We Need More Groups!

By Pastor Reed Bernick

We had a great turnout for the Groups Kickoff Lunch on July 31. Leaders, members, families, and all those interested gathered in the FAC for lunch. They heard from me about my hopes and dreams for discipleship ministry and left with a challenge to figure out how they might become more involved in making disciples at FBCA. Let me share some of the things we talked about – especially for those who were unable to make it.

If you can remember back to the ‘before times,’ 2019 was the ‘Year of Discipleship’ at FBCA, and there were some pretty big things accomplished. Notably: the Annual Spiritual Health Survey was conducted for the first time in September of that year, plans were drawn for the first J-Term that would take place right after the year ended in January 2020, and the Mission and Vision statements we revealed in 2020 were, in large part, products of 2019’s focus, too. It was also an important season for the staff. There were guest speakers like Scott Wozniak, and we had several retreats from 2018 into 2020 where we spent significant time talking about discipleship strategy – about how effective our current methods and ministries are, and (more importantly) about how to even know whether or not they’re successful in the first place.

At its core, we believe that being a disciple is about a relationship – not the relationship between a disciple-maker and the person they’re discipling, or a teacher and a member of a class - but between Jesus and the person he’s calling to follow him. As Paul argues in Romans 10: How can someone call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? So, one of the strange beauties of the gospel is that you and I have been invited to play an essential role in fostering relationships between God and the people he loves. We’re invited into his mission and commanded to introduce Jesus and his ways to other people. And it’s important to start there because we often need to be reminded that discipleship is not just a church program. Actually, the Bible is shockingly lean on strategy and method. It’s full of examples, and it’s clear about what the gospel is – but if we’re not careful, we run the risk of equating the great commission to the next big discipleship trend – which we forget but was once a new-fangled idea called Sunday School.

That said, the core principle of our discipleship strategy at FBCA – the reason why we’ve been successful in the past, and the only reason we’ll be successful in the future – is that people need close relationships with other Christians. We need to gather with other believers often to talk about Jesus and his word. That’s how spiritual formation happens; it’s how we find the accountability and community necessary to grow in obedience to Jesus and his ways.

So, extrapolating out from this basic insight: I believe we need to act as creatively as we can – without threatening anything we’re doing well – by planting and fostering lots and lots of groups – lots of ‘points of contact’ – groups that look different than the ones we currently have. Or to use an image Jesus liked to use when talking about disciple-making: we need to cast new nets to catch new fish. We need more discipleship opportunities, more groups; and I’m using that word in a new way intentionally – to capture all the ways we’re currently meeting and all the ways I hope can be gathering in the future, not just in Bible Fellowship. Organizationally, all of these opportunities ought to exist on the same playing field. We need open and closed groups; groups that meet for decades to pray with the same collection of intimate friends; book clubs; dinner fellowships; beginner-level spiritual conversations; verse-by-verse studies. We need them all.

And there are some extenuating reasons why we should choose to be creative. For one, churches all over the country are changing. The mere fact that they are shouldn’t force us to follow suit – but it does mean that church-goers who visit us on Sundays are becoming less and less likely to recognize a Sunday-centric discipleship model. Many visitors – and not just those in the Young Adult ministry – have spent significant time, and for many, their formative years, gathering in small groups or home-based life groups or taking part in intensive one-on-one discipleship programs. Again – these aren’t reasons for us to abandon all that were currently doing, but they are reminders that discipleship can look different, and that for an increasing number, our programs are no longer familiar or expected.

Demographics are also changing – and rapidly. People are getting married later and later. Tragically, marriages are more likely than not to end in divorce – both inside and outside of the church. People are having less children or none at all. Those who we may have once been considered “exceptions” to the categories we built our current strategy around are quickly becoming less “exceptional.” All of which means that it’s getting harder, and riskier, for us to assume that every visitor we welcome here is going to find some easy place to fit in.

But these changes aren’t liabilities – they’re opportunities. We can decide it’s ‘ok’ that one size doesn’t fit all – and we can choose to start meeting in different ways without abandoning the groups that currently function well. In fact, there are strategic advantages we can avail ourselves of as a church when we do. For example, When we start groups that meet in people’s homes instead of the church building, we teach ourselves (and others) that our houses are places where faith can flourish. We practice giving and receiving hospitality – not hospitality in the sense of folded napkins and crystal – but hospitality in the sense of welcoming the stranger and holding our own spaces and possessions loosely for the benefit of our neighbors. Those are lessons that are ripe for the taking if we diversify our methods. And it’ just one example.
Meeting at other times outside of Sunday will provide us other unique opportunities. Rather than telling a visiting couple at 11:00 where they should show up the next Sunday to get involved in a class, it could be that someday soon we invite them to a Tuesday night dinner, or a Thursday outing at a park – something that feels decidedly less ‘religious’ and decidedly more personal and authentic. It only goes to show that refining our invitations is an essential task for us as we seek to bring in those who aren’t familiar with church and may find involvement on Sunday mornings alone off-putting or even undesirable.

A lot of these things are currently happening or will be happening very soon! On Wednesday nights, for example, we’ve made the dinner table the centerpiece of a new kind of discipleship approach. The placemat at each table setting has instructions and scripture printed on it. There’s a handout that functions as a conversation guide about the passage. And with the help of these prompts, groups facilitate themselves during the meal – simply, organically, but also powerfully. Just like Jesus so often used food as a way of gathering his followers to himself – in fact, so much he was called a ‘glutton’ by his critics – we can use Wednesday Night Suppers as venues for disciple making. Friends, we know it intuitively – but food is sacred.

As for content: many of the groups already meeting through FBCA aren’t traditional Bible Studies. They’re scriptural and they’re purposeful in their intent on disciple-making (qualities which are essential), but they’re not always verse-by-verse lessons. Some are (and will be) be more social; some will be more casual; some will cater to seekers and beginners. But in no sense do I mean to suggest that we need to baptize social clubs by calling them discipleship opportunities. I’m only pointing out that a classroom is just one of the ways we can foster our growth as disciples, and sometimes, a dinner table, or a hiking trail, or a restaurant, can also be a venue where that same level of formation can happen.

If we can do this – if we can take on a both-and strategy (or maybe we could call it a yes-and strategy), and if we can creatively apply our basic insight about the importance of community in disciple making, then I think we stand to be more nimble, more inviting to visitors who continue to come week in and week out in search of a place to belong, and chiefly, more faithful to our commission as a church.

Would you join me?





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