Cultivating Disciple-Making Environments for Everyone!

Groups make room for friendships that encourage spiritual growth. Healthy discipleship flows from healthy community with others walking with Jesus whose love for one another is a light that attracts those who are trying to find their way out of the darkness. In fact, the Lord commonly uses a community of believers to bring seekers to Himself (John 13:34-35, 17:20-23; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 2:13-20, 4:11-13; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 4:12, 17). Community is also the greatest influencer in how people follow Christ.

Every group member can become more like Christ when the group leader champions the elements that lead to healthy disciple-making environments. What is necessary to help people in all different places in their spiritual journey grow closer to Christ together?

  • Authentic leadership – Nobody influences the atmosphere of a group – positively or negatively – more than the leader. What makes a group leader successful is their love for God and love for people that expresses itself with unguarded authenticity. Authenticity creates common ground where people of varying places of spiritual maturity can meet together, dialogue about God’s Word, and grow spiritually.
  • Healthy relationships – Relationships are the engine of discipleship. When a person wants to connect in a group, do not consider the type of group, location, or even the curriculum to be the most important factors. Rather, it is the group dynamic, which is borne out of the relationships among the people in that group. Unhealthy relationships release toxins into the group’s ecosystem, which can be detrimental to strays, seekers, and believers alike. However, if relationships are healthy, the experience and effect of the group dynamic will be as well.
  • 3-D group life – Depth perception enables us to see the world in three dimensions. Similarly, there will be ‘depth’ to everyone’s group experience if thealthygroup1hey are loving God, loving people, and loving the world around them. This happens through the flexible arrangement of elements like fellowship, prayer, Bible study, serving those inside and outside the group. Healthy environments are always in flux, changing and growing. The same is true of healthy groups as well.
  • Missional-orientation to group purpose – Every group has a purpose. Group leaders can cultivate disciple-making environments for everyone if they bring a missional orientation to it. For example, there’s a big difference between discipleship and disciple-making in the mind of the ‘Average Joe’. The former typically arises from those within the group who also happen to be the beneficiaries of this purpose (internally-focused). The latter redirects the emphasis to those beyond the group creating a more externally-focused group culture. This in turn creates an environment that helps everyone take their next steps in growing closer to Christ so be sure to balance the group’s inward nurture with external focus and action.
  • Engaging curriculum – This was deliberately put last on the list. A mistake made by many leaders is allowing group curriculum to define the ‘depth’ of the group. Plenty of groups use “deep” or “meaty” Bible study material and go nowhere inside or outside of their group. What is also true is there are plenty of groups that use material more mature believers consider to be “milk,” but because of the leadership and relationships among those in the group, people are strengthened in their faith. “Mixed” groups tend to find more help from group curriculum that helps them engage in God’s Word, apply it to life, build relationships among group members, and encourages them to share their spiritual discoveries with others beyond the group experience.

Avoid compartmentalizing people on the basis of what stage of spiritual maturity you think they are in. No such advice has been given in the Bible since the birth of the Church. If anything, we see the opposite. Time and again, seekers or new believers resurrect groups of ‘mature believers’ because of the healthy challenge and vibrancy they bring.[i] On the other hand, those who need more guidance and instruction as they take their initial steps in following Christ can find great help from those who have been walking closely with Jesus for many years.[ii]

It’s difficult to conceive of a better way to follow Jesus and pattern our lives after His than bonding with others in a group and traveling together in our journey of spiritual growth. We can help people in varying places of spiritual maturity come together in groups by communicating that “groups” are not a ministry program. Nor are they something to be added to a list of recommendations for healthy Christian living. Rather, groups are ‘the other half’ of how the Church can be the Church in all the fullness and vibrancy God intended (Acts 5:42). Thankfully, they provide a strategic way for every person to grow closer to Jesus regardless of how much progress each one has made thus far.

[i] Oftentimes, those who consider themselves more mature and want “more depth” or “more meat” are the very ones who need more action when it comes to putting feet to their faith (John 4:32). Groups that tend to fade out are those that are made-up exclusively of more mature believers not reaching out beyond their own circle of fellowship.
[ii] People who are looking at the Scriptures with new eyes and applying it to their lives in fresh ways oftentimes see things longer-term believers have forgotten or missed altogether. Just because somebody has not been walking with Jesus for several years does not mean they cannot grasp what is being said in the Bible. Seekers are not stupid. Thank goodness for us all that the ‘deep truths’ of God’s Word are simply put: Love God, love people.

To Invite, or Not to Invite: That is the Question!

Sometimes group leaders wonder if they should invite a person into their group who is not as spiritually mature as the other members or who could potentially disrupt the good dynamic they have going. If the group has already agreed to be open, I almost always say ‘yes’. Satan is not in the habit of luring spiritually lost people into the company of Christ-followers because that’s where they can encounter God’s life-changing Presence (Matthew 18:20).

inviting1Rather, group leaders ought to cover the invitation in prayer and trust God with the outcome. We can’t control how somebody responds to an invitation to come to a group, but we can control whether or not we take the risk. Plus, when fear is the driving factor in not doing something in cases like this, it’s probably the better to choose the action that requires faith. So I counsel groups leaders to pray, choose to do the most loving thing, and trust the guiding influence of the Sovereign power of God with the outcome.

In cultivating environments that make disciples of people at different stages in their spiritual journey, it is crucial to first respect God’s work. The truth is, God is already at work…

  • Building His Church – What that looks like is the building of community. So try to respond to what He is actively doing in your church’s community life and nurture the way things are already naturally moving. Do not over-engineer or complicate the discipleship process with too many steps. Community is the soil that helps people to sink their roots in Christ so focus on planting people in the fertile ground of those who are already growing together in Christ. What is already happening in and through your church that is effectively reaching people for Christ and building up your community? Explore how you can tap into or build on that.
  • Through His Word – God’s Word is living and active so as you facilitate bible study, assume that biblical truth is actively transforming those who are hearing it. Instead of explaining the truth to group participants, expose them to the truth and lean on the group’s collective wisdom to discover what the Lord is communicating to each individual heart. When seekers or new believers are a part of your group’s bible study, trust that God’s Word will speak to them.
  • Drawing people closer to Himself – God loves people and He is more concerned about their spiritual journey than you ever could be so be diligent to find out how He is working in a person’s life. Then be careful not to presume or prescribe too much. After all, discipleship is not really an orderly process. Just look at the Gospels.
  • Encouraging relationships – Let God bring the people to your group that He wants to. Shepherds are to protect their flock from wolves…not other sheep. If an actual shepherd were to see a lone sheep approach his flock and attempt to nudge itself into it, could you imagine him kicking it out? Of course not! He would probably think to himself: “Hot dog! I just got a new sheep. My flock just increased and I didn’t even have to work for it!” Shepherds are to protect their flocks from decreasing, not increasing. Trust God with the dynamic of your group and the meeting space to accommodate those He wants to bring.

If we look to the account of the Early Church in the book of Acts as our model, we see people in all different stages of their spiritual journey helping one another take their next steps in following Christ (Acts 2:40-47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 8:4-8, 25, 9:31). In the next post, we’ll look at how group leaders can cultivate disciple-making environments that help everyone in their walk with Jesus.

Unleashing Creative Group Worship

Although everyone would agree worship is an essential part of our spiritual life, many leaders wrestle with how to incorporate it into their group time without it feeling forced or awkward. One of the ways you can “break the ice” is to help your group members expand their understanding of what worship can look like beyond the church service. For example, being still before God and listening for His voice, reflecting on Psalms, thanksgiving, giving something up for a fast/Lent and remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us, etc.

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24

In other words, don’t try to replicate a weekend worship service in your group. Rather, discover ways the people you circle up with can worship together that fits your group’s unique dynamic and personality. Gradually introduce new forms of worship by offering a few suggestions from the list below and get a sense as to which one your group resonates with the most.

  1. Invite your group members to think of something that feels ordinary in their daily lives, but for which they are grateful, e.g. a roof over their head, more than one meal a day, etc. Then have each person express their thanks for that thing within the group. After everyone shares, let your group know you just had a time of worship by humbling yourselves before God and giving thanks (Psalm 69:30).
  2. Ask your group to reflect on the Names of God found in Scripture, and share the ones that stand out as the most significant for them. Simply google “list of names of God in the Bible” if you’d like to give them a list to jump-start their thinking.
  3. Play worship music and ponder the lyrics. Choose a song or two that is especially meaningful to you, and as you play it, have your group simply listen intently to the lyrics and reflect upon God’s goodness. Afterwards, invite them to share a word or thought that struck them while listening that was inspirational. Be the first to share and watch how the Lord uses this to help people express worshipful thanksgiving.
  4. Read a Gospel account of Jesus’ death and resurrection and invite your group to reflect on God’s love for each of them and the world (John 3:16-17). Expand on this time by celebrating communion together (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  5. Read through Psalms 23, 63 or 64 and then invite people to share what was personally significant to them.
  6. Attend your church’s weekend service or a special event where you can worship the Lord together.
  7. Talk about how serving “the least of these” is itself worship and touches God’s heart (Matthew 25:37-40). Plan together to participate in a local outreach.
  8. Identify something in your current study that you are being encouraged to contend for and stand together against the enemy, renounce sin, proclaim God’s promises, etc. (Ephesians 6:10-18; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Hebrews 12:1-3; 2 Corinthians 1:20-22)
  9. Invite your group members to bring a picture to your next meeting that’s important to them and be prepared to share how it reflects God’s faithfulness in their lives, what they’re believing God for, etc. Pray together afterwards.
  10. Read biblical references of different kinds of worship such as clapping, raising hands, bowing down, etc. (e.g. 2 Samuel 6:5, 14-15; Psalm 149, 150). Purposefully expose your group to various flavors of worship and talk about what you all think this says about God’s heart for worship.

Worship is a vital aspect of biblical community and the Holy Spirit will help you lead your group to God’s throne of grace (Acts 2:47, Hebrews 4:14-16). As the group leader, be spontaneous and vulnerable in praising God because this will empower others to do the same when they’re ready.

The Lord will honor your effort in exploring new ways of incorporating worship into your group meetings. As you do, your times together as a group will feel increasingly worshipful and your members’ devotional lives will be enriched as they express their love for God and others in creative ways.

Igniting Fervent Group Prayer

Praying in a group can be intimidating for those who haven’t done it before. You’d be surprised how many people are not used to praying out loud with other people around them listening in. This is vital spiritual practice for all believers to develop because agreement in prayer among two or more believers sparks the outworking of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven and builds the community of His Church (Matthew 18:18-20).

As the leader, you can ignite a passion for prayer in your group by using some of these approaches:

  1. Be brief. Brevity can reduce the anxiety level in group prayer because it allows time for others to pray and serves as a model for simplicity in prayer (Matthew 5:7-13). People who aren’t use to praying aloud in a group will see short and simple as something they can do too.
  2. Be informal. Don’t have a big build-up. When it’s time to pray, just begin. For example, “Okay everyone, let’s pray. Feel free to jump in if you’d like. Lord, we…” This makes prayer feel less intimidating and more natural.
  3. Be yourself. Imagine God sitting across from you in the group and talk with Him like you would a good friend; after-all, He is in your midst and wants each one to share honestly from the heart. Have a conversational flow to what you share with the Lord and avoid Christian clichés or complex theological jargon.
  4. Go first in sharing a personal prayer request. This primes the pump for others to share and sets an example of vulnerability.
  5. Use Scripture. Invite people to articulate their prayer with biblical passages. They can read something that is meaningful to them and then say, “I believe that about…” or “Let that be true for…” and reference their own prayer need or one that was shared by another group member.
  6. Invite the most confident to lead. There is usually at least one person in every group who tends to be more forthright in prayer or they’re good about summarizing multiple prayer needs. At the beginning of your next group meeting, ask them how they’d feel about facilitating the prayer time. If they’re open to doing this, reassure them by saying, “Just be yourself…you’ll be great!”
  7. Don’t call on anybody. Some people get really anxious over the prospresencepect of praying in front of others, and if they’re newer to the group, they may not return if you put them on the spot.
  8. Don’t go in a circle. This puts people who don’t want to pray aloud in an embarrassing situation, especially if they’re the only one to pass.
  9. Appoint somebody to write down prayer requests. Follow-up on prayer needs at your next gathering. This cultivates a warm and caring environment that will help people feel safer about personally engaging in group prayer.
  10. Integration. Revisit prayer needs outside of your regular meeting times or when you’re socializing together so prayer isn’t compartmentalized in your group life. Celebrate answers to prayer and be spontaneous about lifting up needs that arise so that prayer is naturally woven throughout the biblical community God is growing in your group!

Optimizing Group Bible Study

As a group leader, there are things that you can do in your preparation that can optimize the impact of God’s Word on people’s lives (Hebrews 4:12). These practices will actually help participants get the most out of your group Bible study and become more responsive to the transformational work the Holy Spirit is doing in their lives:

  1. Pray for it – Give each gathering over to Jesus. Pray for each group member by name. Ask for specific break-throughs and invite the Holy Spirit to have His way.
  2. Preview it – It is well worth taking 15 minutes before each session to…
    • Read the key passages in at least two different translations (bible.com or biblegateway.com)
    • Refer to cross-references and commentaries to give yourself a good feel of the content and context.
    • Review the questions that are a part of the study that you are using and select the ones you sense your group will grab onto the best.
    • Reduce the volume of material given for a study session by 50%. This helps the group time feel more relaxed and more focused, which increases overall participation.
    • Rephrase the questions you decide to use in ways you think will help to spark further dialogue. Restating the same question in different ways helps people to formulate their thoughts.
  3. Focus it – Take a minute at the beginning of each session to frame what you are studying (passage, theme, and context) and what you hope people will walk away with in terms of…
    • Education – A deeper understanding and appreciation for the meaning of God’s Word.
    • Inspiration – New thoughts and new motivation for living out our faith in Christ.
    • Application – Ways to bring Scripture to life’s circumstances and relationships right now.
  4. Facilitate it – Don’t get into ‘teaching mode’ or feel like you have to have all the answers. You want Bible study to be a group learning experience where every person’s insight and personality influences the discussion. Here are some reusable questions that can enliven the dynamic of any discussion:
    • What stands out to you in this passage? What impacted you during the reading?
    • Was there something read that is new for you, reaffirming, confusing or challenging?
    • How can we apply this to our lives today?group facilitator
    • How could this be shared with people who do not yet know Christ?
      • Be patient with moments of silence. If nobody shares after a few seconds, put the question in another way. Here are a few other facilitation tips that will help to accelerate spiritual conversations: 1) Be ready to answer questions briefly and naturally if nobody initiates after giving a prolonged pause 2) People think primarily in pictures so try to portray a topic visually by applying questions to hypothetical situations 3) Provide guardrails to help keep the discussion on track so you don’t drift too far off topic.
  5. Affirm them – Make eye-contact with those who share and acknowledge their input with simple affirmations like, “Thanks for sharing” or “Good insight,” and then try to relate it back to the passage being studied or keep the momentum going by inviting others to add their thoughts.
  6. Include them – When people feel included, they feel like they belong. When people feel like they belong, they want to engage. When people are engaged, they grow. Time may not allow for every person to participate in the way they would like, but you can help them feel more included by…
    • Giving each person a purpose to fulfill in the group that correspond with their gifting and passion – start them off with small tasks that have a shorter-term commitment.
    • Circling back to people who have not shared, but looked like they were on the verge of saying something.
    • Expressing your love for them, e.g. “I’m so glad you’re a part of our group!” Simple acknowledgements go a very long way in boosting people’s sense of belonging, which optimizes group Bible study in the future.
  7. Open up – Not enough can be said about the importance of authenticity. This is essential to healthy leadership and Bible studies. The more open you are, the more open others will be. You make the group feel safe when you are real and it frees people up to be themselves, which is the kind of community everyone wants.
  8. Listen up – One of the best ways you can love on the people in your group is to listen to them. This will probably mean you lay aside your own interests, agenda, or things you would like to say. Give people your full attention and reflect back to them that you understand by nodding or putting what they said into your own words to make sure you heard them correctly. When people see that others are being heard, they will feel more secure about opening up and sharing things on their heart with the group.
  9. Lighten up – People tend to be more reserved when there is a serious edge to the study. A light-hearted atmosphere actually encourages more involvement. If you have fun with it all, others will too.
  10. Wrap-up – Summarize what happened in your group and give a teaser for what’s next before you end your group on time.
  11. Follow-up – If somebody asks a question or shares a personal prayer need during your group study, be sure to follow-up with them. Also, don’t hesitate to contact people who said they were going to be at your Bible study, but were not. Let them know they were missed and see if there is anything they need.
  12. Offer up – The way a group stays healthy in the long-run and goes deeper in their Bible study is by letting the grace of God flow outward. He wants to use our Christ-centered community to engage the world, not insulate ourselves from it (Acts 2:47; Rom 1:16, 10:14-15). God always makes room for the lost so expand your group circle as much as possible (Luke 15). He will provide the time and space for additional members if our hearts are seeking to extend His grace to those who have yet to come home. Practically-speaking, you can offer up your group by…
    • Turning your group’s attention to lost people during your time of discussion and prayer.
    • Telling members that you would LOVE for them to invite people they know to your group.
    • Thinking together about how your group can share God’s grace with spiritually empty people.
    • Traveling to locations beyond the home where you meet, e.g. hold your study in a public space or go on a mission trip together.
    • Transitioning your group into new seasons of study by empowering people to look after different aspects of your group’s life together or handing off more responsibility to a person who could co-lead with you. This will prepare your group to multiply so that more people can be impacted by the love and message of Jesus Christ.

You know your Bible study has been effective when your group members love more: They love God more, love people more, love the lost more, and love Scripture more!