Discipleship is the Curriculum
By Scott Hughes and Steve Manskar
The How to Start Small Groups eLearning course emphasizes that curricula can be a crutch for small groups. While curricula resources give small groups the reassurance of something to talk about, it can also keep participants from engaging the core of discipleship formation – growth in holiness of heart and life. Curricula can also be a crutch for the church in giving guidance to the small groups that results almost exclusively in informational growth. Just because we expand intellectually does not mean we grow spiritually.
What might it look like, then, for small groups to focus on discipleship without curriculum? In the following article, Steve Manskar, a guru of accountable discipleship, presents a solid Wesleyan foundation and a model for small groups.
Social Holiness and Small Groups
Christian faith is deeply personal, but it is not private. This is what Wesley meant when he wrote
The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection (The Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739).
Social holiness is faith in Christ lived out in and with the community of the baptized witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world. It requires intentionality and discipline. By discipline, I mean devotion to practice akin to that of musicians and athletes. Living as a witness to Jesus Christ in the world requires the formation of holy habits that John Wesley calls “works of mercy” and “works of piety.” These habits are how Christians follow Jesus’ teachings in the world. They are how Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit working in them to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect them in love. The aim of the holy habits, the means of grace, is forming the fruit of the Spirit in lives of the people: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Wesley describes the goal as “love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and people, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival” (Sermon 92: “On Zeal,” §II.5).
Social holiness is formed in small groups that meet weekly to “watch over one another in love” and inquire how their souls prosper. Relationships of love and trust are formed in weekly small-group meetings centered on following Jesus’ teachings. The groups are not where discipleship happens. They are where Christians gather to help and make sure discipleship happens. Small groups are places where people are known, encouraged, heard, and loved into holiness of heart and life.
Small groups are where people are helped to form holy habits that open hearts to grace. The holy habits are how Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit and grow in holiness of heart and life. Holiness of heart is the inward love of God. Holiness of life is the outward love of the neighbor. Practicing holy habits leads to “universal love filling the heart and governing the life” (John Wesley).
General Rule as a Guide for Formation
The holy habits that John Wesley called “means of grace” are summarized in the General Rule of Discipleship:
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The General Rule of Discipleship is a contemporary summary of the historic Methodist rule of life, The General Rules, found in ¶103 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline. The General Rule of Discipleship is found in ¶1117.2a. It was devised by Dr. David Lowes Watson in 1991 and adapted by the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church as part of an effort to re-tradition the class meeting and office of class leader for the contemporary church.
The General Rule of Discipleship is a simple, easy to memorize, summary of the historic Methodist rule of life. It can be adopted by local congregations as their rule of life. “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines (habits) that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. … It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life).
The importance of the General Rule is that it promotes balanced discipleship. It encourages growth in holiness of heart (love of God) through acts of worship and devotion. Holiness of heart is balanced by holiness of life (love of neighbor) through acts of compassion and justice. When the General Rule of Discipleship is adopted as the congregation’s rule of life, it provides direction for how to live into the baptismal covenant and the church’s mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (¶120, The United Methodist Book of Discipline). If the mission is the destination and Scripture is the map, then the rule of life is the compass that helps the congregation navigate the map and reach its destination.
Discipleship Through Acts of Compassion, Justice, Worship, and Devotion
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world means to live so others see Jesus through your words and actions. Christians live as witnesses to Jesus when they follow his teachings summarized in his commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love who God loves (see Matthew 22:37-40).
Christians witness to Jesus Christ in the world and follow his teachings to love their neighbor as themselves through acts of compassion and justice. Acts of compassion are kindness and mercy given to anyone who is hungry, thirsty, lonely, mourning, sick, or in prison.
Through acts of justice, disciples witness to God’s work in the world by responding to their neighbor’s pain by addressing the causes of human suffering. Christians practice acts of justice when they organize and join with other faith communities and civic institutions to advocate for the poor and marginalized people of their community and the world. They do this by writing letters to elected officials, volunteering, voting, lobbying, marching, and other actions for social change to address the causes of suffering and oppression.
Christians witness to Jesus Christ in the world and follow his teachings to love God through acts of worship and acts of devotion. Acts of worship are what Christians do together to remember who and whose they are. Worship is the weekly family gathering. It is when the household of God gathers to serve God with praise, prayer, proclamation, and sacrament. Worship concludes with God sending God’s people into the world to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.
Acts of devotion are how individual Christians stay connected with God. They are habits of the heart. Prayer is conversation (listening and speaking) with God. Reading and studying Scripture is how Christians discover God’s story and their place in it. Fasting is perhaps the most neglected and misunderstood spiritual habit. When you refrain from eating for a day or part of a day, you imitate Christ’s self-emptying (see Philippians 2:5-8). Hunger pangs are a prompt to prayer. Fasting is also an expression of solidarity with the poor for whom fasting is sometimes not a choice. Jesus identified himself with the hungry poor (see Matthew 25:31-40).
Allowing the Holy Spirit to Guide the Small Group
The Holy Spirit guides Christians to find habits that fit each person. People have different life situations and circumstances. The Spirit supplies the grace each person needs to form the habits needed to pursue holiness of heart and life; universal love filling the heart and governing the life.
When the small group meets, each person present in turn gives an account of what he or she did since the group met last (weekly, bimonthly, monthly) to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Their accounts must be brief. It can be helpful for one participant to model what this looks like as others get acclimated. Each person gives an account in a way that edifies the group. The group then prays for that person before moving to the next person.
Time commitment: 1 hour
Greetings and opening prayer (5 minutes). The prayer may be extemporarily offered by the host. Or the following prayer or other prayer may be prayed:
God of multitudes, ruler of the universe:
Look with favor upon Christ’s flock in this place.
Cause our congregation to be
an effective witness to your love and power.
To this end, banish from us pettiness and rivalry,
speaking ill of one another,
seeking to serve ourselves rather than you.
Guide the leaders of the congregation, both lay and ordained,
that in turn they may guide us also into your ways.
Bind us together by your love
and cause us to know ourselves to be
a people called out of darkness into your marvelous light.
This we ask through Christ who himself is head of the church. Amen.
Pursuit of holiness of heart and life shaped by the General Rule of Discipleship (50 minutes):
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Individual members of the group decide for themselves how to apply this rule of life to their daily faith and life. One way is to pray about what God is calling them to do in mission with Christ in their daily life. Members identify specific habits and spiritual disciplines they are willing and able to do. They then write these down and share them with the group. Members may keep a journal of what was done and not done each week.
*Additional questions that might help participants discern habits and spiritual disciplines:
- Where are you encountering God?
- What are you doing that you might need to stop?
- What do you need to do more of?
- How can this group hold you accountable?
Individuals are invited to give an account of what they have done since the last meeting. After everyone has shared, the leader or another group member prays.
Share prayer concerns with a closing prayer (5 minutes).
A valuable resource for grace groups is A Disciple’s Journal: A Guide for Daily Prayer, Bible Reading, and Discipleship (Year A, B, & C), published by Discipleship Resources.
Laurence Hull Stookey, This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer (Abingdon Press, 2010), 142.