From independence to interdependence: The power of small groups

Goma_groups2We expected to run alone. That’s how our former cross-country coach did it. But on his first day, our new coach explained then demonstrated a different way of running together. He called it “Indian running.” Coach laced on his running shoes and ordered: “Follow me.”

Quickly we formed a line, like baby chicks following their mother hen. Setting a brisk pace, after a minute, coach barked out his command: “Next runner.” The boy at the back of the line then sprinted, passing his teammates, taking his position at the front of the line as the new leader. After another minute, he, too, would shout: “Next runner” and a new leader emerged. In this way, everyone had a chance to set the pace for a time. No longer were we nine runners depending only upon ourselves. Instead, we were interdependent, encouraging each other, running together.

Coach taught us all an important lesson:

Interdependence beats independence every time.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches the power of interdependence. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV) explains:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Galatians to carry each other’s burdens as a way of fulfilling Christ’s law of love (Galatians 6:2). In the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem, this was how believers built each other up in the faith, sharing their possessions, meeting in each other’s homes, eating together, celebrating meal Holy Communion, praying and encouraging one another (see Acts 2:42-28). It was an attractive, loving fellowship, and outsiders longed to be part of of it.

What worked in the earliest centuries still worked hundreds of years later. The young English evangelist, John Wesley (1703-91), was instrumental in birthing many people into Christian faith. However, he noticed that their faith often quickly grew cold. Like a newborn baby needs a blanket to keep warm, so new believers need warm fellowship to grown in their faith. Wesley soon despaired of visiting in the homes of everyone who was coming to Christ. He had to find a new system. Over time, he organized the early Methodists into mixed male/female groups of 15-20 (“classes”) and – for those who desired – into single gender “bands” of 5-7. These small groups met once per week in the evening for 60-90 minutes, allowing people to share their successes and challenges with each other, to pray and encourage each other in their faith. Like the early Christians, the Methodists discovered that – while independence leads to spiritual indifference – interdependence fosters spiritual growth.

Small groups are discipleship groups, helping members follow Jesus more closely, together. Paradoxically, greater dependence upon each other leads to greater dependence upon God.

While serving as a missionary in Benin (West Africa), I always looked forward to the Wednesday morning men’s breakfast. Five or six of the male missionaries in town met each week at 7 a.m. at the same café. We drank coffee, ate eggs and toast, caught-up on events from the last week, and encouraged each other. Before leaving, we spent 10 or 15 minutes in prayer. Those were years of great challenge in ministry, and our weekly meetings were fresh water for my thirsty spirit. Though we never ran together, those Wednesday breakfasts reminded me of Indian runs from high school. Once again, I moved from independence to interdependence, growing stronger in the process.

In small groups, we learn that our struggles are not ours alone. With time, trust develops between members. Brothers and sisters feel free to share about unhealthy habits that have ensnared them and receive help from others in the group. In the confession of sin and praying for each other, healing comes (James 5:16).

To be independent leads to isolation and despair. Interdependence, on the other hand, builds community and together draws us closer to God. What small group opportunities are there in your church? If there are none, speak with your pastor or other leaders in your church. Reflect how you can become a catalyst to begin this powerful initiative in your community of faith.

God’s Not Dead: A review

God's_not_deadFull disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Christian movies. Generally, I find them preachy, poorly acted, and – produced on a shoe-string – it usually shows.

So, I went to “God’s Not Dead” (2014) ready to hate it, and surprisingly, I didn’t.

The plot centers on atheist Professor Raddison (played by Kevin Sorbo), a philosophy professor who urges his freshmen students to write just three words on a piece of paper: “God is dead.” If everyone in the class will do this and turn it in to the prof, the unit on metaphysics can be skipped. There wouldn’t be a story to tell if all the students did so. One student – Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper) – is a Christian, and refuses to sign. As a result, the sincere but apparently outmatched Wheaton must give a presentation during three class periods, attempting to prove God’s existence.

The movie requires the viewer to suspend belief, at least to some degree. The veteran Radisson grows more agitated as the movie goes on, apparently troubled by the mounting evidence presented by the neophyte Wheaton. However, in real life, would any of these arguments have caught a philosophy professor worth his salt so flat-footed?

As the movie progresses — SPOILER ALERT! – Wheaton wins not by playing the philosopher, but by putting on his counselor’s hat. Radisson is not an atheist based upon reason as much as emotion, residual anger at God for taking away Radisson’s mother from cancer when he was only 12 years old. Seizing on the moment, in front of the class, the freshman chides: “How can you be angry at someone who doesn’t exist?”

“God’s not Dead” will convince no hardened atheists, but the plot twist – shifting the ground to the question of disappointment with God – may help explain its success. Produced for a mere $ 2 million U.S., it has made more than $ 60 million, a cool thirty-fold profit. Hardly a new film, it still generates lively discussion on  IMDB.com where some threads host conversations on the relationship between science and faith. Much to their credit, the writers of “God’s not Dead” avoided having their young hero take a narrow stance on the “how” of divine creation. Insisting only that God is Creator, they left room for either YEC (Young Earth Creationism)  or other viewpoints, such as OEC (Old Earth Creationism) or theistic evolution, i.e. that God created but has used and still uses evolution to do so.

Sometimes the movie gets it wrong. A young Muslim girl who is a student at Josh’s university is careful to put her head covering back on when around her father, but leaves her arms bare and sports hip-hugging blue jeans. Anyone concerned about covering her head would likely not transgress these other Islamic family norms.

On the positive side, if you’re a “Newsboys” fan, you’ll love the ending, though as time passes, they may have to change their name to the “Newsmen.” But most of those who were watching with us were teens, and they obviously enjoyed the upbeat music.

With the success of “God’s Not Dead,” expect to see more movies like it. If they generate good conversations about Christian faith among those who normally wouldn’t engage and manage to do it in a reasonably believable and quality way like this film did, then count me it.

MY RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5

———

Photo credit: IMDB.com

On the occasion of ANU’s 20th anniversary celebration

DSCN6669“Agents of Positive Change”

by Gregory Crofford, PhD

Coordinator for Education and Clergy Development

Africa Region Church of the Nazarene

Transformation is what Africa Nazarene University is all about. For the last four years, ANU has encouraged today’s graduates to resist unworthy habits and – as individuals of integrity – to make a difference in their chosen fields of work, their families, communities, Kenya, Africa, and beyond. Living as agents of positive change is at the heart of the teaching of Jesus Christ. He calls everyone who would follow him to be salt that preserves the earth, yeast that permeates society, and light that brightens dark places (Matthew 5:13-15, 13:33).

The Church of the Nazarene, Africa Nazarene University’s sponsoring denomination, is a holiness church that traces part of its heritage to 18th century English evangelist and theologian, John Wesley. Wesley believed that the people called Methodists were to be different, known for love of God and neighbor. He insisted that the hallmark of a true follower of Christ was their beneficial impact on others. Wesley and his associates inspired people to avoid the compromises that yield quick gains but ultimately damage self and others. Hymn-writer Charles Wesley agreed with his brother, John, that education was crucial for enabling the pursuit of nobler things, pleading: “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.”

Africa Nazarene University stands on the shoulders of spiritual giants like the Wesley brothers, bringing to the 21st century their warmhearted approach to the things of God, including education. Yet for the Wesleys and for ANU, faith is never to be quarantined to Sundays. The transformation that the Holy Spirit works in our heart and character is contagious, touching those around us every day of the week.

ANU graduates have become known for their academic proficiency, solid work ethic, and integrity. It is a reputation that is hard-won but easily damaged. May the 2014 graduates of African Nazarene University join the ranks of ANU alumni to be change agents – salt, yeast, and light – to positively impact our world.

————-

This article appeared in Issue 002/October 2014 of Aspire, a magazine published by Africa Nazarene University.

Righteousness, wisdom, and service

PDL
I had the honor of helping induct 20 Africa Nazarene University honor students into the Eta chapter of Phi Delta Lambda. (L to R: Dr Jerry Lambert, Chancellor; Dr Greg Crofford, Regional Education Coordinator; Elysée Bayishime, and ANU Lecturer Rev Gift Mtukwa)

Address to Phi Delta Lambda

Africa Nazarene University chapter

Thursday, October 30, 2014

———————————

INTRODUCTION

We are all teachers. It’s a bold statement, is it not? We are all teachers.

I have not had the opportunity to speak with all twenty of our inductees. My suspicion is that some have formally studied education and are planning a career in teaching. Others have studied different fields – counseling, media, religion, law, and more. They may never stand before a classroom as a teacher. Still, the statement stands: We are all teachers.

I freely admit that I am biased. No task has brought me more joy or made me feel like I am using my best skills than when I have been teaching. Most of my teaching has been preparing men and women for ordained Christian ministry. One year saw me unlocking for high school students the mysteries of French grammar. Lest teachers have too high an opinion of themselves, God has a way of cutting us down-to-size. Terry Pratchett in his book, Mort, recalls a conversation. Someone observed:

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever… Have you thought of going into teaching?”

William Shakespeare once remarked: “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” With apologies to Mr Shakespeare, let me reframe his thought: “All the world is a school, and you and I are the teachers.” I ask you: What are we teaching our students?

Yes, like it or not, you are a teacher and – like all teachers – you have students, pupils that you may not even realize have secretly enrolled in your class. Your students are the ones who watch you. It may be a co-worker on your job, a child in your class at the Vacation Bible School, a camper, a player on the football team you coach, or perhaps one day your own son or daughter. These are not formal classrooms, yet life is a school and school is always in session. Others hear your words, but what do they learn from your actions, from who you are?

Each of us could recall pivotal moments when one of our “teachers” in life taught us something unforgettable. Allow me to share a few of the lessons I learned from them, lessons that mirror the three words from the Phi Delta Lambda motto:

Righteousness, wisdom, and service

  1. Righteousness is 24/7.

It caught my attention, the little Blue Nissan, or as they called it back then, a Datsun 610. It was a Japanese import, much like the Japanese imports that fill the roads of Nairobi. I was 17 and had just secured my first driver’s license in the State of New York. Now I was beginning a gap year between high school and university, a year when I worked 4o hours per week at the grocery store, saving money to attend Eastern Nazarene College.

But I needed transportation to drive across town to work, and that little Datsun grabbed my heart. The “For Sale” sign on the window had a phone number, so I called and set-up an appointment with the owner. I kicked the tires and looked under the hood. It seemed to be in good condition. Eventually, I asked the question: “How much?” The owner told me the price, several hundred dollars, and I reminded him that I would also have to pay sales tax on the vehicle. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’ll just write on the paper that you paid $ 100.00 for it, that way your taxes will be less.” I told him that I would need to talk with my father, and he understood. When I explained to my dad the owner’s offer to underreport the sales price, he replied: “Absolutely not, Greg. We’re Christians, and we will pay the rightful tax.” Later I brought the cash to the owner, and he handed me the car keys. “What should I write on the form for the tax assessor?” he asked. I told him what my dad had said, and he looked at me in disbelief. When I insisted that we must report the correct price, he shook his head and relented, but had this response:

“Your father is either very Christian or very stupid.”

Actually, I prefer to say: My dad that day was an excellent teacher, and what he taught me was simple: Honesty matters, and righteousness is 24/7.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament has much to say on the topic. Psalm 33:5 reminds us that the Lord loves righteousness and justice. Likewise, in picturesque language, Psalm 85:10 tells us that righteousness and peace kiss each other, a reminder that when righteousness is absent, discord is never far away. Proverbs 16:8 is a values check, concluding: “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.”

Continue reading

Introducing Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts

Jacob_Roberts
Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts

From time-to-time, I enjoy high-lighting budding theologians to readers here at “Theology in Overalls.” Today, I  introduce you to Mr Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts.

Mr Roberts graduated this year from Olivet Nazarene University. He will shortly begin work as a Youth Pastor at a church in the Chicago area. Simultaneously, he’ll be completing his studies to become an R.N.

His blog, “On a Journey: Diving into the Mysteries of the God we claim to love,” can be found here.  Of special interest to Roberts is the nexus between science and Christian faith and how the two need not conflict.

Check out his writings, and feel free to dialogue on the comment threads of his blog. He enjoys theological conversation and discusses topics in a gentle and even-handed manner.

Good start, sir. Keep it up.

On Law and Grace: Thoughts on Javert and Jean-Valjean

Les-MiserablesVictor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a perennial source of reflection on the human heart. Long-time pastor and professor Doug Samples in 2012 put together a blog site entitled: “The Les Mis Project: Finding the Gospel in the Music of Les Miserables.” The site is a tag-team effort and well worth your time.

Doug wrote about inspector Javert’s suicide in this entry. He speaks about the “Law Keepers” in holiness churches, the people who like to play “gotcha!” They are a graceless bunch. I’ve known a few like that across the years, but looking at where we are as a church today, we are arguably careening toward the other ditch, that of antinomianism, or lawlessness. The Wesleyan Way is the via media, finding the balance between extremes. That’s what I had in mind when I posted this commentary in response to Doug’s blog:

Hello Doug –

I’m a bit late joining in the conversation! Thanks to your weblog, though, it’s all here a couple months later, and I’m grateful. Please keep it here for others.

My wife and I saw the latest movie with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and others. I can’t remember a time when I’ve sat through a movie with such rapt attention. By nature, I’m one who fidgets, but not that night.

Looking at Javert is like looking in the mirror of my younger self. I won’t go into needless details, but by the grace of God, I’m trending toward Jean Valjean these days. Still, the “Are you John Valjean or Javert?” is too simple a question. Strangely enough, I’m something of a mixture. I find, however, than when I have a “Javert moment,” it can freeze relationships.

On the other hand, it may be too simple to say that pre-Road to Damascus Paul was Javert and afterwards he was Jean Valjean. He never lost the Pharisee streak in his thinking, and quite frankly, I’m glad he didn’t. For all the attempts to say they contradict each other, Paul and James have more in common than the first glance would suggest. James speaks of the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). May I suggest that there are many in our churches coming out of the “anything goes” life of sin that really need some Javerts? They need the boundaries, the discipline – and that is a big word in spiritual formation, is it not? – that is an important thread in the Christian faith. Wise is the pastor who can channel such individuals in the direction of a Javert, someone who can provide the other “wing” on the airplane without which grace easily becomes license.

Lots to think about here! “Law” and “grace” are both necessary. Let us not condone a lawless grace, nor a graceless law. There is a via media that puts the two together.

Thanks again, Doug, Nate, and John for this excellent blog. I read most of the sermons yesterday, and came away inspired. Good job!

– Greg

It’s easy to talk about balance but much more difficult to find it. How do you keep flexibility and discipline together in your life?

 

Check out the Annesley Writer’s Forum

annesley-web-logoYou’ll notice that I have relatively few links in my blog roll to Wesleyan-Holiness women theology bloggers. It’s not that I don’t want to link them, but there are relatively few out there.

That’s why I’m happy to add to my blog roll the Annesley Writers Forum. Sponsored by The Wesleyan Church, it’s an internet space whose mission is listed as “Expanding the Voices of Women in the Wesleyan Tradition.” Though it is not strictly a theology blog, their home page currently includes articles on Ash Wednesday, Lent, and living redemptively with people of modest means.

On the name Annesley: It was Susanna Wesley’s maiden name, Susanna being the mother of the famed John and Charles Wesley.  Susanna’s father, Samuel Annesley, was a prominent non-conformist pastor in late 17th century England. Maybe the Annesley Writer’s Forum should explain that somewhere on their site?

Here’s to long life and growing influence for the Annesley’s Writer’s Forum!

______

Image credit: Annesley Writer’s Forum