How can we grow disciples through small group study?

Dr David Ball leads the GOLD Project, which offers small-group-based learning about scripture, theology and discipleship. I met with David and was able to ask him about this fascinating project.

IP: What is the GOLD Project? How did it get its name?

DB: We are a small Christian Charity dedicated to providing courses and other resources to enable ordinary Christians to grow in their faith and effective discipleship by systematic study of the Bible. We were registered in 2016 as the Group-based Open Learning Discipleship (GOLD) Project but our roots go back to the 1980s and before.

We are group-based, because we believe that the place for our Christian growth is alongside other believers, ideally in the context of the local church. We are open learning because our courses seek to be accessible to all and especially use learning methodologies that enable even those who have previously struggled with education to engage with the Bible. We are a discipleship project because we believe that all our engagement with the Bible should focus on how it leads us in following Jesus in our daily lives. Conveniently, when we fit all these together we get the word ‘gold’ which is one of the key metaphors that the Bible uses of God’s word (see Psalm 19.10). 

IP: What has been your journey which has led to your own involvement?

DB: I grew up in a Christian family and my parents were missionaries in Africa. From an early age, Mum and Dad taught me the importance of the Bible for everyday life as a disciple of Jesus. I remember my Mum sitting down with me and teaching me to read the Bible. The first passage I read was the calling of the disciples in Matthew 4. After growing up in Kenya, our family settled in south London. I attended various schools in Kenya and the UK. Then I did a Biblical Studies degree at Sheffield University, where I met my wife, Angie. After a year in Israel with Operation Mobilisation, I felt that God was leading me to be involved in Bible teaching as a missionary, so I returned to Sheffield to study for a PhD in John’s Gospel, focussing on Jesus’ ‘I am’ sayings. I was sponsored for this by Tyndale House in Cambridge.

Angie and I applied to Crosslinks, an evangelical missionary society, and they had a partner in India which was involved in Theological Education by Extension—they were looking for someone to come and help them set up a Masters programme for pastors. We ended up in India for nearly 15 years and became involved in distance learning, training people at all different levels. One of my favourite study groups consisted of scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation. It was here that we became more and more convinced of the need to equip all God’s people with biblical and theological resources for everyday life.

When we returned to the UK in 2008, it became clear that there is a huge need in our churches for people to have confidence in the Bible. We linked up with a small organisation called Interactive Extension Studies in St Albans which had come out of Oak Hill College. I was invited to join Trinity College in Bristol to set up the Open Learning programme there. After 7 years, we decided to set this up as a separate charity called the GOLD Project.

IP: What is the GOLD Project aiming to do? Why do you think this is important?

DB: I like to think that GOLD Project’s vision is grounded in William Tyndale’s belief that the ordinary Christian can be taught to understand the Bible, and the reformation belief that in the Bible we have everything we need for life and godliness. We believe that as Christians engage with the message of the Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit, learning from each other, they will be transformed along with their churches and ultimately society. Just as people like Wilberforce engaged in the issues of their day because of their grounding in the message of the Bible, so we believe that the Bible continues to have the power to transform society.

For the Christian, learning to listen to God’s word is more precious than gold, so we use the slogan #discoverthetreasure. It is always encouraging and humbling to see people learning new things as they study God’s word that enable them to encounter him for themselves—so we also use the slogan #encountergod. And it is exciting to see people’s lives changed as they begin a journey of lifelong learning, so we add a third slogan #beshapedbythemessage.

IP: How does this relate to the challenges that the church in the West is facing?

DB: One of the key ideas that shapes our culture today is that of ‘story’. I have the privilege of attending various churches and it is great to hear the stories of what God is doing in the lives of people today and great to hear people’s personal testimonies. The challenge is that, even within the church, there are so many competing stories and often as Christians we have lost our confidence in the great story of the Bible—we have lost our confidence that the Bible, as God’s story, is the most significant and exciting story of all.

Yes, the Bible is a challenging text originally written in very different contexts from our own. Yes, the Bible has narratives that show the horror of what human beings can do to each other. Yes, the God of the Bible is not ‘safe’ (to quote C.S. Lewis’ famous words about Aslan). And yet we believe that, in the Bible, we discover the story of the goodness and faithfulness of an almighty, holy and powerful God who is the only one who makes sense of our multiple stories. So, as Christians, we are not going to be able to face our own personal challenges, nor the challenges of our day, unless we engage seriously together with the Bible.

My conviction is that the biggest challenge faced by the church in the West today is in enabling people to know and to do what Jesus would do. We forget that Jesus’ decisions and lifestyle were based on his knowledge of God’s word and ability to apply it in each situation. We forget that in Judaism a Rabbi was a teacher of the Scriptures, and disciples were those who learned and obeyed the Rabbi’s interpretation of the Bible. We forget that, if we are to understand the message of the New Testament, we need to have a thorough knowledge in and confidence in the message of the Old Testament, Jesus’ own Bible. 

IP: What is it that makes the GOLD Project’s approach to learning and discipleship effective?

DB: GOLD Project courses combine three significant features that all work together to enable whole life discipleship. The first is personal study. Each student is provided with an interactive workbook (we are working with partners to make some of these available on a web app). The workbooks are designed to enable people to study on their own and come to group meetings prepared to discuss what they have learnt.

The second is group study with a trained facilitator. Because people have come to the discussion already prepared, even the introverts and those who would normally struggle to make their voice heard in a group have the opportunity to share their learning. Often these people have very significant contributions to share with the group that would be lost in other discussion groups. Here we discover that we often learn more from each other than we have done on our own.

The third is practical application. Every time that groups meet, they reflect on how to apply their learning to their own life and context of discipleship. It is this cycle of personal study, group learning and practical application in the context of the local church that creates a really effective learning experience.

We have now also developed what we call ‘discipleship pathways’. For many churches, when they have completed an Alpha or Christianity Explored course, the question arises ‘What next?’ Although most of our courses stand alone, they are set up so that people can move from one course to another and also move from one level to another. This means that there are usually options for a group to continue in their journey of discipleship. Our ‘Following Jesus’ courses build on each other and form a comprehensive study of Jesus’ life and ministry while students also learn basic doctrines and skills of Bible study and practical discipleship, such as how to share their faith with others. 

IP: What response and feedback have you had from those who have been on the course?

DB: Our students often give really positive feedback of their experience in studying GOLD Project courses. For example, Christine, one of our students is a geo-scientist by background and yet she was nervous about studying theology. But she reflected:

I was scared of Churches, I was scared of Christians, I had never done a Bible Study in my life, but I absolutely loved it. I love the format of the courses, I think the thing that’s really good about them is the fact that you’ve got this time to study by yourself, so there’s no sort of pressure on you, you can look up stuff and cheat (there’s even answers at the back which you can ignore) but I think that was really important to me because I was really, really nervous. And then getting together with a group, I learnt so much….

After studying with us, Christine went on to do pioneer ministry training. Church leaders have also seen the significance of the courses in equipping people in their contexts. Andy has been using the courses in his church for several years to train people in his congregation.

I believe the GOLD courses are quite simply a gift to the church. A format which is easy to follow and yet gradually takes you deeper into the subject, challenging you to think deeply about the Christian faith and helping to develop mature, stable and spiritually strong Christians. The quality of the courses are superb, and most of all, incredibly affordable.

Further feedback can be found on our website or on our YouTube Channel. Over the years, many of our students have gone on to be involved in significant ministries in the local church as well as schools and prisons and some have become church leaders. 

IP: How can readers find out more and make use of this in the local church?

DB: Our GOLD Project website gives more information including downloadable brochures and sample lessons from our courses (although, you must remember that these are only the start of the learning experience). We have Facebook and Twitter accounts that share the latest information and events. You can use the contact us form to ask further questions. We would also love to see you at one of our Study Days which this year are all on the theme of ‘Creating a culture of Biblical Discipleship’. 

IP: David, thanks for your time in meeting with me—and thanks for this fascinating project. I hope it is widely used.

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3 thoughts on “How can we grow disciples through small group study?”

  1. 1 For some it may be asking too much to come prepared after studying homework. The group in effect then becomes a seminar. It would work for some but put off others.
    But, I do support every group member getting the same study material, not just the leader.
    2 It is important that those leading be trained in leading.
    3 Sometimes there can be a risk that the group members bring only what the text means to them. And unless the leaders are trained the main points of the text and notes can be missed, ignored, set aside and rabbit holes are opened up.
    4. Prayer would integral to opening and closing.

    All of this presupposes the choice of study notes, by those responsible for, guardians of, church doctrine, Bible teaching.

    • Hi Geoff, Thanks for your comments.

      1. Depending on the level of the courses, the amount to prepare before coming to the group varies and the group leader can also work with the group to see how much is appropriate for their group. Coming prepared for the group discussion is particularly helpful for those who struggle with learning or those who are introverts by nature because they are able to think about the subject before the discussion and their viewpoint can often be highly significant.

      2. Absolutely right. Training group facilitators is very important. People who are able to lead discussion for discipleship and to include all members in the discussion are key to the success of this type of group discipleship.

      3. This is a problem with any group Bible study. The advantage of this method is that the participants have a text and specific questions that they have already considered and we also provide group leader’s notes to help keep the discussion on track.

      4. Again, absolutely correct. In fact, the whole learning process needs to be a prayerful one. We encourage our students to pray before each personal study as well as in the group. We also encourage them to pray for each other.

      Thanks again.


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