Building Groups or Making Disciples? Part 1

Models for intentional discipleship in a small groups church, focusing on closed discipleship groups.

Two years into my ministry at First Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois, I came to a stunning realization. Although by all outward signs our groups were a success, something vital was missing.

A person could be actively involved in our small group system (or our Adult Bible Classes) and conceivably never learn how to have a personal prayer life, never get a basic overview of the Bible, never learn Bible study skills, never discover their spiritual gifts, and never learn how to share their faith.

Of course they were experiencing many positives, too: the love and support of a community, Bible discussion in a group setting, learning to pray by praying and being prayed for. But some of the basics of Christian discipleship were being unintentionally left out.

In part, this was a confusion of means and ends. Like many people, I learned the basics of leading a small group from Lyman Coleman and the plan for integrating group life into the fabric of the church from Carl George. I knew all about group dynamics and meta-church zones and leadership development. Along the way, my unstated goal became the reproduction of small groups instead of the Biblical mandate of multiplying disciples. Instead of small groups becoming a means to discipleship, they became an end in themselves.

I also became convinced that small groups are only part of the big picture. Another critical component is a plan for intentional discipleship. Small groups provide the infrastructure that allows discipleship to occur most effectively. But we must also provide a picture of what God wants people to become.

So, how can small groups more effectively produce disciples? There are three basic approaches:

  1. Closed discipleship groups

  2. Open groups combined with elective classes or seminars

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