Launching a Discipleship Movement

12 Key Differences: Discipleship Groups vs Small Groups


Ryan Brown

Director of US Training and Leader Development


In today’s blog, we will discuss the differences between life-on-life missional discipleship groups and the small groups we typically see in most churches.

We will also answer a related question that frequently comes up during our coaching and training program. When pastors want to launch a discipling movement in their church, they usually want to know what they should do about their current small groups.

These are great questions, and they require some context to answer because small group structures tend to be incredibly varied. If you enter a room with 20 churches represented, it’s likely you will find about 20 variations of small groups structures. The question, “what about our small groups?” will have a different answer for each congregation because all discipleship organizations are unique.

After explaining the differences between small and discipleship groups, we will share four general principles that help churches integrate discipleship groups into their church alongside their existing small groups. In fact, these are the same principles we have used with hundreds of churches around the globe as they launched intentional disciple-making movements.

Let’s get to it!


What is the purpose of your different church ministries?

First, it is important to understand thepurpose of each of your church’s ministries. If the goal of maturity is Christ-likeness, how are the ministries in your church intentionally aligned to bring people from unbelief all the way to maturity? You might call this a spiritual formation pathway.

Many churches, when taking a long look at their formation pathway will find that some areas are well resourced and maybe even have some redundancies, while others are completely untouched.

For example, one church may have excellent theological training and frequently go deep with their members, but they have very few resources designed to help new people get connected to the life of the church. Another church may be great at evangelism and welcoming new believers into the family of God, but find that they have a void in training and equipping lay leaders.

It is important to develop a spiritual pathway that helps unbelievers move into connection, an embrace of the gospel, depth, and mission. Once this pathway is established, it will help your church define the purpose for each ministry.

Here’s the good news: in most cases, small groups and discipleship groups can be powerfully synergistic because they take aim at different purposes in the spiritual pathway.

Understanding the purpose of your small group ministry in the spiritual formation pathway is essential to understanding the goals of a life-on-life discipleship movement within your church.

We have developed a generalized chart that might be helpful in thinking about the different purposes and aims of Life on Life Missional Discipleship groups and the typical small group.


Small Groups and Discipleship Groups: 12 Differences

Pastors frequently express frustration because their small groups do not produce the maturity that they had hoped.

The problem is fairly simple: the small group is not designed to produce deep maturity.

In most churches, the small group is designed to welcome people into the church and build community. This is a worthy and important part of the spiritual formation pathway, but the small group cannot do everything from welcoming a person into community to developing them for leadership.

The goal here is to give you some freedom to say, “that’s ok.” There is a place for both small groups and discipleship groups. The following table highlights 12 differences between a small group and a discipleship group:

Small Groups Life on Life Missional Discipleship Groups
Knowledge transfer Life transformation
Leader prepares Everyone prepares
Low commitment, low cost High commitment, high cost
Members Sign Up Leaders select members
Teach, prayer, care, share Truth, Equipping, Accountability, Mission, Supplication (TEAMS)
Size: 8-25 people Size: 4-6 people
Produces community Produces mature and equipped followers of Christ
Non-Christians and Christians Christians
Mixed genders Men with men and women with women
Leader is a teacher Leader is a discipler
Missional expectation Missional experience
Fellowship Leadership development


This is a fairly high-level overview, but I’m sure you can see some great ways that the two different groups can be mutually beneficial to each other and to your local church.

You may have quite a few questions about specific parts of the table. Each church will likely need to customize this to include unique elements of your small groups in relation to Life on Life discipleship groups. This is one of the reasons we offer coaching as part of our training process, we want to walk alongside you to help answer these questions and create a great path forward.

As an example of how groups can vary at different churches, we created this diagram to help people understand the difference between “Connect Groups” and Life on Life Missional Discipleship Groups at Perimeter Church:

small groups vs discipleship groups

Small Groups and Discipleship Groups: Capacity and Structure

Understanding the purpose of your different ministries and groups is an important first step, but it is not the whole picture. You must also consider the questions of capacity and structure.

The question may be phrased this way: “Does our church have the bandwidth to have two different small group ministries?”

There are many implications and considerations around bandwidth. We’ve heard people say or ask questions around all of the following:

  • We have a limited number of leaders and we can’t pull them out of small groups to start discipleship groups.
  • Our small groups meet weekly. We can’t ask our people to attend two weekly small groups, plus worship and serve on Sundays, plus love their family and missionally engage their neighbors (we’re exhausted just thinking about it).
  • Is our small group director going to think that we’re phasing him or her out of a job?
  • We need to rethink the structure of all of our groups! It’s too much!

We get it. We’ve heard these comments and many others like them over and over again.


How to integrate a discipleship group movement with your existing small group program

Thanks to our experience in working with different types of churches across many countries and cultures, we’ve found a few principles that may be helpful for integrating a discipleship movement with your existing small group program.

1) Don’t blow up your small groups

At Life on Life ministries, we have a motto: Think Big, Start Small, Go Deep.

We long to see the world transformed by the gospel through intentional, life on life missional discipleship movements in the local church, but this doesn’t happen overnight. Discipleship takes time, and most healthy movements grow organically, not programmatically.

You cannot launch a discipleship movement by telling 20 of your current small group leaders that they are now called discipleship group leaders and then wish them good luck.

Instead, start with a few groups. A good starting place is four total groups: two men groups and two women groups. With four groups, you can shepherd, equip and coach the leaders as they launch without burning everyone out, and build a strong foundation for long-term multiplication.

These groups may not produce leaders for 2-3 years. At this pace, most churches (even small ones) don’t feel the capacity or structure pressures until about 6 years into the movement.

2) Free up your discipleship leaders and first group members.

The last thing you want to do is begin a discipleship movement with burnout.

If one of your most qualified discipleship leaders is currently leading a small group, then it is not fair to ask him or her to lead both a small group and discipleship group. Instead, make a plan to help them offload some small group responsibilities so that they can be fully invested in discipleship.

Perhaps you help them train an apprentice leader to take over and she just becomes a participant in the group instead of the leader. Maybe you give her the freedom to step out of the small group for a time.

Work with the leader, and help find a way to give them the freedom they need to lead a discipleship group well.

3) Don’t create a huge church-wide demand for discipleship groups. 

It’s tempting to get excited about discipleship and then proclaim, “we’re going to preach a 12-week series on the importance of discipleship and then launch 50 groups to get everyone plugged in right away!”

If your discipleship movement is slowly building healthy leaders, you will not have enough leaders to meet a huge and immediate demand. A healthy movement grows leaders, and with time, you will have enough leaders for a larger movement.

We’ve seen many churches ignore this, start big and then completely fizzle within 4 years. You don’t want another flash in the pan program do you?

We tell most churches to make no announcements at all for the first few years. Train your leaders to select a few people and begin investing in them, and as the movement multiplies, you’ll know when it’s time to cast the vision to everyone.

4) As discipleship grows, determine what to do with small groups

What does all of this mean structurally for your existing programs?

For some churches, it might mean that in 4-6 years you realize that discipleship groups have reached a critical mass and can carry the theological equipping of your people. In this case, you may decide to lighten the curriculum in our small groups. As discipleship groups take people deep, you may decide that your small groups can drop curriculum and become primarily about relational connection.

You may also decide to move small group meeting frequency to every other week or once a month so that people have the bandwidth to be involved in both a small group and a discipleship group.

Ultimately, the way you integrate small groups and discipleship groups will probably look a bit different for every church, and that is a very good thing.


What now?

If you’re looking to integrate a discipleship movement with your existing small group program, then we highly recommend you check out our two-year training process.

Starting a missional discipleship movement takes time and teamwork, and we love working with churches to coach and equip them for success.

Our training process consists of in-person workshops and regular coaching calls, focusing on building strong relationships and theological foundations of discipleship organizations.

You can register for one of our upcoming training cohorts or learn more in one of our monthly information calls. You can also contact us at any time, we’d love to hear from you.