Covenant Discipleship Groups(David Lowes Watson)

Covenant Discipleship Groups have been developed in the United States with the aim of helping established Christians grow in all areas of Christian discipleship through a process of mutual accountability.

Covenant Discipleship is not another course. Rather it is a way of being that ensures growth and development are ongoing processes in the discipleship journey. As such it provides valuable practices and challenges that fresh expressions, together with established churches, may well find helpful.

What are they?

Covenant Discipleship Groups are small groups of five to seven persons who meet for an hour a week with the intention of members supporting and watching over each other in their discipleship. The emphasis is on mutual accountability.

The groups are not another form of fresh expression or renamed cell groups. Nor are they prayer groups, Bible study groups or nurture groups. They do have resemblances to the original Wesley Class Meetings of which David Lowes Watson is a great enthusiast.

The General Rule of Discipleship

At the heart of a Covenant Discipleship Group is the 'General Rule of Discipleship':

To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings, through the acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Acts of devotion and compassion are presented as the private and personal outworkings of discipleship, whilst acts of worship and justice are seen as the public and social outworkings.

The inclusion of acts of justice is particularly welcome as this is an area that is often overlooked or only given brief mention in many discipleship courses. The Introduction to Covenant Discipleship states that: 'we must not only minister to people in need, but also ask why they are in need'.

How the groups work

When a group comes together, its first task is to establish its own covenant. The covenant is designed so that all the members of the group can hold each other accountable for a series of commitments that they make, covering the four acts of discipleship. To help the formulation of the covenant, the introductory workbook gives sample layouts and clauses. Once agreed, the covenant becomes the agenda for the weekly meetings.

Meetings begin with prayer and then the group goes through the covenant clause by clause with each member in turn giving an account of his or her discipleship over the past week. The leader of the group is expected to be directive but the leadership changes each week, so that all share the experiences of leading and being led.

The covenant itself is reviewed periodically. In practice, groups are often too ambitious in their objectives and have to modify their targets.

Who has produced it?

Covenant Discipleship Groups have been developed in the United States by David Lowes Watson supported by the Small Group Ministries Department of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church.

In the UK, Jenny Impey is seeking to develop Covenant Discipleship and in time to produce Anglicised versions of the materials. Jenny is one of the Chairs of the London District.

What does it claim to do?

Covenant Discipleship claims to provide a framework in which disciples practise mutual accountability, watching over each other in grace and love. It also says that using such a framework: 'prevents us from deceiving ourselves about what we are and are not doing for Christ.'

Does it do what it says on the cover?

This is hard to determine in the UK, given that groups have yet to be established here.

What's missing? 

It is not clear from the introductory material how Covenant Discipleship Groups fit within the accountability structure of a church. This issue is complicated by the rotating leadership model advocated. If such groups do develop, clear guidelines will be needed on accountability structures and communication channels.

UK based training materials and courses will also be needed.

Would Covenant Discipleship Groups work in a fresh expression context?

Yes they would. The advocates of Covenant Discipleship Groups argue that they are not for all but rather just for 'those who are ready to become leaders in discipleship'. This is rather puzzling given David Lowes Watson's interest in the early class meetings, which were for all.

Although the origins of Covenant Discipleship Groups lie in the 18th century, there is something very contemporary about them. Post-modern culture is full of accountability networks linked together by texting, emails and mobile phone calls. Coffee shops have made a comeback and they and pubs are full of people who meet weekly to watch over each other (although they might not use this phrase).

Covenant Discipleship Groups could work very well with the post-modern generation and with younger people (including students) in particular. They would fit very well in a café church that could open for breakfast. An hour's prayers and reflection over bacon rolls and coffee would be a great way to start the day!

If a fresh expression did not want to adopt the full model, many valuable principles could be learnt from Covenant Discipleship Groups to help build churches that are true discipleship making and sustaining communities.

In conclusion

Covenant Discipleship Groups are not where discipleship happens. It is where we make sure it happens.

As such they have a lot to contribute in ensuring that discipleship is about much more than doing a course. The concept and materials are worthy of study and reflection. They could be a very welcome way of developing discipleship in the UK.

How to obtain the material

Find out more about Covenant Discipleship Groups on the United Methodists' General Board of Discipleship website. For more information about Covenant Discipleship in the UK contact Jenny Impey on jennyimpey@aol.com.