Discipleship Groups

by Joel Ramshaw (2010)

I. Introduction

            One of the most important things a young-adult small group leader must do is choose what kind of activities to run his group with.[1] There are all sorts of activities that he must choose between. There is the teaching, worship, group prayer, outreach, discussion, and fun-and-games, and miscellaneous other aspects of small group ministry. Now the possibilities do not only lie in choosing between these categories, but just as much so within them. This paper will examine the possibilities that the small group leader must sort through, and then give recommendations and possible solutions. This paper is written specifically to a group which will have young adults who are single. The ages it is geared for are eighteen to twenty-eight or so. Aspects of this examination can be applied to youth groups, or adult groups, however there will need to be some modifications implemented for it to be fully effective.

 II. Group purposes

            The group leader needs to make a clear decision about what the purpose of the group will be.[2] There are several different types of purpose a group can have. One model lists three main purposes for small-groups. Some other models add extra approaches though. One way of doing things is to make one’s group ministry-oriented. This group will have as focus, outreach to the community or parachurch-type assistance. Regardless of how this all plays out, the group’s primary purpose for coming together is doing some kind of ministry work as its goal, and the group will review their success based primarily on this.[3] Another purpose is to have a relationship-oriented group. Some groups come together with fellowshipping as the primary concern. They will sometimes do ministry work or teaching as part of this, however the focus of the group is on building relationship between the members, and growing a loving community.[4] A third emphasis is on Bible study and teaching.[5] A fourth purpose is personal transformation, and this includes one’s relationship with God, heart attitudes, mindsets, and behaviour. A fifth purpose is “having fun.” This group will have many “movie nights,” video games, various other games, with the rest of the time usually spent chatting. There is a ten-minute or so lesson, but it is basically useless since everyone keeps making puns and jokes off the points of the lesson the whole time. The sad this is that though this is never overtly stated, it is what most youth groups end up degenerating into, and young-adult small groups are also prone to fall to if they are not careful. It is common for a group that calls itself relationally oriented to end up using this as an excuse to spend most of the time just having fun with activities that have no relationship to spirituality.[6] The leader must have a firm personality and be careful in keeping everything on topic and not allow things to drift into goofing off until the group ends for the night. If the leader is not assertive on this, the group will walk all over him and become useless.[7]

III. Balanced group goals and purpose

            Now although some groups try to emphasis one approach or the other, the first four goals are necessary, each in large proportions. This is not idealism. These purposes are not mutually conflicting, but rather each of them fits together. If everything becomes about task-orientation with neglect of relationships, then the group will not even be able to accomplish those tasks which it purposed in the first place, and fall apart quickly because of boredom and a lack of unity. If a group is relationship oriented at the expense of task and teaching, it becomes just a social club, without a meaningful destiny. And so it goes with Bible study and personal transformation if they are taken exclusively.[8]

            Now the one thing that should be emphasised slightly above the others is personal transformation. This is the essence of discipleship, and a good all-around central purpose.[9] Personal transformation however, cannot occur without putting a very high priority on the other components of ministry. Now to address the issue of having fun, where does this come from? The leader must engineer the group so that a fun experience is the byproduct of the spiritual growth and relationships that are built. Goofing-off activities should be minimized. There are times for them once and a while, but they cannot be the primary source of enjoyment for the members of the group. The members must come to the group out of a zeal or hunger for more of God, and the leader cannot change the group to cater to those who are just looking for good times. Some members will like certain activities such as the teaching or relationship aspect better than the other aspects, and this depends a great deal on individual personalities. When the activities are balanced however this will help eliminate certain people from getting much less out of the group.[10]

IV. Activities that must be balanced

            Now within a small group that wishes to remain balanced, there are a multitude of activities and possibilities the group leader must wade through when deciding how the group will spend its time when it meets. There is interactive-lecture teaching,[11] learning by group discussion, praise and worship,[12] prayer,[13] evangelistic outreach, community and charity involvement, fun-and-games, church involvement, and all sorts of other various things which can be considered worthy activities for a group to engage in. Within simply the category of teaching, the list could go on endlessly on how many aspects must be covered.

V. Balancing the Teaching aspect of Discipleship

            The subjects in teaching are like the different categories of the human body. It has skeletal structure, muscle, and nerves. The teachings such as original sin, the hypostatic union, and the Trinity are like the skeleton. They cannot simply be put to practical use at will like a teaching on prayer can, however a correct understanding of these issues is the framework of Christianity, and is what holds together the essence of all the other teachings. The outreach and service aspects are the muscles in the body of Christ. The muscle cannot work if it is missing bones, and neither can the more easily applied teachings be meaningful without the framework doctrines. Finally, there is the aspect of intimacy with God that is like the nerve system. The members in the group need to not only know about God, but they must learn to directly know Him in a personal relationship. Teachings about hearing the voice of God, experiencing the Holy Spirit, worship, and prayer are all in this category. The leader must remember to not just focus on one type of teaching, but needs to give variety all the time. Now the vast majority of the time should be spent in discussing the practical teachings, and the teachings on relationship with God.[14]

            Though framework teaching such as the hypostatic union are important to know, the members of the group are not going to stay interested when it comes to subjects like these, unless the talk is brief and takes no more time than necessary. So most of the teaching will need to be on things that the members will be able to apply into a noticeable change in the way they life. Examples of this are that the leader could teach on a certain heart attitude,[15] such as zeal for God or genuine love of others. Or he might discuss some kind of lifestyle issue. Another thing he could teach on is on getting a new mindset, or perspective on something. Besides this, another option is to examine a current issue, trend, or event and look for what God’s will is for how they should respond to it.[16] All of these will retain the interest of the group if they can see that what they are learning is relevant to their life. A teaching is almost entirely useless for discipleship purposes if the one taught does not actively think of ways that they will change their life or perspective in response to the teaching, and then commit to carrying those things out.[17]

VI. Variety each week

            Now as it can be seen there are categories within categories, and endless possibilities for teaching, let alone outreach. With all this variety, things may seem confusing, but the variety is really more of a blessing than an irritant for the small-group leader. He has in his arsenal, endless possibilities for variety. The group does not simply have to come each week and get a sermon, or always do some kind of outreach, or else spend each week praying the whole time. The leader should rotate things to keep everything fresh. Maybe one week the teaching will be brief, and the rest of the time will be spent in intercession for various nations. Another week the leader might focus more on teaching, and having the group discuss what was taught and ways they will practically implement it into their life.

VII. How a balanced night may be structured

            Exactly what is a good way of mixing all the possible activities of a discipleship group? The leader should begin the group in worship (after a prayer is said over the night).[18] The worship should be at least four songs, and perhaps a fair bit longer. It must not be so long that the group loses interest or takes a bored attitude towards it. By beginning the night in prayer and worship, each group member begins by directly relating to God, and will be a lot less likely to goof off throughout the night since they have begun by getting into an attitude of worship, and it takes a while to get back into a goof-off mindset. Beginning with worship also shows God that He is central to the group, and invites His presence there from the start.[19]

            After this the group should get into some kind of teaching and discussion. The teaching is going to have to be very interactive.[20] A lot of it needs to be discussion, and the leader cannot just straight lecture the group for more than fifteen minutes at the most. Otherwise the members of the group are going to get bored and not be impacted by what is taught. A good model is the traditional pattern of first giving a teaching, and then having discussion on it. The small-group leader always needs to keep the teaching on a subject that will have a direct impact on the lives of the members.[21] He should end the teaching by having a discussion of how the members will directly change their lifestyle or mindset to adapt to what was taught.

            It is a good idea to get the group members to have prayer as one of the activities of the group. Most of the prayer can be done on the members’ own time though, and it is easy to get bogged down in praying at the expense of teaching and discussion. Though prayer is crucial, it is something that each member can do each day of the week. They cannot however, have the teaching and discussion whenever they want, so when the group meets up the focus should be moreso on teaching and discussion than on prayer.

            It will be useful however, to have certain days when the group focuses more exclusively on prayer. Once every two months for example, the meeting may be dedicated specifically to prayer,[22] and the members will be stretched in praying for a longer period of time than they will be used to. There comes the question, should everyone take turns individually praying while the others give ‘amen,’ or should everyone pray on their own? This is best answered depending on the size of the group. The smaller the group, the easier it will be to take turns. A group of five will be able to have each member take turns praying, and keep each member involved. With a group of fifteen however, members may quickly lose focus because of the long wait for their turn to pray, and the lack of personal involvement. It may then be better for a large group to consider having each member pray on their own on prayer nights.

VIII. Outreach: another item that needs to be balanced in

Another aspect to the program is outreach.[23] Although Jesus gave His disciples teaching regularly, and worked on their character transformation, He still made sure they were always with Him for outreach. Self-focus is always opposed to love, so even the noble goal of spiritual and character transformation is not enough if not accompanied by helping others outside the group.[24] Outreach should occur on different days than the regular meetings, and not replace them on their respective days. Most of the time, the practicalities and flux of ministry opportunities will demand this anyways. The small group leader must remember that new members are not going to be as interested in the outreach aspect of the group as they will be in the regular meetings. So he should make sure to give a small sermonette once and a while that shows the necessity of outreach and ministry to others.

            There are two main types of outreach which the group may undertake. The first of these is an outreach method which has as its goal the evangelism of local communities, and the salvation of the nearby populace. There are several different strategies which may be implemented to assist in the evangelization of the nearby communities. One of these is door-to-door evangelism.[25] This method can be very effective, however most churches shy away from it because of its association with the Jehovah's Witness movement. Another method of evangelism is for the church to host a community event, and to give a gospel message as part of it.[26] The method in which most North American Churches evangelize however, is to invite unsaved members of the community to their church. This is not usually an effective way of reaching the lost, unless they are invited to a service specifically geared for them.

            The other goal of an outreach can be to provide some kind of basic service the community needs. The discipleship group could help out with a soup kitchen for instance, or some other kind of charity organization. They will almost always be assisting an organization that already exists, rather than try to start up something of their own. The best way to do things is to merge the two purposes of evangelism and charity-work when possible. When people see that they are genuinely cared for, they are much more likely to respond positively to the gospel message.[27]

            An example of this in action is that the small-group leader could give a message and discussion on evangelism, and then take part of a day to help out with a homeless shelter. While there the members could share the gospel message as part of their interaction with the people there. Because the people see the discipleship group actively caring for them, they will be more likely to accept Christ.

IX. Goof-off days

            Once and a while the group should have days which are separate from the discipleship focus. The intent will be simply to have fun together from a recreational perspective. These days are necessary to really bond the group together,[28] and they will also result in the discipleship days being more enjoyable, since the desire to enjoy recreational activity together will have been satisfied previously. These goof-off days should be communicated as being separate from the discipleship program, except for having the same members involved. Otherwise some less zealous members may tend to go to these goof-off days in a pattern noticeably more frequent than they attend the regular discipleship days, yet mentally satisfy their conscience by their attendance of these days.

            These days the group might meet up at a member's house and just fellowship and have fun there on an informal basis. The interests of the group members will have to be taken into account in deciding which activities will happen on these days, so the leader should seek group consensus, or use a democratic-style of decision-making for these days.[29]

            The group could also go out somewhere like a restaurant, or go bowling, etc. rather than meet up at a member's house. The point in the end is, these days are designed for the members to fellowship and take it easy. Groups are best forged by both working together, and also having fun together.[30] These days will help integrate the aspect of having fun, rather than just focusing on spiritual growth constantly with no break.

            As for the frequency of when these days dedicated to goofing-off occur, this will depend on each member's interest in them. Young adults will usually be pretty interested, moreso than middle-aged adults, but less than youth. These goofing-off days could be once a month or once every two weeks etc. depending on exactly how frequently the member's want them. A democratic decision-making process will probably work best when deciding the frequency these days will occur.[31]

X. The members' private spiritual life

            An integral aspect of the member’s spiritual growth is how they take care of their spiritual life on their own time. The group can only meet up once a week or so, and this obviously does not replace a vibrant relationship with God for the other days of the week. This is the most important part of small group leadership. How to get the members of the group to develop a strong and intimate relationship with God on their own time. Teaching them the concept of the priesthood of all believers is going to be vital.[32] It is going to be foremost for the leader to guide the group into experiencing the filling of the Holy Spirit, and get to the place where they are meeting Him on a regular basis. This will bring high levels of intimacy with God and power for ministry.

            Prayer is another key. You cannot have relationship without communication, and a relationship with God is only superficial without regular prayer. Not only does prayer bring one into a deeper relationship with God, but there is the added benefit of answered prayer, and great things being accomplished for God because of the prayers.[33]

            Private worship is another essential item, but this is a topic not taught near enough in the church.[34] King David made it a habit to worship God in private when he was in obscurity, and this paid off when God called him to the kingship. Meditating on and studying God's word is another crucial aspect of one's relationship with God. The leader should focus on getting the members involved in these three disciplines: prayer, worship, and Bible Study above the others. There are many other spiritual disciplines such as solitude and silence, witness, fasting, journaling, and secrecy.[35] Trying to mandate the members involved in all these miscellaneous disciplines on their own time is going to be impractical, however these can be taught and should be encouraged.

            As the members of the group grow to a greater maturity in their heart attitude towards God, they will naturally want to please Him, and will begin to do more prayer and worship on their own time without needing to be held accountable to each other each week. The group leader must make it his goal that the members grow to the place where they do not see private prayer, worship, and bible study as a chore, but as a blessing that they "get" to do, not "have" to do.[36] It is only in this place that lasting change will be produced in the small group members. They can exhibit godly behaviour for a time, but what is really important is that they end up getting such as heart attitude of love and zeal for God, that they will keep their relationship with Him strong without needing constant accountability. This is the most important part of personal transformation. When everyone has their inner heart attitudes transformed and gets to the state of wanting to live a godly life out of love for God, rather than from compulsion.[37]

            Because faithfulness to Christ requires every aspect of one's life to be submitted to His will, the mental dichotomy between secular and spiritual aspects of life has to be overcome. It can be easy to categorize activities such as prayer and worship as spiritual, but other activities like work as secular. The Bible makes it clear however, that one's social, work, and relationship life is inseparable from his spiritual walk.[38] Part of the teaching therefore, must be on how the group members can integrate God's will into every aspect of their life, even those aspects that are not always thought of as being spiritual.

XI. Conclusion

            The issue of how a small-group leader can balance the different activities of the small group he leads is a critical issue, because overemphasis or underemphasis of certain activities will leave the group inadequately discipled. The goal of a group should be the personal transformation of each member, however outreach and relationships must be included as supplements to this. A good way for a regular weekly meeting to run, is to begin with a quick prayer and then get into some worship. After four or maybe more songs, the group needs to shift into the teaching aspect of the group. The leader should always try to teach on subjects that have practical application for the members, and refrain from going into detail when teaching doctrines that cannot be applied to the members' lives. The teaching needs to be fairly interactive. Some days should be designated for outreach and for fun-and-games, however these must be in supplement to the regular meetings, and not on the same day, replacing it.

            By doing all this, the leader will have created a balanced group which has enough variety to make things fun, yet avoids the problem of focusing on fun at the expense of godliness. The members will come out as well rounded disciples, who have both their heart attitudes and lifestyle transformed, yet while still having an enjoyable time.

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[1] Mike Bogard, 41 ways to build a better youth group (Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1996),  29.

[2]  Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson,  The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  2002),  15.

[3]  Em Griffin, Getting Together  (Madison: Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, 1982),  27.

[4]  Griffin, 32.

[5]  Bogard, 75.

[6] Natalie Stadnick, “Why I’ve Given Up on Youth Group,” http://firecracker8489.blogs.com/blog/2006/08/why_ive_given_u.html

[7]  Laurie Polich, Help, I’m a small group leader!  (El Cajon: Youth Ministries Books, 1998),  34.

[8] Griffin, 45.

[9] Center for Christian Leadership,  “A Model of Spiritual Transformation.” http://bible.org/seriespage/model-spiritual-transformation

[10] Griffen, 42-43.

[11]  Life Path Ministries and Services, “Bible Stories and Beyond: Bible Teaching Strategies” http://www.lulu.com/items/volume_64/4322000/4322616/1/print/4322616.pdf

[12]  Psalm 150.

[13]  Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline  (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978), 30.

[14] Haddon Robinson, “Blending Bible Content and Life Application,” http://www.preachingtodaysermons.com/blbicoandlia.html

[15]  1 Samuel 16:7.

[16]  Bogard, 80.

[17]  Robinson.

[18]  Life Church Ministries, “Prayer Helps,” http://www.lifechurchministries.org/helps/prayer_helps.html

[19]  Bob Sorge, Exploring Worship,  (Lee’s Summit: Oasis House,  2001),  29.

[20] Cody R. Smith, “Relational Bible Study,” http://www.walk-this-way.com/relational_study.htm

[21] Broadus, W. A., Dargan E. C. On The Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, (United States: Lightning Source, Inc. 2000), 114.

[22] Kelli Mahoney, “Top 8 Youth Group Activities for Christian Teen Girls,” http://christianteens.about.com/od/activities/tp/ActivitiesGirls.htm

[23] Kenneth Boa,  Conformed to His Image  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001),  388.

[24] Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship  (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006),  235.

[25] David Dunlap,  “Door to Door Evangelism,”  http://www.plymouthbrethren.org/article/410

[26] Steve M. Evans,  “Bait and Switch,”  http://affinityevangelism.blogspot.com/2009/10/bait-and-switch.html

[27] Bogard, 145.

[28] Marsha Firestone,  “A Peer Advisory Group Can Help You Grow Your Business,” http://us.smetoolkit.org/us/en/content/en/2253/A-Peer-Advisory-Group-Can-Help-You-Grow-Your-Business

[29] Griffin, 68.

[30] Firestone.

[31] Griffin, 68.

[32] Coty Pinckney, “The Priesthood of All believers.” http://tcpiii.tripod.com/levitpriest1.htm

[33] Dutch Sheets,  Intercessory Prayer. (Ventura: Regal Books, 1996),  28.

[34] Bob Sorge. Exploring Worship  (Lee’s Summit: Oasis House,  2008),  32.

[35] Kenneth Boa,  Conformed to His Image  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  2001),  82-85.

[36] Richard J. Foster. Celebration of Discipline  (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978),  2.

[37] ibid, 135.

[38] ibid, 213.

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