Over the past few years, most of the community group training I have done with my leaders has focused primarily on why we do community and what groups are for. We’ve established the biblical foundation that we are made in the image of a triune, relational God and saved by Christ to live in the church together, and that our groups exist to cultivate fellowship, create a context for discipleship, provide care, and extend the mission of the church. Now that this foundation has been established, many of our leaders are more frequently asking, “Now what? What do we practically do with our groups in light of this foundational teaching?” In particular, many of our leaders have asked, “What are we to do when we have brand-new believers sitting right next to mature followers of Christ, sitting right next to visitors who don’t know Christ?” This is the all-important question of how to do discipleship in community. After all, the goal of our community groups is that in our experience of fellowship, we become more like Christ together. But practically speaking, how does this work?
What is Discipleship?
Discipleship means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some it means a one-on-one meeting where an older believer mentors a younger believer. For others, discipleship means a set of classes or information that a Christian is to learn and believe to grow in the faith. For others, it’s a process of inner spiritual transformation that occurs through a variety of mysterious means.
So how do we define discipleship? Discipleship, in its original form in the life of Jesus and as his earliest followers practiced it, is neither a duty to perform nor a puzzle to solve. @@Discipleship is a life-giving way of being with Christ and becoming like him together.@@ Thinking rightly about discipleship in community, then, starts with a fresh vision of Jesus and how he invested in his original twelve disciples. Consider the calling of the disciples in Matthew 4:18-25:
“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him."
The first thing to see is that discipleship is Good News! God not only forgives our sin through Christ, but he also invites to a life with him that produces increasing conformity to his Son. The longer we have been acquainted with Christianity, the easier it is to become stagnant in our spiritual lives. When Jesus first began his earthly ministry, he turned the world upside down. There was simply no way to encounter Christ and not be changed.
Jesus’ Way of Discipleship
Imagine what it would have been like to encounter Jesus of Nazareth. By the time his public ministry began, Jesus was one part folk legend and one part controversy. Just consider the rumors that would have been swirling around Jesus as he walked around Galilee: He was born to a woman who claimed to be a virgin. It’s said that his birth was foretold by angels and celebrated by shepherds and distant kings. As a child, his knowledge of the divine amazed the religious leaders of Jerusalem. His cousin, John the Baptist, promised his unique rule and reign. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus with visible power.
One day, while walking along the Sea of Galilee, he calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him. Somehow his presence had such a power, these four common fishermen left everything and followed him. The ministry of Jesus was like nothing before and nothing since. His touch healed the diseased and disabled; his voice calmed the seas; his tears raised the dead. But his life wasn’t a show of spiritual power; Jesus came to serve and to give his life for his followers.
The Way of the Disciples
Similarly, when Jesus’ disciples took over his ministry, the world shook at their presence. They may have been uneducated, common people, but they had been with Jesus. So what was so utterly world changing? Jesus and his early followers overwhelmed their neighbors with an invitation to life at its deepest. As New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington has noted, the message of Jesus answered the biggest questions of Judaism and of the Greco-Roman world. For the Israelites, Jesus proclaimed and taught forgiveness of sin and restoration to God. For the Greeks and Romans, Jesus’ teaching (such as the Sermon on the Mount) announced a new and better way of life—an entirely new way and ethic of human flourishing.
For both Jews and Greeks, this wasn’t a religion detached from reality; the words and pattern of Jesus presented a lens of viewing the world that was at once more heavenly and more “earthy” than anything before it. In the words of the late author Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart:
“The people initially impacted by that message generally concluded that they would be fools to disregard it…. How life-giving it would be if their understanding of the gospel allowed them simply to say, ‘I will do [the law]! I will find out how. I will devote my life to it! This is the best strategy I ever heard of!’ and then go off to their fellowship and its teachers, and into their daily life, to learn how to live in his kingdom as Jesus indicated was best.”
Discipleship in the Church
So this begs the question: If the message of Jesus is clear, life changing, and wholly rooted in everyday life, why has it largely become disconnected from American church experience? To be sure, disobedience and rebellion have deep roots in our hearts. But could it also be that we have not yet recognized the immense power and practicality of Christ for our moment-by-moment lives? That our vision of the new life with God is lacking, and as a result we Christians and churches are largely powerless?
What we need is two-fold: We need a fresh vision of Christ and our life in him (discipleship), and we need the practical habits to develop new behaviors and rhythms of life in the church.
So, what rhythms will best cultivate discipleship in Jesus? What habits can our community groups embrace to spur one another toward conformity to Christ? I believe there are four practices that are essential for discipleship in community.
Doing Life Together (The Rhythm of Fellowship)
We can only grow as Jesus shaped disciples in community. We can’t do this alone. We have been created in the image of a Trinitarian God—he has eternally existed in community. We are relational beings. @@To be fully alive then, we must pursue Christ in the context of committed relationships.@@ Thus, the context of our growth in Christ is doing life together–eating together, sharing our struggles with one another, and encouraging one another throughout the week.
Applying the Bible (The Rhythm of Scripture)
God’s Word is not meant simply to be read and studied, but to be absorbed, memorized and meditated upon. The Scriptures are a primary means of growing like Christ. In community, we take in God’s Word as a way of humbling ourselves under Christ’s lordship and growing in righteousness, wisdom, and love for others. In our groups, I recommend a two-level reading of Scripture, with an emphasis on application and meditation of God’s Word. Focusing on a deep reading of the Bible in our formal group gatherings enables us to develop “gospel fluency” (as Jeff Vanderstelt puts it) with one another throughout the week.
Meeting with God (The Rhythm of Prayer)
Our meditation on and application of God’s Word in community should naturally lead us to pray together. Meeting with God in prayer together enables us to grow more like Christ as we bring our hearts before him together to be changed by him. Indeed, Jesus taught his disciples to pray throughout the gospels through his example of private prayer (Mark 1:35), through the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:5-15), and by praying for them directly (John 17). Praying together is a form of discipleship. We become like Christ as we meet with the Father together and as we learn prayer from our more mature brothers and sisters.
Creating Space for Outsiders (The Rhythm of Hospitality)
To become like Christ together, we must embrace his grace filled habit of creating space for and eating with outsiders. Jesus was the most hospitable man to ever live; we see this especially in his practice of eating. He eats with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5, 19) and with Pharisees (Luke 7); he feeds crowds (Luke 9) and eats with his friends (Luke 10). He condemns the Pharisees’ prestigious meals (Luke 11), encourages us to welcome the poor and needy into ours (Luke 14), and in his final evening with the disciples, he institutes the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22). As one commentator put it, “Jesus eats his way through the gospels.” We too can create space for outsiders to join our community and grow in Christ by sharing meals together. In a world full of strangers, we can offer our neighbors a free and fearless space to be fully known and loved.
These four rhythms are essential to healthy community groups, balancing relationship building with Scripture reading, praying together, and openness to outsiders. Jesus holds forth a powerful new way of life to us, a way of life that conforms us to his image. We don’t have to wait to experience growth in Christ; we can pursue it today, here and now, in our community groups.
For more in depth teaching on these four discipleship rhythms, you can check out the five-week discussion guide to lead groups through these rhythms. Jeremy will also be teaching a cohort at our upcoming Leader’s Summit. You can visit our website for more information about our event and Jeremy’s cohort.