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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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How small groups can grow whole-life disciples

If we’re seriously committed to whole-life disciplemaking, we need to make it central and unavoidable in the life of our churches, ensuring all we do empowers people to live faithfully and fruitfully for Christ in their Monday to Saturday lives.   

Our experience has shown that small groups are one of the primary drivers of a whole-life disciplemaking church. The way our groups work, the way we talk about them, and the content they explore all impact the extent to which they help grow whole-life disciples. Establishing small groups that really excel in this regard takes a lot of intentional effort – both from those who organise and host them and those who join them. It doesn’t automatically happen.  

Joining a small group of some sort often indicates a defining moment in a Christian’s life – a transition from ‘attendee’ to a more personal kind of commitment to their faith. We have a tendency to see small group membership as a sign that someone is taking their discipleship seriously.  

But it’s important to remember that just because someone joins us for worship regularly, or even volunteers in a team role, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re intentional about practising the way of Jesus in daily life. Nigel Wright, former Principal of Spurgeon’s College, used to say there were three types of conversions needed: to Jesus (discipleship), to the church (community), and to the world (mission).   

Why small groups matter 

The very nature of small groups means they have a particular role to play in achieving this end. We need our small groups to help people with all three conversions, not just stopping at discipleship and community. They need to help folk connect their faith to their everyday lives, and God’s call on them in the places they regularly go. Because if we’re to stand any chance of reaching the nation for Christ, we need to help people own their daily context – work, school, home, or beyond – as a place in which they follow Christ and join in God’s mission. 

Christianity is not an individualistic faith. Discipleship is always done in the context of relationship. Simply put, making disciples is the core activity of the church, and it happens in relationships with others. When we look at the Bible, we see that discipleship is something that you cannot do alone. As Proverbs 27:17 famously says, ‘As iron sharpens iron – so one person sharpens another.’ 

There are 59 ‘one another’ encouragements in the New Testament – so it’s clearly important. In fact, this horizontal aspect of the gospel – that it’s not just about ‘me and God’ but ‘us and God’ – can easily be sidelined. 

‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’  1 Thessalonians 5:11 

And small groups are by far the most effective way of ‘one-anothering’. As pastor and writer Andy Stanley puts it, ‘The primary activity of the church was one-anothering one another.  When everyone is sitting in rows – you can’t do any one another’s.’ 

When you engage in intentional groups whose purpose is to disciple one another, it helps you grow. We’re inspired and learn from people’s stories. We develop wisdom as we work through issues together – it forces us to engage with Scripture, and how to apply the Scripture in real-life contexts. It gets us reflecting on our own experiences. It’s part of the Jesus model – we grow by helping others to grow.

Small groups can, however, become little more than social groups, or support groups. Whilst the social aspects of small groups is important – we need to know about each other, after all, if we’re going to share meaningfully with each other – we need to keep our eyes on why we’re there. We can be intentional about the kind of questions about our everyday lives we ask one another. Unless we’re clear why the small group is there it can easily drift away from its disciple-growing purpose.  

And we can unintentionally develop group habits that inhibit growth. Too often the Bible can be sidelined. How often have conversations become so consuming that by the end of the evening we’ve barely got to the Bible? We’ve all been there. The danger is that this becomes the norm and the Bible gets relegated to a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential in the small group’s time together.   

Keeping the Bible central, praying for one another and relying on the Holy Spirit for the meetings is key to ensuring they stay on course. As we study the Bible together – and intentionally apply it to our lives – our fellowship with another deepens. That’s no coincidence. When we’re intentional about keeping our eyes open to what God is saying in his word and how it could be applied to us can lead to some amazing conversations that add depth to our relationships. To do this, when studying the Bible we need to ensure we’re asking practical questions that connect the Bible to our everyday lives.  

One way we can do this is by being structured in our approach, such as one based on the 6Ms of fruitfulness 

Modelling godly character
How can this passage shape my character for the frontline? Where are the challenges and encouragements? What might God be prompting me to pray about changing in my character or attitude? How could this help me grow in faith and obedience to Christ?  

Making good work
How does this passage address how I might approach my tasks this week? What would ‘good work’ look like for me?  

Ministering grace and love
Does this passage give me an insight into what grace and love look like? How would this work on my frontline? 

Moulding Culture
Does this passage give me insights into the culture of the kingdom of God? How would that work out in my frontline context? 

Mouthpiece for truth and justice
Are there examples in the passage of people taking a stand? What can I learn from that and how can I put it into practice? 

Messenger of the gospel
What aspect of the good news is demonstrated in the passage? How does it help me to tell someone else about this good news?

Not every Bible passage will fit neatly into this structure, and we don’t want to force an application into the text that doesn’t come out of the text. But creating a set of questions like this can help shape a discussion to ensure that people’s everyday lives are kept part of the conversation. 

And when we come to pray for one another, we can pray for the pressures and opportunities people experience, applying what we’ve just read and studied together, for one another to spot the kingdom priorities God may be drawing our attention to.  

Jesus’ call to the first disciples required action on their part. The invitation was intentional and so the decision to follow Jesus had to be intentional too. They didn’t just fall into being disciples. Jesus’ invitation to ‘Come, follow me’ was compelling, and the journey of discipleship is a compelling one still.  

These first followers weren’t called alone – they were called to a community of followers who would, together, be learning the way of Jesus. They couldn’t do it alone. And neither can we. We need one another, and small groups can, with the right emphasis and intention, be places where disciples are grown for all of life.

Jules Gadsby
Church Engagement Specialist

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