The Apple Festival

This week we decided to go to an ‘Apple Festival’. I have not been to such a festival before and neither am I a connoisseur of apples. But, we decided it was a little different and there were lots of things going on, so why not. I know I’ll pick up braeburns if I’m in the shop, but that’s as far as it goes.

 

It was definitely a good choice, there was honey and fudge to try, music playing outside, outdoor games for children, people whittling, animals to view and a miniature train ride. And, to top it off it was sunny and warm, despite the wind blowing our hair.

 

The main attraction was a barn with hundreds of apples on display. Then a whole wall with apples you could try and buy. We decided to make the most of it and joined the queue, bought our empty bag and started working down the row reading about the different varieties and aiming to try every apple slice we could. It was clear the people behind us actually knew about apples, they discussed the russet and the flesh and knew the names of the ones coming up. 

I did not expect part way down to announce that I could taste the promised ‘buttery’ taste and was not a fan or to be surprised at the slight pineappley taste of one whose name began with ‘ananas’. My favourite was clear at the end, the Odin. However, unfortunately this is not available in normal shops and I may need to find an orchard to try one again.

odin apple

The leftover braeburn I ate on the the next day paled in comparison and although I am still no connoisseur, I left far more knowledgeable about apples and my desire to eat them.

 

So how does this link with small group? A good question!

 

Driving home I wondered how I had gone because it looked fun, but returned clutching a bag of carefully selected favourites and understanding that russet apples are apples with a rough patch of green/brown and their skin among other things. I found myself drawing parallels between the characteristics of the day with those our small groups should have:

 

  • The draw may not be to learn more, but for the fun, the community and the food, which is openly and willingly shared. And means, you cannot help but absorb the enthusiasm for the core reason people have gathered.
  • You can come as an ‘outsider’ and find yourself surrounded by people with far more knowledge and understanding. Those people do not withhold the knowledge and look down on your lack of knowledge, but seek to hear your questions and share their knowledge. This means you cannot help but leave with more than you came with.
  • You can come without any real investment but can leave with a passion and desire to know more and be more involved.

What would you need to do to reflect these characteristics more within your group?

A small group that reflects these characteristics, becomes a safe space for people to be drawn into a community where they are loved, where they can explore and they can grow closer to God.

Our Place in a Culture of Isolation

We live in a culture of isolation. We have elderly people who can go days without talking to another person. We have young people who have moved for jobs and do not have family around them. We have parents without a support network to raise their children with. Many people do not know their neighbours or the people on the street. People are expected to live their lives as islands; not to impose on others, to solve their own problems and to do it alone.

There are places where this doesn’t happen, places where instead of isolation there is real community. It can be seen in a crisis, when a community or country draws together in support of those in need. But on the whole, across the country the feeling of isolation is a reality.

One place a culture of isolation should not exist is within our churches. Jesus commanded us to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34) and also to “let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16). Our churches should demonstrate a culture of community between one another and that shines out beyond the membership of those who attend on a Sunday.

“Let your light shine before others”

This culture can be created in a multitude of ways; in our welcome of people, in our prayers, in practical and emotional support in times of need, through our encouragement and our desire to spend time together.

But, when we look at how Jesus really loved, we realise that it is more than being loving and kind but requires sacrifice and honesty as well.

Jesus went outside of his natural/expected friendship group. He loved and spent time with Romans, Samaritans, people who no one else went to and people who on paper had very little in common with him. Many people feel isolated and we are called to draw people into real community, regardless of the age difference or seeming differences in experiences or needs. 

out of circle

It can be as simple as inviting someone round for lunch who would normally be eating alone or standing with a parent whose child is playing away from where people are gathered.

clocks

Jesus sacrificed his time and made time in his schedule to help others. When word came to Jesus that Jairus’ daughter was dying (Mark 5:21-43), he left what he was doing and went to her. He didn’t rush off continuously, but when he was needed he made the space to be there. We are called to be involved in each other’s lives and support one another. Acts of kindness are not restricted to when we have time, people’s needs don’t wait for when you have a space. 

It might be doing something outside your natural circle or inviting someone in. It could be sacrificing a conversation with a friend to talk to someone having a tough time. It could be creating time in your busy schedule to cook a meal for someone who is having a challenging week. 

Jesus had close friends who he shared his whole life with. He travelled with the disciples, they discussed faith and shared meals. When Jesus was nearing his death, he went with his disciples to pray and shared with three that his “soul is overwhelmed” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus did not hide his thoughts, his future or his anguish from them. God created us to desire friendships that have real depth. We might meet with someone regularly, but that is not the same as sharing our personal and spiritual questions, challenges and fears. 

sharing

It is a choice to speak more openly and honestly about your life with those you are closest to. It is a step of trust and confidence in the other, that can develop a deepening spiral of openness, trust and understanding between you all.

challenge

Jesus cared enough to challenge his friends. He saw them as God saw them and the people they were called to be, so he held them accountable for their thoughts and actions. He raised them up by encouraging, teaching but also challenging them. A friendship with deep honesty creates opportunities for accountability and growth. Ultimately it is about walking together towards God.

It might be a willingness to discuss topics you disagree on, with the aim of understanding the other’s views and opinions more clearly. It may be asking the tough questions about each other’s faiths and lives. It might be encouraging and holding the other accountable for changes they wanted to make in their lives (and wanting them to do the same in return).

Jesus told us to love like him. It is no easy challenge but one that can transform a person and a community. In a society where many people are isolated and alone physically and emotionally, a church that loves as Jesus in these ways brings people together in a culture of love and community that shines out. There are things you already naturally do and others that you will find challenging.

  • How are you already showing love like Jesus?
  • Who is loving you as Jesus loved?
  • What area is the biggest challenge? How can you begin to show love in that way?

Holistic PCCs

“We don’t have any small groups”

“We don’t have any small groups” I have been told several times since I started my role. There is often a recognition of their importance and a desire to have them combined with the reality of a tired and over-stretched congregation. This comment is usually shared with me during a PCC meeting. I respond by pointing out that they themselves are a small group.

The recognition that your PCC is a small group can help the members realise the responsibility they have for one another and deepen relationships with openness, honesty and support.

“You are a small group”

There are three main elements to a small group: faith, fellowship and outreach. A holistic small group is working towards the deepening of faith, the support of one another and a desire to reach others. A PCC is unlikely to have time for a full Bible study, social time, extended prayer and engaging with outreach and also complete the important business that it is called to discuss. So how can a PCC develop a more holistic approach, while still being an efficient body?

Here are just a few ideas to help you get started:

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 Faith:

  • Take it in turns to bring a Bible passage (personal choice or decided before). The person leading shares the passage and what they feel God has been saying to them from it.
  • Designate time at the beginning and/or end to pray specifically for the conversations you’ve had and God’s hand in any decisions.
  • Have a few minutes for individuals to share how God has answered prayers or acted in the past week.

These kind of changes can help the group to recognise that God is at work in their lives and the life of the church. It encourages them to notice God in their daily lives. 

Fellowship:

  • Start 15-30 minutes earlier for tea, cake and conversation.
  • Have a PCC social evening at Christmas/New Year and before the summer, without an agenda.
  • Each meeting a different member is asked to share something of their faith and life journey for 2 minutes.

Social times but also times committed to sharing, actively encourage people to learn more about each other in their spiritual, physical and emotional journeys. It encourages the group to invest in each other beyond making decisions.

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Outreach:

  • Keep it on the agenda; what is happening in your church? If there isn’t anything currently happening, what is next?
  • Pray for your community beyond the church walls when you gather together. You could pray for different groups of people or pray and mark off different streets as you go.
  • As a PCC send out letters of gratitude to individuals engaged in outreach. They may be people running or helping outreach linked to the church or they may be doing it in other areas.

Prayers and thanksgiving keep outreach in the forefront of people’s minds and remind members that church exists to support Christians and to reach out to those who don’t know Jesus yet.

Overdoing the Soup

Our home group decided fellowship would be at the core, so it would always start with a meal. Rotas were made, plans were made and we began. It started well, everyone wanted to and could put time into creating a nice meal. It started simple with pizza and pasta but began to escalate and become more costly in time and money (especially as the group doubled in numbers). Pudding had gone from simple crumbles to stacks of homemade profiteroles.

we were not using our resources responsibly.

Don’t get me wrong, the food was lovely. But an unease grew; a few felt unable to keep up with the standard, people’s lives were becoming busier and the fluctuating group size meant we could be short of food or wasting it. We decided we were not using our resources responsibly.

So, a decision was made. Soup and rolls every week. The rota remained and people could choose to buy or make it. It began perfectly in the midst of winter with a homemade Mulligatawny soup followed by Heinz the next week. Everyone could contribute, people could be creative or run to the shops on the way and there was no waste. We had found the perfect solution.

Fast forward 18 months. It’s a warm summer evening. We are sat eating soup with the windows open. One member announces that she is bored of soup and will be cooking something else next week! A sigh of relief ran around the room. An end to the soup campaign!

We still have soup occasionally, but we’ve also had fajitas, lasagne, jacket potatoes and stews. We have had some lovely homemade puddings, but the bags of bought cookies are appreciated just as much. We like the variety. We appreciate the time and money that has gone into it…whether that was an afternoon cooking or squeezing a shopping trip into your lunch break.

A time of fellowship, sharing and provision.

The meal is no longer a competition, it is a time of fellowship, sharing and provision…exactly what it was always meant to be.

My Small Group has a job to do!

Small Groups in churches include far more than just Bible Study or Prayer groups. The PCC, groups that plan the children’s work together, the toddler group team, a group who meet to do the gardening or the cleaning are all great examples of small groups.

A holistic small group thinks of the whole person and their journey with God. They are interested in the spiritual, emotional and practical lives of each individual. As a group they care for one another, seek to connect with God and to draw others in.

This can seem like a big ask and time commitment to add, especially if your group has a specific task to do. But, there are small simple things we can do to transform these groups to be more holistic without taking more time and energy. It only takes one or two people in the group to be proactive in seeking a more holistic approach.

Every group will have conversations at some level. The question is how can we deepen those into strong relationships? A big part of it is extending the conversation beyond ‘How are you?’ it’s being interested in what people have to say and being willing to share back. It is also about following up on things that have been mentioned in the past mean people know that they are valued and the conversation can be developed and grown as needed over time. It sounds ridiculously simple, but the reality is that as trust is built so is depth.

Adding a faith aspect can seem a little more daunting if there currently isn’t any element of it within the group. It can be as simple as adding a short prayer time, a relevant Bible reading or a short personal reflection. A very gentle approach is to offer to pray when something comes up in conversation, either immediately or a promise to pray during the week.

You can use a gentle approach to deepen relationships and discuss spirituality. Prepare a question to share with the group that opens up our thinking. For example, ‘What are your gifts?’, ‘What are you thankful for?’, ‘Who or what influences your decisions?’. They do not require a faith answer but open opportunities for you to share honestly and for others to explore what is central to their lives.

There are many simple ways to build fellowship and discuss our faith based on the relationships that already exist. These small habits can transform a group to love each other more, to share about their beliefs and result in more passion for the task they do together.