The Institute, a year long intensive discipleship class, was recently launched as an avenue for making disciples here at East Cooper. Its purpose is to lay theological foundations and spiritual practices for lifelong discipleship and leadership in whatever capacity the Lord has called the participants. Practically, the class is designed to be possible and available to all East Cooper members, who are willing to commit to it for a season. It is particularly great for anyone considering long term ministry, whether vocationally or as a lay member. "East Cooper has wonderful classes and groups, but there hasn't historically been a singular place we would send someone who is hoping to go into full time ministry or desiring to be discipled. The Institute has been our effort to have that singular place for intentional theological, biblical development and practical ways to walk with the Lord," Pastor Leland Brown, who designed and teaches the Institute, explained.
In August of 2022, a group of 30 people from a variety of life stages met for the first class. Since then, they have looked at topics ranging from the doctrine of God to spiritual growth to evangelism. For someone to be discipled, offering good content is not enough. There needs to be encouragement, admonishment, and relationships, too. Small groups for discussion are also implemented from the start of the program, so relationships are flourishing as they are learning. People are pursuing truth together and seeking to know God and each other more deeply through this class. "People are really engaged and ask great questions and that has been refreshing. There have been a lot of light bulb moments for people, where it is really clear that they have gotten something for the first time. " As they continue as members of the local church, the hope is that informal discipleship would be a natural next step for these participants.
Rachel Aarons signed up for the Institute shortly after becoming a member at East Cooper. Growing up, Rachel was not familiar with the gospel or church. In 2019, she started attending church with someone she was dating at the time. It was the first time she was exposed to the church. Although she professed faith in Christ a few months later, she found herself lying about her past and continuing to live a life determined by her sin. In 2020 after recognizing her depravity and deep rooted sin that separated her from God, Rachel repented and fully surrendered her life toJesus. As her heart was transformed and softened by Christ, Rachel dove into learning about Him and studying the scriptures.
As congregations began returning to in-person worship in 2021, Rachel continued attending the same church, but struggled to connect now that she was a Christian. "I started realizing that there are differences in theological beliefs within Christian communities and I bumped up against some things that I needed guidance on. I found myself lost and confused, but thankfully I had people in my life that helped me and pointed me to other churches in Mount Pleasant," Rachel shared. This led her to learning about and visiting East Cooper. "I saw the information about The Institute on the website and that was one of the main reasons I visited East Cooper. I was craving an environment where I could sit down with other believers and get the guidance I needed."
Rachel is a part of the class that started in August of 2022 and has been both encouraged and challenged by the curriculum. "The Institute begins with learning the basic foundational beliefs to ensure what I believe about God and about myself are accurate. That is necessary for discipleship. I don't think I can disciple others well if I am not operating from a solid theological foundation." The first book they read was Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. "Leland often tells us that what we believe about everything determines how we interpret anything. What we believe about something like the trinity determines how we interpret other things." There are practical assignments that the class does along side lectures like a 30-day worship challenge, memorizing Scripture, informal ministry to someone else, and praying through Scripture. "These practical assignments are building habits that will help me to better understand Scripture, but also help me to love others and disciple them well."
Throughout this class, Rachel has grown in her knowledge of God, practical habits, and relationships with other Christians. The Lord has most recently been teaching her about the importance of interpreting Scripture correctly. Relying on the interpretations of people who came before her is not enough; she wants to accurately know and interpret God's Word herself. "No matter where you are in your walk with Jesus, I think The Institute can be really fruitful. There are assignments and reading, but don't let that prevent you from committing to this. It has been so fruitful for me. The work is worth it."