Small Groups and Discipleship

What does small group discipleship look like? Using practical illustrations, David Adams discusses discipleship in terms of modeling the character of Jesus.

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Small groups and discipleship: I wouldn’t be a Christian if it was not for a small group.  When I was 18 years old, I was wandering around in the world and I stumbled upon a group of four Christians who were really living out the scriptures. They loved each other. They were close. They were intimate and they initiated with me. They were genuinely interested in my life. They shared the scriptures with me. They introduced me to Jesus. I was called to repent of  my sins, my selfishness, my pride, my impurity and I became a Christian.

When you think of Jesus’ ministry, so much of His ministry was in small groups. Small groups of people where He was discipling both the lost and His followers. So that is what I want to talk about today.

My goal is to do three things today.  The first one is to give a picture what is group discipleship. Second, I want to take a brief look and remind us that this is prevalent in Jesus’ ministry and some of the characteristics of that.  Third, I want see how we can implement this in our own ministries.

Let’s start with what does group discipleship look like. I have a friend, his name is Chris, he is a close brother and he is a master carpenter. He teaches at the local vocational school. This coming week he will have fifteen, 14-15 year olds, show up who want to be carpenters. Now we live in Boston. I know many of you are teaching your children to work with wood and lumber and saws, No this is Boston.  Okay. These children will come and most of them will have no clue.  They have never lifted a hammer. They have never pulled a saw. They have never drilled a screw. Now that may be crazy to many of you. But that is just normal in the city.

So my friend Chris, he has four years to teach fifteen, 14-16 year olds how to be carpenters. So how in the world is he going to do that? So one thing he could do is, he could write a book and he could say, Here is a book on carpentry. I am a master carpenter. I have written every thing you need to know in this book. I want you to read this. I want you to memorize it and in four years, I am going to give you a test.  And by the way here is a room full of equipment. Saws and drills and wood and read the book. I am going to come back in four years and take the test to see if you graduate.

I think most of us would agree, that would be a recipe for disaster. Okay.  What else could he do? Well he could say, I want to give you a book. I want you to be serious about this book, also what I want is every week, I am going to get in front of you and I am going to teach you about carpentry, because I am a master carpenter. I have worked hard at that. It’s been humbling and I love my craft. I am going to tell stories about carpentry. I am going to talk about what I did well and what I didn’t do well. I am going to give you specific instruction.  That would be much helpful in addition to the book. Right? I mean, that would be –what a blessing to have someone who is experienced, who has gone through it, who has been practicing carpentry their whole life, a master carpenter as an instructor. 

Yet, can you imagine if you just lectured once a week referencing the book. Would those 15 students become carpenters? I don’t think so. And thankfully, that is not how he does it. How does he do it? What he says, he says basically, “Come follow me.” And I am going to make you into carpenters. All of you. And you have never picked up a hammer most of you. You have never picked up a saw. In four years, you are going to build a house.  Now with these children, you have got to be kidding me. What are you talking about. No way, I can’t do that. He says, No. You need to come and follow me. Now I am going to show you how to do it.

So what does he do? He models. He starts with a little table. We are going to make a table.  The students, We don’t know how to make a table. No.  I am going to show you how to make a table. He shows them how to measure the wood, to read the plan. He shows them how to cut. He shows them how to drill. He shows them how to put it together. He shows them how to stain it so it looks beautiful. He models it. He shows them how each step of the way.

Then what does he do?  Well, he makes them do it. Okay, I just showed you. You go do it. Now what happens?  It is disaster. Right? The legs are cut the wrong size.  The screws are going in, in all kinds of different directions. I mean the stain looks horrible. But he creates an environment, where mistakes are encouraged. Mistakes are good.

If you are willing to step out and take up that hammer for the first time ever. Awesome! He praises mistakes. Mistakes are encouraged, because if one student makes a mistake, he will pull the whole group aside and – What is up with the stain there? Why does that look like that? Well, this is why. Let me show you. And they all learn from the one’s mistake.

He pulls the victories too. You see Bill, how straight. (I am not a carpenter, so my examples are horrible.) Come see how straight and true he drew that line. Why is that so effective? Why does that have an affect on his end product? And they all gather around and they all learn from the one. No one is left behind in this man’s class. The master carpenter doesn’t let anyone fail.  You actually get graded on how you help one another. Part of the ground rules are – You are going to help serve each other. So there is not one jumping way ahead. Some may master skills quicker but then they actually get a better grade if they will serve and help and teach the others.

It doesn’t take much time before you have a class of fifteen students, learning, growing, helping one another become carpenters. And he is stepping back, stepping in, teaching, training, waiting, letting the mistakes happen, jump in again, equipping, accountability, addressing issues that need to be addressed and repeat.  Year one, repeat. Repeat. Repeat! Repeat. Four years go by. 

The fourth year they build a house. So cool! And they can’t believe it. If you told them- you will build a house when you started. – No way! But they built the house.

My friend Chris, all these students go out and get jobs in carpentry. They are so skilled by the time they get out. He is a master. They get these great jobs in their fields. He has been doing this for twenty years. He graduates 15 students. That is three hundred carpenters this one man has made. They have gone out and have become business owners and carpenters that train other carpenters. There are literally in Boston hundreds, maybe thousands carpenters who have been trained by this one man who has taken this one approach of working with a small group and molding them and shaping them into his image, if you will.

This is group discipleship. Jesus did exactly the same thing. He picked His twelve and others followed as well. He said, Come follow me! And I will make you fishers of men. Now Jesus did have the book. He was the book.  Right? Jesus did teach the Sermon on the Mount. He laid out His principles. But then he had them walk together for three years. He gave them the model. He taught in the synagogues. He showed them how to use the Old Testament to prove the Christ. He showed them the courage to walk into a group of religious people and speak the truth in love. He showed them how to serve, to touch the lepers, to heal the lepers, to heal Peter’s mother-in-law, to show compassion. He demonstrated for them the principles that he taught. They were there every step of the way. He showed them how to pray. He didn’t just tell them to pray. He showed them to pray. He showed them how to evangelize. How to take this tax collector who was sitting in a tree, and people hate, to call him down, to go and have a meal with him, and to bring salvation to that household.

They saw that! They are processing. They are watching. They are seeing. To see a woman who is caught in adultery, to protect her, to send away the Pharisees, the legalists, and to call her to repent of her sin. And they saw that. They watched that. They connected with the teaching. They saw how to do it. Jesus modeled it for them.

But then Jesus made them go out and do it. Now I love this.  Think about it. Jesus, saw there are about 4,000 people here that are really hungry. You feed them. Can you imagine what they are thinking like  ahhhhh????? We think probably Jesus isn’t mistaken here but we have no idea. But they were forced to think – How do we do this? A couple of fish here…  A loaf here… Now Jesus had to kind of step in and finish that job.  But I think there were some lessons learned by that act of training.

Jesus is always asking these guys questions. You can’t really hide. Making them think.  Who do people say the Son of Man is? Bababbah…  O by the way, who do you guys think he is?   You know when you are sitting in a big group, you can hear things that are very powerful and are from the book and from God. But it is different when someone is looking you face to face asking the same question. And you are forced to respond. It is very exposing. But it is good.

He sends them out 2 by 2. It says in that passage, he sent them out. Can you imagine them going out for the first time. And they come back and they shared what they had learned with each other. Wouldn’t that have been an amazing conversation to hear.  This went well.  This went horrible.  I did this.  I did this. Ah, why didn’t this work?

Jesus was somehow able to create a very safe environment for people to make mistakes. Peter on the water.  Jesus comes out.  And ahhh???? If it is you? Tell me to come out.  Jesus says, COME.  Some how Peter felt secure enough to get out of the boat and walk on water.  Now that is pretty crazy. But something about Jesus called people to step out and do something beyond what they thought they could do.

When Jesus came down the mountain, there was that child who had the demon possession. The disciples are really trying to through the thing out they can’t. I think that probably Jesus really appreciated that they are trying. Then later they said, Why couldn’t we do it, Jesus?  There is just such an intimacy.  He said, It’s okay. This one comes out by prayer. You look at Acts, they totally got that lesson. They internalized that one. They are praying all the time. They are doing all kinds of stuff for God.

Jesus was somehow so patient, so loving, yet he was so hard line about sin, so hard line about the kingdom teachings, he had this perfect mix. The result was these twelve men walked for three years and the other disciples and we see the book of Acts. That is the result.  And Whoa! What happened there?

So if you look at the scriptures. I want to encourage you to go and read the gospels and just think of all the groups and all the situations and think for your self. What is the dynamics? How did Jesus do this?

Lastly, I wanted to share. I spent about 30 years in a group of churches that was really serious about group discipleship. And some tremendous things happened. There was some tremendously good things and there was some really bad things.

I think bro. Chuck Pike, a good friend of  mine is always pushing me on this. He says, Make sure we learn quickly from the mistakes that we have made. So I learn as much from the mistakes as from the good things.  I just want to share some the things I think are worthy of imitation from our experience.

The first part is Jesus says – Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men. So group discipleship is kind of two pieces to it.  Right? Follow me is learning obedience, learning to be like Jesus. Okay, that is a piece of it. But why do we do that? The whole purpose was to go make fishers of men. Help people become fishermen. To catch fish. So to follow me in small groups in our congregation, We did basically was:  we would meet together as a church on Sunday but then every person would be in a small group of between 8-15 people. It was in that small group that we did our personal discipling. We would come together often several times during the week. Where we would have teaching. We would discuss the Sunday lesson. We would apply it to our lives. There would be confession. Iron sharpeneth iron, accountability, it was a safe place, when it was done well. And we learned from each other how to be more like the Master.

So that was a piece of it. The other piece of it though was the whole purpose that we are here for is to go make fishers of men. We are to go fishing. We are going to have Bible studies. We will invite our neighbors, our friends, our people we work with to come. To come into a relationship, to see the relationships, to study the Bible with us, to share the scriptures with them.

Personal Bible studies, we have that. A few people with the group would get together with someone they are reaching out to and study the scriptures with them. What would happen is there would be this community.  That is the kind of community that I saw.  I thought- this is amazing. I have never seen anything like this. Then I came to the church service and Wow! There is even more people than these four or five. I saw it in my life, in my little town. But then I saw the bigger picture.

What happens was, people become Christians. They come into the kingdom. So what happens, I know this is going to sound crazy, but the church we are a part of in Boston started with 30 people and everyone was part of a small group. Everyone was committed to this concept of discipling one another and reaching out and helping other people become Christians. So what happen was those groups would grow! So a group of 10 people becomes 20 people. So you split. Now you got two groups of 10 people and they go on and do the same thing. Then they split. Then they split. And it is multiplication. So the group of 30 people in Boston became a church of 2,500 in about 15 years. They also sent a small group to New York and they did the same thing. And they split and they split and multiplied and then they started sending out churches into Chicago, into Seattle, into LA and into London, into Paris, and into Moscow and to Berlin.  All these different places, teaching a hard core discipleship of following Jesus. Literally hundreds of churches.

Now the problem was that the scriptures say that the student is not greater than his teacher. And like any congregation pride can set in. And this group thought they had a lock on the truth on certain teachings, a few teaching that they elevated above other teachings. And they ignored many of the teachings many of you hold so dearly. They just ignored them. That was a problem. God will eventually have to deal with that. But they neglected to follow all of Jesus commandments.

The lesson I learned was- Be humble.  I need other Christians who have other strengths in my life. because if I am working in my small group and trying to practice discipleship. I am not going to see it all. I am going to have blind spots or many blind spots. I need other Christians in my life.

But what I appreciate was:  The purpose was to go and make disciples of the group.

Can you imagine my friend Chris if all he did was have them cut wood, and drill holes but they never made anything? I mean a carpenter who doesn’t make stuff, he’s not a carpenter!

There is something wrong if we are disciples and we are not making fishers of men because that is what Jesus told us to do. There is nothing that is Christ like as laying your life down for someone who really doesn’t want the gospel or know the gospel. Because typically you will be rejected, you will be scorned. But often, you keep doing it people will turn and become Christians.  That is an incredibly loving feat that only God can help us to do.

The last thing that I want to share is that this environment. The importance of having some environment that is safe, that is positive, hard line on sin, but allows peoples hearts to come out.  People that make mistakes, that say the foolish thing, the stupid thing because that is the only way you can disciple people. Right?  Help people see what is right and correct. I am so excited to look out at this group because you have embraced some of the most hardest teaching in the scriptures. It’s crazy, non-resistance, covering, divorce and remarriage,  these are the most radical teachings in the scriptures.  They are so counter-cultural and you embrace them. I feel like that is the hard work. The easy work it to go out and tell people about it. And if you hold on to that you probably think the opposite. I think it is the other way. I think it is hard to get the group I know who really loves discipleship to embrace these hard teachings. But if we can get these together, of my, could not God be glorified and praised and the gospel go out to all nations. That is my prayer and hope. Amen.