[The following post is one that I wrote several years ago. I've made several changes to it and thought I would repost it. I have found that as my thinking on discipleship continues to grow, I need to readjust some things from time to time. Blessings, Dale]
As many years as “small groups” has been a buzz-phrase and has been emphasized in countless books, seminars, conferences, etc., (perhaps even over-emphasized) I can’t help but be astonished when I learn of a church that doesn’t have any small groups or Bible studies up and running.
I know the Bible doesn’t say, “Go into all the world and create small groups,” and yet small groups are a powerful and effective way to help make disciples who will last for the long haul. Certainly John Wesley, in my own tradition, believed and practiced that. (Two great resources to check out on Wesley’s view of discipleship are Steve Manskar’s Accountable Discipleship and Kevin Watson’s Blueprint for Discipleship.)
I guess because my ministry focus as Minister of Discipleship is… well… “discipleship,” I’ve been asked many times how to start a small group ministry or how to start a men’s ministry or a Bible study, etc. There are many helpful suggestions that could be given (and, as I’ve alluded, Manskar and Watson discuss many). However, I guess my initial default answer to those questions is to always share what I think is most important: Stick to Scripture.
Groups that focus on fellowship and accountability absolutely have their place. There’s no such thing as Lone Ranger Christianity. We were created for community and we grow in community. Emphasizing prayer is, of course, vital. However, if we’re going to make disciples by teaching folks to obey everything that Christ has commanded, then it might be a good idea to teach who this “Commander,” is, what he commanded, and how to carry out his commands.
An occasional topical study is fine, provided that Scripture is the primary source. (In my men’s ministry, for example, we have studied prayer, integrity, temptation, etc. In fact, we’re presently studying the Cross of Christ.) There are many useful topical Bible study-guides out there to be sure (I’ve used many). And yet, I have personally seen the most spiritual growth in the folks that are in my groups and studies when we just plow through a particular book of the Bible – chapter by chapter… verse by verse. Nothing fancy. Nothing novel.
(As an aside, there are some very helpful curricula out there to aid you in this. I personally like using a study-guide because I want the folks I teach to be studying Scripture at home, and the study-guide can be very helpful. I have witnessed firsthand how God’s Spirit does amazing things as folks who have studied Scripture on their own gather with others who have done the same. The depth of insight, understanding, etc., that emerges as the group discusses what they learned from Scripture at home is astounding. There’s a Spirit-led synergy that takes place. It’s a thing of beauty.)
The Bible is, as the saying goes, timely and timeless. It already is more relevant than this morning’s news… so we don’t have to “make it relevant.” To be sure, we will need to help folks see the truth of it, the relevance of it, and how it applies to their lives. This takes faithful shepherding and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As far as I can tell, God’s Word is the only thing that God has said will accomplish what he has intended. It alone is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training God’s people in righteousness so that we’ll be equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). About God’s Word, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 12:4)
Jesus chastises the religious leaders of his day by telling them that, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)
We could add to this list many, many other texts in both the Old and New Testaments. The point is that God’s Word must be our primary tool in making disciples (of course, always in complete reliance upon God’s Spirit working in and through such efforts).
Paraphrasing Jesus, C.S. Lewis said that if you pursue the world first and God second, you end up getting neither. But if you pursue God first, you not only get God, but God also meets our earthly needs as well. To apply that to small groups, I believe it’s important to pursue God and our relationship with him through the study of his Word with others. And when we do, I believe God meets our real needs, our felt needs, and many other things besides. But we have to trust him enough to pursue him in and through his Word.
Grace and Truth,