Reading Mindy Caliguire's new book, STIR, was incredibly refreshing. She addresses several issues related to discipleship in one place, and that makes it a very helpful book for small-group pastors and directors—as well as other church staff.
STIR is organized around the three stages of spiritual growth and formation: Learning Together, Journeying Together, and Following Together. For each stage, Caliguire fully explains the markers, the objectives, and the kinds of relationships that are required. By explaining discipleship in this way, she clears up two common issues. First of all, she explains why so many churches fall short in discipleship efforts: we don't take into account the fact that there are different stages that require different things. Second, she fights back against the argument that small groups aren't for everyone—or that they're only for new believers. But she does so in a way that shows the true issue. She writes,
Most leaders have discovered, through trial and error, that a one-size-fits-all approach to small-group ministry does not work … . Small groups have a place. They can be vitally important for growth, particularly in the early stages of the spiritual journey. But they can also become stifling or even harmful to ongoing growth and spiritual development if they fail to change. Shifts in both form and function that release people into new relational environments are needed. As people grow, they need relationships that fit their particular stage of growth.
The best aspects of this book are the clear descriptions and objectives for growth of each stage, and the recommendations for how small groups can help people at each stage grow. Without this information, small groups will struggle to effectively disciple people at various spiritual maturity levels. This doesn't mean that we should group people by stage—or even that we should intentionally identify which stage each person in our ministry falls into. Instead, it can help small-group pastors better understand the needs of growing disciples and coaches better understand how to empower leaders to lead groups that meet these needs.
If we want to see real life transformation in our churches and ministries, we'll need to pay attention to how we're ministering to these three unique stages. In small-group ministry, we must evaluate which stage we're most catering to and also how to allow shifts in groups to meet those in other stages.
This first stage is for new believers or those whose faith is really just taking off. As exciting as this time can be, it can also be daunting. The spiritual life may feel like so much change that a person can feel overwhelmed. Rather than let them float through the church's programs and events, the people in this stage need groups that are focused on helping them learn what their new life looks like. They need a leader who is investing in them and encouraging their progress. It's the perfect time for basic Bible studies, especially ones that focus on the person of Jesus or the overarching story of the Bible.
In the second stage, people begin to realize their utter need for God and just how far short they fall of the holiness to which they're called. Beyond learning about their faith, they want to personalize it in a new way and connect with God. The most important part of this stage is discovering the interior world—the hidden forces at work like motives, desires, shame, and fear. While you might wonder if all this interior work is necessary, Caliguire presses that it is, quoting Dr. David Benner: "You can never be other than who you are until you are willing to embrace the reality of who you are. Only then can you truly become who you are most deeply called to be." People in this stage need fellow journeyers that gather regularly to discuss the real and challenging things of life, and a leader who facilitates these conversations in a safe environment. The leader must be comfortable modeling the interior work necessary in this stage.
People in the third stage are mature in their faith and have dealt with the inner life. Now they need running mates who will continually remind them to stay the course and persevere. As they continue to journey, they'll face new inner struggles that need to be dealt with and hard life circumstances that will try them. Friends that are able to call out the struggles and unhealthy patterns they see are especially helpful in this stage. People in this stage are especially equipped to help others along the journey—whatever the stage. They need strong mutual relationships that pour into them and opportunities to help others. They need a group leader who is more friend than guide.
Caliguire recognizes that, unfortunately, deep relationships are unusual in our churches. She writes: "As we talk about discipleship and spiritual formation, I notice that a focus on fostering a variety of relationships for the intentional purpose of spiritual growth seems to be weak and in some cases is entirely absent." Yet it's clear that people at all stages of the journey need meaningful relationships—relationships that can come through small groups if we're intentional.
Who This Book Is For
This resource is best for churches that have intentional small groups that desire to focus on discipleship, but that doesn't mean they must be curriculum-heavy. Churches must also be willing to have groups that are not completely controlled. In other words, a church that has all groups doing the same thing at all times will struggle to implement Caliguire's wisdom. Churches need not subscribe to one small-group model. Instead, the information in STIR can help in a variety of settings and models—as long as the ministry is seeking to be intentional about discipleship through small groups.
I highly recommend small-group coaches read this book so they can mentor leaders in how to best care for their group members. It's also a great book for small-group pastors, small-group directors, and discipleship pastors. Even youth pastors can benefit from the wisdom in this book if there are small groups in the youth ministry.
For an excerpt from STIR, read "Leading a Growing Group."
—Amy Jackson is the managing editor of SmallGroups.com and holds an M.A. in Christian Formation and Ministry; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.