What is the most effective environment for making disciples?
Some answer that question by thinking in terms of location (home, church, coffee shop) or size (large groups, small groups, one-on-one).
However, if those were the only two qualities of an environment (location or size) I would have to say “it all depends”. Instead, I think it is important to consider the gifting and experiences of the one who is making disciples. If a person is called to preach then perhaps a large gathering is one in which the disciple maker excels. If the disciple maker is gifted in the area of hospitality, perhaps the home is the optimum environment. In other words, the most effective environment for making disciples is determined by the skills and temperament of the disciple maker.
Having said that, I think I can answer a similar question: “What is always an effective environment for making disciples? The short answer is “in a small group setting.” A smaller setting is ideal for the majority of Jesus’ followers to exercise their gifts and show love to one another. I would go so far as to say that every follower of Jesus should be involved in a small group.
“Are All Teachers?”
(see 1 Corinthians 12)
For one thing, not everyone in the church is called to preach. Not everyone is called to fulfill the apostolic vision of church planting. Not everyone is called to teach a Bible study. Not everyone is called to be involved in Christian counseling. These are all valid ministries in the church and can be useful in making disciples, but how will the majority of people become disciple makers? After all, Jesus didn’t say, “All who are in professional ministry, go and make disciples of every nation…” Instead, Jesus challenges all His followers to make disciples.
So what will be the context in which the majority of disciples will make disciples? Will it be in the pastor’s counseling office? in the pulpit? The majority of disciple makers will make disciples in their homes, around the table, in a coffee shop, or in the park. It will be informal, rather than formal. It will be organic rather than organized. Not all are called to teach, but all are called to love.
“The Proper Working of Each Individual Part…”
(see Ephesians 4)
The small group setting also allows for the deployment of the church members to love and serve one another. The hired ministers weren’t hired to do all the caring and loving and serving of the church, they were called by God to equip the members to do the caring and loving and serving of the church. Sure, they must model and train others and sometimes that is done in a formal way but the goal is to engage everyone to do the work of the kingdom.
In a small group there may be a facilitator or group leader, but through conversation and the sharing of life, each of the members becomes a disciple maker. One member is struggling with an important decision, the other group members help her think prayerfully and carefully about that decision. Another group member has suffered a tragic loss, the other group members know him well enough to know how to care for him in the way he needs to be cared for. One group member has a theological question, the other group members help her to think Biblically about that question and they provide insight into where she can turn to find answers.
No one person is the Bible Answer Man, or the Professional Counselor, or the Life Coach. Instead, everyone in the group is able to contribute in full recognition that the Holy Spirit is there with them and is guiding the times of discussion and listening and prayer.
“Jesus took the 12 disciples aside privately and said to them on the way…”
(see the Gospels)
Finally, as I have studied through the New Testament I have seen a compelling argument for all disciples to be involved in a small group: Jesus’ first and closest disciples were a part of a small group! Jesus spent much of His time investing in twelve men who shared life with Him. I wonder if the reason we don’t spend more time with a smaller group of people is because of an American Christianity that says a one hour service once a week is enough to show our commitment to God.
The point of Jesus’ small group was to equip a few people until they were ready to be deployed to take the Gospel to the rest of the world. He multiplied His ministry through His small group. He preached to the crowds and that laid some groundwork for the disciples to later become leaders of the church. He healed and comforted and cared for thousands of people, but if it hadn’t been for His small group, Jesus’ ministry would’ve died with Him on the cross. There would be nothing left behind to prepare the world for His Second Coming. When Jesus rose and appeared to His disciples He spent 40 more days training them. He even forgave Peter for his betrayal and re-instated him as a leader.
So, I may be called to preach, and I may have some counseling skills that I can use to make disciples, but I believe small group ministry is always an effective way that any disciple can be involved in making disciples.
I hate trying to figure out titles for church related ministries. It’s not always necessary. Titles tend to confine a person or organization into a narrowed definition. On the other hand, “small group ministry” as a title is merely descriptive and doesn’t tell you anything about the goals and purpose of the groups.
Description or Purpose?
In my previous church we used the term “community groups” to indicate that we were hoping to foster community by being intentional about meeting together with a small group of people. Not bad. There are “fellowship groups”, “life groups”, “home groups” and “Bible-study groups”. These titles tend to intentionally or unintentionally, for better or worse, confine your group to focus on fellowship or on life or on homes or on the Bible.
Some of those titles are descriptive, others have to do with the purpose of the group. A home group simply indicates that the group meets in a home. A life group indicates that the group wants to learn how to live life together as followers of Jesus. You get the idea. Each title gives a description or a purpose to the group. There is nothing wrong with any of these terms. The problem is choosing one.
Jesus’ Small Group Ministry
So, I’ve been asking myself a question: What do we call the “small group” of people that Jesus led? We usually call them the Disciples. Well, that small group has gotten to be pretty large as all of us who follow Christ are disciples. That’s good to remember when we encourage small group leaders to foster growth in their groups. “The Disciples” is a good term because it tells us who they are and the purpose for which they are together is presumably for discipleship.
The Disciples were also called The Twelve. Twelve is a descriptive term that merely reflects that this close-knit group was, in fact, small. It wouldn’t do to call our small groups “The Twelve”. Like, “I’m going to go hang out with the Twelve tonight.” Especially if your group actually consists of nine members. A descriptive term merely describes reality. That’s why “small group” is a basic term that is functional and helpful even though people will say, “But ‘small group’ isn’t in the Bible” or “That sounds so formal.” Fine, it’s got its pros and cons but it doesn’t hurt anything to refer to gatherings of a small group of people as small groups.
My Favorite Names for Groups
Anyway, all of this reflection has led me to rank these names for small groups in order of personal preference:
1. Discipleship Groups (81% satisfaction) – It’s descriptive, it indicates the purpose of the group but it also reminds us of who we are: disciples. I’m basing this group name on my reflection of the question “What do we call the small group that Jesus led?” I think this is my new favorite name for small groups.
2. Life Groups (74% satisfaction) – I think Life Groups is a pretty good name. A healthy small groups ministry will be encouraging people to not only believe but to live the Truth. It’s important for us to put our faith in action. If Christians were living the life they were supposed to our country and our world would be a different place. A small group is a warm and loving environment where faithful followers of Jesus are incubated to maturity.
3. Absolutely No Name (58% satisfaction) – There would be some benefit to going completely organic and going out of our way not to give these gatherings a name. The problem here is that if we are too loose and eschew any sense of order and structure then that’s exactly what we will get. No definitions, no values, no set times, no stated purpose, etc. = perish. The Laws of Entropy apply even to our church and our small groups. As many people have noted before me; structure is like the fireplace and the Spirit is the fire. No one is trying to suggest that the success of any group has to do exclusively with what it’s called or with it’s vision statement. Still, there is some value to intentionally going with no names…it just doesn’t go in the bulletin very well. I tend towards less structure but I value a sense of guidance and organization here and there.
What does your church use to describe or give purpose to your small groups? What are the limitations to giving groups of people some sort of name? What are the benefits?
Recently I was asked by my pastor to start a new small group. Our group has grown to about 16 people and that gets to be too intimidating for some people to share. This has led me to reflect on the question “Why community?” This has certainly been a question I have visited before, as small groups were the building blocks of my previous church. But I thought I would take things I’ve learned in the past and merge those with what God is teaching me at present and give a concise but thorough Case for Community.
Biblical Foundations for Community
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus encourages His disciples to make disciples. Paul echoes that commission when he writes to Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2). As we are making disciples helpful to be reminded of Jesus’ prayer for us as disciples and disciple-makers in John 17:21 “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You send Me.”
In thinking about this prayer, Francis Schaeffer writes, “we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.” Gilbert Bilezikian says, “According to that prayer, the most convincing proof of the truth of the gospel is the perceptible oneness of his followers.” Without love and unity the world will disbelieve. On the other hand, it is our love and our unity that enables the world to understand and receive the Truth. Jesus’ prayer is the one we should be praying for ourselves and for those we are discipling that we would be one. Colossians 3:14 reminds us that “Above all, put on love – the perfect bond of unity.”
“May They All Be One”
So, the goal of our discipleship should be unity – unity with God, and unity with each other. But how do we get there? Ephesians 4 gives a great answer. Verses 12 and 13 tell us that the leadership of the church is a gift from God “for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” Step one, train the saints to do the ministry! Does it even seem feasible for one man to do all the hospital visits, to people he hardly knows, on time he hardly has? Instead, the members of the church should be mobilized to care for the sick, reach out to the lost, feed the hungry, and care for the spiritual needs of their neighbors and friends. The leaders are mobilizers and it should be all of the body serving one another and those outside the faith.
Step two is spiritual maturity. Notice that this step follows service and ministry. We don’t wait until we are seminary trained to begin our ministry. It is precisely that service that we perform with and for one another that develops our maturity. We don’t grow in isolation. We need community! It’s within the community that our faith is formed. Our relationship with God is personal but it’s not private.
I have discovered that I have no problem reading my Bible and praying daily when I know a friend who is in need, or when I have a stimulating discussion about God’s Word, or hear a challenge to the faith that I’ve never heard before. These interactions with others is what fuels my relationship with God. It is my connection to people that reinforces my connection with God. If I hadn’t had that discussion I might not be interested to see what God has to say on the topic. If my friend weren’t in need, maybe I would be spending less time in prayer. You get the idea. Close, spiritual, open, and honest friendships within the family of faith are vital to my personal walk with God.
The Cost of Community
It’s hard to be unified with someone you only see once a week. Especially if you are staring at the back of his head from the pew behind him. In fact, it’s quite easy to have a disagreement with such a person and never resolve the issue because there’s no reason to resolve it. You can just stop talking. But, if you are serving together in ministry, if you are helping him and he is helping you grow stronger in faith, then you are unified. It is this unity that is so essential to the mission of the church. Without this unity that is brought on by serving together and growing together, the world is hopelessly lost. The world needs us to be the family they never had. They need us to love one another.
But we need one another too. We were created for community but that doesn’t mean it comes easy (or even naturally). Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” We need to be together regularly if we are to show one another the care that is necessary to promote love and ministry. Do we want to be followers of Jesus? Do we want to make disciples, as He commanded us? Then we will regularly meet together because of our love and our concern for one another. I know I won’t grow in my relationship with God in isolation, but that means my brother or sister won’t either.
To be a disciple is to be in community. In order to make disciples, we need to encourage them to be in community. To change the world we need to invest in community. As the church, we are the final apologetic and it’s because of community. Jesus is only going to make one more appearance and that will be to call His Church home. Until then, we have a definite commission, and a definite course of action: As disciples, we are called to live in community with one another. This is achieved as we get together regularly and care for one another and serve together and grow together and show the world that we are disciples because of our love for one another. We need this! They need this! No longer can we simply come to a building once a week and expect that to be enough. In fact, we can’t merely come to a small group Bible study for a couple of hours per week and expect that to be enough. We are a family and a family is a huge time commitment. So let’s be disciples and not just complacent Christians. It’s messy and scary and you might just have to open up and share your life with someone, but don’t all the good things in life cost something?