Interview: Chinese Pastor Says Small Groups and Discipleship Training Are Complementary

A picture show some people discussing in a group meeting.
A picture show some people discussing in a group meeting. (photo:
By Steve Sun August 3rd, 2022

There are different factors that may contribute to a church’s growth in both service attendance and the number of disciples, but one important factor that should not be overlooked is the quality of small groups. When a church places emphasis on small groups and organically combines discipleship training with the small group care model, such a church will see a rapid growth in worship service attendance and an increase in the quality of disciples.

The Christian Times, an online Chinese Christian newspaper, recently interviewed Pastor Y. from southern China, who has nearly 15 years of experience in small groups, has learned from different groups’ pastoral care models and found the model of a dual track of discipleship training and small group suitable for his church, actively putting it into practice. After experiencing success with his model in his own church, he began to help many churches in different provinces to reform their small group fellowships and saw good results in many churches.

The dual-track method: "the organic combination of small groups ministry with discipleship"

Pastor Y. started the small groups in 2007 when he divided nearly 200 church members who used to gather together for worship services in one place into several small groups. The way the pastor leads his small groups ministry was different from the traditional way. Though traditional small groups ministries were led by the group leader who preached the sermon, in Pastor Y.’s gatherings, he and his group leaders would give the participants a topic at each gathering and then invite them to share messages based on the Bible and their own lives. As for the discipleship program, Pastor Y. would teach many Bible studies and additional life-building courses to the thirsty believers; in addition, he would care for their lives and offer practical courses for them.

Pastor Y. confesses that he himself has not received professional training in pastoring a church and he had feared when he tried to apply his own pastoring model in his church in the beginning. He believes that some errors may be repeated again and again in the traditions passed down from generation to generation. He has realized that God has to train a person before God could use him to do his work. He states that the church needs to reflect on why many believers who love the Lord so much as to devote their lives to God have ended up draining their lives and being hurt from ministry and giving up on their ministry in the church. Therefore, he believes that the church needs to emphasize discipleship and a healthy model for church development is the two-track method: "the organic combination of small groups  with discipleship."

Pastor Y. remarked, "When a church can provide good discipleship training, it can lead its small groups well accordingly. Small groups are the platform for pastoring all people while discipleship is aimed at leading those who have a heart to serve the Lord and turn them into ministers of the church. Any church devoid of discipleship training is not a good church. Whether or not a church can provide pastoral care for each member is an important indicator to consider in measuring its development."

Three considerations for small groups

Pastor Y. emphasized three areas that needed special attention for churches to practice small groups ministry.

1. Do not change the teaching materials easily

When Pastor Y. was starting to reform the way to lead his church’s small groups ministry, he experienced a great culture shock in the teaching materials, but he kept using the materials for three to four years until he finished practicing other’s educational material. Only after that did they begin to add their own ideas to the original material while keeping its core.

2. Don't pursue rapid growth

Pastor Y. feels that the churches in China have been affected by prosperity theology, saying, "When we look at the Lord Jesus' ministry, he did not transform a person’s life instantly, but he spent his lifetime trying to change a person. Rapid growth also tends to make a church arrogant."

3. Make a good overall design of small groups

"The small groups ministry are open groups designed for unbelievers, and the messages shared in them should not be too difficult. The small group I am leading is called the leadership group, characterized by stratified education. Concerning this group’s discipleship, I divide it into two parts: the part for believers (with mandatory and optional courses) and the part for promising leaders (mandatory and optional courses) part," he added. 

Pastors and group leaders need to practice small group courses themselves.

Finally, Pastor Y. lamented, "Some pastors in the church today just habitually dump some courses onto many people, and even though believers strive to finish studying all courses, the results are still not satisfying. What is missing is that pastors and group leaders are not personally taking part in the process of practicing the model demonstrated by the people they are leading. Pastors need to provide opportunities for group leaders to teach on the spot, providing time for group leaders to support and help each other. Then more group leaders and believers can replicate the model afterward, and we may expect the church's small groups ministry to succeed.

- Translated by Alvin Zhou

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