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Why disciple-making doesn't happen in most small groups

Why disciple-making doesn't happen in most small groups

Do you feel like the people in your church are becoming disciples or just going through the motions?

Researcher George Barna states “My study of discipleship in America has been eye-opening. Almost every church in our country has some type of discipleship program or set of activities, but stunningly few churches have a church of disciples.”

Some experts believe that churches need to have two types of small groups in order to be effective at disciple-making:

    • Open groups (new members are welcome), where the members focus on reaching out to those outside the church. Open groups are typically large (10 to 30 people) and create an environment where new people are invited in, are made to feel welcome, and are able to make friendships.
    • Closed groups (once formed, new members aren’t added), where the members focus on spiritual growth. Closed groups are typically small (3- to 4-people) and provide the intimacy and accountability necessary for people to confess their shortcomings and practice spiritual disciplines.

When a church has the powerful combination of both open and closed groups, it grows spiritually and numerically—both of which are essential in carrying out The Great Commission.

The problem is that most small groups fall “in between” open and closed groups. They look and operate a lot like open groups—they have 10-15 members and spend a lot of time on fellowship and studying the Word—but the members don’t intentionally reach out to those outside the church. The members are comfortable with each other and with the established routine.

This makes them look like closed groups, yet they haven’t created the atmosphere or adopted the approach necessary for people to grow spiritually. They’re too large, not equipped to practice spiritual disciplines, and don’t provide any kind of mutual accountability. The members are comfortable studying the Word and discussing it rather than helping each other put it into practice.

This is a difficult problem. It’s hard to know how to help small groups break out of this pattern. And because of this, most of us in church leadership live with the status quo even though we’re disappointed with the results.

There are two main reasons why this problem is so difficult to solve:

    • It’s not easy to visualize and understand how a small group can be both closed (for spiritual growth) and open (for numerical growth).
    • Most small groups don’t have the time or inclination to think about disciple-making and the central role they play in it.

What can be done about this?

The best way to gain insight into how small groups can be both open and closed is to do some experimenting. To do this, recruit one small group (6-12 members in size is ideal) to serve as a test group. Then set up a two-month test where the group members spend the first month as part of an open group (holding one or two open events) and the second month as part of a small, 3- or 4-person closed group. The key to making this work is to walk alongside the test group and help them:

1. Select the right kind of open event(s) to host

The best kind of open event is one that feels more accessible and less intimidating than a Bible study or church-based event. Examples include service and/or mission projects in the community, outdoor gatherings, retreats, art classes, health and wellness workshops, cooking demonstrations, etc. If they are done well, a simple spiritual connection can be made which relates to the everyday issues people face. This sort of approach will stir deeper questions, thus making it more likely for guests to be receptive to hearing about Jesus and continuing in relationship with the group.

2. Break into 3- or 4-person closed groups

At the conclusion of an open event, a member of the group should stand up and say something like: “We’re glad that you’re here. What makes our group different is that we believe that there’s a time for us to hold events like this and reach out to new people and a time for us to be in small, closed groups that are safe and offer a place where we don’t have to worry about sharing personal info with strangers. So, for the next month, we’ll be meeting in small 3- or 4-person groups to learn a spiritual practice. If this sounds like something you would enjoy, we’d like you to be a guest in one of our group meetings.”

3. Provide resources for the closed groups to use

The aim of the small, closed groups is to help people to DO what they hear in church and read in the Bible. This involves using tools that make it easy for people to practice together and to practice alone. It also involves using tools that don’t just give information in the form of lessons like we’re accustomed to getting through sermons or classes or small groups. Such tools take Biblical teaching and show people how to DO it through a story and step-by-step instructions. 

If you’d like to experiment with this open/closed idea, please email me at We’re looking to work with a few churches to discover the best ways for small groups to go back and forth between being open and being closed.

Essential Practices
Essential Practices

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