Avoiding Spiritual Isolation in a Time of Social Distancing

How to start a discipleship group

  1. Read the online guide, and then select facilitators and form groups. Community group leaders can form discipleship groups of three to four men or women from within each community group, using this guide that explains how to select facilitators for each discipleship group, and then how to launch and structure the groups. Community group leaders should lean on their group coach and groups pastor as needed after having read through the guide.

  2. Complete the audio training on how to facilitate a gospel-centered discipleship group. Before you gather for the first time, all community group leaders and discipleship group facilitators should listen to this training on discipleship groups, and read over the accompanying Discipleship Group Rhythm Sheet.

  3. Assign some additional homework to all participants. Before gathering for the first time, everyone who will participate in each discipleship group should set aside time to thoughtfully listen to this audio teaching on the do's and don'ts of discipleship groups, entitled "When in doubt, aim for the heart." When you gather for the first time, discuss how you were each personally instructed or corrected by the content of that teaching. (You can follow along with the notes as well.) This teaching is designed to help us all avoid common pitfalls in interpersonal helping relationships, as well as help us be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to be impatient with others (James 1:21).

  4. When you meet, refer to the rhythm sheet and use the bookmark as a guide. The Discipleship Group Rhythm Sheet has five sections. First, in a couple paragraphs, it discusses the difference between a religious, irreligious, and gospel-centered discipleship group. Then, the next four sections, in a couple paragraphs each, cover the four movements of every discipleship group gathering: Scripture, Sharing, Spread of the Gospel, and Spirit-Filled Prayer. You should have started your first group gathering discussing the teaching on the do's and don'ts of discipleship groups, remember? But here's an easy way to kick off your next five group gatherings after that. Take the first fifteen minutes to read one of those five brief sections of the rhythm sheet out loud together, and briefly discuss what you've read in light of everyone's personal history and experience.(If you'd like, you can also print out copies of the Discipleship Group Rhythm Sheetand cut out the bookmark contained within the rhythm sheet to keep it in your Bible for reference. Alternately, as a reference, during discipleship group gatherings, you can use your mobile device to simply scroll through the content of the rhythm sheet as it is reproduced below.)

What is a discipleship group?

Discipleship groups of three to four men or women meet regularly to share the “fine china” of their lives. With a strong commitment to confidentiality, trust and safety are built over time as the members grow in friendship and discipleship. A discipleship group is ideally formed from within a community group and—in concert with family meals and missional gatherings—serves as one of the three rhythms of a healthy community group. Community that doesn’t draw us deeper into discipleship over time becomes just another way to hide in plain sight. 

There are really only three kinds of groups

There are really only three kinds of discipleship groups: gospel-centered, religious, or irreligious. Tim Keller writes, “The power of [a gospel-centered discipleship group] comes in two movements. It first says, ‘I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe,’ but then quickly follows with, ‘I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope.’”1 The first statement fends off irreligion, and the second fends off religion. The primary challenge for us is staying alert to the need to fend off both at the same time!2 Religious discipleship groups traffic in “cuss jar accountability” where the members can only offer their fellow confessors shame and punishment. Instead of trusting by faith that Jesus took our punishment on the cross and atoned for our sin, we try and atone for our sins through mutual punishment. As a result, religious discipleship groups tempt people to start lying or stop coming. Religious discipleship groups don’t last long because eventually everyone gets bled to death. Irreligious discipleship groups traffic in “confession booth” accountability, where we confess our sins, pat each other on the back, and “depart absolved of any guilt, fearing merely the passing frown of our fellow confessor.”3 Instead of passionately pursuing “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14), irreligious discipleship groups devolve into “circles of cheap grace, through which we obtain cheap peace from a troubled conscience.”4 Our confession stops short of repentance as we confess the same sins over and over and refuse to take violent action against them.5 Irreligious discipleship groups don’t last long because eventually everyone gets bored to death.

The four movements of every group meeting

Here are four movements to incorporate into your discipleship group. You may not get to all of these every time you gather, but if you aim to practice these four rhythms regularly, your group can hopefully become more balanced, biblical, and fruitful.


Come prepared to share what you have read in Scripture this past week, yes, but more particularly make it a goal to bring one bit of Scripture that applies to one bit of your life. One bit of Scripture can do any number of things. It can lead you to: 1) adore God, 2) see and hate your sin, or 3) ask for grace. To apply one bit of Scripture to one bit of your life requires  at least meditation if not memorization. This will be the most difficult of the four rhythms to practice outside of your group, but it will be the single greatest determiner of the quality of what happens in your group. Consider the sobering reality that many of us do not consistently spend time alone with God—connecting with him through Scripture and prayer. “Since almost never does anyone notice whether we do these things or not, and only occasionally does someone ask that we do them, these… acts… suffer widespread neglect.”7

Out of a misguided fear of being legalistic, many Christians are afraid to exhort each other to grow in connecting with God through these basic, quiet acts of reading Scripture and praying. We should be afraid of legalism (religion), but we should also be equally afraid of license (irreligion). Striving to increasingly obey Scripture’s clear command to read Scripture and pray only becomes legalistic when it is done as an attempt to earn God’s forgiveness or avoid his punishment, rather than as a glad response to having already been forgiven through Jesus. Regularly feeding on Scripture and praying is non-optional for Christians (1 Tim 2:8Josh 1:8Rom 10:172 Tim 3:16–17Ps 119:11Job 23:12Eph 6:181 Thess 5:16–18Jas 4:3Ps 5:3Ps 34:15). Where we often go wrong is when we attempt to work for God’s acceptance rather than working from God’s acceptance. “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.”8

In Colossians 3:16, Paul urges all Christians to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” How can we teach and admonish each other with “all wisdom” if the Word of Christ is not dwelling in us richly? It is likely that most members of any given group may not know how to meditate on Scripture or pray in a meaningful way. Even if they do, they are probably doing it no more than one or two days a week. In light of this normative cultural reality, expect to spend the first six to twelve months of a newly-formed discipleship group patiently, repeatedly returning to the discipline of spending time alone with God, and patiently, practically equipping each other to read, meditate on, memorize, and pray Scripture. Many of us have never been taught how to: (1) spend time alone with God, (2) use a Scripture reading plan, (3) pray Scripture, (4) meditate on Scripture, or (5) memorize Scripture (fighterverses.com and theversesproject.com).9


The word ‘sharing’ is cubed in order to represent three more words that start with that same letter: sanctificationsuffering, and sin—in that order. Or, “good fruit,” “what’s hard,” and “bad fruit.” David Powlison points out this order is informed by Scripture, is full of love and compassion, and looks at the whole picture, while preventing imbalance in several directions at once. In other words, some groups dive deep into the good fruit and what’s hard, and neglect honest and specific confession of sin. Other groups dive deep into confession of sin, but neglect to encourage each other by pointing out growth they see in each other—however small—as well as neglecting to join each other on the mourning bench. Do we know how to talk about sin? Ed Welch reminds us that when someone confesses sin, we shouldn’t simply commiserate. Instead, we should aim for the heart, work to develop a plan, recognize the messy nature of growth and change, and lead in saying “thank you” to God for any good fruit we can spot. We should always consider which of us might be particularly vulnerable in the present moment (traveling, suffering, loneliness, etc.), and we should feel concerned if we can’t identify our own temptations, and blessed if we can. Our chief goal should be to bring our sins out into the open and grow in saying no to restless desires (Titus 2:11–12). Learn more about how to talk with someone about sin here.


Who are your “three”? Who are three non-Christians within your sphere of influence for whom you will commit to pray and engage in intentional gospel relationships? These people could be your children, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or others. As one author has put it, whom would you most love to see become a disciple of Jesus? Who is your heart best shaped to reach for Jesus? Alan Hirsch suggests that we continually ask: (1) Are we in close proximity with those we feel called to? (2) Are we spending regular time with these people? (3) Are we too busy to develop meaningful relationships? Identify and write down three people in each of your lives and then pray together, right on the spot, for God to give you the opportunity to: (1) build a deeper relationship with them, (2) introduce them to Christian community, and (3) share the gospel with them. Pray together that God would save them by opening their eyes to the beauty of Jesus (2 Cor 4:6). Naming and praying for your three every time you gather will guard your discipleship group against spiritual naval-gazing and self-obsession.


Make sure that your gatherings don’t descend into Christianized “talk therapy.” In mutual discipleship, sharing that does not pivot to prayer on the spot is quickly headed toward self-effort fueled by self-will. No one changes apart from the transforming power of the Spirit. Consider three common barriers to praying more than we talk. First, presumption. It has been well said that we should not presume that God will do for us apart from prayer what he has explicitly promised to do for us only through prayer! Second, unbelief. In the words of an old British missions pamphlet, if our prayer is meager it is because we regard it as supplemental rather than fundamental. Third, boredom. Often we don’t pray because, if we’re honest, we find prayer boring. The solution? In the words of Donald Whitney, “when you pray, pray through a passage of Scripture, especially a Psalm." Learn more here.

There is a real sense in which all of this could be reduced down to the next two sentences and retain 99% of its effectiveness. How do you create an effective, God-glorifying, life-transforming discipleship group? In the words of Ed Welch, pray one minute longer than you talk! Far too often, when Christians gather, prayer is tacked on at the end and rushed through hurriedly in five minutes or less, after the “real work” of talk therapy and unasked for advice-giving has dragged on for hours. Strive to put heart-centered, Spirit-filled, Scripture-infused prayer at the center, and you will never leave a gathering with a sense of having wasted your time. This will be the most difficult of the four rhythms to practice in the group, but it will be the single greatest determiner of the quality of what happens outside of the group.

Possible signs we are inviting the Spirit into our prayers are when (1) our prayers comfortably move in and out of silence, (2) when we find ourselves praying more than once, and (3) when we pray Scripture, thoughts, pictures, and even gut impressions, spontaneously brought to mind by God—always filtering them by Scripture and weighing them in wise community. Learn more about praying this way here. Further, do we know how to pray beyond the sick list? There are three strands to biblical prayer. We should pray for (1a) physical healing for ourselves and others, and we can ask God (1b) to change our circumstances when they’re hard. But we also need to pray for (2) hearts devoted to him right in the middle of our circumstances, and, (3) for his kingdom to come. We need to pray for each other that we would bear fruit in the year of drought (Jer 17:5–8). We must remember that our circumstances are significant but not determinative, and praying for changed hearts in the midst of our (possibly) unchanging circumstances is always praying according to God’s will.

Download the Discipleship Group Rhythm Sheet and bookmark here.