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Hanging Great Weight on Thin Wires: Can Small Groups Become Missional and Make Disciples? by Neil Cole

Pastor Brian Jones tells of the response he got from one ‘nationally recognized’ pastor when Brian told him that he hadn’t figured out the whole small group thing yet. Brian said the pastor’s response was something like this:

“Well, Brian, that’s because they don’t work. Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships, for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church, and they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the Evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago—small groups just aren’t working.”[1]

It is true that we have been trying to make disciples in small groups for a few decades now and are no closer to seeing the world transformed by missional agents than before we started this experiment.

Hanging Weight on Wires

Groups don’t make disciples; disciples make disciples. It is my contention that for far too long we have placed the burden of sanctification on group meetings that were never meant to transform a soul, but to give transformed souls a place to join and interact in a healthy manner.

Your church is only as good as her disciples. A hot band, dynamic preaching, state-of-the-art facilities and wonderful programs do not make a great church if the disciples are simply consumers and unengaged in the grand work of making disciples. But if the disciples in your church are empowered and engaged in mission, than your church is strong and healthy, even if you do not have laser lights or fog machines. We have done things backwards for too long. We must reverse the order. We think that the solution to having good disciples is to make better churches, when in fact the way to have good churches is to make better disciples.

Correctly applying the activity and behaviors of discipleship in the correct grouping can make significant impact on the overall life of the church as well as her impact on society as a whole. The absence of key groupings robs the church of a needed interaction and participation in significant spiritual behaviors.

The Base Unit of Life: 2 to 3 People

Both the Old and New Testaments use the phrase “two or three” repeatedly. At least ten times “two or three” is suggested as an ideal size at which to conduct ministry. The Bible does not say “two or more” or “three or less,” but regularly “two or three.” The following are all strongest in groups of 2-3:

Power of 2 or 3

The Power
of Two or Three

· Community (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12).
· Accountability (1 Timothy 5:19).
· Confidentiality (Matthew 18:15–17).
· Flexibility (Matthew 18:20).
· Communication (1 Corinthians 14:26–33).
· Direction (2 Corinthians 13:1).
· Leadership (1 Corinthians 14:29).
· Mission (Luke 10:1; Acts 13:2-4)

God has designed all of creation to reproduce at the level of two. If you cannot reproduce disciples at this level you are not likely to reproduce them at all. This grouping is the beginning of all life.[2]

The Family Unit: 12 to 15 People

Small groups of 12-15 are a much better size for caring for one another’s needs and feeling a part of an intimate family. It is small enough that all parts can intimately know one another, yet large enough to have significant diversity and shared responsibility for one another. It is a natural sized grouping to opperate as a spiritual family on mission together.

In the church, we often run into problems because we expect too much from this sized grouping. The Western church is littered with dysfuntional and disgruntled groups of this size. Viewing a group of 12-15 as the only one necessary and capable of doing all God desires of a church is like trying to be able to have the performance of a sports car yet carry the passenger load of a minivan combined with the toughness and luggage capacity of an SUV. You really cannot find such a car, or group of twelve. If we have strong life growth and accountability in the group of 2-3 then a group of 12-15 can relax and be the family it is meant to be. But when the only group we have for everything is this group of 12 we are expecting way too much.

A small group of 12-15 alone will not be able to accomplish the work of missional disciplemaking. But if disciple-making groups of 2-3 are already at work transforming souls out in the fields of life, then gathering those disciples into spiritual families will be far more productive. We need to put less weighted expectations on small groups and reorient the responsibility of disciple-making to the right context–a disciple in relation to another disciple. Small groups do not make disciples; disciples do. If your disciples are missional then your spiritual families will be missional, but, as we have all discovered, this will not work the other way around.

My book Church 3.0 has an important chapter on the variety of group sizes using the Scriptures, sociological theories of group dynamics and even some historical examples to determine what are the best sizes for the variety of demands and needs in Christ's kingdom.


[1] Brian Jones “Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups,” http://christianstandard.com/2011/01/why-churches-should-euthanize-small...
[2] My book Ordinary Hero presents a thorough explanation of the power of groups of 2 or 3.

© 2011 Neil Cole

Originally posted on his blog here


See also the articles:

The Networking of Groups by Neil Cole
The Power of Two or Three by CMA
Multiplying on the Micro Level by Neil Cole
The Secret Source of Unlimited Leaders

Constantine & the Institutionalization of the Church

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