Becoming a Small Group Architect

Designing Environments for Discipleship Groups

Welcome to Becoming a Small Group Architect, a series of seven modules to help you navigate through the process of designing a healthy small group environment in which the people you are discipling will be able to flourish in their relationship with Jesus Christ, experience true community with one another, and receive training for fruitful service in Christ’s kingdom.


Small groups are transformational vehicles used by God to move believers toward greater spiritual maturity. By their very nature, they provide the framework and context for everything that occurs during the life-cycle of the group, in the same way that a physician’s office – including the building, receptionist, nurses, medical equipment, computers, and examination rooms – enables the doctor to practice medicine. These necessary resources support the practice but are not the practice itself. Combining the doctor’s training, knowledge, and skills with these indispensable assets does not ensure that the patient will get well but, without them, the physician would be greatly hampered in treating those who come to him for help. Similarly, a small group leader who has acquired training, knowledge, and skills in disciplemaking, but lacks sufficient skills in group design and facilitation, will likely be more inclined to impart content (truth) while sacrificing other core elements and relational processes modeled by our Lord and indispensable to Christian discipleship. Again, as in the case of the doctor, combining quality content and skills training with a solid understanding of how small groups work (the support system) does not automatically predict the spiritual growth of the group members, which occurs only by God’s grace, but establishes the right environment in which it can occur.

When leaders, therefore, embrace a laissez-faire approach to small group structure – allowing things to take their own course without design or interference – there is a high probability that the group members will eventually lose interest and/or leave the group. It is not enough to follow a strong biblical curriculum or even to engage in spiritual exercises with the members of the group. Small group theory – including the initial design and maintenance aspects – must be studied, understood, and practiced to ensure that all that happens within the group is supported by the application of sound biblical principles for interacting with one another in love.


Self-Paced and Self-Directed

This course is self-paced, as well as self-directed, meaning you may complete the assigned work within the limitations of your own schedule. There are no deadlines, and the online materials may be accessed at your convenience.


Course Objectives

1. To explore the concept that product determines process in the design phase of beginning a new discipleship group.
2. To highlight the importance of being a life-long student of small group theory and practice as well as of the Master’s principles of discipleship as modeled in the Gospels.
3. To impart the knowledge and skills required to become a small group architect.


Course Introduction

It is surprising for many to learn that effective disciplers need training in small group theory and practice as well as a knowledge of discipleship principles and methods. One may know much about biblical discipleship and yet struggle to lead a group of believers to maturity in Christ. On the other hand, a small group leader may know much about small groups but very little about the life of Christ and how he trained the Twelve. Small groups are like cargo ships carrying freight containers to their final destinations, while the elements of group life (Bible study, prayer, sharing, accountability, spiritual disciples) are the contents of the containers. Having a solid discipleship plan and strong small group skills are essential in disciplemaking.

From the time you were born, you were a part of a small group – a family. Since those early beginnings, your life story advanced through time and built a catalogue of numerous small group experiences where you gradually learned how to relate with others in positive and more effective ways. Hopefully, most of your experiences were positive and life-giving. However, it is likely that at least some of your relational insights came as a result of an unhealthy group culture that provided no clear vision or mission, failed to establish community rules and standards, tolerated poor communication skills and boundary violations, or ignored confidentiality norms. It is also possible that, along the way, you were engaged with people who were not very proficient in their team-building skills. G.K. Chesterton insightfully said that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” (What’s Wrong with the World). Contrary to our natural thinking, Chesterton meant that if a thing is worth doing (painting, athletics, business, engineering, marriage, etc.), it is worth doing (trying) even if we do it badly. Hard things take time to master and will not yield to immediate proficiency. He might get at the issue with us by asking, “Is painting worth doing? If so, go ahead and try it. As a first-time painter, you will discover how difficult it is. But don’t give up. Since it is worth doing, hang in there and begin the slow process of learning the fundamentals. After time and much practice, you will look back one day and see how worth doing it really was, even though you did it very badly at first.” Whatever your past experiences in small groups, both positive and negative, it is possible to become more and more proficient in applying small group theory to the discipling process (because, after all, it is worth doing).

In summary, becoming a student of small group theory and practice is essential for building healthy discipleship groups. Johnson and Johnson claim that “the quality of your life depends upon the effectiveness of the groups to which you belong, and this effectiveness is largely determined by your personal group skills and knowledge of group processes” (David Johnson and Frank Johnson, Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, p. 1). Note the two categories they identify for group effectiveness: (1) group skills, and (2) knowledge of group processes. The first is concerned with how you personally function in a group, while the second speaks of your general and specific knowledge of how group processes work.

Roger M. Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and expert in small group facilitation, advances several factors that are necessary for group effectiveness. “The elements,” he says, “that contribute to group effectiveness are not random. Groups need to have and do certain things to be effective. To help groups become more effective, facilitators must understand the elements that contribute to group effectiveness and how those elements interact. The knowledge enables facilitators to determine how members’ behaviors and other factors contribute to and detract from group effectiveness and to recognize the limits of group facilitation” (The Skilled Facilitator, pp. 19-20). Schwarz’s insights are important enough to review and highlight:


1. The elements that contribute to group effectiveness are not random.
2. Facilitators must understand the elements that contribute to group effectiveness.
3. Facilitators must understand how the elements interact.
4. How do group members’ behaviors contribute and detract from group effectiveness?
5. How do other factors contribute to and detract from group effectiveness?
6. Acknowledge the limits of group facilitation.

The simple truth, as Schwarz maintains, is that “an effective group requires an effective structure.” Whether you are new to discipleship or have been investing in people for years, combining what you know about biblical discipleship with small group theory will give you the tools which, in the hands of the Lord, will help you become a more fruitful and effective disciplemaker.



Becoming a Small Group Architect will lead you through a process of designing a small group structure that you can use as you disciple others in the words and ways of Jesus Christ. As an architect “designs and frames any complex structure” (OED), you will be challenged to build upon your biblical foundations for ministry and creatively select the best environment in which to facilitate your group and build mature disciples. Additionally, you will learn some important best practices about leading small groups that will help you maintain a healthy environment where every member of your group will sense that Christ is being honored by the way you relate to one another in a community that is doing his will on earth as it is being done in heaven.


Module 1

Study Part IV: Becoming a Small Group Architect, available from the Classic Discipleship page (scroll down to “Content Downloads”). The ideas presented here will lead you through a process of designing a healthy and Christ-centered discipleship group. Included in this section is content that addresses the following:

1. Product Determines Process
2. Building the “Factory”
3. The Church as Factory
4. Types of Small Groups
5. First Step: Determine the Type of Group
6. Second Step: Examine the Various Elements of Group Life
7. Third Step: Make Your Selection
8. Five Elements of Group Life
9. Sample Schedule for Discipleship Groups
10. Accountability
11. Spiritual Disciplines


Module 2

Read Using the Bible in Groups by Roberta Hestenes. Though just over one-hundred pages, it is now considered a classic in the field. With great insight and knowledge, Hestenes will serve as an expert guide for you as she addresses the most important aspects of living life in community with others in small groups. Mastering the content of her book will prepare you to understand the most important aspects of designing and leading a small group through its entire life-cycle. The chapter titles are as follows:

  1. Why Small Groups?
  2. Beginning a Small Group
  3. Leadership and Membership in the Small Group
  4. Preparing for Bible Study
  5. Bible Study Methods in Small Groups: Study Methods
  6. More Bible Study Methods in Small Groups: Response, Encounter, and Action Methods
  7. Building Relationships in the Small Group


Module 3

Conduct a general study of any manufactured item (e.g., a food product, beverage, car, computer, garment, airplane, etc.). Without getting technical, describe the process of transforming raw materials into a finished product. Using your powers of observation, note how long it takes for the item to be manufactured, how many people it takes to produce the item, what raw materials have to be utilized in the production, etc. This will help you gain more insights related to the questions, “What are you trying to produce in your discipleship group?” and “How do the Scriptures define spiritual maturity?” In no more than a page, describe what you learned about the principle Product Determines Process as it pertains to the discipling process.


    Module 4

    Based upon your reading and study, design an intentional discipleship model that incorporates the various elements that you deem important for creating an environment for building mature believers. Limit your diagram to one page.


      Module 5

      Based upon your reading and study, design an intentional discipleship model that incorporates the various elements that you deem important for creating an environment for building mature believers. Limit your diagram to one page.


        Module 6

        In no more than one page, explain your understanding of spiritual disciplines and the purpose they serve in the discipling process. Which disciplines would you incorporate into a first-year group?


          Module 7

          Becoming an effective disciplemaker also means continuing your own journey as a disciple – a learner. Adding to what you already know about small groups will greatly enhance your labors with the people God has called you to mentor in his name. While many books have been written about small groups, we recommend the following as some of the best that will give you the tools we have been describing:

          The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups by Roger M. Schwarz

          Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills by David W. Johnson and Frank P. Johnson

          How To Lead Small Groups by Neal F. McBride

          Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership by Carl F. George

          Building Small Groups in the Christian Community by John Mallison

          Getting Together: A Guide for Good Groups by Em Griffin