What are your church’s priorities? For many churches big priorities point to big events – weekend worship services, conferences, and outreach events. While all of these things have their place, do they deserve all of the attention they get? Imagine if small groups and disciple-making were front and center for once instead of lingering on the backburner somewhere.
Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples.” Disciples aren’t made overnight. Discipleship is not a process or a program. Making disciples requires a person. After all, disciples make disciples. If disciples could be mass produced then services and seminars would be adequate to do the job. Clearly, they don’t.
What if everything in your church revolved around small groups instead? When our church in California reached a place where 125% of our weekly worship attendance was connected into groups, priorities shifted for our staff. As far as discipleship went, the tail was no longer wagging the dog.
How can small groups rise to the top? First, you don’t have to tear everything else down to raise the value to groups and disciple-making. This is not a matter of demolishing a church’s ministry to rebuild it. No one can afford to do that. This is more the scenario of re-engineering the airplane while it’s flying. It requires more nuance. By recognizing the opportunities and creating the right alliances, small groups could dominate your church in 2020.
Partner with Your Senior Pastor.
Why are the senior pastors so invested in the weekend service? First, pastors put their hearts and souls into creating a sermon. If you’ve preached, you know that time and energy it takes. One pastor said that it was like having a term paper due every week.
Another reason pastors are invested in worship services is because a large portion of the church attend. It’s a good feeling to speak to a packed house. Over the years, I’ve spoken to as few as 11 people and as many as 5,000 in a single day. The bigger, the better, right?
Lastly, preaching a sermon produces immediate results. Pastors tell jokes, and they get a laugh. They hit a point hard, and they get a response. Some will shout, “Amen!” Others might become very quiet. Then, in many churches at the end of the service there is a response at the altar. While approval is not the goal, a response is certainly reassuring.
While there are other reasons for pastors to devote themselves to worship services, think about these three things: (1) pouring their hearts and souls into teaching, (2) reaching many people, and (3) receiving a response. Small groups can do this too and even at a larger scale. By putting the pastors teaching on video, an audience larger than the weekend service will be reached. All of the hard work of sermon prep doesn’t end up in a file folder, it lives on in living rooms and breakrooms and board rooms around town.
Getting the response is up to the small group pastor. Collect stories of what God is doing in groups. Let the pastor know the impact the video teaching in groups is making. If senior pastors could reach larger audiences every week wouldn’t they be interested. Your small groups will connect your congregation, but will also include many people from the community who have never darkened the door of your church. In fact, according to Rick Warren, there is a trend of people coming to a small group first, then attending a weekend service with their groups. By partnering with senior pastors, their goals will be reach and so will yours.
Create a Next Step for Every Church Event.
Do marriage conferences improve marriages? They could. They also might accelerate conflict. Do sermons make disciples. I’ve already answered that here. Do men’s retreat make better men? They could, but as Randy Phillips, the former president of Promise Keepers says, “The failure of Promise Keepers was not offering a next step after the conferences.” Essentially Promise Keepers became promise breakers. While services and events are not the be-all end-all of life change, they can be a start. They can inspire commitment, but it’s not over and done. As Marcus Buckingham said, “The problem with people is they are just never done.”
Change is difficult. People fall into patterns of behavior that they’ve learned over the years. Marriages fall into patterns. Work relationships fall into patterns. We commonly refer to this as getting into a rut. It’s hard to get out. Change is difficult.
We know how to lose weight, but we don’t. We know how to get out of debt, but we’re still in debt. The list could go on, but we will stick with my problems for now. When I lose weight, it requires focused effort. I need accountability. I have to set a goal and make steps toward that goal. I could listen to someone talk about weight loss and be inspired. I could even watch exercise videos and still not lose a pound. Now before this gets silly, this is also true for every other change a person is trying to make.
Every change starts with a commitment. A conference, a retreat, or a worship service is a great place to make a commitment. But, commitments are forgotten without a next step and others to support you. If your church hosts a marriage conference, what’s the next step? Does the speaker have a book or curriculum? If not, what resources are available? Start groups during the conference. If your church has a men’s retreat, use the opportunity to form groups at the retreat before the guys come home. Have the study and the day and time of the first meeting in place before they resume their regular schedule. And, for the sermon, help your members take their weekend into their week by producing a sermon discussion guide or an alignment series.
Events can start something, but they cannot create lasting change. Small groups can complement events and give people what they need to achieve the growth they desire. Every event in your church should be a launching pad for small groups.
Make “Small Groups” the Answer to Every Problem.
What is your senior pastor’s biggest concern for your church?
More Leaders? Small Groups are a leadership development engine.
Better Attendance? People in groups are more committed than people who are not in groups.
More Serving? People in groups serve more than people who aren’t in groups.
Better Giving? People in groups, on average, give 4% more of their income than people not in groups.
More Growth? People in groups are more focused on growth than people not in groups.
Better Outreach? People in groups reach others for Christ more often than people not in groups.
Your pastor’s major concerns are all addressed in small groups. These thoughts are not merely anecdotal. Look at the research by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups and Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow in Sharing the Journey. Research shows that people in groups are the most motivated and most active members of the church. (For a synopsis of this research: The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups). If you want more of “all of the above,” you need to connect more people into groups.
So, Why Aren’t Senior Pastors the Most Excited About Groups?
They may not know the value of groups. The senior pastor role today is more like a CEO. There’s a lot on your pastor’s plate. That’s why you were hired to take care of groups and discipleship. Yet unless you engage your senior pastor, discipleship will continue to linger in obscurity in your church. Help your pastor see the benefits of groups. Zig Ziglar once said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” Find every possible way to align groups with where your pastor is headed or what concerns your pastor the most.
Most seminarians don’t learn about groups. I earned a Master of Divinity in Christian Education and did not hear one lecture on small groups. If pastors’ degrees are in pastoral ministry, biblical studies, counseling, or theology, they didn’t learn about small groups either. You have to educate your pastor about small groups and the key role they should play in the church. Point to outstanding models of churches with groups like North Point Ministries, Saddleback Church, North Coast Church, and many others. Start a staff small group. Tell the stories of what God is doing in your groups.
Senior pastors may be resistant to groups because their small group pastors have become adversarial. One small group pastor complained to me, “I just can’t get my pastor on board with small groups.” I told him that he didn’t need to get his pastor on board. It was the pastor’s boat! The small group pastor needed to get on board with where the senior pastor was headed and include groups with it. The senior pastor has the responsibility to hear from God and give direction to the church. Follow that direction and add groups to the strategy.
No one should feel more strongly about small groups in your church than you. You should be the most passionate person when it comes to groups. Don’t allow your passion to spill over into anger. But, have small groups on the brain! The answer to every question your senior pastor or your team asks should be, “Small Groups.” As you partner with your senior pastor and others, you can dominate with groups in 2020.
The number of groups any church can launch and maintain is limited by the number of leaders available. It’s simple. If you have a leader, you have a group. If you don’t have a leader, then no group. The problem is most churches can’t recruit all of the leaders they need to meet the demand for groups. The problem goes even further because most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. Without more leaders, how do you launch more groups?
Problem #1: Not Everyone Qualifies as a Leader
Churches place various qualifications for leadership. They may require church membership, leader training, apprenticing in a group, a background check, an interview, or any number of qualifications to lead. For most churches the bar for leadership is set pretty high – as it should be.
In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Commissioning someone as a leader is a serious thing. In order to recognize someone as a leader in the church, they must have good character, and they must be proven as a leader. If you hand out the title to just anyone, then you dilute the meaning and authority of leaders in the church. But, this leads to the second problem.
Problem #2: Most People Don’t Consider Themselves to be Leaders
If they must be a leader to lead a group, then they must fulfill leadership requirements and receive leadership training before they can lead, but they aren’t leaders so why would they do that? My apologies for the run-on sentence, but it’s a legitimate question. How many times have you invited someone to lead a group only to be turned down with “I’m not a leader”?
Admitted non-leaders don’t get excited about meeting leadership requirements or taking leadership training. They’re not leaders. If they have to be a leader to lead a group, then it’s probably not going to happen.
Think about this for a second – what did Jesus call us to do? He didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus didn’t even call us to start small groups although He modeled it. Jesus called the church to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). What do you need to make a disciple? You need a disciple to make a disciple. How many disciples do you have?
By inviting disciples to make disciples in groups, you can help your people walk in obedience to the Great Commission. Rather than continuing to allow your people to borrow from your spirituality, you can give them an easy-to-use tool like a video-based curriculum and a coach to supervise them. They can live in obedience to Jesus by making disciples. They can prove themselves and learn to lead by doing. You can have more groups ASAP. And, eventually, these disciples can be recognized as leaders.
The bar for leadership should remain high. When you do church-wide campaigns, group launches, or alignment series, these are part of the leader recruitment process. These are not ordination events for new leaders. It’s a trial run to give them an opportunity to prove themselves as leaders. Once they’re ready, then you can commission them as leaders. As one of my leaders, Doug Howard told me, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew I was.” I hope you hear that a lot!
What does it mean to learn? Is it merely an acquisition of more facts?Or is it taking those facts and putting them into practice? Meetings are not the only place for groups to learn. Often lessons are learned better by doing.
At New Life Christian Center where I served in California, we challenged our groups to prepare and serve a hot meal every Friday night at an emergency homeless shelter which ran five months of the year. We asked for groups to volunteer together instead of individuals, because the positive peer pressure of the group would guarantee 10 out of 10 group members participating, whereas individual recruitment might have netted 4 or 5 out of 10.
Our groups took this project to heart. Even on the
year when both Christmas Eve and New Years Eve were on a Friday, the signup
sheet was completely filled up by our groups within an hour of placing it at
our information center. My group didn’t even get a chance to sign up!
One group member told me he was very reluctant to participate. His attitude toward the homeless had always been “I started with nothing and pulled myself up by the bootstraps and built a successful construction company. Why couldn’t the homeless work hard and do the same.”
He was part of a small group of middle aged adults who had about 40 years of Sunday school under their belts. There wasn’t much of the Bible they hadn’t studied. Yet, all of this Bible study had done little to change this man’s attitude toward the poor.
He went with his group to serve the meal at the
shelter. He later admitted that as he stood in line serving those men and
looking them in the eye, he realized if circumstances had been different in his
life, then he might be standing on the other side of that line receiving the
Six months later, he was sending his construction crews over to San Francisco every Friday to renovate a building which would be used as a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin. Talk about a change of heart. Not only did he see the homeless differently, he was compelled to do something about it. Instead of his crews building multimillion dollar homes on Fridays, they were renovating a homeless shelter. The positive peer pressure of a small group serving together made a difference not only in his life, but in the lives of many homeless people he might never meet.
In making disciples, Jesus instructed us to “teach them to obey what I have commanded” (Matthew 28:20). In Matthew 25, Jesus tells His disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). The words must lead to doing in order to make disciples in the way Jesus directed us. By simply inviting groups to serve together during the Christmas holidays or during Summer break, we can help them apply what they’ve learned and become more Christ-like in the process.
That may seem like a ridiculous statement considering the number of growing megachurches and multisite churches around the country. How could the church be off-mission with record crowds? Well, let’s go back and look at the church’s mission statement:
Jesus said: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).
Regardless of how churches can rephrase and reframe their mission statements, this is the mission: to go and make disciples. The church is not called to make converts. In fact, to lead people in a prayer without offering them a pathway and companions for the journey is irresponsible. The church is not called to make leaders. In Jesus’ view, the first would be the least. This doesn’t sound like western leadership. It sounds like discipleship. The church is not called to make volunteers to staff the weekend services. In fact, to reduce the ministry of the church body to guest service roles is an affront to the New Testament church. The church is not called to draw crowds. The church is not called to build buildings. The church is not called to make money. We are called to make disciples.
But, how can megachurches or any church for that matter make disciples?
Disciples Aren’t Processed. They’re crafted.
Many churches attempt to convert their crowd into some form of discipleship through an assimilation process. Take this class. Make this commitment. Sign this card. Yet an assembly line process doesn’t work with people. They aren’t raw materials. They don’t all start from the same place.
Who are you the most like? What is your default? While we would all like to say, “Jesus,” the reality is that you and I are more like our parents than any other people on the planet. We think like them. We talk like them. We parent like them. We relate like them. Our habits are like them. Their example is ingrained in us. Some of us had great parents. Some of us had loving parents who did their best. Some of us had parents who were complete nightmares. Regardless of what type of parents we had, what’s ingrained in us is difficult to overcome. Even the example of the best parents can be improved upon. No one’s parents are perfect.
Then, in addition to parents, we can add experiences, tragedies, pain, addictions, suffering, career paths, relationships, and so many other things that shape our lives. Discipleship is not making widgets on an assembly line. Widgets are made from pure, raw materials. Disciples are made from broken and sinful people who long for transformation. But, it doesn’t disappear all at once. As Pete Scazzero says, “Jesus may be in our hearts, but grandpa is in our bones.”
Processes are inadequate to make disciples, yet how many churches have an assimilation process, department, or even pastor of assimilation for that exact purpose? In college I had a double major in biblical studies and missions. What I learned in cross-cultural communication and anthropology is that assimilation is the process of helping people adapt to a new culture. They take on the language, the customs, the mannerism, and the wardrobe of their adopted culture. Once they look like, talk like, and act like the new culture, they are regarded as being assimilated. So if we are assimilating non-church people into becoming part of the church, we are teaching them how to look like, talk like, and act like people who belong to the church. What is lacking is actual life transformation. Mimicking actions, language, and appearance does not make a disciple. It makes a cultural Christian and that’s a lot to live up to. Disciples make disciples, but not in mass quantity.
And while we’re at it, stop using the V word: volunteer. Churches should not have volunteers. The church, meaning the people or the body of Christ, have been equipped with spiritual gifts, abilities, and passions to fulfill a divine calling. By reducing the focus to serving and helps, a church is effectively ignoring about 20 other spiritual gifts. The “real” ministry is reserved for paid staff members. This flies in the face of what Paul taught the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Ephesians about the nature and use of spiritual gifts. Paul admonishes the church that no one part of the body can say to the other “I do not need you,” but that’s exactly what the American church is saying today. The attractional movement told people to sit back, relax, and leave the driving to us. That was Greyhound’s slogan. When was the last time you took the bus?
People are reluctant to get involved because the opportunities churches offer them are beneath them. That doesn’t mean that they’re too good to serve. It just means that the only opportunities most churches offer to their people are menial tasks that feed the demands of the weekend service. When CEOs are handing out bulletins and entrepreneurs are parking cars, this is a great misuse of their gifts and talents. They have so much more to offer.
Processes are inadequate for making disciples. Any mass approach to discipleship is a failure. Assimilation doesn’t make disciples. Worship services don’t make disciples. Sermons don’t make disciples. As Mike Breen says, “People learn by imitation, not instruction.” Yet, most churches attempt a programmatic process of making disciples that does little to help people overcome the powerful models they’ve come to imitate. People can be very inspired by sermons, yet within a day they resort to their default behavior. The only way to help people change and grow is to provide personal encouragement and accountability, and of course, all of this is built on the expectation that every member should apply God’s Word to his or her life. If the expectation is for people to come back next Sunday, then we’ve missed an opportunity and are relying on the weekend service to have a greater impact than it possibly can.
Disciples are crafted, not processed. After all, it takes a disciple to make a disciple.
Big Hairy Audacious Goals
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great among other titles, coined this term for when success organizations set out to achieve ridiculous levels of growth. They didn’t settle for being stalled or accepting mediocre, incremental growth. They went for it.
Jesus spent three and a half years of His life pouring into 12 men. The impact of these disciples is still felt 2,000 years later around the globe and involves over 2 billion people. Jesus set the BHAG in Acts 1:8. Propelled more by persecution than ambition (Acts 8:1), the disciples spread a movement worldwide to transform lives.
How can you activate your disciples when most are intimidated by the thought of evangelism and distracted by the busyness of life? Groups could be the answer. You could argue that many people don’t have the time or the desire to lead a group. Some don’t even believe they can. I think we’re going at this all wrong.
Jesus didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus called us to make disciples. And, disciples make disciples. Do you get it? You don’t need to recruit leaders to lead groups to make disciples. You could, but you don’t have to. You need to equip disciples to make disciples. Who in your church couldn’t be a disciple?
Often in the church today, we embrace the definition of disciple as “follower” or “student” when in reality we’re just working hard to increase the size of the crowd. The crowd are not disciples, if they were, they would be making disciples. In Jesus’ ministry, He spent 73% of his time with His disciples. Jesus could have easily built a megachurch, but He spent very little time with the crowd. The modern American church has flipped Jesus’ ministry on its head. Most churches choose to rapidly add people rather than invest in multiplication. This has a diminishing return.
A Disciple-Making Moonshot
So now that I’ve poked at the church and pointed out what’s broken, let’s fix it. Rather than putting our energy into mass efforts of corralling the most people we possibly can at the fastest rate, let’s focus on the 1/3 of your congregation who has enough of a spiritual basis they could each disciple two other people. Who would be on that list? Church members? Leaders? Long-time members? Then, with the church’s guidance, curriculum, and coaching, you could equip these disciples to make disciples. If the church can get 1/3 of its people to disciple the other 2/3, then you’re making some significant progress. You don’t need to do this all at once, but you certainly could. And, it’s doesn’t need to be just groups of three. You could use church-wide campaigns and host homes to get them started, but don’t leave them there. Or challenge people to get together with their friends and do a study. The bottom line is to stop intimidating people with the thoughts of leadership and evangelism and challenge them to offer what God has given them in community with other believers. What they lack, they can learn from a coach, a resource, or relevant training.
We measure what is important. When you think about the metrics used by most churches, they count nickels and noses. Maybe they count the number of groups or the number of people in groups. Maybe they count the number of people who are serving. But what if churches focused on a new metric? This metric would dynamically impact all of the other metrics. What if the measurement of success became the number of people actively discipling other people? It could be a person discipling two other people as I described above. Or it could be a person discipling eight other people. And of course the intention of all of this discipling is to produce more disciples who make disciples.
What Kind of Church is Yours?
Not all pastors and churches are doing a bad job at making disciples. But, not very many are doing a good job either. Pastors and churches fit into one of four categories when it comes to making disciples:
Content: These pastors and churches are happy with what they have. Often discipleship and small group pastors in these churches are content with the groups and discipleship efforts they have because they have met the expectations of their leadership. They are satisfied with a good job that’s keeping them from achieving a great job at discipleship.
Confused: These churches and pastors believe they are making a greater impact with discipleship than they actually are. Often these churches are led by brilliant teachers who can captivate an audience. The thought is if the pastor gives the people more of the truth, then they will learn and become more like Christ. This is a result of the Enlightenment. Knowledge is king. But, we must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV). How many people know a great deal of God’s Word, yet it’s not reflected in their actions and attitudes? Great teaching alone won’t overcome the average person’s default which was established by imitating their parents and other role models. They need the support and accountability of others to apply God’s Word to their lives. One service or series won’t dramatically change someone’s daily habits. In fact, a call to change without the means to change will lead to tremendous frustration.
Frustrated: These pastors are trying to make disciples in a church that doesn’t support their efforts. Make disciples anyway. These churches have a spiritual growth/discipleship/assimilation/small groups department for the minimum purpose of preventing members from complaining about a lack of discipleship. When someone asks what the church is doing to help people grow or to go deeper, these pastors and churches just need to point to the department. If you are a pastor who’s discipleship efforts or small group ministry as been relegated to a complaint department for unchallenged members, you have my sympathy. In your church, the weekend service is king. But, in your circumstance, you can still make disciples who make disciples despite the limitations.
Disciple-making: These pastors and churches are making disciples who make disciples. They use worship services and sermons to catalyze commitments that lead to next steps in discipleship groups, support groups, or whatever next steps people need in their spiritual walk. In every worship service, every event, every church initiative, these churches provide an opportunity for people to take the next step of working through issues, applying God’s Word to their lives, finding their unique calling as part of the body of Christ, overcoming sin and addiction, and so many other things. A worship service alone will not resolve these things, but it can motivate people to take their next step. People need someone to disciple them. Disciples make disciples.
Which church are you? Isn’t it time to stop striving to become the megachurch you will never be? Isn’t it time to come to grips with the fact that bigger is only better as long as the church stays on-mission to make disciples? The alternative is wearing yourself out trying to raise money, build buildings, market strategically, and recruit volunteers to maintain a large weekend gathering that doesn’t make disciples in and of itself. Then you wonder why you don’t have any energy to fulfill the church’s calling to make disciples. If your church’s focus is not on making disciples, then what are you making?
This is why I am calling churches to the 100 Groups Challenge in 2020. We have got to make up for this deficit of discipleship in our churches. We need to give 100% effort to either connecting 100% of the weekend attendance into groups, reaching 100 total groups in your church, or starting 100 new groups in 2020.
If you are ready to go for it and join the 100 Groups Challenge, you can find out more here. There is no cost. My goal is to help 100 churches start 100 groups in 2020 and effectively disciple 100,000 people. Over the last eight years, I’ve helped churches to start over 16,000 groups and connect over 125,000 people into groups. My BHAG is to do the same in 1 year! Will you join me?
Church-wide campaigns are great sprints toward connecting a lot of people in a hurry. But, disciple-making is a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal of groups is to make disciples. Disciples are not the end result of a process. Disciples are crafted. Eventually, the church will want video-based-curriculum-dependent newbies to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth and facilitate a discussion leading toward on-going life change. You can’t grow disciples in fits and starts. As Eugene Peterson once titled a book, it’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Campaigns can help you or hurt you. Just like hot sauce,
you’ve got to know how much to use and when. Otherwise, you’ll numb your taste
buds for campaigns. Is it time to start a church-wide campaign? Or, is it time
In Jesus’ work with His disciples, there are three distinct phases: “Come and Follow” (Matthew 4:19), “Come and Die” (Luke 9:23), and “Go and Make” (Matthew 28:18-20). While some churches attempt to start “serious” discipleship groups with “come and die,” it’s much easier to start groups with “come and follow,” and then lead them into maturity to reach “come and die.”
The purpose of the “Come and follow” stage is connection. Whether the church is trying to connect their worship attendance, the neighborhood, or both, this connection purpose can largely be achieved by offering a felt needs topic with an alignment series, as described in Exponential Groups. This low commitment, short-term approach allows potential leaders and their groups to test drive a group and begin the habit of meeting together. While the primary purpose is connection, other purposes including leadership development and spiritual growth can certainly take place at the “Come and follow” stage.
The danger in connection groups is in seeing them as an end in themselves. They should be viewed as the starting point for discipleship which will increase the maturity of the group members and group leaders. Some pastors embrace the notion that things must be kept easy and low commitment in order to produce maximum results. After working with churches in their alignments series for nearly 20 years now, the reality is the low commitment and low requirement approach eventually produces low maturity. What’s worse is that as the church continues into a minority Christian culture, the lack of challenge is off-putting to those who seek depth and genuine relationship with God and others. In the 21st century, people are looking for answers. They desire a cause to live for. Once they are engaged in groups, they need more. They need the challenge to “Come and Die.”
The purpose of the “Come and Die” phase is growth and spiritual maturity. Please don’t read those words as “deeper” teaching and more Bible facts. While the intellect is important (after all God gave humans a book and a brain), there is so much more to discipling the whole person. This is more than an academic exercise. A well-rounded approach to discipleship must take into consideration every aspect of a person’s life and being – physical, emotional, relational, financial, intellectual, and other areas. This topic is too large to explore here. There is a future book in the works.
The mission of the church in making disciples is to baptize them and teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Obedience and surrender are best evidenced in a person’s attitude and actions. Rather than using all of the clichés about “walking your talk” and so forth, the point is the end product of discipleship is someone who resembles Jesus Christ. They have died to themselves and their ways of dealing with things and replaced their ways with those of Jesus. The self is sacrificed to produce genuine transformation.
The church can turn up the temperature on discipleship in
their groups through the curriculum and leadership training offered. Again,
this is not an invitation to teach groups to parse Greek verbs. Curriculum
should be a balance of personal time with God, a group discussion of the Bible,
assignments to turn words into action, and accountability to check progress.
Curriculum is not just a course of study, but an action plan for integrating the teaching of the Bible into daily life. This is not merely an ascent to a belief statement, but how believers live and breathe in their daily lives. Study formats like Rooted, The Neighboring Life by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, Emotionally-Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazzero, D-Lifeby Dr. Bill Wilks and Dr. John Herring, or D-Groups by Robby Gallaty help to turn up the temperature of discipleship. Even a format like the Discovery Bible Study Method which uses the same nine questions for every passage of Scripture helps group members to apply God’s Word and live it out. The expectation here is the power of God resident in every believer (Ephesians 1:18-20) accompanied by studying the Bible and interacting with other believers will produce transformed lives.
A few years ago, I was working with a small group director
who had moved from another country to the United States. In his country of
origin, there was a high expectation of believers learning, doing, and sharing
what they’ve learned from the very beginning of their relationship with God. He
was a little beside himself when he came to the U.S. and discovered many
believers learned biblical truth without much intention of practicing what they
learned or sharing it with others. When he challenged people in his church to
high commitment approaches to discipleship, he found resistance. I asked him if
he had ever heard the analogy of the frog and the kettle. He had not.
I explained this common story about placing frogs in hot water caused them to jump out. Yet, by placing frogs in cold water, then gradually turning up the temperature, the frogs remained in the hot water because the change was gradual. I told him he was putting his disciples in hot water. That’s why they were resisting. (If you’re shaking your head at this point about the reverse implications of this analogy, I apologize. I’ll switch gears before this turns into martyrdom, which is no joking matter).
For average American church members, the move from the worship service to a group is a pretty big step. If the benefit of a group is unproven, they need an opportunity to try out this environment in a short-term, low commitment way. An alignment series or church-wide campaign fits the bill. If they’ve had a positive experience, then the group may agree to continue into a follow up series. Once these two studies have been completed, then it’s more likely that the group will continue on.
Group leaders are given a leadership pathway to develop as disciples and as group leaders. Group members should also be given a pathway. This could be based on the results of the group’s health assessment. The right curriculum can also lead the group into new experiences and even into taking risks as a group. These risks could include things like the three-hour prayer experience in Rooted, the neighborhood map in The Neighboring Life, or the genogram in Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality. The goal of these exercises is to learn to trust God in deeper ways, to hear God, and to learn about oneself.
Curriculum for the sake of curriculum is worthless. Checking off a list of studies doesn’t guarantee growth. But, using curriculum as a vehicle to produce growth and lasting change is worthwhile. What is your curriculum producing? What are your groups producing? Using an assessment to evaluate the progress your people, your groups, and your church is making.
The third phase from Scripture is “Go and Make.” While these phases don’t need to occur in sequential order, the goal is to make disciples who make disciples. After all, that’s how a church knows it’s making disciples. If the people in the church are not making disciples, then they are not disciples. The appropriate term for them would be “the crowd.” In the Gospels, Jesus spent 73 percent of His time with His disciples. He didn’t devote vast amounts of time to serving the crowd. Boy, has the modern American church turned that on its head.
“Go and Make” implies that church members are thinking about others more than about themselves and their own needs. They are become self-feeders. The focus is on servant leadership at various levels. While most people in the church will not have the title of leader, they do have influence over people around them. The goal is to multiply their lives and their abilities. Jesus spent three and a half years investing in 12 disciples, who after His departure, developed others and took the message of the Gospel throughout their known world, establishing churches, and making disciples. If you’re a Christian reading this, it’s because of these 12 who Jesus poured His Life into. Who are your 12?
This is the place where pastors equip the church to do the
work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). In the last 30 years, the church has
catered to people in order to serve a Christian consumer culture. A growing gap
has emerged between staff and volunteers, or clergy and laity, as it was once
known. People are asked to volunteer to serve the church and the efforts of the
church staff. But, the volunteers are the church!
Members should be challenged to pursue and develop their gifts. Resources like Networkby Bruce Bugbee and Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee create the philosophical foundation for gifts-based ministry that is truly satisfying to church members and effective in reaching the neighborhood. After all, ministry is not something pastors do to people. Ministry is the purpose of the church body, not the leaders of the institution. People need to serve in meaningful ways in order to grow spiritually. Meaningless volunteer roles cannot meet this purpose.
Since a church of any size cannot assess and recognize the gifts of every church member, groups play an essential role in helping people discover, develop, and use their gifts. This is more than another assessment. There is an expectation for people to take responsibility for understanding and implementing their gifts to fulfill the mission of the church. There is also a responsibility for the church to release, not just ministry responsibilities, but also the authority to carry them out.
One more step lies beyond identifying and using gifts – members developing other members. Every person in every role in the church, including members, pastors, and church staff, must multiply what they are doing in the lives of others. This is one of the primary purposes of groups – leadership development. The church must embrace Hero-making as articulated by Dave Ferguson and Dr. Warren Bird. The pastor is not the hero in the church. The staff are not the heroes. The members are not the heroes. But, they are all called to make heroes. They are all called to invest in others and help them flourish in ministry. They are called to work themselves out of a job, so a new ministry, a new group, or a new church can be launched to serve others and repeat the process.
These three phases may not be the only phases. They don’t
necessarily need to be taken in exact order (or else some churches will camp on
phase two until Jesus returns and never get to phase three). The point is
everyone must be challenged to take a next step at every phase. Those only
attending worship must be challenged to join a group. Everyone in a group must
be challenged to take what they learn to heart and mature in their faith as
evidenced by their actions and attitudes. Those who are maturing must reach out
to their neighborhoods and share their hope. Those who are serving must develop
others to serve.
Attractional services and advertising built some great churches over the last 30 years. The next 30 years will be much different than the last 30 years. This statement is not meant to discount what happened over the last 30 years, but it’s time to gear up for what is next. In working with churches across North America, I’ve visited many formerly great churches. At one point in time, the church was the shining beacon in the community. Maybe they were the first church to offer contemporary worship music and relevant messages. People came in droves, until every other church in town followed the model. Now those churches are dwindling. They are formerly great.
There is a shift that must take place in order to engage people in the 21st century. These concluding thoughts reveal part of the thinking needed for the church to flourish in an increasingly minority Christian culture.