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Discipleship, Orality, Storying Basics

5 Tips for Opening those Closed Groups

FBC ATL 1A farmhand convinced the rancher to eat lunch right after breakfast so they’d have more time in the back 40 digging in fence posts. And then he convinced him to eat supper, too. But after dinner, the farmhand went to bed. The rancher found his bunk. “What do you mean going to bed after three meals? We’ve got a full day ahead of us?” “Oh,” said the farmhand. “I always turn in after supper.”

Eating three straight meals isn’t something we normally do, unless we’re in church. The small group that I was asked to lead was using a curriculum that had 65 lessons. And they were only on lesson 32. Their group had not added any new members in two months or more. They were down to two couples — and my wife and me. So I announced we’d be finishing the study the next week and moved into a curriculum that never went longer than four sessions. They had enough of that meal.

This experience came rocketing back to me recently. A Bible study we visited was well-attended, but going verse by verse through a book of the Bible. We came in on chapter 8. The teacher wrote an email apologizing for them not being used to visitors.

And there it was. They weren’t used to visitors. This group had slammed the door and become a group of insiders.

Now, I’m not whining. The Bible was front and center. It was a teachable moment for me — and you. Small groups must stay open, especially to those who drop in without a relationship with those in their group.

When the Orality Movement was just beginning in the 1990s, missionaries were working among primary oral learners and among nationals who were not very transient. A large number of Bible stories were chosen for each people group because they thoroughly addressed their worldview issues. There could be 40 to 70 Bible stories in their oral Bible. And if they took nearly a year to tell, it only added to the cultural norms of doing life together. This was very close to the farmhand method of ingesting, but it might have resulted in a year-long investment only to experience rejection or apathy.

By 2000, the T4T (Training for Trainers) and DBS (Discovery Bible Study) movements were birthed out of factory workers or transient poor people who only lived together for six months to three years. They were still very homogeneous, just transient. They needed a core group of stories that could convey, so The Seven Commands of Jesus and C2C–Creation to the Cross became useful. It’s an obedience-based model. The farmhand wouldn’t have had a say and the rancher would have controlled everything.

In America, I’ve worked since 2006 to identify the worldview of western postmoderns who have been highly secularized. Small group studies must not go more than three months in length before moving to a new theme or topic and here’s why:

  1. We’ve got increasingly short attention spans
  2. Divorced people only have kids every other week
  3. Married couples are hyper-busy and relationships are keys to spiritual growth
  4. Churches have polarized between do-it-all clergy and spectators
  5. Small group leaders are recognized authorities. New small group leaders are not being apprenticed.

Here’s the bottom line. Biblical chronologies are good, but how long should they go before reaching a point of turning back to make another cycle? Snowden Ministries quickly learned that a 35-week series and a 52-week series closed groups to newcomers. Instead, we’ve taken our 35 week series and broken them into five 7-week chronological cycles. We have a 13-week dated curriculum called TruthSticks Leader Guides that intentionally walk through the Bible’s panorama every quarter of the year.

Keeping highly reproducible methods in the small group curriculum does five things that will open any closed groups:

  1. Participants learn God’s Word in a form keeps them accountable to grow spiritually from baby to child to young adult and then parents who reproduce.
  2. Small group participants are challenged every session to take the Bible story into their weekday worlds. They are constantly churning up prospects and new members.
  3. Participants are constantly witnessing through God’s Word and either bringing a friend into the existing group or equipped to help start a new group.
  4. The small groups are led by facilitators who can follow planning prompts that have been proven to identify and raise up apprentices.
  5. New small groups can spin off with another couple of participants every quarter. That means every small group can multiply to three to five in a year.

This week I received an email from a church with seven small groups asking why the Bible curriculum they were using from me was skipping from Bible hero to Bible hero. In seven weeks, they went from Adam & Eve to Abraham to Moses to David and then Jesus among others. That’s a panorama!

Here was part of my response: “There are biblical as well as practical reasons for approaching the Bible study this way:
Biblical: Each Bible character is at the beginning of their journey with God. It causes them to have a new life, walking in faith with God. Jesus’ birth was included because Jesus was God and we begin to see God’s plan fulfilled. We’re going to revisit these heroes to continuously build a timeline. Some call it an “oral Bible.” By starting every cycle in the Old Testament, we learn the essence of God and His ways and why it was necessary to send Jesus. Being a disciplemaker is the goal, not just a convert and not just a disciple who matures in isolation, but one that can believe in the full authority of all of God’s Word and share it with others.
Practical: Every 7-week cycle, the lessons go back to these same characters or what happens a little later in their chronology. We learn to be disciplemakers by learning from each one of them. Long running chronologies of 35 weeks in this case tend to make closed groups. By keeping the groups open, there can be opportunities to raise up a new apprentice in each group and branch them to start another group.”
Our flagship a 35-week series is titled “Making Disciplemakers.” It helps believers stand on (1) the authority of Scripture, (2) a personal relationship with Jesus who is God, and (3) an unbridled zeal to make disciples who can make disciples. This was what Jesus taught.
The farmhand got what he wanted from the rancher, but it led to no productivity. The rancher was not likely to make the same mistake the next day (if there was one for the farmhand). What kind of fruit is your small group producing? As we draw closer to Jesus through spiritual growth, we will bear fruit for the kingdom. We don’t work blindly on God’s back 40, but co-labor together with Him as He calls us to His harvest fields.
Request a sample of “Making Disciplemakers” or a catalog of other Bible studies and resources by writing Mark Snowden at SnowdenMinistries@gmail.com.
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About Mark Snowden

TruthSticks originated from the book I co-authored with the late Avery Willis. Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro Truths in a Teflon World was the book and this blog and Bible studies have resulted. It's great to be partnering with churches who are committed to making disciple-makers. Request a catalog of Bible studies using orality at SnowdenMinistries@gmail.com.

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