10 Tough Discipleship Questions Facing Every Small Group Minister

Yesterday, Rick Howerton posted what he believes are the “10 Discipleship Confusions Invading the Small Group World.” Rick and I think a lot alike, and I believe he “nailed it” with his characterization of many of the current trends in small groups ministry.

Here’s my own summary of Rick’s post, and I’m talking particularly to church leaders and small group ministers:

Our mission is to make disciples,
not to make bigger small group ministries.

If we can do both–make and continually develop disciples and get more people into small groups where that is happening–that’s great! But too often, I think, we must trade off one for another. And if I had to choose, I’d take discipling less people over not really discipling more people in groups.

I’ve written about this in a couple of my books, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership and Small Group Vital Signs. Within a small group, I believe one leader can, at best, disciple and shepherd 2-3 others … not 10 or 12. That’s why sharing leadership with a Core Team is so vital. At the macro-level, as a small groups ministry, we need to get back to focusing on our calling–to make disciples who are making disciples.

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In both of the books mentioned above, I sensed the need to define–or perhaps redefine–the word discipleship. Rick gets at that in several of his “confusions.” I think many people are confused about what discipleship really is and what it entails in small groups. My simple way of looking at this is to ask, “How would Jesus’ disciples define what it means to be a disciple?” I address that question in Chapter 7 of Small Group Vital Signs.

If you lead the small group ministry in your church, here are 10 questions to consider:

  1. Are the small groups under my care making disciples?
  2. How do I know the answer to #1? (Have you assessed this, or are you just going with your gut?)
  3. How do we define disciple and discipleship in our church and in our small groups ministry?
  4. What is our strategy for making disciples? Is there a process?
  5. If the answer to the previous question is yes, do our small group leaders know and understand this strategy and process?
  6. What is the small group leader’s role in making disciples in his or her group?
  7. In what specific ways are we equipping, developing, and then coaching leaders and groups to make disciples?
  8. What strategies (such as sharing leadership with a Core Team) are in place to help group leaders make disciples?
  9. What resources are we providing to help groups make disciples?
  10. How do we define a “win” when it comes to making disciples?
Perhaps there are more questions than this. Feel free to respond with your own.
So … how would you respond?

9 Thoughts to “10 Tough Discipleship Questions Facing Every Small Group Minister”

  1. Mike, although I agree that the over all purpose of Small Groups should be "Discipleship" I would propose that is more of a "theoretical" objective rather than "Practical".
    For a Small Group to be successful at "Discipleship" they have to do all the things you are saying in the ten points.
    I think there are other valuable goals of small groups that may not be acheived if there is an overriding expectation that the main/only objective of a Small Group is "Discipleship".
    Other "objectives" of a Small Group include:
    – Getting individuals, especially men comfortable with sharing feelings and experiences.
    – Introducing "Seekers" to fellow individuals that have peace and salvation and it shows in their personal "Persona".
    – Providing an outlet outside of church for people to connect.

    Mike, I did this off the top of my head so I hope you understand the point I am making. The point is that if we focus too strongely on discipleship in everthing a group does there is a potential downside to this approach.
    Suggestion. Specifically identity a reasonable number of Small Groups in a Church to focus on Discipleship. Provide an "plan of attack" for other Small groups "not quite there" to have a roadmap how they can grow into Small Groups that disciple on a regular basis new discipleship.

  2. Understand what you're saying, Marsh, but isn't the ultimate goal of each of these things you mention to make disciples? Or are you saying it's OK for each of these to be an end in themselves? In other words, do we help people share more deeply and connect with others (especially seekers) only for the sake of sharing and connecting or are these things part of our strategy in making disciples? What do you and others think?

  3. I want to respond to Marsh and possibly others who are lurking in regards to how I am defining "discipleship." I think Marsh is looking at it from a different viewpoint than I am. I've found that many leaders think of "discipleship" as the specific things that a group leader does, especially the type of study that is used (a "discipleship" study) or the use of one-on-one discipleship materials to help a person take a next step in his or her faith walk. While these are useful and necessary, I'm not limiting my definition of discipleship to those things.

    In Small Group Vital Signs, I spend a part of chapter 7, "A Healthy Group Is a Discipling Environment," on the definition of discipleship. I begin the chapter with a 1993 quote by Jim Petersen: "Thirty years of discipleship programs, and we are not discipled." So now it's been almost 50 years, and his assessment is still true.

    It's my contention that "discipleship happens" in a variety of ways other than the use of discipleship programs, studies, and materials. God uses suffering, grief, failures, and many other life circumstances (see my post today at http://smallgroupleadership.blogspot.com/2012/11/when-life-isnt-making-sense-ask-right.html). He transforms us in the environment of authentic community as life touches life and his Word is wrestled with and applied.

    In this chapter, I asked, If you could ask Jesus' disciples to describe discipleship, how would they define it? They would point to a rabbi, who led the way and lived life together with his disciples. The curriculum for this discipling effort was life. Then I applied Jesus' discipleship methods to 21st century life.

    I think the issue that we are dealing with is simply how we define discipleship. I'm looking at it from a big-picture perspective. So when I say that the goal of a small group is discipleship, I'm talking about all the things that add up to helping a person grow in his or her faith. We must be intentional about every facet of that, not just the programmatic things.

  4. Mike, thanks for the response and the clarity of your comments.

    First, to answer your comments on Nov 18th regarding "the ultimate goal of each of these things you mention to make disciples?" I do believe the ultimate goal is to make disciples, not just helping people share more deeply and connect with others

    It's ironic my personal growth in faith has come almost completely from my personal trials and tribulations. My acceptance of Jesus came from experiencing great pain and depression in "life circumstances", rather than programs and curriculum. I think it was the only way for God to reach me.

    Yet, even with this background of painful personal growth, I missed the point of "discipleship" thru living life as God intends for us.

    Mike, I was curious about the use of your word "lurking". There are several definitions on the Dictionary including, prowl,loiter, creep around and shulk. I think the one that makes a lot of sense to me is; "lie in wait" or "just wait". We need to "wait" for God or "lie in wait" for things to happen on His schedule, certaintly not ours.

    When life happens as He intends and we experience what He knows we need, we grow into strong Disciples.


  5. Marsh, a big AMEN to this! I think that sometimes the issue is about who is in control. Perhaps we sometimes believe we must control everything to properly make disciples: picking the right group curriculum, developing the right kinds of leaders, setting up the right discipleship programs, selecting the right mentors, etc. Rather, I believe God is in control. He partners with us to make and develop lifelong, sold-out, totally committed disciples of Jesus. We have our parts to play in this divine-human partnership, but he is the controlling partner!

  6. Mike, I appreciate especially your last comment in light of the biggest possible picture of small group discipleship. God still desires the people on the earth to live and grow spiritually. There will be a day when that will stop, but not today. So "to whom much is given, much is required"… specifically of those of us who get a paycheck from the body of Christ.

    Therefore… I must create environments for discipleship in at least four areas. 1. Personally – I choose a few people and spend an extra amount of time with them to urge their growth and then help them reproduce themselves in others. 2. I lead a small group and urge them to love each other, and listen to God's urgings and then process those learnings into personal life change. 3. I build a system in the body of leadership development and organizational group structure that will allow many individuals at many levels of a walk with Christ to safely love each other and learn to hear from God through his word and each other’s lives in community so that they can be urged to grow. And 4, I influence the Bible teachers and public speakers/preachers to give a good diet of spiritual food with appropriate applications and support through all possible systems that are appropriate in the environment where I serve.

    In the process of creating an environment for God to change us toward maturity, the whole picture of all of the things mentioned have a place to do their part. Growing us up spiritually is God's work in us, but we can cooperate and do our part to set the table for the most productive environment possible. – Kent Odor

  7. Amen, Kent! I really like the four environments for discipleship that you list here. I particularly like the fact that the first 2 are more personal in nature. It must start here for everyone! These are the things you'd do as a disciple of Jesus whether or not you were in a church leadership position. In order for God to overflow through you, you must first allow him to pour himself into your own life each day. The second 2 are more corporate in nature. These are what you get paid for, but they are also the result of the discipleship you've received and thus the calling you've received.

    BTW, that partnership in discipleship thought is something I learned a long time ago from someone you probably know, Joe Ellis. It's something we need to always remember as we do the work we've been called to do.

  8. The key is to define discipleship. As you mentioned, within a church you can have a multitude of definitions of discipleship. The same goes within a leadership team. First and foremost discipleship must be defined. I believe it about creating relationships where teaching, accountability and growth can happen.

    Once the definition is defined, leadership must be ruthlessly committed to every small group decision being about discipleship. A discipleship focus is not always popular, so you might lose some leaders along the way. In the end, you really want those on board that buy into the vision of discipleship (as you have defined it).

  9. I agree, Jeremy. A discipleship focus isn't always popular, but it's what we're called to do. IMHO, that does NOT mean, however, that groups can't have plenty of flexibility in how they accomplish that mission through social activity, growing authentic relationships, serving one another, etc. Leaders can look at these activities as ways to help a group become a group first, as Lyman Coleman used to say, so that they then can grow together in discipleship, which then also leads to serving. I'd guess you might call this a holistic approach to discipleship.

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