Discipleship is a hot topic of conversation among the Christian church leaders that I support as a strategist and ministry coach. I get lots of questions along the lines of “What’s the best discipleship pathway?” This is an exciting question because pastors and church leaders are realizing that it takes more than weekend worship experiences to transform individual lives and the world. We are acknowledging that engagement, through relationship, is the real work of discipleship. Building relationship requires gathering, listening, building trust, and sharing stories. And it requires struggling with issues of faith, family, and fears. When this happens in the context of a congregation, authentic faith communities can form.
So what does this have to do with small groups? Some of the most significant experiences of my life have happened with a small group of friends. I remember my two best friends in high school. Together we experienced the joys of blinding first love and the heartbreaks of bad breakups. I remember my summer track team of fifty athletes who together felt the thrill of winning championships and the agony of unexpected defeats. I remember the Disciple Bible Study class of twelve that I met with for thirty-four weeks and how my faith in Jesus was transformed through our study and discussion. How have small groups impacted your life?
When practiced consistently, I believe that small groups are the most vital context for discipleship or equipping others to trust and follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus modeled gathering in small groups as a vital part of his life. If you’re planting or leading a church, here are three essential types of small groups to consider.
- Intimate (2–3 people). This is where we gather with a few people in intimate relationships that are founded on transparency, vulnerability, trust, and commitment. We all need this intimate inner circle of close friends. Ideally, these are people we can pray with, confess to, and maintain accountability with. For Jesus, this was typically Peter, James, and John. Importantly, Jesus never apologized for taking time away from the broader group of disciples to spend intimate time with this inner circle of friends. In this group a particular focus is leadership development that could benefit the broader group of disciples.
- Personal (4–12 people). This is a group of friends who share life together eating, traveling, and sharing personal experiences. There is a closeness among the group and a common bond of mission that keeps the group together. Jesus models this with the twelve disciples during the three years they lived together. Leadership development and serving others is modeled in this personal context. This is also a group that doesn’t stay together forever. Tthe purpose of this size group is missional: disciples are nurtured and sent forth to build new intimate and personal relationships. As a result, personal small groups ideally last one to three years in my experience. Longer-term groups can often lose sight of their mission and become inwardly focused.
- Social (13–72 people). These are social groups that meet for the purpose of entertainment, learning, and meeting new people. These are diverse groups that include men and women, young and old, conservative and liberal. Here, we get to expand our understanding of culture, hear new stories, and meet new people who may one day become friends. In today’s culture these may be social groups gathered around sports, school, work, or other affinities.
So can small groups change the world? Absolutely! As the author and scientist Margret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Be blessed as you nurture intimate, personal, and social groups as a vital tool to make new disciples of Jesus Christ and transform the world.