Discipleship Groups Explained

Methods come and go in the church, and perhaps more in small groups ministry than anywhere else. One of the emerging methods in the American church is the introduction of discipleship groups. If you’re wondering what they are, who is doing them, and if they’re working, keep reading.

What are discipleship groups?

Discipleship groups are typically very small groups of 3-5 men or women (always gender specific) that meet weekly for the purpose of helping one another apply Scripture to their lives. There is most often one leader who is the “discipler,” and the rest of the group members are the “disciples.” Like small groups, they go by several different names: DNA Groups, D-Groups, Discipleship Groups, Base Camps, etc. These groups are meant to supplement, not replace, the usual small group offerings.

As you survey the church landscape, the key elements of discipleship groups seem to include:

  • Bible: Discipleship groups tend to be on the same daily Bible-reading plan as a way to facilitate regular discussion of what they’re reading in the Word.
  • Learning: Group members and leaders regularly learn about God as they read and study His Word and the themes they encounter. Some churches have the groups follow a curriculum they either made or chose.
  • Time: Discipleship groups usually last about 12-18 months, though that’s fairly flexible depending on where each person is in the process as they near the end.
  • Application: Bible study is a big part of the groups, but most of that takes place on the group members’ own time. The main purpose of the regular group meeting is to discuss application of the reading into their lives.
  • Accountability: Many of these groups have their members sign covenants agreeing to engage in the material and time commitment. During the group meetings, accountability questions are often asked of each group member, including the leader.
  • Multiplication: These groups are focused on multiplying themselves, and they facilitate this by continually encouraging the group members to pray for who they will take through the same process when the current group is done. Often, the last phase of a discipleship group is when the leader helps the group members get their own groups up and running.

What do discipleship groups do when they meet?

A typical discipleship group meeting might include the following elements:

  • Social: Brief time to catch up on the last week’s events, with an emphasis on how each group member did with applying the previous week’s learnings into their lives.
  • Study: Discussion of the previous week’s study material (this may be a book of the Bible or a curriculum the group is going through). During this time, areas of weakness are exposed and group members confess sin and come up with a game plan for addressing those areas. Common curriculums might include Growing Up, Multiply, or Discipleship Essentials.
  • Accountability: Discipleship groups hold each other accountable for what they’ve agreed to work on in their lives. This is most often done by asking a series of questions of each person. This is a key element of the groups since it is aimed at helping the group members be formed into the image of Christ in their everyday lives.
  • Prayer: As with most groups, they end in prayer.

Who is doing discipleship groups?

From house churches to large churches, there are many places that have implemented or are implementing discipleship groups across the U.S. Some examples of each are below.

Church plants

  • Two Cities Church (Winston Salem, NC): This church was birthed out of the Summit Network and planted in North Carolina with a strategy to include DNA Groups.
  • Emmaus Asheville (Asheville, NC): Another church plant from the Summit Network that’s leveraging DNA Groups.

House churches

  • We Are Church (San Francisco, CA): This is the church planting movement in San Francisco associated with Francis Chan. Though they are less formal in applying this method, they do follow it loosely through their various ministries.

Missional churches

  • Soma Family of churches: Soma (the family of churches originally founded by Jeff Vanderstelt) has popularized the DNA Group approach.
  • Doxa Church (Bellvue, WA): After Mars Hill collapsed, Jeff Vanderstelt was installed as the lead pastor of the newly named Doxa Church. The DNA Group model which originated at Soma is being adopted here. (Jeff’s Saturate the World ministry has a helpful page of resources on DNA Groups.)
  • City Life Church (Austin, TX): They win the prize for best discipleship group name with their Fight Club moniker.
  • Cities Church (Minneapolis, MN): Using an older name, Life Groups, Cities Church has begun begun being more intentional about utilizing the discipleship group model.

Large churches

  •  Long Hollow Baptist Church (Hendersonville, TN): Robby Gallaty, a huge proponent of what he calls D-Groups, became the Senior Pastor of Long Hollow recently. They’re in the process of integrating D-Groups into their culture.
  • Brainerd Baptist Church (Chattanooga, TN): Gallaty pastored at Brainerd for about 8 years before leaving to go to Long Hollow. The culture of D-Groups is still in place and encouraged under the leadership of Micah Fries, also a big proponent of discipleship groups and multiplication.
  • Crossroads (Cincinnati, OH): They might be unexpected on this list, but they have a detailed discipleship plan that includes Huddles, their version of discipleship groups.

Are discipleship groups working?

The most important part of any method is whether or not it’s effective at helping the church make disciples. So are discipleship groups working? Without firsthand experience of the groups at the churches mentioned above, it’s hard to say.

One of the more difficult aspects of the groups has to do with assimilation. Similar to a mentoring program, it’s difficult to place people in a group with the needed dynamics since it’s a very personal experience. Many of the churches studied connect people into the groups through their existing small group structure. The idea is that if you want to be in a discipleship group you would notify your group leader or groups pastor. They would help you connect with someone who is ready and willing to bring you into a group.

Of the churches listed above, discipleship groups seem to be part of their long-term strategy, and they have been doing them for years. Robby Gallaty has said that at the time he left Brainerd they were averaging about 500 adults in D-Groups every Wednesday night. Numbers aren’t everything, but it seems like the likelihood of life-on-life discipleship occurring in small, intentional groups is higher than in larger, more social small groups.

Closing

Discipleship groups have been a feature of the church’s discipleship strategy ever since Jesus poured into Peter, James, and John in very intentional ways. If you’ve ever participated in one or led one, then you already know the transformational potential they hold.

And if you haven’t been in one, what’s stopping you from starting one?

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