Discipleship group leaders attend retreat

Discipleship group leaders attend retreat
by Kevin Chua

Many church congregants at True Way are members of a discipleship group which meets regularly for bible study, prayer and fellowship. Each group is led by one or two lay leaders who teach and shepherd their members. DG leaders are themselves equipped for their roles by more senior leaders. When this trellis takes root, it provides shelter like a tree. Like the one in Matthew’s gospel, where the birds of the air find a home. This January, our church’s DG leaders gathered for our first-ever, one-day retreat.



Saturday, January 13.

I turned up punctually at the Singapore Polytechnic Graduates’ Guild on Dover Road. This was a fairly large complex that I’d never set foot in before. I was there to attend a special retreat for church DG leaders. But I was stumped: which room exactly? To my relief, I was soon joined by another familiar face as we both looked hopefully for a signboard.

We found our way into a conference room filled with voices raised in worship. It was nine in the morning. Our DG leaders stood around tables. Pastor Loliro Sani was out in front. She then led us through a devotion on Mark 4:35-41 – the passage where Jesus and the disciples found themselves in a boat on a stormy sea.  As the storm raged about them, the disciples grew afraid. Jesus, of course, was sleeping in the stern. The men shook him awake, aghast that Jesus did not appear to care that they were perishing.

Jesus rebuked the wind and commanded the sea to be still. Then, when Jesus said to his disciples “Have you still no faith?” we, too, heard the question as if it were asked of us—do we have faith in God’s sovereignty and power, even in the face of life’s uncertainties?

Purpose

I was a member of an adult DG for about five years before I became assistant DG leader of another adult DG three years ago. I also spent about a decade in a Young Adults Ministry (YAM) DG, initially as a member and, later, a leader. I am now assistant DG leader to Pastor Lee Kien Seng who is our DG leader.

Almost everyone in our group is in his or her late 20s to early 30s. Several of us are married and have young children. The rest of us are singles. We’re mostly in our first or second or third jobs, and many of us work long hours.

This was my first DG leaders’ retreat. In fact, this was the first time the church was running a retreat for DG leaders and assistant DG leaders. The training we had received previously were night meetings.

After the retreat ended, a church elder told me that not every one made the retreat. Roughly one-third of our sixty DG leaders and assistant DG leaders did not come. But he shrugged: “It’s not too bad.”

To kick off the session proper, Pastor Kien Seng threw us a question to discuss in our small groups – what is the purpose of DG?

Having (mostly) randomly settled into various table groups, we introduced ourselves to each other. I discovered that we came from many different walks of life – singles, married, parents, grandparents, working adults, and retirees. Some DG leaders were veterans, others new to the job.

Our discussions soon spiralled into short stories of how we came to be DG leaders. Curiously, a common thread seemed to be that most of us did not actively set out to be DG leaders, but rather were called to step up into the role because of circumstances. Hearing these candid stories, I think, made us more relaxed with each other.

We agreed the purposes of DGs were encouraging each other, building each other up towards salvation, loving one another, learning to be accountable to each other, and going through storms together. Just like the disciples and Jesus.

Pastor Kien Seng underscored a foundational point. He said a DG is about discipleship. What is discipleship? Well, a disciple is a Christian who grows in the knowledge of, and in communion with, the One he follows. He grows to know who God is, and what God wants him to do.

A disciple also grows to be more like God in his character, which means he grows in personal holiness. A disciple grows to be like God in continuing the work and charge he has received from God. A disciple has ministry competencies.

All this is done by building each other up in the Word and faith, encouraging, supporting, admonishing, and being accountable to one another. All undergirded by love.

We could also set godly goals, so as to cultivate godly habits in the context of a godly community.

Mindsets

This was rather exciting to me. But immediately, I saw this was a challenging mission for my DG. We are certainly doing some of these things, but not all of them, or even most of them. And we’re probably not doing them consistently, or well.

Pastor Edwin next led us through a newspaper ball game. The objective was for our teams to roll two sheets of newspaper tightly into a ball, and agree on how many consecutive times we would hit the ball and keep it in the air, with no one hitting the ball twice in a row. You can’t monopolise the game. The ball can’t land on the ground because that ends the game. In regular True Wayan fashion, we were ready for a good fight!

We needed a tight newspaper ball that wouldn’t unravel in mid-air. A limp piece of battered newspaper will not stay in the air very long. We looked at each other: is this person any good, will  he or she hit the ball up, or let it drop? Should we set our goal as five hits, or ten hits before the ball lands on the ground? Can we be more ambitious with our objectives?

When our team succeeded in achieving our goals, we were then asked if we wanted to revise our goals in the next round. Naturally, groups that met their pre-determined goals were keen to up the ante. Let’s go for twenty hits! Of course, it was hard to guarantee good results. Some groups achieved greater targets, others bombed.

This exhilarating game taught us that goals were important, that goals came through consensus, that goals could be revised. Many of us saw that this was something we could take into our DGs. Who are the people in our DGs? Are they very young Christians? Are they eager beavers? Do they hang back? Do they even show up for DG meetings? What should our goals be?

After four rounds with our balls, we all agreed that goal-setting was important. Pastor Edwin introduced the concept of growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets.

Essentially, groups that have a growth mindset believe that skills and abilities are things that they can develop; that while people have inherent qualities and traits, success comes from constant, strategic efforts. In contrast, a group which has a fixed mindset believes that people are firmly bound by their intelligence, temperaments, and circumstances, and they cannot change.

If the essence of Christian discipleship is obeying and following Jesus in all that we are and do, Christians with growth mindsets believe that people can grow in godliness, obedience, and ministry competency.

They believe that while people have their weaknesses and blind spots, they also have gifts and abilities. They believe that people can grow in spiritual maturity and fruitfulness. They believe this can be nurtured by setting godly goals, growing godly habits, and being in a godly community.

Pastor Edwin said that Christian leaders with growth mindsets live with an important hope: they believe that they and their friends can be inspired and taught. They believe this hope is tied up with trusting in God’s grace. They don’t give up, they work, and wait for breakthroughs.

Where our life seasons may sometimes be a hurdle in our growth, a person who has a growth mindset might ask: “What’s the right goal for me, for us, in this season? Have I settled on a very high goal that’s hard to attain? Isn’t a humbler goal still a God-honouring goal?”

Community

Next, we had an exciting brainstorming session to answer this question: “How do you define a healthy DG?”

Is the DG you’re leading healthy, average, or teetering near death? What challenges have you encountered in your DG? Should you take in new members? Do you need a break from being a DG leader?

I heard many things. As people laughed and nodded, I saw that everyone had thought these things, felt these things.

Quite a few DG leaders said their greatest difficulty was getting their members to prepare their bible studies before coming. You can always tell who came prepared, and who didn’t. You can tell who knew more, and who was newer in the faith. You can tell if someone is growing in their knowledge of the Bible, or not.

Another leader said some of her members were overly eager to share. This resulted in less airtime for the rest. Where one DG struggled to garner interest in fellowship activities like playing board games or potluck dinners, another DG had people who only turned up for potluck dinners but never bible studies.

Some groups are happy huddles, some struggle with hostile members, others lose people.

Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth likened the body of Christ to the human body, made up of many parts. This is so true of our discipleship groups. We are a myriad of personalities, good-natured or prickly, empathetic or grudgeful.

At each table, watching our moderators encourage us to trade painful experiences, I felt heartened.  Our church leaders clearly know it is not easy to lead a DG. One question we were asked: “Some of you have done this job for years. Does anyone of you feel you need to take a break?”

I think nobody said yes to this. Nobody said he wanted to quit. This encouraged all of us. For me, it made me understand the importance of discipleship, and our unending need for God’s grace.

Intentional disciple-making

Is there more to disciple-making than just getting people to join a DG, and commit to follow Jesus?

Can a circle of eight to twenty people led by a gifted leader always accomplish this?

This was where we were introduced to a new idea.

Should we roll out a program that is more focused, more individualised, one that identifies a selected coterie of DG members who have the vigour to go farther and climb higher? Should we groom them, enrol them in a hothouse program?

Can we design a program that’s purposeful and down-to-earth, with an emphasis on application, and a commitment to covenantal expectations?

Our church leaders have already had discussions about this. The idea is to set up one-to-one discipleship where an older, more mature Christian is paired with a younger person. If this works, we will build up third-generation disciples, and have a pipeline of church leaders who will be ready to lead the church into the future.

Finding our way, together

The retreat left me enriched and uplifted. It reminded me of who I am as an assistant DG leader. My skills need to grow. Participating in a retreat will not transform me overnight. But I’m not alone. I saw that difficulties are the lot of every DG leader. I saw that the other men and women aren’t thinking of taking a break. They want to go on.

Perhaps therein lies the encouragement for us all, and one of the great paradoxes of Christianity – that God’s grace is sufficient, and His power is made perfect in our weakness. In our every inadequacy, Christ is glorified.

Additional reporting and video by Lee Chung Horn.
Kevin Chua is married and has two young children. He serves as a worship leader, and works as a lawyer.