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Making Disciples: The Purpose of Small Groups
By Joel Comiskey
Appeared in Christianity Today, June 2015. Excerpts from book Joel Comiskey's book, Making Disciples in the 21st Century Church, www.joelcomiskeygroup.com
Simon Sinek, popular speaker and author, wrote the best-selling book, Start with the Why, to show that having a proper motivation is critical for success. Even though Sinek was making a lot of money, he lost his passion and motivation for doing business. Sinek, like so many, focused on what he was selling and then trying to figure out how to sell it. Yet, he realized he was missing why he was selling the product. Sinek began to study great innovators, leaders, and companies who started with the why question. These great companies and people inspired those who worked for them with ideals and vision because they knew their purpose.
In the early days of my small group journey, I focused more on the how questions. I wrote about how small groups worked and how they could help churches grow.. While it’s important to know how to do small group ministry, I’ve learned that the most important consideration is the why behind doing it. If the motivation is faulty, leaders become discouraged over time, lose the joy and excitement of leading or supervising small groups, and often quit all together. If the motivation is only how or what, the vision will soon dry up and fizzle.
I’ve become increasingly aware that how-to formulas vary widely between cultures and rarely transfer cross-culturally. Those who succeed in small group ministry learn to dig beneath the how-to question and unearth the why motivation. The why question provides the vision or driving force behind small group ministry and allows the leader to keep pressing on in spite of the obstacles.
Jesus answered the why question over 2000 years ago when he gave a clear command to his own disciples to make other disciples. We read in Matthew 28: 18-20:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.
In Matthew 28, Jesus is telling his own group of disciples to develop more groups of disciples. Jesus developed his own group of twelve and hung out with them for three years. In the atmosphere of the group, these disciples were molded, shaped, trained, and then sent forth. The same disciples became the key leaders of the early Church. Not only did Jesus minister with these disciples over the course of three years, but he also sent them into the homes to establish house churches that would multiply and infiltrate the surrounding communities (Luke 9 and 10).
The word disciple simply means pupil or learner. A disciple was a follower of Christ. After Christ’s resurrection, the word disciple was replaced by words such as believer, saint, Christian, brother or sister in Christ. Why? Because after Pentecost, God established the Church, the gathering of believers, to be the main place where discipleship occurred. The early Church followed Christ’s pattern and changed the world house by house. Those house churches celebrated together. Michael Wilkens says, “Discipling today is always undertaken as an outgrowth of the life of the church, whereas prior to Pentecost it occurred with Jesus personally. . . We may go so far as to say that in many ways discipleship is the overall goal of the church, including evangelism, nurturing, fellowship, leadership, worship, etc.” God chose the Church to make disciples—both today and in New Testament times.
North American Focus on Individual Discipleship
In preparation for writing my book, Making Disciples in the 21st Century Church, I scoured all the books I could find on discipleship. I expected the authors to highlight Christ’s call to make disciples in a small group as well as the early church’s commitment to follow that pattern through house-to-house ministry. However, I was amazed at how many books skipped over Christ’s call to discipleship in a group. Most, in fact, emphasized personal growth and the one-on-one variety of discipleship found in individualistic western cultures, like North America.
The typical pattern found in most of these discipleship books is to start with Jesus and the need for discipleship. The writers will then define the word disciple, explain the importance of discipleship, and elucidate the differences between discipleship in Christ’s time from the post-resurrection Church.
Then the book will jump to current methods of discipleship, such as personal spirituality and one-on-one discipleship. The author will discuss the need to practice the spiritual disciplines, like having a quiet time, fasting, prayer, Bible reading, and other disciplines of the Christian life. Later on in the book, the author might have a chapter about the necessity of belonging to a local church as an important factor of discipleship. I have always believed strongly in spiritual disciplines and have been discipled one-on-one various times. I’m not in disagreement with what these authors write. My concern is whether this is what Jesus had in mind, and I don’t think it was.
What amazes me is the lack of material about discipleship in a group. Books on discipleship don’t connect how Jesus and the early Church made disciples with how we should be discipling today. Most authors fail to explain the group context of discipleship in the New Testament and make it seem like the individual variety is the biblical way to make disciples. To ignore this and jump into personal devotions or one-on-one discipleship leaps from biblical times to the western culture.
Why do so many authors do this? Because most books on discipleship are written by authors who are from individualistic cultures, where the assumption is that the individual takes precedence over the group. However, this is not true from Church history or even for the majority of cultures today.
Discipleship According to Jesus
In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus is talking to a group of disciples. These are the same disciples (apart from Judas) who Jesus molded and shaped for a three-year period. He had taught them important life lessons as they lived together. Much of the crucial character development came as they worked through conflicts and overcame difficulties with one another. Jesus had called these disciples to join a new community and become part of a new spiritual family. They learned how to relate to one another through the crucible of conflict. Jesus checked their pride, encouraging them to walk in humility. After three years, they were ready to start the process once again by forming new groups of disciples. They understood that following Jesus meant public confession and a group commitment.
The disciples certainly had a personal relationship with God, but that personal relationship needed to be molded and shaped in a community atmosphere where the one-anothers of scripture were prioritized. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Jesus used the home to gather his Church, the new family of God. When reading about Jesus going from village to village and healing the sick, he was actually ministering in homes. The following offers a glimpse of Christ’s home ministry:
- Jesus in the house of Peter (Matthew 8:14)
- Jesus in the house of Matthew (Matthew 9:10)
- Jesus in the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
- Jesus in the house of Lazarus and his sisters (Luke 10:38-42)
- Jesus in the house of Jairus (Mark 5:35-38)
- Jesus healing two blind people in a house (Matthew 9:28-30)
- Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6)
- Jesus teaching his disciples in a house (Mark 7:17-18; 9:33; 10:10)
- Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed person in a house (Luke 5:19)
- Jesus in the home of a Pharisee (Luke 14:1)
- Jesus instituting the Lord’s supper in a house (Matthew 26:18)
- Jesus sent his twelve and his seventy disciples to heal and teach from village to village and house-to-house (Luke 9:1-9; 10:1-11)
Jesus infiltrated the houses and families of his day to promote this new family of faith. He then sent his disciples two-by-two to minister in homes (Luke 9 and 10). After Christ’s resurrection, the early Church met in houses to continue this family mentality. Through house-to-house ministry, they turned the world upside down, from the inside out.
What does the Great Commission tell us? It says that God desires to transform people from lone individualists into team players. David Watson, Anglican evangelist and author, writes,
It is equally striking that Jesus calls individuals, not to stay in isolation, but to join the new community of God’s people. He called the Twelve to share their lives, with him and with each other. They were to live every day in a rich and diverse fellowship, losing independence, learning interdependence, gaining from each other new riches and strength.
Relating to other people and learning to give and take is important to God. Yes, he does desire that each person have an individual relationship with him, but this is only part of the equation.
Yet, according to most books on discipleship, one-on-one discipleship and a personal relationship with God are the essence of discipleship. Scripture tells us another story about discipleship.
Individual Expression in a Group
Concentrating on community shouldn’t take away from the individual’s worth but rather should enhance it. Individuals who are being molded within a small community of believers continue to grow in a personal relationship with God.
The Trinity is our example here. Perfect unity exists within the Trinity, but each person of the Godhead is unique. The Bible underlines two complementary and equally important truths in this area. On the one hand, it emphasizes the intrinsic worth of the individual, as made in the image of God. On the other hand, the Bible places great emphasis on the importance of community.
We also need to distinguish between individuality and individualism. Individuality refers to an individual as a responsible person in community, while individualism exalts the independence of individuals and their private rights. Individuality can be good, while individualism breeds alienation and pride. Kraus says, “The sin of humankind is not the assertion of individuality in community, but the assertion of individual self-sufficiency and independence from God and fellow humans.”
The biblical alternative is the individual in community. It’s having a relationship with God but then being in community with the body of Christ. Each group member depends on the other and is involved with each other. This interaction enhances individual personhood and provides personal identity.
God allows us to be all we are supposed to be in community. We become strong as individuals as we relate to others in the group. All of Christ’s disciples had strong personalities, but they learned through conflict to submit to one another. That’s the goal of being molded through the community process.
In a healthy small group not only is our individuality maintained, but we realize that we are valued individuals with a God-assigned role to play. Discipleship in a group includes interdependent and reciprocal relationships, which aim at enhancing the personal quality of the group itself. What people have in common is each other and the mutual enhancement of each person as they live out their lives together. Group discipleship is not an emptying of my own rights, aspirations, or goals. Rather, it’s developing those personal attributes in the group atmosphere.
Small group ministry isn’t primarily about the small group but making disciples who are molded, shaped, and transformed through the small group. Understanding that the small group strategy is primarily about making disciples places small group ministry within the biblical framework. It also encourages pastors and leaders to stop focusing on techniques and structures but rather to prioritize a secure biblical anchor for ministry.
But what does this practically look like for small group leaders? How can small group leaders help build disciples within their small group. Here are four suggestions:
First, through community building. The small group leader needs to help small group members to practice the one-anothers (e.g., love one another, serve one-another, etc.) and to work through conflict. Someone said that small groups bring out more problems in the church and this is true! Sitting and hearing a message on Sunday can often mask deep problems. Yet, small groups allow people to share what’s really going on and receive healing in the process. They also bring out conflicts among members. Yet when conflicts do occur, effect small group leaders remind the members to go directly to the person rather than gossiping.
Second, by focusing on the priesthood of all believers. The best small group leaders are facilitators, not frustrated preachers. They get everyone involved. They ask members to lead different aspects of the meeting--the prayer, ice-breaker, worship, and even the lesson. They realize that participation leads to maturity and Christ-likeness. They also help each person find and use their spiritual gift (s), knowing that all of the gift passages were written to house churches.
Third, by helping members reach out to others. When small group members reach out to their oikos (family, friends and contacts), they grow in Christ. When Jesus told his disciples that they would be fishers of men, he had net-fishing in mind—fishing as a group. Outreach might include meeting social needs, special evangelistic events, or rotating the group to meet new people. Prayer needs to cover all evangelistic activity.
Finally, small group leaders encourage discipleship by starting new groups. In other words, multiplication is part of the discipleship process. Most churches prepare future leaders both within the small group as well as through a step-by-step equipping process. And this is where the small group system is helpful. As new leaders are formed and groups are started, the great commission is once again fulfilled to make disciples who make disciples in the small group setting.
In the Greek world, philosophers were surrounded by their pupils. The Jews claimed to be disciples of Moses (John 9:28) and the followers of John the Baptist were known as his disciples (Mark 2:18; John 1:35).
Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 279.
Kevin Giles, What on Earth Is the Church? An Exploration in New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 20.
David Watson, Called and Committed (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1982), p. 17.
Eddie Gibbs, In Name Only (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint Books, 1994), p. 183.
C. Norman Kraus, The Community of the Spirit (Waterloo, OH: Herald Press, 1993), p. 43.
C. Norman Kraus, The Authentic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 121.
C. Norman Kraus, The Authentic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 121.