Covenant Discipleship Groups: An Introduction
Mutual Accountability & Support for Discipleship
A Covenant Discipleship group is 5-7 persons who meet together for one hour each week to hold one another mutually accountable for their discipleship. Groups tend to form based on the day and time people are available for a weekly meeting.
There are no rules about the composition of groups. Many groups are composed of women and men together. Some are all men. Some are all women.
Groups are usually composed of people from the same congregation. But, particularly in the case of a multiple church charge or circuit, a group may comprise people from several congregations.
The purpose of the weekly meetings is mutual accountability and support for discipleship. The group is guided by a covenant they write, shaped by 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 covenant serves as the agenda for the weekly meeting. It keeps the focus of conversation on discipleship; what each member of the group has done, or not done, during the past week to follow the teachings of Jesus in their daily lives.
Weekly Compass Heading
Covenant Discipleship groups are where Christians "watch over one another in love" by giving each other a weekly compass heading. If you have ever used a compass you know that, when used with a map, a compass will point in the direction you need to travel in order to reach your destination. Occasionally, life and the world put obstacles and choices in our way that cause us to get off course. This is why it’s important to frequently check our map and compass so that we can get back on course and make progress towards our destination.
The goal of discipleship is to become fully the human beings God created us to be, in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Our map is the Scriptures which contain the teachings of Jesus Christ, summarized by him in Mark 12:30-31
… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. … you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Our compass is the General Rule of Discipleship. The mutual accountability and support that happens in the weekly meeting of a Covenant Discipleship group provides the regular compass headings that help us to make the course corrections need to keep us on the way of Jesus that leads to our desired destination.
Covenant Discipleship groups are task-oriented gatherings whose task is to help each other become better disciples. Members are responsible for one another. Covenant Discipleship groups are one way congregations help their members to keep the "new commandment" Jesus gave to his disciples in John 13:34-35
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
One of the ways Christians love one another is by helping one another to become the persons God created us to be; by helping one another to become more dependable witness to and workers with Jesus Christ in the world.
Forming Leaders in Discipleship
Covenant Discipleship groups are trustworthy and effective means of identifying and nurturing leaders in discipleship for mission and ministry. It’s important to understand that the mission of Covenant Discipleship groups is to develop leaders in discipleship who help the church to faithfully live out its mission with Christ in the world. While individuals certainly receive great blessing when they participate in CD groups, those blessings are secondary to the main purpose of building up the body of Christ for participation in God’s mission for the world.
Congregations that take seriously their mission to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" need dependable leaders in discipleship. They are women and men who are intentional about their vocation of following Jesus Christ in the world. As members of Covenant Discipleship groups they form holy habits that open their hearts and minds to grace. Their habitual encounters with grace forms them into persons whose natural response to the world is love. They are leaders in discipleship because others see in them and the way they live and serve in the world embodiments of Christ’s love.
Forming Dependable Disciples
The weekly Covenant Discipleship group meeting is not where your discipleship happens, but it’s where you make sure that it happens the rest of hours of the week. The mutual accountability and support you receive in your CD group keeps you mindful of what you need to do as a follower of the way of Jesus Christ. The weekly sharing that happens in the group helps you to be intentional about doing the things Jesus taught his disciples: prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and studying the Bible, doing no harm, and doing good to everyone. Over time these basic practices of discipleship become habits that transform your character into a reflection of Jesus Christ.
Dependable disciples are the people who lead churches in their mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Covenant Discipleship Groups Are NOT...
- Bible Study Groups
- Prayer Groups
- Encounter Groups
- Cell Groups
- Sharing Groups
- Neighborhood Groups
- Service Groups
- Advocacy Groups
- Growth Groups
- Outreach Groups
- Caring Groups
The dynamic of Covenant Discipleship groups is mutual accountability and support for discipleship. Group members certainly read and study the Bible. But when the group meets the conversation is focused on discipleship, with the group’s covenant serving as the agenda. Many groups open their weekly meetings by reading a passage of Scripture and with prayer. But Bible reading and prayer are not the primary purpose of the meetings. Rather, they are more likely to happen in the lives of group members because of the weekly group meeting.
Congregations need a variety of small groups that meet people where they are and help them to grow and mature in faith, hope, and love. Covenant Discipleship groups provide mutual accountability and support for discipleship in a way that forms persons as leaders in discipleship. Some may serve as leaders for Bible study, prayer, cell, service and other types of small groups that serve as part of the congregation’s disciple-making system.
The Covenant Discipleship Group Meeting
The Leader Facilitates
The weekly meeting is a process of question and answer gives the leader a directive role. The leader offers a brief prayer and the group reads the covenant preamble in unison. The leader begins by giving his or her account of how she or he did with the first clause, or group of related clauses (acts of compassion, acts of justice, acts of worship, or acts of devotion). The leader then turns to another group member and asks, "How did you do with this (these) clause (clauses). After the person has finished hiving his or her account of that part of the covenant, the leader may go to the next person or he or she may ask a question to get the person to say more about their experience with that part of the covenant that week.
The leader determines gives each person an opportunity to give their account of how they did with each part of the covenant. He or she must also keep track of the time and make sure the group does not run over time too much. He or she also manages the time so that no one in the group monopolizes the time. It’s important to keep everyone focused on mutual accountability and support for discipleship in light of the covenant written by the group.
No Permanent Leader
Leadership of Covenant Discipleship groups is shared by the group. Members take turn each week. This way the task of leading week to week does not fall on the shoulders of one person. Shared leadership also helps members develop leadership skills.
If any group member does not feel ready to lead the group, that’s okay. Let them pass when it is their turn to lead. In time they will learn by observing their peers as they lead. In time they will take their turn with the others.
Finally, the last order of business of each meeting is determine who will lead the next meeting. Some groups set up a regular rotation of members. Others select weekly leaders from week to week. Either way is okay as long as everyone knows who is leading the next meeting.
Begin with prayer. Then go through the Covenant.
Leading a Covenant Discipleship group meeting is simple and straightforward. The leader opens the meeting with prayer. This may be a simple extemporaneous prayer or it may be a prayer from a book (The United Methodist Hymnal, The Book of Common Prayer, Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit: 52 Prayers for Today by Paul Chilcote are good resources for prayers.). The leader may include with the opening prayer reading a brief passage of Scripture. Some groups use Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions from the Upper Room.
Following the opening prayer, many groups read the Covenant preamble aloud in unison. Some groups read the entire covenant together. The unison reading centers the group in the business at hand and physically reminds them of the covenant, which is the meeting agenda.
The leader then walks the group through the covenant. This may be done several ways. The preferred way is to deal with each clause, one at a time. The leader always begins by giving his or her account of a clause and then inviting others to give their accounts in turn. This process is repeated until all the clauses have been covered.
The order in which the clauses are covered is up to the leader. Some like to start at the top of the page and work their way down to the bottom. Others may like to be more random and take the group through the covenant in no particular order. As long as the entire covenant is covered each week, the order is not really important.
One Hour Meetings
The group member leading any given meeting must always keep her or his eye on the clock. Meetings must begin and end on time. One hour. No more. No less. This means the leader is responsible for keeping the conversation focused on the covenant. It also means that the leader must help guide the conversation in such a way that each member has time to give an account of each part of the covenant within the allotted hour. More talkative group members need to be given gentle reminders to be brief in giving their account of each part of the covenant so that everyone will have time to participate within the hour.
Try to leave the last five minutes of the meeting free for members to briefly share prayer concerns. Then the leader concludes the time with a brief prayer, blessing and dismissal.
Be certain that everyone knows who will lead the next meeting before anyone leaves the room at the end of each meeting.
Covenant Is The Agenda
This means that the focus of conversation during the one-hour meeting is discipleship. In particular, the practices the group has agreed to incorporate in to their life together and individually contained in the clauses of the covenant. The leader in any given week needs to be mindful of this important dynamic. Occasionally the group will get distracted a comment or begin discussing recent events in the morning news or recent gossip in the church. When this happens the leader needs to gently intervene and bring the group back to the purpose of the meeting: mutual accountability for discipleship shaped by the covenant written by the group shaped by the General Rule of Discipleship. The covenant is the agenda. Limiting conversation to the agenda will help to maintain focus and keep the meeting to its agreed upon one hour time limit.
Develop an Atmosphere Of Trust & Sharing
Over time, as the group meets faithfully week after week, an atmosphere of trust and sharing will develop. This trust and willingness to share develops and grows when meeting leaders faithfully keep the weekly conversation focused on the discipleship contained in the covenant (the meeting agenda) and regularly begin and end each meeting on time. Trust is built when the discipline of accountability and support for discipleship is routinely maintained.
Confidentiality is also essential to build trust and sharing within the group. The group needs to agree from the beginning to keep confidence with one another. This means that all that is said in the group stays in the group. Nothing that is said in the group meeting may be mentioned to anyone else, ever. No group member should ever hear something he or she said during a meeting outside the context of the group. Confidentiality within the Covenant Discipleship group helps to build trust and deepens the level of accountability and sharing.
Catechesis: Question and Answer
"The most important reason for the sharing of leadership is that the format of the group meeting is what the early church called catechesis, a process of questions and answers. In other words, the distinctive dynamic of covenant discipleship is a dialogue between the leader and each member of the group. This is how the primitive Christian community taught its new members and its children: the catechist was the questioner, and the learners were called catechumens. To this day in a number of denominations, learning one’s catechism is still the first step toward being accepted into full church membership.
"Of course, cont content of the catechesis in covenant discipleship groups is practical rather than doctrinal. But the method is the same, and it is a good one. It means that important aspects of Christian discipleship are first of all agreed and written into the covenant. Then the leader appointed for the week voices them and asks each member to do likewise. In this way the axioms of living a Christian life are written, heard, and spoken.
"A good illustration of this dynamic is what happens in an airplane cockpit before takeoff. There is a basic checklist—so basic that most pilots prior know it backwards. Yet the routine is established. However well they know these basics, the pilots go through them, one by one. They read them out to each other, they physically check that each control is properly set, and they say out loud that they have made the check. The procedure is rudimentary yet very necessary, for human error is always a real possibility.
"How much more, then, should Christians do the same for their discipleship. After all, serving Jesus Christ in the world is the most responsible duty assigned to human beings in this world. It surely merits meticulous checking, for human error is an ever-present possibility" – from Covenant Discipleship by David Lowes Watson (pages 145-6).
Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation through Mutual Accountability by David Lowes Watson is an essential resource for congregational leaders and Covenant Discipleship group members. The first half of the book is a brief review of the theological, biblical, and historic foundations for CD groups. Part Two is a practical guide for organizing a Covenant Discipleship group, writing a covenant of discipleship, leading a weekly meeting, and answering common questions and objections. Ideally, everyone in a CD group should have a copy of this book. They will find it to be a practical and useful resource.
Forming Christian Disciples: The Role of Covenant Discipleship and Class Leaders in the Congregation by David Lowes Watson is written for pastors and other congregational leaders. Watson describes the nature of the congregation and how Covenant Discipleship fits into a disciple-making system. This book is an essential resource because it provides the step-by-step process for introducing Covenant Discipleship to a congregation and the process for supporting and sustaining the ministry over time. This is a good book for Church Councils and pastors to read and study together.
Both books are available from Cokesbury and at Amazon.com.