Having just observed how desperate Catholics are for serious discipleship, I’d be remiss if I left you hanging on how to meet that need. Here’s about fifteen years of experience with discipleship groups across a variety of contexts (evangelical, Catholic, young adult, grown-ups, mixed-generations, mixed-gender, single-gender, etc. etc.) summed up in a blog post that will, yes, actually tell you what you need to know.
To start a discipleship group you need three things:
1. A leader.
2. An excuse to talk about your relationship with God.
The beer isn’t optional, but it can be replaced, no problem, by a non-alcoholic stand-in if the situation so dictates, and the situation often does. But this is a Catholic blog, so we’ll use “beer” as the category name.
Let’s look at what we mean by each of these three things, why they matter, and how you might acquire them.
1. The Leader.
A successful group will have several specialist leaders, but the one you absolutely cannot do without is the person who knows the faith well enough to keep people from veering off the edges, and who isn’t afraid to step in as necessary.
This is because people are crazy.
The leader doesn’t need to be a genius or a scholar, but the leader needs to be able to say with confidence, “Nancy, I’m not sure whether those waffle-iron apparitions in Peoria have been approved yet. Let’s hold off on discussing them until I can find out more.”
Don’t try to start a discipleship group without this person.
Here are some other specialists that the best groups also contain, and any one of these can be the “official” leader, as long as the Master of Sanity is also present:
- The person who keeps things organized. This is useful if you want to meet regularly, since not everyone is good at using a calendar.
- The person who cares enough to call. It’s really nice if, when you get whisked to the hospital for emergency knee surgery, someone from your discipleship group notices your absence and maybe even arranges to feed your cat.
- The person who feeds people. See #3 for more details.
It is contrary to the laws of anatomy for any one human brain to be especially gifted at all four of these roles. If you expect a single person to be the everything-leader, you’re nuts and your group is going to be awful. Get over it. Let the various group members share their talents, each doing what he or she does best, and all will go well.
2. The Excuse.
Discipleship groups are about this: You get together with other Christians in order to work on becoming less like the wretched slob everyone knows you are, and more like a person who does what Jesus says.
To that end, you’ll study the faith together, you’ll pray together, and you’ll talk about the difficulties or questions you face as a Christian. The exact proportions will vary.
Most groups can use a little structure to make this happen, and some groups need a lot of structure. Here are some options:
- Buy an off-the-shelf Bible study and do the whole thing.
- Read and discuss the Bible, portion and pace of your choice.
- Talk about the day’s Mass readings.
- Read and discuss a book, encyclical, or other spiritual work.
- Watch a video series and have discussion time after each episode.
- Use a prompt such as a daily devotional or an examination of conscience to get discussion started.
Note that if you hold a reading-based study, most of the people will not do the reading. One or two people will do the reading, and the other people will just use the general comments as a jumping-off point to chat about the faith.
This is not a problem. The study is not the end, it’s the means. The goal is to work on becoming more like the person God wants you to be, and literary slackers can do that from cribbed notes, not a problem. The love of God predates widespread literacy.
3. The Beer. Or some other sustenance.
The beer isn’t for getting drunk upon, that would be a mortal sin. Most of the groups I’ve been involved with used just regular food and, since this is the South, sweet tea (blech). But for a reason I cannot explain, but which causes your parish youth minister to develop an abiding friendship with the pizza guy, you really should plan to have refreshments.
This isn’t the leader’s job, the leader is busy keeping people from debating the details of the End Times. You don’t even have to make arrangements at the outset to provide refreshments. Just expect them. The person who does food is going to bring food, even unbidden, and the compulsive-organizer may well take it a step further and start orchestrating a proper spread.
If you are the person who really just wants to bring the napkins each week, that’s fine. You can be that person. The food-people don’t want to eat napkin-people’s cooking anyway.
But there will be food. It’s the law.
And that’s all you need to know. Find a leader, think up an excuse to get a group together and talking, and don’t worry about what you will eat. Done.
Artwork: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons