“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)
The vast majority of congregations in the world don’t need to structure small groups – they are a small group. For them the challenge is to transform that great asset into a disciple-making relationship! Also, it seems that the way to actually fulfill Christ’s command is to intentionally multiply small congregations. Consider what is happening around the world in the burgeoning church multiplying movements.
The churches in Church Planting Movements begin as small fellowships of believers meeting in natural settings such as homes or their equivalent. Meeting in small groups certainly has economic implications, liberating the fledgling movement from the burden of financing a building and professional clergy is no small obstacle to overcome.
Although these movements may be the most exciting development in the evangelization of the world today, the paradigm may not be established easily in traditional church contexts. But the benefits of the small group in any church context could hardly be more powerfully articulated.
Not only is discipleship best done “small,” but the New Testament model would indicate it is normally best done in gender-specific groups, men-to-men (usually, but not always older to younger) and the same by implication for women. There are exceptions, of course. For example, there can be value in a mixed gender setting for couples just starting a Christian life; the support of the spouse can be very important. But in many cultures men hide their true feelings in mixed gender settings. They don’t want to appear weak to the women. And women may tend to focus on topics they feel safe discussing. Furthermore, many topics essential for discipleship, such as dealing with sexual temptation should occur only in same-sex interaction. I believe there is a strong need for single gender small groups, since that allows a transparency and depth seldom found in mixed gender settings.
Both (1) teaching the congregation gathered and (2) small group intensive discipleship, were modeled by Jesus in his earthly ministry. But, there is a further method of making disciples that neither he nor Paul are depicted as using: one-on-one. Just because they didn’t seem to have used this method of disciple-making, doesn’t mean it is not a worthy approach, only that it might not be essential. Yet, in today’s church context it does seem to be of great benefit.
A personal mentor is often considered the fast track to spiritual growth. In recent decades, borrowing from the Roman tradition, one type of mentor has been increasingly called a “spiritual director,” considered essential to “spiritual formation.” Though the more recent articulation of that role has become quite specific, the more commonly used paradigm is the “counselor.” If the professional counselor actually aims at spiritual development, then he or she would be participating in disciple making. Whatever the approach, clearly the concept of having someone gifted and called to the role of personally instructing and holding accountable could indeed be a major source of spiritual development, of becoming ever more like Jesus, of having the lost image restored, of living out life in the presence and power of the Spirit. In short, of becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
It is said that relationships occur at five levels, beginning with talking about inconsequential matters, moving to offering an opinion, then expressing a belief, listening to them share their dreams, fears, and emotions, and finally, sharing these things with others. A personal relationship that results in spiritual growth may need time to develop. That may not be the case, however, when mentoring is intentional on the part of both mentor and disciple.
To really grow spiritually it takes more than a teacher teaching and a hearer listening. Ideally, for mind renovation and behavioral change to take place, accountability to another person or persons is essential. The small group and personal mentoring (above) are sub-authentic if they end in teaching/learning, let alone if they end in no more than warm fellowship and encouragement. Accountability within the group or in the mentoring relationship should be a part of the relationship if true growth and discipleship are to take place.
It won’t do merely to proclaim the truths of holiness from the pulpit. In some structured relationship-small group or one-on-one- all of us, including leaders, need to have accountability partners. That’s what “small group”, “mentoring”, “pastoring” are all about! When we are to take action and how it is to be done have everything to do with success in the making of disciples. What is happening in your spiritual life? Do you attend church regularly? Or have you let that drop? Participate in a small group? Perhaps mentoring is better for you, one-on-one. We can’t live the Christian life alone. We are not made that way. It is not effective for life transformation. For true growth in discipleship ALL that Jesus taught is included. And for that we really do need one another.