Life group ministry (small groups) can be one of the most challenging ministries offered by the church. Yet it is essential to the health of the church. When we look at how Jesus lived and ministered, we see that a great deal of his ministry was in the context of a life group. He called 12 men to walk together with him so he could form them spiritually and teach them to carry on his ministry. Jesus didn’t call 12 people that looked alike, either. He called together a variety of people from widely disparate backgrounds. He had both sides of the political spectrum, white collar, blue collar, introverts, extroverts, leaders and followers. Sometimes they argued with one another and even with him. The disciples were a tough crowd. And so are we. Why would we expect a thriving life group ministry to be any different?
Jesus said, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” When Jesus invited his disciples by saying, “Come, follow me…” he was initiating a call to repentance and relationship to himself. When he said, “I will make you…” he was indicating he would transform the hearts and lives of his followers. When he stated, “fishers of men,” he was indicating that the disciples would be reproducing themselves and creating more disciples. At Holy Cross, we call this, “Follow, Form and Fulfill.” Jesus calls us to follow him, to be transformed by his Spirit, and to fulfill his mission to go and make disciples of all nations.
A few years ago, we took a hard look at discipleship in the context of our parish and realized we needed to reevaluate what Jesus asked us to do. We looked at our programs, classes, and how disciples were being formed, and what was actually being produced. We focused on life groups in order to build a structure to develop our discipleship. Some key things we noticed:
1. Just because a group was growing numerically, didn’t necessarily mean it was growing spiritually.
2. Just because a group had longevity, didn’t necessarily mean it was growing spiritually or reproducing itself.
3. Some groups had become social gatherings with very little spiritual information or transformation.
4. Many groups focused on spiritual information but showed very little spiritual transformation.
On a macro level, we weren’t seeing disciples growing deeper in their faith and reproducing themselves. We wanted to see multiple generations of disciples made. To use an example from family life: we wanted to see people have “spiritual grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” i.e. disciples making disciples who make disciples who make disciples.
As we looked around for help, we discovered there are many great organizations that exist to help churches grow disciples. We looked into several and found one that made sense for our congregation and adapted their materials to train and equip leaders to begin facilitating life groups that would grow and multiply. It was hard work to make the shift and it required vision and leadership from the top down. The rector, vestry, and clergy agreed this was both the biblical pattern and the particular vision God had for Holy Cross, and all became invested in shaping ministry around discipleship and life groups.
It has not been a smooth road and we have learned a great deal from mistakes and failures. However, lay-led groups are now birthing groups, and we are seeing members intentionally discipling others who will eventually disciple their own people. It’s beginning to become normative in our culture and part of our DNA.
And an exciting thing has happened. A couple of years ago, the Very Rev. Peet Dickinson, Rector at the Cathedral, reached out and introduced me to Kathleen Brinson. Kathleen is the Director of Community Groups at the Cathedral. They were interested in developing relational discipleship strategies as well. Kathleen and I met, and a beautiful discipling friendship was birthed. We have shared together, groaned together and grown in Christ together! This past year, Kathleen brought leaders from the Cathedral to two of Holy Cross’ life group leaders’ trainings. We were able to talk after both of these about what worked for the Cathedral and what didn’t work in the different cultural contexts where we minister. We looked at strategy together and prayed for one another. We celebrated as people became encouraged and equipped to minister.
The Cathedral took the principles we shared and then adapted and developed their own strategies for their specific parish context. It was an incredible joy when the Cathedral offered their own leaders training this summer, and my husband Chris (the Rector of Holy Cross) and I participated with them to support what they are doing. We had so much fun together. And Holy Cross learned from things they are doing that we are now taking back into our ministry. We are loving the mutuality and camaraderie in Christ. And we are partnering in the mission Jesus gave us to make disciples in the context of our diocese.
By Catherine Warner, Church of the Holy Cross