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Why Small Groups Aren’t Making Disciples

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

  1. 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.
  2. Relationship Building – Engendering trust through personal connections
  3. Discipleship – Intensive training

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

People come to Christ through events, small groups, or 1-on-1.  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 “Invi....  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 1-on-1 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 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 Works 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
  • Encourage all discipled members to disciple others – OJT
  • Sunday School – Resume this dying tradition, making sure it’s taught by discipled leaders
  • 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, 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 caters 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?

The post Why Small Groups Aren’t Making Disciples appeared first on Meet The Need Blog.

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Small groups and one on one discipleship can work if you give men the "skills" necessary to live out their Christianity.  Every Man A Warrior is a discipleship course that gives men the skills necessary to succeed in life and have answers to the questions men face all the time.

Every Man A Warrior starts with the "Great Commandment."  Jesus said, the "Loving God" was the FIRST and GREATEST commandment.  We teach men how to spend "time alone with God" in a daily Quiet Time.  This Quiet Time develops your love relationship with God and is shared each week to becomes a new life long skill.

Every Man A Warrior also teaches men skills to:Know their Wife's Love Language,  spend one on one time with their children, manage money according to Biblical principles, fight against pornography, go to God and do what''s right in hard times,  and then pass these spiritual truths on to other men.

Every Man A Warrior has only been around for 4 years and has sold more than 56,000 book and been used by 17,000 men in the U.S.  God wrote this curriculum in me over 25 years of hard times.  It was field tested for 2 years with over 500 men before it was published.  I have been on Navigator staff for 37 years.  Learn more at   

Lonnie Berger, Author and President of Every Man A Warrior

I wonder if you should say that small groups alone will not make disciples. Discipleship is not just a one to one process - that is clear from John 13:34-35 - how disciples love each other is a key element in living in a way that demonstrates what it means to follow Jesus.

I believe that discipleship happens through relationships where we love and earn trust from those we love, not events or programs.  Submission and obedience come from trusting God and others - real transformation takes place as God changes hearts and minds.

Being a disciple is about trusting, knowing, doing, being, learning and following.  If someone is missing several of these aspects of growing a relationship with God, they will not be able to follow Jesus as they go through their lives and all they will face. 

I have seen God change lives through one to one, small groups, and large groups. I have used the Every Man a Warrior books and they are helpful in getting men started in following Jesus.  No matter what form you use, there is no formula.  Prayer and listening to God in the midst of loving others - faith expressing itself in love - is much harder than following a pattern established by someone else.

Roger Matthews - Global Service Network

Having pastored and led a church to make disciples I struggled with how to effectively disciple every person. I finally came to the conclusion that discipleship begins when the person decides to follow Jesus and ends at death. So to reach someone I must be in it for the long haul. I always start with those who want to grow and are teachable. Over the years I developed and used others materials to help facilitate growth. I think a huge problem that as time goes by the new Christian becomes more isolated from the world and more inward focused toward the things at the church. When that happens the church becomes inward focused. In the firstvp church I pastored after awhile I sent the leaders and their families out. During the first time while I was instructing them one of the men began to shake. Two hours later he had started two Bible studies. When he came back he was a changed man and talked a lot about what happened. Where I believe the church is falling down is in the areas of real hands on training. That starts with the pastor. We cannot build boldness without leading the way.

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