When Jesus wanted to change the world, he created a discipleship community of 12 people. He ministered in public and taught the crowds, but he used every opportunity to explain the in-depth meaning of his teaching in-person to his disciples.
The primary way Jesus discipled was to be with his disciples and address life’s issues as they arose. Mark 3:14 says, “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” (ESV) The primary purpose of the disciples was to “be with Jesus.”
In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t just praying for his immediate disciples but for all who would believe because of them. That includes us almost 2000 years later. Jesus poured his life into 12 men, and he trusted them to take his message to the world for generations to come.
The Apostle Paul did the same thing as Jesus in his ministry. He organically reached out to those with open hearts and gave them the message and teaching of Jesus. He would then gather those who believed the message into groups, usually in homes.
It is easy to think that Paul planted large churches, but usually, they were smaller churches where the people learned to eat and face life together. Indeed the communities came together occasionally to worship and fellowship. He said in Acts 20:20, “I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes.” (NLT)
Discipleship communities inside the local church are usually small groups. They can be gathered around a task, a Bible study, a fellowship, or almost anything else. They provide a place for personal interaction, accountability, and to help to apply biblical principles. Growth comes much quicker in a group. Sometimes growth comes because you can learn from the example and even mistakes of others.
When a discipleship community is planted outside of the church, it sometimes can become a fresh expression of church to those who do not attend a church. The classic example of this is the man who took his dog regularly to the dog park. He noticed he was seeing the same people regularly and, after some time, asked if they would want to study the gospel of John. They did, and things progressed to the point where it became a church for those who did not attend church anywhere.
Jesus is the one building his church, so if it never becomes a church, it is still good to make friends and share Scripture. It is essential to “get in traffic” so that opportunities can arise. Spending time building relationships is always important.
To plant fresh expressions of discipleship communities outside the church, we had to define what was biblically necessary to be a church. Jesus said to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey. As we study Scripture, the mission of New Testament Christians emerges. All Christians are supposed to “grow up” as disciples of Jesus in some form. Additionally, they are to “grow together” by doing the one another’s in Scripture. Lastly, they are to grow out by reaching out to those away from God. Our mission for fresh expressions is the same for the public gathering; grow up, grow together, and grow out. If a group is doing that and teaching others to do that, it has become a church in our minds.
Over half of Americans say they will not attend a traditional church for any reason. It is probably closer to 70%. If that is the case, there are more people “out there” to reach than there are in the pews. This is an essential part of our calling as followers of Jesus.
Jesus said “go,” and our message is usually “come.” What if we could do both? Let’s pray about how to do discipleship communities inside the church and outside.