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How to Make Disciples in Small Groups

light at the endI don’t know about you, but I’m determined to build a thriving small group ministry that makes disciples.  That is the light at the end of the tunnel for me.  It is the end in mind.  It’s not just to connect unconnected people.  That’s important, but only a beginning.  My objective is to make disciples.  And I suspect–since you are still along on this journey with me–that is your objective too!  See also, How to Build a Thriving Small Group Ministry and 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People.

And if your objective is to make disciples…you must know what it is you are trying to make (i.e., What is a disciple?).  Once you know that little detail, you will be able to lay out a path that leads to that preferred future.

With me?

And to that end, I love this paragraph from Dallas Willard.  In my mind it informs what it is that I need to do in laying out the path.

As a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means how to live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I (emphasis mine) I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.  How to Be a Disciple

Still with me?  This sets up a fairly clear understanding of the things that will have to be true about a small group ministry that will make disciples.

  1. It defines what I must do as I develop coaches.  I will need do to and for my coaches the things that will help them learn to live their lives as Jesus would live their lives.  See also, The Most Important Contribution of a Small Group Pastor.
  2. It defines what our coaches must do to and for the leaders they are discipling.  See also, Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Leaders.
  3. It defines what our small group leaders must do to and for the members they are discipling.  See also, 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader.

What do you think?  Have a question? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Lagging Indicators of Effective Disciple-Making Small Group Ministries

economic chartIn the world of economics, “lagging indicators are indicators that usually change after the economy as a whole does.”  For example, changes in the unemployment rate are lagging indicators that lag changes in the economy.  As the economy improves, more jobs are added and the unemployment rate decreases.  The Consumer Confidence Index and the Dow Jones Transportation Average are other examples of lagging indicators.  Their movement, up or down, trails changes in the economy.

Lagging indicators are useful for economists because they confirm the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of earlier strategies and actions.

Can you see where this is going?  Might there be lagging indicators that validate or invalidate the effectiveness of small group ministry disciple-making strategies and structures?  I believe there are a few that we should be tracking.

Lagging Indicators of Effective Disciple-Making Strategies and Structures

This is a very preliminary list, but doesn’t it make sense that the following lagging indicators would be in evidence?

  • Growing evidence of a biblical worldview.  As more and more disciples are made, wouldn’t biblical principles infiltrate ordinary conversation among small group members?
  • A growing culture of generosity.  Couldn’t you compare the giving levels of small group members with the giving levels of those not in a group?
  • An others first mentality.  Doesn’t it make sense that a Philippians 2 attitude would begin to be in evidence?  With some work it should be possible to quantify a decrease in taking the best seat and an increase in setting aside what is due?
  • An abundance of ministry volunteers.  Wouldn’t every ministry have a surplus of committed volunteers?  Doesn’t the perennial shortage of ministry volunteers indicate an ineffective disciple-making strategy?
  • A pervasive attitude of humility.  If there was an effective disciple-making strategy, wouldn’t a growing percentage of small group members acknowledge that they have not yet arrived and readily recognize that they are not yet what they will be?
  • A persistent determination to clear up damaged relationships.  Don’t you imagine that an effective disciple-making strategy would greatly reduce the presence of petty grievances, malicious gossip, and barely covered ill will?
  • An increasing willingness to follow spiritual leadership.  Wouldn’t stubborn refusal to submit to spiritual authority steadily diminish when there is an effective disciple-making strategy?

Admittedly, in a growing church spiritual immaturity will always be present.  But in a church with an effective disciple-making strategy, there should also be the presence of an encouraging set of lagging indicators.

See also, Four Leading Indicators of Small Group Ministries that Make Disciples and 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader.

What do you think?  Have one to add? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry

Wrestling with questions like, “Are we really making disciples?”  Or maybe, “Where are the mature disciples?”  I want to suggest that while those are valid questions, they might not be the most helpful questions.  In addition, asking the right questions is essential if you want to discover discover the best solutions.

W. Edwards Deming said, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”   Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The questions you ask determine whether you arrive at the discovery you seek.  The questions you ask determine whether you arrive at the best solution.

6 essential questions about making disciples and small group ministry

  1. What is a disciple?  This is a foundational question.  The answer to this question will inform what your next questions should be.  I find two Dallas Willard quotes helpful on this.  First, “As a disciple I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.”   Not a bad definition.  And second, “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”  That is a very good end in mind, don’t you think?
  2. What is the best way to help the largest number of people to take a first step toward becoming a disciple (or a better disciple)?  When this is not the second question, or an early question, it’s easy to be led in a direction that does not scale (i.e., one-on-one discipleship, triad discipleship or groups with high entry requirements).  When you think steps, not programs, you determine to create steps that are easy, obvious, and strategic.  Let me add that the very best followup question is, “What would have to be true for that option to work?”  See also, How Would You Rate the First Steps out of Your Auditorium?
  3. How might we build a pathway that would help the largest number of people take next steps toward becoming better disciples?  A pathway is a series of next steps that lead in the direction of the destination.  I love Andy Stanley’s line, “Path, not intent, determines destination.”  Again, an excellent followup question is, “What would have to be true for that option to work?”  See also, 5 Main Causes of “Failure to Thrive” in Small Group Ministries.
  4. What are we not doing about making disciples that we should start doing right away?  Isn’t this an obvious question?  The absence of a sense of urgency about making disciples should make our dashboard light up with flashing lights and piercing alarms.  See also, Beware of the Lure of the Status Quo.
  5. What should we immediately stop doing in order to allow for the emergence of a better pathway?  Perpetuating an ineffective status quo is standing in the way of a better way.  Peter Drucker pointed out that, “The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow.  It is to decide what to abandon.”  See also, Growth’s Counterintuitive First Step.
  6. What are the obstacles that keep the most people from taking a step toward becoming a better disciple?  This question is only slightly different than #5, but it is an important difference.  Designing an effective pathway requires the elimination of obstacles, barriers and stumbling blocks at the entrance and along the way (i.e., the first step is hidden or hard to find, the next step menu includes too many choices, etc.).  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

See also, Four Questions that Evaluate Small Group Model Effectiveness and Supercharge Your Ministry Impact with These 5 Questions.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

5 Essential Ingredients of Groups that Make Disciples

Essential IngredientsYesterday I asked the question, “What have you designed your groups to make?”  Answering my own question, I said, “Our small groups are designed to make followers of Jesus.”  And I must admit that my answer begs the question, “what kind of group will make disciples or followers of Jesus?”  See also, What Have You Designed Your Groups to Make?

What kind of group will make disciples…or followers of Jesus?

We could also ask, “What would have to be true about a group for it to make followers of Jesus?”

Good questions…don’t you think?

I’m sure there are more than these 5, but I don’t believe you can actually make followers of Jesus without these.  See what you think.

5 essential ingredients of groups that make followers of Jesus:

  1. The presence of a person who can say, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).”  How far ahead must they be?  A step or two.  Note: This person (or these people) may not need to be the leader of the group.  See also, 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader and Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change.
  2. A curriculum focused on learning to be like Jesus.  The end in mind is being like Jesus, not knowing about Jesus.  Note: This probably means that someone more knowledgeable has laid out a pathway designed to help groups wisely choose what to study.  See also, Small Group Ministry Myth #3: Leaders and Members Know Best What to Study.
  3. An unforced and unassuming intentionality pervades every gathering.  Groups that make authentic followers seem to operate independently of agenda.  Talking about scripture is a naturally occurring element, but so is every other aspect of life.   When appearance trumps authenticity the group produces Pharisaism.
  4. An “in but not of” culture makes inclusion natural and unforced.  Any hint of exclusivity or artificiality negates the work being done.  Learning to be like Jesus is a practical impossibility in isolation.  See also, An “In” but Not “Of” M.O.
  5. An “others first attitude” deeply saturates every aspect of the group.  Becoming like Jesus by definition assumes setting aside more and more of your own personal interests.  See also, A Willingness to Set Aside Your Own Interests.

What do you think?  Have one to add? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Anthony Georgeff

What Have You Designed Your Groups to Make?

What have you designed your small groups to make?

This is an ongoing discussion right now…at least in my world.  It’s framed differently from one conversation to another and the frame itself manufactures slightly different answers…most of them a little vague.

What have you designed your groups to make?  Acquaintances?  Friends?  Fully devoted followers?  Disciples?  Followers?

You might prefer, “What are your groups designed to do?”  In which case you might answer “make disciples” or “make disciples who make disciples.”

I’d rather answer this one, “What have you designed your groups to make?”  My answer?  I say, “Our small groups are designed to make followers of Jesus.”  At least, that’s what I say.

Honestly, I’m challenged by something Dallas Willard said when describing a follower or disciple of Jesus:

Disciples of Jesus are those who are with him, learning to be like him. That is, they are learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.” (Renovation of the Heart, 241)

Dallas Willard went on to say:

A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”

Question: Have I really designed my small groups to make that kind of follower?

And when I read these lines I’m reminded again that, according to Andy Stanley, my “ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results I’m currently experiencing.”

And if my groups aren’t really designed to make that kind of follower…what would have to be true for my groups to begin producing followers who “effortlessly do what Jesus would do if Jesus were them?”  See also, Skill Training: Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change, Groups of  All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change, and 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader.

What have you designed your groups to make?

How would you answer that question?

What do you think?  Have one to add? Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

What’s Better? Rows or Circles?

Turns out I can’t get enough of the idea that circles are better than rows…for most things.  It’s that important.  At least to me.

If you’ve been along for much of this journey, you’ve probably read many of these.  If you’re a newer member or infrequent attendee, you might just want to dive in and get the full treatment today!

Here are my top 10 posts on the idea that circles are better than rows:

  1. Disciples are rarely made in rows.
  2. Quotebook: Life-Change, Circles and Rows.
  3. Andy Stanley on Creating a Culture That’s All About Circles.
  4. The Primary Activity of the Early Church.
  5. Top 10 Signs Your Ministry Might Be Schizophrenic.
  6. An Inadequate Explanation for the 1st Century
  7. 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry
  8. 3 Prerequisite Convictions of Senior Pastors Who Experience Authentic Community
  9. How Do You Best Utilize Gifted Teachers in a Church OF Small Group?
  10. Top 10 Signs Your Small Group Ministry Needs a Reboot

Don’t Miss This New Study from Verge: Disciple Making: No Plan B

disciplemakingHad an opportunity this week to spend some time with a new resource from Verge Network.  Disciple Making: No Plan B  is an 8 session study designed to be used by a missional community.  A challenging study, it provides just the right combination of push and pull to move groups out of comfort zones and into life-altering engagement.

I love this line from the included leader’s guide:

“This study guide is a tool to help you and your community live on mission in your city or neighborhood.”

I would call Disciple Making a DVD-enhanced study.  Each session features a short 10 to 15 minute clip from a session at a 2012 Verge Network conference.  The speakers are well known inside the missional movement and include Alan Hirsch, Jo Saxton, Neil Cole, Jeff Vanderstelt, Mike Breen and Kevin Peck.

The member book sets a course for a fairly engaging experience.  A varied experience, each session includes a number of elements.  Short readings to establish an idea and provoke dialogue, thoroughly biblical with extensive scripture, and very practical with its urge to apply the learnings…there is plenty here to fully engage participants.

A very good leader’s guide is included in the member book, making it possible for members to rotate the facilitator role.

If you’re looking for a study that will help group members take steps in discipleship, Disciple Making has a lot going for it.  Far beyond learning about discipleship, this is a study designed to compel movement.  I like where Disciple Making goes and I think you will too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

An Inadequate Explanation for the 1st Century

What’s your explanation for what happened in the 1st century?  I mean, how do you think the church grew from 120 in an upper room to what many believe was more than 100,000 by the end of the 1st century?

Think it happened in rows?  Think it happened because everyone had an apprentice?  Think it happened because they implemented an exhaustive leader recruitment strategy and a 12 week intensive leader training program?  See also, Problem-Free Leader Identification and Recruitment and Disciples Are Rarely Made in Rows.

What do you think happened?  How did it grow exponentially?

Personally, I think most of our programs and strategies, what we hold out as solutions to the current evangelism and discipleship malaise are inadequate explanations for what happened.

I think–and I’m clearly reading between the lines here (which is more than a little uncomfortable for a Southern Baptist)–that the best explanation for the 1st century is actually that the people who were closest to the edges were so taken by a radically different life that they couldn’t help but tell their family and friends.

See, just like today, the usual suspects, the insiders, the core and committed didn’t actually have friends or family who were on the outside.  Who did?  Who had friends in the community?  The folks on the outer edges of the congregation.  The folks in the crowd.  Which is why we must forever make it easy for those closest to the edge to play important roles in inviting and including their friends and their family.  See also, Important Keys to GroupLife at Crowd’s EdgePreoccupied with the Needs and Interests of the Right People and Connecting the Widening 60% (who are unreachable by the attractional model).

Believe what you want.  Insist on requiring membership for group leaders.  Raise the bar for group leadership.  Maintain impeccable standards.  The test is not a problem-free leader track.  The test is not meeting the standards of an elder or a Proverbs 31 woman.  The test is 120 to 100k by the end of the 21st century.

What do you think? Have a question? Want to argue? Got a question? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Don’t Miss the Latest from Will Mancini: Innovating Discipleship

innovating discipleshipHad a chance to work my way through a new book by Will Mancini.  Innovating Discipleship: Four Paths to Real Discipleship Results is a quick read only if you’re in a hurry and not really paying attention.  Mancini, the author of Church Unique and the founder of Auxano is on to a very important idea with Innovating Discipleship.  In fact, I’d say you should only read it if you’re serious about your mission.

A slim book, Innovating Discipleship is just 85 pages (when you include the appendix).  At the same time, any one of several killer concepts is worth way more than the price of this book.  If you read with an eye for game-changing insight…you’ll have no trouble uncovering a set of new questions and new insights that will spur new conversations for a long time.

In the opening pages of the book, Mancini unveils an intriguing formula: 1 + 2 + 4 + 16.  Here’s what it means: one whiteboard drawing defined by two vision decisions reals four paths to the future that provide sixteen super questions for limitless ministry innovation.  He has a passion for tool-making.  Innovating Discipleship is a great tool!

I am always on the lookout for great ways to diagnose or dissect ministry issues and challenges.  I read broadly and continually.  I scour and sift to find new and better ways of thinking about strategies and solutions.  Church Unique had such an impact on my vantage point, that when I saw the first mentions of Innovating Discipleship I knew I had to see it.  I was not disappointed!  This is great stuff.

My copy is a little bit of a mess.  Underlined.  Starred.  Dog-eared with a broken spine.  My copy looks like I’ve had it much longer than I have.  Packed with keen insights, if you’re looking for the truth about your current situation and more importantly, what and where your next steps could be…I highly recommend that you pick up your own copy of Innovating Discipleship.  You’ll be very glad you did!

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Importance of Discipling People with Wisdom

geiger-headshotEver feel any responsibility for the spiritual development of the group members in your church?  I do.  And I bet you do too.  I had an opportunity this week to ask Eric Geiger a few questions about the importance of discipling people with wisdom, one of the key benefits of LifeWay’s new Bible Studies for Life curriculum.

What is the big idea behind “discipling people with wisdom”?

The apostle Paul said, “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Paul wanted to see maturity and development occur in the people he led, and according to this passage, this involved teaching with wisdom. The antithesis of  “teaching with wisdom” is a haphazard plan or no plan for developing people in our groups/classes.

As we design ongoing Bible studies from LifeWay (such as Bible Studies for Life), we long for the studies to provide church and group leaders with a wise plan to lead people toward greater maturity in Christ. We are concerned about the long-term lack of impact on people in our groups/classes if there is no plan.

Is there a biblical basis for a discipleship plan?

I believe there is. The apostle Paul described his ministry as skillful building in response to and empowered by God’s grace. He said, “According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10). In other words, the apostle Paul did not just “wing it.” He did not haphazardly plant churches or disciple people. With great intentionality, Paul faithfully served as a master builder. And likewise, he challenged us to “be careful how [we build].”

A wise builder has a set of blueprints, a plan, and a clear strategy for proactively attacking the building project. A wise builder would never come to the table with a dream of what could be built without a plan for executing it. In the same way, your ministry needs a blueprint. Your church must have a plan to disciple people with wisdom. Your church must be more than a random and disconnected array of programs, studies, and events.

What do you mean when you talk about a “wise discipleship plan”?

I know discipleship is much broader and deeper than information, so I want to be careful to emphasize that I am not suggesting a discipleship plan is equated to discipleship. Ultimately, discipleship is about transformation, not merely information or behavioral modification. I believe local churches exist to make disciples and that the totality of their mission must be to make disciples; thus, they need an overarching discipleship process that undergirds their church. But when I talk about a “wise discipleship plan” for groups or classes, I am talking about the plan for study. Educators would likely call a “plan” a “scope and sequence” of what is studied. Because community is only as strong as what it is built upon, church leaders are wise to give their groups a discipleship plan that over time exposes people to the whole counsel of God’s Word.

So each of our Bible study series (Bible Studies for Life, The Gospel Project, etc.) is developed in community with church leaders we respect, with educators, and with scholars so that we can lay our heads on our pillows at night really believing that we have a plan to develop and mature people over time—that we aren’t throwing a whole bunch of studies on the wall and hoping some of them stick.

What are some essential elements in a discipleship plan?

The most common and essential element in a wise discipleship study plan is the Word: the Living Word (Jesus) and the written Word. Studies must be rooted in Scripture, and over time, people must be exposed to the totality of the Word. Studies must also be focused on Jesus because only He transforms the heart.

The starting point for a discipleship plan may vary based on the group/class, but all studies must get people to the text and to Jesus. For example, with Bible Studies for Life we start with real life issues that people face everyday, and we want to bring the Scripture to bear on those issues. Over time we expose people to the whole counsel of the Word. With The Gospel Project, we start with a systematic plan to show people how all Scripture points to Jesus. With Explore the Bible (our next big launch for all ages), we start with a plan to walk people through all the books of the Bible. A pastor who has been to seminary would say one sounds like practical theology, one sounds like systematic theology, and one sounds like biblical theology. Three different approaches, but all must be centered on the Word.


Eric Geiger serves as one of the Vice Presidents at LifeWay Christian Resources, leading the Church Resources Division. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy. Eric has authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church.


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