Three-thirds Groups During COVID-19 and Beyond
Where I live in Michigan, we were under a shelter-in-place order from mid-March through to early June. With the rising number of virus cases and subsequent state mandates, conventional church meeting venues were deemed to be a health risk and church leaders realized they needed to change course quickly to retain a connection with their congregations. The common approach adopted by most leaders was to livestream their worship service and direct their congregants to tune in each Sunday morning with their households. However, having been practicing the ‘three-thirds’ format for various discipleship meeting venues prior to COVID-19, I decided to make this the mainstay of how I would ‘do church’ for the indefinite future.
In the second week of lockdown, I sent an email to over 20 men in my relational network—all professing Christians but from different contexts—extending an invitation to join me on Sunday mornings for a recurring 90-minute Zoom meeting that I called ‘Following Jesus together.’ The invite list included extended family members, men from my brick-and-mortar church, work colleagues, fathers I’d met through my daughter’s high school functions, Facebook friends, and leaders of other local discipleship ministries of which I’d been a part. In short, I was the common denominator in a group of men who were largely strangers to one another. The first meeting occurred in late March, with about 16 curious guys virtually connecting. About three months, later as I write this post, I have a fairly consistent core group of about eight men.
After an opening prayer, the ‘looking back’ segment kicks off with a time of vision casting—a five-minute pointed teaching that serves as a ‘charge’ to the group to be disciples who make disciples (I’ve chosen to focus heavily on the Great Commission). Once vision casting is done, we spend about 15-20 minutes checking in by asking how everyone’s week has been (‘high and low’) and how each person did with achieving the prior week’s spiritual growth and mission goals (‘grow and go’). With a smaller group I typically have the whole group stay together, share individually and then have one man pray for another man after each one shares. With larger groups we use the Zoom breakout rooms.
The next major segment of the meeting involves ‘looking up.’ Here our focus is on the Scripture passage—we listen to it twice, then someone retells the passage in their own words before we read the passage together. I then ask at least two simple questions about the text to ground us in better understanding what the text is saying:
What does the text say about God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?
What does the text say about people?
Then, after grasping what is in the text, we turn to a standard set of ‘SPEC’ questions that are designed to move us to a time of responding:
Are there any sins to avoid?
Are there any promises to trust?
Are there any examples to follow?
Are there any commands to obey?
Asking these two sets of questions leads to something quite remarkable. Over time, the group members grow more confident in their ability to grasp what the text is saying and apply it for themselves—without me telling them what to think about it or what they should do about it. Several group members have commented that they’ve never learned so much about the Bible in any other setting!
The final major segment of the meeting has us ‘look forward,’ and includes a time of training and practice, along with goal setting for the week ahead. Training and practice is essentially ‘how to’ time, where one of the group members will model some disciple-making skill and ask the group to practice the skill. For instance, we’ve done modeling in developing and delivering a short testimony and a simple gospel presentation.
From training and practice we move on to setting ‘grow and go’ goals. These are goals for what we will do in the upcoming week to grow in our relationship with Jesus, and reach out to a not-yet believer with gospel intent or to train another believer in what it means to follow Jesus. This is a very important part of meeting that we never skip, as it encourages each group member to not just be a hearer of God’s word, but a doer as well. The following week’s meeting will then begin, as I mentioned, with each member having an opportunity to share how it went. After goal setting, we conclude with a group member praying that God would help us to do what he taught us during the meeting.
During the time that I was utilizing the ‘three thirds’ method for my men’s group, my family was using the same format for our house church meetings. We found that, by adding a few additional elements like singing and communion, the format is a simple and easily-reproducible model for church in a smaller context. As the shelter-in-place order has been lifted in Michigan and brick-and-mortar churches are opening their doors once again—with greatly reduced seating capacity and many still utilizing streaming service options—my wife and I have decided to go a different path. I’ll soon be discontinuing my men’s online ‘three thirds’ group and asking these men to consider gathering as families for an in-person weekly house church meeting in our home using the method they’ve learned well over the past few months.
It is my prayer that God would use this tool to help many of us more fruitfully be disciples who make disciples as a community of Jesus-followers.