When leaders try to incorporate personal discipleship relationships into their ministry, questions come up about how they work with existing small groups. Is there a need for personal discipleship relationships if there’s a vibrant and healthy small group culture already in place? Do people have enough bandwidth to commit both to a small group and a discipleship relationship or would they consider it a redundancy? Let’s explore these questions by discussing the strengths and possible shortcomings of both small groups and personal discipleship relationships.
Some ministries call them life groups, community groups, body life groups, or life transformation groups. Whatever you call them, these important groups are a smaller expression of the body of Christ than our Sunday morning worship gatherings. In reality, this is where many functions of the church are practiced. True Christian fellowship doesn’t happen in the lobby of churches with a “How are ya?” and a “Hope you’re well!”. Transformative, meaningful fellowship happens around a table, on our knees together in the living room or exploring the Word of God in a coffee shop. Here are just a few strengths of small groups:
- Interactive studies with helpful discussions
- Being exposed to people in different stages of life and maturity
- A chance to pray together and to hear other followers of Jesus pray in an intimate setting
- Fun and friendship
- A chance to develop spiritual gifts and callings within a group
- A community that cheers you on during your victories and struggles
- A place to practically meet needs of other members
Small groups are a vital part of any ministry that takes community and biblical fellowship seriously.
Small groups can also fall short in a few key areas although certainly not in all cases. Meaningful accountability, personalized growth, and reproducibility can be challenges for a small group format.
Even in a group as small as 8-12, it can be intimidating for someone to really open up about how they’re doing spiritually. Just considering logistics, can we ask everyone how well they’re keeping up with their spiritual disciplines, what they’re learning from their own time in scripture, who they’re sharing Jesus with, what they’re asking God for through prayer, and still do all the positive things mentioned above as strengths in a small group? It’s unlikely. There’s also accountability that needs a same gender context when it comes to confessing sin if you want people to be honest and vulnerable.
Not everyone is in the same stage spiritually. A new believer doesn’t have the same spiritual needs as a seasoned disciple. They will encounter biblical texts differently, ask God for different things, and should be held accountable in different ways. There is great benefit for people in different spiritual stages to be in community together, both for the new believer and the seasoned disciple. But there is equal benefit for giving people growth steps that are designed exactly for the stage they’re in. Small groups usually are not disciplined enough to keep all the stages of growth in mind. They will skew one way or the other, most often to the most vocal or active participants.
If small groups are the main engine for discipling people in your ministry, then small group leaders are likely to be your only disciple makers. You may be accidentally training your people that you have to be comfortable leading or capable of hosting a group to be a disciple maker. If your small groups involve a heavy dose of teaching, then only people with the gift of teaching will become disciple makers in your ministry. Not everyone is a gifted teacher but every faithful disciple is called to make disciples. That doesn’t just include sharing your faith with non-believers but also investing in others around us to help them obey all that Jesus commanded. If you want to put every believer on the track to being a disciple maker (and what would be the rationale not to?) then you will need something more reproducible than small groups to do it.
PERSONAL DISCIPLESHIP RELATIONSHIPS
The three shortcomings tied to small groups above are perhaps the greatest strengths of personal discipleship relationships. If you train people on how to use their time well, you can have meaningful accountability, a stage specific study, and a personalized growth plan for each participant. This format can be led by almost any believer who is committed and faithful. Personal discipleship relationships may be the only realistic path toward every disciple becoming a disciple maker. One more strength…people really enjoy the personalized attention of discipleship relationships.
The first weakness…people really enjoy the personalized attention of discipleship relationships. Once you offer personal discipleship relationships in your ministry, people will flock to them. This hunger is good in some ways but also reflects the hyper-personalized, borderline narcissistic culture around us. Our ministry no longer offers long term, one-on-one discipleship because the result has been self-focused disciples. We now use same gendered triads or quads. The benefit of being able to pinpoint growth areas doesn’t eliminate the need to belong to a larger body in which we are constantly giving ourselves away.
There is also so much to be learned from the larger body of Christ. If you want to teach someone to pray, you should show them how to do that personally, but then let them hear the prayer of the saints as often as possible. Body life is its own education.
Working In Harmony
Ideally, a ministry would have both a well designed small group format and a personal discipleship relationship track. Trying to make up for the weaknesses of one approach solely by tinkering with its format can water down some of the strengths it offers. For example, adding an extra hour to small group time for more personal accountability and stage specific growth can make members come less often or self eliminate due to the increased time commitment. The quality of group time can suffer as they attempt to do everything and end up do nothing very well.
Our ministry found a way to have both formats without exhausting people’s bandwidth by alternating them weekly. On alternating weeks we have small group and get together for personal discipleship relationships. Here is a typical month in our calendar.
We found some unexpected benefits from doing it this way. First, we no longer run on a semester model. Meeting every other week doesn’t require us to take long breaks because of commitment fatigue by participants and hosts. We also found it gave our small groups a greater freedom to express themselves in different ways. Some are more social and meal based while others are more study based. Because members are committing to a personal discipleship regimen, groups have more flexibility in how they gather. Here’s how we’ve illustrated it in the past:
By “perfect” we mean having to provide for all of our members’ possible needs. Groups still need to be intentional about their role in making disciples but there’s more flexibility in how to do that.
Although it’s difficult for many leaders to imagine adding an extra layer of relationships to your ministry, it’s worth it if you are committed to putting everyone, and I do mean everyone, on the path to being a disciple maker. Small group and personal discipleship relationships don’t have to be rival approaches. Ideally, they would work together to help your ministry produce healthy disciple makers.
I would love to know what you think!