What is an Intentional Discipling Small Group?
Over the next six months every congregation will be asked to start tracking the number of persons involved in “intentional discipling small groups.” So why are we tracking this and what exactly constitutes such a group?
As part of the Missional Vital Signs every congregation is asked to track weekly and report monthly one measurement for each of the five practices essential in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The measurement chosen for “Intentional Discipling” is “the number of persons involved weekly in intentional discipling small groups.” The assumption is that learning to follow Jesus happens best when we deliberately commit to doing so with a small group of others. So while we can’t measure a disciple’s growing willingness to listen to the Spirit in Scripture and apply it in their daily lives with increasing obedience, we can count people’s involvement in the context where this is most likely to occur: intentional discipling small groups.
So what constitutes such a group? After conferring with many persons, here are the minimal characteristics of an intentional discipling small group:
- It involves 2 to approximately 15 persons.
- They meet at least monthly, though their number is only included in the weekly total during the weeks that they meet.
- They share a commitment to training to follow and to be more like Jesus.
- During their time together, they read and reflect on Scripture.
- They discuss what it means to apply God’s Word in their everyday lives.
- They share honestly and openly, giving and receiving feedback.
- And they pray for one another, both during their meeting time and while apart.
This means that all church groups are not intentional discipling small groups. There are groups designed for other purposes (for example, fellowship, education or service) that are not intentional discipling groups. A line dancing group wouldn’t be; a gathering of men for breakfast while listening to the mayor speak would not be, either. Neither would most Board of Trustee meetings. Some large lecture-oriented Sunday school classes would be questionable, as they are realistically more like another worship service than a gathering of persons intentionally committed to helping each other become more mature apprentices of Jesus Christ.
A Disciple Bible Study group could count. So too could many Sunday school classes, if they are intentional about discipling their participants and not just educating or babysitting them. Alpha groups could count. Many youth groups are focused on helping each other become better disciples. Emmaus reunion groups could also be counted. So might groups seeking to apply God’s Word to their marriage or to parenting or to their financial life. Some choirs during their rehearsal study Scripture, discuss its implications, pray and share a commitment to help one another grow as disciples, as well as prepare to lead their congregation in worship; they could be considered an intentional discipling group. A team that gathers to do a particular ministry (like making Celebrate Jesus type visits in their community) might, if they took time to read Scripture, reflect together and pray before heading out. A Celebrate Recovery group could be counted. And so could two accountability partners who meet weekly by phone to pray, read Scripture and encourage one another in their walk with Christ.
After prayerfully studying the characteristics of an intentional discipling small group, a task force of spiritually mature congregational leaders could review the different groups in your congregation and consider which qualify and which clearly would not. Those groups that are less obvious might be encouraged to study the characteristics themselves and to discern whether they feel called to function as an intentional discipling small group or not. It may be that some groups will choose to live into these characteristics more completely when challenged to do so.
So how do you count people’s involvement in intentional discipling small groups? Each congregation will need to work through a way that makes sense to them and gets reasonably accurate counts for each week during the month. In smaller congregations where there are only a few such groups, leaders could simply keep track and someone could contact them once a month for their numbers. This can be done by email or by phone, with minimal effort and time. For larger congregations as options multiply, this may be more complicated. Several pastors have shared with me that they are going to experiment with having persons indicate weekly during worship if they have been involved in intentional discipling small groups – just as they are asking people to self-select if they have been Salty Servants. As your congregation begins to try different ways of tracking involvement in intentional discipling groups, I invite you to email me and share what you are learning so that I can pass it along to others.
One last thought: a pastor friend of mine shared how he printed out the Missional Vital Sign charts for his congregation and shared them with his leadership. Their attendance, professions of faith and giving had been growing over recent years, but leaders were quite surprised to discover that the percent of worshipers involved in intentional discipling small groups had been declining significantly! No one had noticed or put this together before. They began to discuss the long-term implications of this on the overall spiritual maturity of the congregation. And then they began to explore strategies for increasing the percentage of regular worshipers seriously training to follow and be more like Jesus.
The Missional Vital Signs were created in hopes that this scenario will be repeated many times over as congregational leaders choose to focus on improving one of their discipling practices!
Dr. Jeff Stiggins