Disciplemaking, Small Groups and Normality by Greg Wiens

Growing up in the church, I heard legalism. When I went to college at the University of Michigan, I heard grace and learned about making disciples

I became a follower of Christ through the efforts of CRU. What I didn’t realize when I became a follower of Christ was there was an expectation for you to share Christ with others. As I began to share Christ with others, three guys came to know Christ. I was a junior at college, they all were freshmen.

I had been in a Discipleship group for three weeks when they said to me, “Greg, you’re going to have to lead a group with these young guys you’ve lead to Christ. We want you to lead them in growing the same way you are growing.” So, I was literally three weeks ahead of this group of young believers.

No Distinction Between Growing and Discipling Others

I would learn something and about three weeks later, I would be applying it and helping them learn it and apply it. I thought that was a normal way of Christian living. I assumed everyone believed that you learn, you grew, and then you passed on others. For me, it was kind of a short window of about three weeks. This approach surely kept me humble and taught me a lot about how churches can multiply. It changed my life, because the expectation for me was that I grew as I helped other people grow. There was no distinction between growing and helping others become like Christ.

When I graduated from college and went to work for General Motors, eventually leaving there to become a pastor. While at GM, I became involved in Navigators and eventually wrote some of their material. This material helped newly-minted Christ followers realize that they are part of a mission of God to lead others to Jesus and be discipled in their own walk.

Pastors and Priorities

I have led groups for now better part of 40 years, and I am convinced that life change occurs in the context of close relationships like those formed in groups. I know this is hard with many pastors to accept, because they spend 15 to 30 hours a week to prepare a message which they believe is what’s changing people’s lives. I, too, as a pastor worked under that assumption for decades. But as I look back, I really believe what Paul says in 1 Thessalonian 2: 8 when he says:

“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share the gospel with you, not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”

Discipleship is simply taking the next step of obedience in becoming like Christ through a close relationship with another and helping them do the same. Perhaps we should speak of disciple-making rather than discipleship. This is about more than reading your Bible along with your morning coffee.

Before and After Pentecost

As the Church launched on the day of Pentecost, thousands of people came to know Christ in Jerusalem, and they were organically organized into home gatherings.

Later in the first century, as the disciples spread away from Jerusalem and into the Gentile culture, local churches started out as small groups of people that came together to be the Body of Christ and to fulfill His mission on earth. Reading Acts of the Apostles gives you a clear sense that when the Church spread beyond the Jewish culture of Jerusalem, these local bodies of believers were small, nimble, transformative, powerful… and sometimes off center. Messiness goes with rapid multiplication.

Enter Culturally Acceptable Church Forms

After the first three centuries, when the ruler Constantine embraced Christianity; churches which were comprised of smaller groups of people morphed into larger gatherings with buildings and paid staff. Everything in the church became more structured, organized and often, more politically oriented. Since Constantine, small groups have been part of churches but few of the reasons for having groups today align with New Testament descriptions of emerging churches.

In the New Testament, these groups or micro-churches, were the church.

History has shown that, when the church was viewed accordingly, it multiplied like rabbits. In most churches today, we attempt to multiply large assemblies, which is akin to multiplying elephants. I’d opt for rabbits, instead. Small groups or micro-churches can multiply like rabbits.

Elephants and Rabbits

So, what’s the difference between elephants and rabbits? Obviously, the purpose of the two is very different. If I were trapped in a burning building, I would want an elephant to get me out of that building, or if I were needing to be pulled out of a river, I would want an elephant to pull me out of the river.  They are large and can move large objects.

Elephant churches are large and strong. They can accomplish great things. Rabbit churches are small but can change a culture as much as elephants—maybe more so. They do it differently. While the elephant’s gestation period is 630 days, rabbits reproduce in just 30 days. That’s barely one month. Furthermore, elephants have one offspring per litter and rabbits have somewhere between 1 and 14, or an average of 6 rabbits per litter.

Elephants also do not mature to sexual activity until they are 10 to 15 years old.  Rabbits, on the other hand, can multiply at 10 weeks of age.  One last fact to figure into the comparison is that rabbits live only three to four years, while elephants live about 60 years.

Given these facts, in four years, a pair of mating elephants will have one offspring, and yet in four years a pair of mating rabbits can have 3,745,584 offspring. So why are we trying to multiply elephants rather than rabbits?


You’ve heard the elephants and rabbits metaphor and know it makes sense. So, why are we so slow to adopt it’s wisdom? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments box below…

Greg Wiens is a seasoned pastor coming out of the marketplace into ministry. He is also the Chief Catalyst for Healthy Growing Churches.



10 thoughts on “Disciplemaking, Small Groups and Normality by Greg Wiens”

  1. Appreciate the succinct and powerful message! Could not agree more…and thanks for the elephant/rabbit illustration. In essence, this is the idea behind ekklesia…a group of people called out of the Jesus Way to go into new territory to show and share Jesus with every man, woman and child giving them repeated opportunities to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ekklesia is not the weekend gathering but the sent body of Christ into where they live, learn, work and play for gospel expression and proclamation. Thanks again!

  2. I think we have elephant mentality more often than rabbit mentality for three main reasons.
    1. We place too much value on the role of the professional minister. We place them on a pedestal for their degrees. There is nothing inherently wrong with education, but God can equally use a plumber for pastoral purposes.
    2. If we pastor an elephant church, it can both stroke our ego and provide well financially without having to really deal with the risk of working in the “messy” worlplace. I believe God wants to raise up thousands of bivocational leaders flexible enough to start groups like rabbits.
    3. We are so used to the elephant model that we don’t know any better. It is also the model that often doesn’t require anything more than to be a comfortable passive observer. The rabbit model plunges you into a group where everyone needs to contribute if you are to have much success.

    God bless you all in your ministry!

  3. Not to quibble, but I was tracking with your elephants/rabbits analogy until I realized I was reading it wrong. I thought your point was that we want to be like elephants, taking time to reproduce offspring that will live a long time. I thought you were saying that rabbit-like reproduction — with the short life-span of rabbits — is in the long run counterproductive.

    Your analogy almost made me think of Jesus’s parable of the soils, with instant response and short life-span as undesirable results.

    Your post also made me think of Paul’s admonition: “Lay hands suddenly on no man.”

    I’m no fan of the status quo, but there is something to be said for slow and methodical disciple-making.

  4. I believe one major factor influencing the church toward elephants rather than rabbits comes down to priorities. For rabbits the priority is multiplication. For elephant churches, there are various priorities competing with multiplication like requiring MDiv degrees for preachers before they can be ordained and allowed to be a Pastor. This stops the rapid multiplication of Pastoral development. There is also a priority to want to make sure any new church plant is “successful.” So, each church plant must be carefully planned out and funded. This usually includes at least one full-time staff Pastor instead of bi-vocational Pastors. I am sure there are many more.

  5. Eleanor Goodall

    Thank you Greg I I enjoyed your article very much now as always it is putting it into practise.

  6. Ralph

    This is absolutely the best direction for the Body of Christ I can remember in being a believer for
    46 years. Somehow it needs to be adapted to social media in a big way……like our enemy is using,

    “Thinking Big in a little way to change the world”.

    It got me thinking and will get back to you.

    And…same God who healed that girl we prayed for in Marina del Rey in 1973 I am believing HE will heal you 100%.

  7. In less than 5 years a pair of rabbits and their offspring will weigh over twice what a pair of elephants and their offspring weigh. David Watson’s discovery groups (sometimes called discovery Bible studies) are especially effective at multiplying and life transformation. See David and Paul Watson’s Contagious Disciplemaking and Roy Moran’s Spent Matches.)

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