In his October Metrics column on small and very small churches, Kent Fillinger noted that “only 4 percent of very small churches relied on small groups as their primary form of discipleship.” That’s not surprising. Some might say very small churches are small groups. Well, that depends on how we define small groups, purely by size or by how they function.
Tom Claibourne made this point in a 2012 Christian Standard article: “I have actually observed deeper interpersonal relationships, confession, and openness in the lives of Christians involved in small groups in large churches than I’ve seen in small churches. It is a matter of intentionality.”
Some smaller churches may benefit from the best discipling strategies used in small group ministry.
It’s important to make a distinction here: Small groups don’t make disciples. Neither do Sunday school classes or discipleship programs or any other program or form. Disciples make disciples! Small groups, small churches, and other forms can be the environment where disciples are made, and environment is a significant component of spiritual growth.
Discipleship happens best in very small contexts, smaller, I believe, than most of us think. I’ve said it before: We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can’t mass-produce disciples!
Leroy Eims, who served with The Navigators for more than 50 years and wrote 14 books, including the best-selling The Lost Art of Disciplemaking, said,
It takes time to make disciples. It takes individual, personal attention. It takes hours of prayer for them. It takes patience and understanding to teach them how to get into the Word of God for themselves, how to feed and nourish their souls, and by the power of the Holy Spirit how to apply the Word to their lives. And it takes being an example to them of all of the above.
With that quote in mind, how many people can you effectively disciple? 100? 25? 10 or 12? I believe it’s impossible to carry out real disciple-making in groupings of those sizes. We have to get smaller.
The foundation of disciple-making is a one-on-one relationship. Everything else supports and creates a context for that. Even in small groups, one person cannot truly make disciples with a group of, say, 10 or 12 people, or even five or six. A small group—or a small church for that matter—can create a context (environment) of authentic biblical community in which discipleship can intentionally occur in even smaller groupings (subgroups) of two or three.
I’ve described how this works in a healthy small group in The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership: How to Gather a Core Team and Lead from the Second Chair and in Chapter 3 of Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (both published by TOUCH Publications, http://www.touchusa.org). When I speak in churches about discipleship and groups ministry, this is one of the most popular and conversation-starting topics.
The foundation of the process is that the designated leader of the group intentionally disciples and shares leadership (that is, shepherding and discipling roles) with several others in the group. Each person on that core team in turn takes responsibility for discipling one to three others (depending on the relative spiritual maturity of people in the subgroup, whether they are singles or couples, the time availability of the core-team leader, and other factors).
The body of Christ can grow larger by the church strategically going smaller. I’m defining church here as the basic unit of Christ’s body carrying out Christ’s commands. I’m not delineating a specific size for this community, but it’s analogous to the New Testament household (oikos): a size that allows people to live in authentic community together, where everyone is using their gifts and passions in the body, where each person is living out the one-another commands in the New Testament. Within those basic units of community, more intentional discipleship happens one-on-one or at most in groupings of three.
I want to be clear. I’m not against large, growing congregations. I’m saying that within that large public environment, we need smaller social spaces where we can experience one-anothering community, and within that community we need even smaller, more personal, even intimate friendships where true discipling can happen.
Jesus lived in community with 12 other men, plus a group of women who supported his ministry. But he spent most of his time with three—Peter, James, and John—whom he intentionally discipled and developed into leaders. Inside that circle, Jesus focused his discipling and leadership-development efforts on one, Peter. Jesus demonstrated a simple model we can use to make more and stronger followers, a model that can, and should, reproduce more disciples and more churches, just as Jesus designed it to do.
Michael C. Mack