my old beat-up Chevrolet, they all drove up in Cadillacs. They went into the hospital with their champagne and celebrated the birth of the little boy. He was a precious looking little baby -- all they desired, I guess. I shall never forget that night. It was summertime, and I went out on a balcony that was there and cried out to God. To be honest with you, I don't know to this good day why God took our baby and left the baby across the hall. They have money, and, boy, they live it up! I have seen write-ups about them, and they have been in trouble several times. Their little boy is now an adult, as my daughter would be. After all these years, I still don't have the answer. You may be thinking, You are a minister, and you don't have the answer? No, I don't have the answer. Then how can you comfort others? Well, I'll tell you how. Although I don't have the answer, I know the One who does, and He has told me to walk with him by faith. He tests me by putting me in the dark. Then I'll reach out my hand and take his. In His Word He tells me that I can trust Him. Someday He will explain the whys of life to me. -- Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee.

If that doesn't move you, try watching this video

I am still waiting for a sermon that fits with that video. WOW.

Sticky teaching does that. It moves people emotionally.

Think about the times when you have been moved greatly by God. Did logic do the trick? Were you changed by mere information? Or, did emotion play a role?

Think about a really great teaching you have heard. Was it mere facts, or did the speaker pull on your heart strings?

Heath and Heath (Made to Stick) and Emotions.

I found some great examples of moving people emotionally on Heath and Heath's web page. Check these out:

Bill Gates releases a jar full of mosquitoes

In his talk at TED, Bill Gates released a jar full of mosquitoes, sending them out to feast on some of the world’s best & brightest blood. “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” he said. “I brought some. Here, I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.” He then waited a few minutes before reassuring the crowd that the mosquitoes were malaria-free.

A bit mean, maybe, but at least he broke through to people’s emotions.

Ben of Ben and Jerry's

You may agree or disagree with their position, but you can't disagree that this is sticky communication.

Emotions and video

One of the best ways to move people emotionally is through the use of video. I include links to appropriate videos in my lessons from time to time under the creative element section. Here are a feew of the sites I turn to:

Some of these are downloadable clips. They range in price from about $2 to 20. Wingclips references movies that you can rent and show. You can see the clip on their site, rent the DVD, or download it from their site. It is time consuming finding videos, but when you find a good one, it can really make a lessons.

Jesus and emotion

Jesus clearly moved people emotionally. So much so that the crucified him. So much so that people died for him.

It is not enough to teach what Jesus taught. We need to teach HOW Jesus taught. How do we do that? That is the subject of the next article.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sticky Lessons, Part 5

A constant theme of my teaching revolves around a few central ideas:

  • It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life.

  • It is good for us to follow God.

  • God is good. His ways are good. Following God is good. It is good for me. Always.

  • We must come to love the Christian life or we will never come to live the Christian life.

I wanted to emphasize this point in an introduction recently and said something like this:

"I picked up this book yesterday. . ."

Note: people are interested in what is current. They want to know what you learned recently. In your relationship with God, they want to know if God has said anything to you lately. They want to know what you are reading this week. They want to drink from a moving stream.

"It is written by pollster Frank Luntz and has commendations by both President Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House. It seems this is the man both parties go to when they want to know what America is thinking and feeling"

I wanted to establish Frank Luntz as a credible pollster that the top politicians on both sides of the isle turn to.

"In the section on religion, he said something that a lot of you already know: "In general, people who believe in God are happier, healthier, and more content compared to nonbelievers and nonpractitioners. They are more likely to be happily married and more likely to spend time with their children. They are more likely to do volunteer work and less likely to engage in anti-social activities. They are better adjusted and closer to family and friends. Every type of positive pathology that we believe is good for the human condition has a direct correlation with religions activity."

I read another paragraph or two. I didn't have to. I could have just said Jesus told us he promised an abundant Christian life so it must be true. What Heath and Heath (Make to Stick) taught me is that sometimes, it helps to establish credibility. Sometimes, if you want a lesson to stick, quoting the facts is far better that just saying, "my experience tells me." Quoting an authority is better than saying, "I have always thought. . ."

I have a new book coming out June 2010 called Make My Group Grow. It is basically a summary of the things I have learned and taught over the last ten years of training group leaders. But, it is built around research. I did an initial survey of 1000+ group leaders, asking them a number of questions about what they do and believe. The answers to these questions form the basis of the book. In truth, there were only a few real surprises coming out of the research. But, it is more powerful to say, "Groups that have lots of parties are twice as likely to grow compared to groups that don't party much."

I have always believed this. Now I have the facts. Facts are credible. Facts are our friends.

Jesus and credibility

Jesus was in a unique position in this regard because he was self-authenticating. He had that EF Hutton way of speaking and people would stop and listen.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. Matthew 7:28-29 (NIV)

This is one area I don't think we can teach like Jesus because we are not Jesus. Jesus had a self-authenticating authority that did not need to be bolstered by quoting other sources. When you are God, who do you quote? I don't think Jesus ever said, "As Rabbi So-and-so says. . ."

But, we are not God, and we do well to quote the best sources we can. The best sources are the sources your listeners respect. If you want to reach a secular audience, quote from secular sources from time to time, as I did above.

Quote current sources. Too many illustrations and source material is off the farm 100 years ago. My friend Jim Wilson can help you with this. See I use his illustrations regularly via Wordsearch.

Good Questions and credibility

Can I be honest with you? I don't follow every one of these principles perfectly as I write Good Questions. I am not always as shocking as I could be and I don't always suggest you bring something in that is concrete. But, in this regard, Good Questions That Have Groups Talking really shine.

About a year ago I bought about $3000 worth of WordSearch commentaries and other source material to really beef up Good Questions. I already had WordSearch's best package, plus a number add-on books. But a year ago, I invested in a major upgrade.

In addition to Good Questions, I now provide answers--in the form of quotes from some of the most credible sources available--commentators like John MacArthur, Warren Wiersbe and the Holman Commentary. Trade books by people like John Piper, R.C. Sproul and Henry Blackaby. Books of illustrations galore.

Curriculum's fundamental flaw

Nearly all curriculum has a fundamental flaw. They go at it this way. Smart people get in a room and decide what we are going to study. Then, they go out and try to find someone to write something brilliant about it. Turns out, this is a difficult job.

One notable exception to this is Lifeway's Masterworks Series. They go at it the other way. They ask, "Who has already written something brilliant?" They find books written by people like Beth Moore, Billy Graham and John Piper and turn them into curriculum. Brilliant.

I do a similar thing. I find people that have already written something brilliant and put those comments in the footnotes of my lessons. They really have written some brilliant things you can share with your group. I write four new lessons a week corresponding with three of Lifeway's outlines plus the International Standard Series. They can be used either stand-alone or supplemental to your existing literature. They are available on a subscription basis at only $200 a year for your whole church.

Not that you cannot do this yourself. It is pretty much pure research. Of course, you will need to invest in a substantial library and it will take quite a bit of time, but it can be done. If you want a cheaper and easier way, just subscribe to Good Questions. I'd be honored to serve you in this way.