What We Did
In 2008, I was appointed to University United Methodist Church in San Antonio to be the Discipleship Pastor. At my previous appointment at Grace in Corpus Christi, I was doing a lot of work and research into systematic discipleship. I was trying, in a modern context, to connect back to John Wesley’s methodical ways of helping people grow as disciples.
Rev. Charles Anderson, the Directing Pastor at University, was looking to implement a new systematic discipleship plan. The bishop and cabinet saw fit to appoint me to work alongside him as an associate pastor.
We did good work there. We created and implemented a Pathway to Discipleship. We had classes, and we had the infrastructure. We tracked people as they came into the system and as they moved along as disciples. I said then, and I say now, the structure of staying connected to people and guiding them is just as important as the classes themselves. I think we got the tracking part right.
What was Wrong?
The only problem was participation. No matter how well we stayed in contact with people and encouraged them to learn and grow as disciples, a high percentage was just not engaging in any further spiritual development after joining the church. The level of attrition from the first session of a class to the last was always disappointing. And the attrition from one phase of the pathway to the next was even worse.
Because this whole thing was an experiment, and we were carefully tracking everyone, I was able to ask people what was going on. For most, it wasn’t a lack of interest. It was a lack of time.
We can talk all we want about people’s need to make the time for what is important. But we all know the pressure we face in our culture. We are all crazy busy. We end up making decisions, not on true priority, but on perceived lack of friction. “Which of these things is easiest to say no to?” The church tends to be a graceful and low-conflict institution. (By the way, those two things are not the same.) We don’t like to make people feel bad, we don’t like to push. We are afraid people will leave. And honestly, we would rather have them showing up for worship once a month than leaving entirely.
Skating to the Puck
If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t necessarily push harder. I think, I hope, if I had it to do over again, I would have skated to where the puck was going, not to where it already was.
Where was the proverbial puck going? Online.
During my tenure overseeing discipleship, I had one staff member who started seminary online. I had another who completed a large part of her college degree online. That did inspire me. But not enough. We started one online class.
If I had it do over again, I would have dumped all of our efforts and resources online. The “in person” class would have still existed, but it would have become the outlier. The online class would have been standard. And, I think, we would have helped a lot more people become disciples.
I can hear the pushback already. I know people need to come together for prayer, mutual support, and Bible study. But they are not.
However, I do believe, if we truly equip them as disciples, they will come together for prayer, mutual support, and Bible study. That is what disciples do. We can teach that. But to teach it, we may need to go where people are already: online.
Teaching people to make Christ a priority in their lives means finding a way to reach them where they are. If we can accept that they are busy, overwhelmed, stretched to their limits, maybe we can offer to teach in a way that they can handle.
Fortunately, we live at a time when all of this is possible. Online learning has come a long way in the last few years. Just getting started can feel like a big step. However, it is not that difficult and it is that important.
I will be sharing some information and resources about online learning. In the meantime, have you taken any courses online? If so, what was your experience like? How would you feel about online bible study?
What a great idea! If there were more online options I bet I’d have taken lots more classes.
I took a few courses online and what I’ve noticed is that if they’re too simple (basic busy work – write 150 words answering a writing prompt — basically so the instructor knows you actually read the material) it’s not fun and becomes a waste of time. Also the product/homework required is always the same – writing! Meanwhile in a traditional classroom setting, you’re forced to work in groups (not super fun) and often present what you’ve learned in a variety of ways: rap, poster, skit, etc (fun!)… If the online instructor could allow for homework/final project/product submissions in a variety of ways online bible study could be the coolest thing ever!
An independent/distance learning model might work best.
Looking forward to reading your next post!
Susan, thanks for the comments. You brought up something I hadn’t thought about. Online learning might also be attractive to those of different learning styles and personality types. Some people just don’t learn well in a group setting. In addition to time flexibility, e-learning might provide some better options for people who are wired in different ways.
Will, I am thinking about our time together during this “experiment.” The idea of online study is right on. However, something to think about – – timing of the online classes. When to begin and end. Or maybe ongoing – the ability to jump in anytime. I remember when I joined The U it was summertime. The classes did not start until the Fall. I was hungry for bible study but had to wait. I didn’t want to wait and jumped into the wrong class (just happened to be your class and boy am I glad) – ahead of the prescribed schedule. Timing is critical.
Thank you for the comments, Sue! That is really helpful. That is another potential advantage of online learning. I can see some options where a class had a set start and end date. However, there is also a movement toward an “any time, any platform” design. That means that there would be certain classes that would always be available. Those classes won’t have any online community presence to them. But, they are perfect for people who want to jump right in. People can take them on their own schedule, at their own pace, and via computer or mobile device.
Hi, Will. In many ways, I agree with your sentiments and conclusion. I’ve found that while people will/can not make time for classes and educational gatherings, they will make time for relationships. If education happens in the context of micro-groups, discipling groups, mentor-style discipleship, people will come and stay at a higher rate. The issue is that FEWER people will cross the threshold to enter this kind of group. I also agree that the online environment will be the fastest growing one for learning in the church. I am currently working on creating video series of teachings that are short and to the point so that people can watch them anytime from anywhere. There is space for both real time and anytime conversation and community online as well. My question is how do we gather in groups of support and accountability to make sure these ideas and teachings stick and are applied to daily living? I’m eager to have discipleship take place through a combination of online learning and discipleship groups. Who is doing this well? What does it look like?
Ray, thanks for the feedback. I agree that relationships are where deep discipleship happens. It is my hope that learning will open the door for people to enter into relationships. I believe that, as people learn, they will be drawn deeper into the gospel, which will lead them into relationships. That seems backwards to me but it may be part of the shifting reality.
I am still searching out churches that are finding ways to connect digital learning and relationships. I will keep everyone posted on what I learn.
Interesting. Thanks for these thoughts. I tend to see relationships as the context of learning (I think this is how Jesus discipled), but I think I see what you mean about learning opening a door for relationships. I think it depends on what people are looking for. There are some that approach faith in terms of understanding and knowledge – they may want to learn first and through that come to form relationships. There are certainly others that are interested more in being with people. Learning happens very inherently in that process of coming to know someone. The more I think about it, the more we need both as doorways to the other.
Will, thanks for this look both back and forward. I too am very interested in the interplay of real time online conversation, easily accessed learning, and the question of learning styles. It really is a matter not of asking, how do we use this tool to do what we used to do or used to hope to get done, but how can this tool do things we haven’t thought of yet? What are the basic goals, or outputs, and what are the methods?
Not that I know the answers–that’s what you smart people are for!
I love that line: “but how can this tool do things we haven’t thought of yet?”
Talk about great timing on on topic! Thanks for your insight, Will! You gave me a lot to think about and consider as I continue to plan for classes in the fall and winter.
Elizabeth, let me know if you need help. I would love another laboratory!
I may take you up on that offer!
Will, I am one of many of the ‘WAY-OLDER ” GENERATION of members -and as such my opinion is that we MUST also take care of the ones we have(note: this is perhaps impossible in a mega church??)..what I miss is not the “pathways” but the fellowship while doing the pathways. I have not found this from my computer. HOWEVER, I am open to what might be developed..and am starving for bible study online that you mention.
Maxine, you are right on target with the importance of fellowship. That will never be the same online. Although, I do think there are many options for creating online community, especially for those who just can’t be physically present at the church or other gathering spot.
Online learning will never be able to replace the power of relationships. As I mentioned in my reply to Ray (above), I am hoping that through engaging people in the gospel teachings, they may be drawn into deeper relationships.
Thanks for the comment!
Will, The kids had hybrid (on line and class room) courses in school. That set up would reduce the travel commitment but still allow face to face time for the fellowship. I don’t know the right mix of on line and class room but there should be some education research out there some place. Having led a couple of studies, I’d commit to be at the church every week. Folks could join me there or on line,they could pick as their situation dictates. My thoughts are that once the group formed and folks got to know each other, there would be more of a move for face to face fellowship.