Designing Discipleship Backwards: Results, Evidence, Lessons

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Did you know that Sunday school originated as a Christian ministry to teach low-income children how to read? During the Industrial Revolution, many young people were not able to attend school. They were employed in factories, working long hours six days a week. Seeing the desperate need these children had for education, Christians in the United Kingdom began offering instruction in reading on the only day that their students had off—Sunday. The origins of the Sunday school movement provide us with a great example of churches seeking a desired result (literacy) and developing a structure (Sunday school) to reach that goal.

Today, many congregations implement structures without ever considering areas of need for their members. To use the analogy from Marshall and Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine, much time is spent keeping up the structure (the trellis) without considering the growth of the church (the vine). What if we started by considering the growth we desire and designing the structure to aid the growth we seek?

In the education field, teachers have utilized this idea and implemented a three step process outlined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design. These same steps can help guide you as you consider and design the structures for discipleship in your church. The steps follow this order:

  1. Identify desired result
  2. Determine acceptable evidence
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction

In today’s article, I want to use these practical steps to help you design and facilitate effective instruction in your congregation.

The first step is to identify the desired result.

As the church leader, what do you see in your congregation? Where is growth needed? If you are struggling to answer these questions, you may need to ask others for guidance. Think of two godly people in your congregation that understand the needs of your church and ask them their opinion. However you decide to do this, the point is to begin with the end in mind. What is the result you want to see?

Next, determine the acceptable evidence that will indicate that your desired result has been met.

How will you know if members understand and apply the teaching of a class or small group? Determining the evidence before you begin helps you determine if what you are doing is effective or if adjustments are needed.

Your desired result could be knowledge-based, like knowing the structure, main ideas, and applications of 2 Peter. If so, the evidence you may be looking for may be found in strategic discussion questions or a self-exam that students can take home and grade themselves. If the group is more motivated by technology, try out online formats like Kahoot or Quizizz that provide instant feedback on student knowledge.

For more behavior-oriented results, the evidence should be an action. For a class designed to teach prayer, one evidence could be that each person prays at least once during class every month, and you encourage your group to keep a prayer journal as evidence of growth in prayer. These are examples of matching the evidence of growth to your desired result.

When determining the type of evidence you employ, remember that we cannot always see or predict understanding/growth, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. You might determine that the acceptable evidence is more open-ended, but know that this will be more challenging requiring more time, prayer, and discernment. One suggestion is to listen to the conversations that the class members have, both inside and outside of the class setting. After all, we know that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Another suggestion is to allow the members of the group to assess themselves through self-reflections or with the help of a trusted mentor, spouse, or friend. These individuals can provide more objective feedback by assessing changes in attitude or actions relating to the focus of the class or small group.

Third, plan learning experiences and instruction.

Have you ever thought, “We need a new Sunday school class. Several people have asked about _______. Let’s just teach about that.” This process is out of order. Planning learning experiences first hinders your effectiveness because you have not considered the result(s) you desire to see and the evidence by which you will know those goals are met.

When completing this step, think of all the actions that would lead group members to demonstrate acceptable evidence. Then ask, “How will the group members learn these actions best?” The learning experiences should match the desired evidence. For example, consider that you are lead a marriage class on improving communication. If you lecture to the group about effective communication strategies but do not provide an opportunity for the couples to interact, the couples might increase their knowledge about communication, but their interpersonal communication may never actually improve. In our example, these couples need prompt questions and substantial time to practice the behavior, possibly fail, discuss how they might improve, and try again.

Another aspect to consider when designing learning experiences is group size. This link has more on how group size affects function. An example given is that groups between four to ten have a positive function of generating and critiquing ideas. Also, remember that group sizes can be dynamic within a class. The class can start with a large (10+ people) group and then be divided into groups of five to discuss applications to a lesson or practice a skill.

Lastly, if those in the class are not demonstrating the evidence you had hoped, do not get discouraged. Ask what is keeping them from demonstrating the evidence? Is there a deeper issue that needs to be addressed? Is there a prerequisite skill that needs to be learned? Is the determined evidence a good measure of the desired result? Allow the answers to these questions help you determine other desired results that help you design future classes or small groups.

Do you have questions or comments? I would like to hear from you, so leave a comment below. (Disclaimer: It is one of the acceptable evidences that I chose for readers’ understanding of this article.)

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