In 2004, Peace Lutheran Church, Charlottesville, Virginia, began its first discipleship group of four men. Although related to the developing mission of the congregation, it did not really arise from an intentional implementation of a vision or mission objective. In a search for small group resources, I came across Greg Ogden’s book, Transforming Discipleship, and his long term approach to spiritual growth in the congregation was an intriguing concept. I came to agree with Ogden’s conclusion that discipleship groups of 3-4 persons are the optimal size for the discipling process.*
Ogden argues that small groups of three or four people provide the best environment for discipling people in the faith; small groups of three or four people best provide the three essential ingredients for transformation: the Word of God (the appropriation of scriptural truth), transparent, trusting relationships (“the extent to which we are willing to reveal to others those areas of our life that need God’s transforming touch is the extent to which we are inviting the Holy Spirit to make us new”), and mutual accountability (encouraging and holding each other accountable to the discipleship covenant to which they have agreed).**
To clarify, a small group of 3-4 persons will have an advantage over a larger group of 6-10 people, in that self-disclosure and openness become “increasingly difficult in direct proportion to the size of the group,” and “greater numbers decrease access to a person’s life.”*** In other words, the larger the group, the more likely one can hide, in terms of group discussion, sharing one’s life, and fulfilling the covenant. When a group has only three or four persons, full participation by all is both necessary and obvious. The fact that most discipleship groups meet together for at least a year helps to develop the transparent trust and accountability, and over the course of a year group members will give and receive the care of Christ though life’s highs and lows. The group members will be able to support and care for one another through the natural rhythm of periods of grief and difficulty as well as joys and celebrations (“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” 1 Corinthians 12:26).
Discipleship groups at Peace Lutheran Church have been groups of 3-4 persons (either men’s or women’s groups) which typically meet together weekly, for at least 90 minutes, for prayer, discussion about the biblical readings and workbook questions, and fellowship and care for each other. The convener calls the group together and models the leadership for a few sessions, and then the group rotates with a shared leadership. All share an equal responsibility, and no one person is the “teacher.”
Discipleship groups have been a most significant step in developing a congregational culture of discipleship. Discipleship groups have become stepping stones into other faith-forming experiences (small groups, Bible studies, retreats, and mission trips) which invite people to step out of their comfort zones and to place themselves into new contexts which invite them to be open to God and to other people. What has been experienced by the people of Peace is that God uses this stepping into a new experience as a way to bring about spiritual growth.
*Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 171-72.
**Greg Ogden, Making Disciples Jesus’ Way: A Few At A Time, 2007. http://www.gregogden.com/PDFs/ TransformingDiscipleshipSummary.pdf (accessed 9/20/10).
***Greg Ogden, Discipleship Essentials, 11.