From Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation Through Mutual Accountability by David Lowes Watson, pages 105-112 & 139-141. Used by permission.
Why am I joining a Covenant Discipleship Group?
In the first place, discipleship is not a matter of choice. It is much more a matter of surrender, a giving in to God’s gracious initiatives in our lives. We may sing the old hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” to express our devotion to Christ. But for those of us who have come to this point of surrender, there is a note of desperation when we finally quit resisting, when we finally discover that we cannot follow Christ in our own strength. It is the poin at which we realize that we must hand things over to God, bag and baggage: “Very well, God, have your way! One thing’s for sure, I can’t do it myself any more.”
In other words, we enter into Christian discipleship in blind trust, at the end of our tether. We do not know where Christ is going to lead us or what he will ask us to do. All we know is that we have come to a stage where we are willing to take the risk of following him regardless, because all other options have been closed. We may not yet be sure of Jesus Christ, but we have come to be sure of nothing else at all.
It may be that you have come to this point at an early stage in your Christian pilgrimage. If so, you are blessed indeed, for you have found Christian wisdom much sooner than most of us. More likely, however, you made a commitment to Christ some time ago, and have been trying to live a faithful Christian life for many years—and so far, so good. You have been faithful, doing your best to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus, and seeking to walk by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
But now there is another call: “Follow me more closely. I have much more for you to learn and to do. I need your disciplined commitment now. Will you take another step with me? Will you trust me even more?”
You have said “yes” to this call, and that is why you are joining a covenant discipleship group.
Does joining a covenant discipleship group mean that my attempts at Christian discipleship thus far have not been good enough?
Not at all. In fact, quite the contrary, or you would not even be hearing this new call, never mind answering it. Everything you have done thus far to be a disciple of Jesus Christ has been commendable: your witness to Christ, at work and in your neighborhood; your regular attendance at church; your faithful participation in a Sunday school class; your involvement in church activities; your attention to Bible study; your regular participation in worship and the sacrament; and your personal devotions of prayer. All of these have made you a good servant of Jesus Christ.
Likewise you have followed Christ when you have obeyed his commandments to serve God and your neighbor. Perhaps you have been one of those nameless workers who has visited hospitals, ministered to those in prison, staffed the outreach ministries of your church to the poor, and even opened your home to those in need. Or maybe your Christian service has been right in your home, and aging relatives, or problems youngsters, or working at a difficult marriage.
Perhaps your task has been one of social or political action, as you have been gripped by the need to proclaim God’s justice to those with secular power—or, just as important, to stand your ground on behalf of those who are too socially disempowered to speak for themselves. Perhaps your mission has been to work for those of our neighbors whom we never know in person, but whose voices reach us from the places of oppression in the world—or worse, whose voices have been silenced by hunger, imprisonment, or death.
If so, your name may never be written large in the annals of churchly recognition. But you will be joining the saints whom we honor for their advancement of the kingdom, the coming new age of Jesus Christ.
In all of this, you have looked to God for guidance, done the best you can, and in turn, been given grace for the task in hand.
Then why do I feel the need to go further by joining a covenant discipleship group?
The first reason we have dealt with already: you are being called by the Spirit of God to take a new step in your discipleship.
But there is another reason, and it has to do with our maturity as Christian disciples. The more we follow Christ, the more we grow in grace. As with all real growth, it takes place when we are not aware of it—until, that is, something happens to let us know that we have changed.
Such experiences are common in other areas of growth. For example, we can all remember as a child finding that we could reach a high shelf that used to be too high; or on getting to middle age, discovering that our clothes have “shrunk.” We remember what it was like to have someone share a problem with us for the first time, thereby letting us know we were trustworthy; or to be taken seriously in a conversation by an older person, thereby having our point of view respected for the fist time. We never quite know when and how we grow to these occasions; but when they happen, we know we have changed.
In our growth as Christian disciples, however, there is a paradox. The more we grow in grace, the more we discover our lack of growth. The more we walk with Christ, the more we realize how much we lack the strength merely to keep pace. Our growth as Christian disciples is not so much a matter of achievement as of learning how to hold fast, how to stay the course.
This is why it usually takes us some time to acquire maturity in our discipleship. At first we tend to devote ourselves to Christ with all of our own energies—and these are not inconsiderable. But gradually we find that the only way to sustain Christian discipleship is to rely more and more on the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is the path to Christian maturity. This is how we “grow in Christ.” There is a stage in our pilgrimage where this becomes particularly clear to us—a point in our discipleship at which we become acutely aware of our need of grace. And with this awareness comes the realization that we cannot meet that need in a haphazard way. We need help.
This is also true if we have been actively involved over the years in Christian service to the world. We probably realized quite soon that we could not change the world overnight. But we may not have perceived until now that the only way we can be effective at all is to be ready for the particular tasks Christ assigns to us. The key word is obedience, and here too we need help.
Perhaps these reasons touch on why you have felt the need to join a covenant discipleship group. In a word, you have come to a point of maturity in your Christian discipleship.
How will joining a covenant discipleship group affect my relationship with Christian friends or relatives who do not wish to join?
If you are asking this question, you are probably concerned that joining a covenant discipleship group might make other people in the church perceive you as a “super-Christian” or as someone who is going to put others on their best behavior. You are quite right to be concerned, because spiritual elitism, the feeling that some of us have the “inside track” with God, is not a desirable quality. You need to be sure that a covenant discipleship group will not do this to you, or to other people’s perceptions of you.
This assurance can quickly be given. In fact, covenant discipleship groups fit into a congregation quite naturally. A good analogy is the church choir, which has a special role to play in the life and work of the church. In order to help with worship on a Sunday morning, the choir members agree to give up on night a week to practice. They have a talent, but they must apply themselves to use it; and when they do use it, it is for the benefit of the whole congregation. So we do not mind when they proceed through the sanctuary, distinctively robed, to prominent seats. After all, if we had the time and the inclination, we could join them; for very seldom is anyone excluded from a church choir because of voice quality.
“That’s all very well,” you may reply. “But covenant discipleship involves more than music and worship. In a covenant discipleship group I am going to be accountable for what I do in all the dimensions of my Christian discipleship—my good works, my spiritual disciplines, my very understanding of God’s will in my life. Surely that is going to single me out in the congregation as someone whose lifestyle makes other people feel uncomfortable. I certainly don’t want that to happen.”
Don’t worry, it won’t. Or if it does, it will be the sort of give and take that happens all the time in congregational life. People will look on you and your covenant discipleship group as giving your time and energies to a disciplined walk with Christ, so that the whole congregation might have a better understanding of their own Christian commitment. They will begin to loo to you for guidance and advice. You will become leaders in discipleship.
Moreover, because you are holding yourself accountable week by week, you will know better than anyone that you have no room whatsoever to brag.
What can I expect to happen in a covenant discipleship group?
The short answer is that you can expect to become more consistent, more reliable—in a word, more seasoned—in your Christian discipleship. But you probably want more of an answer than that.
To be more specific, therefore, you can expect three things to happen:
1. You will become more aware of God’s grace in your life.
We should remember first of all that grace, God’s constant initiative towards us, is extended with impeccable good manners. God will not force grace into our lives. We must allow it to work in and through us, and we are always given the right to refuse. Indeed, a good definition of human sin is the chronic tendency to resist God’s gracious initiatives. As Christians, however, we have made a commitment to be open to grace. This means we accept responsibility for allowing God to work in our lives, and for obeying God’s directives in our discipleship.
In the General Rule of Discipleship, there are four areas, based on the teachings of Jesus, in which we can actively allow grace to guide and shape our Christian discipleship. Two of these areas are the time-honored disciplines, or ordinances, of the church: acts of worship (ministries of word and sacrament) and acts of devotion (prayer, searching the scriptures, and fasting or temperance).
Knowing about these “means of grace” is one thing. but actually using and practicing them is another. The early Methodists knew this pitfall well, and they formed weekly class meetings to safeguard against it. Covenant discipleship groups are following their example, meeting together once a week so that the members can tell each other whether or not they have practiced these disciplines. You will find that this simple exercise in mutual accountability really works. The method was sound in Wesley’s day, and it is just as effective today. If you know that you have to give an account to someone each week for something you know you should be doing, there is a much better chance that you will do it.
Thus, you can expect to become much more regular in your attendance at worship and sacrament, in your prayer life, and in your Bible study. Perhaps for the first time, you will begin the spiritual disciplines of fasting or temperance, and in the weekly covenant discipleship meetings you will engage in an intentional form of Christian communion, or fellowship.
These means of grace will give you new strength and vigor for your Christian life. This will not happen immediately, nor should it—any more than you should take 365 daily vitamins all at once to give you a year’s worth of health. Nor will it happen predictably. Your times of richest blessing will catch you by surprise, and you will continue to have many times of routine worship and empty devotions. But most assuredly, as you open yourself consistently to grace, grace will empower your discipleship. From time to time, God will let you know that you are becoming one of the “seasoned” members of your church, as people begin to turn to you for guidance and advice about the deeper things of the faith. You acquire these insights only by discipline practice.
2. You will find new ways of serving God and your neighbor in the world.
For many group members, this proves to be the most exciting dimension of covenant discipleship. When you begin your weekly meetings, you will probably find yourself where most of us are—bearing no one any ill will, and helping people in ways that make for good neighborly relations. Indeed, as a Christian, you have probably been quite intentional in this.
In your covenant discipleship group, however, you will discover opportunities for Christian service which you have never considered before. At first you may find this somewhat disconcerting, especially when you realize just how much wider the horizons of your neighborliness need to be stretched. But week by week, you will find yourself impelled by grace to serve newfound neighbors. Perhaps you will find them in prisons, among the homeless of the inner city, or among disadvantaged children struggling to survive the drug culture.
You will also be stimulated to a bolder and clearer vision of the kingdom of God, the new age of Jesus Christ; and you will acquire new insights into the need for the exercise of God’s justice in the world. Perhaps you will be prompted to take a stand on issues such as the death penalty, political torture, racism, or world hunger. Perhaps you will find yourself having to stand against less dramatic injustices at your place of work—or even in your church. These involvements will be all the more unnerving if they are new for you. But always you will find God’s grace sufficient for the tasks that Jesus assigns.
By the same token, even if you have long been involved in such activities, to be held accountable week by week for the whole of the General Rule may bring new perspectives to your acts of compassion and acts of justice. As you stimulate others to reach out to those in need, in turn you will be touched by the need for small kindnesses close to home. Perhaps most important, you will find yourself drawing more consistently on grace for your vision and your power, and thus find your service in the world more truly obedient to Jesus Christ—a check on your discipleship which cannot be made too often.
3. You will find your understanding of God’s will in your life greatly enhanced.
When Jesus instructed the first disciples to meet together in his name, with the promise that he would always be in their midst when they did so, he was not offering them a spiritual bonus. He was stating an axiom, indeed the axiom, of Christian discipleship: We need one another in order to discern the will of God.
The reasoning is quite straightforward. When you and I converse with God, one end of the line (so to speak) consists of a very imperfect receiver. Whatever God is trying to say to you or me, our own agendas are likely to get in the way. But when several of us gather together, each endeavoring to help the other to be Christian disciples, the pooling of insights is going to give each of us a better idea of what God is trying to do with our lives.
As you give an account of how you have tried to walk with Christ, you will help everyone else in the group with their discipleship, and they will help you with yours. Together you will arrive at a level of responsiveness to grace which none of you would have acquired on your own. Indeed, there is no better summary of the nature and purpose of a covenant discipleship group than this: It opens us to God’s grace.
Why do we need a covenant?
We need a covenant in a covenant discipleship group because a covenant relationship with God is the foundation of Christin discipleship. We make our covenant in response to the gracious initiative of the Holy Spirit. God promises to accept us as family, with all of the privileges that family brings. Our part is to accept our new family obligations, joyfully serving God in every way we can.
But if our covenant is with God, why do we need to make a covenant with each other?
This question is more difficult to answer today than once it might have been. In our generation, contracts tend to be taken seriously only when they prove convenient, and this attitude has infected the church. Most covenants made by Christians today, whether with God or with one another, are of very short duration. We plan their obsolescence, preparing at the outset for the time when we might not want to keep them any more. In short, the word covenant has become seriously devalued; and not incidentally, a great deal of discipleship has become a loose option.
If we take our discipleship seriously, however, and regard the keeping of our word as a point of honor, then a covenant with each other makes very good sense. For of two things we can be sure in our covenant relationship with God: (1) God will always be faithful; (2) many times we will not. Accordingly, those of us who are concerned about being good disciples should at least seek to minimize our faithlessness, and do all we can to avoid breaking our covenant with God.
This is what makes the covenant with each other so important. As with most things in life, the best way to ensure that we do something faithfully is to do it with others of like mind and purpose. A covenant with other Christians provides us with the mutual support and accountability we need in order to keep our covenant with God.
Does the covenant tend to become legalistic?
Not when we remember that we enter into it mutually and willingly. Moreover, the wording of the covenant contains nothing that does not have the consensus of the group.
Does a written covenant inhibit the freedom of grace?
Not at all. On the contrary, without an agreed statement of intent such as the covenant, it is all too easy for Christians to shape their discipleship around their own perceptions of God’s will. This has rightly been labeled “cheap grace”—a grace always readily adaptable to personal preferences and even prejudices.
The freedom of grace in Christian discipleship is not the freedom to live our lives as we wish, but to avoid the enslavement of our own desires and ambitions. Indeed, the most important discovery of Christian discipleship is to realize how ill-equipped we are to run our own lives. The covenant of discipleship helps us to hold fast to the freedom of God’s will rather than our won—to surrender an illusory freedom for the true freedom of binding ourselves to Christ.
But why does this have to take the form of a written covenant?
Because there are certain basic guidelines for discipleship which Christians across the centuries have found to be trustworthy. Wesley summarized these as works of mercy and works of piety, which today we have incorporated into the General Rule of Discipleship as acts of compassion, acts of devotion, acts of justice, and acts of worship.
However much we advance in the Christian life, we never outgrow the need for these basics. The Holy Spirit will increasingly empower us in our discipleship, but the formality of a written covenant provides the form of how we live in out in the world, a framework within which we deepen our relationship with Christ while holding fast to the priorities of our service.
Once written, can the covenant be changed?
Indeed it can. In fact, it ought to be changed, regularly. Groups should routinely review the usefulness of particular clauses, and by consensus make changes as often as desirable or necessary.
What sorts of changes should be made?
Interestingly, a pattern has emerged over the years as groups have reported the changes in their covenants. Occasionally groups will relax clauses that have proved to be too demanding. But much more often, they will “tighten” their clauses rather than “loosen” them. In other words, as grace shapes their discipleship, members wish to be held more rather than less accountable.
When we remember that the Hebrew word for covenant probably came from the Assyrian for “shackle” or “fetter,” and that the Jews were “bound” in covenant to God, we can see that the word still retains its power.
[From Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation Through Mutual Accountability by David Lowes Watson, pages 139-141.]