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Commentary: What is an intentional discipling group?

Commentary: What is an intentional discipling group?

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: What is an intentional discipling group?

An e-Review commentary by the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins | July 11, 2009 {1044}

NOTE: A headshot of Stiggins is available at

As part of the Florida Conference Missional Vital Signs, every congregation is tracking weekly and reporting monthly one measurement for each of the five practices considered 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 people. 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, the minimal characteristics of an intentional discipling small group include having two to approximately 15 people participating in the group. Additionally, members should: meet at least monthly, though their number is only included in the weekly total during the weeks they meet; share a commitment to training to follow and be more like Jesus; read and reflect on Scripture; discuss what it means to apply God’s word in their everyday lives; share honestly and openly, giving and receiving feedback; and pray for one another, both during their meeting time and while apart.

This means that not all church groups are intentional discipling small groups. Some groups are designed for other purposes — fellowship, education or service. A line-dancing group would not be an intentional discipling group, nor would a gathering of men for breakfast while listening to the mayor speak or most board of trustee meetings. Some large lecture-oriented Sunday school classes would be questionable because they are realistically more like another worship service than a gathering of people intentionally committed to helping one another 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 considered intentional discipling groups, as well as groups seeking to apply God’s word to their marriage, parenting or financial life. Some choirs that study Scripture during their rehearsal — discussing its implications, praying and sharing a commitment to help one another grow as disciples, and preparing to lead their congregation in worship — could be considered intentional discipling groups. A team that gathers to do a particular ministry, like making Celebrate Jesus type visits in their community, might if its members took time to read Scripture, reflect together and pray before heading out. A Celebrate Recovery group could be counted, as well as two accountability partners who meet weekly by phone to pray, read Scripture and encourage each other 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 the congregation and consider which clearly do and do not qualify. Members of groups that are less obvious might be encouraged to study the characteristics themselves and discern whether or not they feel called to function as an intentional discipling small group. It may be that some groups will choose to live into these characteristics more completely when challenged to do so.

So how does a congregation count people’s involvement in intentional discipling small groups?

Each congregation needs 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 e-mail or 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 experimenting 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” (salty service is another of the five practices of The Methodist Way). As congregations work through different ways of tracking involvement in intentional discipling groups, I invite them to e-mail me at and share what they are learning so 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.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Stiggins is executive director of the Florida Conference Office of Congregational Transformation.