When we become Christians, we begin a lifelong journey of following Jesus every day. John Wesley taught the early Methodists to meet together in small groups called classes, to help one another along the way. The United Methodist Church continues to encourage Christians to gather in discipleship groups that will help us grow in our love of God and neighbor.
In this episode, we talk about discipleship with three leaders at Discipleship Ministries who have each authored books about leading Covenant Discipleship groups with adults, youth, and children. Their work will inspire you to enter into covenant with fellow disciples of Jesus Christ for your own spiritual growth and the benefit of your church.
Steve Mansakr, Director Wesleyan Leadership
- Disciples Making Disciples: A Guide for Covenant Discipleship Groups and Class Leaders by Steve Manskar
- A Disciple's Journal: A Guide for Daily Prayer, Bible Reading, and Discipleship - Steve's recommended spiritual exercise
- Contact Steve Manskar
Chris Wilterdink, Director Young People's Ministries
- Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth by Chris Wilterdink
- Devozine - Chris recommended this devotional magazine by teens for teens
- Contact Chris Wilterdink
Melanie Gordon, Director Ministry with Children
- Growing Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Children by Melanie Gordon, Susan Groseclose, & Gayle Quay
- Pockets - Melanie recommended this devotional magazine for children and their families
- Contact Melanie Gordon
- Covenant Discipleship: Changing lives, transforming communities on UMC.org
- Disciples making disciples: Life-transforming small groups on UMC.org
- Covenant Discipleship and Wesleyan Leadership resources at DiscipleshipMinistries.org
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This episode posted August 2016.
Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast that offers spiritual food and exercises to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
On this episode we're talking about discipleship and specifically how we can become better disciples of Jesus Christ in our everyday living. I recently talked with several leaders at Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church who have written a series of books to help churches live out their mission of making and developing us as disciples.
I got to speak with Steve Manskar, the Director of Wesleyan Leadership and the author of a new book called Disciples Making Disciples: A Guide for Covenant Discipleship Groups and Class Leaders. We were joined by Chris Wilterdink, who's the Director of Young People’s Ministries and author of a new book titled Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth and Melanie Gordon, the Director of Ministry with Children and author of a new book called Growing Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Children.
We had this conversation during a video conference call recorded on a laptop. And it was my first time recording this way, and apparently I did something wrong. So unfortunately, the quality of the audio is far less than I would like it to be. I want to give special credit to our editor, Phil Arnold, for making it as good as it is.
I thought about not releasing this conversation, but what Steve, Melanie, and Chris share is so good, that I wanted you to hear it, despite the quality of the audio.
So get ready to listen closely to our conversation about growing into everyday disciples…
Joe Iovino: Steve, Melanie and Chris, you guys have written a series of books on Covenant Discipleship, you work for Discipleship Ministries, a general agency of the United Methodist Church, whose mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs. That’s a lot of times we’ve repeated the word ‘disciple.’ So let’s begin there. When we talk about a disciple today, what are we talking about? Steve, do you want to take a shot at this one?
Steve Manskar (SM): A disciple of Jesus Christ is someone who...who does what he told us to do. He summarizes in his teachings in the familiar passage that we know as the Great Commandment—You shall love.... you get that? You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind. Pay attention to those words. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say ‘you shall love the Lord your God with the part of your heart, mind and soul that you feel like giving him today. It’s giving your whole self to love God. And because you love God therefore you love who God loves.
Jesus says, And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. So if you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ you love God, who Jesus is the incarnation of God, and we love who God loves, what God loves. So being a disciple of Jesus Christ is just more than learning about Jesus, it’s living the way Jesus really commands us to live if we’re gonna be his followers.
Being a disciple is about obedience. That’s why we’re baptized into a community, to teach us and show us how to live that way. That’s what baptism is all about. It’s showing us how to live as followers of Jesus Christ in the world, not just in the church, but in the world because in the world is where Jesus is, working to redeem this planet and he’s calling his disciples to come out and join him. And the church is the place where we’re equipped to do that—to go out and join Christ in what he’s up to in the world.
Melanie, did you want to get in?
Melanie Gordon (MG): Sure. When you look at this from the perspective of children, what popped out to me that Steve was saying is children are questioning, who is my neighbor? Who is this that I’m called to—you shall love. Who is this person or who are these people? And during those upper elementary years, developmentally they’re trying to find where they fit in, who they fit in with. So I think that it’s very important that they look at, Okay, who am I to be? Discipleship for them means living into who ... being who Jesus calls us to be and following Jesus and going alongside Jesus and doing those things that have been commanded for us to do. It’s the perfect time developmentally for them to start asking these questions and talking about them together.
Chris, anything to add?
Chris Wilterdink (CW): I don’t know. It’s hard to go third.
Steve and Melanie both brought up really great points that apply to adolescence as well. I wrote the youth version of Covenant Discipleship in this 3-part series we’re talking about. And the idea of neighborliness, of who is my neighbor and how do I serve, then becomes a really big one in the adolescent world. You know, as an adolescent you are figuring out how you can be a little bit more independent, and that you actually can make a difference and apply some of your own will and some of your own desires into the world to make changes and make some differences, to perhaps the way things oughta be. So that call of a disciple for an adolescent or for a young person, in my experience it really has a lot to do with actions, getting out into the world to make a difference to the neighbors and show your love for what God loves. There’s really this call to be in a community and serve, and figure out what it is to love God with your whole self and love your neighbor with your whole self as well.
Let’s back up a little bit. In broad terms how would you describe Covenant Discipleship?
MG: OK, Chris, you said you didn't want to go third again!
CW: The idea of Covenant Discipleship that Steve is gonna flesh out because that’s, I think, something that's consistent across all of them. The part of it for youth that’s really important is the social accountability part of it. We’ve got a collection of young people that are getting more and more used to social networks. And those are really a platform, or a tool designed for social accountability. So I post something to generate likes or to generate conversation. I share pictures of what I’m eating so I get feedback from my friends. I show pictures of when I’m on mission trips or when I am working in a soup kitchen. And I’m doing that not only to do some free marketing for the place that I’m going to serve and hopefully inspire more volunteers there, but I’m sharing that so that I get feedback from my peers and feedback from those people who I value, on the way that I’m using the time in my life. And really that’s one of the major elements of Covenant Discipleship as I’ve come to understand it, is that idea of social accountability, that as disciples we’re here to transform ourselves. We’re here to transform the world. And I do that much better when I have other people that I am on the journey at the same time with, who I can be open with and really share my own activities and get feedback on how I am living my life as a disciple.
That’s the way that the youth or the adolescent piece kinda fits into the idea of Covenant Discipleship where you have that small group that meets together, shares together, prays together and really tries to have the same direction in their spiritual lives.
MG: I’d like to chime in since we’re talking a little bit about developmental and growing everyday disciples who point toward children third grade to fifth grade, maybe a little older, depending on where they are developmentally, this is the piece that I wrote with Susan Groseclose, and Gayle Quay, especially with experience that Gail Quay has had with children over years of doing Covenant Discipleship.
What we hear from parents and people that have worked with guides, is that they are learning ways to be in relationship with God and with others and understanding that there is this group of young people around them who are doing the same thing and they have that same commitment to not only studying scripture and praying for others, but also of then going out and doing this work. What is the service that God has called us to do? This gives them an opportunity and a vehicle for experiencing God through prayer, through study of scripture, through helping others. And I think it’s a real powerful piece for them that impacts them as they grow as disciples.
Being able to be in that group and be affirmed that justice issues are important, passion is important, worship is important, devotion is important. And we’re doing this together for...for something bigger than who we are.
Steve, you want to chime in?
SM: I wrote the, I guess, the adult/congregational book titled Disciples Making Disciples: A Guide for Covenant Discipleship Groups and Class Leaders.
Covenant Discipleship groups mainly for adults... it's both something similar to what...how it works for like the youth and children is a way for anyone who’s ready to be accountable for their discipleship, to meet once a week for one hour to give an account of how they’ve lived as a disciple of Jesus Christ, shaped by a covenant that they’ve written with their group, 5 or 6 other adults. And that covenant is shaped by a rule of life called the General Rule of Discipleship, which is, "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."
So the group takes that general rule and they write their covenant that essentially says, these are the things that we’re willing and able to do and to be accountable for each week. Regular weekly accountability for discipleship is... people are formed as leaders in discipleship. And that’s really what Covenant Discipleship is designed to do. It’s to form the leaders in discipleship that congregations need to do its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Covenant Discipleship groups form the disciples who can disciple others. And historically, our tradition, those people have been called class leaders.
So one of the hoped for outcomes of Covenant Discipleship groups is to re-tradition the office of class leader and classes for today. So what Covenant Discipleship, you know, the people who commit to that weekly accountability for discipleship and being intentional about following Jesus and obeying his command to love God and love their neighbors, love who God loves, and the support that they receive from their fellow group members, some of them will be shaped as leaders in discipleship who will then work...who could be what we call class leaders. And the class leader is simply a member of a Covenant Discipleship group who works as a partner in ministry in discipleship with the pastor.
And then that class leader, that person, they continue to meet with their Covenant Discipleship group because they continue to need that weekly accountability and support. But then now they’re working as a disciple who disciples others. And the way I describe it in the book is that a class leader today is basically a discipleship coach. He or she walks alongside a peer, another member of the congregation—or they could be assigned up to 12 to 20 members of the congregation—to coach in discipleship to help them live and apply the General Rule of Discipleship to their daily lives by being in regular contact and communication with them. You know, personal meetings, phone calls, texting. Like if I was a class leader I’d have a secret Facebook group where they can interact with each other and with me on a regular basis privately.
It’s what I call the method of Methodism. You know, our tradition is such a rich resource. Covenant Discipleship is one of the ways we can draw on that resource. And that one of the cool things about it that I think will be attractive to pastors and congregations is it doesn’t cost them anything. We want them to buy the book, but they don’t have to shell out several hundred dollars to be paying for a program. All they have to do is call me. That’s why we did this work.
And I think it’s wonderful that...the fact that it’s an intergenerational resource because most people are baptized when they’re infants. And that means we have a responsibility for people at all stages of life—from childhood into youth years and young adult and into, you know, middle age and on. And that’s what this ministry is designed to do because, you know, with these 3 new books, Melanie, Sue and Gayle’s book, Growing Everyday Disciples and then Chris’s book Everyday Disciples which applies with youth and it’s also being used on college campuses. And then the adult model that I mostly work with Covenant Discipleship Group.
If my church doesn’t offer this, what would you say to someone about finding some people to get with to do some Covenant-Discipleship-like accountability.
SM: It needs to be part of the life of the congregation to do what it’s designed to do which is to help the congregation be faithful to its mission in the world.
Now, Joe, you talk about.... and this happens a lot... your congregation isn’t gonna do this... should you find... Absolutely. Find a group. But my hope with that is that you will be very intentional about... that it’s not just for you. You’re gonna have a great experience. It is going to change your life.
Again, my hope is that it...you don’t just focus on yourselves. That each of you, if you’re part of different congregations, that you see the goal...the purpose of that group is to form you as a leader for the congregation of which you’re member. Bring that experience and the grace that you receive in your group through some way of serving in your congregation.
I want to shift to age-specific categories, and Chris I won't make you go third again. I'll let you go next. Tell me how in youth ministry Covenant Discipleship plays out, what it looks like, how it may be different from the traditional youth ministry?
CW: Sure. Covenant Discipleship with youth kind of complements traditional model of youth ministry, being that the essential seeds of a Covenant Discipleship group really are a small group of committed people that want to work toward the same goals together. So no matter what the size of the youth ministry is... you know, if it’s a large church with a large youth group, if it’s a smaller church with a handful of youth... this gives them a group of youth equal footing to be on and work with each other to set the goals for their development in discipleship.
So some of your questions had to do with discipleship process or discipleship systems. And in a Covenant Discipleship group the people that make up the group create the covenant that they’re gonna operate in together. Right? And there’s a very empowering sort of focus on that with young people. It says, Yeah, you know what? You’ve been baptized into the church. If you’ve gone through confirmation you’ve taken membership vows and you’re recognized as a full member of the church. And so therefore how would you like to not only help yourself but help others on their spiritual journey?
So Covenant Discipleship with youth involves getting small groups of youth together that would like to live into the same commitment and are willing to regularly check in with each other. Steve already mentioned the guideline of, you know, a weekly one-hour meeting as kinda being the standard for Covenant Discipleship groups. I think that with youth that is an excellent goal. I also don’t know if that’s realistic for youth to be able to meet.
That said, the same social media tools that Steve talked about in terms of texting, Snapchat, Facebook groups—all the different messaging platforms that are out there—youth can be in touch with each other basically 24 hours a day. And studies actually show that youth need to turn off their phones at some point. But if you’re in a group that’s intentional about growing as a disciple, it is very easy to stay in touch with each other and very easy to stay accountable with each other as long as a youth leader or someone in a congregation has kind of given some guidance to help the creation of the covenant and kind of administrate groups and makes sure that they’re connecting and staying on point with other covenant that they've set for themselves.
That said, one of the things that can be a little bit different about it is that a Covenant Discipleship can really break down some of the natural barriers that you might see in a traditional youth ministry setting. Normally kids will get grouped by grade level. Sometimes they’ll get grouped by gender. And Covenant Discipleship groups don’t need to be something that is of one age or of one gender or of one anything. It really is a nice opportunity for small groups to be able to get to know each other. And I would say actually even be able to build intergenerational relationships within a church. If there was a youth who was pretty spiritually mature and wanted to join a Covenant Discipleship group with adults, I would be all for it. I think it would be a tremendous opportunity to showcase what it means to recognize spiritual maturity in a congregation.
The other thing in terms of Covenant Discipleship for youth that I think is really helpful is that Covenant Discipleship really breaks down loving God and loving neighbor into some very specific ideas of what we can do. Some of them you actually do by yourself, having prayer time for myself, having quiet reflection time for myself. Absolutely great. And that’s part of Covenant Discipleship, too. You just also include this group that you’re gonna go and do some public things with as well. You’re gonna participate in worship. You’re gonna look for acts of justice and acts of mercy that you can reach out into the community with. And having those real tangible actions that you can identify with and really try to look at their faith life as something they want to balance between things that are public, things that are private and also balance for loving God and for loving neighbor, are really tangible expressions of faith. Right? Because youth are getting to that developmental place where perhaps the stories that they’ve heard, Do I really believe this? How do I understand everything that I’ve learned as a child growing up in the church? And how do I start to make my faith my own? Having those conversations while doing actions related to faith development, I think, is a very powerful testament. And you do it in an everyday way. You can say, You know what? I need to work on 2 things. I don’t pray very much. So maybe I want to pray a whole lot more. And I don’t volunteer as much as I want, so maybe I want to volunteer more. You pick whatever pieces that you want to develop and then be intentional and regular. And you do everyday things so that they become habit. They become something that’s normal for you and part of your everyday life. And then all of a sudden you find yourself willing to grow and take on a little bit more based on what you give yourself. They add up to tremendous amounts of transformation in the world, through the mission of the church.
Thank you. Melanie, how ‘bout talking to us about Covenant Discipleship with children?
MG: Children’s Covenant Discipleship groups are effective for children approximately 3rd through 6th grade. They’re cognitively and they’re also emotionally ready. So it’s looking for those children who are ready to go deeper in their faith. This is not a curriculum. It is a way to grow deeper in your faith.
One of the things that Steve said that I think is developmentally appropriate for children is understanding that it’s not about them. This is a great time to grab them and help them to understand that. When you’re focusing on the works of piety and mercy and you’re doing that in a group where there is commitment and there is accountability you’re helping children to form this foundation where they’re not just growing as disciples. They’re also preparing to make disciples. And they do make disciples. I think a lot of us can think of ... think of times that children have ministered to us and helped us to see the importance of deepening our own faith.
They have some time to sing and pray at the beginning when they gather and then they will break off into smaller groups, if needed, for what we’re calling ‘compassion time’—time to talk about how have we shown compassion in the past week or not shown compassion in the past week. During this compassion time they’re also talking about how...how did I engage in worship? How did I practice devotions during that week or not. It’s not about sitting there quietly and listening to someone and say, Oh, yeah, I didn’t do this; I didn’t do that; didn’t do this. Well, you know, it’s how can we as your covenant group help you with that? There’s an accountability piece that we want children to understand and understand appropriately.
Now the compassion time, in addition to that, we have something called the JC times, the justice-compassion time, because we want children to also practice in a group, acts of compassion. Sometimes they need to, you know, have their group with them to go to maybe a nursing home and read to someone there or plant a garden for someone. Those are not justice acts. Those are compassion...acts of compassion. The justice piece comes in when they either have someone come in and talk about what’s going on in their community, which they choose. The children along with the leaders choose what this will be. Just like the covenant. They write their own covenant. Takes a little while ‘cause everybody has to be able to have a voice in that. And that’s in the book—how to do that without your hair curling.
Then after they learn about something and really go deep into what is this issue in my community? Then as a group they go out and they do something to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, bring something to the attention of the community after they’ve truly learned about it. And then they have a debrief time where they talk about what they’ve experienced and what they’ve learned and how they can continue to do this or do better in their own lives or help other people to do better in their own life.
One quick story from Oak Ridge United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They had Covenant Discipleship with children for years and years. What they found is these children who were...who stuck with it, and a lot of them kids. I met this one group of girls. They were all girls. And one of the girls was being bullied on a pretty regular basis at school. And because of this covenant group, because of the deep friendship (they called themselves prayer friends forever—PFF) ...because of this group they together decided what needed to be done. They saw this as a justice issue. And this group of girls who at that point were in 8th grade, decided that they were going to write a proposal for the school on how this should be handled. And they went, as a group, to the principal.
The other thing that they did is that they made sure that their friend was never alone at school. They tag-teamed. And I just think as far as justice and compassion are concerned, that this is powerful. And the one piece that’s just so amazing is the first thing they did was they prayed for her. That's the first thing they did. It’s powerful. These children see that it’s not just about them. It’s how we live as disciples of Jesus Christ in a way that is...helps us make disciples and also shows us as true disciples of Christ.
Thank you very much for sharing these ideas with us today in ways that we can begin to learn more about Covenant Discipleship.
I was curious to ask each of you, what is a spiritual discipline or something that you’ve been doing recently or with the children or with the youth that you would recommend to people to try out?
Steve, we’ll start with you. Do you have something in mind?
SM: What comes immediately to mind and this is a shameless plug. Another book that I do...it’s a devotional resource that I use every day called A Disciple's Journal. It provides a daily lectionary. So every day there’s a passage from the Old Testament and the New Testament and a prayer for the week. So I read those lessons. That’s the purpose of this book. It’s really designed to be used with people in Covenant Discipleship groups. For me, I find it...frankly I created it for myself and other people thought in my Covenant Discipleship group said, Can we have one? And that’s how it all...it just sort of snowballed. We produce a new one every year. A new one, the next one will out in probably September or October sometime. I’m finding that the journal to be a valuable thing for my personal prayer life.
And we’ll be sure to put a link for that on the site for this episode so people can just click and find that devotional.
Chris, for you is there something that comes to mind that you would recommend?
CW: Yes. I’d like to share two, if I can. Particularly for youth there are several apps and services and provide daily devotionals and things sent to you by email or text, those kinds of things. And Devozine which is one of the publications of The Upper Room, has some really great daily devotionals for teens. And they’re designed and written by teens for teens. So if you’re a youth or you’re working with youth in any kind of area and you would like to provide some sort of daily sort of spiritual nourishment or devotional type stuff, that a really, really great one.
One of the things that I’ve been doing recently is just trying to be very intentional about when I get up in the morning, whatever time that is (I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. Get up before the sun.) ...is just ask myself the question really early in the day, Where do I expect to see God today? And praying that question and just get it in my head early so that throughout my day I can be more intentional than I would otherwise be to look for where I think I see the Holy Spirit moving. To be willing to put myself in perhaps unfamiliar situations or meet with those that might be considered ‘the other.’ You know, look for opportunities to connect with people that are different from myself. And just asking that question first thing in the morning really ends up being a pretty good one for me.
I would love to tell you that I’m really great about then, you know, going home at night and then writing down, using like a journaling app or something, saying, "Oh yeah, here's what I did today and it’s incredible." I don’t do that followup part nearly as well. But at least I start my day pretty good.
How about you, Melanie?
MG: I’m gonna give a plug for children especially and families. Pockets Magazine is just excellent for...in all kinds of ways with daily devotionals for children. I read it myself. It’s right over there. If I were close enough I’d go pick it up, but I have in earbuds and that would not be good. So, I really do encourage people...families to read Pockets on a regular basis and use it in their own spiritual lives in prayer.
For me as I go through these cycles of different things I do at different times. In my own Master’s thesis was on the Jesus Prayer. And I go back to the Jesus prayer every now and then. So I sit and I also practice yoga. So a lot of times in my breathing I am breathing through that prayer each morning and I do that for about 5 to 10 minutes or so. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." And I always tell people I put the sinner... ‘a sinner’ in sometimes when life has become a little crazy. I need a little more forgiveness. That, for me, is very centering. I think it's something like doing lectio for me. It just brings that feeling for me.
Thanks you guys, thanks for being with us today.
I'm deeply grateful to Steve, Melanie, and Chris for that amazing conversation about developing our discipleship no matter what stage of life we're in.
I still haven't figured out what that noise was, but I can promise you I wasn't eating potato chips during the recording.
To learn more about discipleship, to purchase Steve, Melanie, and Chris's books, or to find more about the spiritual exercises they suggested, visit our page at UMC.org/podcasts. We've posted links on the page for this episode.
While you're there, leave a comment about this episode or suggestions for future topics. My email address is also there if you'd like to get in touch with me.
Hey, thanks again for listening. We'll be back soon with more conversations and tools to help get our spirits in shape. We have episodes planned for the fall about going to college, giving, and even advice from a 95-year-old woman about friendship. We hope that you'll continue to download and even subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
I'm Joe Iovino with United Methodist Communications and UMC.org. Peace.