I was sitting in our local church’s small group leader’s training when the instructor said, “There will come a time when everyone shows up for your small group and instead of going over that week’s Bible study homework, you’ll see the need to abandon the plan and instead spend that time together doing icebreakers and just eating and fellowshipping to just get to know each other better.”

And in my head I was like, “Are you kidding me?  Not go over our homework? That sounds like a terrible idea.  And a whole 90 minutes of just fellowship?”

As a small group leader for several years, I had been asking the Lord why it didn’t feel like my groups were opening up enough.  I felt like I was leading with transparency and vulnerability, but that wasn’t necessarily transferring to the women in my group. (If I could use emojis here, I would insert the palm to the forehead slap!) 

Now as I sat there and heard our instructor explain the importance of abandoning the plan to just spend time fellowshipping together, I had a lightbulb moment.  It’s no wonder I was having a hard time getting my group to open up!  I wasn’t giving them an opportunity to feel safe with one another.  I felt God whisper to my heart, “Liz, you’ve been so focused on helping them fall more in love with Me, but they also need to fall in love with one another.”

The truth is we are in a loneliness epidemic. According to Cigna, a global health service company, 40 percent of Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.  Bill Willits, author of Creating Community puts it like this, “Even though most of us live around more people than ever, we’re lonely.  We are experiencing what has been referred to as ‘crowded loneliness,’ where people feel all alone, even in a crowd.”

It hurts my heart that I was so focused on Biblical literacy that I was unintentionally neglecting fellowship.  Discipleship needs to be both biblical literacy AND community.  If you have a small group that is only focused on Bible study, you’ll have a group of people who might be super knowledgeable, but they won’t feel seen or known or close to one another.  And on the flip side, if you have a small group that is only focused on community, you pretty much have a social club.

Jesus modeled discipleship perfectly for us in the Gospels.  He obviously was teaching His followers everywhere He went, but that wasn’t all He did!  He also ate meals with them, went fishing with them, prayed with them, served them, and intentionally abandoned His plan to stop and get to know them.

There’s a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt that I have always loved:  “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Even better, Paul said it like this in 1 Corinthians 13:2,

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

This couldn’t be more true as it applies to discipleship!  Whether we are gathering with one woman at our dining room table or 10-12 around our living room, as we seek to become more like Jesus by reading His Word, we need to first become like Him by getting to know those we are discipling.

Then, and only then, can we truly do what Jesus commands His disciples in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Did you catch that?  We won’t be known as His disciples because we perfectly completed all of our Bible study homework for the week or because we are theologically the smartest.

We will be known as disciples of Jesus because we’ve taken what we’ve learned from Him and His Word, and we’ve allowed it to change our hearts so that we truly have love for one another.  Or as Jen Wilkin puts it so beautifully, “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”

So as much as icebreakers aren’t my favorite, and as much as I love to jump straight into God’s Word with other women, I’m so grateful that God has lovingly opened up my eyes to show me the importance of discipleship being a beautiful balance of both Bible study AND care and community.

Icebreakers, here I come!

Article written by Liz Patton – a Bible Teacher + Editor on the SWHW Team