Today, we’re going to tackle another one of those questions that I am frequently asked: large group or discipleship groups? It’s not usually framed like this, though; it runs more along the lines of, “I’m interested in beginning discipleship groups, but we really have something good going with our large group” (or “youth group,” as many would say). First, I want to be clear that Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is NOT simply about establishing small/discipleship groups. Forming small groups is one common and effective way of helping young people grow through discipleship, but small groups are only helpful insofar as they are a means to making that happen (i.e. the goal is NOT small groups, the goal is discipleship). It is very much possible to “do discipleship” outside of a small group model. Thank you for letting me clarify that from the start!

In my experience, when someone is wrestling with the question of large group vs. small groups, I find that they are usually struggling more with the time commitment of managing both or the availability of resources to pull one or the other off. In short, if they could have both, they would. So my answer to the question “large group or discipleship groups?” is YES!

Another thing I need to make clear is that when I speak of small groups, I mean small groups that are independent of one another and independent of the large group. I don’t encourage small group discipleship that requires involvement in the large group for several reasons that I will not get into in this post. I truly believe that if a youth wants to just be a part of one or the other (or both!), they should have that option. What this also means is that, for the purposes of this post, if you are holding a large group gathering that includes time for breaking up into smaller groups, this is not what I am referring to as “small groups.” If your large group breaks into smaller groups, there is likely nothing wrong with that; I would just argue that it’s still “large group.”

Ok, all of that to set up the answer to this question: how does a parish youth ministry have time to manage both a large group program and discipleship groups? Utilizing the model of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry, this is absolutely possible, and I would argue that parish youth ministers who adopt these simple mindsets actually find themselves with less anxiety and less “work.”

Let discipleship groups form organically

Forming discipleship groups organically takes time. Don’t think it’s solely your job as a youth minister to get discipleship groups going. Once there is a small group of people that could clearly benefit from simply being together more regularly, encourage them to do so. Now you have a discipleship group. Your responsibility is to help that group leader follow whatever it is the Lord is desiring to do through that group.

Make large group a supplement to discipleship groups

This is backwards compared to how I’ve seen discipleship encouraged through many publishers and resources. The norm (as I’ve seen it, anyway) is that everyone needs to come to the large group, and if they want more, they should be a part of a discipleship group as well. Strive to make intentional discipleship the primary model for formation, which takes pressure off of the large group and allows it to simply be a time for community, sharing, and fellowship.

Don’t get defensive about large group

The fear for many in making discipleship groups primary is that large group attendance will take a hit. This fear comes from the understanding that if youth had a choice, some would rather not come to large group. What I have seen over and over again is that when discipleship is going well, people will look forward to coming together in large group simply because those closest to them (those they are in discipleship with) will be there as well.

Consider simplifying large group

If discipleship becomes the primary method of formation, large group can look different. It doesn’t have to be the vehicle for delivering heavy content and teaching, but can instead simply provide an opportunity for prayer and community, especially in ways that can’t be done in a small group or one-on-one setting. Many parishes do a large group gathering monthly rather than weekly, which allows them to give it the attention it needs but also creates margin for both the youth minister and those in discipleship to enter more fully into discipleship.

Understand the purpose of the different offerings

It is extremely important to understand the difference of the various offerings in your parish and to communicate those differences to the leaders and youth in your parish. If you have five discipleship groups, and they know that large group is the time to invite their friends for something focused on community and sharing, it will be an easier invitation for them to make.

Let the shift begin!

Finally, if you are very heavily focused on running a large group right now, please know that you don’t have to shift overnight. What I have found is that by simply being open to allowing small discipleship groups to start on their own and even encouraging it to happen (again without being defensive about your large group participation), you will begin to see the shift happen in your parish. Over time, this will actually produce a more rightly-ordered method of doing youth ministry, as well as ensure that you are truly doing youth ministry as opposed to just running a youth group.

If you are interested in learning more about transitioning your parish in this way, please check out our book on Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry.  If you really want the good stuff, you should check out our Parish Coordinator Training at DiscipleshipTraining.com.