Moving Discipleship from Teaching Content to Life-Changing Experiences

Mariners Church ( leaders affectionately call the weekend that U-turned the course of their California congregation and its discipleship model as “The Great Slap.”

Mariners was hosting their international church partners and showcasing its multisite locations and multi-faceted program options when the visitors from around the world hit the Mariners staff with a hard reality.

Rooted participants wrap up their 10-week discipleship learning experience with worship and a celebration dinner.

“They told us the American church is arrogant,” said Shelly Juskiewicz, Mariners Pastor of Community Life. “With all our money and beautiful buildings and programs, we think we know more than the rest of the world. But they said, ‘When are you going to be willing to learn and listen to the rest of the world?” The Gospel is growing around the world, but not here.

It was a tough message to hear, Shelly says. But heeding it caused church leaders to put Mariners’ life change process for developing believers under the microscope, and completely revamp the way it executes its mission of “transforming ordinary people into passionate followers of Jesus who are fearlessly changing the world.”

“We had what I would call a ‘beautiful menu’ of options for people and to help them grow spiritually.” Shelly says. “We had an option for everything, and we wanted to make sure you could come to our church and find whatever you wanted and whatever was best for you.”

“We began to take a hard look at what it means to be a church were we could see measurable results in terms of changed lives, and a church that had a very clear pathway that leads to discipleship. Believing that discipleship leads to life change, which leads to people living out their faith in the community. We organized everything we did and pointed everyone to our 10-week discipleship program called Rooted. We got rid of our menu of options and said “Do Rooted”.


A New Model From Abroad


Rooted participants participate in a “Cardboard Testimony” that sums up how the experience affected them spiritually.

The result of their examination lead them to a new church structure called the “Transformational Loop” and the primary discipleship tool which is called Rooted. Mariner’s leaders adapted this from their Kenyan church partner, Mavuno Church— The African church uses the name “Mizizi”, which is Swahili.

The word means “rooted,” which is what Mariners tabbed the core offering of its discipleship model—a large-group program the church now offers three times a year ( Centering in the “rooted” idea of Ephesians 3:17-19, Shelly notes that it is different than anything the church has done in the church’s 51-year history. It helps people connect with God, the Church and their Purpose.

For starters, the 10-week time frame was a departure from the church’s traditional six-week small group offerings. “We ran a lot of discipleship models before based on what we thought people would be willing to do,” Shelly notes. When we changed and went to a much higher demand with 10 weeks, 5 nights of homework, three additional meetings for experiences, we were concerned, no one would do it. What we learned was that people were willing to step up to where ever we set the bar for them.


More Caught than Taught


Beyond changing the time commitment, Mariners also wrestled with a harder truth that set the stage for the format of Rooted. It became apparent that while we had always done a great job of teaching God’s word, we had not done a great job of creating environments where we were listening and asking questions to those we were leading and teaching.

Shelly tells the story from a Rooted group of a woman, who had been in a group led by a pastor on staff for many year: “One night a woman looked at the whole group and said, ‘We don’t really believe in that story of Noah’s ark, right?’ Just when you wanted to gasp and say ‘How could you say such a thing?’ another guy pops up and says, ‘Yeah, and what about the story of the Red Sea? Does anybody really believe that actually happened?’ ” The incident, solidified that while we may be teaching a lot of great biblical truths, that does not guarantee that they are being received. A key component of Rooted facilitator training is asking questions and listening not teaching, but facilitating and helping people have space to question, explore and experience.

The church’s website describes Rooted like this: “Beyond a program, seminar or small group, Rooted is a catalyst for life-change. Rooted provokes questions and conversations and offers beyond-what-is-comfortable group experiences designed to give you a glimpse of your story in God’s story.”

“There are thousands of discipleship programs in North America, and I think I studied all of them,” Shelly says. “What I found is they all pretty much have the same content. What makes Rooted different is that it’s based on experiential learning rather than a lecture or leader teaching each week.

“Life transformation comes more through experiences than through knowledge. Teaching comes in and goes out and very little of it stays. But if you can share an experience together and do something, it changes people.”

So when it comes time for Rooted participants to learn about serving, for instance, the groups don’t get a sermon—they serve in the community together for a day. Learning about confession and accountability is an experience during which Rooted attendees are “super transparent,” confess strongholds and sin in their lives and every individual is prayed over to break the strongholds.

Learning about prayer is a three-hour “prayer experience” participants can’t believe they’ve completed when it’s over. “Everybody always says, ‘There is no way I thought I could pray for three hours,’ Shelly says, ‘but I heard from God for the first time, we need to this more often.” I heard God’s voice.’”