My Interview Jeremy Linneman of Sojourn Community Church… The Future of Group Ministry

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This is the third day of my three day interview with Jeremy Linneman, the Pastor of Group Life at Sojourn Community Church, a multi-site church in Louisville, Kentucky. If you haven’t read the two blog posts prior to this one, I would suggest you do that. Day one of this blog series allows you to get to know Jeremy as well as hear when Jeremy believes someone is right for the role of Groups Point Person. Day 2 is astoundingly revealing as Jeremy speaks of Sojourns perspective on multiplying groups.

Today’s blog post unearths Jeremy’s perspective on the future of Group Ministry. I believe Jeremy’s perspective is dead on!

Rick: If I remember right, you’re 31 years old. You represent the next generation of small group pastors. I’d like to ask you a few questions that will aid all of us in realizing where the next generation of groups pastors is going to take the small group movement.

Jeremy, you are reaping the harvest of what was given attention by groups pastors a generation ago. From what you’re seeing as weaknesses in the group members of substantial age coming into your groups, what do you wish the generation of groups pastors before you had given more time and attention to?

Jeremy: You raise a great point, Rick. We young bucks are benefiting from the decades of hard work done to transition a lot of older churches from a Sunday school model to a small group model, or to plant a church with small groups. Simply growing, multiplying, resourcing, and coaching healthy groups is much easier, so I’m profoundly thankful to guys like you for all the work you’ve done. I’ve said it before and I’m not joking: you, Bill Donahue, and Steve Gladen, you’re on the short list of my heroes. Behind Bo Jackson and Wendell Berry, but still.

As for the future, I think groups ministry is going to become more difficult and more important. There was a brilliant book written about 20 years ago by Randy Frazee called Making Room for Life. If you’re a younger/newer groups director, you need to find this book and read through it. He points out that previous generations were far simpler and more connected. A person had a few circles of relationships—a family circle, a work circle, a church circle, a neighborhood circle, and maybe a recreational circle—and there was a lot of overlap between these. But today, our folks have a number of relational circles—one for your spouse and his/her friends, one for each child and for each of his/her sports’ teams, one for each of your areas of church life, one for each of your teams or departments at work, one for each of your hobbies, circles of high school friends, college friends, old co-workers, extended family members, and so on. And then if you’re on social media, you can add a few more circles. So now, our average church member doesn’t have four to six interconnected circles, they’re managing 50 or 60 circles, and there’s very little overlap. No wonder people are exhausted, overwhelmed, and disconnected. We’ve become an inch deep and a mile wide. So often, we hear, “I just can’t make it, I have too much on my plate.”

So groups leaders of the future will have to navigate these increasing challenges and yet speak a better word into the chaos. You really can have a simpler, more connected, more meaningful life. And it starts by belonging to a small number of committed spiritual relationships. It goes back to what I said before: no one gets to the end of their life and wishes they had more surface-level relationships; we all wish we had spent more time with a few close friends and family members. Our groups have to cultivate a place to be known, to belong, to find real community, and engage in mission without getting caught up in the busy, disconnected ways of our world. (Shameless plug: If you want to learn how we do this at Sojourn, check out my buddy Brad House’s book Community: Taking Your Small Groups Off Life Support. Every time I mention Brad’s book, an angel gets its wings and I get an afternoon off.)  

The-busy-trap

Rick: What issues will group leaders have to deal with that wasn’t an issue a decade ago? How is Sojourn responding to these issues?

Jeremy: I’ve already described what I believe will be the biggest challenge—the cultural issue/idol of busyness. But there are certainly massive social and theological issues, and I’ll just mention the two that are most pressing and that we are most actively stepping into: racial reconciliation and sexuality. We are a diverse church. Our Midtown campus is in a predominantly black, inner-city neighborhood where the average household income is $16,000. Our East campus is in a neighborhood that’s predominantly white and the household income is over $90,000. So we are trying to reach both these neighborhoods and then integrate them into one church, which is a beautiful mess. But it means that we have to speak very wisely about the additional challenges that poor families and African Americans face in our city, so as not to over-simplify issues or insult families. And of course, this issue is bigger than it was ten years ago because of the recent tragedies in St Louis, in South Carolina, and in several parts of our own city. Also, because we’re so hyper-connected online, everything that is said and done at any church—and certainly a larger church like Sojourn—is under a microscope.

The second issue, sexuality, is just as complicated. With the SCOTUS affirmation of gay marriage, even though it came down to a 5-4 vote, we’re going to quickly become a minority for our traditional beliefs in biblical marriage as one man and one woman. We have a good number of attendees that identify as gay Christians, and these are people that I love dearly. How do we communicate to them that we love them and that they are welcome in our church and in our homes, and yet also maintain biblical convictions, invite them to deep and meaningful change, and hold forth a compelling picture of faithful celibacy and deep friendship for them? These are complicated pastoral issues, and most of them come up in groups way more than they are brought up to the pastoral team. (Did I mention how hard groups ministry is!?) This probably isn’t the place to get deeply into all these issues, but we also have to be ready to receive and embrace all types of sexually broken people—registered sex offenders, transgender individuals, unmarried couples co-habitating, and couples with “open marriages”—without compromising an inch on the biblical teaching on these issues. Getting a little heavy for a small groups blog. 🙂

Rick: You are leading a small group ministry in a post-Christian era. What doctrines do you believe every small group leader should have a basic understanding of as they lead groups in a post-Christian era?

Jeremy: At Sojourn, we have a “theological vision” that guides our training and coaching of groups leaders. It’s not strictly a biblical or systematic theology, but a theological grid for our church that lets us emphasize key doctrines for the Christian life in this culture. The basic elements are Whole Gospel, Whole Church, and Whole World. In Whole Gospel, we teach three aspects: Kingdom (including the doctrines of God, the Trinity, redemption, and eternal life), Cross (man, sin, salvation, redemption, and union with Christ), and Grace (the Spirit, adoption, love, reconciliation, and forgiveness). In Whole Church, we teach that union with Christ gives us a new identity—we don’t create or discover our identity, we receive it through oneness with Jesus. As Christians, we are worshippers, family, disciples, servants, and witnesses. These five identities are like the core values of our church: we’re constantly teaching through them and applying them to new challenges and ministries. Lastly, we teach in Whole World, that God created the world, and though it is broken by sin, it still belongs to him. Thus, there’s no sacred/secular divide: all of work can be redemptive in the Kingdom. As the old theologian put it: “there’s not a square inch of the world over which Christ does not say, ‘Mine!’” We want our leaders to be humble and confident in speaking into the issues of our day with a Christ centered, balanced, and biblical theology.

Rick: If you could give a word of advice to those of us who are over 50 and leading group ministries, what would you suggest to us?

Jeremy: Keep the priority on the local church! I’m sure there are temptations to less demanding positions—to just write and coach and consult from a safe distance or to take a position in a parallel field like local politics or non-profit management. But if we really believe that local churches are at the heart of God’s plan of redemption, stick with it! Young folks like me need your help. So whether you stay in a local church or serve churches—like at a seminary or a place like LifeWay—give us young folks a picture of long-lasting faithfulness in the local church. I know all the problems are here in the local church, but so are the people and the leaders! So, stay engaged, find some young men and women to encourage, and keep your heart and your home open to us!

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