The Discipleship Project

Doug SchonbergDavid MoodyDoug Schonberg and David Moody are the pastor and music coordinator respectively at Chippawa Presbyterian Church in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Having been so richly blessed by God through The Discipleship Project, they have chosen to make it available to the wider church.

I confess I am a gleaner. Like Ruth I have followed behind the harvesters, gathering up leftover grain. Like the disciples, indeed, like many pastors, I have picked heads of grain from fields that weren't mine. I have been trying to stave off our starvation.

We were typically mainline. We are historic, founded in 1831 by Scottish settlers, descendants of whom still worship here. We were aging. The Sunday School had come near to collapse. There were no youth groups. Families with children could be counted on one hand. Congregational giving was contracting and we were becoming increasingly dependent upon our endowment. We were inward-looking with our focus, mission and energy being directed to those within the congregation. Typically Presbyterian, our faith was considered personal, private and not to be imposed on others by sharing it. We were anorexic and like those who suffer with the disease, had trouble seeing it.

So I gleaned. I read the books written to tell pastors how to feed and grow churches: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Leonard Sweet, Bill Easum, Tom Bandy, George Barna, Lyle Schaller, and Christian Schwarz. We sent a small team to receive training in Alpha and began to offer the course. We offered a course to help people uncover their spiritual gifts. We took a team to visit a thriving congregation in our denomination to give us a picture of health. We incorporated some of their ideas. To supplement the music ministry of the choir, we developed praise teams as a means of including current expressions of worship in our service. We initiated a contemporary worship service one Sunday evening a month. We redesigned our Sunday School model. On our bulletin boards, we posted courses and conferences being promoted to our church. These courses were verbally encouraged when they seemed especially relevant. We wanted people to grow and mature, to be fed. We collected, gathered and laid out a buffet of opportunities to worship, to learn and to serve. Then we waited for the crowds to come to the table.

Only a few came.

The harvest was plentiful. The buffet was laid out. I was becoming very anxious that all would spoil and go to waste. How could we get our people to eat?

In my continued reading, the following line from author and consultant Tom Bandy, emerged before me with the strength and clarity of a call of God. "Even a ten percent increase in serious, intentional adult spiritual growth can offset operating deficits and increase volunteerism for children and youth ministries. In the end, adult spiritual growth multiplies mission to all generations…"1 There was no question now. Our adults absolutely needed to grow and mature in their faith. They needed to glean for themselves. I could not keep gleaning for them and expect them to eat.

Our challenge was to get our people to avail themselves of educational opportunities. After some informal conversations with a few leaders in the church, I asked my colleague in ministry, David Moody, to sit down with me to create a system that would motivate people toward adult spiritual growth. Through our conversations about barriers to participation, motivational techniques, event promotion, and the need for tangibility and measurable progress, we created The Discipleship Project.

Many came.

The buffet has become a feast.

The Discipleship Project

The Discipleship Project is a tool for stimulating, promoting and measuring adult spiritual education. It encourages people to take responsibility and initiative to go deeper in their faith; to do their own harvesting. By means of goal-setting, visibility and accessibility, The Discipleship Project creates a tangible culture of adult spiritual growth and transformation.

How It Works

1. Collecting Adult Spiritual Education Opportunities

The Discipleship Project begins with winnowing. The opportunities for adult spiritual education are almost endless. Many of these opportunities arrive unsolicited as promotional materials flood into the church and cross the pastor's desk weekly. The number of conferences and workshops being presented is vast. Neighbouring congregations, local judicatory bodies, denominational departments, curriculum publishing houses, and national ministries are all hosting courses. There are catalogues of Bible Study curricula. Teaching videos and workbooks are available in abundance. Some churches have Bible Colleges, Seminaries and retreat centres that are within driving distance. Many congregations have an underutilized church library. There are Christian bookstores and websites that offer tens of thousands of Christian books that can be purchased and read. And of course there is the book from which all of this finds its source, the Bible itself. Each of these is a unique opportunity for adult spiritual education.

We try to present as many choices as possible.

Courses are collected and presented based on a number of criteria.

We consider our needs. Has interest in the topic been expressed from within the congregation? Do we have a team in the congregation that is working in a particular area of ministry that would benefit from further training or education, e.g. youth volunteers, or the pastoral care team? Is it an area of development we want to encourage? We select the workshops, conferences, curricula, and courses in those areas.

We consider the divergent learning styles and personality types of people. For those who prefer learning in an extroverted group environment, we offer interactive workshops, and large group events. For those who prefer quiet introverted reflection, we offer self-directed opportunities such as reading, journaling and individual Bible studies.

We consider the location and cost. We work with the assumption that closer and less expensive courses will receive more participation.

There are other growth opportunities for which no curriculum or workshop may exist. In fact, some of the most popular courses in our church have been those we created ourselves. Examples of these include the Bible Sampler course, a flexible Scripture reading list for those who are intimidated at the thought of reading the whole Bible; the Church Sampler course, which encourages people to visit other congregations and reflect on the experience so that they might return to our congregation with fresh eyes; and the Christian Reading Sampler course, a suggested reading list of Christian books from which participants select three books of various styles, subject material and difficulty. In each of these self-directed curricula, we listed contacts, strategies, and provided questions to consider.

Opportunities are collected and named, and each becomes a Project Course. As the project continues, courses are added as new opportunities arise.

One of our main goals in designing this tool was extensive flexibility. Each congregation chooses the opportunities it presents. The Discipleship Project can reflect the theology, ecclesiology and social perspective of any congregation. It can reflect a congregation's values, vision and goals. It can be used to promote a particular area of faith development. It can address what the pastor perceives are needs within the congregation. All this is done through the process of winnowing.

2. Creating Course Cards

The Discipleship Project stands on two legs: the Course Cards and the Display Board.

One of the challenges we recognized was that spiritual education is, to some extent, an intangible concept. How does a person measure progress in faith development?

To make the experience tangible, we developed the Course Cards.

Course Cards are colourful, wallet-sized information cards that describe each available course. To produce the cards, we created a web-based interface, available on the Discipleship Project website.

The Course Cards serve three purposes. First, they are designed to be taken. They are colourful and bright, inspiring curiosity rather than trepidation. People tend to look them over and then place them in their wallet or their pocket. In this way, Course Cards serve as a continual reminder of an individual's initial interest in a course, providing the impetus to begin or register.

Second, Course Cards communicate basic information about an educational opportunity. A quick glance at the front of a card with its intuitive icons provides answers to most questions people ask.

Third, Course Cards make the educational experience tangible. When a course is completed, the individual signs their name in the signature space on the card and hands it in to the church office to receive a number of Course Credits.

The concept of Course Credits is pivotal to The Discipleship Project. Without the credits, the courses can become nothing more than an imposition, another block of time to be given up for no other reason than it is "good for you." This may be confusing to some readers. For those who are at a position in their personal faith journey to recognize the rich rewards offered by spiritual growth for its own sake, the concept of credits may be foreign, even offensive. What possible use could they serve? Isn't the deepening of faith reward enough? These are people who understand the value of "going deep," and who are already seizing the opportunities placed before them. These are not the people for whom The Discipleship Project was created.

Course Credits are a way of putting a measurable value on a spiritual education opportunity, much in the same way that college or university credits measure the progress of a student toward their degree. Does this mean it is possible to measure a person's spiritual growth in credits? Absolutely not! However, it is possible to recognize the commitment of time and money that this person has made toward their own spiritual growth.

Like any education course, each Discipleship Project "Course" requires a level of commitment, and some opportunities require a greater commitment than others. Attending a prayer breakfast is different than taking a four-week Spiritual Gifts course. Reading a book on church development is different than reading through the whole Bible in a year. Thus the level of commitment determines the number of credits. The prayer breakfast and the book on church development may each be 1 credit courses; the Spiritual Gifts course may represent 3 credits; while reading through the Bible in a year may represent 5 credits.

By combining courses that appeal to the individual's personality, and by targeting a personal goal of 5 Course Credits in a year, a similar "commitment" can be made by each participant through very different opportunities.

The Course Cards and the Course Credits are brought together at the Display Board.

3. The Display Board

The Display Board is the second leg on which The Discipleship Project stands. It is the hub of The Discipleship Project, the centre of the spiritual education wheel. It is the tangible expression of the intangible work and growth taking place in houses, conference rooms, church meeting rooms, and in the spiritual lives of the participants.

The Display Board is located in the foyer of our facility. It is virtually impossible to move through our building without seeing it. This prominence symbolically communicates the centrality and importance with which we are holding adult education.

Across the bottom of the Board are the Course Cards. The cards are divided into sections by subject matter or type of course. A "deck" of each card type is provided, allowing and encouraging browsers to take a card that interests them.

The middle of the board is divided into three sections. To the right are additional materials related to courses that are being offered. To the left is the Personal Totals section. In this area, the names of the participants are added as they complete a course, and the credits they have earned to date are recorded. The credits are indicated with small round blue stickers, one sticker per credit. The middle section of the board contains the instructions, the "rules" for participating in The Discipleship Project.

At the head of the middle section is the Total Credits marker, a running total of all the congregational personal credits to date.

The Display Board acts as a huge visual representation of the congregation's growing accomplishment. It is encouraging and inspiring to see so many participating, and to look upon a sea of blue dots. As more and more names are added to the display board, there is a subtle message of expectation being communicated; in this congregation you grow and develop in your faith.

Furthermore, people are curious. What courses are other people taking? What new courses have been completed this week? Many conversations start around the Display Board as participants discuss the courses they have taken and the books they have read. The Display Board has become a catalyst for faith conversations and a focal point for the church. People ask one another now, "What are you reading? What was it like? What did you think?" The personal and private faith of our people is going public and being shared. And as people are looking at the credit totals, they are also examining and discussing more courses. They invite one another to attend, make plans for rides, and discuss general information about the event.

The Impact

The impact has been vast, reaching far beyond what we ever anticipated. It has made a difference in individual lives, in the life of our congregation, and through the sharing of the resource, in congregations across North America.

In Individuals

June is a senior in our midst who has gone to church her whole life, and has been a member of our congregation for over twenty years. She writes,

    When The Discipleship Project started, immediately I was curious as to how it was going to affect my life. After reading two or three books, I had this inner feeling that I had to go on. When I think about it, I know that the Holy Spirit was giving me a nudge to continue seeking out more about Jesus. The Bible has opened up for me. Learning about the life of Jesus and how he effects every aspect of my life is exhilarating. Participating in The Discipleship Project is not just about the credits I receive, but the satisfaction of knowing I am moving forward in my Christian walk with God.

Gloria, a mother of three, worked toward her credits by attending a new Bible study group in a neighbouring congregation. Using Beth Moore's course "Breaking Free," Gloria shared her reaction.

    It absolutely blew me away. I couldn't wait to learn more. I fell in love with Jesus, just the way Beth Moore did. It wasn't too long before we finished this study, that we all agreed to do another, "Jesus, The One and Only." Once completed I felt I had to share the good news and introduce these studies to members of my own church. Soon after we had the opportunity to go to Buffalo to see Beth Moore at the Convention Center.

Of the Discipleship Project, Gloria says

I believe it is God's "calling card" to us, the beginning of a new relationship.

Dave, a father of two, with a position of high responsibility in a nearby post-secondary institution describes his experience.

    The Discipleship Project was just another thing on my "to do list." Being a busy person, the list was long. As I witnessed the impact the "Project" was having on people, and the buzz it created within the church community, it motivated me to start addressing the importance of my spiritual development, pushing it higher and higher up my own priority list. An opportunity arose to travel to Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, with some of the church community as a "five pointer" in the "Project." I made a commitment to go after some struggles with priorities. The Willow Creek experience for me was a significant milestone in my spiritual journey… learning, gaining insights, understanding myself, and sharing experiences contributing to personal and spiritual growth. I now look back on that decision as one that has really started the ball rolling for me in recognizing the real value of The Discipleship Project as a positive catalyst not only in my spiritual life, but in the life of Chippawa Presbyterian Church. I look forward to sharing many more learning and growing experiences with my family and the church community.

In The Congregation

In our first year, eighty-one people participated in The Discipleship Project. Fifty-one achieved five or more credits. The congregation surpassed its goal of 500 credits in the first year of The Discipleship Project, achieving 526 credits. This number represents one hundred and five people taking Alpha, or reading their Bibles cover to cover. The number represents 526 Christian books read. For each course taken, every book read, an encounter with God is created. Out of those encounters, new ministries are rising up and lives are being transformed.

The original plan had been to let the congregation "rest" after achieving such a significant goal. Within two weeks I was being asked when The Discipleship Project would be starting again, whether credits would be granted for learning that was occurring. Six months into our second year, we have achieved 234 credits. The appetite for encounters with God is becoming insatiable.

There has been a cultural shift in the congregation. People have become more open and transparent about what they are learning and how they are developing in their faith. Thirty people took the course to learn their spiritual giftedness. When the course was initially offered, it was cancelled for lack of interest. Under The Discipleship Project, it has been offered three times to accommodate all interested. People are reading Christian books, visiting other congregations, and have picked up their Bibles again after years of achieving only good intentions.

In The Wider Church

Through publication in various journals, conferences, workshops and consultations, The Discipleship Project is becoming widely known. We estimate it is currently being used in 23 congregations, from as far west as Olympia, Washington, and as far south as Hot Springs, Arkansas. We have had over 18,000 page visits at the website.

The buffet, turned feast, has become a festival.


1. Tom Bandy, "Statistics That Matter" NetResults, April 2002, p.17.