Four Questions about Small Groups
I’ve been tasked with answering the question: How should we do small groups at SDPC?
Upon deliberation, it seems that we cannot begin to answer this question without first understanding a few other things about small groups.
For starters, we need to understand the purpose of small groups. So we’ll have to ask: What are small groups for?
A preliminary answer to the question of purpose is that as a ministry of the church, small groups participate in the broad purpose of the church, which is to make disciples (cf. Mt 28:18-20). But in order to clarify the specific purpose of small groups, we will need to assess what role they play within the larger mission of Church, which we requires that answer this question: What role do small groups play in the goal of making disciples?
Now, however, we come to a final question which must be answered first if we are to take a stab at any of the questions we have asked. In order to begin, we need to understand what it means to be a disciple.
So we start with the question:
What is a disciple of Jesus?
Much has been said about this question, and many good answers can be given. I have no intention of reinventing the wheel, but I think a very good answer can be derived from an examination of the passage cited above, Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
These are Jesus’ last word to his disciples, who are now charged with a mission to make disciples, which will not be finished until the end of the age, when Kingdom of God has arrived “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6).
These verses depict three distinct parts of discipleship, which I believe are stated or assumed everywhere in the New Testament (cf. Rom 6:1-11; Col 2:9-13; Gal 2:20-21).
A disciple is:
1. Dead with Christ. Baptism is our death to sin, and the end of our claims to this life. That sin must continue to be killed as we daily attempt to take off the old self and put on the new. This means personal and mutual confession, authenticity, and accountability.
- Risen in Christ. Faith is our resurrection into the life of Christ, and our entry into the kingdom of God, the family of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the new human family, we hear, learn, and endeavor to observe all that he has commanded us. This means corporately loving, helping, celebrating, and praying-for one another within Christ’s body.
- Raising by the power of Christ. Through the all-authority and all-power of Christ, the life of a disciple is marked by the active pursuit and fulfillment of the Great Commission: to prepare the entire world for the end of the age, in anticipation of the great & final resurrection. This means both heralding the Kingdom of God as well as acting as its true citizen here and now, in humility, justice, and love.
A diagram may be a helpful way to understand how these three things function together.
It is my conviction that wherever these three elements are joined in harmony, that is where Christians act and mature as real disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Dangers of Lop-sided Growth
Often, the Church has majored in one or two parts of discipleship to the exclusion of the whole, with some predictable results:
- Dead-majors have made individual confession and self-abasement the central element of faith. Why? If you only pay attention to yourself and how bad you are, you will completely neglect such things as the calling to enact social justice, poverty by the power of God (e.g. conservative movements).
- Risen-majors have suggested that as children of God we should live like kings right here and now, and never grow ill. Why? Forget that you are still in the process of “putting off” the sinful self, and you might just come to believe that the promise of “treasures in heaven” should be appropriated immediately (e.g. Pentecostal movements).
- Raising-majors have made the preservation of the earth and its people the sole purpose of their fellowship. Why? Focus entirely on the “impoverished other” and you could forget that you have a glaring problem in your own life: sin (e.g. liberal movements).
Wherever any of these aspects is emphasized to the exclusion of the others, the result is a lopsided Christianity. At its most benign, such lopsidedness looks like someone who only exercises his biceps at the gym, and has an otherwise flabby body. It can however, look as gruesome as a plant which is half-withered, and half-thriving. At its worst, lopsided discipleship can mean the end of all resemblance to Christianity for a person, church, or community.
Why this model?
This definition of discipleship is not exhaustive, but the three principles elucidated in it can encompass the entirety of Christian life and purpose. Many terms and models could be (and have been) used to accurately describe the essence of discipleship.
I find the dead-risen-raising model helpful for the following reasons:
1. I can easily remember three things.
2. The verbs and tenses in this model (simple past/perfect/continuous present, respectively) place me in a dynamic and ongoing relationship with God and others, in which I participate as an individual indelibly bound up in community.
3. This model
a. implies that the universe, life, and even discipleship is not about me,
b. but it suggest at the same time that God invites me to participate in significant and unexpected ways in his story, which is the redemption of the whole world.
4. I take it that the model is an adequate expression of what it means to be a disciple.
Next time, we'll discuss the role of small groups in making disciples.