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Why Small Groups Aren’t Making Disciples

Oct 01, 15
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Blog Post 15 - Discipling (iStock_000005549171_Small)3

Part 2 of 3

Last week, we discussed how members/attenders are the conduit through which the Church accomplishes its objective in the world – the Great Commission.  We looked at how few of our members and regular attenders are actually disciples, exhibiting the key attributes of Jesus.  We promised to talk more this week about why churches aren’t providing the level of depth necessary to build congregations full of disciples – and what they should do differently.

How Do We Make Disciples?

If as we’ve assumed members are the Church, then they are “insiders”, much more like employees of a company than its customers (“outsiders”).  When a company hires a new employee, training is the first priority.  Would a company consider a 30 minute presentation each week to be adequate training?  What if it added weekly group discussions with fellow employees for a few months each year?  Would the combination of those two be enough?  Of course not.  Companies know that proper training for employees entails 1-on-1 mentorship, group classes and on-the-job (OJT), in-the-field experience.

However, the issue with most churches in America today is simply (as we’ve maintained all along in this blog series, now in its 15th week) that few see members as the church (i.e. “insiders”).  Therefore, they are careful not to challenge them to the point where they may leave.  Since discipleship is hard work, costly  and risky, pastors don’t push it on them.  Churches provide “LITE”, easier versions of discipleship instead and nudge them toward those options.

As a result, most members and attenders are improperly trained to be effective ambassadors for Christ and His church.  Pastors understand that 1-on-1 and group training classes led by professionals work best in business, but most consider those too demanding and risky to employ with members/attenders.  OJT is also poor with most churches because they know members have little time in their busy schedules for living out Jesus’ model for evangelism (i.e. compassionate service as the door opener to sharing the gospel).

Disciples must be well-trained, but we’re not training members well.  The Church today is feeling the effects – collateral damage from churches full of members/attenders who are generally under-equipped to fulfill the Great Commission (i.e. to pursue the real “customer”).

The Discipleship Process

  • Relationship Building – Engendering trust through personal connections
  • Conversion – This is just the starting point – it’s someone else in heaven, but it’s not a disciple.  How many are still walking with the Lord, living changed lives, 3 years after accepting Christ at a crusade or concert?  Very few according to George Barna’s findings.
  • Ongoing Discipleship – Intensive training

Small Groups Should Not be a Church’s Primary Discipleship Method

People come to Christ through personal discussions, events or maybe small groups.  Small groups are effective for relationship building as well, beginning the process of living in community with other Christians.  However, as we said, when it comes to discipleship, no effective organization would rely on occasional group gatherings led by untrained professionals as the primary means for delivering the intensive training required for “insiders” (and once people come to faith, they are “insiders”).  Successful, healthy organizations know 1-on-1 and OJT are required.

Yet when pastors are asked about their discipleship strategy, their first response is typically, “small groups”.  It’s no wonder the Church isn’t growing, in number or impact.  It’s not surprising that more members aren’t taking on more of the attributes of Christ.  As long as churches don’t fully buy-in to “members ARE the church” they won’t dare challenge them to endure training at the same level of a corporate employee.

So Why Do Churches Push Small Groups So Hard?

Given all this, we have to ask – why do churches push small groups so hard?  Do pastors really believe that’s the best method for discipleship, or is there another reason?  As we’ve mentioned in a prior blog post, the most common church growth model today is “Invite, Involve, Invest.  In that model small groups are the predominant method for the “Involve” phase.  Small groups do help bring people somewhat closer to the Lord, but they also build relationships and relationships are “sticky” – increasing the likelihood they’ll come back next Sunday.

Each church should examine its own heart – is it promoting small groups more to get people involved (more loyal to the church) or more for discipleship (more loyal to the Lord)?  If it’s the latter, then that presumes the church is very concerned about discipleship – but a church that’s discipleship-driven would certainly have additional, deeper methods of discipleship than just small groups.  Our contention is that a church which sees small groups as its primary means for discipleship can’t be that concerned about discipleship.  All churches say that building and sending disciples is key to their mission, but is that reflected in how they spend their time and in how willing they are to prod members in that direction?  In business, goals and intentions often don’t line up with a company’s allocation of resources.

The alternative, pushing 1-on-1 discipleship, will scare off many of those who don’t feel like “insiders”.  Leading a series of meetings with another person over a long period takes a lot of time, studying and effort.  And look what Jesus says about the costs of discipleship – possibly leaving those you love and being homeless.  None of this is pretty when you present it as an “action plan” to the congregation!  Yet if pastors know 1-on-1 (or triads) is the best method for discipleship, then any hesitancy to promote it is further evidence of the tendency to cater rather than challenge, treating members as a “customer” and not as the church.

Why 1-on-1 (or Triads) Work Best

  • The process of becoming a disciple is personal
  • The best mentors in our lives were those who interacted with us personally, whether it was a teacher, a coach or some other role model
  • People won’t say in public environments that they would in private/intimate ones
  • One of Jesus’ favorite method of discipleship was personal questions, allowing for self-discovery, not just telling them the answers but letting them find them out for themselves
  • Sermons can only cast vision around what it means to be a disciple and encourage them to take the next (personal) step

Assuming All That…What Should My Church Do Now?

  • Pastor disciples leaders 1-on-1
  • Those leaders then disciple a couple people each 1-on-1 or in triads
  • Encourage all discipled members to disciple others – OJT
  • Sunday School – Consider resuming this dying tradition, making sure it’s taught by disciples
  • Small groups – Facilitated only by discipled leaders
  • Immersion Bible Study – One night a week (several hours)
  • Greater emphasis on private devotion – The fundamental blocking and tackling of Bible study, journaling and prayer
  • Lay out a discipleship track for members

This approach will quickly and exponentially grow a base of disciples who can make more disciples.  This is a significant part of the turnaround strategy for today’s church.  It was Jesus’ model.  However, are we willing to chase members this far out of their comfort zones, knowing so many will leave our church and go to another one that will cater to them?

It’s Your Turn…

Have you seen churches where deep discipleship took hold to the point where it was truly part of the DNA of the church?  What other effects have you seen from churches reducing insider “training” to small groups led by “untrained” members?


Michael Britton  October 1, 2015 at 5:51 pm

This is a great article with many great points. I have led small group ministries and am now a church planter that focuses most of my time (yes, most) on making disciples in all of life.

However, I have a couple of things that I would quibble about (that is what blogs are for, right?). One, is that discipleship does not happen after conversion. You listed 1. conversion 2. relationship building 3. discipleship. I would argue that teaching or telling someone about Jesus in all of life is discipling and that if you are to follow the model of Jesus it will be as you build relationship. So disciple making is a much broader scope of showing someone what it means to obey the teachings of Jesus (sounds familiar) and that conversion happens along the way.

Second, you stated that disciples are most effectively made 1on1. This is not the case. The is much support (mainly biblical) that triads are most effective. This is not a massive deviation from what you are advocating but I think it is worth taking notice of. Triads allow for personal connection but also keep from one person being the one that has all of the knowledge and is giving it to the less knowledgable. This sort of relationships keeps the one with less knowledge from thinking that they can replicate the process. And if you have not made a reproducing disciple then you have not made a disciple.

Finally, I would argue against resurrecting a Sunday School structure. Mainly because it is never a part of the New Testament model. Instead teach one another how to teach the Scriptures outside of classrooms and pulpits. Display how to unfold God’s story in every facet of life and at every place life is taking place. If you can’t teach people the Gospel without outlines and whiteboards then your work is not done. Do the rest and make it real and relevant and beautiful. Trade your Sunday schools for Starbucks…or McDonalds…or your lunch hour.

Again, great article and great points that deserve greater and greater emphasis. We cannot say these things enough. We have lost how to make disciples and it must be recovered at any cost.

    JMorgan  October 2, 2015 at 6:45 am

    Excellent points, Michael. In fact, they were so compelling that you convinced me to make a couple edits to the post and republish it. Thank you!

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Jason Malouf  October 2, 2015 at 1:47 am

Great post Jim! Thanks for approaching a subject that is the underbelly of most churches. Everyone knows is critical but it seems like no one wants to talk about it.

I am thankful that you have begun this series and dialogue so that we, as a church, can begin to be intentional about our mandate “to go ye therefore” and make disciples.

I think Michael’s comments above are nicely done as well. I can understand why he advocates for a triad model.

For me, I would state that the best biblical model would be one that has accountability of the discipler through a church that is fundamentally sound, and would follow the biblical model of an Acts church.

At the heart of a church that is centered on making disciples, would be a pastor who realizes that he has no control over the Spirit of God- so he would be intentional about building up disciples to be sent out wherever the Lord would lead.

Inherent in that mindset would be the pontential to lose your congregation’s population to a world in need of a Savior.

Gary Sinclair  October 2, 2015 at 7:38 am

There are certainly lessons here to be learned about how to help churches and groups be more effective in their training of leaders and the making of disciples. However, let me say first that if triads are at least part of the healthier approach then “small groups” actually can grow disciples. However, I would add that disciples seemed to often be made in Scripture through just living life together one on one, as families or in group settings. There were no formal meeting times per se or training sessions. People just learned to live like Jesus and then actually live that way every day. That natural approach also makes disciples in my thinking and experience perhaps more effectively than any other way.

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