Discipleship Beyond Peer Circles

This article was republished with permission from Lifeway Research.

People tend to gravitate toward others who are most like them. For many adults, this means the people they spend the most time with are peers—people roughly the same age and who are experiencing the same stage of life.It isn’t bad that our natural tendency is to surround ourselves with those like us. There are benefits of being around people who are going through similar life events.

It isn’t good, however, for us to only spend time with people who are exactly like us. This is especially true for the local church. It matters that members of the church body—made up of a diversity of people—practice intentional fellowship with each other.

Two-way Discipleship

There’s a two-fold benefit to fellowshipping with people who are different from us: 1) We learn from them, and 2) They learn from us. By surrounding ourselves with believers from all walks of life, we gain a broader understanding of the faith that was delivered to the saints. It also provides us the context and opportunity to disciple others.

By intentionally pursuing diverse fellowship, we’re able to grow and be sanctified in ways we might not have if we stayed in our small circle of peers.

Biblical Basis

Scripture provides several passages that speak to the importance of multi-generational, or multi-stage-of-life, community.

  • In 1 Timothy 4, Paul instructs Timothy to not let anyone look down on him for his youth. Timothy was a young leader who was given the opportunity to teach and set an example for those who were older than him.
  • Paul also writes to Titus that older women are to “teach what is good” to younger women. Paul also tells Titus to encourage young men (Titus 2).
  • The Old Testament instructs adults to teach children the ways of God (Deuteronomy 4:9; Psalm 34:11; Proverbs 22:6). Jesus also warns against causing children to stumble (Luke 17:2).
  • Acts 4 talks about how the believers in the early church were of “one heart and mind” and had everything in common. Their commonality came from their salvation in Jesus Christ—not their life circumstances.

Like the believers in Acts, we already have the most important thing in common with fellow church members. We collectively share in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Any other commonalities we may have, and any perceived differences with other believers, are overshadowed by this most important similarity.

With that in mind, leaders can take practical steps to foster community among those who may be in different stages of life but are alike in every way that really matters.

Mix It Up

Many churches organize adult Sunday School and small groups by age groups or stages of life (i.e. singles, newlyweds, those who are retired). This isn’t inherently wrong and, as I talk about below, can be beneficial for several reasons. But this is not the only way to organize discipleship programs. If we’re already inclined to spend our time with people whose lives look like ours, the church doesn’t need to do much work developing that kind of community.

Instead, the church can use structures already in place to foster community among people who are different from one another. A good place to start is to examine how you currently organize your Sunday School and small groups and then consider switching things up if needed.

Some Ideas

Though change may happen slowly, try dividing Sunday School classes or small groups by topic instead of by age. Set up classes based on a Bible study, book study, or a theological topic and open them up to all church members. This allows for a variety of age ranges and life stages among groups. Classes can change periodically to give members a chance to interact with new groups of people.

This change may make it harder to direct groups as the church likely has less involvement in who joins which group. However, there are a few ways to encourage “mixed” groups. Consider organizing groups by location or time, and don’t designate the makeup of each group. If a group naturally develops with people who are in the same stage of life, encourage members of a different age to join that group. You can periodically reorganize these groups as well.

Things to Consider

Again, it’s not wrong to divide Sunday School or small groups based on demographic factors. Often, these kinds of groups can be beneficial. Groups just for men or just for women are good for fostering accountability. And groups made up of people of the same age are good for encouraging those who are going through the same stages of life. We often divide youth and children for obvious reasons. However, with proper safety precautions and practical considerations, it can also be beneficial for adults and youth to learn from each other.

After all, it’s important to learn from others who’ve gone before us and to encourage those who may be going through something we’ve already experienced. Good discipleship happens across the “boundary lines” of age and stage of life. Church leaders should encourage church members to learn from each other—regardless of their situation.

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