What is the goal of your small-group ministry?
Is it fellowship? Friendship? Bible literacy? Missional engagement? Neighborhood service? How many different answers would you get if you asked your group leaders?
After more than a decade of leading and overseeing small groups in various contexts, I’m more convinced than ever that discipleship must be the single, unifying goal of our community ministries. Many of the above options are means to this end, but I think the clarification is worthwhile.
If Jesus commissioned us to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), our highest goal for community groups can’t merely be fellowship or knowledge or visitor retention. Our goal must be mature disciples—men and women full of the life of Christ.
How Do We Make Disciples?
When discussing discipleship, many things may come to mind—a class, a program, a Bible study, family worship, one-on-one mentoring, a set of doctrines, or an early developmental stage.
I’ve been in a group that emphasized accountability and pressed its members weekly (in gender specific groups) to confess sins and recite Scriptures. I’ve been in a group that was more than three hours long—and we wondered why families with young children weren’t sticking around. And I’ve even led a group that assumed discipleship would just happen if we all hung out enough.
Discipleship is not as difficult as the church has made it to be. Neither are there any magic bullets. Discipleship is neither a duty to perform nor a puzzle to solve. It is the life-giving, grace-filled process of being with Christ and becoming like him together. How can we make sure our small groups are making disciples?
1. Discipleship Centers on Christ
It will be life-giving if it’s focused on Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Our groups should primarily be marked by life, not stagnation; joy, not defeat; encouragement, not gossip. In other words, discipleship must be gospel-centered—rooted in Jesus and his good news.
2. Discipleship Is Grace-Filled
True discipleship recognizes that spiritual transformation comes through God’s grace, not simply our effort. God’s grace enables us to want to be with Christ and become like him (Titus 2:11–13). We will fail frequently, but his grace sustains us along the way.
3. Discipleship Is a Process
It’s not just a theory, a class, a program, or a time of the week. Similar to a worldview, a process—a new way of living, with new habits and routines—must be produced if we are to live like Christ as his salt and light in the world.
4. Discipleship Is Being with Christ
It’s not a primarily way of doing more for him or the church. The first invitation of discipleship is not to growth or change or even obedience; it is to come to Jesus. The words of Matthew 11:28–30 demonstrate our Lord’s heart for his followers:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
5. Discipleship Is a Way of Becoming Like Him
Once we have spent time in the presence of the King, we will gradually become more like him. Our growth in Christlikeness produces real change, and our obedience becomes an internal desire rather than an external compulsion. We become what we behold:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
6. Discipleship Happens Together
Our being and becoming like Christ is deeply personal, but it is not private. It doesn’t happen primarily in a “Jesus and me” context. Instead, the best possible place of spiritual transformation is the local church—including a small, regular, committed group of believers pursuing the same goal.
Jesus Is the Paradigm
If we want to find a blueprint for discipleship, we must begin where all true discipleship begins: with the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. We can learn several key themes from his work in and through his disciples. What were his habits of fellowship?
Jesus intentionally identified his key people. He had 12 disciples—not 13, not 11. And once he was in relationship with these folks, he didn’t kick some out or upgrade to better ones. The 12 weren’t chosen for their potential or their past behavior. Jesus knew these men, and they devoted their lives to him. These were his people, for better or worse. (Ahem, Judas.)
Jesus invited his people into every area of his life. Jesus is rarely found without his friends in the Gospels. They accompany him on ministry trips, and he brings them along to family gatherings, religious events, and holiday parties. He wasn’t always teaching, but he was always training. His whole life was a lesson in truth and grace.
Jesus is rarely found without his friends in the Gospels.
Jesus ate with his people. As Matthew 11:19 reminds us, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” This was his favorite means of fellowship. He ate with everyone—Pharisees, tax collectors, strangers, crowds—but he always seemed to include his closest followers in these meals. For Jesus, meals were about the acceptance and celebration of the other—which is why the religious leaders were so enraged by them.
Jesus lived on mission with his people. Jesus began his public ministry, almost immediately after his baptism, with the calling of the 12. His mission was to them and through them, forming a mission-in-relationship. Even while teaching and healing, he was in community and training others.
Community is not optional in the work of discipleship.
In our community groups, we would do well to pattern our fellowship rhythms after the life and ministry of Christ. Churches and ministries that prioritize discipleship in their small groups—following Jesus’s patterns of ministry—position themselves well to experience the life-giving, life-changing power of God.