The Insufficiency of Small Groups for Discipleship

In my limited experience, I have found few pastors and church leaders satisfied with their discipleship efforts. Almost every evangelical church in America would say it wants to make disciples of Jesus and has a strategy in place for how that will be accomplished. Whether through small groups, discipleship classes, or solely the corporate Sunday gathering, churches are legitimately trying to make disciples. And yet many churches are far from satisfied at their efforts.

Early in the journey of planting The Austin Stone, we surveyed our efforts at community, discipleship, and outreach. At first glance, we were a relatively healthy, growing church with good attendance in small groups. Digging a little deeper, though, we recognized that people defined “community” primarily by the event they attended on a weeknight, and only a handful of groups had even invited someone who didn’t know Jesus to participate. This process of thinking critically about our communities and disciples helped us to realize our church needed new forms of gathering if we would faithfully live as missionaries in our culture.

Previously for TGC, I unpacked the distinctions between missional communities and other predominant forms of community in the American church. Rather than simply point out deficiencies, I want to present the strategy that missional communities employ to cultivate discipleship, community, and mission together over time.

Briefly, missional communities at The Austin Stone:

  • Gather as a community in a family meeting.
  • Gather as disciples in a life transformation group.
  • Gather as missionaries in a third place.

Family Meeting

The small group movement laid a helpful foundation for the American church, but it wasn’t complete. We have cultivated a value for gathering weekly outside of Sundays, but the gathering typically was an event focused on a felt need. Sometimes it’s the Bible. Sometimes it’s common crisis. In my experience, vital things like sharing everyday life and prayer are pushed to the margins.

When we as Christians believe the gospel, God adopts us into his family. We are in fact now brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re not just transactional partners in learning. Most small groups are a far cry from resembling a family. This provoked us to ask a question: If missional community is about obedience to Jesus, what should we do when we gather?

Obedience, for us, is acting like a family. Families share life around a meal. The dinner table is a critical time for my family to connect. It takes intentionality to ensure we do it, and sometimes there is formal instruction. More often than not it’s a dynamic conversation. We talk over dinner about what was good and hard in our days.

What if we asked our community leaders to host a meal, rather than prepare a lesson? In my experience, the best conversations happen around the dinner table, or while we’re washing the dishes. Real life conversation happens in real life situations. Also, eating a meal together will quickly reveal what kind of community you have. You’ll need to learn one another’s stories, vocations, and passions. Quite simply, you will NEED to become friends.

Participating in a meal together—one that requires a recipe, not a microwave—is a symbol of your fellowship and relationship with one another. We think it is a helpful practice for every community, because it’s a regular practice of most families. It frees people up to be people. You don’t have to act a certain way or have a certain knowledge set. You don’t need to have listened to a sermon or follow a curriculum. Anyone can join in—even an outsider who doesn’t know Jesus.

Gathering like this is a big change for some people. Inevitably, if you start removing Bible study as the central event you gather around, you’ll get pushback. I’m so glad when someone asks the question, “Where can I dig deep?” because we really value the Bible too.

In fact, we value studying the Bible as much as we value acting like a family, but where should we do that?

Life Transformation Groups

This leads us to the second place that we gather—as disciples in life transformation groups.

Again, we want to judge depth by obedience, not simply knowledge. What would it look like to study the Bible for obedience, not just information growth?

Obedience, for us, is being serious about obeying God’s Word personally. An LTG is a smaller group of two or three believers of the same gender who commit to meeting outside of the group meeting time. This is the place to study the Bible deeply and to be known deeply by another.

There are three primary elements to this kind of group:

  • First, we want to hear and obey—we want to read God’s Word every day and be held accountable to what we need to do in response.
  • Second, we want to repent and believe—we want to confess and repent of our sin and disobedience. We’re going to remind one another to believe the good news of Christ’s perfect life, his atoning death, and his resurrection.
  • Third, we want to consider and pray—we want to consider opportunities to share the gospel, and then pray by name for individual people, not just generic groups.

This weekly rhythm cultivates obedience as a disciple and forms the backbone of missional community. It helps people go from being a consumer meeting a need to becoming a contributor to the life of a community. Also, this kind of gathering is the basic tool of disciple-making. The beauty of an LTG is that you can do it with anybody. The LTG the basic tool to disciple a new follower of Jesus. You can find more of how we practice this at The Austin Stone here.

Third Place

The third way we gather is as missionaries in a third place. Up to this point, we’ve reoriented a typical small group with a family meal and cultivated discipleship with the LTG. A third place is where a missional community becomes intentionally oriented around those who don’t know Jesus. Unless we intentionally make time for people outside our community, we often won’t do it. Few of us naturally drift into mission. So what does it mean to obey Jesus and be a missionary? Obedience means gathering for the sake of people who don’t know Jesus.

For us, it wasn’t enough to just serve together. Mission is about people, not projects. We must think through ways we can integrate people into our communities, not just serve them at arm’s length. As we wrestled with this challenge, we needed to create a third place—a place to introduce your lost friends to your community.

What makes a good place to invite people? We use three words to describe it:

  • Neutral
  • Natural
  • Regular

An effective third place is neutral ground that is informal and non-committal. It naturally fits into the rhythms of your lost friends’ lives. So where do missional communities gather for a third place? It depends on the people you’re trying to reach. Ask the questions, “Where do people already spend time and naturally go? How can we gather there?”

For some of our downtown missional communities, this may be an after-work happy hour. For some of our moms with younger kids, this might be a park. My neighborhood gathers at our local restaurants on the weekends and at school events. A third place creates space where people can belong before they believe. We want to do it regularly and invite those who don’t know Jesus to participate often.

Putting Them All Together

As we train members in these different practices, people tend to be overwhelmed. The common refrain is, “You mean I have to do ALL of this in one week?!?” I recently had a conversation with one of our leaders. He is an orthopedic surgeon with three kids. His community has around 25 children, and about three months ago they were exhausted with trying to meet each week.

In training, we gave him the freedom to stop gathering their whole community together every week. Instead, they’re gathering every other week for a meal and focusing on LTGs and third place. Three months into the change, they are far more effective at both community and mission. It’s because they thought through a month, not a week.

As you think through shifting your practices, consider that these don’t have to happen the same way all the time, and every member of your community doesn’t always need to participate. In the same way a nuclear family has different seasons of life and different needs at different times, so too do missional communities.

I recommend that communities at minimum cultivate:

  • Gathering weekly in LTGs.
  • Gathering at minimum every other week in a third place.
  • Gathering at minimum monthly for a family meal.
  • Gathering to worship corporately on Sundays.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this kind of life together is through story. Here is one testimony of this kind of life together. You’ll see that discipleship and missional community doesn’t have to be complex—it’s rethinking the question, “How do we obey what God has commanded?” Whether you’re leading a missional community or small group, I want to challenge you to consider how your practices foster obedience to Jesus.

  • Todd Engstrom

    I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback on our strategy for making disciples!

  • Johnny Appleton

    Wonder what puritan Richard Baxter would think about these ideas?

    • Trevor Minyard

      Better yet, what does Johnny Appleton think?

    • Todd Engstrom

      Based on my understanding of Baxter, he would be thrilled with the impetus towards equipping for obedience! Cultivating people who have a sound understanding of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopatheia would be something Baxter cared deeply about.

  • christoph

    It is so funny, many talk about “making disciples”. Jesus Christ mentioned that term in the context of the GREAT COMMISSION in Matthews. 28:18-20. By the way David Platt has some great insights into the “missional” movement here in America in his book “Radical Together.”

    • Todd Engstrom

      You’re absolutely right to point out the context of disciple-making is the Great Commission, but I’m not quite sure what you mean by this comment – it would seem that the scope of the Great Commission is all nations, and living out the Great Commission means that you baptize and teach people to obey all that Jesus commanded.

      I’m a little confused…

  • Shawn

    I’d appreciate more discussion/pics of family meetings with kids. Most gatherings still implicitly or explicitly communicate that kids are a burden and interruption rather than a blessing and integral.

    • Todd Engstrom

      That’s definitely a great need, and actually the ground I’ve covered at my blog over the past two weeks. I’d love for you to check it out!

    • Lou

      Hi Shawn, I just clicked on Todd’s link to his webpage. He has four lengthy pieces over there on Kids and how they fit in.

  • Trevor Minyard


  • brad

    Great article, Todd!

    What would keep you from calling the missional communities “churches”? It seems to me that they are actually functioning and reflecting what a church is supposed to be.

    • Todd Engstrom

      We don’t call them churches for two reasons: called, qualified, and gifted elders who shepherd and instruct the church are integral to a New Testament ecclesiology, and secondly, we still value the corporate gathering where God’s people come to be instructed by God’s Word under the leadership of the elders of the church.

      We want to remain as faithful to a New Testament understanding of the church as possible, both in the organic sense of disciples in community on mission, and in the institutional sense of church leadership and preaching, practicing the ordinances, and church discipline.

      I would see missional communities as a church in its infant stage, however, and my hope is that over time MCs would become autonomous church plants that pursue New Testament ecclesiology.

      I hope that helps!

  • Carolyn

    Given the Western (read “American”) church’s emphasis on acquisition of knowledge as being the hallmark of Christian maturity, I’m happy to see the emphasis on obedience in the LTGs…NOT an externally motivated legalism, but a genuine Holy Spirit inspired desire to obey, as in “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded,” and “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

    I’ve experienced first hand in a western context, a discipleship model that may further encourage you Todd, in the book “Miraculous Movements,” written from a context of discipling Muslims, but applicable to virtually any context (currently being used in San Francisco and some other major American cities). It utilizes the concept of persons/families of peace (Luke 10) and the idea of making disciple-making disciples. I think a blending of what you are doing and the person of peace concept would be amazing.
    Thank you for this encouraging article.

    • Todd Engstrom

      Thanks for the encouragement…I’ve certainly learned a lot from CPM leaders throughout the world, and am grateful for their thinking and practice!

  • Zach Kennedy


    What recommendations would you give a church that relies (and has relied for quite some time) on a traditional Sunday-school model? Obviously, it can’t be changed overnight, so I have two questions that clarify my initial question. 1. Are there some things similar to what you’re doing that could be replicated within such a structure, and 2. How would you go about moving towards a system more like the one you have in place?

    Anyone else who wants to chime in on this is welcome to do so as well!

    • Todd Engstrom

      That’s pretty tough to give specific situational wisdom without a little more context, but generally I would say a few things:
      1. Affirm what is excellent about a model…Sunday School has done some excellent things in equipping the church with sound doctrine. If you are going to change, recognize that you’re building off a foundation that has some excellent redeeming qualities.
      2. Take it slow! Think through how you can reframe some parts of an existing structure before you go for a wholesale transition. The older I get, the more reticent to change I become, and we need to recognize that is a reality and help people by not moving too fast.
      3. Pilot what you want to see. Before you start telling people what they need to do, you should probably do it first in a small form. This will give you stories as well as first hand knowledge of the difficulties. I’ve seen too many church leaders cast vision for something they don’t intend to practices themselves, and it therefore becomes a fad that ultimately fizzles.

      Hope that helps!

      • Zach Kennedy

        That’s alright Todd! Thanks for your feedback. I would participate personally in a small LTG with some core lay-leaders to “test-drive” it where I’m currently serving. Oh, and Go Irish!

        • Todd Engstrom

          Go Irish indeed!

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  • Nathan

    I can’t even begin to tell you how blessed I was by both the blog and Luke’s story. Some friends and I at my church are beginning to really discuss missional communities as a way of making disciples and gospeling with one another. This was helpful, insightful and encouraging. Thank you for posting!

    • Todd Engstrom

      I’m really excited that y’all are giving it a go! I’d recommend two resources to you that may be helpful. The first is Verge Network: You’ll find a lot of different voices and resources that can help you think more clearly about what you’re doing.

      The second is my blog: I’ve tried hard to focus on the practicals of leading a missional community, so my hope is that it’s helpful to you as you lead out!

      • Nathan

        Awesome, I will check those out. Thanks so much!

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  • Chase Davis

    Thanks Todd, we’re working through this stuff right now (seems like we’re perpetually doing that :) This is helpful.

    • Todd Engstrom

      Things have come a ways here since we were sitting in the green room at the For the City Center :). I’m happy to help in any way I can!

  • Jonathan Smith

    This is great stuff. We are currently looking at how to build upon the CG’s we already have in place and this will supplement it greatly. Thanks for your information on this!

    • Todd Engstrom

      Glad it was helpful Jonathan!

  • Jennifer S

    I was not able to read preceding comments, but the ONLY place I have EVER seen actual, healthy, Jesus-following small groups is in Celebrate Recovery. No where else that I have ever been are you given permission to share without judgement, to not be criticized, but at the same time, giving permission to those in attendance to keep us accountable to the Love of Christ. 12 step groups changed my codependent self and I have NEVER ever been closer to God. I tried small groups afterwards but I they just didn’t work cause I was used to a level of candor, honesty, and accountability that no one else in the group was willing to either give or receive. I go to a church that is all about the show, so it has been a difficult season of my life.

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  • Jordan Blythe

    What would this look like in the context of Youth Ministry? Same thing? It’d be a lot more challenging to have high school students over and do this same thing.

    • Todd Engstrom

      I actually think it’s quite doable with High School students…I used a very similar strategy while leading a Young Life club in college. It’s pretty critical that students attend the same high school however…if you’re starting with kids from various parts of a city, it is indeed quite hard. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  • Robby Gallaty

    I appreciate your passion to make disciples, particularly reading the Bible for obedience not just knowledge. If Discipleship was about knowledge, Jesus would have called the disciples, placed his hands on their foreheads, and said, “Know All Truth.” BAM!! They would have known all the idiosyncrasies of predestination and free will.
    Unfortunately, knowledge is digested experientially. We learn as much or more by doing than by listening or reading.

    Have you found that many people are looking for a system to make disciples? Whenever I speak on the topic, people approach me afterward and say, “I’m ready to make disciples. I just don’t know how.”
    What I’ve found is that when people don’t know what to do, they don’t do anything.

    One often overlooked but extremely critical aspect of Discipleship is Reproduction. When Jesus called his disciples, he chose these words, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).

    He didn’t say, “Follow me, and I will make you Wise,”

    He said, “Follow me and I will make you to Catch Men.”

    In this verse, we uncover a 3-Fold Strategy:

    1. A Disciple Follows Jesus
    2. A Disciple is Changed by Jesus
    3. A Disciple Impacts other for Jesus

    You Can read the entire article here:

    I have a website devoted to equipping believers to make disciples:

    By the way, we met at the Multiply Gathering in Austin earlier this year. Keep Making Disciples who Make Disciples!

    • Todd Engstrom

      That’s good stuff Robby! Reproduction is certainly an expectation of the Great Commission…that’s part of the reason we use the practices we do. LTGs in particular are easily reproducible and simple…it’s how you actually disciple someone who shows interest in Jesus!

      Keep it up bro!

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  • Johnathan Ness

    I wish more churches were open to the idea of an after-work happy hour. My last church in Virginia allowed one of my friends to form such a group, but didn’t want to be associated with it in any way. They also didn’t allow my friend to mention it in our young adults group. I think reaching out to non-Christians where they already are is a great way to get them.

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  • Ron Furgerson

    Todd — Thanks for this helpful article and your insights concerning effective discipleship. I’m taking the liberty of reposting your article and linking to it on the Exponential Blog giving you and The Gospel Coalition attribution.

  • Pablo

    I found that being on mission together with others is most effective. ie “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” This is accomplished when a mature godly leader or leaders lead a group and models what it is to be dependent on God/led by the Holy Spirit (a prayer life is crucial), how to study Scripture, and demonstrates how to preach the Gospel to others (Jesus did this with the 12). Fellowship around the doctrines of Scripture and real life application are crucial. It cannot stay in the theoretical. This is a huge problem today. Of course disciples must share each others burdens and confess their sins to one another but that is not all it should be. Disciples must preach the Gospel in some shape or form verbally and equip others to do likewise or it is not biblical discipleship.

  • Pastor Meade

    Why not have LTG’s at the third place? Let others see you in prayer and in the word?

    • Todd Engstrom

      That’s a great idea, and we do it often!