Community Groups at ELIM: The Hands and Feet of Jesus

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By Larry Short

This is part six in a seven-part series on principles guiding community life at Elim. To read all seven principles in one document, click here.

Fr. Nicolae Tanase of Valea Popului, Romania

Fr. Nicolae Tanase of Valea Popului, Romania.

I experienced something of an epiphany 20 years ago, when I traveled to Romania with a group of nine other World Vision staff on what was essentially a staff vision trip. There, high in the mountains above Bucharest, we spent the day in a community called Valea Plopului. This was no ordinary community. It was centered around the life and work of an Orthodox priest named Father Nicolae Tanase.

Fr. Tanase became a priest at a time when it was very difficult and unpopular to do so. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, Communists, under the iron fist of a brutal dictator named Nicolae Ceauşescu, were in charge. They believed there was no God in Heaven and human children were nothing other than a commodity to be exploited for the purposes of the State. They encouraged people to have lots of children and made any kind of birth control illegal, and when parents could not afford to raise their children, the kids became wards of the state, where they were to be indoctrinated in Communist ways.

That was the vision, at any rate. The reality was that children were half-starved, and many were diseased and disabled. They were treated like cattle and often left to die, caged like animals in “cribs” with steel bars.

Because of this reality, abortion was rampant. This young, brave priest named Father Tanase, convinced that God was alive and wanted him to show compassion to suffering children, announced that unwanted children could instead be brought to his village in the mountains, where they would be adopted by loving parents and raised with the dignity of human beings created in the image of God.

This announcement didn’t sit kindly with the Communists. They attempted secretly to kill Fr. Tanase, but only succeeded in maiming him. (His huge, black beard covers most of the grisly scars of this event some 30 years ago.)

After Ceauşescu was deposed in 1990 and the Communists fell from power, Fr. Tanase accelerated his efforts. When we visited in 1997, dozens of children had been adopted by community members. They tended sheep and gardens, running hither and yon with joy through the hills. They were well-fed, healthy, and happy. And they knew Jesus loved them! The image that remained with me from that day is best characterized by the somewhat odd title: “Peter Pan goes to Sunday School.”

What does this have to do with community groups? As I reflected on what Father Tanase had done in Valea Plopului, it occurred to me that he hadn’t done it alone. He had a group of vibrant believers around him who were willing to sacrifice enormously to show the compassion of Christ to a hurting world. What an incredible testimony!

Elim has gotten small toeholds on this principle, through amazing efforts such as Freezing Nights, feeding the hungry at the Puyallup Armory, and more recently, our wonderful involvement in foster care ministry. But I believe God has far more in store for us.

And if compassionate outreach to the community and world around us is going to be effective and sustainable, I believe it will find itself envisioned and resourced from within the center of our community groups. Hence, principle six of our seven principles:

  1. The Community Ministry will seek to strategically equip and encourage groups not simply to be places of community and fellowship, but also to be the point of the spear for our church reaching out into the community and world around us. This will look very different for different groups at different times, but we will challenge each group leader to be interacting with his or her members with outward-reaching ministry in mind. We will ask them, “What is God placing upon your heart(s) to do to impact the world around us for Jesus?” We will encourage them to listen to God and work toward whatever vision He plants in their hearts. Perhaps not every group will be reaching out, but it should be an important value to do so and to support those groups that do.

I would like to encourage everyone in a Community Group to pray about a vision that God would implant for becoming His hands and feet to the community and world around us. This won’t look the same for every group. Some may focus on supporting foreign missionaries, and others may focus on feeding the hungry right here in our community. Some will have a heart for strategic evangelism initiatives, and others may have heart for supporting efforts to help children in our community and beyond. Who knows what God will do?

But I do know He wants us to do something. I look at Father Tanase and praise God for the way James 1:27 is being worked out in his small corner of the world:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

What will God accomplish through you and your group? Start praying NOW, and only time will tell!

P.S.: Where is Father Tanase’s ministry, 20 years later? The video below will blow your mind. I mentioned that when we were there, dozens of children were being cared for. Now that number is in the hundreds!

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Affinity vs. Diversity in Community Groups at ELIM

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By Larry Short

This is part five in a seven-part series on principles guiding community life at Elim. To read all seven principles in one document, click here.

Many people (I among them) consider Elim’s very intergenerational nature one of our greatest strengths. Here we are, a 133-year-old church, but we have more than 70 children aged fifth grade and under in our midst! There are the older and wiser among us, but we also have lots of young families, singles, and college-/career-aged young adults.

We are also a church that exists in a fairly racially heterogenous area, and we embrace, enjoy, and benefit from fellowship with people of all different colors of skin and different walks of life. We have stay-at-home moms in addition to women who work outside the home. We have blue-collar and white-collar types and everything in between.

We are a fairly diverse bunch! You can see this diversity in the way different community groups form. We have affinity groups for women, for moms with young children, for men, and for young adults. We have had groups for retired people. We have groups that focus on young marrieds, and groups for other married couples.

When it comes to groups, there is a certain tension between affinity and diversity. There is a certain power in meeting together with people you share a life stage with, such as young adults. You enjoy the same types of things, and it is therefore easier to “live life in proximity.”

But there is also a power in diversity. We can benefit from exposure to people who are different than we are, in a variety of ways. We need to understand each other and hear each other’s stories. In particular, we need to be in relationship with and work to bridge any gulfs between young and old, black and white, male and female, blue-collar and white-collar, etc., if we are to effectively function together as a true Body of Christ.

Hence, our fifth principle of community ministry at Elim:

  1. One of Elim’s strengths is that it is intergenerational. A lot of wisdom and other benefits flow across age and life-stage boundaries. We believe this should be encouraged and maximized for the benefit of all. On the other hand, we also believe that some of the most effective groups revolve around life-stage affinity. Young parents with kids in diapers can definitely benefit in many ways from being in community with other young parents. If our Community Ministry is to be healthy, we need to figure out how to raise up and grow both types of groups as well as connect them to each other for maximum benefit.

Paul told the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our identity as children of God in Christ Jesus supersedes all other more superficial diversities! And yet, those diversities are also the way He created us, and for a reason. Elsewhere, Paul urges younger women and younger men to look to older women and older men for wisdom and training.

We pray for two things for you: 1) that you have opportunity at Elim to meet people who are unlike you in various ways as well as benefit from getting to know their life stories and 2) that you have opportunity at Elim to gather together with others you share the affinity of life stage with, to be able to enjoy their company and share joys and sorrows as you walk this discipleship journey together.

The more effectively we can figure out how to do both things, simultaneously, the more effective a Body of Christ expression here on the corner of 94th and 128th in South Hill we will become!

Next time: We will talk about how community groups at Elim will be better equipped to reach out and minister to a hurting world around us!

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Effective Community Groups “Live Life in Proximity”

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By Larry Short

This is the fourth in a series of seven posts on guiding principles for Community Groups at Elim. To read all seven principles together, please click here.

This one is difficult . . . but inescapable. Our fourth principle is:

In the most effective groups, people “live life in proximity.” That means they spend a lot of time together. They get to know each other beneath the surface. An effective group is a lot like a village. They don’t simply come together for “yet another meeting” one, two, or four times a month; rather, they truly live their lives together, in many contexts beyond simply a regularly scheduled group meeting. They stay connected. That’s what creates community. We will encourage this among Elim groups.

For the past 15 years, Darlene and I have poured ourselves into Elim’s young adults group, known as “Pulse.” At times Pulse has had three events each week, so the bar is set quite high. In addition to our formal get-togethers, we’ve found many of our group members do things together with other group members outside of the normal group meetings. They have game nights and various adventures together. They go hiking. They simply hang out. And what we’ve discovered is that the more time we spend together, the better we are able to effectively enfold group members into the life of the church.

Our model for this is Christ’s interaction with His disciples. If you think about it, there are a lot of different ways He could have related to the disciples. He could have organized them into a loose association, a group that met together monthly (or perhaps even weekly) to discuss discipleship stuff.

But no! He chose to live life WITH His disciples—in proximity. Where he went, they went. They left their jobs behind. Their families went with them, or perhaps in some cases they even left homes and families behind. The three years they spent with the Messiah was an all-or-nothing commitment. In Luke 9:62, Jesus said: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now, that’s a pretty hard saying! But it was very important to Jesus for His disciples to be ALL IN. After all, ultimately, they would be asked to lay down their lives! Better get used to the idea of your life not being your own.

Frankly, the bar is often set way too low in many small groups. They may meet monthly or every other week. They may dismiss for the summer. Nothing is wrong with these things, inherently, but we intend to challenge groups at Elim to aspire to something higher. There is a certain power in being WITH other believers, in living life in proximity, and in experiencing life together

Please join us in prayer for Elim’s group leaders, as we meet this Sunday after worship to fellowship and share both joys and challenges. For more information, please email me at LarryShort at Gmail dot com.

Next in this series: The most effective Community Groups seek to be both intergenerational as well as focusing on life-stage affinity.

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Resourcing Community Groups and Group Leaders at Elim

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By Larry Short

This is the third in a series of seven posts on guiding principles for community groups at Elim. To read all seven principles together, please click here.

It probably sounds way “obvious” to make the following observation: those programs that a church (like ours) places a high value upon are those things that church spends its greatest time and energy focusing its resources on.

If you think about it, this becomes quite clear. At Elim, we rightly place a very high priority on what happens in our Sunday morning service—worship, preaching, fellowship, etc.

Can you imagine us saying, “Hey, it’s pretty darned expensive and time-consuming to have professional pastors spend all that time preparing and delivering sermons. So let’s just go without, okay?”

And how about children’s and youth ministry? Elim (obviously) places a high value on the next generation, and rightly so. As a result, we focus a lot of resources and efforts raising up leaders who will help train and care for our children and youth.

Missions? We have a long tradition of faithful support of various critical missions programs. We send out short-term missionaries and have even raised up and helped resource professional missionaries from within our own congregation.

As I’ve thought about community groups here at Elim in light of this reality, I have experienced some conviction that I believe is from the Holy Spirit. In the first part of this seven-part series, I spoke of the value that community groups have in discipling people in this church. In the second post, we discussed how it is God Himself who raises up group leaders and who works in the midst of these small groups of believers.

If all this is true, then we should therefore be placing great emphasis on how we resource group leaders and their groups—how we recruit leaders, equip them, and encourage them in the task. This reality forms the commitment behind our third principle for community groups at Elim:

We will prayerfully consider what recruiting, equipping, and encouraging group leaders should look like. But here are some early principles we will seek to live by:

  • “Three Hands” and leadership pathway principles must play a key role in raising up and training new leaders. Group leaders are encouraged to pray about and seek to identify a potential leader or leaders they could mentor. If you would like to become a leader, your first step should be to get connected to an existing group and mentor under its leader.
  • All group leaders should also themselves have identified mentors who can encourage and help equip them. The Community Ministry intends to help connect leaders to mentors.
  • Group leaders also need Barnabases in their lives—other leaders they meet with for encouragement and prayer. This can’t be accomplished without spending time together, which the Community Ministry intends to facilitate. Part of that process will be group leaders sharing their stories, successes, challenges, best practices, and dreams with one another.

If you are unfamiliar with the “Three Hands” model, it basically says that all serious disciples of Jesus need a hand up (to someone who is mentoring them), a hand down (to someone they are mentoring), and a hand across (to co-laborers who can encourage them in the task). You may have also heard this stated as the “Paul, Timothy, and Barnabas” model. The Apostle Paul was a mentor to Timothy and a co-laborer with Barnabas in the task for which God commissioned him.

(Pastor Brian Sharpe has developed a cool “Three Hands” booklet which explains this well, so touch base with him if you’d like to know more.)

Please be praying for our first Community Group leaders’ meeting of 2017, taking place Sunday afternoon, May 7 at our home after worship. If you are a group leader or trainee, a leader mentor, coleader (or other “Barnabas”), you are invited! Hopefully you have already received details by email. (Leaders of men’s and women’s groups here at Elim are also encouraged to attend.)

If you have any questions, please drop me an email. Thank you!

Next in this series: In the most effective community groups, people “live life in proximity.”

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Community Groups at Elim: God Is in Charge

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By Larry Short

This is the second in a series of seven posts on guiding principles for Community Groups at Elim. To read all seven principles together, please click here.

In 2002, our son had already graduated from high school, and our daughter was drawing near to her graduation date. Both had been quite involved in Elim’s youth ministry, but as they graduated they drifted away from Elim. We realized that there really wasn’t anything designed to keep them, and other young adults like them, engaged in the life and ministry of this church.

One day Darlene said to me, “I think God wants us to do something about this.” But I really couldn’t imagine how we could help. We didn’t have any training in college-/career-aged ministry, and college/career groups in local churches were notoriously difficult to sustain.

“What could we possibly do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded, “but we should pray.”

I was skeptical . . . but, pray we did. And, as we prayed, we began to get a sense that God was indeed calling us to step out and take a risk and try to start something that could create community for this very important life/stage group in our church. I’m thankful that the staff at Elim supported us as we sought to respond to God’s leading.

We called that first effort “YAM,” which was a truly terrible acronym for “Young Adults Ministry.” A number of years later, as the group began to grow and flourish, its members took matters into their own hands and renamed their group “Pulse.” (Which I think was a definite improvement!)

Those first five years of ministry, there were many times we asked: “Is God really in this? If so, why is this so hard? Why aren’t we seeing more young adults join this group?” We often had just a small handful of faithful young adults at our gatherings. Darlene and I remember a Bible study where just one young man, Kennith, showed up, despite being exhausted after work. We decided to press ahead with just the three of us. Then, during the Bible study, Kennith fell asleep! After that meeting, we once again looked at one another and asked ourselves, “Is God really in this?”

And we continued to pray. Despite the seeming lack of success, we still had a conviction that God wanted us to continue. So, after about five years of this, and after a lot of experimentation, the group began to take off and soon hit some sort of “critical mass.” Young people brought their friends, and close bonds were formed. Many of them got married (we’ve counted about 18 Pulse weddings thus far!) and began serving in ministry at Elim.

Over the years the group has waxed and waned, and changed a lot in many ways; but we are grateful to discover this one very important principle, which we believe directly relates to all sorts of community groups at Elim:

God is the One who raises up groups, and He does so by speaking into the lives of leaders and laying a vision on their heart for the group. Every group is different, and the group leader(s) are responsible to manage the group in accordance with God’s leading. Hence, it is unlikely any two groups will be the same, and our goal (as leaders at Elim) should be to encourage, exhort, and grant a great deal of freedom to group leaders to lead in a manner in which they feel called. We will therefore resist any cookie-cutter approach to creating groups at Elim.

In my last post (part one of seven), we discussed how vitally important groups are to the life of the church, because small groups are one of the most effective places people can grow in their relationship with Christ and one another. But the truth is, we are all different, and this doesn’t happen the same way for every person.

Some of us find it easier to grow when we meet with people who are a lot like us, in terms of life stage or circumstance. Others like to hear from a wide variety of people at different places in life. Some of us do well in larger groups, and some of us get our batteries recharged when we are talking life with just a few close friends. Some of us have better emotional energy and more time in the evenings or weekends, and some of us prefer meeting together first thing in the morning, when we are fresh. Some of us really want to dig into verse-by-verse Bible study, and others need fellowship and just sharing life together. Some of us love dark chocolate, and others prefer vanilla. We are all different!

The truth is, God knows us and what we need. After all, He created us! He cares more about us than anyone else ever could. Thus we need to trust Him as we seek to find a group of people to walk in community with.

As staff and elders at Elim, our goal is to encourage and give freedom so that God can work in our midst and raise up the kinds of groups we may not yet know we need in order to meet the needs of the people He wants to bring us. If you are aching for community, let’s talk! If there’s a special kind of group you wish existed, let us know, and we will pray with you and ask God to raise up a group that would fit the vision He is giving you.

We all need community in order to grow in Christ. So let’s throw off every encumbrance and go for it!

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Not yet in a small group at Elim? Here’s how to get connected!

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By Larry Short

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about small groups at Elim. I’ve been thinking about how incredibly blessed I have been, in my life thus far, because of my connection to those small communities we call “groups.”

This week I am turning the big six-zero. (Which really means, and I realize this is anticlimactic, that I have been breathing air for a total of 61 years now! But, we must have some excuse to party, right?)

And recently I realized that now I am twice as old as I was when I led my first small group. I know this because I have a very distinct (pleasant) memory, as a small group leader, of the members of my first group all wearing black as I led a Bible study on my 30th birthday. (I’m guessing 60 is the new black, right?)

So, more than half of my life so far has been spent connected to small groups. It was in one of those first small groups that a leader thrust a guitar into my hands and said, “You are now our group’s worship leader!” (I wanted to kabong him with it.) It was in groups that I learned how God answered prayer and how I needed to depend on Him when my heart ached for another person. He revealed Himself in small groups, and I have grown time and again over the years, thanks to the exhortation, encouragement, and even the occasional rebuke by small-group members. As we’ve studied God’s Word together, prayed together, worshipped together, served together, ate together, and just hung out together, God has helped me find and walk in His plan for my life . . . through small groups.

I sometimes hear people say, “I don’t really feel connected.” My wife Darlene and I feel connected—and we have small groups to thank for that!

Recently I submitted to Elim staff and elders a document that I titled “Community Ministry at Elim: Seven Guiding Principles.” I’d like to share these with you on this Last Word blog. We’ll start with Principle 1 and tackle a new one each time I get a chance to write. (If you are eager to read all seven principles at one time, I’ve posted the document here on Elim’s website.)

Principle 1: Groups are an incredibly important part of life at a local church such as Elim. They should be one of the key places where people truly connect to God and one another. A lot of life change (for the better!) happens in the context of small groups.

Because groups are so important, we will seek to:

  • Encourage as many friends and members at Elim as possible to be a part.
  • Recruit and raise up as many leaders as needed to lead as many groups as needed to accommodate all who should be in a group.
  • Pray for, support, and help equip group leaders in whatever ways we can to be effective in using their gifts in group leadership.

I’ve already mentioned the crucial role groups have played in my own life and in Darlene’s.  Our experience in groups hasn’t always been comfortable or pain free, but they have always resulted in growth as well as an opportunity to serve others. (Which, by the way, I really need to do in order to grow!)

Many of you know already that Darlene and I have been leading Elim’s young adults group, now called Pulse, for 15 years now. Like all groups, this group has had its ebbs and its flows. Right now we’re in a bit of an ebb; we’ve had a lot of people get married and some of those move away. For years we met on Friday nights (and before that, other weeknights), but because our members have been “aging” together (some now approaching that magic age at which I led my first group!) and are now more like young professionals and less like college students, Friday nights have become more challenging for everyone to gather on. So, we have gone to Sunday mornings (before worship service) instead, but we still have the occasional Friday- or Saturday-night fellowship event. (We also often hang out on Sunday evenings. We have a lot of group “togetherness” time! More about this in another post.)

Our original goal in hosting Pulse was to keep the young people who were being turned out by Elim’s wonderful Student Ministries engaged in the life of the church after they graduated from high school. God has provided a lot of blessings as we’ve seen this goal realized. Young adults are staying at Elim, bringing others in, serving in ministry, and even becoming leaders. And as I mentioned previously, they are also getting married and, in many cases, raising children here (you’re welcome, Children’s Ministry!). This reality, and the blessing of the friendships we have built with so many precious young adults, has been ample reward for the time, the prayers, and the many boxes of pizza we have invested along the way.

I sometimes wonder how people who are NOT involved in small groups at Elim (and probably about half of our congregation are not yet involved) stay connected. Honestly, Sundays aren’t enough! And while our Sunday services here are fantastic, small groups offer so much more opportunity for positive life change to occur. They are a key place God really does His work: through accountability, through prayer, through sharing your story, through encouragement and all the other “one anothers” of Scripture, through Bible study, and through just plain experiencing life together.

So, if you are a member or friend of Elim and are not yet in a small group, for both your benefit and the benefit of others, please consider how you can get connected to one! If you’d like to find a group to plug into, please call or drop me a note, and I promise I will try to help you get connected (call 253-906-9676 [mobile] or email larryshort@gmail.com). Thank you!

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