This week I’ve had occasion to think about the ministry of a church discipleship strategy often referred to as “small groups.”  Discipleship through small groups is the most popular form of strengthening the faith of believers in the church today.  But it also comes with a definite set of hazards for church development.

The reason small group discipleship ministry has become so popular and important in recent years is because of the disappearance of community church gatherings at the church otherwise.  It wasn’t that long ago that many of us remember going to church on Sundays for Sunday School prior to the Worship Service, attending the Service and then coming back in the evening for another Service of instruction.  Besides that, many also attended a mid-week Prayer gathering led by the pastor.

But somewhere in the late 80’s and early 90’s these church gatherings gave way to small group discipleship ministry.  Good Bible believing people began to forsake those other gatherings at the church for a couple of reasons: 1) with the advance of technology and more individual freedom, life in general, including family life, became increasingly complex,  and 2) there was a new emphasis for Christians to take time to connect in more meaningful ways with their neighbours for the sake of sharing the Good News.

This meant that those other congregational meetings, including Sunday School, gave way to smaller mid-week gatherings where people could share more meaningfully and intimatley in fellowship, Bible Study, prayer and even outreach in different ways. Instead of resisting the new trends away from larger congregational gatherings, church leaders intentionally embraced the new discipleship paradigm and worked with small groups to build the body of believers. They came to see that small group ministries were a great way to actually disciple believers and develop new leaders within the church, as well as a means to foster true fellowship and mutual care.

This development, however, was not without its challenges. The largest challenge has been to ensure that small groups, whatever their form, have good leadership and that groups focus their time on that which is consistent with the church’s vision and ministry. From a pastoral point-of-view, it is very important that leaders are selected who are very loyal in their commitment to the leadership and ministry (vision) of the church, are knowledgeable and mature in their understanding of the Bible and theology, and are gifted in their ability to teach and lead other believers in the development of their spiritual lives.

The major problem in the development of small group discipleship ministries is that leaders and groups tend to resist too much structure and management by the Pastor(s) and Elders of the church. It is true that groups often thrive in an atmosphere of a good sense of freedom. But a large danger also is that these groups can easily depart from the focus and mission of the church to the point of either competing with that focus or even criticizing it so that, in the end, the ministry of a group becomes counter-productive to what the church is seeking to accomplish.

Therefore, it is important for church leaders to ensure that the development of small group discipleship ministries has a good foundation in terms of purpose and understanding and that there is a good process in place in managing them for maximum effectiveness.

Issues in the Management of Church-related Small Group Discipleship Ministries

1. Philosophy and Management. It is important that the Pastor and Elders be agreed on the priority, philosophy and management of small group discipleship ministries. Leaders need to see the value of these kinds of ministries for the building-up of the church. They need to give it high priority in their congregational communication both for the sake of good leadership and maximum participation. They need to see it as the primary means of discipleship growth in the life of the church – 1)teaching knowledge and application of God’s Word, 2) facilitating meaningful and constructive Christian fellowship, 3) cultivating the ministry of prayer for individual believers and for the larger work of the church, and 4) helping individual believers see how they can serve God’s larger kingdom purposes.

2. Leadership of Small Groups. It is important that church leaders work hard at the selection of the best possible leaders for small group ministries. They must ensure that groups are formed around leaders who are mature in their spiritual lives, and gifted in the development of Christian discipleship. They need to be careful not to place people in the leadership of small groups simply because they are eager and willing, but because they demonstrate that they have what it takes to lead effectively. On the other hand, church leaders should not be too cautious in selecting leaders. At the least they should know that chosen leaders are strong in the essentials of the faith, that they appreciate and promote the importance of the local church, and that they are humble in spirit/teachable by the pastor and elders. If at all possible, it’s important that leaders be members of the church, and willing to be accountable in some form to the pastor and elders.

3. Accountability. In order to retain a strong commitment to the philosophy and importance of small groups it is essential that leaders are willing to communicate regularly with the pastor or person assigned to small group ministry leadership. This communication is in two directions: that the leader is willing to report on needs and progress, and is also willing to receive instruction about resources and better methods of leading. These times of communication could take the form of fairly regular meetings for all leaders, or regular individual meetings with each of them by the assigned Small Group Leaders Coordinator.

4. Oversight. Small group discipleship ministry requires a pastor or church leader to commit to overseeing the development of this ministry. It means that such a person will understand the philosophy of this ministry and be committed to its development in a way that encourages and strengthens this kind of discipleship ministry in the church. It means that leaders will recognize the coordinator’s role and be willing to communicate with that person as outlined in # 3. The appropriate pastor will oversee this development or work closely with the person in charge of this ministry, including the selection of leaders.

5. Growth. The coordinator of this ministry as well as the leaders should understand that the goal of small groups is for them to grow in number and expand over time. Ideally, leaders should plan ways to include more people in the course of development and then also to make plans to start a new group under appropriate leadership within the year, if possible.

Discipleship through small group ministry is not easy.  But since people like to gather in small informal groups it can be a very organic way to ensure the advancement of discipleship values.  It is in an atmosphere of genuine love and care that leaders can see remarkable growth over time in the lives of those who are Christian believers.  For more information on small group discipleship ministry, visit Christianity Today’s website on Small Groups.

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