There are days where I feel like I have no clue what I am doing. When I went from pastoring a church of 150 to a church of 1,000, I had a lot of those days. Of course at one level it is not that different. People all have the same general needs and desires. But now there were a lot more of them and I found myself struggling to figure out how to oversee the discipleship of a larger congregation.

In our small rural church in Southern Ohio, I knew everybody. I knew their struggles and needs. I could gauge their spiritual growth and help many of them on an individual basis. That is simply not possible at my present church in the Detroit metro area. In my initial months at the church, I was frustrated, often running my hands through what little hair I have left. How was I going to help disciple this many people?

The solution was found through using our small groups more effectively. To see discipleship happen church-wide, I needed to harness the potential of our small groups ministry.

The true value of small groups

The first step in the process was to reinvigorate our small groups. Some in the congregation were already convinced of the importance of the ministry, but many were not. I knew I had to get more people to buy into the vision of small group ministry. Communicating the role of groups would be vital.

Small groups enable churches to fulfill the “one another” commands of Scripture. We are told to love one another, instruct one another, pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, even kiss one another (incorporate that last one carefully). Small groups provide the church with unique opportunities to build relationships where we can hold one another accountable, pray for one another, challenge one another, and support one another. While much of the church acknowledged the importance such engagement, it was not happening. But the more we communicated the importance of these biblical mandates through testimonials, promotional events, and literature, the more people bought into the significance of these groups.

Not another Bible study

Far too many small groups are just as one more Bible study during the week. We are a strong teaching church; we didn’t need one more Bible study. We needed to cultivate a context where people were going to be challenged and supported in applying what they are already learning.

I also realized that I needed to equip my leaders to promote and measure spiritual growth among our members. That meant teaching them what to look for and how to help others develop healthy characteristics of a follower of Christ. To that end, we have taught our leaders how to look for the “Four C’s”— Biblical Content, Christ-like Character, Christian Community, and Discipleship Competency (I am indebted to Bob Kellemen for this tool).

We spend time in our workshops discussing these characteristics, how to spot them, and how to promote them. This is how we gauge the spiritual health of our church. Here’s a quick at each of the four characteristics:

Biblical content refers to a person’s comprehension of what the Bible says and how they should study it. Do members of my small group know where the books of the Bible are? Do they have trouble interpreting passages properly? Are they prone to proof-texting? Are they able to accurately apply God’s Word to situations in their lives? I want to make sure that the people in our groups are growing in their knowledge of the Word of God.

Christ-like character refers to the attitudes and actions of believers. As small group leaders get to know the members of their group, they are going to be able to identify areas for character growth. They will learn what their biggest struggles and temptations are. They will offer encouragement and counsel as needed. And they will pray regularly for those specific struggles. Our elders and staff can’t know details about every single member of our fellowship. But small group leaders can. And they can identify who is working on developing more Christ-like character and who needs more specific guidance.

Christian community refers to a person’s involvement and participation in genuine Christian fellowship. Often people will sign up for a small group but never show up. Or they will show up but never participate. The pastoral staff wants to know if people are attempting to live in isolation or fly under the radar. Small group leaders can help by keeping tabs on such people and come alongside them. They can identify and draw in those on the fringes of the church.

Discipleship competency underscores the importance of every member being a disciple-maker. How prepared are our people to help others grow in godliness? I can’t address that characteristic in 1,000 different people, but I can equip my small group leaders to identify it in their small groups. Not only can leaders model this discipleship, but they can disciple the individuals in their group to do it as well. Everyone should be discipling someone. A good leader will encourage equip each member of the group to become a disciple-maker.

Discipling is not easy. And as a church grows, it becomes even more challenging. I learned quickly that what was an effective discipleship approach for 150 people did not translate well into a larger congregation. It is not enough, either, just to provide outlets for discipleship. We need to regularly gauge our progress.

Small Groups provide us a unique opportunity to maximize the discipleship efforts of our churches and also to gauge our progress.

How are you using your small groups? How can you use them to better serve the overall discipleship needs of your congregation?