This Church’s Discipleship Program Started at the Right Time—in the Pandemic

By Keri Wyatt Kent

When is the worst time to launch a brand-new discipleship program? You might ask Discovery Church in Colorado Springs. You might also ask them how to grow your church during a global pandemic.

In late January, Discovery Church in Colorado Springs, CO, launched a three-tier discipleship program at their church. About six weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic sent their entire discipleship program online. 

Turns out they were actually ahead of schedule.

Poised for growth

Discovery Church has actually seen an uptick in most of the metrics other churches are seeing fall: weekend attendance, small group participation, and giving.

“It was a God moment,” says Pete Heiniger, Discovery’s executive pastor. “We chose to start a discipleship process, and part of what we taught was about recurring giving, right before the pandemic hit. Giving is up 12 percent, and hasn’t fallen off. And we were able to move swiftly into online groups.”

That’s according to the team at Discovery Church in Colorado Springs, CO.

“We saw this as an opportunity to innovate,” says discipleship pastor Jason Privett. “We’ve seen more people join groups, because they are searching for community.”

Transitioning to all online groups had its challenges, but the powerful combination of technology and a user-friendly curriculum has kept things moving forward. Initially, there were practical concerns, such as teaching members and staff how to use video group chat.

“We were walking through things like how to unmute yourself in a video chat on Zoom or Jitsi, how to download Google Chrome, just how to use the tools,” Privett says. “Especially for our older crowd, that took longer than we thought it would.”

But now, Discovery Church members are embracing the chance to connect virtually. They’re even starting their own groups on faithlife.com. And the church’s small groups include people not just in Colorado but across the country.

Growth from online

Heiniger notes that as a leader, he also had to figure out how to “repurpose about 60 percent of my staff, most of whom were focused on weekend services, and are now working remote.” Online project management software helped him communicate and lead his staff.

Streaming their services not just on the internet but also on local television stations has taken the church from about 2,000 weekly attendees to a potential local audience of 99,000 viewers. About 20,000 people streamed their Easter service this year, as compared to last Easter when 4,500 people attended in person.

During the pandemic lockdown, when many churches have struggled with falling revenues, they’ve actually seen giving increase, according to Heiniger. He attributes the growth in giving and volunteerism to the discipleship track the church implemented in January.

“We’re increasing because we talked to people about giving and how it’s part of discipleship and why it’s important,” he says. “We now have more people volunteering to help than we have needs. We are starting to ask other churches if they need help so we can go help mobilize them.” Many of those watching online are eager to get involved, which right now means joining online groups. Social isolation has fueled people’s hunger to be with others, enough that they are willing to work through the challenges of learning how to use technology to do so.

“We’ve seen hundreds of people move into faithlife.com groups,” Heiniger says. “We’re privileged to have Faithlife as a partner. They got our team up to speed, because not all of our people were tech savvy. We would not have been able to pull it off without them.”

The church’s website makes it easy to find a group. They have a wide variety of offerings, and users can filter their search using a number of criteria such as “Stage of Life” and “Day of the Week” meeting times. There are a number of open groups that anyone can join at any time.

Katie Lachance, small groups director at Discovery, says that she’s got 35 new small groups that began meeting online. Another 30 existing groups are continuing, transitioning from in-person meetings to online.

Discovery has different kinds of groups: Study groups that might do a Bible study curriculum or go through a class like Financial Peace University, Life Groups that provide community and connection with others, and then discipleship groups that go through a specific growth track curriculum the church calls Incline.

“A lot of Life Groups start out as small groups, and as they create community, they find their tribe,” Lachance says. “Small groups are typically six to twelve weeks, but Life Groups are ongoing. They don’t want to stop meeting. They are willing to delve deeper.”

During a pandemic, Lachance says people are hungry for the community that Life Groups offer. And once small group leaders and members got up to speed on the technology, they embraced meeting online. “Online groups are not going away,” Lachance says. Even when things open up, she predicts online groups will be more convenient for many people.

A newcomer finds community

Lachance points to the story of a woman who moved to Colorado Springs from out of state just two weeks before the Centers for Disease Control recommended isolating at home. “She was struggling with her faith, and she reached out to try to join a small group,” Lachance says. The woman was invited to an online group, where she found community and a safe place to bring her doubts and questions.

“She told the group she didn’t have a Bible; someone in the group dropped one at her doorstep the next day,” Lachance reports. “They welcomed her into the group. She found a community of strong women, a safe place for walking through a significant struggle in her faith.” Being a part of this online group experience helped this woman both spiritually and emotionally and connected her to the church.

New Christians discover the joy of giving

Heiniger says about 70 percent of Discovery’s members are people who never went to church or have had a bad experience with church in the past. Many come to the church looking for help with recovery from addiction. Because of that, the church was very cautious about asking people to give financially. They didn’t even pass an offering plate, choosing to have unobtrusive collection boxes in the back of the church.

Their new discipleship program, however, starts with some basics of faith, including the importance of giving. “Money is a heart issue,” Privett asserts. “We frame it as what we want for you, not from you.” They encourage people to start small with giving, “and see what God does.” They tell testimonials about how God has blessed those who give. Heiniger says he invites people to “give through us, rather than to us,” to help community partners that, for example, help the homeless.

This is just one subject addressed in the Trailhead class, the first tier of Discovery’s three-tier discipleship program. They also cover the church’s mission, values, and history, and invite participants to sign up to serve. When it comes time to talk about giving, Heiniger says the discipleship teaching emphasizes “not an amount but recurring giving. We’re not pushing for a tithe right away, but to decide on an amount and ‘set it and forget it’ with regular online giving.” As a result, giving is up 12 percent, even during the pandemic.

“Each week, I’m sending a thank-you note to 12 or 13 new first-time givers,” Heiniger says. “If we hadn’t had those first two weeks of Incline, it would have been a different story.”

Up the incline

Located in Colorado Springs, Discovery decided to look to the landscape for inspiration for its discipleship program. Everyone begins with the aforementioned “Trailhead.” Once people have completed Trailhead, they move on to “Incline,” which includes two four-week modules. 

“Our church was desperately hungry for spiritual formation and learning, which we didn’t know,” says Heiniger. When they launched Trailhead and Incline, Heiniger says, “We knew we’d get a large number, but we had no idea it would be 400 people.”

Incline is named after a local hiking trail, the Manitou Incline, which climbs 2,000 feet in elevation. The trail’s first half (and the class’s first four weeks) is called the Barr Trail. The second half is called Club 2744, because Barr Trail is 2,744 steps to the top. The Barr Trail class is a four-week class that introduces the Bible, translations, study methods, and explores the question “How do I know what I should believe?” The second four weeks (Club 2744) covers Communion, worship, baptism, and the question “Who is Jesus?”

The first Trailhead class was in January, and then Incline began in mid-February. Held at church, the classes combined in-person teaching with short Faithlife Mobile Ed videos (video teaching from top professors throughout the world). They had finished three of the four weeks when the pandemic shuttered the church. Incline was designed to communicate the church’s basic values and provide a growth track for potential leaders, Lachance says. People from all different faith backgrounds take the class.

“People who are super knowledgeable and strong and people who are really fresh in their faith are learning together,” she says. A clear presentation of the basics of faith is often new to people who didn’t grow up in church, but it is also helpful for those who have attended church for a while but “were never given the opportunity to receive that foundational information” to be able to start fresh.

After a short break to do some training on technology (such as how to show a video when you’re conducting the class via video chat), the class continued. Of the 400 who completed the initial Trailhead prerequisite, about 250 people are currently taking the Incline class. Other new groups launched as well.

Digging into community and Scripture

Lachance says participation is up across all types of groups but people seem most interested in Life Groups, where they can simply connect and find relationships to ease the loneliness of the pandemic’s social isolation. “It’s hard to have a strong relationship with God without community,” Lachance says. “God created us for relationship, so our goal is to create community and connection.”

Two popular open groups are one led by Lachance, which is reading and discussing the book The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp, and another led by Privett called SOAPing with J (Privett’s nickname is J). Both meet via video chat. In SOAPing with J, Privett uses the popular SOAP Bible study method (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer) to lead a study through Ephesians. The group meets for just an hour on Wednesdays.

Privett says the group begins with checking in, asking everyone how they are doing: sad, angry, scared, happy, and so on. He then gives them fifteen minutes to read the passage for that week, silently. That’s right: they are on a video chat, but each person is reading the passage silently to themselves. “It’s another opportunity for them to slow down even more,” he says. After that time of reading individually, Privett walks them through Observation, Application, and Prayer.

The members don’t have to do homework, but he encourages them to read each week’s passage once on their own before the group and to keep a journal of their experience with the group. The aim of the SOAPing group, and the discipleship training of Incline, is to teach people to nurture their own spiritual walk, something that congregants and pastors both should focus on.

“Never has it been so important to attend to ourselves,” Privett says. “If you look at any character in the Bible, they took time to refuel, to nurture and experience the deep love of God. They were relying on a deeper source.”

Privett says that pastors who want to hurry to meet in person should look carefully at their motives. “Is it their congregations that energize them, rather than God?” he muses. “Is my identity found in how I’m coming through for people, or is Jesus the author of my identity?”

Looking ahead

In his SOAPing study, and in his broader work of discipleship, Privett says there is a benefit to the stay-at-home orders brought on by the pandemic. During our normal busy lives, we can “medicate with go, go, go. We fill the void with busy,” Privett says. “But busy just turned off. People are forced to pause and be present.”

So what happens when online is not the only option, and things return to some semblance of normalcy? “We’re working on ways to have both in-person and virtual meetings,” Privett says. “When we do get the go-ahead to meet in person, life is definitely going to be different.”

Heiniger agrees. They hope, as lockdown restrictions ease, to eventually begin meeting in person in smaller groups, but because of the size of the church, “we’re stuck in a virtual world for the foreseeable future,” he says. His advice? “You can’t lose sight of the mission, which for us is being a place of rescue. We’ve just got a different way of carrying it out. You can’t lose sight of why you have the doors open in the first place.” 

“Quarantine is producing some new ways of doing ministry,” observes Allen White, a church consultant and author of Exponential Groups. “It gives the church permission to experiment. It also gives the church an opportunity to launch new initiatives to reach people with the gospel and disciple them.”

That’s definitely been Discovery’s experience.

“The engagement in these classes is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Heiniger adds. “I’m watching people grow. I’m having people come up to me after classes telling me what they’re learning and taking away. This is their first discipleship class, and they’re telling me all their learnings and what they’re doing with it.”

People are surprisingly hungry for discipleship paired with community. And by embracing technology and a strong curriculum for growth, they can experience it even amid being quarantined.

“Don’t underestimate your people,” Heiniger says. “And don’t underestimate the work. It’s not always easy, but it’s probably the greatest shot in the arm that our church has had.” 

***

This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of Ministry Team magazine.

Keri Wyatt Kent is the author of GodSpace: Embracing the Inconvenient Adventure of Intimacy With God and 12 other books. Her company, A Powerful Story, provides collaborative writing, editing, and self-publishing services. Connect with her at keriwyattkent.com.

 

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