It’s common to see church leaders create discipleship and membership training based on the modern secular educational system. So we have Discipleship 101, 201, 301 etc.. After all, since it is the way most of us in western culture were taught we naturally turn to it. If we want to teach a group, set up a class and design the lectures. Today’s leaders have even taken the classroom to the student through video technology. But how effective is this method in forming character? Not very. Think again about training a child. I would argue that based on the results we have to show for it in western culture, that the classroom approach is largely ineffective in bringing Christians to maturity of faith and character. It may work for a few. It is certainly better than nothing. Lecture is an efficient method of passing on knowledge to a group and it does have a role in teaching disciples. However, Jesus and His Apostles demonstrated that preaching and lecturing are only supplementary to the process of walking alongside people, helping them to be transformed as they face the difficulties God allows into their lives – throughout their entire lives.
Furthermore, Christians are supposed to be characterized by their love for one another. (John 13:35) How can they demonstrate that level of love for one another without having lasting close relationships? Do “we”, the church, only love people when we engage in some organized “ministry” sanctioned and led by our church leaders? I’m disappointed by the explosion of “ministries” that do all kinds of good stuff, but ignore the fact that too many individuals in our congregations seem about as connected to one another as they are to their colleagues at work.
As a result of all we have considered so far we can say that at a minimum, an effective church discipleship plan must engage people in a process and an environment whereby they can fulfill their role in Christ’s body by:
- being established in the first principles of the faith (Col. 2:6-8; 1 Thess. 3:2)
- being lovingly encouraged and admonished to progress toward full spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-16)
- giving and receiving love in authentic, meaningful relationships (John 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:22)
- serving the Body of Christ according to the grace given to them (Rom. 12:6)
- participating in the advancement of the gospel among unbelievers (2 Cor. 5:14-20)
- developing their life mission (Acts 9:6; 15-16; Eph. 3:8; 4:7; Col. 1:10; 1 Tim. 6:17-19)
Small groups of people provide an environment where the type of relationships people need to grow in Christ and serve God by serving one another can be intentionally built.
Groups happen where life happens. It doesn’t really matter what you call them as long as you are training an unleashing people to engage in discipleship whenever and wherever they can, and want to get together. While group leaders need to be accountable to the elders of the church for their skill, conduct and teaching, ideally they should not be restricted to institutionally designed meeting places and times. Groups can and should meet around life’s activities and challenges whenever and wherever people find a convenient time and place to regularly get together. Every ongoing adult team, class, study or group in the church can be a group. It could be called a Life-on-Life environment to emphasize the personal relationships and the transference of one life to another.
No One Stands Alone is the Life Group motto at one well known church. Whether you use that or not, it expresses another value that must be communicated as part of a church-wide discipleship plan. One objective of the church needs to be to have every member be known, discipled and shepherded in an authentic community—a place where people can know and be known and care for one another.
Every life group must be driven by certain core values.
In my opinion one of the reasons small groups, or for that matter any church program, dwindles and eventually becomes ineffective is because leaders are overly concerned about form and number of groups rather than function and quality of leadership. Possibly it’s because most of us are naturally more comfortable with the control that accompanies specifying when, where and how people do things, than with equipping people with skills, mission, vision and values, focusing on outcome and allowing people to be flexible and creative.
For those of you who are not familiar with the importance of using mission, vision and core values to motivate and lead an organization, I refer you to another one of my posts on the subject. I’ll just say here that they are indispensable and very biblical (despite the cry of some that they are too “corporate” and secular.) You can either institutionalize and “program” your small groups, which will start out looking good, but defeat their effectiveness in the long run, or you can unleash and lead through your leaders by instilling and re-enforcing your mission, vision and core values in them and holding them accountable through your ongoing relationship with them.1
The following are core values that I have used and recommend. Some of them came from Donahue’s excellent book “Building a Church of Small Groups”. In my experience the importance of the first three cannot be understated. I will go so far as to say that without them a small group program will likely do more harm than good.
1. Authentic Relationships
“It’s not about the lesson, it’s about the life.” I know this will make some of you nervous. Your thinking uh-oh, we are going to abandon content. Nothing is further from the truth. The slogan makes sense when you fully grasp the concept that becoming a mature disciple is about forming habits and character based upon truths of the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit who uses parts of the Body of Christ, people, to come along side us to care, advise, pray, hold accountable, challenge and encourage. In fact it is highly unusual, and not the Biblical intention, that we grow without the loving challenge and patient ear of other Christians. That means people need a group of caring, trustworthy people with whom they can share “their story” and tell their current challenges. The Body needs to know when one of its members is faltering, missing, needs special care, etc. That’s what authentic relationships are about. God expects us to put in the work it takes to develop them. Group leaders must be given skills to facilitate this type of environment. It doesn’t always come naturally.
Some elements of authentic relationships are:
- Safety that promotes self-disclosure.
- Knowing and being known means dismantling surface barriers as well as deeper defenses, such as fear, shame, pride, and laziness.
- Giving and receiving care
- Active listening that flows into thoughtful remembering
- Admonishing and be admonished
- Relationships outside the group meetings. This is actually a very significant indicator of authentic relationships.
2. Truth Meeting Life
It’s common to find two types of small groups in churches: Truth focused and Life focused. The first is a teaching time with little application, discussion or self-disclosure. The second is experience-based with lots of support, care and disclosure, but little correction or application of Biblical truth. The goal of healthy Christian community should be life transformation where Biblical truth is applied in the context of a caring community. This means that the Word is not only studied, but applied to real life.
In a few of my leader training seminars, I have had people tell me that they didn’t know their small group was supposed to be applying the Word to life. They were just studying it for the sake of study. They were surprised and pleased to learn some simple techniques for engaging people in application.
The Truth Meeting Life value means leaders find ways to engage people in a discussion about the Scripture being considered in a way that gets them to evaluate themselves in light of the truth. Socratic discussion facilitates this very well, but takes some training for leaders to become skilled at it. Having said that, it doesn’t take much more than a caring heart and authentic relationships to make this happen. A very simple way to get started is to use an excellent resource called the Serendipity Bible which includes group starter and discussion questions tailored to a variety of needs. Poke around thehiddenmanna.org for further resources.
3. Healthy Conflict
If conflict is completely absent from your group, something is amiss. As authentic relationships are developed in an environment where Biblical truth is being applied to life, conflict is inevitable. When conflict is handled in a healthy manner people grow. For example, people often drop out of a group when they are uncomfortable. If it is because they cannot handle a conflict, they miss an opportunity to grow. Learning to admonish one another in love is necessary to building healthy family relationships which, in turn, are necessary for healthy spiritual growth and the proper functioning of the Body of Christ.
Sometimes leaders shy away from conflict or don’t teach their group what to expect and how to handle it. It is never easy, but Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age. He will give us wisdom and His spirit will work in the lives of the group.
In my opinion if pastors are not regularly reinforcing the concept that it is God’s plan for people to be committed to building relationships in community, and giving Biblical examples of how God uses conflict to build Christian maturity, and being involved in groups themselves, many people quickly bail out of difficult relationships and groups and find other things to do with their time, leaving a crippled small group discipleship plan and perhaps discouraged leaders.
You could say that authentic relationships involve accountability, but I find that people are so unused to this that it needs to be emphasized. Life Group members need to be taught healthy ways to hold each other accountable for spiritual growth. Christ-centered authentic relationships will foster a loving accountability between people where people set their own goals and the others in the group simply help them by showing interest and challenging them inside and outside of the group.
In addition, every group leader must have an ongoing accountability to the church leadership for:
- Meeting basic qualifications of leadership and receiving ongoing coaching and training
- Maintaining the objectives of Life Groups
- Using approved curriculum
- Working at developing new leaders
- Keeping records of group activities and attendance
There is another side this leadership accountability. Church leaders must consider group leaders to be lay pastors who are shepherding the flock whether they are called that or not. They are people who need to be trained and coached by the church leaders on an ongoing basis. Some churches don’t do this and then wonder why their groups drift into false doctrine or die off.
It is helpful if the leadership expects each group to find some service activity in the church or community that they do periodically. It helps build morale, makes contact with potential new group members and helps people explore giftedness. “One great way for a group to practice serving is to help people who cannot return the favor or even say thank you. Scripture identifies them as the poor, orphan, widow, and stranger (P.O.W.S). Steve Sjogren’s book Conspiracy of Kindness has a number of great ideas for groups and churches.Footnotes