I vividly remember my first church planter conference. I was young, naïve, and filled with zeal for God’s church. The message presented at the training was clear—you are given the task of making disciples not simply growing the next great church. The bulls-eye for the success of the church, we were told, is to make disciples. This seemed clear enough to me.
The answer to the follow up question seemed equally straightforward in my mind. We were asked, “How will the church that you plant go about the task of disciple-making?”
“Small groups,” I said without a moment’s thought. It was like saying “Jesus” in a Sunday school class of six-year-olds. Of course that was the right answer. Our church would take people, put them in small groups and let the magic happen. Relationships would form, the gospel would be communicated and disciples would be built.
Five years later my answer would be more nuanced. Small groups are good but they are not enough. Small groups provide some wonderful gifts to God’s church. In our church, small groups have excelled at producing:
Biblical Community. They’ve provided a natural connection for people to the church family and a pathway for relationships to form.
Burden-Bearing Relationships. They’ve provided a context for living out the one-another commands of Scripture as people learn to share life together.
Missionary Living. Small groups have provided a network of people who can partner together to strategically live on mission.
Certainly these are components of effective disciple-making, but they are insufficient in and of themselves. True disciple-making necessitates a one-on-one relationship with a growing Christ-follower over an extended period of time.
You simply cannot mass-produce disciples—even on a small group level.
Imagine that God saves your neighbor Joe whom you have been investing in for several years. Joe begins to attend the weekly gathering at your church and starts coming to the small group that meets in your home.
In the small group he meets new friends, discusses a Bible passage, begins to serve and may even begin to open up about areas of sin. However, the small group can’t disciple Joe sufficiently, because it is not designed to. Why?
It’s too big. The small group (which likely feels quite large to Joe) has far too many people in it for Joe to be completely vulnerable and honest—specifically if the group contains men and women.
It’s too diverse. Most small groups have a wide range of people—some who have been walking with Jesus for years and others who have just begun their faith journey. This means that people come with unique hurts, fears, weaknesses, gifts, abilities and sin propensities. This causes most groups to drift towards teaching or surface level sharing rather than personalized discipleship that helps each individual apply the truth of God’s Word to their life.
It’s too short. A small group gathering once a week does not provide time for people to grow to trust one another and talk honestly about their lives. They may share some personal comments during a time of accountability but, at best, this is going to be 15 minutes of sharing once a week.
The Power of One
A small group is not designed to do all the work of disciple-making. But a person in a small group can.
Ideally, every Christ-follower would strive to enter into intentional, long-term relationships with at least two other people for the purpose of disciple-making. They would meet together regularly, talk about the gospel and seek to apply it to their lives.
Does this mean that we throw out small groups? Certainly not. Let’s continue to run hard after small groups recognizing that they are a part of a much bigger process of disciple-making.
We need healthy week worship gatherings where the Word can be proclaimed through the preaching and singing of the Word, the prayers of the saints and the practice of baptism and the Lord’s supper.
We need thriving small groups where people can learn to love God’s church by building relationships with one another and living on mission together.
We need a culture of relational disciple-making that infuses vibrancy into the life of the church body because of the shared investment that all of God’s people have in fulfilling the Great Commission by making disciples.