Developing Discipleship Groups

*The first half of this post is setup to talk about Discipleship Groups. If you already know what we’re talking about feel free to skip halfway down, look it over, and give your feedback.

Groups at Trailhead

Since the beginning, small groups have been an important part of the life of our church. At their best they play an important role in helping us connect with each other and God. In the past year, we have differentiated two types of groups to better clarify the focus of each–Community Groups and Discipleship Groups. We launched four Community Groups in September and are currently working to develop a flexible framework for Discipleship Groups (there are a few groups already meeting who could be placed in this category). Here is the purpose of each type.

Community Groups

To work toward being a family on mission. These groups have a decided focus on the “out” (“out” in God’s holistic mission of restoration) as they are always open to new people and find intentional ways to connect with neighbors, friends, and co-workers. While we hope a committed core develops, they are also groups where it is okay for people to come and go. This does not negate the importance of growth “in” (relationship with each other) and “up” (pursuit of a live lived with and before God). These groups are likely to be between 12-25 people.

Discipleship Groups

These groups are meant to be an environment that requires high commitment and intentionality in growth toward each other (“in”) and God (“up”). They are likely to be gender-specific and 3-6 people. They are not regularly open to new people, though there may be times in the life of the group when this is appropriate.

Flexible Framework

An important value or key to how we approach things at Trailhead is flexible framework. This means that we provide enough structure and foundation to set things up for success but leave plenty of room for the Spirit to move and people to use their unique gifts to form things. This is working itself out really clearly with Community Groups already. We all have the same basic vision for the purpose of the groups, but each of the four looks decidedly different. This is what we’re working on figuring out for Discipleship Groups as well.

Below is what we’ve come up with so far. I’d really love for you to share your insights and wisdom to the discussion. There are a few questions in what follows to help with that.


Discipleship Groups are the environment we cultivate at Trailhead that require the highest level of commitment. Most other environments we cultivate do not ask for a high level of commitment, work, or vulnerability. This one does. We believe environments like this are important in helping us draw near to God, each other, and out of that to bear his image living with him for others and the world.

We ask Discipleship Group leaders to commit to these things.
– A training evening where we cover the purpose and process of Discipleship Groups.
– Two meetings a year with other DG leaders to collaborate and pray.
– Commitment to Jesus evidenced by a person’s life.
– Commitment to Trailhead as a community.
– Willingness to be prepared to lead group meetings.
– Willingness to pastor those in your group, during your meetings and in between. Be a servant.
– Shape the culture of your group. Provide leadership.

What would you add, change, remove? I wonder about having leaders sign off on these things. To some that feels artificial, to others it is a way to physically commit.

Shared Core
(These are the things that would be common among all DGs.)
– Minimum of two meetings a month. We suggest meeting every week or meeting for two hours if you can    only meet every other week.
– Intentional pursuit of growth in life with God (UP) and with each other (IN). In other words, the main purpose of these groups is not small talk. To ensure this, each group leader will develop a group rhythm in consultation with TH pastors and/or Leadership Team and/or other DG leaders. Then they will refine it with their group and the group will commit to it. (This doesn’t mean there’s no flexibility to deviate, but it provides a way to be intentional about getting to greater depth. The goal is not to follow the group rhythm to the letter, but to have something that keeps the group from devolving into merely hang out.)
– All group members agree to the DG values (see below).
– Intentional pursuit of UP and IN between meetings. What this is could vary for each group but I think it’s important that through these groups we’re helping people cultivate a life with God more than only at meetings. I think it would be good for this to include interaction with Scripture and prayer in some form.
– Desire. We don’t want people to do this unless they want to enough to really commit.

I still wonder about also having a shared core of theology or concepts that helps us create some common language. I think this would be really beneficial to our overall community over time. That might include things like a few of the shapes, the big story of God (creation, fall…), our place in that story (our shared calling/vocation), etc. We could do this in groups or ask everyone who’s going to be in a DG to do one or two seminars before they begin. We could cover these things and the rest of the shared core for these groups. That would also require people to demonstrate commitment. Thoughts?

– Commitment: To being present at meetings, to the other group members, to being prepared, and to engaging the things the group agrees on for time between meetings. (Help me flesh this one out.)
– Authenticity/Honesty: Your willingness to share will grow over time, but we will not lie to each other.
– Vulnerability: Push yourself to be vulnerable with each other.
– Humility
– Respect for Each Other
– Confidentiality

Other things you add? Change? Remove?

We want to leave plenty of room for flexibility in each group. The things below are suggestions based on what we believe will shape these groups in the most effective way possible.
– Women with women and men with men. It’s harder to be truly vulnerable when this isn’t the case.
– 4-6 people.
– Make a formal commitment to each other. It’s easier to hold each other to something if you’ve all verbally agreed or agreed in writing.
– Specify a time period of commitment. This doesn’t mean you won’t go longer, but it makes it less awkward if someone feels the need to leave the group for whatever reason. This commitment should probably be at least six months.
– Focus on life in between meetings. The ways you connect with each other and God in these times will go a long way in shaping your group.
– Be creative! Get to know each other and find the ways to pursue God and each other that work best for you.

On Depth

reflection in waterOne of the topics raised at our annual meeting was “depth.” A key difficulty in talking about depth is agreeing on what it means. When someone says, “I’d really like greater depth,” what do they mean? Greater depth with God? Other people? Meaning in life? Their swimming pool?

So I’m going to take a shot at defining it, while understanding that this definition may not land squarely for everyone. When we talk about depth, I believe we are largely talking about experiencing the fullness of life in Jesus. This broad statement is expressed through a variety of aspects of life.

  1. Connection to God: We want to know God is there. To feel him. To hear from him. To be fully convinced that he loves us. Like a wife and husband know each other better over time–in ways they can express and ways beyond expression–we want greater depth with God.
  2. Knowledge: This is certainly connected to #1, but is a specific aspect of it. Some people expressed a desire to know the Bible better. To dive into the Scriptures and grow in knowledge of God and his ways.
  3. Community: We read about a beautifully interdependent church community in Acts 2. We talk together about having deep connections with each other. We experience a little bit of it, but often far less than we’d like.
  4. Other: I’d love to hear from you–what else do you mean when you hear or say “I’d like more depth?”

So given this definition and these areas, I’d like to share a few thoughts on what it takes to have greater depth.

Intentional Action

I don’t think there is any way to develop greater depth without intentional action. I recently had someone honestly share, “I’d like greater depth in my walk with Jesus, but I’m not sure I’m willing to what it takes for that to happen.” This is the rub for many of us. We want fast food depth–something that comes quickly with little effort. I don’t think it’s difficult to see the problem with this, but it is difficult to live out the implications of what we know. If we want depth with God we must seek to know him. If we want depth of knowledge we have to crack our Bibles (and some other good books too!). If we want depth with each other we have to make space in our lives for each other more than once a quarter. We must take intentional action.

To be clear, this is not about earning salvation or making God like us by doing enough. Jeff Nikkel often says in our conversations, “effort does not equal earning.” I say amen to that! The Scriptures seem pretty clear that a life following Jesus is one that requires effort. The natural world affirms this as well. Good things almost never come without effort. However, this effort does not earn our salvation. Jesus has freely offered this through his death on our behalf. So depth requires effort–intentional effort.

Patience (Commitment #1)

This is clearly tied to the first one. We will not find substantial depth in any area without patience. The reality is that pursuing depth in anything will not yield the results we want as fast as we want them. Our perfect vision of a basking in the love of God or being able to quote the whole Bible or having deep community where we know others and are known by them will be frustrated, challenged, and at times totally derailed. The question is not if that will happen but if we will have the patience to stick with it when it does. I give up on things way too easily. But good things come over long periods of time–through pain and frustration–so when I give up on something because it’s not going as I envisioned I shut off the process that could lead to depth. Scripture certainly attests that the way to greater life is one that passes through sorrow, frustration, and even suffering.

Making Space (Commitment #2)

We are busy. We have a hard time making real space in our lives to pursue depth. I get that. I think all of us experience it. The challenge I face in my life and that I think all of us need to face is that we make time for the things we value. An hour (or even half an hour) each day for immersing ourselves in Scripture and prayer (which would be a good part of seeking depth with God) seems impossible, but watching an hour (or two) of TV at night seems necessary. (That one is a personal example, sorry to say.) We commit to what we value and make time for it, even in the midst of our busyness. We can rightly say, “I choose other things,” but we cannot rightly say, “I have no time for pursuing depth.”

Tolerance for Pain (Commitment #3)

Our last Community Group meeting was an unmitigated disaster. It’s fun to tell the stories of places we see God moving and wonderful things happening. It is less fun to tell this story. I was hopeful for how the night would go. Our last meeting had been great. Both adults and kids had a good time together and got into some really significant conversation. It was nice outside, so the kids were able to go out in the back yard and play. Plenty of space would equal tranquility. Oops.

I think our longest conversation was two minutes. It was a train of injuries, hurt feelings, and tattling. And it was a long train. This kept us from getting in to much of anything with conversation. When we tried to bring the kids in for some discussion it fell totally flat. It was the kind of group meeting that would lead someone to want to quit. Which is exactly why it’s a great time to grow and push forward.

I am convinced that depth of community is formed as much (if not more) in these times as it is the ones that go great. How do we live together when it goes poorly? Depth with God is similar. He will raise things in your heart and mind that you don’t want to deal with. It will hurt. Depth in knowledge also has an element of this. It can be difficult, even a little painful, to stick with the practices that will lead to depth of knowledge. If we want depth we will have to tolerate some pain and push forward.

Why it’s worth it.

After reading all that it could be easy to say, “I don’t need depth that much–never mind!” But I think we have an inherent sense that despite the difficulty, depth is worth it. This is why people go to marriage counseling. Why people attend trainings and study to grow in their knowledge of a given field of work. Shoot, it’s why we keep saying we want depth with God even after we fail to do anything about it 100 times. We know that walking into the depths of life is real life. Real life is not easy life. That is the challenge. We are made for a life with God and each other that increases in depth and fulfillment. The question I have to keep asking myself is if I’m willing to live in ways that will move me in that direction.