Discipleship Groups Don’t Make Disciples

Charles Kiser —  October 2, 2012 — 5 Comments

Over the past six years, in apprenticeship and then church planting, my overarching passion has been learning how to make disciples of Jesus.

As a result, I’ve experimented with a number of different approaches to making disciples: Greg Ogden’s Transforming Discipleship triads; Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups; David Watson’s Discovery Bible Study; Luke 10 Community’s Church of Two; and most recently 3DM’s Huddle.

Here’s what I’m learning: none of these structures is adequate to make disciples.

Don’t get me wrong: these structures have many strengths. Though distinct from each other they each focus on spiritual formation that happens in intimate relationships, with high transparency and accountability.

Each of them, however, are structures, and as structures they are inherently limited in their capacity to facilitate discipleship.

Disciples simply cannot be made with a weekly one-hour meeting (or even daily check-ins) alone.

Structure is certainly needed. But something else is needed as well: spontaneity and shared life.

Eric Pfeiffer makes this point in relation to the discipleship vehicle he uses in 3DM, and I think it applies no matter what structure is being used: “Huddle is not discipleship. Huddle is a component of discipleship.

Here’s why: a fundamental way disciples are made is through imitation. A person sees the life of Jesus embodied in the life of another and imitates it. The only way to capture that fully is through shared life and spiritual community.

Eric and 3DM offer a helpful continuum of discipleship:

A Huddle (or any discipleship vehicle) is the organized component (though I would probably add all formal church gatherings, too). Shared life in spiritual family is the organic component. 3DM calls shared life “oikos” (Greek word meaning “household”).

I have to admit that I have been, for the most part, terrible at the organic component of discipleship in my life with Storyline for at least three reasons:

  1. My seminary education trained me to have boundaries in ministry so that the church did not become my mistress (and rightly so). For me that devolved into hanging out with the Storyline Community, in large part, only when there was a formal meeting occurring.
  2. I simply did not make space in my life or calendar that allowed for spontaneous interaction with my spiritual family. I have been over-committed and stretched too thin, so much so that when I have down time I don’t want to hang with anybody, I want to crash on the couch. (And I’m an extrovert!)
  3. I failed to realize that I don’t have to create another thing on my calendar in order to do the organic / shared life thing. I simply need to wrap people I’m huddling into my life rhythms – whether it’s watching a Cowboys game, or running an errand, or grilling out with my family.

Here’s how God helped me figure out I was missing the mark in discipleship: I started to see some of the people in my Huddle become frustrated and even resist the process of listening and responding to God’s voice. But not all of them. Only those with whom I was not regularly sharing life. Because I wasn’t sharing life with them outside the Huddle, the atmosphere of high challenge + high encouragement turned into an atmosphere of high challenge + low encouragement, which became stressful and discouraging for them.

Yet as I’ve started focusing more on sharing life with my spiritual family and those I’m investing in, it has felt less like work and more like fun! It’s been wonderfully life-giving – more like how church (spiritual family) is supposed to be.

What factors make organic, shared life experiences difficult in church?

What are ways that you practice the organic, shared life existence in your spiritual family?

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

5 responses to Discipleship Groups Don’t Make Disciples

    gailynvanrheenen October 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Very good blog, Charles. I like the integration of the huddle providing an organized component of disciple-making and shared like in Oikos providing the spontaneous, interactive personal dimension. Well said!


    Thanks for this blog. Richard Foster makes it clear that structures and disciplines aren’t “spiritual,” but important means of bringing us regularly before God to be changed.

    Hindrances in the church include turning spiritual disciplines into duties disconnected from desire and delight. Also, the modern management model adopted by many churches hinders discipleship. Not that we don’t need order, but freedom in Christ and love for one another resist containment and management.

    If we agree that there is no formula for discipleship:
    huddles + spontaneous life sharing + community worship = disciples,
    then these elements, rather, seem the best means to pursue discipleship now.

    The problem I have is when people find a “way” that works for them and then turn it into a franchise for everyone. Models can be helpful, but are always provisional simulations of real life.


      Thanks, Gary.

      “Models can be helpful, but are always provisional simulations of real life.” So true. Models need not be cut and pasted but contextualized and adapted to fit different settings. There is no one-size-fits all for discipleship.

      I appreciate another lens that 3DM offers in regard to how we learn – the learning triangle. The three sides of the triangle are information, imitation, and innovation.

      Most approaches to discipleship move from information to innovation – asking many to make a leap only a few can do (which is why classes/books/studies haven’t worked on their own in making disciples). The best learning happens when we move from information to imitation to innovation.

      I think this applies to your comment about franchising models. On one hand, imitating mentors who work out of a particular model is the way we learn. We have to have something/someone to imitate if we’re going to figure out how to innovate for our context. On the other hand, I think many people get stuck in the imitate phase and do not branch out and innovate for their contexts. 3DM has said repeatedly that they don’t expect us to copy their model forever – only long enough to imitate and get the feel for it and be able to innovate out of it.



    I think you make a very keen observation about the necessity of spontaneity and shared life in discipleship. When Jesus called on his disciples, they immediately left their fishing nets and taxing booths because they were of the right Spirit. They might not have known completely at the time who Jesus was or where he was going to take them, but they had a willingness and an eagerness to follow. And they didn’t just meet together occasionally for worship or study–they shared their lives–eating, traveling, and resting together. I’m thankful to have found a small group at my church that sees the value of discipleship and fellowship outside of our scheduled weekly meetings.

    I’ve also found that neither the structure of my small group, nor my efforts to proselytize made me an effective disciple. It is Jesus who does the work, transforming us through his ongoing displays of kindness, humility, mercy and love. It is Jesus who provides the Ultimate Model (John 13:15). May he guide you and your community into even greater expressions of devotion toward him and to each other!

    God bless!

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