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Office of Spiritual Formation Debuts Discipleship Groups

By Julia Karmie

This spring, the Office of Spiritual Formation is launching discipleship groups, a new spiritual formation opportunity for students. Designed as small groups oriented toward faith application, discipleship groups will run for seven weeks and be led by volunteer faculty, staff, and/or students. Groups are encouraged to start organically as students do life in community with one another instead of having a set season. 

“[Discipleship groups are] kind of like life groups, but much smaller and more intentional,” Steph Merchant, leadership and discipleship coordinator, said. Merchant crafted the discipleship group curriculum as a way to aid students who are interested in practical applications of their faith. The curriculum design establishes seven group meetings, with ideally three to five students per group. 

Every discipleship group will study the same curriculum, which covers foundations of the Christian faith such as worship, prayer, service and Sabbath. Lessons incorporate different passages of scripture, with discussion-oriented meetings where group members can share their thoughts and experiences with each other. 

“Learning happens better in community,” Merchant said, explaining why discipleship groups encourage students to make an up-front seven-week commitment. Unlike life groups, which welcome sporadic attendance, discipleship groups focus on intentional and consistent community living. This encourages a better understanding of the pillars of faith discussed in each lesson, while also fostering a community of students on a journey together. 

“This spiritual formation opportunity was Steph’s idea and I think is a good fit for what we’re seeing,” Rev. Dr. Linda Leon, director of spiritual formation, said. “Students have been saying that they like the smaller settings.” This is a trend she described as taking place across many Christian campuses. 

“[Discipleship groups are] a way that we can offer a COVID-19 safe space for people who are longing to connect…We’re all seeking community,” Leon said, “and there’s such a prevalent sense of isolation.”

Discipleship groups may require a higher level of commitment, but they also promise a chance for deeper connection and impact. Merchant spoke of how choosing something a little more intentional for seven weeks can impact friendships, learning, relationship with God and belonging. 

“The hope is [discipleship groups] fit… what’s needed, especially in a pandemic where it’s harder to feel connected,” Merchant said. 

“I’ve always hoped students know that our office listens to them and we care about what they need and the feedback that they give us and that we change things based on that,” Leon said. Both Merchant and Leon repeatedly emphasized the discipleship group program’s “organic” beginning, originating as a direct response to student voices.  

As part of their commitment to respond to student feedback, both Leon and Merchant expressed their expectation that the discipleship group format and curriculum would shift and adapt based on the student input. 

Several students and staff members have already committed to leading a discipleship group this semester. While some have previous experience leading a life group, the curriculum is crafted to welcome new leaders to engage with groups well. 

“There’s enough [in the curriculum guide] that someone who has never led something before will feel safe with the guide,” Merchant said. “And, someone who is really seasoned can look at it and know where it’s going and navigate the conversation.”

Clay Karnes, a sophomore course assistant and a student director of spiritual formation, agreed to lead a discipleship group. He has begun intentionally seeking underclassmen who haven’t had the opportunity to experience spiritual formation opportunities due to COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions. Karnes is looking forward to deep conversation and an intentional commitment from discipleship groups as students learn in community together.  

Discipleship groups are currently forming around campus and will be continuing to form throughout the spring semester. Both Leon and Merchant hope for a welcoming environment to be a theme of the discipleship groups. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had a relationship with God or if you’ve been in church your whole life, there’s something that you can grasp and take from being in a discipleship group… these are things you can always grow deeper in,” Merchant said. “We hope that… [these topics] become things you not only believe in your head, but live in your heart.” 

For more information on discipleship groups, visit the Office of Spiritual Formation webpage at malone.edu/faith-at-malone/faith-student-life/, or sign up through the attached link in their Instagram bio (@muspirituallife).

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