If you have a desire to start up a discipleship group in your neighborhood this fall, and you don’t have any idea where to begin, you’re not alone.
While every situation is different, and most will agree there is not a set formula, every group leader must adapt to their situation and the culture of their community. Most importantly, they must be willing to remain flexible and open to God’s leading.
Brian Upshaw, who leads the church ministry team with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, shared from his own experiences and offered a few tips regarding how to minister to people in a neighborhood.
Drop agenda, love neighbors
First and foremost, Christians must have a genuine desire to love their neighbors, Upshaw said.
He shared how he and his wife, Brandie, and their two children moved into a neighborhood in the Raleigh area about four years ago. Though they assumed they’d eventually start some type of Bible study group in their home, Upshaw said the initial plan wasn’t to start a discipleship group among their neighbors.
“My family’s desire [was] that we as a family would just love our neighbors, and try to understand what it means to love our neighbors,” he said. “… and to figure out ways that were contextually appropriate to share the gospel with a neighborhood of people [who] did not go to church at all. We really didn’t set out to start a group in our home.
“If your goal is to start a group, that’s what you’ll get,” he said. “Your goal has to be lives changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. If your goal is to see lives changed by Christ, a group is very likely going to be part of that process.”
Many Christians, Upshaw contended, don’t know how to relate to the unchurched in a natural, authentic way.
Brian Upshaw leads the church ministry team with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
“[People] don’t want to be your project,” he said. “[This process] has really opened my eyes to see how many times that those [who] are far from God perceive Christians as looking at them as projects instead of seeing them as people.”
For Upshaw, a former pastor, he realized he had to let his guard down to “be real” with his neighbors.
“We didn’t act like super Christians,” he said. “We [have] flaws. We didn’t hide those flaws. We didn’t treat them like projects. We were friends with them first.
“It is important to be authentic … warts and all.”
Be on their turf
Building relationships and loving neighbors also meant being “faithfully present.” Upshaw and his family made an intentional effort to show up to as many neighborhood events, parties and social activities as possible.
“You have to be willing to be on their turf,” he said. “We [also] made a conscious effort to be on the front lawn instead of the back yard. When you’re walking you take time to stop [and] talk to people.”
With that came natural friendships – people the Upshaws truly care about and enjoy spending time with. It’s not anything that is “agenda driven.”
Pray for your neighbors
Upshaw also wrote down the names of his neighbors in the front of his prayer journal and prays for them regularly.
Prayer is a crucial part of impacting a neighborhood for Christ, Upshaw said.
Upshaw shared how he prayed for his neighbors for more than a year and a half before a group was formed.
“We began to walk and pray the neighborhood,” he said. “I would pray for the homes. I’d pray for the people in the houses.
“Not long after we moved in there I read about the prayer that John Knox [prayed] … when he was a minister in Scotland. He prayed ‘Give me Scotland or I die.’ And I began to pray that prayer for my neighborhood until I meant it.”
Choose material wisely
Months after initially mentioning the idea of starting a small group, one of Upshaw’s neighbors asked about it during a Labor Day party. A group of several couples soon began studying the Bible in the Upshaw’s home.
Upshaw admitted he struggled with finding the right curriculum. He said a leader must first evaluate the needs of the group and choose material that is the right fit.
Most of those who showed up expressed a desire to know the Bible better and to have a better understanding of it. After seeking suggestions from fellow ministry leaders at the Baptist State Convention, Upshaw settled on using curriculum called Story of God. The curriculum focuses on chronological Bible storying – from Genesis to Revelation. It has been developed from International Mission Board methods and materials that missionaries use among people who have little to no knowledge of the Bible. It focuses on four areas – creation, the fall, redemption and restoration.
While the study was designed to take 10 weeks, Upshaw said his group took their time with the material and spent a year going through it.
“I wasn’t bound to the curriculum to finish the lesson,” he said. “I wanted them to get it.”
The group met every other week from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Each gathering would involve an hour of discussion time and about 30 minutes of fellowship that included a snack of chips and salsa or brownies.
“We didn’t make it complicated,” he added.
It’s about being on God’s timetable, added Upshaw, who has seen some of his neighbors accept Christ into their lives since the group started. He meets regular with two other guys from his neighborhood for accountability.
“God has taught me so much about trusting in his time and not my own, waiting on him and thinking about guys like William Carey,” he said. “They spent years and years and years, tilling the ground. Living in America, I think we’re doing the same thing.”
“Just as Jesus was incarnational by coming into our world and getting into our skin, that’s the kind of ministry we have in our neighborhood,” he added. “We get into the skin of the people. And you minister based on what you see in the people, not in your mindset or your program. It’s not over. It’s a work in progress.”
Tips to minister to neighbors
Brian Upshaw, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina church ministry team leader, shares some tips on how to minister to neighbors. Keep in mind to always be flexible and open to God’s leading.
• Drop agenda, love neighbors
• Be on their turf
• Pray for your neighbors
• Choose material wisely
• Be patient