Covenant Discipleship Groups
I spend a lot of time figuring out ways to measure discipleship and the impact involvement in church has on the lives of young people. Over the past year, I’ve noticed a trend that affects how much youth engage as they grow older. With many younger students, an invitation to show up is enough to get them to youth group, a Bible study, or another youth ministry activity. The chance to explore and be included in a new group can be a powerful draw for the young. Yet as they grow older and become more experienced, youth tend to show up when more than just their presence is required.
It may seem backward, but in order to increase the amount of participation from youth, we need to ask more of them.
Inviting youth to become load-bearing members of the body of Christ can seem daunting. Not everyone will say yes to the opportunity. Yet those who do will become more mature in their faith because of the higher level of expectations placed upon them.
One way of building up youth into load-bearing disciples is to create what we call covenant discipleship groups.
A covenant discipleship group is usually made up of five to seven youth. Together the group writes a covenant that outlines how each member of the group will live out his or her faith as a disciple. The youth leader can help bring the group together and create the covenant, and he or she can even help train a youth or adult volunteer to serve as a leader for the group. However, in a covenant discipleship group, youth are accountable to each other (rather than to the youth leader) to report how they’re growing in faith or to share struggles they’re having. In order to keep each other accountable to the promises they have made, the group meets regularly and checks in with each other weekly via text or other means of communication.
Covenant discipleship groups for youth should offer three things: opportunities to socialize, the expectation of mutual accountability, and a culture of support. Young people thrive in connection—in communities of support. Covenants are sacred agreements between God and people that create relationships, and discipleship is an active following of Jesus’ life and teachings. People are designed to be in community and relationship with each other. What better way to pursue a life of discipleship than with the support and encouragement of peers in covenant with each other!
Today, youth have an increasingly diverse set of social circles begging for their participation, and the world invites them into a life of complexity. Social circles such as friend groups at school, peers in extracurricular activities and teams, and friends and mentors at church are among the circles familiar to other generations. Newer social circles include the networks that form through the use of technology. These social circles are often larger, more diverse, and more complex to navigate than the in-person circles—they also expose young people to wider and wider sets of beliefs and opinions as youth form their identities and grow into adulthood. Social circles are important for development, and of course they will always have a place in the lives of young people. However, covenant discipleship groups are more than just another social circle.
I would make the case that youth are constantly seeking social accountability as they use social media. A picture of an awesome meal, a post about a new activity, a rant about belief, or even that latest meme are advertisements to the world that invite feedback. Several studies have been done about the effect of social media feedback on youth behavior and feelings. Even adults can fall into the same pattern of behavior: we post something we think will generate a ton of likes or comments, and then we wait, monitoring our accounts to see who engages what we post. It’s social accountability, and young people are getting really good at asking the world for feedback on the way they live their lives. Covenant discipleship groups can take that same desire for feedback and apply it to the question “How am I living as a disciple of Jesus Christ?”
Covenant discipleship groups expect transformation, both of the self and of the world. These aren’t Bible studies, places of judgment, or groups that get together to gossip. These are groups that help youth interpret the culture around them, bring faith into their whole lives, and provide support so they can grow as Christians. Ultimately, covenant discipleship groups are safe places where youth can voice their experiences of God. These are groups where the goal isn’t to know the most stuff about God, Jesus, or the Bible. Instead, the goal in covenant discipleship groups is that students deeply share about living in Christ and about the actions they take to gain the mind of Jesus.
It can feel uncomfortable for youth (or for anyone really!) to be in a group where the expectations include sharing about one’s personal relationship with God. So the preparation a youth leader puts into the creation of covenant discipleship groups is paramount. Mutual accountability in a covenant discipleship group should not create an atmosphere where youth feel judged. Instead, a group’s time together should focus on stories of how the members of the group have lived their faith in the past week. As Kevin Watson notes in The Class Meeting: “. . . the primary person judging you in a [mutually accountable group] should be yourself.” Having group members share answers to questions such as “How has my week gone?” or “What have I done or not done to live into our group’s covenant?” demonstrates a willingness to be present and share rather than judge.
Covenant discipleship groups don’t require a lot of space, and they don’t require a curriculum—they just require a little leadership in order to get started, and they require a commitment from students to grow together as load-bearing members of a ministry. Over time, regular meetings and consistent action create transformation, and the changes in a person and in a culture can be incredible.
This post is based on the introduction from an upcoming book: “Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth” that will be published by in July 2016.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.