The Origin of Many of My Books
Today, we are here to launch “Walking with the Risen Christ”. The origin of many of my books and ministry can be traced back to 1993, when my first wife died of cancer. It was a key turning point in my life. In fact, that tragedy led to ten black years of many difficult things happening. When I look back on those ten black years, I often wonder how I survived, because I really am not a very strong person. Yet, there were those ten black years. I’ve gone through that, I’m in a good place now, how did I survive those ten black years? I really don’t know.
Humanly speaking, I’m not a strong person. But I guess I do know – it’s the grace of God that saw me through. In fact, I think my personal motto is that life is hard, but God is real. I also realised, looking back, a lot of that grace came to me through my friends. There was always a group of friends who never quite gave up on me, who stood by me and who were used by God to strengthen me and see me through those dark times. From there, I have received a fresh appreciation of the importance of following Christ in the company of friends – people who have a relationship with you and who walk with you. I came to realise that close relationships are not a luxury, but walking through life with close friends is as essential as food and water. You need friends to go through life as a follower of Christ.
In fact, as I went back to Scripture, I realised that this is something that the Bible teaches all the time. The first negative you encounter in Scripture is in Genesis 2:18 where it says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Before this it was all good, “God created this and it was good … God created this and it was good”. Observe that this was a statement made when there was yet no sin in human experience. It was a time when Adam had perfect access to God, but clearly, this was not enough. It seems that we were created for two key relationships, one with God, and one with other human beings — “it’s not good for man to be alone”.
This is something we see throughout Scripture, and we shouldn’t be surprised because God Himself is a communal God. Although He is one, yet there is community within the Godhead. There is Father, Son and Spirit – three Persons deeply caring for and loving each other. So since we have been created in God’s image, surely we would reflect that need for connection as well. But as we look at the church today, we find that often, churches are concerned about other things.
- Knowledge: To get our doctrines correct. Thus churches have a strong emphasis on teaching, understanding.
- Activism: We must serve God and do sacrificial things to spread the gospel, to help the poor.
- Experiencing God: Wanting to encounter God in some mystical way, some experiential touch.
All those things are important, and some churches have a combination of all three, but what I see is that many churches seem to take relationships for granted. We teach about it, sing about it and we assume that people will be connecting with each other, but often, especially in the context of Singapore, where people are busy and tired, relationships are assumed but they don’t happen.
Many come to our churches and participate in activism, learning, whatever – but often they are not really connected to other brothers and sisters, to people with whom they can share their lives intimately. In fact, it seems that the main focus of many churches is the large meeting on Sunday morning, or our revival meetings. These gatherings are very good for inspiration and instruction but not really very “hot” for sharing of stories and personal connection.
It is in response to this that God raised our ministry, Graceworks, to champion what we call relational transformation – to see lives changed through real, authentic relationships. We do this through teaching and through publishing. Our first key book is 3-2-1: Following Jesus in Threes, a book that lays down the theology of why we need to follow Christ in the context of authentic friendship. It also gives a model of how intimate friends can walk together. 3-2-1 stands for 3 friends, meeting 2 hours, once a month over a meal. Because when you teach about friendship, people will say, “Yeah we need that but we don’t have time.” So I say, “Well, can you find two other friends and once a month, have a meal together and share about life to encourage one another in your faith?” “Well, three friends, two hours once a month. Yeah, I think we can do that.” That’s the origin of the name 3-2-1.
Why I wrote Walking with the Risen Christ
However, even after we published that book, I often felt that there were people who, for whatever reason, were not comfortable with close intimate groups – it was threatening for some. Many could, and it has led to many people experiencing spiritual friendships. I felt that there should be a book that helps small groups be more intimate because most churches now have some kind of cell group, small group, or life group.
I think we can trace this back to Lawrence Khong and his championing of the cell group church. Prior to that, I am old enough to remember, it was Sunday School. Nobody knew about cell groups. This need for cell groups may not have been there in the early church because they were all house churches of thirty people meeting in a home, so the context was very suitable for face-to-face connection. But in the modern urban church, the main meeting is our Sunday meeting, which doesn’t really provide a context for personal conversations. Hence one key response has been the cell group or the small group – it goes by different names in different churches.
I thought we should do something about helping our small groups have a stronger relational component instead of introducing another program – people are just so tired of programs, they are already committed to so many things. But since they are already in a small group, maybe there is something we can do to help that small group experience the presence of God and help people experience closer relationships. That’s what led to the publication of “Walking with the Risen Christ”, that was the dream behind it – how to help people experience more quality relationships in their cell groups.
As I prayed about where I should find the basis for this book, I was led back to one of my favourite passages in Scripture, Luke 24 and the encounter of Jesus with His two disciples on the Emmaus road. This has been a key passage in my own pilgrimage as well. It is a very foundational passage about Christ and community. The two disciples were a mini community, and then we are told that Jesus Himself came and walked alongside them. So surely this must be a passage we can plumb to get some key principles about how to find biblical help in having vital, healthy, small groups.
7 Marks of a Healthy Small Group
As I meditated and prayed over this book, I found that there were at least 7 marks or areas where we can be guided in terms of the health of a group. I am sure there are more that seven, but these were the seven that came to me.
Two were concerning our relationship with God, two about our relationship with each other and two about our ministry in the world. Then there’s a seventh, which I will mention later.
1. The Risen Christ is the Focus of a Small Group Meeting
We recognise that Christ is in the midst of the cell group. I would think this is the most critical element. The health of a cell group is not just about programs and materials, it’s about in whose presence are we meeting as a small group? This is the most critical point I think — that we are meeting in the presence of Christ. You remember when you were in school, when the teacher was in the class; you behave in a certain way. Then the teacher has to go out, there is no teacher in the class; then – boom! – suddenly the class behaves in a totally different way.
So here we are, if Christ is not here, we meet in ways that may make sense to us as though Christ is just a stranger outside the door. But if Christ is really at the centre of the meeting, then surely it will dictate how we relate to Him and to each other. The single most important point is that we meet in the presence of Christ. To me, this is the central reality, more important than programs and materials – the fact that Christ is here with us.
In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” I believe the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of the permanent presence of God among His people. I have mixed feelings, therefore, when we invite Christ to come, as though He has gone somewhere. Christ is in our midst! Therefore, I think it’s more about asking God to heighten our awareness of His presence, rather than Christ leaving and going somewhere – Christ is always with us. At Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit, Jesus promised, “I will always be with you.” To me, these are all clear indicators of the presence of Christ amongst His people.
So when a cell group meets, they meet with the awareness that they are coming here to meet with Christ, not just with each other, Christ is in our midst. And if that is true, what does that mean in terms of how we relate to Him and with each other? If Christ is really here, we would worship Him, fall flat on the ground, maybe confess our sins, maybe pour out our problems, ask for help, because Christ is here – but that’s the thing, Christ is here. The fresh awareness of the centrality of the awareness of the presence of Christ is the most important point in order to see small groups being revived.
2. Hearing from the Risen Christ Through His Word
And if Christ is here, of course, we also want to hear from Him. Most small groups will have some form of Bible study, and I think that is correct. I think the key way Jesus speaks to us is through His Word. But many groups, maybe, are focusing just on the contents of Scripture – what are the six points from this passage? And there is nothing wrong with that; I think we should interpret God’s Word accurately. But I think we need to go one step beyond that – if this is true, then what is Christ saying to us? Christ is in our meeting, remember? What is Christ actually addressing us based on this passage?
So at the centre – Christ is here, we do Bible study, then ask Christ, since He is here, “What are You saying through the passage tonight?” I am not saying we are slipshod in our Bible interpretation, but too often we just end at understanding Bible content, without that personal engagement that Jesus was present. What is Jesus is saying to us through the passage we’re studying?
3. The Risen Christ Encourages Transparency
The third thing is transparency. For any relationship to be close, we must be open to each other and let each of us hear each other’s real stories about our life – our joys, our struggles. Going back to John 15, Jesus says, “I have not held back anything from you – I have told you everything”, and He expects us to relate to each other in this same kind of transparency as well.
I know this is tough. In a fallen world, since Adam and Eve fell, they began to hide themselves. This is one of the results of sin, that we become ashamed and want to hide ourselves. But once we hide ourselves, we don’t have the basis for a real relationship. At some point, we must begin to risk transparency. The two disciples on the Emmaus road, we find that they were downcast but they were willing to show their real feelings to each other.
So if Christ is really here, then we feel safe. As Christ is transparent to us, we will be transparent to each other. I know that trust takes time to build – I understand that – but I think this is something that we will see as one of the things we want to work at. Christ is here, Christ holds nothing back, He expects us to also be transparent with each other. In fact, He commands us to accept each other as He has accepted us, as Paul reminds us. So it is this sense of acceptance, then I feel safe – since you accept me for who I am, I feel safe opening up.
4. Experiencing the Risen Christ By Bearing One Another’s Burdens
Transparency then leads to a fourth factor. Once we know where we are in our lives, it also becomes a context where we can bear each other’s burdens. In fact, Christ says to cast our burdens on Him, and ultimately we cast our burdens on Him. But I think a large part of our burden – casting on Jesus, we become burden bearers on behalf of Christ. So you’re casting your burdens on Christ, but as a follower of Jesus, I am a representative of Christ, then I would want to be used by God to help bear your burdens. It is Christ who ultimately bears our burdens, but in a context of a healthy small group, we are also bearing with each other’s burdens.
I am always so sad when people come to a small group, then they go home; they really do not find a safe space to share their struggles. A healthy small group should be a place where people feel safe – Christ is here, I open up my heart to Him, I open up to my brothers and sisters, and we bear each other’s burdens.
That also means, therefore, that the life of the cell group is not just confined to the two, three hours on Friday. The cell group is not just based on the event. It is a relationship that will continue outside the event. If cell group is on a Friday, from 8 to 10 pm, on a Saturday at 3 am in the morning, you fall sick, you are still part of a community. That is one of the tests – who would you call at 3 in the morning when you are going through a tough time? I am hoping that the quality of a cell group or small group relationship will be one where people will feel confident to be able to open up and call for help. In a very lonely and stressful world, where is that safe space where I can call upon help and be willing to give help? It cuts both ways.
5. Hospitality In Light Of the Risen Christ
There is also our relationship with the world outside that God has called us to minister to. The fifth element of a healthy group will be this sense of hospitality, that people are welcome. One of the marks of godliness in the Old and New Testament is this sense of hospitality, that our God is a hospitable God, and we who claim to have His Spirit must have that same inviting spirit as well.
This may be one of our biggest challenges, because when many small groups have been meeting together for a long time, they become very cliquish and inward looking. They have their inside language, their inside stories. Someone visiting for the first time often feels like a fool because they don’t fit in – they’re talking about things you know nothing about, and they do things that you have no idea what’s the rationale for – you don’t feel welcome. This happens too often in many groups who have been meeting for a long time.
There must be the intentionality, that we take pains to help people feel welcome. Just as the two disciples asked Jesus to join them for a meal, so we have this kind of welcoming spirit. It is one of the tests about whether you are aware that Christ is in your midst or not. If you say that Christ is in our midst and we are cold, and don’t intentionally welcome people, then how do I know that Christ is in your midst? Because Christ is a welcoming Christ – if Christ is there and He is welcoming, then I would expect the cell group to be welcoming, and take pains to help newcomers feel at home, because that is expressing the welcoming heart of Christ.
6. Witnessing for the Risen Christ
Not only do we welcome, but we also go out and witness. When the two disciples finally discovered that the stranger on the road was actually Jesus, they were so excited that they rushed out to tell this to the other disciples. Once we have had a genuine encounter with Christ, we have got to share this with others.
We know that a healthy group has a horizon beyond just their own inward needs, they have a horizon to the needs of the people outside. Through word and deed, we want to be used by Christ to be a witness to His reality and love to a broken world. One of the tests of a healthy group which is aware that Christ is in their midst is that they are not just inward looking, focusing only on their needs, if they have really encountered Christ, they will want to bring that reality outside to so many who need it. A healthy small group has a burden, an agenda beyond the needs of the people in the group – just as the two disciples that encountered Christ.
Maybe that’s the problem; if we don’t encounter Christ in the group, we have nothing to share. Then we get people to minister or have a program for them to reach out, but that can’t really replace a reality they have encountered. Most churches will try to encourage their groups to reach out, with varying degrees of success. But if Jesus was really there and we encounter Him on a regular basis, we would want to share Him, we won’t have to badger our small groups to do this. It will be an outflow of genuine encounters with God.
7. Meeting the Risen Christ over Meals
There is a seventh and last one, which may sound strange to some, but I think one last mark of a healthy group that we find from the Emmaus road is that they eat together. They encounter Christ at the dining table. You may say that this is some symbol of the Lord’s Supper, and maybe it is, but its just dinner, a regular meal where they met Christ.
We find meals feature a lot in the Bible. Often, we feel a bit embarrassed talking about eating because the world struggles with gluttony on one hand and with starvation on another hand. It’s quite an emotional topic, so we don’t want to talk about food, especially in the spiritual sense. But the Bible doesn’t do this – the Bible talks about eating together all the time, especially in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, they call Jesus someone who eats and drinks too much! That’s His reputation.
Jesus understands that a meal is a powerful means of bringing people together. Why was Jesus eating with the tax collectors? Because, in many ways, eating together is the most human activity; I don’t care who you are, everybody has got to eat. And as we eat together, we begin to relax, slow down, and share our lives.
This may not sound as spiritual as the other six marks, but we want to disagree here. I think there are means by which we encounter Christ and each other, and a key means is having a meal together. It allows us to connect with God and with each other. This is where we find the context for the other six things. In a meal together, we remember that Christ is here, we can discuss the Word. In a meal together, we can be people who begin to open up our hearts, to be honest, to share our struggles. Because a meal reminds us, we all need something outside of ourselves to live. At a meal together, we can invite non-believers to join us at the table. Instead of asking a non-believer or someone who is not familiar with the gospel to come to some religious meeting – they’re not quite sure what that means – but to come for dinner – hey I understand that – and this is where we invite others to join our communities or small groups. And at a meal, we can also be brave in thinking of how we are going to bring the truth about God to other people.
So a meal pulls everything together. We see that in the Emmaus road. It was when they were sitting down with Jesus at the meal that it all came together, “Hey, it’s Christ”. Many groups have refreshments after a meeting, but we think this is not a replacement for a proper meal like lunch or dinner. It has a different level of connection, as opposed to just refreshments at the end of a meeting.
These, then, are seven marks of a healthy small group, I’m sure there are others.
Building a Relational Foundation
The seven marks are very simple things. This is a very short book. But we think that if cell groups work through this, it might lead to a revival in the life of their small groups.
We know that we live in rapidly changing times; there is much in the world that is dark and discouraging. But it is at such times that God’s people shine even brighter. I think the foundation of this sort of missional approach must be strong relationships. It’s not about charging and changing the world, and many churches may do this, but do we spend adequate time ensuring there is a proper relational foundation to build on, before we get our folks to go out there and do things for Christ.
We really pray that the Walking with the Risen Christ will be a tool that will help our people experience Christ in their small groups, so they can be transformed by Christ, and be agents of transformation in a world that needs Christ.
Response by George Butron
I am extremely honored to be able to give a response and to give some personal reflection on the book and how it has impacted me. As a pastor of a church in Singapore, I often feel more like an event manager than a shepherd. There is so much administration and organization that we become involved in, that the actual contact and investment into the lives of people is sometimes minimized by the busy lifestyles that we have.
My first experience with Christian community was when I was a college student, shortly after I came to Christ. And that student fellowship with the small school I was attending in America became my family, they became my friends. We didn’t know very much about Christian culture, we didn’t know that Christians covered up their faults and weaknesses, so we just openly talked about them. As a result we got help, we found encouragement and strength in the quality of our relationships.
I grew up in church. I experienced all the rituals of a high church tradition. I was baptised, confirmed and took my communion. Growing up I was an altar boy, I carried crosses, lit candles and poured wine, but I was not a Christian. I did not have any experience, or a genuine encounter, with God. And when I did encounter him, just before my eighteenth birthday, I’ll never forget, the next morning I was in the mountains and I was walking up a hill to watch the sunrise and I picked up a stone and I looked at the stone and I said, “God made this stone.” My awareness of God’s reality and presence, it was as if I could see for the first time. And I was extremely frustrated to realise that I had lived my whole life up till that point, and had never been aware of the presence of God. I didn’t seem to have any faculty to recognise it until now.
Now that He was in me, I started to see Him everywhere. So I started to pray a prayer that I have continued to pray for the rest of my life, “God, help me to see what You are doing today. Help me to recognise how You are working, how You are moving.” And I have also learnt to say, “And help me to join in.”
If I were going to give a working subtitle for Walking with the Risen Christ, I would call it after the name of a popular television show, “Don’t Forget to Remember”. Don’t forget to remember the presence of Christ when you gather together. I think that’s really the heartbeat of the book, although there are a few choice quotes that I want to share with you. In the forward by Robert Loane, he says, “Jesus is far more involved in things than we have any idea.” And I find that to be enriching and a good reminder. Look for God every place you go, in everything you do.
There is also a very good introduction in the opening chapter about the kinds of relationships we have. And the truth is, most of our relationships are functional, transactional, consumeristic, and informational. But when you go a little deeper and get into a healthy relational environment, something happens – there is life exchange, there is help. And that’s what the book is really all about.
Of course, we are very good at learning techniques, principles and operational ways of doing Christianity. Soo Inn says in this opening chapter, “I would rather be part of a group that gets all the tactical stuff wrong but yet, encounters Jesus on a regular basis; than to miss out on the presence of God while getting the technical steps to group leadership right.” These are just a few gems from the book that have helped and encouraged me.
I also appreciated some of the practical things you can apply in a small group. For instance, in developing that open quality relationship and becoming more transparent and vulnerable with one another, here is a suggestion from the book – every member of the group shares one joy and one struggle that has happened in their life since the group met. I think that’s a beautiful way to open our hearts and minds more fully to one another.
I heard of a story of a cell group in a church – this was a very close knit group who had grown up with each other and they went on holidays together; they were a very well-connected group, their kids grew up in church together. One of the couples’ son began to experience a difficulty in his life, and it was such a shameful thing to them as parents and as a couple, that they couldn’t share it with the rest of the people in the group. They went to their pastor and swore him to secrecy, they weren’t able to bring that need to the friends they had journeyed with for a long time. Somehow, over that course of time, that relationship had lost that authenticity and transparency that we all crave and desire.
So I want to recommend Walking with the Risen Christ, a primer for healthy small groups, as a way to get back to what we all experienced at some point early in our Christian journey. I think most of us tasted this, and most of us crave it.
It’s an extremely readable book. I can’t tell you how many Christian books, I read the first couple of chapters and you have either got the whole message of the book or you just aren’t interested in reading any more. This one, if you read the first couple of chapters, you will be finished with the book. It’s brief, it’s to the point and it’s extremely helpful and it has been personally encouraging to me.