Disciple-Making: From Teaching to Life-Transforming 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.

“The American church is arrogant,” they said.

The statement felt harsh, but you know what? It was true. With all our money and beautiful buildings and programs, we thought we knew more than the rest of the world. And our partners graciously called us out on that when they asked: “When are you going to be willing to learn and listen to the Global Church? The Gospel is spreading around the world, but not here.” It was a tough message to absorb. But the question provided our leaders with the opportunity to start practicing the very thing they were inviting us to do. Heeding this message led church leaders to put Mariners’ process for developing believers under the microscope, and completely revamp the way we execute our mission of “transforming ordinary people into passionate followers of Jesus who are fearlessly changing the world.”

Up until that point, we had what I would call a ‘beautiful menu’ of options for people and to help them grow spiritually. We wanted to make sure anyone could come to our church and find whatever they needed and whatever was best for them. And as we examined our current methods, we started to see that though Mariners had menu of options – many front doors – we couldn’t actually point to one where true life transformation was happening.

A New Model From Abroad

We began to take a hard look at what it means to be a disciple-making church with measurable results – believing that making disciples leads to life change, and then multiples as people live out their faith in community. The result of our examination led us to a new church structure called the “Transformational Loop”. It also led us to “Mizizi”, the discipleship tool our Kenyan partner, Mavuno Church was using. The life change happening through Mizizi was so fruitful, that we got rid of our menu options, adapted the tool to fit our local context and made Rooted the front door to our church.

Centered in the “rooted” concept of Ephesians 3:17-19, it is different than anything the church has done in the its 51-year history. 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. When we changed and started asking more of our people with a 10-week commitment, five nights of homework, three additional meetings for experiences, we were concerned that no one would take a risk and do it. What we learned was that people were willing to step up to whatever bar we set for them.

More Caught than Taught

Beyond changing the time commitment, we 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 asking questions and listening to the people we were leading and teaching.

A woman in one of our early Rooted sessions was in a group led by a pastor who had been on staff for many years. One night the 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, it doesn’t guarantee they are being received. A key component of Rooted facilitator training is asking questions and listening not teaching. We want our Rooted facilitators to hospitably create space where people can question, explore and experience.

There are thousands of discipleship methods in North America, and I think I studied all of them. 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.  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 participants are very 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.’”

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 connect people to God, the church and their purpose. It has become the place we can point to and say: “Life transformation is happening here.”


Shelly Juskiewicz is the Community Life and Leadership Development Pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine California. She is a part of the Irvine Lead Team overseeing all Adult Ministries, Care and Recovery, as well as their Discipleship Ministries: Rooted and Life Groups. She has a passion to see churches collaborate to expand the Kingdom of God through Volunteer Leadership Development and Discipleship. She has been married to Ron for 30 years and loves to be with her family and go on crazy adventures.