Case Study: How to Facilitate True Discipleship

Date Posted: 5/7/2014

Visitors and members of Faithbridge, a United Methodist Church in Spring hear and see discipleship modeled in terms of Grow Group +2 (worship and service). Learn more about insight Faithbridge leaders have gleaned in creating a detailed discipleship process that is inspiring incredible spiritual growth and transformation from the inside out.

Leslie Roberts knows firsthand that life change happens best in community. Her story is a little different than most. She was born and raised Jewish, but as a young adult she sensed there was more to God than she had experienced. “I began studying on my own and prayed that God would help me find that path He had for me,” she shares. “I woke up one Sunday and asked my husband if we could go to Faithbridge because we are always hearing good things from our friends that go there. We attended and learned the very next weekend was Faithbridge 101 class. There I met -- and became fast friends with -- my table’s ministry guide, Janice.” Adds Leslie, “I then joined a Grow Group, which was wonderful from the first day we walked in. I got a big hug, soon shared my faith story, and felt like I could comfortably ask any question on my heart.”

Janice encouraged Leslie to deepen her faith by studying Discipleship Essentials in a 25-week microgroup focused on personal spiritual formation. “It’s been so fun to help someone to love Jesus more,” Janice shares. “What a blessing to be at her baptism and to get to see her continuing to blossom and absorb new insight like a sponge.”

Leslie’s story is just one of many experiencing and sharing life transformation in -- and through – Faithbridge. Key staff members are quick to note that this culture of discipleship did not ‘just happen.’

Creating an Environment for Life Change: Key Steps
Becoming an externally focused church starts with a pastor’s vision for a congregation devoted to active participation and personal commitment. Rev. Ken Werlein’s clear expectation of member involvement has been honed over the years and currently saturates the Faithbridge culture. In fact, according to Connections Director Marianne Reed, visitors and even transferring Methodists must sign a covenant and complete several requirements before officially joining Faithbridge. “Ideally, newcomers fill out the connection card in the bulletin when they visit, they get a welcome call from me or another representative of the church, they attend one of the monthly Faithbridge 101 orientations, meet with their Ministry Guide to choose a Grow Group and commit to a Serve Team,” says Marianne. “Members must sign a covenant to take an active role.” She admits that the pastor has heard every excuse in the book for avoiding this covenant. “Faithbridge is all about disciples actively making more disciples.”

In recent years, Faithbridge leaders have been tweaking existing ideas and creating new systems that have included the following steps or phases:

  1. Audit: A closer look, stem to stern
“When we were transitioning out of the school and into a permanent facility, we realized it was the perfect opportunity to look at everything and see what we could do better,” says Dan Stagle, Bridging Pastor. Faithbridge hired a consultant to help them move from the “more is better” mentality to “less is more.” This involved a recommitment to the vision of “making stronger disciples that make other stronger disciples” and putting everything under the microscope to evaluate whether or not it was helping accomplish that specific vision. “Instead of measuring nickels and noses,” adds Dan, “we tossed those metrics out several years ago for a more biblical view that would measure how we were growing in prayer, holiness, serving and sharing. The benefits are notable, as we remain tenacious about measuring everything according to how it is strengthening discipleship. At least once or twice a year we continue this process by analyzing everything we are doing against that measuring stick of discipleship.” Recognizing that serving others is a prominent characteristic of a disciple, Faithbridge continues to offer easy on-ramps for newcomers to get involved with mission work, such as Taking it to the Streets day (that has drawn as many as 1600 into an array of 500 service projects). Discipleship is also strengthened via four primary international mission partners and by working alongside other local mission groups that fit their mission. “Beginning with the membership covenant, we work to cultivate missional interest,” notes Dan. “As an example, one of our members followed his passion and helped us launch a nonprofit called Bridging for Tomorrow.”
  1. Clarifying Discipleship: Defining the pathway and creating a missional culture
“When we realized we needed more disciplers who could disciple youth and other adults, we devoted the better part of a year to determining what that disciple path would look like,” recalls Dylan Lucas, who serves as the Discipleship Pastor. “Many books, white board discussions and meetings later we decided to start raising up leaders through microgroup threesomes that would study through Discipleship Essentials together, as a starter.”  As a pilot project, staff microgroups tested this dynamic, found it offered authentic discipleship training, and began identifying others to participate. “This grassroots approach has brought dozens of us into a deeper knowledge of the Bible and provided great leaders for our larger Grow Groups,” he explains.  As individuals learn more about the discipleship experience, they are encouraged to partner with newcomers and repeat the process to raise up a new generation of leaders. Dylan encourages all participants to use the book as a guideline to help each other see God at work – or where God needs to be at work in places within their lives. “Someone once invested in our lives to help us grow spiritually, so we want that to be a common value and priority at Faithbridge,” adds Dylan, who also recommends reading: Transforming Discipleship. He is quick to add that this did not happen overnight. “Our church leaders determined to go in this direction, put the resources, time and energy in to create a department for it, and have been patient to let it take root. By showing members ‘there is more’ to faith, we draw them in, help them succeed and encourage them in their faithfulness – knowing that the disciples must truly be in mission with you or that discipleship won’t live on.”
  1. Consistent Communication
In 2006, Faithbridge moved into a new facility and began implementing their intentional and streamlined focus on making true disciples. Having clarity and a plan is only effective if it is communicated clearly, so leaders defined the characteristics of a disciple, mapped out the discipleship pathway and applied that same degree of intentionality to a communication plan to move the church forward. “Turning a 3,000-member church in any direction takes time,” notes Dylan. Under the direction of Worship &Communication Director Justin Teague, Faithbridge has kept the ‘main thing, the main thing’ in terms of discipleship focus and continues to keep communications simple, clear and graphically consistent.
Justin says, “From a macro level to the micro, our goal is to do a few things with excellence rather than a lot of things with minimal impact. For communications this means striving to be as intentionally focused in our messaging as possible. This intentionality is vital, because we are not immune from the common problem in churches to be tempted every week to divert our attention to many other great projects and initiatives. But by setting parameters for ourselves beforehand with a stated mission and strategy, we are freed from having to make a value judgment about what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Instead, we simply ask ourselves ‘does this clearly and effectively help us accomplish our mission?’”
“We take our branding very seriously and do not distribute dozens of emails a day or flyers on hot pink paper,” adds Dan. “There is a scarcity of material going out – only that which all agree fits our message. Since time and attention is scarce these days, that well defined communication strategy seems to keep our discipleship focus front and center with visitors and members alike.”
Visible changes
“All kinds of things are happening as a result of this intentional focus on true spiritual discipleship,” adds Dylan. “I can point to marriages that have been saved, dads that are taking new leadership roles in their families and in the church, and many more of our members becoming missional in new ways. As microgroup members join and lead the Grow Groups, the conversations tend to go deeper and the blessing of learning becomes contagious. God has richly blessed our process so far.”