Some of my conversations of late have lead me to reconsider distinctions between Restore & Sustain. I try to remind/inform our church family of these basic ministries at least twice a year. Professionals say "That's not enough." Maybe they're right, but ministry isn't a profession, it's a calling, and I'm glad to be called with you to focus more on God's Word than on South Church distinctions.
But, I'm afraid our semi-annual efforts to declare the vision & mission of Sustain & Restore continue to fall prey to our preconceived ideas & definitions… particularly those surrounding "small groups." As you've heard me say before: Restore is not "small group," at least not the kind we tend to associate with that label. But many of us--perhaps even subconsciously--still import those misconceptions into our Restore families, only to walk away frustrated when those expectations aren't met.
In the past, some folks have suggested significant changes to Restore. While I grant that we haven't arrived at the perfect "program" yet, the changes most want made basically boil down to Sustain. Apart from participation in Sustain, they can't help but hope Restore will provide them an opportunity for sharing their more personal struggles, prayer needs & discouragements.
While I believe there is both the need for and ample opportunity to "share life together" in Restore, let me remind us that Restore is not intended to focus on the family so to speak, but to equip us in God's Word to carry out the Great Commission in our little corner of the world.
From time to time, all of us are going to experience trials & tribulations, fears & insecurities, personal sins & struggles, private matters that we'll need to share & bear with others. But a gathering of 10-20 adults (not to mention children of all ages) probably isn't the best environment for that.
I'm guessing that if we took time each week for everyone at Restore to share their personal needs, concerns & requests, some of our brothers & sisters might feel like they were being held hostage. And time would only permit 2 to 3 of us ample opportunity to share. Hmm? That's interesting: time would only permit 2 or 3. Wait a minute? That sounds a lot like Sustain. Exactly! Sustain provides the perfect opportunity for more personal Prayer, Truth & Honesty.
Having said that, "sharing life together" is an important aspect of Restore and I believe it happens best in two ways: 1) After Restore, in personal conversation with--you guessed it--one or two others. And 2) as we invest some sweat-equity together, serving, proclaiming & reaching our community; in other words, "living on mission" together.
Consider the missionary journey we just read about in Matthew's Gospel. Jesus gathered His men, equipped them with His message, gave them authority, and sent them out. Shortly thereafter they returned from the field, eager to share all they experienced as they "lived on mission." Can you imagine the camaraderie they enjoyed by ministering together? Surely a deep sense of divine unity--of true fellowship--rested heavily upon them. And isn't it interesting that not a single name of anyone they reached during those missions is even mentioned in the text? What's my point? Well, while it's true that the focus of this "small group" was primarily outward, on those in the community to whom they proclaimed, consider who it was that came away united, blessed, encouraged, amazed? The disciples, the very ones Christ equipped & dispatched to "live on mission" together. And as they "shared life together" in the ripened fields for harvest, the lives of these ambassadors were bonded together in inseparable ways to Christ their King & to one another. This is the fellowship we're after in Restore. This is "sharing life together." Many are the stories soldiers tell of their battlefield brethren with whom they shared the trenches, names they'll never forget, bonds that will never be broken.
Before I get the cart too far out in front of the horse, first let me ask a much more important question: Have you been born again? Seriously, do you possess such a "hunger & thirst for righteousness" that can only be explained by God's work within you? If you're uncertain, let me encourage you to spend some time meditating on First John? Out of his love for the Church, the apostle goes to great lengths to provide several litmus tests that may help you determine whether or not you've truly been born again. I would especially encourage some serious self-examination if ministry, fellowship & Scripture reading sound more like duties than opportunities. If I can help, let's get together and look at some Scripture.
Secondly, take a minute to consider your participation in & expectations of Restore & Sustain. Perhaps you've been trying to get orange juice out of apples? As I've said before, my heart would have been hardened a hundred times over were it not for my Sustain partners. I mean that... and have Scripture to back me up:
I hope you know that your elders love you, pray for you, and want to strengthen you in the Truth, so that when your adversary pokes his ugly head, you will glorify God as you stand strong against his schemes. We want the very best for you: Jesus! And we're convinced that Sustain is vital to your knowing & loving Him more.
What is Sustain? A little time each day meditating on God's Word, and meeting weekly with at least one other in the family to read & pray together, humbly & honestly confessing sin, and lifting each other up to the throne of grace.
Yes, Sustain takes a little getting used to. I'd say it takes at least six consecutive weeks to get know one another, to build confidence in and truly care for your partner. But, having enjoyed such a relationship with a few brothers for several years now, I can't encourage you enough to tap this "little" life-line of Living Water.