Because of my job, I get exposed to a lot of Bible studies. And I really mean that—a lot. And given the sheer quantity of material that is published every year, you'd think I would regularly come across new and exciting ideas. But I don't.
That's why I was excited to get my hands on Heather Zempel's first foray into published material. Because when it comes to Heather, the phrase "same old same old" does not apply. And, I'm happy to say that I wasn't disappointed when I finally made the time to sit down and see what she and Threads Media had put together. Oh, and I should mention for those of you unaware that Heather is the Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church in Washington, D.C. (She's also a regular contributor to SmallGroups.com.)
Sacred Roads: Exploring the Historic Paths of Discipleship is an exploration of how discipleship has been conducted since the time of Jesus. It's an extremely valuable history lesson for small groups and individuals alike, as well as a challenging look at how discipleship is conducted today—and how it should be conducted. In fact, it may be the most practical resource on church history that I've encountered since Mark Noll's Turning Points.
The core of this study focuses on five specific "paths of discipleship" that have been present in the church for as long as it has existed. Zempel also connects each of these paths to a section of church history where it was primarily practiced.
Here are the descriptions of those five paths of discipleship, taken directly from the Threads Media website:
Relational: The early church; value of small groups, accountability, missional friendships. People grow in their relationship with Christ as they grow in relationship with others and are influenced by those relationships.
Experiential: The Catholic Church through the Reformation; pilgrimage, stations of the cross, experiential worship. People grow in their relationship with Christ when they are immersed in an experience with Him that propels them in some area of their faith formation.
Intellectual: Reformation era; inductive Bible study, academic and educational approaches to discipleship. People grow in their relationship with Christ as they develop the mind of Christ through the reading, study, meditation, and memorization of Scripture.
Personal: 19th and 20th centuries; rise of personal devotional/quiet time, practice of spiritual disciplines. People grow in their relationship with Christ as they incorporate and practice spiritual disciplines into the context of their everyday lives.
- Incarnational: 19th and 20th centuries; missions, service, social justice, compassion ministries. People grow in their relationship with Christ as they seek to follow His model of servant leadership and become His hands and feet in sacrificial service to those around them.
The workbook is divided into six sessions—one for each of the paths listed above, and a final session on "Discipleship Next." The workbook is designed for group members to study/experience during the week before gathering for each group meeting. Each session includes a very thorough exploration of the material, including examples from church history, personal anecdotes from Zempel's experience, Scripture references, discussion questions, and challenges for application.
In addition to the workbook, the packet for Sacred Roads contains a DVD with several complementary video experiences. It also contains a data CD that holds the Leader's Guide, several audio songs, articles that go even deeper into the content, and even some audio teaching from Heather Zempel.
I like the format put together for this study. Group members study through the workbook each week, then gather to discuss what they've learned. It's a proven system if your group members are willing to put in the effort.
The reflection questions in the workbook are very well written. Zempel does a good job of helping people explore history, helping people interact with biblical texts, and providing opportunities for people to tell their own stories and dreams.
The Leader's Guide (available through the data CD) does a great job of giving small-group leaders a flexible agenda for each session of discussion.
Again, one of the biggest appeals for me is that the content is not a re-hashing of material that has been explored a zillion different times. Your group will be exploring fresh thoughts on a fresh topic.
If you're a believer in "you get what you pay for," then you will find Sacred Roads to be worth the financial investment. If you're on the cheaper side of things, like me, then you may balk a bit at the price tag. The "Leader Kit" (including the workbook, DVD, and data CD) costs $69.95 on the Threads store, and additional Member Workbooks are $7.95 each. So, a group will likely have to invest over $100 to use this study. (The investment may be more worth it for churches who purchase the material as part of a library that can be accessed by multiple group leaders.)
My only beef with the content of this study is that it seems a bit one-dimensional. It revolves mainly around information. Or, to use the content from the study, Sacred Roads seems largely written for those looking to experience "Intellectual Discipleship." I wasn't able to find many creative experiences in the Member Workbook that appeal to a broad range of learning styles. The Leader's Guide is somewhat better (it includes instructions on leading a group through a Communion experience, for example), but even the complementary videos to be used during three of the sessions were text heavy and information-centered.
It's an unfortunate reality that church history is not a very "sexy" topic when it comes to Christians who don't happen to be pastors or university professors. But that is a reality you should consider when exploring this resource.
The content produced by Threads Media is specifically targeted for young adults—people in their 20's and 30's. However, as is the case with most things that are high quality, those boundaries need not apply to Sacred Roads. Any church or small group can benefit from the material that Heather Zempel and the Threads team have put together.
That being said, you will want to take a careful look at the makeup of your small group before taking the financial plunge that this study involves. Are your group members willing to engage in "homework" throughout the week, for example? Will they be excited about sinking their teeth into the meaty history of discipleship in the church, or will that be a tough sell?
If your group is ready for a challenge—one where the reward does include the potential for life transformation—then Sacred Roads is a great resource to grab hold of.
—Sam O'Neal, copyright 2010 by the author and Christianity Today.