“Sticky” Environments for New Disciple-Making

A while back I was in a remote place in Africa hanging with a tribe of people who were all gathered at the largest tree in the middle of the village. There they were worshipping Jesus in their native language, and studying the Word of God using the Discovery Bible Study (DBS) format.

As I witnessed this thriving spiritual family, I couldn’t help but be jealous of the rich fellowship I was witnessing. This tribe had deep community, even before the Gospel entered into the picture. And when it did, everyone in the tribe leaned into the Good News together.  

When we hear about viral Disciple Making Movements (DMM) around the world, more often than not, they emerge in areas with a strong sense of community already present. The community itself acts as sticky environment to which the Gospel can adhere. 

One of the foundational pillars of DMM is the idea of planting the Gospel in already existing networks, resulting in a church that pushes out and multiples rather than sucks in and isolates. How this usually looks is, much like the African tribe mentioned above, a group of people come to Jesus together in community, and are discipled as a group using the Discovery Bible Study method. 

But as many of us in more western contexts have learned, one of the biggest barriers to seeing movements break out in our cities is our rampant individualism. What appears to be simple overseas (i.e. getting groups of people together to discover God) becomes complicated and disheartening for the average disciple-maker in America. Even as we start Discovery Bible Studies, they tend to disintegrate quickly. It’s as if the group is lacking an intrinsic commitment found in communal and familial communities that perhaps could be best described as… sticky

So let’s quickly look at 3 ideas that will help ordinary disciple-makers in their efforts to make new disciples in a western context:

1) One of the best practices of disciple-makers is to be the sticky-catalyst for a group of people. Sometimes we have to first form a community in which to plant the Gospel.

In a world where it seems like everyone is longing for real connections, it seems more and more difficult to find natural avenues to form them. One of the best things an everyday disciple-maker can do is see themselves as the relational connectors. Have people over. Throw parties. Plan little events for people to get together. Be super-intentional about connecting relational dots by bringing people together who perhaps know each other casually (or should know each other) but haven’t themselves taken the initiative to hang out. 

Simply put: in a culture that lacks the stickiness that forms communities organically, your job may be to take the initiative to form a community first. Instead of loosely trying to pull one or two people together to read the Bible, try forming a community with relational rhythms that go beyond a Discovery Bible Study environment. 

2) We are “put-things-on-a-calendar” type of people. So don’t be afraid to start a “thing.” 

Strategically speaking, when we think about making disciples from the ground-up, our priority is getting people together to hear directly from God in the Bible (using DBS). But the thing that seems to hinder the effectiveness of that strategy isn’t anything programmatic about the Discovery Bible Study method, it’s more the hurdle of American schedules. 

We are people who put things on calendars and tend to prioritize busyness over relationship-building. That’s just who we are. Without a sticky community, busy schedules tend to crowd out actually gathering for a DBS.

So one strategy for this: start a “thing.” This goes hand-in-hand with #1. As we form a community and create relational rhythms, be intentional about starting something that is more regular and grounded in our weekly schedules. 

Go ahead and establish it as a thing you’re launching. Invite this new community to start it alongside you. Name it (something like: “we’re starting a ‘microchurch’ / ‘home group’ / ‘house church’ / ‘spiritual family’ / ‘whatever is normal for your context’). Put it on the calendar and invite others to do the same. You may be surprised, when a “thing” is established as a “thing,” people prioritize it more. 

And when you get together, do the DBS method. Couple it with food, or other community activities that’s normal for your group. 

3) Validate it for what it is: an emerging church family.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve studied Disciple Making Movements around the world is that from network to network and place to place there is not one agreed upon moment when a group of people are officially labeled a “church.” For some networks and organizations, it’s when the group all gets baptized together. For some it’s when an official leader (or elder) is established. For others, the moment a group begins to gather and discover God together, it’s considered a church.

When spiritual families emerge from the ground-up, there’s sort of a sort of a biblical gray area in terms of what is considered a “church.” For instance, in Acts 16, Paul and his companions travel to Philippi where they meet the person of peace Lydia. She invites them into her network, resulting in her household getting baptized. A few verses later, Paul and Silas find themselves in jail. After God miraculously shows up, the jailer and his household also begin to follow Jesus. A few verses after that, Paul and Silas reportedly gathered with the brothers and sisters in Lydia’s home before departing Philippi. 

The next thing we have is the book of Philippians. 

Although there is no clear elder board or official sanctuary in which to gather, we clearly see a new church family that has emerged. This is because church is not program or a place, it’s an identity. It’s a family. 

The “Missionary Pathway Primer” by Kansas City Underground puts it like this, “As new disciples are made, natural networks of relationships (oikos) are transformed into spiritual families. We do not plant churches; instead, we plant the Gospel. As the Gospel is planted, disciples are formed from the ground up, resulting in new microchurches. We believe the order is important.”

Practically, what this means is this: as you build a community with family rhythms, and you intentionally start a thing where you discover and follow Jesus together, don’t be afraid to validate it for what it is: a church. 

In conclusion, for many of us who are trying to make disciples using Discovery Bible Study, it might be helpful to identify some of the stumbling blocks that exist in our American culture. We aren’t a culture that possesses a lot of organic communities with a high level of natural stickiness. This means that trying to start Discovery Bible Studies with a group that isn’t already committed to one another often results in a group fizzing out. So a strategy is to focus on building community first, and within that, intentionally starting a “thing” that invites regular participation and higher buy-in. In the end, this means, in all practicality, you’re starting a simple expression of church, which utilizes the DBS method in a sticky environment.