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  • Writer's pictureDarrell Stetler II

Why Discipleship Is So Important for Small Churches

Introduction: The Critical Role of Discipleship in Small Churches

In the heart of every small church pastor beats the desire for Kingdom impact. I've met very few pastors who didn't want to make a difference. But how to make a difference? That's the question.


In this post, I'll argue that discipleship should be the cornerstone of this vision, offering a better path forward than the traditional metrics of church success.



In the area of small church leadership, few voices resonate as profoundly as that of Karl Vaters. As the author of "The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking That Divides Us," Vaters has become an incredible source of insight and encouragement for pastors navigating the unique challenges of smaller congregations.


During a personal conversation I had with Karl on a Zoom call, he shared a perspective that has profoundly influenced my understanding of church success. He said, "I travel and speak to so many pastors, and try to help them understand that 'having a big church' is not the best measurement of success. So the most frequent question I get from pastors is, 'So how do we measure success if size isn't the best way?' I always tell them that it looks something like measuring discipleship." 


Yes! This underscores a critical shift in perspective for church leaders everywhere. Success in ministry is not quantified -- CANNOT be quantified by:

  • behinds in seats

  • dollars in budgets


We've got to re-work our understanding of success as cultivating deep discipleship.


Here are three ways where discipleship is important in the local church.


For the Individual: Discipleship as the Primary Goal


Because holiness is the goal of salvation

The goal of salvation isn't eternity in heaven, or avoiding hell. It's not some "eternal fire insurance." It's holiness. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4, "[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him."


I am glad when God's people make an impact for him, but many Christians who never were able to make an impact on their community still pleased the Lord because they were followers, imitators of Christ -- they were holy in heart and life!


Romans 8:28-29 makes this clear in a different way: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers."


Christlikeness is holiness, is discipleship -- and it is the primary thing God wants for the people in the local church.


Because church attendance isn't the goal

At its core, discipleship fosters a personal relationship with God. The goal isn't showing up -- it's knowing God, and imitating His Son. Discipleship moves your members beyond the superficial engagement of Sunday services, inviting believers into a daily walk with Christ that is rich with prayer, study, and personal reflection.


For the Congregation: A Community of Christ Imitators


Enhancing Unity and Mutual Support

Discipleship cultivates a sense of unity and mutual support within the church. Like 100 pianos tuned to the same tuning fork are automatically tuned to each other, discipleship pulls us all into alignment with Christ, and brings unity as we follow him together. As members grow together spiritually, they build a network of care that strengthens the entire congregation.


Encouraging Active Participation in Church Life

A discipleship-focused church encourages active participation from its members, not as passive attendees but as active participants in the body of Christ. This engagement is especially vital for small churches, where every member's contribution is crucial to the health and vitality of the congregation.


For Pastors: The Strategic Importance of Discipleship


Discipleship provides A Clear Pathway to Meaningful Impact

For pastors, discipleship provides a clear pathway to achieving meaningful impact in their ministry. It shifts the focus from the elusive goal of a bigger and flashier church to the eternal, rewarding work of transforming lives through Christ.


Christ didn't actually call you to change legislation, impact the social fabric, or save your country. He called you to disciple people! This is the impact you want. We already know how people can spend their life making the wrong impact... they make their fortune, but give up their family or soul.


I don't want you to do the same thing as a pastor -- to climb the ladder of church success, only to realize it was leaning against the wrong wall! The correct wall is discipleship.


Shifting Focus: From Gathering Crowds to Growing Disciples

Jesus' commission to his Church was clear: make disciples, not just gather attendees. This mandate challenges pastors to prioritize the quality of their flock's faith over the quantity of their congregation. Discipleship emphasizes the growth of deep, committed followers of Christ, marking the true success of a pastor's ministry.


It's time we look in the mirror and say to ourselves as pastors: "You could gather twice the number of attenders, but if you don't make a greater number of disciples, that's called 'failure.'"


If this is true -- and it is! -- then we must re-order some of our priorities around designing discipleship pathways.


Why Small Churches Must Embrace Discipleship

For small churches, the adoption of a discipleship model is not just beneficial; it's essential. In discipleship, small churches find a new, clearer view of their mission.


Implementing Discipleship Focus in Small Churches

Understanding the importance of discipleship is one thing; putting it into practice is another. For small churches, the journey toward developing a robust discipleship program can seem daunting.


However, with intentional planning, commitment, and a focus on the unique strengths of small congregations, it is not only possible but can become the heartbeat of the church's life.


1. Start with Vision and Prayer

The first step is to seek God's guidance through prayer, asking for wisdom, direction, and the right strategies to meet the specific needs of your congregation. Pair this spiritual groundwork with a clear vision for what discipleship looks like within your church context. Consider what specific outcomes you hope to achieve and how they align with the broader mission of your church.


2. Develop a Discipleship Framework

Craft a framework that outlines the key components of your discipleship program. This might include weekly small groups, mentorship relationships, Bible study sessions, and service opportunities. Each element should cater to different stages of spiritual growth, ensuring that there is a clear pathway for newcomers to grow into mature believers.


3. Leverage the Strengths of Small Churches

Small churches possess unique advantages for discipleship, such as closer relationships, a family-like atmosphere, and the ability to tailor programming to the specific needs and interests of the congregation. Use these strengths to foster an environment where discipleship can thrive, emphasizing personal attention, accountability, and community support.


4. Equip and Empower Leaders

Identify and train leaders within your church who can spearhead discipleship efforts. Equip them with the necessary tools, resources, and support to mentor others effectively. Empowering lay leaders not only distributes the workload but also cultivates a culture of discipleship across the church.


5. Measure Success in Transformation, Not Numbers

Finally, redefine success in terms of personal and communal transformation rather than attendance figures or financial metrics. Celebrate stories of life change, increased engagement in spiritual practices, and deeper community connections as indicators of discipleship effectiveness.


If you're wanting a specific action you can take right this moment to move forward, consider this:


Take the Next Step in Discipling Your Congregation

Understanding the vital role of discipleship within small churches is just the beginning. The true transformation comes when this understanding is put into practice. If you're ready to deepen your commitment to discipleship and equip your congregation for meaningful spiritual growth, I invite you to take advantage of the resources NewStart Discipleship offers.


Whether you're looking to lay the groundwork for discipleship in your church or seeking to enhance your existing efforts, our free tools are designed to support you every step of the way. Consider starting with The New Christian Bible Reading Plan or The NewStart Discipleship Journal, both of which are perfect for fostering real discipleship for those who are just getting started.


Don't let another day pass without taking action towards building a stronger discipleship culture in your church. Download our free discipleship tools or sign up for our comprehensive discipleship coaching program today. Let's embark on this transformative journey together, strengthening the impact of your ministry and the spiritual vitality of your congregation.

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