Stages in Disciple-Growing: There's Not One-Best-Way for Everyone to Grow in Christ

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In this blog, Mike Johnson, a CRC pastor from Sugarland, TX, shares important insights and wisdom about the need for different discipleship strategies. Please join the conversation!

Fact:
  1. The 2012 survey of CRCs showed that out of eleven healthy church factors, the responders scored in “Disciple-Making” tenth out of eleven.
     
  2. One of the focuses being highly considered in various CRC denominational prioritizing committees (which will undoubtedly be considered by a future Synod) is “Faith Formation.”
     
  3. Already in 1877 FF Bruce identified three distinct, yet different ways the first disciples interacted with Jesus:
    1. Come and See (John 1:35-39)
    2. Come and Follow Me (Matthew 4:19)
    3. Come and Be With Me (Mark 3:13-14)

      In 2006 Bill Hull first argued that these represented an evolution of three different ways Jesus related to his early disciples as they slowly but surely grew in relationship to him, and added a fourth:
       
    4. Remain in Me (John 15:4)
       
  4. The Willow Creek Association has most recently popularized this view beginning in 2007 with their Reveal (now called Engage International) survey of members of congregations, with adapted titles:
    1. Exploring Christ
    2. Growing in Christ
    3. Close to Christ
    4. Christ-centered
As I teach masters level ministry students and speak to pastors and church leaders on this subject I find that people find the following terms for these four stages of spiritual growth easiest to understand:
  1. Stranger to Christ.
  2. Acquaintance/Friend of Christ.
  3. Close-Friend of Christ.
  4. Intimate with Christ.
As we grow with Christ in relationship, affecting our attitudes and behavior we each step from one stage into the next.
 
Each of these stages seems to need a slightly different approach to discipleship, just as Jesus interacted with the 12 differently at each stage.
  • When he first met each of the 12 he was very clear—no beating around the bush—but his approach was not complicated—come and test and see if I am a valid teacher.
     
  • After a period of that approach it was time for him to challenge them to commit to following him, getting to know him better (basically a call to faith). In that stage the disciples were on a steep learning curve. As that growth curve began to level, rather than allow them to simply get settled in a little changing routine of getting up each morning and going out with him again to watch him teach, heal and cast out demons, he challenged them …
     
  • … to be with him 24/7. With such uninterrupted access to Jesus they would not miss much of what he said or did.
     
  • Then finally he called them to remain in him.  That was a season of deep and growing deeper connectedness. So much so that the apostle John in this stage would eventually see remarkable visions and write the book of Revelations, Peter would write the epistles of Peter and Matthew would settle down and write one of the gospels.
The first two of these stages are highly intentional and directed by Jesus. The latter two stages were equally as intentional as the first two, but much less structured. Jesus gave vague commands like “Feed by sheep” and “Wait in Jerusalem (clear command, but for vague reasons. Why? For what?).”
 
Reveal claims that today the need is similar—on the left side of this continuum discipleship needs are intentional and more highly described and even for some prescribed by the church. People traverse the last two stages well when discipleship is still intentional, but less highly directed, more informal, such as in spiritual relationships. Somewhere between the early and the later stages small groups are one of the most effective forms for spiritual growth, providing some organization but less than does a public worship setting.
 
What does this knowledge matter? In the great commission Jesus commands the apostles and therefore the church to make disciples. A church’s call is to minister to people from cradle to grave, which also means all across the discipleship continuum. We are smart, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all program for adult discipleship and coaxing, pleading and cajoling people to participate, to create in any one congregation several avenues for disciple-growing that are tailored to the unique needs of each stage of the disciple-making continuum.
 
So what might be your take away? That there are different stages of development of relationship with Jesus for adult church members and that each stage requires discipleship delivered a little differently, just as Jesus discipled his own disciples differently in each stage.
 
Call to Action: Ministry leaders, do some research on the different styles of discipleship needed at each stage. Two good books on this are Move and Deeping Your Effectiveness. Another good book that came out this year is Stir by Mindy Caliquire.
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Just linked over to this article while working on a paper for a doctoral class. FF Bruce was not born until 1910. I am pretty sure the citation distinguishing the parts of Christ's ministry is AB Bruce in The Training of the Twelve. The three distinguishable parts of Christ's ministry are outlined in chapter Two. The fourth step of reproducing disciples who reproduce is the logical end of the three steps. This last step has been one of the key ideas in Bill Hull's Bonhoeffer Project and Exponential's call to "Become a Five."