Small Group Disciple Making:
A Companion to the Life-on-Life Approach
Four out of every ten Americans attend a small group meeting regularly, according to Harley Atkinson’s book The Power of Small Groups. That means that 80 million of the 200 million adults in this country participate in small groups and that sixty percent of these people participate in groups affiliated with a church or synagogue.1
Many groups are conducted by churches for the purpose of spiritual growth, and some are promoted as discipleship groups. Unfortunately, most of these groups are not systematic disciple-making tools, especially for people who are relatively immature in their level of growth. It is common for small groups to study the Bible or other topical interests, but its members usually grow at a slow rate. Most small groups simply are not organized to produce disciples of Jesus Christ. It would be better if church leaders would view most of these small groups as continuing discipleship, designed for those at mid-level or greater in maturity.
Without a doubt the best approach in making a person a disciple of Jesus is the life-on-life approach, usually an intentional one-on-one relationship. Small groups can never be as effective in disciple making because relationships are weaker, and, therefore, will never be a good substitute. However, small-group disciple making can be used effectively by churches along with the life-on-life approach, if the group design is altered.
Among the advantages of small-group discipleship is the close fellowship and camaraderie that comes from a small group, enabling people to have intimate fellowship. The dynamic environment of friends who are motivated to grow spiritually can be a catalyst of encouragement using positive peer influence. These types of groups provide an emotional home where the believer can feel accepted, while providing an atmosphere for spiritual development through instruction and interaction.
The Composition of the Disciple Making Group
For churches desiring to use small groups to make disciples I would like to outline ten important principles and procedures that should be followed in order for the small group to have greater effectiveness as a disciple-making tool:
Recruit groups that are of optimum size
The number of people in the group could range from six to no more than ten members. A smaller number of members in the group allows for some leader accountability and private counsel. Therefore, pertaining to the optimum size of the small group let me affirm the axiom “smaller is better.”
Recruit members of similar spiritual growth level
In order for each person to grow in a disciple-making group it is important for the members—excluding the leader, or leading couple if it’s a mixed group—to be near the same spiritual level, usually initiating the group with members at the beginning stage of spiritual growth. If the group is composed of people at varying levels of maturity, the content need will vary from person to person.
Determine the sexual composition
Disciple making groups can have men and women mixed or separate. There are real advantages of keeping the group gender-separate. A men’s or a women’s disciple making group can allow sensitive discussion that relate to subject matter such as sex, lust, and other sensitive topics otherwise inappropriate for mixed groups. Mixed groups of married or engaged couples can work well if the leader has a partner, usually his or her spouse, who interacts with members of the same gender in private for counsel and accountability.
Members should only include adults
The intentional disciple making process is very important, affecting the rest of the life and ministry of each disciple. Planning an uninterrupted group meeting is necessary for the focus and total involvement of each member; therefore, children should not be present. Some parents have pooled their resources to hire babysitters to watch children at the home where the meeting is being held. Inevitably, children will still interrupt the meeting, making it necessary for care to be provided at a location other than the meeting home.
Closed to visitors and new participant enrollment
Effective small groups designed to make disciples should be closed to new members and visitors, for several reasons. Members of a disciple making group are near each other in spiritual maturity as they progress in their growth. If new members are allowed to join, they would likely be at a different level. Second, the new member would not have the benefit of the content and discussion that had already transpired. Finally, if group members paired off among themselves for accountability (as we will discuss shortly), the new member would not have a partner, or at least a partner at the same level.
Determine the duration of the group’s existence
Obviously, the group goal is not to lead its members to ultimate maturity; its goal is to lead members to a consistent walk with Christ with a life worth emulating. Each disciple should be able to take responsibility for his own spiritual growth, know how to search Scripture for answers, know what his or her spiritual gifts are, to know how to lead another person to faith in Christ, and be able to disciple another person through a life-on-life procedure. Therefore, a disciple making group should have a specified end, usually between to two years.
Select curriculum that is systematic and progressive
The purpose of small-group disciple making is not fellowship, nor is a Bible book or topical study sufficient to accomplish the goal needs. I believe in the study of the Word of God, but just having a Bible study does not ensure that the material needed at the members’ growth level is being covered at the needed stage of the young believer’s life. In making disciples, the leader must follow well thought-out content that leads those who are growing disciples in a topical Bible study which proceeds through material that will systematically aid their growth. The new believer needs basic instruction in what the Bible calls the “elementary principles” or “milk,” before he or she is introduced to “solid food” (Heb. 5:12–14)
Include a training component
- How to prepare a personal testimony of salvation as an evangelistic tool.
- A seminar on how to share one’s faith and how to handle common objections faced when witnessing.
- An evangelistic outreach where group members have the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned.
The second year of the group’s existence could include an outreach every quarter in which each person participates in planning, promoting, and conducting an evangelistic event.
Include built-in accountability
The best accountability, normally, comes from the group leader(s). The difficulty in this is the workload created for the leader, especially when the group consists of six to ten members. An alternative is to organize accountability partners with members of the same sex early in the group’s life.
Recruit using a disciple making group covenant
A disciple making process carries a very high level of importance. Therefore, it is very helpful to include in the recruiting process a Disciple Making Group Covenant that is presented to each prospective member. (See my book chapter by the same title for a complete exposition on this topic.)
As I said before Life on Life disciple making is the most effective but, if organized correctly, small groups disciple making can be effective.
- Atkinson, Harley, The Power of Small Groups in Christian Education (Naperville, IL: Evangel Publishing House, 2002), 10.
(This excerpt comes from chapter 12 of Changing the Landscape of Eternity)