Cultivate a Disciple-Making Environment

You can create the right environment for a healthy group.

Jesus' invitation to follow him is an invitation to pattern our lives after him in every way. Jesus is relational. We see this in his relationship with his Heavenly Father, the disciples, the communities where he ministered, and how he relates to us today.

I can't think of a better way to follow Jesus and pattern my life after his than bonding with others in a small group and traveling together in our spiritual journeys. Small groups are not a ministry program. They're not something to be added to a list of recommendations for healthy Christian living. Rather, small groups instrumental to being the church.

Historically, small groups have been a vital part of how God has built the community of his Church through every Christian renewal movement since Pentecost. Healthy discipleship flows out of healthy relationships. It begins with Christ and continues in community with other believers. Small groups help to form the relationships that nourish our growth as disciple-making disciples. In fact, the Lord commonly uses a community of believers to bring seekers to himself (e.g., John 13:34–35, 17:20–23; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 2:13–20, 4:11–13; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 4:12, 17). Community is also the greatest influencer in how people follow Christ.

Consider Where God Is Working

In my work of cultivating environments that make disciples of people at different stages in their spiritual journey, I have learned to first respect God's work. The truth is, God is already at work . . .

Building His Church

What that looks like is the building of community. So I try to respond to what he is actively doing in my church's community life, and nurture the things that are already moving. I do not over-engineer or complicate the discipleship process with too many steps. Community is the soil that helps people sink their roots into Christ, so I focus on planting people in the fertile ground of those who are already growing together in Christ. What is already happening in and through your church that is effectively reaching people for Christ and building up your community? Explore how you can tap into or build on that.

Through His Word

God's Word is living and active, so as I'm facilitating a Bible study, I assume that biblical truth is actively transforming those who are hearing it. Instead of explaining the truth to group participants, I expose them to the truth and lean on the group's collective wisdom to discover what the Lord is communicating to each individual heart. When seekers or new believers are part of my group's Bible study, I restrain myself from going too much beyond basic contextualization and trust that God's Word will speak to them.

Drawing People Closer to Himself

God loves people and is more concerned about their spiritual journey than I ever could be, so I'm diligent to find how he is working in a person's life. Then I'm careful not to presume or prescribe too much. After all, discipleship is not really an orderly process. Just look at the Gospels.

Encouraging Relationships

Let God bring the people to your group that he wants to. Shepherds are to protect their flock from wolves, not other sheep. If an actual shepherd were to see a lone sheep approach the flock and attempt to nudge itself into it, could you imagine him or her kicking it out? Of course not! Shepherds are to protect their flocks from decreasing, not increasing. Trust God with the dynamic of your group and the meeting space to accommodate those he wants to bring.

Healthy Group Elements

Small-group leaders can create environments that encourage the disciple-making process for everyone by introducing elements that are favorable to the discipleship process. What is necessary to help people in all different places in their spiritual journey grow closer to Christ together? I would suggest the following:

Authentic Leadership

Nobody influences the atmosphere of a group more —positively or negatively—than the leader. What makes a small-group leader successful is a love for God and for people. The key to a successful small group is the authenticity of its leader. Authenticity creates common ground where people of varying levels of spiritual maturity can meet together, discuss God's Word, and grow spiritually.

Healthy Relationships

Relationships are the engine of discipleship. When a person wants to connect in a small group, I don't consider the type of group, location, or even the curriculum to be the most important factors. Rather, it's the group dynamic, which is a direct result of the relationships among the people in that group. If the relationships are healthy, the experience and effect of the group dynamic will be as well. Unhealthy relationships release toxins into the group's ecosystem, which can be detrimental.

Deep Group Life

There will be depth to the small-group experience if group members are loving God, people, and the world around them. This happens through the flexible arrangement of elements like fellowship, prayer, God's Word, ministry, and outreach. Healthy environments are always in flux, changing and growing. The same is true ofHealthy Small Groups.

Missional Orientation

Every small group has a purpose. Sometimes it's stated. Sometimes it's not. But it does exist. Small-group leaders can cultivate disciple-making environments for everyone if they bring a missional orientation to their group's purpose. Help group members see that an important part of discipleship is reaching out to others. Growing closer together and reaching out shouldn't be exclusive.

Balanced Curriculum

This was deliberately put last on the list. A mistake made by many small-group leaders is thinking or allowing curriculum to define the depth of the group. I've seen plenty of small groups use "deep" or "meaty" Bible studies and go nowhere. I've also seen plenty of small groups use material that more mature believers consider to be simple, but because of the leadership and relationships in the group, people have been healed, saved, delivered, and built up in their faith.

Groups that have mixed levels of spiritual maturity tend to benefit most from curriculum that takes them into God's Word, helps them apply it to life, builds their relationships, and encourages them to share their spiritual discoveries with others beyond the group. God's Word has a way of meeting everyone where they're at—something most curriculums fail to do.

—Reid Smith is the Community Life Pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; copyright 2007 by Christianity Today.

  1. How might considering where God is already working in your group help you keep the right perspective for leadership?
  2. How authentic do you feel your leadership is? Why? What might you do to be a more authentic leader?
  3. What is the depth of your group? What contributes to the depth (or lack of depth)?

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