Imagine a small group leader asking a group for their opinions. Imagine the people giving their various answers. And then, imagine the group leader reacting to their opinions by saying, “No … that’s not what I’m looking for … any other thoughts?” How many “other thoughts” do you think would be offered? Not many.
In case you are wondering, I didn’t make up this scenario. I actually saw a discussion leader ask a question, receive an answer and then say, “No … that’s not what I’m looking for.” He continued to give this response to several answers, and I watched the group become quieter and quieter. In fact, after a while, only those with the courage to guess what he was “looking for” continued to respond until, finally, we all stopped, because it was clear to us that these were not really discussion questions. They were test questions.
In a small group, turning our discussion questions into test questions usually shuts down participation. Tests put people on the defensive. They are afraid they might give the “wrong” answer and look foolish. And so, they become silent.
How different is a relaxed, open environment, where people feel free to explore, to think out loud, to share their opinions, doubts and even their confusion. This kind of atmosphere encourages people to consider new ideas, to examine their own lives, and even consider changes in their life-style.
And so, in addition to the factual questions from the biblical text, be sure to also ask the group members a completely different kind of question:
What do you think? (Only they know their thoughts) How does this make you feel? (Only they know their emotions) What would you do? (And you must really want to know) With which part of the story do you identify?
What do you think this story teaches?
In all of these questions, you are asking for something you genuinely did not know before the group session began. And you ask these questions, not to pass or fail a “student,” but to hear and understand the thoughts, insights, and emotions of your fellow group members.
Let us never forget that diversity is God’s idea. This was brought home to me as I read an email this past week from my close friend and brother Tommy Drinnen, who is completing his PhD in Spiritual Formation in California. Tommy wrote:
My class this semester is made up of a Cuban, a Ethiopian, someone from China, Korea, and Indonesia, and then, me – a Tennessean transplanted from Ghana. Our professor is a Korean man. Last week I ate at the home of a couple from our program who are Korean and Chinese. I also had a meal with a Kenyan and a man from Rwanda. I live in a rural community in Ghana, and I tell you that meeting all these people and hearing and seeing their stories of faith has an impact on one’s worldview and one’s Kingdom view. It is a blessing to be able to meet so many people from around the world.
And so, I find myself agreeing with Mark Twain who wrote, “Travel is the enemy of prejudice.” Move around enough, see and visit enough people who are very different from yourself, and over time, rigid, inflexible, prejudicial views will be diluted by the creative diversity that exists in this massive, wonderful world.
God has given me so much to do,
And I’m so far behind,
I’ll never die.
I remember Landon Saunders asking the question, “What are you doing that will survive your death?” It made a tremendous impact on my life, and I think Jesus is asking the same question in a story he told about a “rich fool” (Luke 12). It’s a story about a man who was so successful that he had to upgrade, update, and expand his entire physical plant. He had collected and accumulated a massive amount of materials. But he had not made the kind of investment that would survive his death. I guess that’s why he’s called a “rich fool.”
At one point in the story the question is raised, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” You see, everything that I ask to give my life purpose, to be my reason for living, must also be able to tell me what it will do for me then.
Then is the real test of a life purpose.
What is a life purpose today? What does it mean to have a life goal? For some it means to win a medal, or chair a department, or author a best seller, or rank high in their field of work. For others it simply means to make it, to put food on the table, to get out of debt, to survive. But what ever I’m going after, what happens when my life purpose has taken me as far as it can, and it’s not far enough? Just how far can the very best of temporary goals take a person?
I guess I’m asking if it’s really fair to ask something temporary to do something it’s not designed to do. You know what I mean — to ask my position to give me integrity, to ask my schedule to give me self-worth, to ask my checkbook to take away my worry, to ask my heritage to give me character, to ask my accomplishments to erase my failures — to ask something temporary to give me something permanent.
And so, how do I avoid a success that fails? I know it might sound crazy to even talk about successes that fail. But they do, all the time. Success fails when it takes me away from my children, when it makes my spouse a stranger, or when it teaches me to be selfish and arrogant. Business may be a booming success, but what about life and relationships?
And so, what does Jesus’ story teach us about avoiding a success that fails?
Talk To The Right Person (vs. 17-18) “What shall I do? This is what I’ll do.” There are fourteen personal pronouns in this man’s speech to himself — my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods. Who is he talking to? Himself. And what does the story say is the real source of his success? It’s easy to miss. Verse 16 says, “the ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.” You see, when we break success down into it’s parts, we are left with a series of important questions. Who gives us the raw materials, who brings to us the opportunities, who builds into us our skill and talent, and who grants us the time to put it all together? Answer — The one who made the ground. Talk to the right person, and it’s not you.
Follow The Right Plan (vs.17) “I have no place to store my crops.” Here’s my question — What plan is this man following? You can see it in the word “store.” That’s it. This is his life plan — to produce and store. All of his time and energy is given to keeping, accumulating, stockpiling, hoarding. And for whom? Well, no one else is mentioned in the story. This man is given great gifts, which he plans to share with no one. He’s not following the right plan.
Pursue The Right Goal (vs. 19 “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoyment, but there is a huge difference between making a living and making a life. This man was really concerned with storage, but you can’t store your life in a barn. Just imagine what this farmer could have done with his success. He could have called his family together for a time of worship, thanking God for his rich harvest. He could have invested his wealth in his community, making it a better place for everyone. He could have shared his wealth with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the destitute. He could have pursued a hundred different goals that would impact the lives of people. And all of his goals would survive his death.
You see, relationship is the only success that doesn’t fail. Only people will last forever. Investing in people is the only work that will survive my death.
As a missionary to Ecuador, Jim Elliot was killed at age 29 by the very tribe he was trying to teach. He once said:
“He is no fool
who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose.”