Christians are meant to be part of a family. We are meant to live like a family, in community with other Christians, sharing our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our dashed hopes and dreams, our worries, and our cares. The church, with is the community of those who have responded to the call of Jesus to come and follow him, is not something optional. It is essential. Becoming a part of the community of Christ is basic to becoming and being a growing disciple of Christ.
The Bible uses many metaphors for God’s community of discipleship. The Church is “Body of Christ;” the “City of God;” the “People of God;” the “Family of God.” When Jesus came to display the wisdom and love of God in human form, he did not so it alone. He chose a small group of followers and poured his life into them. He created a community of disciples. During his lifetime, the little group grew. When he ascended into heaven, his group of disciples grew into the church as we know it today. Of all the metaphors, the one most near to most Christians is that of the Family of God. We all come from human families. Even if our human family is not functional, we need a functional divine family.
In an individualistic culture, it is tempting to think of the church as a voluntary society of like-minded people formed to advance a set of beliefs. This is not the best way to think of the church. The church is a family. Our families existed before we existed, just as the church existed before we became members—or even believed in Christ. Just as we grow up in a family, we grow up in the family of God. The church is a family in which the children are disciples of Christ growing into a deeper relationship with God.
Christians will never reach the late modern or emerging post-modern world with words or ideas alone. After lives are changed and people commit to Christ, the details of our theologies, doctrines, and programs have a role to play, but not before. In a world that no longer believes in truth, ideas have no power separated from changed lives. In a world that no longer believes in morality, moral theology has no power to change people until they have received a new heart from God. In a world that no longer believes in beauty, words about beauty have no power until people have experienced God’s beauty. In a world of isolation and loneliness, people will never be motivated to become part of God’s community until and unless they experience the reality of that community. The world needs to see lives that are being changed for the better.
Discipling Groups as Families of Christian Growth
All our married life, Kathy and I have been members of discipling groups. We met in a Bible study. When we were a young couple, we were in Bible studies with other young couples. Each of us has been a part of small discipling groups with men and women separately over the years. When I worked as a lawyer, I sometimes had a small group in my law office. When we went to seminary, I met weekly with a group of fellow students and Kathy grew in fellowship with a group of women.
Since entering full-time ministry, both of us have been part of discipling groups. For eighteen years, I met with several men weekly. For many years, I taught a year-long Bible Study for no more than eighteen people. Those groups met for nine months. Often, our churches sponsored short-term groups that meet for six or so weeks. Most recently, Kathy and I led “Salt & Light Groups” in our local church. The size and length of the group is not what matters. It is the love of the group and the teaching and example of its leaders that matters.
Some years ago, we became part of a renewal movement that encourages the formation of small accountability groups, and over the years we have been members of several such small groups. We’ve led other discipling groups in our home and at church. We’ve always been members of Sunday School classes. We’ve attended special groups to learn special skills such as child-raising or how to manage our money.
Each of these groups changed our lives in some important way. Along the way, we’ve grown, helped others, made life-long friends, and experienced the joy of Christ. Just as Jesus was lifted up into heaven and was no longer physically with his disciples, most of these groups eventually disbanded as people moved along in life, but each person in each group remains a precious memory. Some of the members of these groups keep in touch after as much as thirty years apart!
As this was initially being written, we joined a couple we’ve known for over thirty years for a social outing. We’ve never attended the same church. In fact, we belong to very different churches. However, when we were young, for a few weeks, they attended a weekly Bible Study in our home. The friendship created years ago emerges every time we are together. The day before, another couple dropped by our house with their grandchildren. Once again, we met in a discipling group many years ago. Today, we are still Christian friends, helping one another grow and face the new challenges of a new stage of life. The love of discipling groups is a kind of love that never ends because it was not primarily a human love but a divine encounter.
Interpersonal Relationships Imitating a Personal God
Christians celebrate and worship God who exists in an intimate, self-giving, life-transforming relationship. God not only reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in some mysterious way, God exists as one essential personal being in three distinct persons. These divine persons have an unbroken relationship of eternal, perfect, self-giving love. In other words, God exists as a community (a family) of self-giving mutual love. Within God’s community of love, there exists both individuality (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and relationship (Divine, Self-Giving Love).
This has profound implications for the Christian life:
- If God exists in a relationship of love, then there is no being a Christian without being in a relationship of love with God and other people.
- As persons who are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we were made for deep, loving, wise, and powerful life changing relationships – with God, with other human beings, and with creation.
- The church is made up of people in a Christ-centered relationship with one another. A church that is merely a place for so inclined people to meet on Sunday morning, sit in pews, sing, and listen to a talk, is not the church God God meant the church to be a place where people are in relationship with God and with one another. A church is not a worship service. A church is a group of disciples called to live together and demonstrate to the world God’s love. 
- Since God is love, and the love God showed when he “sent his only son” (John 3:16) eternally exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is only as we exist in communities of love that the Church can be the body of Christ it was intended to be. This love is not a love based upon attractiveness, or other human qualities or worthiness. It is a pure self-giving love, which Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross.
- Finally, the very names of the divine person: Father, Son and Holy Spirit encourage us to see God existing as a family. This is exactly the relationship Jesus claims and models with his disciples. When Jesus says that he desires the disciples to be one just as the Father and he are one (John 17:20-21), he is praying that we might enter the family of God and become participants in the self-giving love of God. In other words, he is making us part of God’s eternal family. When John calls believers, “Children of God” (I John 3:1), he indicates that by faith in Christ and participation in his body, reflecting the love of God in our lives and in our life together, we become part of God’s family.
Jesus: Our Model
Jesus was the greatest transformational community builder in history. He called twelve average people. He saw their potential. He trained them. He lived with them as if they were his family. He loved them enough to give his life for them (and us), just as if they (and we) were his biological children. In the end, he called his disciples, “Brothers.” The disciples had become a part of his divine family. Then, he set them loose to change the world and build the same kind of community wherever they went. They did exactly that.
How did Jesus do this? Here are some concrete things he did:
- He called the group into being (See Mark 1:17).
- He shared his life with them (the entire four Gospels).
- He prayed for them (John 17:6ff).
- He taught them (Mark 1:21).
- He loved them (John 13:39).
- He rebuked them (Mark 9:36-39).
- He allowed them to lead (Mark 6:6-7).
- He gave his life for them (Mark 10:45).
In all of this, one fact stands out: A personal, intimate elationship with his disciples was important to Jesus. From beginning to end, his mission was conducted in and through relationships with people who were so close to him that they became like his family (Matthew 12:50). It is how Jesus conducted the most central part of his ministry: getting a small group of men and women ready for the day when they would lead others to faith in God the Father, who Jesus called “Abba,” or “Daddy,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ intention was to disciple those he met, so that they too would become children of God (John 1:12). This is not surprising, since in Christ the disciples were being called to become part of the family of God.
Jesus lived as part of a discipleship group as his disciples learned how to be a part of God’s family. It follows that every Christian should have a similar life-transforming experience. Small groups of believers call people into relationship with Christ and each other, allow people to share their Christian walk, deepen their prayer life, and experience life transforming community. These small groups are a source of Christian teaching, become places of loving care, are a source of guidance in difficult times, and a source of new leadership for a growing fellowship of Christians.
Life after the Resurrection
Life within God’s family of disciples after his Resurrection and Ascension is not identical with the life of discipleship when Jesus was physically present. When Jesus was physically present, his call was to come and physically follow and be with him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:2-11). Those who did not have the kind of faith necessary to leave all and follow him, did not become disciples. When Jesus ascended into heaven, the call of the apostles was to trust and believe in the Risen Christ and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, becoming a part of the little, and sometimes persecuted, fellowship of Christians. After the resurrection, the call is always first to have the kind of faith that follows a now invisible Jesus who is present in his people by the power of the Spirit.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, it was no longer possible to follow physically Jesus. Jesus, however, let his disciples know that while he would not be with them physically, he would be with them by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). His manner of being with the family of disciples after the resurrection was going to be different than his manner of being with them before the resurrection. He would be invisibly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises his disciples that he will not leave them as orphans without a parent. Instead he will come to them again and be with them in a new way (John 14:18). He tells them that it is a good thing that he is going away, because when he goes away, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will come to them and will both work in the world to bring people to faith and in the lives of his disciples bringing them all the knowledge they will need to have that Jesus could not tell them while physically present on earth (John 16:7-13).
The new way that Jesus will be with us is by dwelling within us by faith (Galatians 3:2). This faith will be shared, grow, and mature inside of the community of faith, and especially a small community of faith in which we have the freedom to grow and share our successes and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts and where we are not gifted. When Christians develop such communities, we enter into the life of God and enable others to also experience and enter that life. This is why Jesus could say, “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there are I with them” (Matt.18:20).
God’s Transforming Community
When people are drawn into God’s community of love, hopefully they find healing, acceptance, and physical examples of a better life, the barriers to the gospel in our society can be overcome. There is no other or easier way to share the gospel. People desire to see the gospel lived out in the lives of people they know and respect. In a world of hyper-individualism, where a consumer mentality dominates, and people are primarily interested in having their personal needs met, real transformational community is hard to build and maintain over time. It is only with difficulty that existing Christ-Followers can build little, authentic communities of believers.
Although it is tempting to talk about “small discipling group programs,” programs come after people. Groups come after community. Christians must desire to reach out and love and build community before community can be built by any strategy, however well thought out. Before people can or will respond and reach out with God’s love, hearts must be filled with the love of Christ and willingness to love others. This is the transformation that takes place at conversion and continues as we experience ongoing, transforming Christ-centered community.
During my early Christian years, I was blessed to be part of several smaller communities of Christian disciples. In some cases, we were almost all immature Christians. Nevertheless, we gathered weekly. We shared our lives. We shared times of worship. We shared prayer. We studied the Bible together. We read Christian literature. We tried to build Christian marriages together. We learned to manage our finances as Christians together. We raised our children as Christians together. We tried and failed a lot! But we kept on trying. We still are trying together. In the meantime, we built strong relationships that continue to this day.
People often ask whether or not I believe small group ministry is necessary. The answer is always “Yes!” Because of changes in our society, “worship center churches” that were important in the history of Christianity, including recent history, can no longer do the task of growing disciples without a strong community discipleship emphasis. Although a few churches will be able to grow as a result of worship excellence, Sunday school or other educational programs, the sheer busyness of people today make this difficult, especially in major metropolitan areas. In addition, most new churches and many churches in Western Europe and parts of the United States do not have the room to create expansive Sunday school programs. Therefore, bringing people together in small groups, primarily in homes, but in other places as well, is the best method to disciple them.
If we are to reach out and touch a “Culture of Death,” the culture and community dissolving end of the modern world, we need reach out in love, not just individually but as communities of believers. Discipleship is no longer the task of a few highly gifted people. It is the work of all Christians working together. While no strategy is possible without changed lives and Christians who desire to build life transforming community, the sheer number of people who need to hear the gospel and have the opportunity to grow in Christ requires some kind of programmatic solution—and small discipleship groups is the program most likely to succeed.
People Need Discipleship Groups
A fundamental principle of disciple-making is that all believers, and especially new believers, need to be part of a discipleship group, that is a small gathering of people who are seeking to grow in Christ. This was true of the first disciples, and it is true of us as well. Just as young children need a healthy family to grow up in, so also young Christians need a healthy, Christian family to grow up in. New believers need the experience of growing in Christ in an intimate fellowship of other people who are trying to grow in Christ as well.
In the ancient world, a disciple was a learner, someone who followed a teacher around and learned from them. The process was twofold: First, the disciple learned the information that teacher knew. Second, the disciple came to model the lifestyle of his teacher. For example, Socrates had a group of young men who followed him and learned from him. Plato, a disciple of Socrates, taught his disciples, one of whom was Aristotle, who himself formed a community of followers. In this way, the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were passed down. We need recover this ancient way of teaching people and changing lives. Modern universities excel at transmitting information. They are not as good at transmitting character. 
The internet and “online-learning” have made college and other educational opportunities available over the internet. There are even “online seminaries.” While these online educational opportunities are good for transmitting information and gaining credentials, they cannot, by their very nature, provide the kind of discipling Jesus modeled and wants. Jesus personally spent time with his disciples and they learned as much by what they observed as by what they were taught. There is an old saying that children “do as the see their parents doing, and not as their parents urge.” Disciples model themselves after older, more experienced disciples just as children, for better or for worse, model themselves after their parents.
A Family in a Culture that Does not Value Families
The family of God is important in a society that does not value family, and in which many people live and work far from their biological family. The form of life common in American and other cities increases loneliness and isolation among people. Many people live far from parents and siblings. Because of divorce and other factors, many people do not find loving community within their biological family, The structure of modern corporate society makes it necessary for some people to move and live away from their families, sometimes across the globe. With the advent of social media, many people have come to rely upon social media and electronic connection as a substitute for real human relationships.Finally, many people are working longer hours than in prior generations. The result is an epidemic of isolation and loneliness.
This loneliness is not healthy. In fact, it is pathological. If we human beings were meant for community, for deep and abiding relationships of deep care, then the modern structure of living is bound to leave most people unfulfilled and some people deeply wounded. If being fully human requires being in life giving relationships with God and others, then it is no surprise that the result of our society’s deconstruction of the family and of stable communities and neighborhoods has had a devastating impact on the mental, moral, and spiritual health of people.
When our society does provide community, that community is increasingly political or economic in nature. Unfortunately, jobs, corporations, business relationships, and the like can only provide a kind of limited social connection. Business does not love anyone as a person, only as an economic unit. Similarly, particularly among the young, belonging to social and political causes may provide some limited sense of connection. However, causes can only provide a limited amount of love, meaning and purpose. Our government and political organizations value us as citizens, not as children of God. Exercise classes, hobby groups, and other groups have similar limitations. Human beings were never meant to live as isolated individuals bound together only by work and the laws of a society. We were meant for deep, loving, wise, relationships.
Unfortunately, at just the moment in human history when the relational, family aspect of the local church is most needed, several factors have limited the ability of Christians to respond. First, over many generations, churches assumed that the loving community of the church would automatically permeate its fellowship. When most people lived in small towns, had relatively strong families, and attended churches in which their families had long and strong connections, church community grew naturally. Pastors and seminaries did not think that they needed to focus on the creation of life-transforming fellowship as a central duty. They assumed community would automatically result from the teaching and worship ministries of the local congregation. The massive transfer of population to major cities and the decline of small, community churches put an end to the effectiveness of this strategy.
Secondly, for most of the 20th Century, the major Christian denominations increasingly developed a corporate model of church operation and a professional model of pastoral formation. At the very moment when the sheer size and complexity of our culture was forcing people to live in large cities and in anonymous neighborhoods, and the natural ability of people to find spiritual nurture was declining, the church developed in a way that was not easily able to meet the changing reality of people’s lives. The corporate model no longer meets the deepest needs of people.
Finally, in the past many young people were not particularly active in church during their immediate post high school and college years, but when they had children, most returned to their local congregation or a similar congregation where they lived. Unfortunately, young people are delaying families longer and longer, and while they are delaying family formation, they are constantly bombarded with images of churches as judgmental, corrupt, interested only in money, and backward. Therefore, when confronted by the need for meaning, purpose, and community, they are unlikely to seek out the church for an answer to their deepest needs.
The only way to respond to these changes in contemporary society is to focus attention on the process of building life-transforming community and making and growing disciples within that community. This is not an easy task. It cannot be accomplished with slick advertising or any other corporate approach to church growth. It happens as people are drawn into a deliberate community that itself attempts to model the life of God among the peoples of the world. If we are to respond to the crisis of discipleship in our day, we must learn again what it means to be a part of the family of God—a family called to go and bring others into that family.
Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 Bonhoeffer makes this point both in Cost of Discipleship, previously cited, and more directly in his earlier book, Life Together. See, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together tr. John Doberstein, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1954). Cost of Discipleship, previously cited, Chapter 7, 129-133 and Chapters 29-30, 263-304.
 It is important to remember that we are not called merely to transmit information to people. We are called to help people live a new kind of life as a disciple of Jesus. In a sense, every disciple is a child of those who helped that person grow in Christ and is the parent of those that they are discipling into the image of God-in-Christ.