Introduction: What Is Your Discipleship Pathway?

February 1st, 2017

When Sue was a 34-year-old mother of three, her husband, Jim, was killed in a car wreck. Her women’s Bible study group loved and nurtured her and the children until she found her footing and ultimately rediscovered her hope.

When Adam lost his job, when Humberto experienced a crisis of faith, when Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer, when Pat and Bill were eager but uncertain about how to find a way to serve the poor in their city, and when Shandra found herself adrift and away from home for her first year of college, small groups enabled by their congregations made genuine, deep, and lasting differences in these people’s lives.

Disciples are called and cultivated in community. Humans are social creatures, and a life with Christ is one lived together with fellow Christians. Ours is not a solitary religion. At its best, discipleship is a life of rich relationships and the love of God lived out through selfless love for neighbors. Small groups in a variety of forms create a unique opportunity to experience this kind of life together, the kind of community that enables us to grow and thrive as followers of Christ. Small groups are critical for developing disciples of Jesus Christ and for strengthening the community and witness of a congregation.

Disciples meeting in small groups played a role in the spread of Christianity from its earliest days. Jesus called together his first followers, twelve disciples whom he nurtured and taught over time. After Jesus’s death and resurrection, the church spread when the early Christians shared resources and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and prayer. When disciples meet and grow together, Jesus’s prayer that his followers will be one with each other is answered (John 17).

John Wesley encouraged the spread of the gospel and recognized the vital role of small groups in Christian discipleship. “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness,” Wesley wrote in his preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). Wesley emphasized the formation of purposeful, devoted communities wherever he preached. The small groups that resulted—class meetings and band meetings—drove the spread of Methodism and enabled the kind of accountability that would ensure its lasting impact. Wesley’s contemporaries saw that inspirational preaching could awaken souls to belief, but it was the class meetings that the Holy Spirit used to vivify those souls and root them deeply in faith and virtue.

The importance of small groups is highlighted in a survey conducted by Towers Watson in 2010, which demonstrates that having numerous small groups is characteristic of a highly vital congregation. Small groups contribute to increased attendance, growth, and engagement of their members. Some of the most effective church leaders leverage the power of small groups to carry out the vision and mission of the churches they serve. The type of small group seems to matter less than the ready availability of and participation in small groups. Study groups, fellowship groups, ministry teams, or administrative groups all have a positive effect on a congregation’s life together.

Some smaller congregations are actually able to function as a small group more effectively than larger congregations. This suggests that discipleship through small groups concerns more than imparting knowledge. Small groups cultivate relationships, sparking us to take ownership of our spiritual development in partnership with other Christians whom we come to know and trust. They encourage deep, meaningful conversation and mutual accountability.

This issue of Circuit Rider features perspectives on discipleship pathways. The writers show how the journey of following Christ can differ based on our diverse experiences. In an era where information can be quickly accessed through clicks, touches, or swipes on our screens, we often need a fresh reminder that discipleship has never been about knowledge alone. Christianity is expressed and experienced in community. How is your community shaping lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

Grace and peace,

Brian K. Milford

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