Taken from Chapter 2 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church
by Joel Comiskey
In preparation for writing this book, I scoured all the books I could find on discipleship. I expected the authors to highlight Christ’s call to make disciples in a small group as well as the early church’s commitment to follow that pattern through house-to-house ministry. However, I was amazed at how many books skipped over Christ’s call to discipleship in a group. Most, in fact, emphasized personal growth and the one-on-one variety of discipleship found in individualistic western cultures, like North America.
The typical pattern found in most of these discipleship books is to start with Jesus and the need for discipleship. The writers will then define the word disciple, explain the importance of discipleship, and elucidate the differences between discipleship in Christ’s time from the post-resurrection Church.
Then the book will jump to current methods of discipleship, such as personal spirituality and one-on-one discipleship. The author will discuss the need to practice the spiritual disciplines, like having a quiet time, fasting, prayer, Bible reading, and other disciplines of the Christian life. Later on in the book, the author might have a chapter about the necessity of belonging to a local church as an important factor of discipleship.
Yet, the primary way discipleship plays out practically in these books is through personal growth between God and the potential disciple and entering a one-on-one discipleship relationship with a mature Christian. Often ministries emphasizing one-on-one discipleship, such as Navigators, Campus Crusade, or InterVarsity, are highlighted as examples of how to do this.
I have always believed strongly in spiritual disciplines and have been discipled one-on-one various times. I’m not in disagreement with what these authors write. My only concern is whether this is what Jesus had in mind.
What amazes me is the lack of material about discipleship in a group. Books on discipleship don’t connect how Jesus and the early Church made disciples with how we should be discipling today. Most authors fail to explain the group context of discipleship in the New Testament and make it seem like the individual variety is the biblical way to make disciples. To ignore this and jump into personal devotions or one-on-one discipleship leaps from biblical times to the western culture.
Why do so many authors do this? Because most books on discipleship are written by authors who are from individualistic cultures, where the assumption is that the individual takes precedence over the group. However, this is not true from Church history or even for the majority of cultures today.
Discipleship According to Jesus
Scripture says, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:16-20).
Notice that Jesus is talking to the group of disciples in these verses. These are the same disciples (apart from Judas) who Jesus molded and shaped for a three-year period. He had taught them important life lessons as they lived together. Much of the crucial character development came as they worked through conflicts and overcame difficulties with one another. Jesus had called these disciples to join a new community and become part of a new spiritual family (note 1). They learned how to relate to one another through the crucible of conflict. Jesus checked their pride, encouraging them to walk in humility. After three years, they were ready to start the process once again with their own small group. They understood that following Jesus meant public confession and a group commitment.
The disciples certainly had a personal relationship with God, but that personal relationship needed to be molded and shaped in a community atmosphere where the one-anothers of scripture were prioritized (more on the one-anothers in the next chapter). Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Jesus used the home to gather his Church, the new family of God. I sometimes picture Jesus sleeping around campfires, like images of cowboys in the wild, wild West. Yet Jesus ministered in a household setting. When reading about Jesus going from village to village and healing the sick, he was actually ministering in homes. The following offers a glimpse of Christ’s home ministry:
- Jesus in the house of Peter (Matthew 8:14)
- Jesus in the house of Matthew (Matthew 9:10)
- Jesus in the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
- Jesus in the house of Lazarus and his sisters (Luke 10:38-42)
- Jesus in the house of Jairus (Mark 5:35-38)
- Jesus healing two blind people in a house (Matthew 9:28-30)
- Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6)
- Jesus teaching his disciples in a house (Mark 7:17-18; 9:33; 10:10)
- Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed person in a house (Luke 5:19)
- Jesus in the home of a Pharisee (Luke 14:1)
- Jesus instituting the Lord’s supper in a house (Matthew 26:18)
- Jesus sent his twelve and his seventy disciples to heal and teach from village to village and house-to-house (Luke 9:1-9; 10:1-11)
Jesus infiltrated the houses and families of his day to promote this new family of faith. He then sent his disciples two-by-two to minister in homes (Luke 9 and 10). After Christ’s resurrection, the early Church met in houses to continue this family mentality. Through house-to-house ministry, they turned the world upside down, from the inside out.
What does the Great Commission tell us? It says that God desires to transform people from lone individualists into team players. David Watson, Anglican evangelist and author, writes,
It is equally striking that Jesus calls individuals, not to stay in isolation, but to join the new community of God’s people. He called the Twelve to share their lives, with him and with each other. They were to live every day in a rich and diverse fellowship, losing independence, learning interdependence, gaining from each other new riches and strength (note 2).
Relating to other people and learning to give and take is important to God. Yes, he does desire that each person have an individual relationship with him, but this is only part of the equation. Yet, according to most books on discipleship, one-on-one discipleship and a personal relationship with God are the essence of discipleship. Scripture tells us another story about discipleship.
The Biblical Context
When we talk about the Bible’s inspiration, we are referring to the moment the writer’s wrote down their words. At that moment, they were writing the very words of God. Everything afterwards is application of what they wrote. For this reason, it’s essential to know to whom they were writing, the context and culture in which they were writing, and the general history of the time period. Afterwards, it’s possible to correctly interpret the passage and apply it accurately.
Yet, many people skip this point. They jump right into the application of scripture without obtaining the correct interpretation to begin with. To understand the New Testament writers, we need to understand the context.
The context of the New Testament was a group atmosphere. Those in the New Testament times were part of a collective culture that prioritized the group more than the individual. Dr. Joseph Hellerman, professor at Talbot Theological Seminary, writes, “This strong-group perspective runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments. It has been God’s design from the beginning” (note 3). Jesus and the New Testament writers expected people to be part of a group. The culture that the authors of scripture wrote to resembled group oriented cultures today, like the African culture. Norman Kraus, Mennonite missionary and author, writing about the biblical context, says,
The cultural background against which it should be interpreted more closely resembles some contemporary African tribal cultures than American individualism. In these societies the individual is viewed as a particular embodiment of the organic family, literally tied to the ancestors as the continuation of their life force. The individual gains self-identity by assimilating the identity of the clan (note 4). The New Testament writers would not have understood modern individualism. For them, the individual was always a part of a larger social world and this social world was primary. In contrast, the Bible is predicated on the belief that human beings at every level are bound together in communities of various sorts. Church researcher, John Ellas writes,
Early Christian community stands in strong contrast to present conditions where church members have very limited interpersonal relationships. ‘One another’ ministry requires face-to-face spiritual interaction that is missing for the majority of members in churches today. In biblical community, members love, serve, pray, and carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2)” (note 5)
Rodney Clapp, author of a book on discipleship and popular culture, writes, “In historical perspective, it is our individuated, isolated self that is exceedingly strange (note 6).
God chose the small group context to develop fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, and he does the same thing today. This is the context God chose to build his church. Why? Because this is the context in which we can become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
Group Discipleship and Culture
Every culture contains good and bad elements, and all aspects of cultures need to be judged on whether they align with scripture. We must submit to the Bible and allow it to critique culture. No culture is perfect, but God’s word is. Culture must conform to God’s word and not the other way around. God desires to change us to conform to his word, and we must remember that the Bible, not culture, needs to dictate all that we do and think.
Cultures common to North America, Australia, and Europe are more individualistic in nature. There are many great traits of these western cultures, such as respect for rule of the law, hard work, creativity, diligence, and individual achievement. While there are many exemplary qualities, much of present day individualism has led down the dangerous path of isolationism, anonymity, and loneliness.
The culture of individualism is uncomfortable with biblical commands to serve one another, submit to others, give up rights for the greater good of the group, and to humble oneself before others. Yet, these biblical traits are absolutely essential and foundational in scripture (note 7). Christ’s command to his disciples is clear: love one another. The triune God is a timeless testimony of God’s unity. The early Church was a face-to-facemovement, meeting in homes and multiplying God’s life through community.
The group-oriented context of the New Testament and the many exhortations to follow the one-anothers and walk in unity indicate that God wants to shape disciples in a group context. Whether a culture does this well is not the main point. What is essential is the willingness to be molded and conformed to what God says is important.
Western individualistic cultures cannot justify scripturally that Jesus is focusing on one-on-one discipleship when he clearly demonstrated what type of discipleship he’s promoting.
We must be true to scripture and first promote the way of discipleship found in the pages of scripture and then apply other aspects of discipleship to our own culture, without trying to read into scripture what is not there. Scripture, not culture determines the motivation for doing cell ministry.
As mentioned earlier, the main reason the church has missed this theme of community in the western world is because too often believers read the Bible through the lens of individualism. The reality is that those living in a collectivist culture understand group discipleship much better because they already innately prioritize relationships. They are also much more comfortable in a group setting and take less time to warm up.
I’ve been a missionary for many years in a group-oriented culture and do most of my current cell seminars in group oriented cultures. I’ve discovered that these cultures are naturally more comfortable in a group setting because they are naturally community oriented. One very positive aspect of group-oriented cultures is the propensity toward community. Our small group ministry in Ecuador, for example, grew rapidly among a far more group-oriented culture. People in the church were excited to participate in the groups because they generally liked being with other people and counted it as a priority. It wasn’t hard to gather people together in the relaxed atmosphere of the home because this was their inward desire.
The reality is that the God of community has blessed most cultures around the world with a group orientation. Theologian Bruce J. Malina writes, “Some 80 percent of the people on our planet are collectivist. . . The significant fact for those individualists who read the Bible is that biblical writers and the people they depict were also collectivists, including Jesus” (note 8). Malina goes on to say, “Individualist cultures are a rather recent phenomenon” (note 9). They didn’t exist before the sixteenth or seventeenth century, according to Malina.
Individualism is not the norm, especially those aspects that tend to withdraw from others and separate from community. I do realize that establishing small group ministry is more difficult in individualistic culture because of the tendency to pull away rather than prioritize relationships. Yet, whether individualistic or group oriented, scripture still stands true and exhorts us to make disciples in a group.
I’ve also researched and practiced cell ministry in the United States and other western countries. I noticed that people don’t naturally connect in small groups. It takes a longer time for community to develop. Multiplication also takes longer because the group needs time to become a community, the family of God. Western cultures have to work at community and most find it harder to be a regular part of a cell group. I’ve heard many western leaders, in fact, say, “Small group are just not my thing,” or “They might be for others—the touchy-feely type person—but not for me. I’m just built differently. I feel uncomfortable in a group.” I chuckle when I hear this because I now believe that most westerners feel uncomfortable in a group. But can we use this cultural line of reasoning to avoid small group involvement? Biblical discipleship, rather, requires that we journey within a small group and allow God to mold us in the process.
The reality is that cell groups might not work well. Relationships are messy. People are dysfunctional. We are selfish and want to follow our own path. Some in the group tend to talk too much and don’t listen sufficiently. Others hide and don’t express themselves. Yet, all cultures, regardless of being group-oriented or individualistic, need community discipleship. God has chosen this method to make us more like Jesus.
Individual Expression in a Group
Concentrating on community shouldn’t take away from the individual’s worth but rather should enhance it. Individuals who are being molded within a small community of believers continue to grow in a personal relationship with God.
The Trinity is our example here. Perfect unity exists within the Trinity, but each person of the Godhead is unique. The Bible underlines two complementary and equally important truths in this area. On the one hand, it emphasizes the intrinsic worth of the individual, as made in the image of God. On the other hand, the Bible places great emphasis on the importance of community (note 10). We also need to distinguish between individuality and individualism. Individuality refers to an individual as a responsible person in community, while individualism exalts the independence of individuals and their private rights. Individuality can be good, while individualism breeds alienation and pride. Kraus says, “The sin of humankind is not the assertion of individuality in community, but the assertion of individual self-sufficiency and independence from God and fellow humans” (note 11).
The biblical alternative is the individual in community. It’s having a relationship with God but then being in community with the body of Christ. Each group member depends on the other and is involved with each other. This interaction enhances individual personhood and provides personal identity (note 12).
God allows us to be all we are supposed to be in community. We become strong as individuals as we relate to others in the group. All of Christ’s disciples had strong personalities, but they learned through conflict to submit to one another. That’s the goal of being molded through the community process.
Knowing and experiencing God is profoundly conditioned by the community. Our continuing relation to him is sustained and nurtured in community. Our convictions are expressed, caring takes place, as well as forgiving and receiving forgiveness. David Gill, author and professor of Christian ethics, writes:
We must have the community to support and correct our discipleship in the world. This seems so obvious, but our practice is so frequently individualistic. Christian discipleship is not for Lone Rangers (though in all fairness, even the masked man had Tonto as his sidekick). We must resist the individualism of our culture and cultivate deep and strong relationships with others. The challenges we face are formidable; without community they become impossible (note 13).
In a healthy small group not only is our individuality maintained, but we realize that we are valued individuals with a God-assigned role to play. Discipleship in a group includes interdependent and reciprocal relationships, which aim at enhancing the personal quality of the group itself. What people have in common is each other and the mutual enhancement of each person as they live out their lives together (note 14). Group discipleship is not an emptying of my own rights, aspirations, or goals. Rather, it’s developing those personal attributes in the group atmosphere.
We become disciples as we learn to love one another and allow others to hold us accountable. This was the type of discipleship Jesus had in mind when he commanded his disciples to continue his own strategy for disciple-making in the group environment.
- Kevin Giles, What on Earth Is the Church? An Exploration in New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 20.
- David Watson, Called and Committed (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1982), p. 17.
- Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), p. 125.
- C. Norman Kraus, The Community of the Spirit (Waterloo, OH: Herald Press, 1993), p. 33.
- John W. Ellas, Small Groups & Established Churches: Challenge and Hope for the Future (Houston, TX: Center for Church Growth), p.41.
- Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 90.
- There are some aspects of individualism that are very biblical: diligence, creativity, and the rule of the law, to name a few. Yet, individualism that stirs a person to separate from others—including one’s own family—does not originate with the Trinity and the many biblical examples and must be critiqued and even avoided. Some cultures naturally practice forms of bribery. Business deals are based on who you know and the favors you show toward those people. Those cultures feel that a the rule of the law is far too impersonal and prefer a relational approach through bribery. Scripture critiques bribery and calls it wrong, so this aspect of culture needs to be corrected based on God’s word.
- Bruce J. Malina, “Collectivism in Mediterranean Culture,” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, eds. (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY : Routledge, 2010), p. 18.
- Bruce J. Malina, “Collectivism in Mediterranean Culture,” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, eds. (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY : Routledge, 2010), p. 19.
- Eddie Gibbs, In Name Only (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint Books, 1994), p. 183.
- C. Norman Kraus, The Community of the Spirit (Waterloo, OH: Herald Press, 1993), p. 43.
- C. Norman Kraus, The Authentic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 121.
- As quoted in Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 244.
- C. Norman Kraus, The Authentic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 121