By Michael C. Mack
How do small groups best engage in Bible study in order to grow as followers of Christ?
If you asked Jesus’ original disciples to describe discipleship, they would talk about their yeshiva. Rabbis taught in groups of disciples called yeshivas that would have passionate discussions over different aspects of life and what the Hebrew Scriptures said about them. They would wrestle with the texts together in order to understand God’s view on how they should conduct their lives.
Rabbis used no written curriculum or agenda for their multiyear discipling experience. Their curriculum was life itself. The rabbi observed the daily life of his disciples and then asked probing questions to initiate discussion about observed behaviors. A disciple could also initiate conversations by raising an issue regarding his observation of the rabbi’s life or some life issue or question. A friend recently called this “discipleship by hanging around.”
How can we accomplish discipleship like Jesus modeled in his culture? Should we discard the printed Bible-study guide? (After all, Jesus didn’t use one.) Perhaps not, but I think we all will agree that following Jesus’ style of discipleship will require group members to make a few fundamental commitments.
A first-century disciple was committed to God, his rabbi, and his yeshiva. More importantly, he was committed to being a disciple. In a healthy small group, members commit to Christ, the group, and mutual discipleship.
Committed to Christ. Discipleship happens when individuals are spending time with God each day. They’re reading, studying, and meditating on God’s Word in their own personal quiet times. If the only time people open their Bibles is during the small group meeting, that’s not enough! That’s not healthy. That’s not real discipleship.
People must be responsible for their own spiritual growth, with the support, encouragement, and accountability of others in the group. When group members show up at a meeting after communing with God through the week, they are prepared to share with one another what God is doing in their lives. All week, God has been pouring into them. Now, when they meet together, he overflows from one life into another. A whole group that is spending daily time with God naturally overflows into the lives of others outside the group as well. It’s in these overflowing groups that God adds to the number daily those being saved!
Committed to the group. When you start a new group, or when a new person joins your small group, make the commitment to discipleship as clear as possible. Of course, setting the bar high like this has a trade-off. Some people will not join a group that requires high commitment. But for those who accept the challenge, you will make disciples. I imagine it was tough for Jesus to watch the rich young man walk away, but Jesus was committed to making disciples, not attracting crowds of consumers.
Committed to mutual discipleship. Mutual discipleship means we are committed to helping one another grow in our faith. This is what Paul meant when he said Christ’s body should grow and build itself up in love as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16). In the healthiest groups, members are not only committed to their own spiritual growth (a more acceptable form of consumerism), but to helping others grow.
Disciples who are spending time in God’s Word throughout the week come together when the group convenes to wrestle with the Scriptures together—to determine together how to live out God’s Word in their lives. A healthy small group does not just study the truth of Scripture (for head knowledge), and it does not just “do life together” in a nice little social club. In a healthy group, the truth of God’s Word and real life come together. Group members take a passage of Scripture and talk about how to actually live it out in real-life situations.
What’s this look like? Let’s say Philippians 4:6 spoke to someone in their time with God during the week. A group member reads the verse (and often other verses around it):
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The leader may ask, “So, when do you tend to get anxious about things?” Several people say they get anxious at work, especially with recent layoffs.
A group member asks, “So how could you go to work tomorrow and live this verse out? How can you keep from being anxious about the situation?” Everyone enters into this dialogue, perhaps sharing ways they have depended on Christ’s power rather than becoming anxious. Others share what a struggle that is in real life. The group wrestles with this and then someone suggests they pray together for members who are struggling with anxiety at work. Because this is a group of friends, several enter into the struggle by sending notes of encouragement throughout the week.
This is not a typical Bible study using a printed curriculum piece. Note: I’m not saying all small group curriculum is bad! But your purpose is not to get through another study; it’s to grow and develop as followers of Christ. Use studies that help you do that. If you lead the group, use these studies as tools to help shepherd your group members.
I was in a group for parents of teens that used video-based studies on the topic. But—and don’t miss this!—the material was not why we met. Growing in our relationships with Christ was about more than just being good parents of teens. So we emphasized everyday discipleship. We took time to talk about what we were hearing from God through the week. The men and women often met separately for some iron-sharpening-iron conversations. This is not just a nuance. It can be a big paradigm change for many groups who see themselves as “study groups.”
I use this process of “wrestling together” in the men’s group I’m leading now. Members show up ready to share what they have been learning from God’s Word and to hear what other men in the group have heard from God. It’s no real secret, however; we’re just doing what we see Jesus and his disciples doing in their small group.
Parts of this article were adapted from chapter 7 of Small Group Vital Signs (TOUCH Publications: www.touchusa.org).
Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? (Standard Publishing). He also leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).