The number one question I hear church leaders asking today is, “How do I make sure my people are being discipled while they are disconnected and not meeting in groups?” This is the right question, but the answers may have some uncomfortable implications for those of us who lead Bible-teaching ministries in churches.
To disciple the disconnected in the age of COVID-19, we’re going to have to make some shifts in our thinking, our practices, and our leadership. Here are a few things we’ll need to do to make disciples in the back half of 2020 and beyond:
- We must extend the invitation. Disciples aren’t just made and they don’t just happen. Disciples are recruited, they are poured into by a leader, and they are ultimately expected to repeat the process with someone else. Every believer is a disciple, but not every believer is a growing disciple. One reason the church is not making disciples is because leaders are not asking people to go on a journey of discipleship in an intentional way. Jesus recruited men to join him on a journey of discipleship. “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Just a few verses later Jesus encountered two more men. The text says, “…and he called them” (4:21). You can see Jesus’ intentionality. He chose men into whom he offered to pour his life. Discipleship begins with an invitation. The invitation to discipleship is personal, planned, and purposeful. Perhaps we have not because we ask not. To make disciples in the age of COVID, we’ll do it “old school.” We’ll go analog and get back to a more intentional approach to asking men and women to give us permission to invest in them for a time, challenge them to learn, walk with them as they live out their faith, and release them to be disciplemakers themselves. Disciplemaking begins with an ask. We must extend the invitation.
- We must downsize groups. Because of physical distancing, larger groups are at a tremendous disadvantage to regroup and regather today. Smaller groups of people can meet almost anywhere, and these days that is a huge tactical advantage for making disciples. Large groups can be taught – in fact it’s quite fun and energizing; but group members can’t be discipled in a large group setting (if that were possible, preaching would be enough, and Jesus would have had weekly hillside rallies with thousands of people – and he didn’t). Wouldn’t it be great if your church’s groups were small enough to meet in living rooms, a side room at a restaurant, underneath a tree, or at a pavilion at a local park? COVID-19 would have done no damage, and Bible study groups would be thriving even in the current pandemic. We must challenge group leader’s notions that “bigger is better” and the person with the largest group wins. That is certainly not the biblical model for making disciples.
- We must spend time with people. This is a by-product of downsizing groups. A group leader can’t know everyone in a large group, nor can they spend relational time with every person. Active members, guests, and sporadic attenders all cry out for their shepherd/teacher to know them, feed them, and love them. How often have you heard someone say, “I left that church because “X” happened to me or my family and no one reached out – no one cared”? In a large group, leaders can’t know all the people’s stories, their gifting, their circumstances, and the next steps they should take to grow spiritually. Making disciples requires proximity. That implies that we can’t do it all in a worship service or a classroom. We must spend time with them beyond the group meeting. When you look at the way Jesus made disciples, a large part of his strategy was to “do life together.” The disciples watched and listened to him as he taught and healed people. They experienced the debates between Jesus and the religious leaders. The disciples made meals and ate them with Jesus (wouldn’t you have wanted to be a part of those late-day campfire meals and conversations?). Today, we come to the church, meet for an hour, then scatter to four or five different zip codes. We often don’t interact until the next week – maybe. If we are going to make disciples, we are going to spend time with people.
- We must downsize again and create “groups within groups.” Jesus discipled twelve men, but he also had a sub-group of three – Peter, James, and John. While he discipled the twelve, he simultaneously focused on leading and growing his inner group. A first step in making disciples may be to lead larger groups to become smaller groups. But an important and necessary second step will be to go further by helping the smaller group to become even smaller. “D-groups” (discipleship groups) of same-sex individuals, are a way to make disciples in our COVID-19 world. The masses need preaching. The masses need solid biblical teaching. Disciples need relationships with their disciplemaking teachers, and the “group within a group” can enhance the discipleship process.
- Groups must have multiple apprentice teachers. A team-teaching approach will help raise up new teachers who will become disciplemakers. Apprentice teachers need time to learn the ins-and-outs of group ministry as they prepare to launch out and create new small groups of their own. Apprentice teachers should have a regular cadence of teaching opportunities (an apprentice is not the same as a substitute teacher). When a group is formed, the first thing that should be done is to select at least one apprentice teacher. This signals that the new group is going to ultimately support the creation of a new group in the future by releasing the apprentice teacher to start a new one. Groups with apprentice teachers signal their intent to ultimately reach and disciple new people. This gives the church its needed supply of teacher/leaders for all age groups, and it acts as an accelerator in the disciplemaking process.