One of the most extraordinary things about God’s creation is that all living organisms are made from the same stuff: DNA. DNA is the set of instructions that calls all of the shots while something is growing and living out its life. It determines what kind of organism something is, how tall it will be, what color it is, whether or not it has hair, and every other variation that makes each living thing different.
Disciple making is an organic process, too, with a specific goal: intentionally equipping believers with the Word of God through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ. The individual vehicles for this process are called Discipleship Groups, or D-Groups.
Even though two D-Groups never look the exact same, there are still markers that identify them as D-Groups. Furthermore, there are signals that tell us when D-Groups are healthy. If our groups launch with the same fundamental DNA, it doesn’t matter what their context, age range, gender, or stage of life is, they will be healthy and set up for success. Just as with humans, they can look different but all share similar DNA.
In his book Transforming Discipleship, Greg Ogden wrote, “When we open our hearts in transparent trust to each other around the truth of God’s Word in the spirit of mutual accountability, we are in the Holy Spirit’s hothouse of transformation.” Here, he lays out three of the most important aspects of what makes a healthy D-Group: transparent trust, the truth of God’s Word, and mutual accountability. As we examine some of the fundamental aspects of a D-Group, keep these three things in mind, as they are the tools that will sharpen you and those in your groups.
The first and most important step in forming a D-Group is prayer. Jesus modeled this for us in Luke 6:12–13: “During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. When daylight came, he summoned his disciples, and he chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.”
Jesus’s own first step in selecting the disciples was prayer. How much more should we pray about it?
After you pray for God to reveal people to invite into a discipleship relationship, approach them and invite them into your D-Group. Covenant with them to be committed, accountable, and transparent with one another as you walk together. These are the people in whom you will be investing your life for the next twelve to eighteen months.
Here is an example of a standard D-Group meeting.
Open with prayer. We practice discipleship to become more like Jesus, so it should be natural that we begin by praying.
Next, have a time of intentional conversations. These conversations will be about the highs and lows of the week—what struggles you faced, what victories you won—and a time of sharing celebrations and praises. Always be quick to talk about where you see God working in your life.
Following the intentional conversations is a good time to dig into the Word. An excellent way to do this is by quoting the Scripture memory verses you have been working through. Hold each other accountable to memorize—knowing that your brothers or sisters will be asking you to quote the verses that will keep you focused during the week.
Next, share what you have learned from the Word that week. Some do this by sharing HEAR Journals (See Sample HEAR Journal) or by sharing passages that convicted them that week. The goal of studying the Bible is to apply what it says to our lives. Knowledge without application is useless information. When approaching this time, it is helpful to ask questions like, “What are you hearing from God, and what are you doing about it?” Here are three simple questions to teach your D-Group to help them apply God’s Word personally:
A. Is there a promise to claim?
B. Is there an action or attitude to avoid?
C. Is there a principle to apply?
Remember that effective discipleship must contain both authentic relationships and systematic biblical training. Though living a life worth emulating is important, simply living a model life is not enough; you must ensure that those you disciple understand the biblical basis for the steps of faith they see you taking. This only comes through systematic biblical training.
As you close your group sessions, make sure to spend a few minutes holding each other accountable in your personal lives. Perhaps there are sins you are struggling with or temptations you are fighting. The trust that comes from accountable relationships makes sharing sins and temptations both natural and helpful.
As you go about your week, it’s important to encourage those in your groups to practice these four basic daily disciplines of a disciple of Christ.
A. Pray continuously.
B. Read and journal daily.
C. Memorize Scripture weekly.
D. Rely on the Spirit consistently.
Finally, it is crucial to plant the seed of multiplication into every D-Group that you lead. You are investing in them so that they can turn around and invest in others. As each new group is faithful to keep the same DNA, the disciple-making process will continue from generation to generation the same way it started—with a Jewish rabbi who was the Son of God and his twelve disciples who changed the world by doing exactly as he had done with them.
As with anything we wish to do with excellence, D-Groups should be measured to determine how effective they are. As you will find, the success of a D-Group is not measured like the success of a baseball team or a Fortune-500 company. To help you gauge how effective your D-Group is, we look to the MARCS of a disciple: Missional, Accountable, Reproducible, Communal, and Scriptural (refer to related articles). In addition to these MARCS, there are a few characteristics each group should have:
As a leader, your job is to encourage your group as you journey together. A little bit of encouragement goes a long way. A few ways you can be intentional in your encouragement is to recognize godly attributes or wise choices being made by those you disciple. When breakthroughs occur or sin is overcome, encourage those people publicly. Additionally, every few months, recap what you have accomplished together (i.e., how many verses have you memorized, what kinds of barriers you have overcome as a group, etc.). As a leader, you want to build confidence in the people you disciple. Celebrate your victories!
Challenge your group participants to be open and transparent. You will be living life together, which cannot be done if all of the participants aren’t willing to be open and honest with each other. It is good for us to share our lives in order to learn from one another. Sharing testimonies in the group is a wonderful way to develop a transparent atmosphere.
Remember that what is shared in the group stays in the group. Confidentiality is crucial if you want to develop authentic and deep relationships, especially ones in which personal and difficult life experiences can be shared. Remember to respect the people in your group by keeping what they tell you confidential.
The level of commitment needs to be established up front. Every person’s individual commitment level will affect the entire group. Have each participant sign a covenant. By doing so, they are committing to you as their leader and the others in the group. If a person becomes lazy in their commitment, have a conversation about it to see if any changes can be made in personal prioritization. Authentic relationships are committed ones.
Leadership is crucial in a D-Group. You learn more as you lead, and that takes preparation and discipline. You are modeling before your group so that they can, in turn, replicate and make disciples. Never ask them to do something you aren’t doing yourself. Teach them how to journal by journaling. Share with them how to memorize Scripture by memorizing Scripture. Help them manage their time well by demonstrating good time management yourself. Show them how to dig deeper into God’s Word. Point them to helpful resources, websites, commentaries, and edifying books. Remember—you are preparing them to lead a group of their own at the end of your journey together.
You will see incredible fruit born from your pursuit of Christ during the twelve to eighteen months that your D-Group meets. Because it is such an intentional time, the spiritual growth that you experience both individually and as a group will be rapid. Along the way, you will begin to notice a few things in yourself and in those you are pouring into, such as:
Growing in understanding of God’s Word and discussing God’s ongoing work in one’s life are indicators of someone’s current progress with the Lord. Over time, as we learn the truth of God’s living and active Word, we also learn how to apply it to our everyday lives. As we apply it, we begin making wiser decisions, developing more accurate discernment, and measuring the words that we speak.
Meeting together for discipleship not only enhances unity with the people in your D-Group, but also the church as a whole. One thing that brings people together is what they hold in common. In a discipleship group where you are journeying through the Bible and sharing your lives with one another, a closer bond will be formed over time. If personal struggles arise, your D-Group will hold you accountable to resolve or reconcile those issues.
One of the fruits of a closer relationship with others is using your gifts and talents to serve in communities and churches. D-Group members have built-in service partners—people who can go together, serve, and model Christ-likeness.
Every participant should approach their D-Group with the expectation to replicate it. Your time being discipled is not just for your benefit, it is preparation for you to invest in others in the future. You are learning to be a leader who leads others on their spiritual journey. What a joy!
In a close D-Group relationship, there will be frustrations, as well. If discussed at the start, some of these can be avoided.
Establish your expectations for attendance early to avoid frustration during the course of your meetings together. If you set the expectations at the beginning, your participants will understand the importance of their commitment. Because attendance is crucial in what your D-Group seeks to accomplish, a lazy, uncommitted participant may be asked to leave, depending on the circumstances surrounding their constant absences.
Just as it is important that D-Group participants show up, they must be willing to participate in the spiritual disciplines that discipleship instills. You must be willing to come alongside each other and be open to what God is leading and teaching you to do. If a person consistently shows up but never shares, it can become frustrating for everyone else. To avoid this frustration, establish your expectation for participation early. In the event someone is struggling in this area, meet with them one-on-one rather than addressing it in public. If you find your group members struggling to open up to one another, an excellent way to establish an atmosphere of transparency is by sharing individual testimonies.
D-Groups meet together to pray, read and memorize Scripture, and grow into a more fully-devoted follower of Christ. Nothing is more frustrating for the group as a whole than someone constantly showing up unprepared. If you have addressed this with the person individually and it still continues, you may have to ask them to leave the group. The D-Group functions as a unit, which means you will grow as a group or you will be hindered as a group. As a leader, you want to do your best to ensure that the morale isn’t lowered due to one person’s laziness.
At the beginning of your time together, set the expectations. Sign a covenant together so that each person states his or her commitment up front. If you do this, it will help cultivate fruit and avoid frustrations listed above. In the event you are forced to address some of these frustrations (or others that will surely come up), you can pull out the covenant you signed and lovingly remind them of their commitment. Be grace-filled in all situations, but do not forsake accountability; your group will grow immensely because of it.
Holman Bible Publishers, CSB Disciple’s Study Bible: Notes (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 2044–2048.