Friday, February 24, 2006

Erwin McManus on Vision

Great article by Erwin McManus in the Catalyst Monthly on creating a culture of dreamers and visionaries. Here is an excerpt:
How many of our local churches actually look like a movement of dreamers and visionaries? Even in some of our most effective ministries, discipleship is more easily equated with discipline, structure, routine, standardization and conformity. Rarely does discipleship focus on uniqueness, creativity, innovation, imagination and risk.

By the way, if you have never been to the Catalyst Conference, sign up now! You can subscribe to the Catalyst Monthly here.

Article: Appreciating Leaders

Bill Eastman of Life Together has an article on Christianity Today about ministering to small group leaders.

I am not a big fan of acronym-based teaching, but I did get excited about a couple of points. Reminding leaders of their value is incredibly important. I want my leaders to know that what they do matters at NCC. We are who we are as a church because of who our leaders are.

Every Friday, we post a "Friday Scorecard" on our Zone Gathering site where small group leaders can celebrate the wins in their groups and give God credit for the stuff he is doing in their groups. We want people to see the value in that weekly meeting and in the life investments they are making.

Thanking them for serving is also important. In a couple of weeks, we are hosting a dinner for all of our ministry volunteers. We are giving "NCC Ministry: Old School" t-shirts out to those who have been volunteering for over 2 years.

Every year, we take all of our leaders- small group and ministry- on an Annual Leadership Retreat. We pay the whole bill because we want our leaders to be there and we want to bless them. It's a fun time and a fruitful time. We throw out moonpies. We play games. We recognize folks for their service. We equip them. And we pray for them.

You just can't tell leaders enough how thankful you are for them.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Passionate Vision

Zone Gathering is our online community for small group leaders at NCC. Each Thursday, I post a Leadership Lesson. Occasionally, I will re-post those articles over here. We are currently discussing the importance of vision, and today we focused on Passionate Vision.

In last week's Leadership Lesson, we talked about the importance of vision. Bill Hybels defined vision as "a picture of the future that produces passion."

Do you have a picture of the future that produces passion? Does your picture of the future produce passion in you? Does it fuel passion in others?

For the next few weeks, we will talk about the importance of vision here on the Thursday Leadership Lesson. This week, we will talk about Passionate Vision. Next week, we will talk about hearing God in order to receive vision. And finally, we will talk about how to communicate vision.

Vision is powerful. Not just because it is a goal that we can attain if we work hard enough. It is powerful because vision gives meaning to our lives and to the lives of others. It ignites energy, excitement, and momentum.

Passionate vision gives meaning to our lives. In Acts 20:24, Paul said, "But my life is worth nothing unless I use it for doing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus-- the work of telling others the Good News about God's wonderful kindness and love." Paul was fueled by a vision of what God had called him to do. And he was so passionate about it that he saw his whole life as pointless unless he was doing it.

Passionate vision is contagious. People with a passionate vision are contagious. When a leader communicates a passionate, heart-felt vision, people will get energized whether they want to be or not. Last night, I was hanging out with some of the folks in my Journey group, and one of the guys began to talk about his desire to introduce people to Jesus. It was coming from his gut, and I found my pulse increasing by the second as I listened to the vision that God was birthing inside of him. His passion was so contagious that I found myself wanting to drop everything and jump into whatever he was doing.

Passionate vision moves people into action. Our vision must be so contagious and so compelling that it makes people uncomfortable if they are not a part of it. We need a vision that propels people off their butts and into God's work. People are walking around with God-given fuel in their lives-- spiritual gifts, talents, interests, passions. Vision is the match that ignites that fuel.

Finally, passionate vision is big enough for God to fit into. I think sometimes God doesn't answer our prayers because they are too small. They aren't big enough for him to fit into. We need to make sure that our vision is so big that God can fit into it and so that only he can get the credit when it happens.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Deepening Community: Wesley Questions

John Wesley had a pretty hard-hitting approach to discipleship. In many small groups today, structuring the meeting time around the following questions would be frightening to many members. But if you want to challenge your people to deeper community and more focused discipleship, try these questions:
  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am a better person than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on what was told to me in confidence?
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habit?
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give God time to speak to me everyday?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?
  10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist on doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?
  19. Do I thank God I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
  20. Is there anyone I fear, or dislike, or criticize, or resent? If so, what am I doing about it?
  21. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?

Building Community: Book List

One of my small group leaders wants to guide his group into deeper community this semester and asked me if I could give him some book recommendations. Here are some of the recommendations I gave him.

My favorite book on Christian community is John Ortberg's Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them. The book is easy to read, the content is practical, and the title is fun.

Andy Stanley's book Creating Community focuses more on their philosophy of small groups and the small group culture they are building at the macro level as opposed to practical tips for leaders trying to build community at the group level. And although many of the application points are relevant primarily within the context of their specific small group model, there are certainly Biblically-rooted principles and values that can be applied in any group setting.

Randy Frazee's book The Connecting Church describes his vision and philosophy of neighborhood-based small groups. Like Stanley's book, this one is very focused on a macro vision, but the principles are transferable. Willow Creek is actually moving towards this model of small groups.

The Willow Creek guys published a great book a few years ago, Walking the Small Group Tightrope, which explores some of the tensions we experience in small groups. Many of those tensions revolve around some of the big questions we ask when we are trying to develop small gorup systems. Do I want groups open or closed? Do I want them to focus on building relationships or growing in their faith? Do I want them creating safe places for transparent relationships or safe environments for visitors to experience Christ and faith? The answers to many of these questions is "yes," and the pendulum swings between the tensions.

This is a great book for leaders who have led for 2 years or more and have personally felt the pull of those who want more intimacy and transparency and those who want to invite their unchurched and non-Christian friends. Or the pull of those who want to focus on building friendships versus those who want challenging, confrontational accountability relationships.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Resources: Relational and Sexual Brokenness

Occasionally, I will post information about conferences, para-church ministries, and other resources that have been particularly helpful to us at NCC. One of the toughest situations we encounter as pastors are counseling issues that go beyond our education and experience.

I have lost count of the number of people who have met with me to talk about their relational and sexual struggles. Many were abused emotionally and sexually as children. Many men and women who struggle with pornography and lust. Many NCCers have struggled with sexual orientation issues. It is an amazing blessing to be involved in the lives of these people and to walk with them towards hope and healing in Christ.

At NCC, we have hosted small groups specifically designed for people walking through these issues. And we have also partnered with a para-church group called Regeneration Ministries. I cannot even begin to express how thankful I am for the work that Regeneration Ministries offers to the Body of Christ.

Regeneration Ministries is a local Virginia-based ministry that runs a program called Living Waters. Dozens of NCCers have participated in this 9-month program and have found hope and healing from all kinds of relational brokenness-- pornography, lust, promiscuity, abuse, sexual addictions, sexual orientation, etc.

Living Waters is a curriculum created by Desert Stream Ministries, and it is run in different locations all over the United States. They have other programs, as well, including Salt (for men), Cross-Current (8-week introductory course), and the River (Living Waters re-engineered for teenagers and young adults). You can search for groups here. NCC partenered with Regeneration Ministries to offer Cross-Current as a semester-long small group last year.

Here are some other helpful resources:

Exodus International: Umbrella organization for ministries addressing sexual orientation issues. Regeneration Ministries is our local organization. Exodus can direct you to the ministries closest to you.

Regeneration Books: Excellent resources for those walking through relational and sexual brokenness and for those who are friends and families of those dealing with these issues. Orders are completely confidential and the delivery boxes are unmarked to maintain confidentiality.

Love Won Out Conference: By Focus on the Family. I highly recommend this conference to anyone who is a friend or family member of someone facing sexual orientation issues. I also highly recommend it to any pastor or small group leader who might encounter these situations. Absolutely fantastic teaching and Godly perspectives on this important and timely issue.

If anyone else has good resources to recommend on the issues of sexual and relational brokenness, please feel free to post them in the comment thread.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Josh Sargent from the Leadership Blog sent me the following question yesterday:

Do you guys make all your small group attendees sign a small group covenant? If so, what are the benefits?

The short answer: At NCC, no, we do not make all of our small group attendees sign a leadership covenant. Here are a few reasons why we have made that decision.

First, our church is very transient. Summer interns on Capitol Hill are only here for 3 months. We want people to be able to plug into a group as soon as possible. And we want them to plug into the right place. We actually encourage people to check out more than one group before committing. That would make covenants difficult. At what point do you ask people to sign? Do you ask everyone to sign together? Or do you ask an individual to sign after a certain amount of time?

Secondly, it doesn't fit the NCC culture of "experimentation." I totally understand the point of covenants. It stems from a desire to foster an environment of commitment and accountability—true Christian community as opposed to surface community. But I don’t think that kind of community automatically develops just because someone signed a piece of paper. I think we need to go deeper than that (For whatever it’s worth, one of the best books on Christian community I have ever read is Ortberg’s Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them)

Finally, we are primarily a free-market system and some of our groups are evangelistic in nature. Which means we have people coming to our groups who are not members of NCC and some who are not even followers of Christ yet. It strikes me as weird to ask them to sign a covenant binding themselves to us when they have not even stepped over the line of faith.

With that said, we are not opposed to a group leader who wants to ask people to sign a covenant. We can certainly see the benefits of some groups being closed and asking people to sign a commitment of some sort. And there are certain groups (relational and sexual brokenness groups, for instance) that probably should have covenants.

On a related note, do ask all of our leaders to sign a leadership covenant.

Now, in fairness to the pro-covenant crowd, let me share their reasons for covenants. In his book Creating Community, Andy Stanley promotes covenants as mechanisms to set clear expectations and to establish a predictable small group experience for participants. A covenant ensures that evey member understand the goals and the values of the group as well as the group "rules." Everyone knows exactly what they have signed up for. In the Northpoint Coach's Playbook, they explain, "Agreeing to a covenant helps lay a healthy foundation for group life."

Northpoint has a standardized covenant that they ask all of their small groups to sign. You can find Northpoint Community Church's covenant here at their site. (TONS of great resources there)

The Willow Creek guys are also proponents of covenants. They don't require it of their groups, but they do offer some guidelines for helping groups develop a covenant. In the Willow Creek resource, Leading Life-Changing Small Groups, Bill Donahue says, "Covenants are expressions of group values, expectations, or behaviors for which we hold ourselves mutually accountable." They continue, "covenants are binding agreements that can create trust and build community." The book contains some really good keys to drafting a good covenant and includes some samples.

The Northpoint guys and the Willow Creek guys really know their small groups. So maybe there is something to this covenant idea that I should be more open to. And maybe we will implement that at some point down the road. But not now.

If you are considering covenants for your groups, I think these are key questions:
  • Would a covenant be a catalyst for community in your group?
  • Would a covenant fit within the culture of your church and your small group ministry?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Book List

For people considering starting a small group ministry or thinking about re-engineering it, I would recommend the following books as good places to start. I actually pull these books out about once a year to refresh myself:

Building a Church of Small Groups byRuss Robinson and Bill Donahue (Willow Creek Model)

Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century by Ted Haggard (Free Market Model)

Creating Community by Andy Stanley (Northpoint's Closed Group Model)

Making Cell Groups Work by Scott Boren (Traditional Cell Model- this is more of a how-to navigational tool than a quick read)

From 12 to 3 by Joel Comiskey (the Infamous Principle of 12 Model in a more palatable form)

The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee (the Neighborhood Group Model)

Cell Church Solutions by Joel Comiskey is a pretty good overview of several different models.

NCC is actually a hybrid of all of these. It's actually kinda hard to describe our model because we are still in the process of discovering it. If I had to pick one, I would say we are primarily Free Market.

Other books I review periodically to check on the health of our groups include:

Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry by Russ Robinson and Bill Donahue

Walking the Small Group Tightrope by Russ Robinson and Bill Donahue

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Spiritual Growth Tool

Thanks to Tyler Jagen from Rolling Hills Christian Church for his link to Seacoast's tool for helping people measure spiritual growth.

It's called the Spiritual Health Assessment, and it is built around their 5 discipleship values: Worship God enthusiastically, Connect with the Church family regulary, Grow in maturity consistently, Serve others unselfishly, and Share their faith effectively. These come from Saddleback's five purposes.

At NCC, we build our discipleship efforts around 4 dimensions of discipleship: Seeker (the spiritual dimension), Learner (intellectual dimension), Influencer (relational dimension), and Investor (financial or stewardship dimenation). You can read more here. We have developed a discipleship assessment that is very similar in purpose (but not nearly as cool) as Seacoast's tool. We are in the process of re-engineering that right now, but I will post it when it's done.

Tagged- Four Things Meme

Mark Batterson tagged me today on the Four Things Meme that has been floating around the blogosphere. I posted my answers over at The Zone Gathering, but I thought I would throw them up here, as well.

But I am taking advantage of the fact that I have 2 blogs to tag 4 more people.

Four Jobs I've Had
Camp Counselor (gotta love the Joy Springs!)
Environmental Engineer
Legislative Assistant
Pastor of Discipleship

Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over
Hot Lead and Cold Feet
Empire Strikes Back
Big Business

Four Places I've Lived
Mobile, Alabama
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Nashville, Tennessee
Washington, DC

Four Shows I Like to Watch
Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
American Idol (the first week and the last week of each season)
Lost (thank goodness for DVD collections)
Fox and Friends

Four Foods That I Like
Moonpie and Coca-Cola
Fried Turkey
Fried Dill Pickles
Ryan's Puppy Chow

Four Websites I Visit Daily

Four Things I Want to Do Before I Die
Throw out the first pitch in an MLB game
Visit the moon or the space station
See all of the movies on the AFI top 100 list
Go on safari in Kenya

Four People I'm Tagging
Nathan Gonzales
Jonathan Shrader
Elaine Bayless
Tyler Jagen

Friday, February 10, 2006


I am in the process of putting together a "Curriculum Guide" for our small groups. I want to give our leaders a resource that makes it easy for them to choose studies for their groups.

If you have any recommendations about books, workbooks, DVD curriculum, etc, that have worked well in either small group or equipping class settings, please let me know!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Measuring Spiritual Growth

Todd Rhoades has started a great discussion over at Monday Morning Insight on measuring spiritual growth. I think this is a great topic, and I would love to know more about how different churches monitor and measure the spiritual health of their church. And for whatever it's worth, I would encourage you to add Todd to your blog reading diet!

Here are a few things I mentioned:

At National Community Church (where I am on staff), we have small groups. All of our small group leaders have a small group coach called a "zone leader."

We have a number of tools that we use to help people grow spiritually and monitor their growth.

We have a leadership covenant that we ask all leaders to sign. It covers basic theology and character issues.

We have a discipleship assessment that asks basic questions about 4 areas of discipleship: Seeking (the "spiritual" dimension- spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, etc), Learning (the "intellectual" dimension-Bible study), Influencing (the "relational" dimension- evangelism and discipleship), and Investing (the "stewardship" dimension- giving of finances, time, energy, and talen). We also have a spiritual development plan that helps leaders set goals for their spiritual growth (Bible study, prayer, sharing their faith, giving, etc). We ask our leaders to complete these assessments and growth plans 1-3 times per year and discuss with their zone leaders.

We also ask our small group leaders to submit weekly "win sheets" to let the pastors know how God is working in the lives of those they lead.

Most of our materials and resources can be found at, our online community for our small group leaders. I will try to include links to those over here sometime.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Communication- The Zone Gathering Blog

About a year ago, the zone leaders (coaches of several small groups and leaders-- I will post more about our structure sometime soon) at NCC began experimenting with a blog, called The Zonegathering.

We weren't really sure why we needed a blog or what the purpose would be. But over the past few months, it has evolved into our primary communication tool. You can check it out here and get a feel for our weekly lineup here.

We want to use this to develop an online community for our small groups. It is a place for leaders to come together daily and share ideas and best practices. To celebrate wins. To learn new leadership ideas. To grow spiritually.

Several of our groups have started their own blogs this semester. Just a few include the Creative Expressions, the NCC Photography Group, Spiritual Disciplines, Rick Shaffer's Inductive Bible Study, and In-Service Ministry. Eventually, we will link to those group blogs from Zonegathering. We are in the process of trying to determine guidelines for group-related blogs.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Online Small Groups

We have a new experiment at NCC this semester-- online small groups. When the idea was first pitched to me, I was super skeptical. "Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together..." I had a fear that it would just be a substitute for real community. But I have changed my mind. I think it has the potential to be big for the Kingdom of God.

First of all, NCCers have crazy work and travel schedules. Every semester, I get an email from someone who is frustrated that there is no small group for them to attend because of their work demands. Online groups will allow those NCCers the opportunity to get connected and grow with fellow NCCers from wherever they are.

Secondly, we have lots of podcast listeners. Some of them are tuning in via podcast before visiting the church. If we can give them one more way to check us out, I think that's great.

Obviously, I am still a huge proponet of traditional small groups. And I would always encourage an NCC podcast listener to plug into a local church and a small group or ministry within that church. But if we can harness technology to help someone grow closer to Christ, I am all for trying it out.

Carpe Digital. Experiment On!

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Dreaded Question- Of or With?

Are you a church of small groups or a church with small groups?

How many of us dread being asked that question? We all think we want to be a church of small groups, but the numbers don't ever come close to backing it up. Can we exist somewhere beyond that distinction?

When people ask me this question about NCC, "are you a church of small groups or a church with small groups?" I say, “yes.”

We hear this distinction a lot- a church of small groups versus a church with small groups. Pastors are encouraged to consider which camp their church falls into. Do we have groups as just one of many ministries? Or is the entire ministry of the church revolving around the small groups? Are small groups simply an arm of the church or are they the sole focus church?

I completely understand and appreciate the distinction. In one sense, it’s an important question. Knowing whether your church is of or with helps the pastor immensely in determining budgeting choices, deciding what gets premier announcement time on Sunday mornings, and navigating tricky scheduling conflicts, among a myriad of other things. In many ways, being a church of small groups can really simplify your entire ministry.

Identifying your goal of being a church of or with small groups also affects some pretty big decisions about how you structure groups, train leaders, and decide curriculum.

Categories can be good because they can help us think through our motives and goals. But categories can also be limiting.

Let me get back to NCC for a second. Here are some of my goals. My ultimate goal is to see every NCCer growing in community and growing more and more like Christ. A related goal is that over 100% of NCC’s average attendance would be plugged into NCC small groups. Why? Because we have some small groups organized for the primary purpose of building relationships with those who are not yet following Christ.

Let me be clear-- my goal is not to have 100% of NCCers in an NCC small group. A hush falls over the crowd...and someone asks quietly, "Does Mark Batterson know about this?"

My goal is that people grow in community and grow closer to Christ. We do small groups because I honestly believe that is the best environment for facilitating that process. But our college students need to be in college-focused ministry small groups, like Chi Alpha or Intervarsity or Campus Crusade for Christ. Those at NCC struggling with relational and sexual brokenness need to be in Regeneration’s Living Waters Program.

So—when someone asks me if we are a church of small groups or a church with small groups, I say “yes.” We want everyone in community. And we want everyone to grow closer to Christ. We want everyone to be in a small group. But we don’t necessarily think that everyone should be in an NCC small group. I think NCC has the best small groups of any church out there. But I also realize that NCC might not be big enough to offer the small group experience that everyone needs. So in one sense, yes, we are a church of small groups. But I think we are somewhere beyond that distinction.

Or I could be completely off my rocker...


Okay, I admit it. I hate icebreakers. I realize I am supposed to be the master of icebreakers. That's part of the job description of a good small groups leader, right? If I have to hear one more round of "what cartoon charater are you" or "if you could be any vegetable what would you be?," I think I will scream.

Yet icebreakers can serve a very valuable purpose in a group. They can, as their name says, break through barriers and walls and help build community in a matter of seconds. Some of the best relationships I have formed in small groups have been the result of a connection I made to a person because of an answer to an icebreaker question.

Anybody have any good icebreaker ideas? One of our leaders had a good one last semester. You can read about it here. It required a bit of homework, but it was fun homework.

I would love to hear some more great icebreaker ideas.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What's Your Wineskin?

I am just curious about what methods people are currently using for discipleship. Do you do small groups? Sunday School? Mid-week services? Retreats?

What works well and what doesn't work at all?

What is your wineskin?

The Discipleship Map Experiment

Our current experiment for framing discipleship at NCC is the Discipleship Map.

We have 2 basic goals at NCC: plug into a small group and plug into a ministry. We have over 60 groups during the Spring 2006 semester that allow NCCers opportunities to get plugged into disciple-making relationships.

But for several years, we have talked about the need for a discipleship map of some sort. We felt like we needed to give people a little more guidance. A brand new believer in Christ doesn't necessarily need to be in an inductive study on the book of Romans. And someone who has been following Christ for 30 years may not be challenged the most reading Purpose Driven Life.

I went into this process with 2 basic parameters. Number one, I did not want to develop a linear approach to discipleship. A lot of churches have discipleship strategies that are built on linear systems. You go to a Christianity 101 class. Then Discipleship 201. Then Leadership 301. I didn’t want a linear system like that because we don't feel that’s how most people grow. Most people do not grow in a systematic, linear way; rather, they learn what they need to learn when God connects them with the right people at the right time in the right place in the right circumstances. On a related note, I did not want to intentionally or unintentionally suggest that there was an “ending point.” All linear systems have some sort of endpoint, whether it is stated or not. And I did not want to indicate in any way that there was any sort of endpoint.

The second criteria is that I did not want a one-size-fits-all system. A lot of church discipleship programs that I participated in try to cram everyone into one type of system. I was told that I would grow if I did (fill in the blank here). But I didn't always grow in those environments. Everyone is different. Some people grow best in one-on-one discipleship mentor relationships. Others grow best in community with a larger group. One way people grow is through experiences. A worship experience or a missions trip or a service project or a retreat may be a more powerful discipleship experience for some people. Personally, I like academic lecture/lab style discipleship. Give me a textbook and an assignment and I start growing—it’s not just an intellectual activity, it is discipleship for me. But the academic style is not the best discipleship environment for others. So I wanted to prayerfully develop a strategy that was built on a variety of discipleship methods. Our "free-market" approach to small groups already facilitated a wide variety of groups.

So what we have is a map. Not a set of step-by-step directions. But a guide and an invitation to exploration.

American poet William Stafford writes of people who “want a wilderness with a map.” I think that describes a lot of us. There is a yearning for the mystery, excitement, and adventure of stepping into the unknown. At the same time, that yearning for adventure is held in tension by a strong desire for a map to show us where to go. There is something in us that wants to see the destination. While the unknown is exciting, it is also unsettling.

This map does not have all the answers. It does not include everything we need to do or learn to be a disciple. And it doesn’t lay out all of the unexpected things that certainly lie in the path. But it does give NCCers a general idea of some ways they can go to take the next step in their spiritual journeys.

We don’t want to give people boxes to check off. Rather, we want to expose them to experiences that ignite their passion for God and then get out of their way. Finishing a process is not the goal. Being in the process of growing closer and closer to Christ is the goal. We want to give people opportunities to become fully devoted followers of Christ.

And there is terra incognita-- places of growth that we haven't yet discovered. That means more experimentation and exploration.


We have a core value here at NCC: Everything is an experiment. That's a good thing to keep in mind as I consider ways to more effectively disciple our people.

There are 29 books currently sitting on my desk. I recently moved another 17 books from my "to be read" stack over to the "already read" shelf on my bookcase. All have been strategically selected to help me pray about, process, and design our discipleship strategy at NCC. I want to learn from what other people have done. I want to examine historical models and contemporary methods of discipleship. But it becomes incredible overwhelming and confusing as I read so many models that claim to be the best approach to build community and make disciples and structure the church.

Like every normal person of my generation, I embrace a Burger King philosophy: I want it my way right away. I have a tendency to want everything to happen now. As I walk this journey of discovering how people grow spiritually and designing experiences to help people put feet to their faith, I find it encouraging (and sometimes a little discouraging) to realize the following:
  • It took John Wesley 15 years to develop and fully implement his discipleship system that later became the Methodist Church.
  • It took Willow Creek Community Church 7 years to develop their small group program.
  • Yoido Full Gospel Church in Korea, the largest cell church in the world with 25,000 small groups, overhauled their group strategy 3 major times before finding the right fit.

My point- it's going to take experimentation. And it's going to take time. I am so thankful for the zone leaders, small group leaders, and others who are so supportive and enthusiastic about what we are doing. There may be some bumps and bruises along the way. But I know that God will unveil his plan to us if we are willing to follow him.

Models of Discipleship Throughout Church History

There are many ways to do discipleship. In fact, I would say that there are as many ways to do discipleship as there are people. C.S. Lewis said, "Let God be as unique with others as he was with you." That means there are billions of ways to do discipleship.

When I began my journey as Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church, I read as much as I could about different models and methods of discipleship. The Bible does not give a handy "7 Keys to a Successful Discipleship Program." But it does outline principles that can be applied. Those principles have been applied in various ways by the church throughout history.

The first model of discipleship that we see in history is the Relational model, which was the dominant approach to spiritual growth during the first few centuries of the church. It is built upon the premise that discipleship will occur naturally when Christians live in community with one another. Relational discipleship was vitally important during the early church because there was no New Testament and there were very few copies of Old Testament writings available to the common people. Spiritual truths were conveyed through the stories of the apostles and their letters to the churches.

The relational model of discipleship is reflected Biblically in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." The relational nature of discipleship is also reflected in the description of the first church in Acts 2, where we read that they met together in homes and they devoted themselves to the fellowship of the other believers.

Within the Relational approach to discipleship, people grew in their relationship to Christ as they grew in their relationship to one another.

Modern-day expressions of this method are seen most clearly in churches that structure themselves around cell groups and neighborhood community groups and in one-on-one discipleship models such as that outlined in books such as The Master Plan of Evangelism or Discipleship By Design.

As the church became more institutionalized, the Relational mode of discipleship gave way to a more Experiential mode of discipleship. Discipleship was directed at all 5 senses. Sights, sounds, and smells were strategically chosen to point people towards Christ. This method of discipleship is best implemented by the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions, and is reflected in their architecture, incense, music, iconography, and art.

The Experiential approach to discipleship is seen Biblically in the Tabernacle during the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Every piece of furniture, every action, and every smell was strategically designed and implemented by God to draw people closer to him. The Experiential approach is also seen in Acts 2, as we read that the early followers of Christ were in awe of the work of the Holy Spirit around them. They experienced miracles and signs.
In Experiential discipleship, people were taught about Christ and grew in their relationship to him through a full immersion into a medieval multi-media experience.

Many post-modern or emerging churches are experimenting with these ancient forms of worship in an attempt to create an experience in which people are drawn close to Christ. These forms are discussed in works such as Ancient-Future Faith , The Emerging Church, and Reimagining Spiritual Formation.

The Age of Enlightenment, Protestant Reformation, and Industrial Revolution sparked a new form of discipleship—one that was rooted in an Academic or educational model. With the invention of the printing press, Scriptures could be printed in abundance and the availability of the printed Word increased. The "common" people could own their own copy of the Bible. Great emphasis was attached to the Word—Sola Scriptura—and the emphasis on relationship and experience were diminished. New philosophies and new forms of thinking, based on logic and reason, influenced the way Scripture was read and applied.

The academic approach to discipleship can be seen Biblically in Romans 12:2, where Paul instructs his readers, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." In other words, right thinking leads to right action. We also see this model of discipleship in Acts 2, where we read that the early church was devoted to the apostle’s teaching and continued to meet in the temple courts.

In the Academic approach to discipleship, people were taught about Christ and grew in their relationship to him through a systematic, academic approach.

This form of discipleship is best modeled by Reformed churches and Sunday School or Equipping programs of many evangelical churches. The works of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Puritans reflect this approach to discipleship. It is a focus on renewing our minds and striving to have the mind of Christ.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, two new approaches to discipleship emerged: Personal and Incarnational. We will examine the Personal approach first. Theologically conservative churches tended to move towards a Personal approach to discipleship. Bibles were produced in mass. Various translations became available. And individualistic Bibles were available- for women, for men, for leaders, for teenagers, for teachers, etc. Bible study literature was distributed for people to use throughout the week. Books like Experiencing God and the Purpose Driven Life were published to be used along with Scripture in spiritual formation. Many times, this approach was combined with the Relational model (small groups) or the Academic model (Sunday School); however, the emphasis on a "personal" relationship with Christ was most emphasized.

A Biblical example of the Personal approach to discipleship is seen in 2 Timothy 2:15, where Paul exhorts Timothy, Personal approach is also seen in Acts 2, where we read that people devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.

It is interesting to note that this was also the approach to spiritual formation used by the Desert Fathers.

Within the framework of the Personal approach to discipleship, the church provided people with materials and taught them how to develop a personal relationship with God, and people grew in their knowledge and relationship with God through personal pursuit.

In the 20th century, more theologically liberal churches adopted a different approach—the Incarnational approach. These churches espoused a belief that Jesus’ call to action on behalf of the poor, sick, and oppressed was the channel by which we learned about him, became more like him, and grew in our relationship with him. We become like Jesus by being his hands and feet to the world around us. The Incarnational approach is closely tied to the Relational and Experiential approaches.

The greatest Biblical mandate for the Incarnational approach is seen in the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus instructs us to take care of the hungry, thirsty, sick, poor, stranger, and prisoner. The Incarnational approach is also reflected in Acts 2: "selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."

Within the framework of the Incarnational model, people grew in their knowledge and relationship with Christ by seeking to become like him through service out outreach to others.

Organizations such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse are implementing modern-day versions of the Incarnational approach.

What’s Next?
All of these models are Biblically valid, historically tested, and continue to find expression in the contemporary church. Each model appeals to different types of people.

What forms will discipleship take on in the 21st century and beyond? It is difficult to tell, but history demonstrates that it will certainly be tied to the technological advances and prevailing philosophies of the day. As we harness the power of new technologies, the message of discipleship will remain constant while the methods of discipleship will evolve.

At NCC, we will strive to create discipleship experiences that draw on the best of the historical forms while teaching Scripture and spiritual formation in ways that are relevant to our generation and culture. Using the Bible as our foundation and tradition as a guide, we will experiment with historical models of discipleship and reinvent them for the post-modern era. We will strive to be a church that incorporates a model of discipleship that is Relational, Experiential, Academic, Personal, and Incarnational.

Where Are You?

What is the primary method of discipleship in your church? Is it relational with small groups or cell groups? Does it occur primarily through events and experiences? Do you offer Sunday School classes, equipping classes, or other academic forums for growth to occur? Do you facilitate personal growth at home? Are you involved in social justice or outreach to give people the opportunity to become the hands and feet of Christ?