Let’s not Kid Ourselves
Many people in our churches yawn and think about what’s for dinner when someone is giving an announcement about groups of the church.
Some of them think it’s about alcoholism, drug problem, or sexual deviation. It must be a support group.
There are still a few around who think that groups are divisive and a danger to the church. Some of these are pastors.
Some groups that do meet could just as well be called an ice cream social. Or maybe a pie social. Okay, a la mode.
Some of them have a lot of fun together but never confess sins or admit faults or sharpen other hearts.
And maybe some of us will just say, “Well such is life; some people don’t go into missions either.”
But we must do something about this confusion and neglect, and we think we can, without kidding ourselves.
See if you agree.
Gathering into groups,
Knute, with Jeff and Jim
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What is “community”?
- Community is a grouping of people that share life together.
- A gathering of people where they are building relationships and getting to know one another.
- It is the feel of friendship and trust in a gathering of people to get to know and apply the Bible in a setting where they feel at home.
- It may be the second most important scheduled gathering of the church, after worship.
- It is something people cherish and seek, even when they cannot say it that way.
What is “discipleship”?
- Discipleship is intentionally teaching someone how to know and follow Christ.
- A journey where people are growing in Christ and living out their faith through daily and practical discipline.
- It is a way of life that has a person learning to love and obey Jesus Christ in all private and public areas of life.
- In a church group, it involves people helping each other to do that with Bible study, candor, questions, prayer, and love.
- This can happen best in a smaller group of three-to-seven men or three-to-seven women.
Who created the confusion between the two?
- Well-intentioned leaders. An assumption came into the church world that laid down a false base for the concept of discipleship.
- The assumption: That everyone who said they wanted to go to heaven, was actually committing to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. This is the fatal flaw of discipleship… that when someone raises a hand or “walks down the aisle,” we assume they actually signed up to follow Jesus. What they’re often actually doing is answering an unbiblical question, what is asked in most evangelism, “Who doesn’t want to go to hell?”
- That question is not in the Bible. The question Jesus asked was, “Who will be my disciple—or who will follow me?”
- Those are very different questions, because everyone would say, “I don’t want to go to hell,” after hell was described to them. Very few people say, “I want to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ and place my life under His definition and direction.”
- The discipleship problem came into view when church leaders looked at people who said they didn’t want to go to hell and said, “Great! Now that you’re saved, let me teach you how to pray, how to read your Bible, the importance of memorizing scripture, and how to deal with your sin.”
- In reality, if you looked at someone and said, “Let me talk with you about what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus,” that conversation is going to take days, months, or even years because of the magnitude of what you’re actually getting involved with. It’s the difference between getting married on the first date or dating, being engaged, and then getting married.
- Because we’ve blurred that line so incorrectly, our methods of discipleship were built on a bad foundation.
- Somewhere along the path the two merged together and less time was spent in discipleship and more time in building community. From that merging many were left with the thought that accepting Jesus was the same as following Him. We need both, but once a decision is made to be a Christ-follower, the path of discipleship must come next so the new believer knows how to follow Jesus.
- The people who thought any group of any size or strategy could do both as long as that group meets regularly.
- Or the ones who thought that any group other than the main worship service must be a discipleship group.
- Or the discipleship books that ask questions like, “Where did Jesus go when He left Capernaum?” As if that would change your heart or actions once you filled in your answer.
- Or the pastors or group leaders who thought that if their group had fun and prayed for each other, discipleship was happening.
What are the advantages of a very small group for discipleship and in a medium group for community?
- The advantage of a small group is that you can get into the nuances of someone’s life. When you are raising a question to someone, investing in someone, or even pointing out a concern you have about his or her life, the smaller the group, the more intimately you can know that person and the more deeply you can dive into the answers or the concerns you have for them. That’s always harder to do in a bigger group.
- The advantage of the medium group is that you establish an enthusiasm and a momentum that comes from a group identity. So, when we’re all excited about reading our Bible together or the fresh vision the church has, that inertia builds off other people. It’s an exciting part of what a church does and how it’s supposed to function.
- A small group allows for intimate connections and more time answering questions. The people in small groups can then be trained to lead other groups of people. A small group opens the door for greater accountability.
- A medium group paves the way for people working towards the same goal—building unity, trust, and even a movement. People enjoy the medium group for more relational connections.
- Small groups of all men (or boys) or all women (or girls) can have strong love and trust so that they are really helping each other grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ with accompanying obedience and ministry.
Certainly mixed groups can do a lot of good, be a lot of fun, and meet a lot of good purposes; but one of the differentiations that should exist is that a discipleship group really sharpens minds and hearts, changes practices, and includes strong candor. This is going to happen best among men or among women. Try asking the mixed group in your home how their marriage is going and see if you don’t get all smiles!
- Medium groups enable friendships and concerns for each other as the Bible is studied (please!) in the context of warmth and shared goals.
I have had a double major in this area for almost 50 years (I created Adult Bible Fellowships out of the old-time Sunday school classes in 1969) and I am still convinced that for a community group to be effective it must have not only a teacher or discussion leader but also a general leader, a care leader, and a mission leader. This is so that all the purposes of a true community group assigned to it by the church can be accomplished.
Otherwise, sometimes it is just a good discussion group or a lecture.
- I am always asking pastors if they have a group for discipleship and accountability—five or six other men—that they lead themselves. I have coached them to have their own and ask everyone on staff to have his or her own. That’s where discipleship starts in a local church.
- A common question that I am asked when I coach pastors: “What is the best discipleship program for our church?” My answer is a question, “Who is in your own discipleship group?”
- That’s where it starts. It is not an announced program or a public invitation at first—“Who would like to be in a group where you really get candid and where you deal with problems and try to get beyond your faults to be a very strong disciple?” It starts with the pastor and staff in groups that can reproduce into three new groups after two years of meeting at least twice a month.
- We would be glad to send anyone copies of questions I have used for 26 years, 13 generations of discipleship groups of six or seven men. The questions are all about paragraphs in the Bible about either character or church. (Nothing about where Jesus went when He left Capernaum J)
What are the best “fishing ponds” for various groups?
- A great fishing pond is weekend services. We train our group leaders to be on the move and on the lookout at weekend services, to meet unconnected people and help them get connected.
- Social events are great fishing ponds. When you have a social event or a teaching event (e.g., a seminar for parents), these people are wanting to gather and need to gather, so those become great opportunities to build relationships.
- Outside community is a great place to fish for people to come into biblical community… the softball team you play on, the guys you CrossFit with, your golf buddies, your football team (if you’re in high school or college), your neighborhood. Fill in your blank.
These are all opportunities to get to know people, get to know a little bit of their spiritual interest, and then invite them into that biblical community to help them know Christ on a deeper level and maybe respond to Him in a fresh way.
- They are everywhere, but there must be an intentional mindset to go after them:
- School events
- Sports teams that your children play on
- Community events
- We have open gym here on our campus.
- An indoor park
- Hobby gatherings
- Look for people in your services.
- Create environments for people to hang together.
- For the worshiping congregation, the area where the church is, and the friends of the attendees.
- For the community groups within the church, the worship attendees or friends of the attendees. It is healthy for staff people and strong volunteers in the church to be inviting people at various other gatherings of the church also. We should always keep our antennas up, noting when people only attend worship.
- For the discipleship groups, the attendees of the community groups and other serious people in the worship congregation.
It is healthy for group leaders and those who are benefiting from discipleship to take note of others who are in various activities of the church or even in the worship service. Leaders of discipleship look for people who would benefit from this ministry.
I encourage staff members and pastors to actually have regular events like “quarterback club” (an open breakfast to discuss last Sunday’s sermon) or meetings that are simply to bring friends of the church out of the woodwork so you can know them a little and invite them into more circles for growth.
- Do not hide in your study! 🙂
When do the various groups—small, home, Sunday, men’s, women’s, specialty groups—start competing with each other in the church or cause confusion?
- They start competing with each other when they are out of alignment with the rest of the church. It’s a bit of a different conversation, but your church should be aligned under vision, philosophy, and strategy. When you have a small group that is not in sync with that vision, philosophy, or strategy, then it’s going to cause division. We need to guard that.
- Confusion can happen when the focus is different. If, as a pastor, your focus is evangelism (the lost for Christ) and you have a small group that doesn’t see a need or even pray for lost people—their focus is studying the Bible in Greek for instance—then you’ve lost alignment and focus.
- Schedules can compete when small groups are off doing their own thing, which can definitely hurt you. For instance, it’s Easter weekend (most important weekend of the year) and the women’s ministry has scheduled a retreat that weekend, because the kids are out of school and on spring break.
- A rogue leader. You need to guard against leaders who have their own agenda—they’re building their little kingdoms within the kingdom. Make sure your leaders are trained and held accountable, that they’re shepherded and a part of a leadership structure network that reminds them, encourages them, and equips them to fall in line with the vision, philosophy, and strategy of the church.
- You have to know the vision of the church and make sure it aligns with your goals. It’s imperative to not burn your workers out and to do things well.
- Less is often more and if people are continually having to choose between too many options, and the family is constantly being divided, then it’s time to cut something.
- Learn to say no when the request comes, especially if it is a hobbyhorse of someone.
- Chart your path, stay with it, and don’t feel like you have to constantly please everyone.
- Make sure you pray before adding another program or event. Also ask the question, “Does this fit into our mission and goals for the year?”
- As soon as they all come into existence at once. Why do we need so many groups unless we want to make “groupies” out of our people and get them attending gatherings as much as we used to attend church when I was growing up. Which was too much.
Sunday morning Sunday school and church, Sunday evening youth group or training hour and church service, Monday evening Bible class, Wednesday evening prayer meeting, Thursday evening visitation, and occasionally even cleaning “the house of God” on Fridays. Pray tell, when did we get to know our neighbors or have the family life that was discussed at the meetings so often?!
Most of us do not teach separatism from the people around us anymore, but we can schedule it in!
- When there are so many different groups announced in the bulletin or newsletter or on the website that people simply avoid them all.
- When there is no one person on staff who is the point person for groups and keeps clarity about purpose and definition.
Volunteers or even the staff directors cannot just be turned loose to make their group work and compete for bodies!
- I am always asking pastors and staff people why they make a difference between a true community group that meets at the church building and one that meets in a home! They are apples and apples, meeting the same purposes. Some churches make the artificial difference that if a group meets in a home it is automatically discipleship instead of community with Bible growth and love.
Are they called a “small group” just because they meet in a home? One man described to me his “small group of 35” without realizing what he had just said. Nothing wrong with having 35 in a group in a home—that’s great—but let’s call it a community group with strong Bible study, and still try to get some of those people into a true discipleship group.
May I suggest that a good differentiation between the ways we gather as part of the church is found in the last chapter of The ABF Book, freely read and downloadable from my website, pastorknutelarson.com, under “Resources.”
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Jeff Bogue, of Grace Church, in several locations in the Bath-Norton-Medina areas of Ohio; Jim Brown, of Grace Community Church in Goshen, Indiana, a church known for its strong growth, family and men’s ministries, and community response teams; and Knute Larson, a coach of pastors, who previously led The Chapel in Akron for 26 years. Pastorpedia is brought to you by CE National. Visit cenational.org/pastorpedia for more issues and to read the bios of our contributors.