Discipleship Small Groups


A pastor was speaking to fellow pastors at a conference for church growth when he asked how many of the churches present had small groups. About one-third of the pastors raised their hands. He then clarified his question by asking how many had churches where small groups of people worked together on tasks, got together and talked about issues, or meet and fellowshipped. This time everyone raised their hands.

The truth is every church has small groups, however not all of them are successful. Some are nothing more than “clichés” or “bless me clubs.” Thus, every church needs to learn how to lead small groups successfully. Whether it is a prayer gathering, evangelism team, staff meeting, or a fellowship group; small groups can be great for the health of the church if done correctly.

The “small group movement” has its roots both in early church and later church history. Some of the key figures in the last 250 years have been John Wesley and the Methodist movement in the late 1700’s and today’s Yonggi Cho in South Korea. There has been an explosion of small groups in the last 25 years. Such countries as El Salvador, Columbia, and South Korea have small groups numbered in the thousands and church attendance in the tens of thousands. Therefore, today’s largest churches 10,000 to over 250,000 all have a form of multiplying discipleship based small groups!

As a result, this paper is written to (i) help distinguish the different types of small groups, (ii) see the need for discipleship based small groups, (iii) learn the Biblical basis for discipleship small groups, (iv) know the fourteen qualities of a discipleship small group, and (iv) avoid the seven sins of small groups.

Different Types of Small Groups

Jeff Arnold in his book, “The Big Book on Small Groups,” gives the following list of small group types, (1) special needs groups, (2) affinity groups, (3) ministry groups, and (4) discipleship groups. Here is a brief description of each one:

(1) Special Needs: Groups that provide love and care for their members in many different ways. Special needs groups are formed by the church to focus on meeting the special needs of the church and community. Examples of special needs groups are married couples small groups, single parent groups, recovering addicts groups, or troubled teen groups.

(2) Affinity Groups: These groups focus on the spiritual development of those involved with such things as worship and study of God’s Word. Examples of affinity groups are studies on certain books of the Bible (small group on Revelation), prayer and worship groups, and the study of certain Biblical subjects (small group on being a “small group leader).

(3) Ministry Groups: Groups that are focused on reaching out through evangelism and servanthood projects. Examples of ministry groups are street witnessing teams, adopt-a-block ministry, or nursing home visitation.

(4) Discipleship Groups: These groups are based on the model of Jesus and are formed to involve worship, Word, ministry, fellowship, mentoring, and multiplication. Examples of these groups are cell groups and small groups with a specific pattern to follow such as Cho’s model or Cesar Castellanos’ G12.

It is clear that every group has its own strength and weakness. For example special needs groups are great for focusing on people’s specific needs and making them feel special. At the same time, they can become a “bless me group” where the focus is always on them and they avoid growth and new experiences because the group has become a hindrance to their social and spiritual growth.

Affinity groups are perfect for people to get closer to God through prayer meetings and Bible studies. However, the group can get so focused on their own spiritual growth that they are always on a personal “spiritual treasure chest hunt” to find the next “buried treasure” for their own benefit. Ministry groups are a great expression of Jesus’ love and can challenge people to get out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, these street preachers and “Mother Teresa” servants can become so outward focused that they become disconnected from the larger body and neglect the other inward needs of the church.

Discipleship groups are great for holistic ministry, which brings both inward and outward growth. However, these groups can become controlling and cult like when the leadership becomes controlling and forces an unbiblical form of submission upon their followers.

Need for Discipleship Small Groups

In light of the different small groups listed above I believe “discipleship based small groups” are the best all around group to have in every church. This is not to disregard the other types of groups, but I believe that discipleship based small groups can contain all the good mentioned in the list above.

Discipleship groups can be the foundation for special needs groups, thus the person going through their issues do not neglect the big picture. Also, ministry and affinity groups can be based out of the discipleship groups, because if a member is not a disciple by the Bible’s definition what is the purpose of learning new truths or going out and doing ministry. Therefore, I believe if every church has discipleship groups they will avoid being unbalanced and ineffective.

Biblical Basis for Discipleship Small Groups

Jesus and the Twelve: Mark records in Mark 3:13-15, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” Therefore, one can see that Jesus used the discipleship method for small groups. Evidence of this can be further seen in His calling of His followers “disciples,” the time He spent teaching them to do ministry, and how His focus was to multiple them to win the world.

Jesus Sends out the Disciples: Matthew records in Matthew 28:18-20, “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The greatest example of the multiplication of a discipleship small group comes from Jesus Himself. Therefore, leading a small group like Jesus leads to new small groups- true disciples make disciples that make new disciples!

The Jerusalem Church: Luke records in Acts 2:46-47, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It is clear that the first church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the apostles was a discipleship-based church because they were both inward and outward focused. They were involved in public meetings, small home groups, and outreaching to win new souls.

Paul’s Ministry: Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:2-3, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” In Titus 2 Paul devotes this chapter to outlining how each people group- man, woman, young people, etc, should be taught and teach each other. Also, Priscilla and Aquila, who were disciples of Paul, are seen opening their home to Apollos and continuing the pattern of making disciples in small groups (Acts 19:18-26).

Fourteen Qualities of a Discipleship Small Group

Here are the fourteen qualities of a discipleship small group:

(1) Trained Leadership: The person leading the group must himself or herself be trained and be a disciple. This training should be no longer than 12-18 months. The trained leader should still be accountable and in a growing relationship with church leadership and God.

(2) Sound Doctrine/Materials: What the leader teaches must be grounded in sound Christian doctrine. Also, the teacher should have some kind of materials or structure that bring an even flow and direction to the group. Thus, each week’s lessons are not a disconnected series of teachings, but rather a series of connected and interwoven subjects leading to specific points.

(3) Worship: The meeting should have a time of worship and adoration to God. This can been seen with Jesus and the twelve at the last super, He lead them in a hymn (Matthew 26:30). Worship opens the heart, brings people closer to God, and helps people to be more ready to receive instruction.

(4) Word: The leader must be able to pray, seek God, receive a fresh Word, organize the lesson, and present it with power and clarity. The lesson should teach Biblical principles in a life changing way.

(5) Prayer: Making requests known to God and giving Him praises for what He has already done is always present in a true discipleship small group. It was during these times that Jesus was asked how to pray, mostly likely because the disciples saw His powerful and effective prayer life (Matthew 6:5-15).

(6) Fellowship: The group should be open to sharing life together in a family-like environment. Talking, hanging out, eating, and expressing true emotions must be available before and after the group meetings.

(7) Accountability: Coaching in sports involves keep tracking of the athlete’s diet, sleep pattern, and at-home priorities. It is much the same in a discipleship small group because how the disciple’s life is lived outside of the group reflects the growth gained from within the group. Therefore, the leader must have a way of imitating Jesus’ “24 hr approach” to accountability.

(8) Evangelism: Preaching the Gospel to the lost is Jesus’ way of keeping the group focused on the “big picture” and growing the group. Such methods can be coming together to go out and share the message in the neighborhood the group meets in, holding special events, teaching members to invite friends and family to the group, and have intentional friendships that lead to preaching the Gospel.

(9) Follow-Up: Staying in touch with members throughout the week is very important to the strength of the group. Also, making multiple contacts with the visitors and new comers can make them feel more comfortable and apt to come back.

(10) Leadership Training: Every discipleship small group should have leadership training happening within the group. The leader should always have an “apprentice” that he is training to multiple the group into two groups. Also, one-on-one discipleship should be going on throughout the month where the leader meets with the individual members to train them to be effective leaders.

(11) Multiplication: The group’s goal should be that of Jesus first group, the twelve- to win the nations! A strategy should be in place to make a pattern to guide people from being a visitor to a leader. For example, “Connect, Mentor, and Send.”

(12) Big Vision and Goals: The leader should present every time they meet the vision of the church and the goal for the small group. The vision should be something simple like, “Love God, and Love People,” and the goal can be, “Multiply a new group every year!”

(13) Meeting Time and Place: Most discipleship groups meet once a week in a person’s home. Thus, the meeting time should be easy for people to attend and on a day that is convenient for the majority of the members.

(14) Unity: The group should be unified with the church, promoting the same vision, and supporting the church’s ministries and services. Rebellion is easy to occur in a small group because of the leader’s power and influence over the people, but they must always remember that they are apart of the bigger vision of the church and under the leadership of the church (Philippians 2).

Seven Deadly Sins of Small Groups

Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson- authors of the Willow Creek based book, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry” note the most common mistakes that can “kill” the effectiveness of a small group. These sins are common in all types of small groups and certainly apply to discipleship small groups. Therefore, to have an effective discipleship small group the following mistakes must be avoided.

(1) Unclear Ministry Objectives: Small group leadership cannot go blindly into having discipleship small groups because “without vision (revelation) people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). The group must have a clear vision, strategy, and goals from the very beginning. Also, the goals and strategies must be able to be measured and adjusted as time passes to grow successfully a multiplying small group ministry.

(2) Lack of Point Leadership: God uses called and anointed men and women of God to lead His tasks. The small group cannot be any different. The leader must be called and given the proper authority to operate the group with respect from their members and fellow leaders. Also, small group leaders should be able to focus on the small group without distractions.

(3) Poor Coaching Structures: Coaching is the art of teaching others how to do what they could not do by themselves. If small group leaders are not properly trained than their “on-hands-learning” experience can be devastating. Thus, training and coaching should be used before sending out small group leaders to start groups.

(4) Neglect of Ongoing Leadership Development: If the trained leader is not held accountable, then they may get off track over time. Thus, every leader should be accountable to a leader at all times and thus, all small groups leaders should be making new leaders. “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

(5) Closed Group Minds-Set: The discipleship group must always be open to new members to remain a healthy and growing group. The leadership can teach the older more mature members to be welcoming, humble, kind, and understanding to the newer less mature members.

(6) Narrow Definition of a Small Group: “One size fit all” does not work well in the long run for discipleship based groups because it limits the creativity of God. The leadership should allow for changes and varieties within the small groups so each leader and team can express their passions and given abilities. There should be creativity in format, location, outreach ideas, and teaching styles.

(7) Neglect of Assimilation Process: Visitors are the greatest assets to the group, after God, because they are the source for new disciples. Remember, Jesus said the “Good Shepherd” left the ninety-nine sheep in the fold for the one that was lost (Luke 15:4). Assimilation is making sure all visitors are properly pursued and given attention after they visit the group. Such things as calls, emails, and home visits give the visitor more of an expression of the group’s love for them


Discipleship small groups are effective and powerful when done properly in the church. By just multiplying a new small group every year for 10 years thousands of small groups with countless disciples can be formed! Today is the time to consider starting a discipleship based small group!

Here are some things to consider before starting, (1) Pray about God’s timing, (2) Seek the approval of the church’s leadership, (3) Find the right people to train as leaders, (4) Get great materials, and (5) Always have a personal investment in discipleship, no matter what your position is.

In closing, remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”


Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2004.

Bredfeldt, Gary J. and Lawrence O. Richard. Creative Bible Teaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1998.

Dempsey, Rod and Dave Earley. Leading a Small Group. Houston, YX: TOUCH Publications, 2007.

Donahue, Bill and Russ Robinson. The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.

Fay, William. Share Jesus Without Fear. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.

Geiger, Eric and Thom S. Rainer. Simple Church. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.


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