If you’re looking to lead a discipleship group or start a discipleship ministry at your church, then you’re probably trying to choose a good discipleship curriculum. After all, every small group uses a curriculum. Whether the leader makes it up as they go along or they use a pre-planned curriculum with a well-developed scope and sequence, anything that the leader uses in the group is technically a curriculum.
If you believe, as we do, that intentional small groups are one of the most effective means of discipleship in the local church, then the church leadership’s curriculum decisions are critically important for the discipleship and shepherding of its people. Curriculum is a key tool for spiritual formation.
We’ve worked with churches all over the world to help them launch discipleship movements. We’ve reviewed countless different curriculums and seen how they work in a wide variety of groups. In this article, we’ll share the 6 key factors to consider when choosing a discipleship curriculum.
1. Discipleship Curriculum Should Be Biblical
There are countless self-help books in the world. You can read books that will help you be a better friend, help you be a better parent, become a better leader, and so on.
We believe that the Bible is the true Word of God. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
This means that there is no written resource that can shape and equip us as well as the Bible, and so it is vital that the discipleship curriculum you or your church choose is based on the Word of God, not popular opinion.
2. Discipleship Curriculum Should Be Gospel-Centered
Have you ever participated in a small group or Bible study that left you feeling guilty, but without hope? Or maybe a book study that focused entirely on God wanting you to be happy? Far too often, we focus on what we want to believe or small portions of the gospel.
Instead, everything included in the scope and sequence of the curriculum must be grounded in the whole gospel narrative (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration). The curriculum should point people to the grace of God in the finished work of Christ on their behalf as the basis of their justification and the power for their sanctification.
Tim Keller defines the gospel this way, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
Effective discipleship curriculum helps us understand both our sin and our redemption, our Creator and our Savior. It recognizes the brokenness of today, but also the hope of a future glory. If we leave part of the gospel out or bring in messages that are contradictory to the gospel, our discipleship efforts will suffer.
3. Discipleship Curriculum Should Be Holistic
When choosing a discipleship curriculum, you need to look for something that engages the whole person – the head, heart, and hand. Many curriculums engage the head, but leaders need to ensure it also engages the heart and the hand.
We must keep in mind that no matter how well a curriculum is written, only discipleship done in community can engage the whole person. When we put too much weight on curriculum and too little weight on the leader’s intention to engage the whole person, we will fail to engage the whole person and we will hear complaints about the curriculum feeling too academic or cognitive. This is why leader training, equipping and envisioning must remain a top priority in our efforts to equip discipleship group leaders.
A good curriculum does not simply teach truth, but provides questions and guidance on how to apply the truth and live the truth where people live, work, and play.
4. Discipleship Curriculum Should Have a Well-Rounded Educational Framework
It is common that leaders will primarily leverage their own strengths when leading, and thus small groups may have a great experience in those areas and little to know exposure to the essential areas of growth where the leader may be weaker.
For example, a leader may have a great theological grasp and be a gifted communicator but struggle to engage unbelievers with the gospel. Left to himself, it is more likely than not that the group dynamic will be more focused on comprehending the scriptures (which is great!) but little to no equipping in evangelism.
Similarly, another leader may have a high emotional intelligence and ability to engage people at the heart level to help them wrestle through areas of struggle or interpersonal conflict (which is great!) and will focus much of his leadership on those areas to the neglect of actual engagement with the Word of God.
This is where creating an educational framework for the group experience can both create a church-wide group culture and hold leaders accountable to invest in others in a biblically well-rounded way while still allowing for leaders to use their unique story and gifting as a leader.
We teach and use the TEAMS model (Truth, Equipping, Accountability, Mission, and Supplication) to provide an effective framework for discipleship groups. This method has been used for more than 30 years in our church and countless others, and helps ensure leaders can provide a well-rounded discipleship experience.
5. Discipleship Curriculum Should Have an Intentional, Yet Flexible Scope and Sequence
A local church must strive to ensure that the overall scope and sequence of the discipleship curriculum covers what the church deems to be essential topics for spiritual formation in the small group discipleship setting. This includes both the historical, orthodox doctrines and the cultural moment in which the local church exists.
Different groups at different times will have different needs, and this is where the leadership of the local church will feel the tension between a scope and sequence that has an essential core and yet remains flexible.
We recommend identifying a core curriculum that identifies what is essential for every person in every group. It may be the traditional categories of systematic theology: doctrine of God and his Word, doctrine of man, sin and salvation, sanctification, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Or it may be that the local church believes some of these doctrines are more effectively covered in other educational environments and needs small group discipleship to cover whole books of the Bible over time. Still other churches may determine that the most essential needs in this environment are more topically driven and would include a combination of systematic categories, biblical theology, cultural apologetics, and book studies.
It is important to note that these decisions should be made in light of the church’s overall spiritual formation pathway. To say that a certain topic is not included in the core curriculum for a small group does not mean it is unimportant, but that the church believes it is being effectively covered elsewhere within the overall ministry of the church.
We also recommend identifying some areas in the curriculum that would allow for flexibility. What is non-essential but greatly beneficial for the people of the church in this cultural moment? Or maybe you need flexible content that goes with their age and stage – singleness, marriage, parenting, or grandparenting.
This takes into account the reality that each group contains people in different seasons of life and that the ideas and events of the surrounding culture have significant formational influence on the people of the church.
This is where the leadership of the church can shepherd their people by critically evaluating the cultural moment and curating resources to make available to small group discipleship leaders as optional parts of their specific group’s scope and sequence.
This is why we are creating the new digital Journey curriculum app. It allows for the local church to make the decisions and contribute to an ever-growing library of curriculum resources in the TEAMS format. This way, the local church can determine the essential topics to be covered and still curate options for each specific group leader to have the flexibility to address the specific season of life or significant cultural influences facing their particular group. They can even use the built-in curriculum builder to write their own content that can be used in the Journey app and reproduced around the church.
6. Discipleship Curriculum Should Be Reproducible
In our experience working with a few hundred churches as coaches and consultants, one of the most common pitfalls that hinders the desire to have a multiplying discipleship group movement is an irreproducible curriculum model.
This tends to happen when leaders develop their own curriculum for their own group. While this may seem like a personalized way to lead people, it can create several challenges:
- When members of the group attempt to multiply and start a new group, they are intimidated by the need to create a curriculum.
- Those who do take on the challenge of curriculum development tend to become so focused on the curriculum that they miss some of the important leadership skills needed to lead a group of people.
- The leader often finds that their group is so unique that they may not be connected with the movement of the church as a whole.
2 Timothy 2:2 provides some helpful guidance, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” We see the importance of reproducing orthodox content from one generation to the next, but we also see an important element of methodology: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses.”
Most new leaders will reproduce what they’ve heard and seen, not create it from scratch.
Choosing a fairly consistent church-wide discipleship curriculum that is reproducible will have several benefits:
- It can assure a consistent core of content that everyone in a group in the church receives.
- It frees leaders up from being curriculum developers and allows them to focus more on investing in the life of the individual at the heart level.
- It may carry the theological weight of a group in areas where a leader may not yet feel equipped as a teacher.
- It makes it easier and more natural for disciples to become disciple-makers.
Regardless of the discipleship curriculum you or church leadership choose, it is important to remember that much prayer and thought should be put into this decision-making process.
There are many incredible discipleship curriculum options in the world, but if you’re looking for one that is biblical, gospel centered, holistic, well-rounded, flexible, and reproducible then we highly recommend you check out the Journey Curriculum. Available today in paper or pdf format, we’re also releasing a brand new app that provides even more flexibility in the summer of 2023.
Learn more about the Journey Discipleship Curriculum today.