We grew and grew for about 6 years from 30 members to 100. That’s great growth for a disciple making church. Even as we focused on quality growth we still struggled to have every member participate in discipleship (being students of Jesus together) in a meaningful way. Our church was built on discipleship with the expectation that every member would be followers of Jesus in close relationship with one another like Jesus’ disciples or like Paul and Timothy. When we had 30 members it was easy to help everyone in the church be in such a relationship. As we grew to 100 we probably only had 60% participation even though we talked about it a lot and expected it from every member.
In the last couple of years our growth slowed down and we were on the verge of being stuck around 100. I believe God will not let a church grow faster than what it can handle. That’s God’s grace to keep us devoted to the right things and to keep us from getting off track or from losing a lot of people when a shoddily constructed church crumbles.
Gordon Ferguson (an elder in our fellowship of churches) wrote a book about his experience with 3 different branches of the Restoration Movement late last year and his chapter on discipleship came across like a life giving rebuke. He challenged our churches to examine if we have lost the very thing that we built our churches upon. Doing discipleship is deciding to follow Jesus in the same way that Jesus lived his life and did ministry. Jesus’ method was discipleship. I believe that we should follow that example. But I looked at our church and we were not. I tried a few things to get us unstuck and growing again but nothing was resonating or creating change. Maybe the issue wasn’t a lack of evangelism or a lack of quality teaching, but a lack of discipleship.
We started 2017 with the theme, “All In” with the goal of helping the church be more devoted. I did not have the foresight to think that All In also means that some would go all out and leave the church. It’s obvious now and it’s been good to see God prune even as some of that pruning is very painful. The church is definitely more devoted than it was at the beginning of the year. And God has blessed us with new growth too as he often does when pruning occurs.
Also, at the beginning of this year I believe God led me to some great books. I was set to teach a class in Minneapolis on discipleship more because of my passion for it than for my expertise. But I read and read so I could do a good job. These books were transformative: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown spoke to the heart of discipleship – dealing with shame and vulnerability – that it can’t be a program in the church – it has to stay personal if it is to be effective. I still have a lot to learn and teach our church in this. Another book along the same lines was Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen. I have long loved Henri’s books. This posthumous collection was so impactful as he talked about the value of mentors and what it means to really be in a relationship with someone. So much to still learn. The other book is Tribes by Seth Goodin. I’m not sure if I even finished this management book but the idea of a new structure based on tribal leadership intrigued me. I met up with a great creative advisor in the church and I explained the concept to him and we brainstormed how it could become a reality in the Lansing Area Church of Christ.
In our church, we were still trying to help people experience discipleship by matching them up with groups based on where they lived (i.e. downtown Lansing, Eaton Rapids) or their life situation (i.e. singles, retirees, empty nesters). I’d train the leaders for these groups, even producing materials like Shepherd. Yet, the group leaders were frequently experiencing burnout and the group members were not making the groups a priority. If the church were a company I’d say we were not putting out a good discipleship product and we were stressing out our middle management. Discipleship, our bread and butter, had become ineffective. Maybe an renewed focus and a new model would help?
Tribes are people groups led by a passionate leader and made up of people who share that person’s passion. They organically happen all the time like when someone starts a Harry Potter fan club on social media and a thousand people sign up.
One of the first things we decided was to not call the groups tribes. We’d changed the names of our groups many times over the years as we tweaked our discipleship – we’d just call these what they were: Discipleship Groups. So creative! What’s a discipleship group? Even more creative: It’s a group of people who meet every other week for discipleship (to become better followers of Jesus together).
Here’s what was new though. Instead of basing discipleship groups on where people lived or how old they were or if they were married and kind of playing match maker with new members and established discipleship groups, we would base discipleship groups around passionate leaders gathering people to grow in areas they were passionate about. It all started with our first discipleship festival in March.
In the Old Testament, life in Israel revolved around Holy Days and the festivals that went with them. These were celebrations but they were also reminders of who they were as a people and what God had done among them (Exodus 12 and 13 illustrate this – in the midst of escaping Egypt Moses explains the new Holy Days that will serve as reminders for the post-exodus people of God). They provided a rhythm for Israel. They were so much a part of the fabric of life for the Hebrews that even Jesus’ death coincided with the greatest of the festivals (Passover). Many other moments in Jesus’ life also revolved around the festivals. In Christendom, Holy Days used to be the rhythm of life as well but as the world has grown more secular our Holy Days have been reduced to holidays.
The idea for our discipleship festival was to celebrate the impact discipleship has had on our church and to remind the people of what discipleship means and how important it is. We also decided that in order to keep discipleship at the forefront of the church we needed to have built in celebrations and reminders so we committed to having a discipleship festival every 6 months. We were beginning to build discipleship into the rhythm of the church instead of just reacting when things weren’t working.
Before we could make new groups or do anything in regards to discipleship we needed a come to Jesus moment. Six years ago our church growth was sparked by a throw down where we repented as a church in areas where we lacked devotion. We talked about the kind of church we wanted to be. The message at the first discipleship festival was a throw down about discipleship. Did we want to be a church where 60% of people were experiencing discipleship with one another? Did we want to be a church where people came on Sundays but real growth wasn’t happening? The response was great. Of course the church wanted to follow Jesus as his disciples. I also introduced the idea of new discipleship groups and asked people to pray about leading a discipleship group based on an area of spiritual passion. Then we left the current groups as they were for the next 6 months so we could train new leaders and explain to all the groups what the change would look like (even though we didn’t totally know ourselves.) It was so difficult to wait for those 6 months but it was so important to be patient and sensitive because change messes with people.
At the next Discipleship Festival, 6 months later in September, people would join their new discipleship groups. All of this took a lot of faith. As I look back, faith was not usually something we needed with our leadership and church structure. We relied much more on people than God. But now we were saying that we needed enough leaders for the whole church every 6 months. What if no one volunteered? I prayed and prayed!
From March to August we held 4 discipleship group training meetings. Any member interested in leading, anyone who was passionate about something in Christ could come to the leadership meeting and get training for leading a group. Over 30 people came to the first meeting. At the first meeting I introduced the concept and tried to explain the change of emphasis without freaking everyone out. I gave everyone the homework assignment to think of an area in Christ that they were passionate about that might help other Christians as well.
At the next meeting people presented their ideas. We had a workshop where we helped people take their ideas and turn them into discipleship group topics. We do discipleship every other week and a midweek service every other week. Since the new groups would go for 6 months, everyone needed to come up with 12 group discussions based on their topic. These weren’t lessons. They were guided discussions that would help everyone participate. I made an infographic that allowed everyone to envision the group and set parameters (like it had to be Christ focused).
Here’s an explanation of the infographic above:
- Discipleship groups are simply defined as places where we can be students of Jesus together.
- Group leaders needed to provide a consistent place and time. We ended up having groups on almost every day of the week which meant that a lot more people could participate. We also ended up having groups all over the Lansing area.
- Group leaders could shape their groups by letting people know that there was no child care provided or it was only for marrieds or singles, etc…
- The groups were based around the leader’s passion but also had to be Christian. Every group meeting ends with the same question regardless of the topic – what did we learn about Jesus? Every meeting has some good news sharing and prayer. We make sure to talk about the basics on the regular too.
- The groups are more than just get togethers – group leaders have a shepherding responsibility and group members are accountable for being committed to their groups. We had trouble with this in our other groups but I’ll explain how this has been different below.
- Leaders could form their topics based on a book they read (easiest way), a sermon they heard, a book of the bible or anything that inspired them.
We used the next couple of leadership meetings to refine the groups and to pray for the church. Some people with similar topics combined with other leaders to co-lead and some newer leaders grouped up with more experienced leaders. Some people worked on their groups but decided that they would not be ready this time but would like to lead in the next session.
We ended up with 13 groups for a church of 100 members. A few weeks before the Festival at our last leadership meeting, each leader made a poster board of their group that we hung around the church so people could look over the new groups and pray about which group to join as the Festival approached. Here’s the first set of groups that the Spirit led people in the church to create:
- First Peter Wives Club (Married Women)
- The Timothy Initiative – based on 1 Timothy 4:12 (Campus/Single Men)
- Theology on Tap (Open to anyone over 21)
- Women’s Wisdom Wednesdays (Women)
- Parenting (Parents)
- Christian Fellowship – Based on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Open to all)
- Man, Uh, in the Morning – (Men)
- Holy Spirit – Based on Francis Chan’s Forgotten God (Open to All – no kids)
- Radical Faith – Based on Randy McKean’s book (Open to all)
- Five Marks of Mercy – Video Series (Open to all)
- Love Like Christ (Women only)
- Emotionally Healthy Spirituality – Based on the book (Empty nesters only)
- Saginaw Group (People who live near Saginaw MI)
Here are some samples of the sign up posters:
Our Second Discipleship Festival
The day that we had been planning for and praying for arrived! There was preaching and pancakes and afterward everyone signed up for their groups. They were encouraged to make a 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice because some of the groups might be too big or too small. (In the end we only had to switch one person to their second choice.) here’s what happened:
98 members signed up for discipleship groups! 10 people who weren’t even members signed up for groups! We went from 60 percent participation in discipleship to over 100%! Were a couple of months into our first groups and it’s more than just having a lot of people sign up. People are actually going to their groups and participating. The church feels different. More people are there on Sundays and at Midweek. More people are studying the bible even though we haven’t specifically focused on evangelism. There is a noticeable difference.
The largest group has 16 people and they partner up every 2 weeks so they can pray with someone and get to know someone different. The smallest group has 3 members. In the future I’d like more group leaders and groups in the 5-8 person range.
At our first leadership meeting with the new group leaders there were great reports from each group. The leaders were excited and not burdened and we identified 17 people who could become a part of the church by years end. I think we’re getting unstuck and it’s because God works when we commit to discipleship.
We’ve already started recruiting the next round of discipleship group leaders that will begin at our Festival in March next year. Current leaders can lead again or just be a part of a group for 6 months. In the past it was really hard for a leader to take a break without feeling guilty or leaving a hole in our discipleship – now it’s totally possible.
We’re developing other lenses of leadership in the church as well. Ministry Leaders oversee the different life stages within the church so their leadership overlaps and supplements the discipleship groups. That group of leaders will meet soon to plan out 2018.
Many of the groups were closed to child care so some husbands and wives are participating in separate men’s and women’s groups. To make sure there is help for marriage issues I started an open marriage/parenting counseling night once a month so couples can get help as needed.
I’m excited about what might happen when we actually start to focus on evangelism next year now that we have good groups and a rhythm of discipleship in the church.
Please pray for us and if you need resources or have questions contact me.
We had our first training meeting for our next 6 months of groups and it went well. We had even more people volunteer to be group leaders than the first time around. The training was much easier because everyone was participating in a group so this was no longer just conceptual. The ideas for the Spring-Summer groups sounded awesome: Worshipping with the Psalms, Christian Mindfulness, Servanthood with Secret Service Challenges, Bad Girls of the Bible, Intimacy with God, CORE worship, Genesis and Jesus, Christ’s Creativity and more.
We also had our ministry leader’s retreat and focused on the life stage shepherding lens of the church. It went great and I think the overlapping leadership lenses of discipleship groups and shepherding ministries will help the church grow with strength. In 2018 we want to develop a third leadership lens called teams. Teams would be focused on specific needs in the church (First impressions/greeters, HOPE, Audio Visual, Recovery, Worship, teaching, etc…) My current idea is to have a Team Tailgate once a year where each team can present themselves and give people a chance to join the team. It would be set up like an actual tailgate with food and booths.
I’ll keep updating!