Learning to Launch a Discipleship Group
This blog is an excerpt from the free eBook, Invest in a Few: Giving Your Life to What Matters Most. Download it free here.
Years ago there was quite a bit of discussion among disciple makers about whether discipleship should take place in a one-on-one context or within a group. There are strong arguments on both sides and quite honestly, both are fine. I have discipled men one-on-one and I have used a group to disciple them. What matters most is simply that you are investing in another person’s life.
That being said, I have found that the optimal environment for making disciples is a small group of three to four people. If you have a group of two, then if one misses the group time, it leaves you with only one other person. As a result, often that person is reluctant to meet that week because they don’t want to leave the other person out, so the group time is delayed. If you have more than four in a group, I find it very difficult to personally invest in that number of people given the demands of my own schedule. Therefore, for me groups of three to four seem best. They are large enough to continue the continuity of meetings if one misses but small enough to personally invest in each group member.
This is from Craig Ethredege’s eBook, Invest in a Few. Download the eBook here in your favorite format at no cost.
Looking through Scripture, it is clear that God does amazing things in groups. Even God himself exists in the context of a group, the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:26). When God made man, he created him not for isolation but for community, boldly declaring that it is “not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). Then, God placed him into close connection with his wife so they could make a family where they could all grow and develop. This principle doesn’t stop there, though; throughout the entire story of the Bible, we find people growing in the context of community.
Big Change in Small Groups
Take a brief survey with me of the landscape of the Old Testament to see how often God works through groups: When God called Abraham to travel from his hometown to the land of Canaan, he chose a small group comprised of his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, along with his many servants. When God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage, he chose a group of three leaders to go with him—namely his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Mariam. When God chose to conquer the land promised to Israel, he called two men (Joshua and Caleb) to lead the way. God gave Noah three sons, surrounded king David with his 50 mighty men, and gave Elijah a helper named Elisha. When you begin to look at Scripture through the lens of community, you see it everywhere. The life of Jesus and the early church reveals this principle, too.
When Christ came to ignite a movement, he did it through a group. He chose three to be his core disciples (Peter, James, and John) and he personally invested in 12. He invested most of his time into a few men, those he chose from the crowds. The Apostle Paul traveled with others as much as possible. He went with men like Luke, Timothy, Titus, Barnabas, Silas, and Mark. If you look at the metanarrative of the gospel story, you see the overarching principle that God does big things through small groups. This has also been the case throughout church history, too.
Men like Saint Patrick of Ireland and John Wesley of England used small groups to transform people and cultures. Today, many of the largest churches in the world are structured around small groups. I agree with Greg Ogden, who has said that groups of three or four (what he calls “triads” or “quads”) are the most effective way to transform men and women into Christlikeness.
Two Are Better Than One
Why are groups so important to disciple making? King Solomon answers this question in Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one.” Life is better when we live together. Why? He gives four reasons in the whole context of this passage:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12)
The first reason is that we work better together. That is the meaning of verse 9, “because they have a good reward for their toil.” Just as teams tackle a project better when they work together, we serve God better in small groups. As your group begins to meet, you will be working together to learn how to walk with God, reach your world, and invest in a few. You will soon discover that there is a powerful synergy found in groups versus serving God alone.
Second, we learn better together. That’s why Solomon writes, “If they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up” (v. 10).
This wisdom from Solomon may come from shepherds in ancient times. They helped one another, especially if one of them fell down a steep ravine or a concealed well. The shepherd would need someone to help him out. In the same way, we help each other learn and grow in a group. The people in your group may not physically fall into a hole, but they might fall into discouragement, bad decisions, or even sin. They might fall prey to an unhealthy relationship, and it is in those times that disciples need people around others to help them. We learn better through other’s insights into the Scriptures. We learn better through mutual accountability and encouragement. We learn better through collective wisdom and prayer.
Third, Solomon says we experience community together: “If two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” (v. 11). Shepherds in the field could freeze in the cold desert night if they’re alone, but two shepherds could keep each other warm. In your group, you will find the warmth of community, a bond that is forged during your time together—one that will last for years to come. When I see men that I’ve discipled years ago, we still have a close bond of friendship—because we experienced community together in our group.
Lastly, we are stronger together. Solomon says, “Though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (v. 12). As you begin to invest in other people, Satan is not going to like it. The Apostle Paul warns us that we don’t struggle against flesh and blood but against “the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). As you seek to follow Jesus and grow to become like him, your group will experience spiritual warfare: temptations will assault you, conflict will rise up, schedules will become overwhelming. All of these are designed to distract you from doing the one thing Jesus commanded you to do—to make disciples.
How will you fight that battle and come out stronger? Do it together. When you pray together, confess your sins together, and find encouragement among each other, you become stronger. Just as Romans soldiers covered each other with their shields in battle and worked together to defeat their enemy, your group will see God respond in powerful ways as you fight back to back for each other.
Now let me say a quick word about gender-specific groups. While churches will often use groups of men and women together for mutual encouragement and community, I strongly believe that intensive discipleship should be men with men and women with women. Why? This clearly was Jesus model. While Jesus had both men and women followers, those he invested in personally were all men. Also, as you look at Paul’s instruction to Titus, he specifically instructed women to train women and men to train men (Titus 2:1-6). Gender-specific groups allow you to have an environment of more comprehensive openness, transparency, and accountability that would not be present in a mixed group. Gender-specific groups also allow you to address common challenges that are more common to men and to women. For these reasons, it’s important to keep your intensive discipleship groups men with men and women with women.
Written by Craig Etheredge
A gifted communicator, author, and Bible teacher and the Lead Pastor at First Colleyville, a thriving church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Craig Etheredge is the host of Morning Thrive, a radio program that covers central Texas. He is Founder and President of discipleFIRST ministries and a regular speaker at the FlashPoint Conference across the United States. Craig is also Adjunct Professor of Discipleship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas and is actively involved in his local community serving on various boards.