By Chris Surratt
Launching a discipleship group can be an intimidating process. There are a lot of questions to think through, but the first question we have to wrestle with is: What type of group will this be?
We can get locked into the belief that we have to begin with a small group of people meeting in our home, but that is not always the best starting point for creating a sustainable path for spiritual growth.
The underlying mission for any group or relationship should come from the command Jesus left us in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We can see from this passage that Jesus made it simple—we are to make disciples. If our groups are built on this command when shifting in relationships occur, the foundation is still strong.
Relationships on their own are fragile, but when partnered with intentional discipleship, they can be the catalyst to sustained life change.
If we are following Jesus’ great commission, it makes sense to follow the pattern He left us in forming community. We can see in Genesis 1:26 that Jesus had perfect relationship of the Trinity: Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
But He chose to leave that community to come to earth to on a mission to die for those He came to reach. Here are four types of groups within a community needed for effective discipleship.
1. The group of many
So, where did Jesus start? He didn’t look to gather a huge crowd, or even a small group of people, but started in the community where He found himself. Luke tells this story of Jesus as a boy in Luke 2:
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions (Luke 2:41-46).
Jesus started his spiritual journey by spending time with people around him and asking questions. He wanted to understand before moving on to what was next. Our first “group” should be the community we are physically placed.
Our neighborhoods, coffee shops, offices, or anywhere we interact with people and ask questions and understand their stories and experiences. This is our first mission field. Look for those natural interactions that can lead to relationships.
For example, instead of pulling into the garage and shutting it behind you, take a minute to step outside and interact with neighbors for a few minutes. Those seemingly casual conversations can lead to opportunities to share the gospel only after understanding and relationship is established.
2. The group of twelve
The next group Jesus engaged with on His mission was His group of 12 disciples. He intentionally and prayerfully chose 12 men to walk with him and eventually carry on the mission after He was gone.
This was Jesus’ small group. After He had returned to heaven, we can see this practice of meeting together in smaller groups carried on by the early church in Acts 2.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
You can see in this passage that the early church devoted themselves to God and each other through both corporate gatherings (the temple), and in the home (house to house).
We are carrying on this 2000-year-old tradition by launching groups to meet in homes, apartment clubhouses, office break rooms, church classrooms, or anywhere that a group of 8-12 people can meet together to have community (fellowship), discipleship (prayer, wonders and signs), and mission (sold their possessions and added to their number).
3. The group of four
Even as Jesus did ministry with the 12, there were three disciples he spent the most time with: Peter, John, and James. We can see this special relationship play out in Mark 14.
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch” (Mark 14:32-34).
He formed this smaller group of four, and allowed them more access throughout his ministry, because He understood the importance of intentionality with just a few to carry on the work.
Our next step after forming a small group is looking for those 3-4 same-sex people within the group to form more intentional discipleship relationships with outside of meeting times. We should also help other group members do the same.
4. The group of two
If we look closer at Jesus’ smaller group of four, we see there was one who was even closer than the others: John. John testifies to this relationship in John 20:1-2.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
John was also the disciple who reclined against Jesus during the Last Supper in John 13. This intimate bond did not mean that Jesus loved the other disciples any less, but it’s obvious that John sought harder than the others after Jesus’ affections.
Everyone in our congregations—including us—need that person in our lives who knows us more than anyone else. That person with whom we can share the highest of highs and lowest of lows. He or she may be a mentor, a spouse, or a closest friend.
CHRIS SURRATT (@ChrisSurratt) is a ministry consultant and coach with more than twenty years of experience. He served on church staffs prior to becoming the discipleship and small groups specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources. He is the author of Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group. You can follow his blog at ChrisSurratt.com.