Multiplication Center

Church Cracks the Code on Leadership Development with Discipleship Huddle

February 25, 2017

By Warren BirdHuddle


Discipleship Huddle is used to provide support, training and accountability through a discipling leader.

Woodside Bible Church (Troy, MI) is using a creative leadership development model that is turning life-on-life discipleship into the “engine” and leaders into the “drivers” behind the church’s explosive growth.

Borrowing from the methods of Jesus and Paul, the church’s “Discipleship Huddle” is an 8- to 10-month investment of a leader into a few others that offers support, challenge, training and accountability.

“We realized that Jesus didn’t do a lot of one-one-one discipleship, and there was much more to his discipleship than information,” says Woodside’s Mike Ely, pastor of Neighborhood Groups, Missional Communities and Discipleship. “He invited a group of learners into his life, to journey with him and do ministry with him.

“Discipleship was done in the context of mission, and mission was done in the context of discipleship.”

A leader of a discipleship huddle pours into a hand-picked group of 4-8 people through a weekly meeting and “life-on-life” discipleship and ministry that provides practical skills and tools for leading and discipling others. More than 250 potential leaders are currently involved in huddles for church staff, lay leaders, couples, men, women and college students.

“We see the momentum now, and all the good things happening,” Mike says. “We are inviting people not just into a huddle, but into a relationship with us. Huddle leaders are asking people into their life to ‘go on a journey with me’ for a season.”

Moving from “Vehicles” to “Engines”

Woodside became one of the fastest-growing churches in the U.S. over the past few years through mergers and launching multisite locations—with now up to nine campuses and some 7,000 weekly attenders in the greater Detroit area.

But Mike and other leaders assessed that the church had developed multiple discipleship “vehicles”—Bible study groups, neighborhood groups, missional communities—where “content was king,” and new leaders weren’t being developed. The church offered several broad, information-based Bible studies, but those multiple “vehicles” weren’t producing the desired outcome.

“Vehicles promise a lot sometimes, but if you don’t have an engine under the hood and there isn’t somebody driving it, it’s just a nice-looking vehicle,” Mike says. “That’s where we fell—we thought the vehicle would solve the problem.

“We had a lot of ‘managers’ of ministry, but not people leading a movement. We wanted people leading a movement and living lives worth imitating.”

See the complete interview here between Mike Ely, Pastor of Discipleship and Missional Communities at Woodside Bible in greater Troy, MI, and Leadership Network’s Warren Bird as they discuss Woodside’s leadership huddles as discipleship engines.

Jesus’ Model of “Imitation and Innovation”

Woodside began consulting with an organization called 3DM ( that helps churches of all denominations take a hard look at their leadership/discipleship structures, and design something that more resembles “how Jesus developed leaders and disciples,” Mike says.

Mike explains by drawing a triangle used by 3DM to affirm that Jesus indeed passed on important information to his followers—think Sermon on the Mount, and the many other times Jesus taught. But with that information, Jesus added imitation and innovation.

Imitation was Jesus’ invitation to “learn how I do it,” Mike says. “People won’t go where we haven’t been as leaders,” he adds. “We have to take people along with us and show them how to do ministry.”

To those two pursuits, Jesus then unleashed his disciples to build ministries where God called them to live, work and play. “Now, we’re inviting people into our lives, taking them along with us to show them how to do ministry, apprenticing them and sending them out to innovate in their context.”


Four Elements to Develop

For huddles to become Woodside’s discipleship engine, Mike says the church had to develop four elements: 1) a common discipleship language, 2) rhythms, 3) a leadership focus and 4) multiplication as the goal.

Woodside’s vernacular took on common terms such as looking at discipleship as the sweet spot between being “organic” (doing life as it comes) and “organized” (structured work, such as book studies). Huddle leaders also describe viewing the information they impart once a month as a “picture, mirror and a window.”

The picture is the 30,000-foot view where leaders observe the content and have a conversation about it in week one. Then they dig deeper in week two into how the information personally applies to their life as they look in the mirror. Then they look outward to apply the information through the window into the world God has called them to, and they go and do it.

“There’s a missional aspect to a huddle every month,” Mike says. “The group is prayer walking, or serving a neighborhood or having a party for their friends who are not-yet Christians.”

That missional outlook is all part of the rhythms that huddles help participants establish. “We want to see a healthy rhythm in our people of Bible study, prayer, connecting, reaching out to not-yet believers, rest and work,” Mike says. “Those are all healthy, natural rhythms that should be in every leader’s life.”

Huddle leaders see their ultimate goal as training new leaders for ministry who will train new leaders the same way.  “They aren’t just leading huddles, they’re training people how to be leaders,” Mike says. “And four to six months in, they’re looking for people who are going to start their own huddles. They’ve experienced it, and they know how to do it now.”

Expanding Influence

The end result is that huddles have helped Woodside leaders make tight connections even as the church continues to grow. “It’s hard to get small as a church gets bigger,” Mike says. “But huddles help us connect leaders who tend to become a family and do a measure of life together even after huddle is over.”

And huddles are allowing Mike and other church leaders to multiply their discipleship and leadership development efforts.

“There’s still a place for 1-on-1 discipleship—giving people access to your life and doing life together,” Mike says. “But we’re finding that the group dynamic makes discipleship go better in many cases than 1-on-1, and we’ve been able to multiply our efforts.

“Now, instead of four 1-on-1 meetings, we can have four meetings of eight people and greatly increase our influence. We are exponentially expanding our leadership potential.”


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