As I announced on Monday, I am starting a new series on Fridays starting on September 11 called GIG Blog Fridays. The blog on Fridays will contain some links for additional information on the topic and then a little slant that I’ll take from the upcoming message from one of our three pastors or any guest speaker. We, meaning myself and those involved in the Growing in God group leadership, are hoping this becomes a good tool for the leaders and people that are wanting to begin thinking about the following week to look at. So look forward to that starting four weeks from today.
Today, I want to share why I believe in small groups so much. These are some of the reasons that I believe that everybody should find a group to be in.
If you’ve read my story on how I came to Christ, this story takes up the following Wednesday after I gave my life to Christ. It was April 10, 1994, the first time I ever met Tom Zawacki, his wife Nadine and a room full of people at their tiny apartment in Bridgeport, WV. They have two great kids, whom are now great adults, Lisa and Tommy.
As I walked into their home for the first time, I will always remember that they hugged me. Why? First, I was not a hugger at the time. There were only two families that I was ever around that were huggy and I thought them a little weird from time to time. After a moment or two, I settled in a chair and began just hanging out with them, Rob Fancher and his girlfriend Karen, the Pisegnas, Scott and Angie Hamilton and several others.
They made me feel very relaxed. I’m normally fine around new people, but all the preconceived notions of drinking the “cool-aid” of weird cults started running through my mind. You know, Waco, Jim Jones and the like. So next, Tom broke out his guitar and did a great worship session of music. Honestly, I didn’t know any of the tunes, but thankfully Nadine gave me a cheat sheet with the words on it. Tom did a nice study and after it was over, he then told me and a few of the new people of his call to come to West Virginia from New York City.
As Tom finished his story, Nadine came out with food. Honestly, I can’t remember what it was that night, but what I can tell you is that it was usually chocolate and absolutely sweet and delicious. This is one of the best things about going to a small group. There is always food. Good food. There is something about food that opens people up to talk and share.
I had a good time and the thoughts of cultish behavior was gone by the end of the evening. I admit, I was still nervous about the hugging thing. The next day, I had a meeting with Pastor Sheldon Moore and he met me with a hug too. I don’t remember much of the introduction session we had about Faith Fellowship Church because I was thinking about how nice the hugging was and that it did give me a sense of belonging and family in the church. I remember walking outside and looking up at the sky and yelling to God, “It’s OK, It’s OK to hug here.” What I didn’t realize was that Associate Pastor Greg Lilley was walking in the parking lot. He must’ve thought I was a mental patient and probably put me on the list of people to keep an eye on during services.
Anyhow, I continued to go back to the Zawacki’s apartment and I even took my friend Alvin along with me. Later that summer, I brought Jason Nestor, a buddy of mine that I bowled with, I brought Brenda Hopkins, who has been my long time friend who had challenged my mind the previous year with the question of Christ. That’s the next great thing about small groups. You can bring friends along that you have made over the years and grow with them even more. While there was a large group at Tom’s, there was the smaller units that met at different times during the week to go to movies and hang out even more. We held each other accountable. Sometimes we did it well, sometimes not so well. That’s friendship. Sometimes we let our friends slip and we have to help pick them up.
Sometimes the group breaks up. Tom and Nadine moved on in ministry to Washington. I had moved on to working at the TV station during that shift and had gotten married and friendships faded because of time and life. I had been married two years to Karen, my first wife. She left me. What I didn’t know at the time was that she had been cheating on me for most of the time because of my shift and her desire to have a baby. When I found that out, I was devastated. I tried returning to Faith Fellowship. Most of the people that I had grown with were gone, again for various reasons, most due to life. I had told the pastorate and most of the people that my time there would be brief. How brief I did not know. My mom and I were moving to Florida as soon as we found a house, jobs and the money from our old house to pay for the new one. Things moved quicker than expected. The church was almost apathetic about me leaving. I’m not sure why, but it hurt.
That same night, I ran into Tom Palmer. Tom was one of my faithful friends from the small group and we talked at length what I was going through and the abandonment I felt by the church. He had been going somewhere else, a church named New Hope Foursquare Church in Fairmont. Over the next six weeks, the church, Tom and Pastor Roger Thrower took me under their wings. They knew I was leaving, but they also knew I needed to heal. They prayed with me, talked with me and celebrated with me as we sold the house and found the new one in Florida. They celebrated the fact that I had a home church before I had a job down there. I would be going to Bible Baptist Church, a church that had a sign in the front “An oasis in the desert.” Believe me, they were. So as I turned the millenium, I had gone from devastated and broken to new hope and found my oasis.
That’s probably the greatest thing about small groups. They may not stay together forever, but when the chips are down and the hard times are in front of you, those people never forget you. I can honestly tell you that I never would have made the early years without the love and support of Tom Zawacki’s group. Tom loved me like a father I had missed growing up. Nadine fed me well and loved on me like a big sister. People like Tom Palmer, Brenda and Alvin are still close to my heart today. I’m not saying the rest aren’t, but these were core people that not only helped me grow, but changed my life path.
Having pastors like Sheldon Moore and Greg Lilley encourage me to go to that small group showed that they had the vision that the words that God meant for us didn’t just have to come from their mouths and inside the four walls of the church. It is God’s people that make a church go and they were smart enough to embrace that leadership meant to grow other leaders.
That last paragraph tells you the major reason that I can’t say enough nice things about small groups. New leaders are born. Maybe they aren’t the pastors of the church of the future, but people that are grown to take The Great Commission that Jesus gave us in Matthew before he ascended back into heaven and next to God’s right hand to the rest of the world.
When you begin in a small group, you never know where you might end up. God may move you into a new job, to a new life, or like me to a new ministry. If you would’ve asked me in 1994 if I would even think about preaching a word to people to pursue Christ and what that meant, I’m not sure what my response would have been. But what I do know is that in 2009, the small steps that the “Zawacki Christians” started me on brought me to who I am today.
I am always serious when I say that God has granted me the ability to be one man involved in this revival of people because it’s true. It can be true for you as well. If you’re in a church and they offer small groups, take advantage of them. If they don’t, ask your leadership about who might be interested in it. They may not know right away, but it will begin the process of them looking for someone to work with you. Why? The answer is simple. There are too many Christians content to sit one hour in church and the rest of the week in front of the TV. If your leadership senses you are hungry for the word of God and to grow, they will fall over themselves to make sure that happens.
For those of you at New Hope Church, where I go now in 2009, the Growth In God groups are now forming. Each Sunday starting August 16 until they are full, registration is taking place in the lobby near the welcome center. I absolutely plead with you to consider being a part. You will make friendships that will change your life.
I love you guys!