By Roy Oksnevad
Discipleship doesn’t happen by osmosis. Learning how to live the Christian life must be done in community. What typically happens is the Muslim-background-believer (MBB) discovers a new Christian fellowship and quickly falls in love with the other believers. But after they get to know them, they realize that the Christians in the fellowship are not as perfect as first imagined. The fellowship seems to bring out the worst in people and soon the MBB leaves the fellowship for another community. The search for a mature, loving church seems to be endless. The Bible defines some believers as babies because they have refused to mature in their walk with Christ (Heb. 5:11-13) or they can’t get along (1 Cor. 3:1-3). The definition of a mature believer is, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14; Rom. 12:2; 16:19; 1 Cor. 14:20). In many countries where there is a very small number of Christians, believers who come together are often just baby believers, including the pastor. The result is that all too often, immature believers are put into a leadership position.
Discipleship is done in community. The way we learn to love God is by loving others. Many fellowships might not have the luxury of having mature believers who can disciple. Reality is that even the leaders are struggling with issues in their past and also need the community to help them grow in loving God and their neighbor. This is accomplished through establishing intentional small groups to help us grow in our walk with Christ.
These accountability groups are important since we are talking about addressing attacks on our person. There are two types of small groups – open groups and closed groups. An open group allows anyone to attend. A closed group means that the group will have only a few people and visitors are not allowed to attend. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these groups?
Open Groups: Advantage – Anyone can attend and it is a great place for new attendees to get involved in the community life of the church. Open groups are not limited by time constraints and can be on-going. Disadvantage – It is nearly impossible to create trust, vulnerability, and accountability when those attending are not committed to the rules of the group.
Closed Groups: Advantage – The group of 3-6 individuals is committed to each other and the rules of the group. This allows for the group to establish trust, vulnerability, and accountability. Disadvantage – Closed groups can be seen as elitist by those on the outside. The friendships and bonds developed can create cliques within the church if the group loses its focus.
Length of time commitment: Open groups should be on-going with no time constraints. New open groups should be formed as new people attend the church. This is a good way of integrating new attendees. Closed groups should have a beginning and end. I would suggest that closed groups be limited to nine months or a year. Then the group should split up and start several new closed groups as a process of growing in their faith. These new closed groups would go over the same material. In this way we are making disciples in the church.
The closed accountability group must have some core ground rules that everyone adheres to.
Community of trust: With AA programs and other addiction programs, the first element is to create a community of trust. So many people have come from a culture in which trust has been broken on every level. When people reach out for a trusted relationship, they are often met with betrayal. However, for discipleship to move forward trust must be established. Trust is established when people are honest. Trust is quickly broken when people lie, gossip, or judge others. There has to be a high commitment to the group. Fear in all its forms can quickly unravel relationships. Suspicion and reading into others’ motives or thoughts will destroy a fellowship. We have to control our urge to always try to look behind the curtain of mistrust when people share. To use Jesus’ word, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37). It takes time to get to know one another. We need patience, forgiveness, and a willing spirit to believe the best of a person and not the worst. We all struggle with sin. Those who have addictive behavior have developed the art of evasion, meaning they only give enough information to justify a half-truth, but they purposefully give a false impression. This type of behavior will destroy the integrity of the group. When others attack a member of the group, we must not allow these negative thoughts to undermine the integrity of the group.
Community of vulnerability: The second element that is important is to open up and become vulnerable. The typical experience of so many people is that whenever they open up, people use this information to gossip. Trust is broken and we give in to our fears that we cannot be vulnerable. There need to be strict guidelines that is shared in the group stays in the group. There can be no violation of this rule. This is uncharted territory for most and can be very scary. That is why time is needed to build up trust. Vulnerability does not happen immediately. That is why the group must remain small. There will be some who will watch and see how the others react to open and honest sharing. If there is any perceived judgment or any hint of using information against someone in the group, they will never open up. That is why Jesus said,
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matt. 7:1-6)
If someone in the closed group shares a secret that is trampled on, then any advance in creating a community of vulnerability is squelched.
Community of accountability: The purpose of the closed group is to hold each other accountable. The default setting in us is to resist accountability or to rebel. We prefer freedom to do as we please. For those coming from totalitarian regimes the desire for freedom without restraints or accountability is very strong. No one likes to be exposed and then answerable to a group, particularly when we fail. The strength of addiction programs is that each one holds the other accountable to their word. It is hard at first to embrace being held accountable. However, when a person hits bottom, meaning their whole life has become such a mess, they become desperate for help. That is why Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Until we realize that our lives are in desperate need of help, we will shy away from any sense of accountability. This is particularly true for leaders who try to maintain the respect as pastor while their life is out of control, their quiet time with God is uninspiring, and their prayer time is non-existent. Spiritual pride keeps many Christians from experiencing the joy and freedom found in Christ.
Conclusion: Discipleship needs to be put into the DNA of a new believer from the very beginning. When they understand that discipleship is the normal process of growing in Christ, (not conversion as the only goal) there is a greater willingness to be discipled. Moving new believers into a small group is vital since the Christian life is lived out in community. These groups need basic ground rules. These three ingredients are essential for the group to grow.