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What do you do?

For a long time, I dreaded this question. I do a lot of different things. Don’t we all?

I am a “facilitative, organizing catalyst who brings energy, creativity and passion to change or development-oriented efforts (catalyst) through building structures, methods or programs (organizing) that equip, empower or provide tools for growth (facilitative).” That is a mouth full.  (Did you even read it?!?) But that is what I was told earlier this year by someone who is supposed to know something about the makeup of people—and actually does.

This may be true, because in response to the learnings about discipleship I explained in my last blog, what I really DO is develop materials and programs which the Holy Spirit is using to grow people in character and impact. When the Holy Spirit grows people in a tangible way, it is a good and beautiful sight to behold.

This tool and system (Ascending Leaders) that friends and I have developed and (as a learning organization) are continually developing …

a. …is a Great Blend of Scriptural and Topical Study. It gleans what Scripture says on various topics, draws from Scripture and what other Christians have written on the subject and presents a well thought out holistic summary.  Some people have complained to me that a constant diet of studies that are inductive studies of Scripture rarely get beyond digging to explore more broadly the topic the Scripture is addressing. Other types of studies go so far out there with a topic and leave Scripture behind. People tell me they love our approach that is both Scripture focused and topical. …incorporates both the Head and Heart. We are not afraid of thinking solidly about a subject, but we never stop there. Some of our questions are designed to lead to reflection on life and to ask how a person feels about a topic. Each session has both an application exercise and an application question for a triad/quad to talk through and plan to actually do.

b. …is Missional at its Core. Ascending Leaders materials are written by a bunch of church planters and others whose lives have been about reaching those far from God. It moves group participants away from their own concerns toward looking and reaching outward. Many become much more Missional in their orientation as they work through it. One person says he never would have started tutoring an at-risk boy if he had not been in an Ascending Leaders study and would have missed one of the best things he has done in life. Others have gone overseas permanently on mission endeavors because of the effect of the studies on them. Others approach their work, neighborhood and community differently.

c. …is Short to satisfy Contemporary Short Attention Spans. \As people get busier it is harder to commit beyond 8-10 weeks. Each Ascending Leaders workbook is six or seven sessions long.  A more intense pace can be done in ten sessions. Each workbook is self-standing. After completing one workbook a group can then go on to another workbook of their choosing. Often after a group has completed one book, a few of them feel that the next season includes commitments that will get in the way of the study, while others who were not part of it heard about it and want to join. It is short and fluid in that way.

d. …is Stair-Stepped for a Variety of Discipleship Intensities. Some discipleship materials, while sound, are exceptionally light while others are exceptionally demanding. Ascending Leaders workbooks can be used at various intensities. Many average small groups use the workbooks over six sessions.  Other more intensive discipleship groups will journey through a workbook in three sessions or two sessions or even just one longer session. Nine of the self-standing books written around one theme make a collection. For those who desire to have the more intense discipleship experience, each collection has a handbook which guides a more intense experience

e. …is Comprehensive. One discipleship pastor with terrific books on his desk about boundaries, spiritual formation, personality, relationships, recovery, marriage and other important topics said, “I would like to have our people get all this information but there is no way I will get them to read or study more than a few of these books if that. What sets Ascending Leaders apart from other discipleship models is that most of them take just one approach on discipleship like spiritual formation or intimacy with Christ or the work of the Spirit or something else. With Ascending Leaders I need to go to just one source for it all and packaged in a way that my people can get a comprehensive experience. It takes all these great books and condenses them into a form most people can access.”   

  • The Charting Your Course experience helps people see the themes God has been building in their lives and God’s unique view of them, their values and His vision for the next season of their lives.
  • The Christ Habits collection is about the spiritual disciplines clustered into nine categories like Scripture, prayer, direction, confession, simplicity & sacrifice, community and more. 
  • The Spirit’s Fruit collection is about the fruit of the Spirit, one book committed to each and doesn’t just talk about being fruitful but guides users in steps they can take to bear real spiritual fruit.
  • The Your Self collection is about thorough self-understanding (one of the Your Self books is available at the moment) including spiritual gifts (using The Grip), interests, usual behavior, stress behavior, the why of behavior (using the Birkman method), life transition style, family of origin blessings and baggage, and life timeline. It’s incredibly useful in helping people see how God can use the past to shape the future. It is also a great study for church councils or other working groups to use. One mega church has brought hundreds of men through Charting Your Course and Your Self.
  • The Beyond Yourself collection is about stewarding various aspects of life like time, finances, relationships, teams, spouses, children, situations of conflict, leadership opportunities and your world (one of the Beyond Yourself books is available at the moment, with two more by the end of the summer).

f. …is Responsive. We have listened to pastors, church leaders and small group leaders about what is needed for discipleship and have responded. We heard that fewer people are able to stick with long programs so we designed Ascending Leaders taking that into consideration. In recent years church leaders have told us that people are just too busy for intentional discipleship. So we have developed a half day workshop showing church leaders what can help dramatically with the busyness issue using Charting Your Course from Ascending Leaders. As a learning organization, we will continue to massage our method as we learn from church leaders what they need.

g. …is Strong on Application. People, and especially us CRC people, tend to have a huge distance between our heads and our hearts and hands. We tend to intellectualize spiritual growth--keeping it in our head, avoiding personal change. Even talking about what we should do in response is not the same as planning what we will do or doing it.  Because a portion of Ascending Leaders is a platform dedicated to application alone—the triads/quads—application regularly happens.

h. …uses Peer Learning through a Powerful Facilitation Process: Small groups discuss together how they were affected by the reading and the exercise before the session. Some who cannot get their members to read on their own, read it together in group. The group leader serves simply as a facilitator. In our small group training we offer excellent training for effective facilitation of group discussion. As I have led and been in a wide variety of small groups using a wide variety of materials, I have noticed that in many studies, the discussion questions are of questionable quality for good group discussion. We focus on quality discussion and so provide excellent questions that move a group along in healthy discussion.

i. …builds Safe Communities. Often people will not be fully forthright with their faith community because of fear of repercussions, or alienation, or gossip or embarrassment. Through a covenant provided by Ascending Leaders for groups, groups members promise to abide by group rules such as no over-talking or giving unsolicited advice. People who find it hard to trust are reassured by the covenant, causing them to be more transparent, trusting that what is said in their group stays in their group.

j. …uses the Power of Retreating. Youth ministries, men’s and women’s ministries and the Alpha program know the power of the retreat for focused growth. The downside of retreats is that not everyone can or will take the time away for a retreat and retreats are often followed by a period of spiritual doldrums.  Ascending Leaders uses the intensity of short retreats normally of 3-4 hours which most everyone in the group are able to fit in their schedule and because it is preceded and followed by sessions of group time, friends help each other journey through the spiritual adrenalin withdrawals.

That was a lot, even mind blowing. It is a lot because Ascending Leaders seeks to provide the church with a lot for discipleship—just what churches need.

So now you know….I do a lot of things, but at its core my life is about growing people of character and impact for Christ---disciples! I was asked to introduce you to the Ascending Leaders method of discipleship, which this has shown. I would love to have the time to tell you story after story of the “domino of impact effect.”  When people begin on a growth trajectory in ‘discipleship’ and their ‘discipleness’ increases noticeably, those close to them notice the difference, as do the hundreds of others they reach out to over years resulting in a “domino of impact effect” from the gospel of Jesus Christ lived out! To read or watch over 30 stories of people who have grown in character and impact through Ascending Leaders studies, click on ‘stories’ at

At Synod last month the Christian Reformed Church “accredited” Ascending Leaders. We consider the Christian Reformed Church in North America a “friend.” After all, many of us with Ascending Leaders, though not all, are or have been Christian Reformed.

If you care about growing Christ-like character “like” us on Facebook, cause we like you.

P.S.I have authored around ninety percent of our material, but not without the help of astute advisors, eagle-eyed editors and colorful graphic artists.  My friends who have also written some of the core content are Judy Hagey of Winter Spring, FL, Shirley Van Heukelem of Denver, CO, Don Watt of Lafayette, CO, and Lois Hoogeveen of Sioux Falls, SD. Our workbook production teams include Sunny Hyun of Rochester Hills, MI, Judy Hagey, Judi Black of Austin, TX, Don Watt, Terri Oesterreich of Orlando, FL, and Lloyd Dawson of Caselberry, FL.  My long-time friend Geronimo Garcia of El Paso, TX and Sunny Hyun have set the tone of our “look.”  Our caring board currently includes Ed Schans of Denver, CO, Gary Foran of Fort Worth, TX, Tom Bratt of Grand Rapids, MI, Ryan Faber of Pella, IA, Luke Wolters of Katy, TX, Geronimo Garcia, Judy Hagey and me. Others of our staff are Director of Church Relations Brandon Bajema of Spring, TX and Administrative Assistant Teri Watson of Sugar Land, TX. Close to 100 generous couples and individuals, churches and foundations make our work possible.


Thank you gamaoli for your gracious words of affirmation. We desire to provide CRCs and other churches with a tool that works well to grow people of character and impact (growing, active disciples). It sounds as if we were successful in your case. We are grateful.

Michael,  I have been a "disciple-making pastor" for 25 years.  It has been the most explosive part of my ministry.  Over 10,000 people have been directly, and indirectly affected by this "organic" multiplying ministry.  Pastors and "apostolic leaders have been raised up."   Disciplemaking is often engaged as an effort to make better disciples, more committed, intense, dedicated followers---Far less often has it been taught about Disciple-making--as a method of growing through teaching,  My materical focuses on the Apostlic methods of Paul, John and Peter.  IThes 2:7-13; II Tim 2:1-2; I Jn 2:7-10; and II Peter 1:3-8;    The apostles knew about stages of a disciples growth toward maturity----baby, child, brother, parent, elder, pastor, apostle.  

Just wondering if your material focuses on this reproductive aspect of disciplemaking?


Michael Johnson on July 19, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you for your response Daniel.  The answr to your question is "yes" and "no." 

Yes: I agree with the "process" concept of discipleship,  that one never finishes and that Scripture provides a framework of various roles which we would think would match up with the process of one's maturing as a disciple. I first read Bill Hull's Disciple Making Pastor 25 year ago and agreed wholeheartedly. 

No: Between roughly 1987 and 2001 I wrestled with how to practically do this in congregational ministry. I found it easier to agree with, than to implement. Our material is meant to be quality content to help people practically move forward well on the discipleship journey. While you would find our that our materials assume a process perspective on discipleship as taught by the NT, they do not teach such directly. We try to use more Jesus model of sending people into growth. Thus the process and materials simply gets people going in quality growth.

I hope that adequately answers your question. 10,000 people is tremendous!!! May God use you to teach 10,000 more. Over the last 7 years, roughly 6,000 have used something of our material. A growing disciple is a good and beautiful sight to behold!

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