NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – After coming up empty-handed on volunteers for disciple groups within his congregation last fall, Pastor Robert Esh at Valley View Mennonite Church in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania, couldn't help but feel down-hearted about his vision-casting.
No matter how hard he campaigned, no one wanted to risk forming a "missional disciple group" (MDG), he said. These three-person, same-gender groups are being created within the Missional Discipleship Initiative (MDI), a program of Mennonite Mission Network. MDGs meet weekly for eight months to pray, share personal accountability, and read Scripture with an aim of multiplying into new groups.
This call for group formation felt too intimidating, said Esh, pastor for 21 years at Valley View, a congregation of Ohio Mennonite Conference. Invitees feared not being mature enough to facilitate a group, unable to navigate the oft-misunderstood idea of the Great Commission, and not finding the time.
Finally, however, three groups took the plunge: Two formed in Valley View and one was facilitated by his friend, Cory Turben. Turben is part of a Reformed congregation in nearby Clymer, New York.
What happened next was nothing short of a Holy Spirit movement, Esh said. As participants shared about how their group experience made sharing their lives in Christ a relationship-builder rather than a bothersome spiritual chore, a blaze of interest spread for MDI's launch day this October.
As a result, the number of MDGs in Valley View has jumped from two to six, and there are more than 15 small discipling groups spreading throughout northwestern Pennsylvania and southern New York state. Esh is praying that many more encounters like the one Turben had last year will unfold in the coming months.
"About halfway through the last year, Cory, the facilitator of his group that met every Thursday evening at a local restaurant, had an encounter with a server," Esh said. "After several months, a server said to him, 'What are you guys doing every week?' Cory said, 'Pull up a chair and sit down, and I will tell you.' … They struck up a relationship. One day during lunch, Cory led him into a relationship with Christ."
This year, Turben's new friend will be a facilitator of a new MDG. The power of this relational and replication model of sharing the gospel is why Marvin Lorenzana, Mission Network's director of Mission Initiatives, said he is striving to grow MDI, in its sixth cycle this year.
"Congregations often experience a holy disconnect between gathered worship and equipping our laity to share the God of that worship outside the church in their everyday lives," Lorenzana said. "MDI brings mission activity back to the bus drivers, schoolteachers and homemakers."
He explained that MDI trains coaches to train MDG facilitators, such as Turben. That's done through the resourcing of three levels. Many MDG facilitators who guide small groups often train to become coaches; thus, the leadership development aspect of the program multiplies and bears new fruit as well.
Bonding friendships as much as multiplying disciples
Serving as coaches are Esh and Paula Snyder Belousek, pastor of Salem Mennonite Church, another Ohio Conference congregation, in Elida, Ohio, which has several groups set to begin meeting. They said that for the past several years, Ohio Conference has encouraged MDI engagement and many pastors are on board.
A joyful surprise for Esh and Snyder Belousek is MDGs' way of forging intimate trust among individuals. Though people are at different junctures in their faith journey, they all are hungry for connection.
"We live in a culture where people are lonely and disconnected and are hungry for real and vulnerable Spirit-led places to connect," Snyder Belousek said. "MDGs create vehicles for it. In our Western culture, people are nurtured to be self-reliant … We are socialized to believe that someone else's need is bigger than mine. The small-group setting gives people permission to be helped as well as to help."
Mutual accountability is fostered with these weekly questions: Where have you seen God at work in your life? What is the Lord saying to you through your prayers and Scripture reading? How have you personally shared the love of Jesus? Where do you feel you have fallen short?
Waves could be coming
Esh said there has not been a total "sea change" yet in the region in terms of the multiplication of disciples. Yet, the rise in the numbers of groups may be an indication of the "waves" to come.
"Cory is an amazing guy," Esh said. "His vision within a few years is that 1,000 people in our communities here will be involved in small groups … This does feel like the wind of the Spirit is blowing, and I have no idea where it will carry me. But what a ride."
For more information about MDI, or to apply for a group to join the October launch, contact Marvin Lorenzana at MarvinL@MennoniteMission.net, or call 574-523-3019 or 540-209-1450.