Focus on Discipleship
Most small group systems focus on the development of small groups. But the small group systems that stand the test of time are not founded upon small groups at all. They do small groups for the sake of discipleship. Their goal is not small group participation. Instead, it’s helping small groups of people confront the typical American life so that they can be formed or discipled into an contrasting pattern of life. These churches are aiming to generate an alternative way of life. Small groups for the sake of small groups will always blow in the wind of the culture. But small groups for the sake of discipleship have a deeper, transformational, and missional purpose.
Elizabeth O’Connor writes of the missional experience of The Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. She states, “This deepening of the spiritual life is not spontaneous. People do not just become great Christians. They grow as they make certain purposeful responses to life and to the grace of God. We call these ordered responses ‘disciplines.’”
In the monastic tradition, these ordered responses were shaped by what they call a “rule.” Hence, Saint Benedict created a rule of life for all those who chose to enter into a Benedictine community. While I am not advocating a certain monastic tradition for small groups, we should learn from Benedict’s specificity. We need to develop a “rule,” or what I call rhythms. These rhythms identify specific patterns for living as God’s people during this time, therefore causing us to stand in contrast to the surrounding culture. O’Connor again helps us see the importance of this:
"As members of a mission group we need to be disciplined and we need to be willing to require a discipline of those who would be on mission with us. No person or group or movement has vigor and power unless it is disciplined. Are we willing to be disciplined ourselves and to require it of others when it means that we will be the target of the hostilities and the pressures of many who do not see the necessity? The chances are that we will give in unless we know that this “giving in” means that our mission group will have not hard sharp cutting edge and will in time peter out."
Few would be so blunt today. This book was written in 1963. One might discount the writings due to it’s age. However, it is based on timeless wisdom. She continues with:
"This does not mean that we exclude a person from the Christian community. It simply means that we define his [or her] participation in the mission. We do not ask him to articulate what he does not know, or subject him to pressures for which he is not ready. The army does not take a man, put a gun in his hand, and march him to the front when he has never held a gun and does not know how to load it."
In their book Organic Discipleship, Dennis McCallum and Jessica Lowery write about how their church has been built upon the truths that O’Connor wrote about 50 years ago:
"Xenos is a local church that grew up spontaneously beginning in 1970, during the Jesus Movement. … Leaders are not recognized unless they are truly making disciples. With over 250 student and adult home churches, each led by a team of three to six leaders, the church has over 500 recognized leaders and around 900 “servant team” members. All servant team members must show they are working with disciples before being accepted to the team. Throughout the church, most people are either being discipled or are discipling others."
Another example is Antioch Church in Waco, Texas. Their small groups are not just places for people to get connected and study the Bible. They have set an expectation that people will be shaped to live radical, sacrificial lives and that is the genuine “normal Christian life.” The founding leader, Jimmy Seibert, writes, “Discipleship was the foundation for everything we had started in 1987 and continues to be a major part of everything we do today.”
If we want to develop small groups that experience community and mission, we must ask, “How are we going to create a culture of discipleship that will form people for mission? Prepare yourself for a shift in mindset regarding discipleship.
I grew up in a church based on the assumption that discipleship was something that was the responsibility of the individual. For this reason, when I started working with churches to help them form small groups, I did not connect the priority of discipleship with the experience of missional community. Ralph Neighbour Jr. invested much of his energy on developing group systems, but he spent even more of his time creating patterns that will help grow disciples though life-on-life interaction. For ten years, I worked for the ministry he created to promote this relational discipleship pattern, but I never really understood the importance of it during my time there. My focus was on small groups. We talked about discipleship in our training, but that seemed to take a back seat to groups. But in Ralph’s original thinking, it was clearly the other way around. Today, I see clearly that discipleship is not the responsibility of the individual, but of the leaders in the church. A movement of discipleship begins as leaders start mentoring and investing in a small number of people.
For example, Neil Cole writes about Life Transformation Groups, which he uses to form people within the organic churches that he oversees. A group of three meets together weekly for the sake of personal conversations about their life and their walk in Christ. It can grow to four but no bigger. And once it does grow to four, the members of the group look to include two others and create two groups of three.
John Wesley understood the importance of these discipling relationships more than anyone. He called them bands, which were sub-groupings of his small groups. In the bands, they would deal with questions about how they lived their lives, challenging one another to move away from a life shaped by the larger culture and embrace love.
The work of Greg Ogden has proven to be very helpful for my friend Jim Egli. In his work as a small groups pastor, the leadership of the church has helped group members connect in groups of four. They meet for six to nine months together, working through Ogden’s book Discipleship Essentials. Afterwards, they encourage each person to connect with three others and repeat the process. Jim told me that this has brought life transformation to his groups more than anything else the church has tried through the years.
(This material is adapted from Chapter 7 of MissioRelate.)