Discipleship by Small Groups
IN JANUARY OF 1980, OUR ten-year-old home missions work in Annapolis, Maryland, experienced a tremendous revival that resulted in a significant harvest of souls. Alto-gether in 1980, 531 souls received the baptism of the Holy Ghost. By the end of 1981, another 1,034 had received the Holy Ghost as well. Prior to the revival which began in 1980 we were averaging approximately 125 faithful “Sunday night” attendees. Still, as awesome as this harvest was, we were ill-equipped to effectively manage such an abundant influx of new births. Our ministry structure could not contain what our faith had produced.
I was born and raised in the United Pentecostal Church. My foremost experiences from the time I was a young minister until well into my home mission’s pastorate involved being in church services and “having church.” When Antioch experienced this great harvest, we struggled to disciple people and keep them coming to church. With primarily just the ministerial staff trying to do all of the follow up and discipleship, and with no place provided for the saints to be involved, as a staff we were quickly overwhelmed. So as our focus shifted from reaping to discipleship, it became immediately obvious that our church structure was not designed to handle such large numbers of new converts in such a short amount of time.
At that time, I had never heard of or read anything about small group, home group, or cell group ministry. In desperation I began to seek God and study His Word for a biblical answer concerning how to establish a ministry structure that could systematically and effectively contain such a large harvest. Through my biblical search I discovered several very important things.
GOD IS A GOD OF PRINCIPLES AND PATTERNS
I came to understand that God is a God of principles and patterns. His Word contains His principles applied in patterns which communicate to every time and culture so we can understand how the Word applies to us, our lives, and our ministries.
In exercising the above perspective, I saw that two chapters prior to the Lord giving the Law to Moses, God had commanded Moses through Jethro to establish a ministry structure whereby the people could participate in ministering to themselves with Moses as the overseer of the ministry (Exodus 18). The leaders who served in this ministry were taken from among the people. Now, this is quite different from the seventy elders appointed following Moses’ com-plaint in Numbers 11 who were chosen from among the collective elders of Israel. This distinction was made most emphatically.
By the Exodus 18 model, the Lord established that while shepherds care for the flock collectively, it is the sheep who care for the sheep individually. In my experience growing up, the shepherds “confiscated” the lambs from those who bore them and fed them in large, insulated groups called “discipleship classes.” However, Peter said newborn babes should desire the milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2). Physiologically it is the mothers (sheep) which produce milk and feed it to their babies, not the fathers. Fathers (pastors/shepherds) tend to feed meat, sometimes even strong meat; it is their role and responsibility. However, if our newborns are to survive and grow, they must be fed milk well before they are fed meat.
A disciple is not just someone who has been indoctrinated. A biblical disciple is a member of the body of Christ who has been taught and trained to participate in the ministry of the saints within the church. Furthermore, being a true biblical disciple implies a personal relationship with whom one is following. If teaching and training only informs and equips without also modeling and encouraging a deepening, personal, intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, then it is not just ineffective, it is counterproductive. Consequently, discipleship efforts that retain, equip, and fully establish new members far exceed the scope and method of simple, biblical indoctrination. Just communicating biblical knowledge to people without also teaching them how to live and grow spiritually, both individually and in their relation-ships within the body, is not an apostolic discipleship effort.
As stated above, I saw the importance of building relationships not just with God, but also with each other. Biblically we are asked how we can say we love God whom we have not seen when we do not love our brothers whom we have seen (1 John 4:20-21). Jesus emphatically declared, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). In our spiritual lives, both in church services and outside the church walls, are not two better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)? Furthermore, are we not our brother’s keeper? We are members of the same body, joined to one another and responsible for each other. This is the kind of discipleship Jesus taught, practiced, and commanded. The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors in the same way we love ourselves (Mark 12:31). In what church setting can this kind of relational discipleship best be developed and manifested? Certainly not before, during, or after a church service. No, it takes a completely different type environment to foster this kind of spiritual bond one with another.
Our church services are focused upon the vertical relationship between God and man, as well they should be. But where and how do we grow and develop in our horizontal relationships, brother to brother and sister to sister? I found the only setting in the Bible favorable to developing those relationships was Spirit-centered meetings that the saints regularly held in each other’s homes with oversight provided by the pastor/shepherd and staff.
Acts 2:42 doesn’t just say the people continued in the apostles’ doctrine; it also says that they continued in fellowship and in breaking of bread. This implies something different than our “normal” church service structure and suggests much more than what would occur in “church.” They met together, prayed together, and ate together. The result? They were together! The people were forged into close-knit “families” of believers, connected together in a bond of fellowship not easily broken. This is genuine, New Testament discipleship. What does all of this mean? Simply put, our local ministry structure either aids and promotes true discipleship—or hinders it.
In February 2003 our church auditorium collapsed in a major snow storm. It was several years before we were able to have church services for the entire church on our property again. However, the sheep did not scatter because of two key reasons: 1) Care Fellowship Ministry, the thriving small group ministry established in 1983, and 2) we were already a multiple-location church on Sundays using daughter works as our focus. In fact, over the next three years of not having a building of our own, we more than doubled in attendance. This would not have been possible with a ministry structure focused solely upon a single location, church-service-only ministry structure.
Am I a believer in small group ministry and its benefits in producing disciples? Emphatically, yes. There would not be an Antioch, The Apostolic Church in Arnold, Maryland, today without it.
Chester Wright is the founding pastor of Antioch, The Apostolic Church in Arnold, Maryland and is currently serving as bishop of Antioch. He is also the MD-DC district superintendent.
The above article, “Discipleship by Small Groups” was written by Chester Wright. The article was excerpted from the Apostolic Harold magazine. September 2016.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.