Grace in Covenant Discipleship Groups
By Scott Hughes
One of the weakness of Covenant Discipleship that has been pointed out to me is that there can be a lack of grace present in group meetings. In the face of criticism, I have learned not to get defensive (still my initial reaction though) but to do the hard work of reflection and examination. After some reflection (and hope you’ll share your reflections with me), I think there is the potential for this criticism to be true while not having to be the case in all situations.
Let’s pause to examine closer the word “grace.” The word grace has a wide domain of possible meanings. Too often in church lingo it means something akin to “sloppy forgiveness.” You’ve probably heard or even said something like the following: “We need to have grace with Bob showing up on time for the meeting, he’s just being Bob.” While extending someone compassion and flexibility is necessary at times, so is holding people to proper expectations. Grace, as used in this example, is not what we mean when we are using the word ‘grace’ in a theological, especially, Wesleyan understanding. Though grace is typically defined as an unearned gift, grace for Wesleyans is also a power that draws us closer to God. That’s precisely why we use terms like Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace. God is always at work drawing us closer in relationship to God from prevenient grace to justifying grace and into a sanctified, grace-filled relationship with God. God’s grace transforms us from self-centered to God-centered disciples who serve God’s Kingdom through loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.
God is always at work drawing us closer in relationship to God.
When we talk about grace within Covenant Discipleship groups, grace is operative on a number on levels. For starters, grace is at work as members of the group live into their disciplines or holy habits named in the covenant. These habits or disciplines form or shape us in ways that draw us closer to God whether we realize it or not. Thus, these specific actions and behaviors become grace-filled activities as our lives are more conformed into the image of Christ.
Knowing that we’ve agreed to a covenant and that we will report to our fellow group members how we’ve lived out our covenant agreements keeps us more accountable to performing these actions. Accountability to other group members should function as a means of grace.
That said, without the proper group dynamics, groups can slide into the routine of reporting in a perfunctory or rote way whether they have lived out their covenant the prior week. If the group becomes merely a time of reporting what has been done or left undone, then grace in any sense will become squeezed out. Group members should embody grace to the members of the group through encouragement, support, and challenge.
One of the primary ways we experience God is through relationship with spiritual friends. Friends who have our best interest at heart, namely that we are conformed into the image of Christ. It is a true friend who pushes us beyond merely reporting how we have lived up to our covenant, but asks where God’s presence is being discerned through the actions and behaviors. Group members should also lovingly encourage us when we can’t seem to stick to a particular habit or aspect of the covenant. Whether that means adjusting the covenant or exploring new ways to fulfill the covenant.
Grace should function like the atmosphere of Covenant Discipleship groups. It should support and pervade the group even if it is not always pointed to or explicitly named. Without grace operative at a number of layers, covenant discipleship groups will not only feel mundane but will be powerless to help group members grow as disciples who make disciples.