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Vary your group rhythms as you grow together
We get to know each other by gathering in homes to share our stories, listen, and pray. We begin with something non-threatening—sermon discussions—and then we move to something more personal—breaking bread together in a family meal. Over time we also start moving into smaller groups of men or women where we can speak even more freely about the fine china of our lives—the most personal things that few, if any, know about us. We call these smaller groups “discipleship groups.” Taking the members of a community group and helping them form themselves into smaller discipleship groups of men and women can feel fuzzy, maybe even a bit overwhelming or risky—like some unholy mix of picking kickball teams in grade school or finding a date for the prom. As new community groups start out their life together eating meals, discussing sermon questions, and praying, many group members will to assume those initial meeting structures will stay the same for the life of the group.
But those initial gatherings are like the first dates of a newly-dating couple. If a couple’s relationship two years into marriage looked the same as it did on their first date, something would be very wrong. Interpersonal relationships are supposed to experience movement and progress towards depth. As community groups grow in age, they should growth in relational depth. The goal is not to still just be talking about the sermon a year and a half later. The goal is to be breaking bread, moving out on mission, inviting the lost in to our homes and going to where they are, and also forming ourselves into discipleship groups.
So as the group grows in getting to know each other, it might look like, “Hey all the guys are going to go into the kitchen and the gals are going to go into the den, because we’re going to break up by gender tonight and share a little more deeply and pray.” That’s a great first step. You do that a couple times. And then what happens? You'll notice that…
Look for the leaders that often naturally emerge
…leaders will begin to emerge—people who are particularly good at listening to others and refraining from offering cheap advice. People who know how to aim for the heart and move conversations one step deeper. People who are humble, gentle, patient, and loving (Eph 4:2). People who take initiative to exercise influence for the sake of others.
These kind of people tend to have a firm enough grasp of the gospel that they don’t say, on the one hand—falling into the irreligious ditch—“It’s alright, everyone messes up. That's about all you can hope for, but God will forgive you; that’s his job.” Nor who say on the other hand, falling into the religious ditch, “Man, you better pull it together quickly because until you obey, God’s not going to bless you.” Rather, because they are people who have a real-life grasp of the gospel, they think and say things like, “The father looks at you and sees Jesus and is well pleased, and your sin is covered, because all God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus." And they also think and say things like, "And yet Hebrews reminds us that there is a holiness that without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14. If our sin is serious enough that the Son had to step down off his throne and become a man in order to bear the full weight of the Father’s wrath, then our sin’s serious enough for us to wage war against it (Heb 12:4). But if Jesus hung on the cross long enough to even absorb all of your sin, then you don’t have to fight your sin out of fear of punishment. You don't have to wage this warfare out of the anxious belief that if you don’t get it right the next time he might drop you (Phil 1:6).”
They have a gospel confidence about them that comes out in the patient, humble way they listen, encourage, and walk alongside others who are stuck or hurting. They don’t panic when people around them are sinning and suffering. People who can think like this, and talk like this, and walk alongside like this, and live like this, are going to emerge in those "proto-discipleship groups" of ten men or ten women, and that’s the kind of person you want to make sure there’s at least one of in each discipleship group as you break them down into groups of three or four. These are people who will at the least do no harm, and who will at the most do a great deal of good.
Encourage everyone to do a little homework before they start
We can never be prepared enough, and we shouldn't set our hope on our preparation or the accumulation of theological knowledge, but it's not wrong to prepare a little, and in fact, it can be a very loving thing to do. Before they go into surgery, doctors review best practices, and wash their hands. Before we engage in the mutual cure of souls, we would do well to prepare accordingly. Spend time in Scripture and in prayer.
Spend time thoughtfully listening to this teaching on the do's and don'ts of discipleship groups, and then, when you gather for the first time, discuss how you were each personally instructed or corrected by the content of the teaching. (You can follow along with the notes as well.) That teaching should greatly help you to practice being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to be impatient with others (James 1:21).
Once the new groups are formed, discuss confidentiality at the outset. Give each person in the room the opportunity to describe out loud how they understand the mutual commitment they're making to confidentiality. Decide what you will share or not share with your spouses, if any of you are married. It's incredibly important that you not repeat anything that was shared with you in confidence in the context of a discipleship group unless you 1) first get the permission of the person, or 2) believe there is some criminal act being perpetrated, or 3) determine someone is consistently defiant and unrepentant in their sin (in that case, seek outside help by encouraging them to reach out to one of us in leadership, and if they refuse, tell them you will approach Frontline leadership on their behalf).
Share life stories
One of the most important strategic choices you can make as a discipleship group is to begin your journey together by sharing your life stories. Don't feel a lot of urgency to try and squeeze the stories in quickly in order to get down to the business of 'really doing the stuff'. Growing in knowing each other well is the stuff. Even if you only hear one story each time you meet, for the first several meetings, and they take up the entirety of those meetings, that's great! Be sure and thank the person who shares when the things that are shared are painful, as it is a great honor for them to entrust you with the fine china of their lives. Also be sure and gather around the person who has just shared and lay hands on them and pray for them. Invite the Holy Spirit to minister to them in that moment. Pray prayers of encouragement and thanksgiving for their life.
Lead by facilitation
Who leads a discipleship group, and how? Leadership in a discipleship group should be primarily facilitation. The leader or facilitator functions in the group by leading out in repentance rather than maintaining the qualification of leadership by failing less than the other members of the group! How do you know when you've stopped saying 'we' and your leadership has become unhealthily hierarchical? When confessing your sin feels violently out of place and changes your demeanor. Your demeanor in the group should not change dramatically depending on whether you, by your own standards, had a great week or a bad week. In the gospel, we are humbly confident—neither swaggering nor sniveling. Leadership in a discipleship group is facilitation and leadership by example—outdoing your brothers or sisters in repenting more quickly and more often. If you're going to insist on posturing yourself as the leader but you're not going to confess sin, you probably need to get out of the group. You're going to do damage to your brothers or sisters by presenting a false spirituality to them. There are exceptions to this rule of course (e.g., an older mentor discipling a group of younger people), but in the kind of peer-discipleship group that we're describing, this rule almost always applies.
Bonhoeffer wrote, "It is not a good thing for one person to be the confessor for all the others. All too easily this individual will become overburdened, one for whom confession becomes an empty routine, giving rise to the unholy misuse of confession for the exercise of spiritual tyranny over souls. Those who do not practice confession themselves should be careful not to hear the confessions of other Christians, lest they succumb to this most frightening danger for confession. Only those who have been humbled themselves can hear the confession of another without detriment to themselves."
Caveat: If you're completely stuck in a particular besetting sin, you're not going to be able to sustain leading healthfully. In that season of instability and constant setbacks, you've probably got energy only for participation. Someone else should probably be facilitating. (You're also going to be more prone to either lash out in legalistic anger at the failures of others, because of the weight of condemnation you yourself are stewing in, or you're going to be soft on sin due to your accommodation of your own sin, and you'll unconsciously fail to plead urgently with your brothers or sisters to flee from their sin.)
Strive for consistency and clarity
Strive to meet frequently, keeping in mind that each of you will inevitably miss a meeting occasionally. In other words, you will tend to meet a little bit less than you are actually scheduled to meet. If you're only meeting once a month, and someone misses a meeting, now you're now struggling to reconnect with them after sixty days! In our observation, discipleship groups that are keeping pace with the unfolding sanctification, suffering, and sin in people's lives typically tend to meet bi-weekly or weekly. At least for our culture here at Frontline, one of most common reasons people have a negative discipleship group experience is lack of consistency.
When you launch a new discipleship group, put a stake in your calendar at the outset. As much as is realistically possible, try and meet on the same day at the same time in the same place. If you're having a hard time nailing those things down at the outset, you may have a scheduling incompatibility. It's better to realize that before you begin attempting to meet, and face frustration and loss of momentum due to one member's inability to make time in their schedule. Clarify expectations, communicate clearly, and confront lovingly. Don't ask each week, "Do you all want to meet?" Communicate that you assume it's happening, send out a reminder, and then show up. If no one else shows up, you can have a wonderfully serendipitious time alone with Scripture and prayer. If everyone shows up, great. If only one person shows up, even better. Now you can focus all your attention on knowing that person especially well.
Recognize that consistency not only serves to cultivate relational momentum, but it also serves as a preventative guard against temptation and sin. The less you meet, the more opportunity the Enemy has to cut one of you out of the pack and begin gaining a foothold in your life through unconfessed sin, isolation, and shame.
Married men should first seek to serve their wives
While meeting frequently is important, for those of you men who are married with kids, it's also important to hold in tension the priority of being present to serve your wife and children. For this reason, we encourage you to try and meet early in the morning whenever possible, in order to be considerate of your wives, who are often tired after a long day and looking forward to your help at home. Conversely, married men should plan to give their wives the night off, and send them off for a leisurely, open-ended discipleship group evening, while the men feed the kids dinner and put them to bed.