By Mark A. Taylor
Frankly, I can’t imagine why everyone isn’t talking about the strategy outlined by Bobby Harrington and Alex Absalom in their book Discipleship That Fits, and I don’t understand why more churches aren’t trying to implement it.
Maybe I’m just out of the loop. I’m not a megachurch pastor. I have no role on a church staff of any size. Maybe more congregations than I know have tapped into the genius of implementing something more nuanced than the large group/small group approach promoted by so many. It seems certain to me the book’s analysis deserves a close look.
The book’s outline is clear and easy. I discovered it only after I had talked with Absalom himself to clarify his thinking about midsized groups. Here’s how Absalom explained “four sizes of gathering where discipleship happens.”
First is public, groups of hundreds. Virtually every church we know has these groups; they’re called weekend worship.
The second is social, groups of 20-50 or more. Here, Absalom explained, group members see “snapshots of what it would be like to be friends.” I remember these as healthy adult Bible fellowship groups, i.e., adult Sunday school classes. But Harrington and Absalom see them as groups organized around a mission the members pursue together: help a local school, reach a certain demographic, serve a particular neighborhood, etc.
The third is personal, groups of 4-12 where members “share private thoughts.” These are the “small groups” organized and promoted in so many places.
Then there are transparent groupings of 2-4 people: our marriage partners, our closest friends, the place where accountability happens.
Absalom developed this outline partly based on his study of sociology and how people naturally connect with each other. The book adds to all of this a fifth dynamic, the divine grouping, the place where God disciples each Christian individually.
Jesus did all five, Absalom reminded me. But midsized groups, the “social” category, “is the missing one so often” today.
Note that four of these groups meet through the week and outside the church building. Perhaps church leaders can’t really program any of them, as much as they might try. But church leaders can cast the vision, make space in the church program, and equip committed Christians to form these groups naturally.
Absalom is certainly not against weekend worship, but he thinks about it in new ways. “The pinnacle of the Christian week is not the sermon by the senior minister on Sunday morning,” he said. “The purpose of the Sunday gathering is to excite and ennoble people to go back to the community where they pursue their sense of mission: where they live, work, and play”—to “represent Jesus while they’re there.”
Absalom repeats what we’ve heard from others: “In an increasingly post-Christian culture, we can’t keep relying on ‘Come to our Sunday service.’ They just won’t come,” he said. “We have to find ways to go, following the model of Jesus who empowered everyone to go.”
Even though this thinking is basic and biblical, it demands a shift in strategy that some will find difficult to implement. Absalom offers some help with forming missional groups at his website, and plans to develop there a monthly online coaching portal for those who want to create missional communities. Meanwhile Discipleship That Fits is available now, challenging all of us to rethink how we call people together to increase the impact of the church where we live.