Becoming a follower of Christ is merely the starting point of one’s faith as Jim Putnam shows how, “Conversion is [merely] the first step in the discipleship process.” Putnam then contrasts the two states by claiming, “Conversion is [just] the beginning of a journey, whereas discipleship is ongoing.” This essentially means at the point of conversion, a mental decision is made to follow Jesus, but in addition to that decision, there is also a spiritual response to the Holy Spirit and an acknowledgment of one’s God-given purpose. A. B. Bruce further illustrates how even the first disciples of Jesus, “Arrived at their final intimate relation to Jesus only by degrees: three stages in the history of their fellowship with Him being distinguishable.” Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey define these three stages as: Declaration, Development, and Deployment.
During the first stage of declaration, one offers repentance for sins, puts their faith in Jesus Christ, and acknowledges the sacrifice He endured to make salvation possible. This stage is about getting to know Christ and as Earley puts it, “To investigate the person and work of Jesus.” This first stage is about trusting in Jesus Christ, by laying aside any doubts and allowing God to save you. It is about acknowledging Christ as your Savior, which leads one to become a committed believer. Each stage of discipleship is focused on the believer taking the next step of faith out of obedience and commitment, as Dr. Elmer Towns emphasizes, “The first stage of discipleship is a series of steps to Jesus leading to repentance from sin and faith in Christ.” Salvation should never be an end in and of itself; it should always just be the beginning of a process leading to the next important event as the believer becomes a disciple and the disciple becomes a disciple maker. Earley points out, “While salvation often begins with curiosity, it takes more than curiosity in Jesus to experience true conversion. It takes the conviction of the Holy Spirit as He convinces us of our sin, our lack of true righteousness, and the resulting judgment.” Even Satan and his demons believe in Jesus; what separates followers of Christ from just believers is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and one’s commitment to follow Jesus.
The second stage of discipleship is development, which is all about becoming a devoted follower of Christ, which Earley says focuses on, “Immersion, Abandonment, and Apprenticeship into ministry.” As one becomes more immersed, they find a deeper relationship with Jesus through prayer, reading God’s word, becoming active in their local church, and ultimately learning how to fulfill the Great Commission. Anthony Gittins illustrates how, “Discipleship requires the recruitment and formation of believers who will continue the work of Jesus wherever they may be and wherever they are led.” This stage is built upon the premise one believes in Jesus and now asks the believer if they will follow Jesus. Earley explains how, “A disciple is someone who seriously considers the cost before following Christ… [And] is totally committed to Christ, [meaning] our love for Christ is so great, so consuming that, in comparison, it feels like hatred for others.” After coming to faith and being regenerated, this stage now begins the transformation process as the Savior turns into the Master by the believer now being a devoted follower of Christ with reckless obedience.
The third stage of discipleship is deployment and Dr. Rod Dempsey gives a great definition of this disciple as, “Someone who knows Christ, has grown in Christ, and now goes forth in Christ,” meaning they have surrendered completely to God and to the calling God has placed on their life. This stage is built upon obedience and asks the believer to go forth in advancing the kingdom because anyone who claims to be a disciple, but does not show God in his or her words and actions is not one. Charles Spurgeon said it best, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” Reproduction and multiplication of disciples are evidence of this stage with the primary focus being on leading others to the same saving knowledge you have found.
Putnam also offers three characteristics of being a disciple and following Jesus as: “1. Accepting Jesus as Lord, leader, and master of our lives, 2. Being changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and transformed by the renewing of our minds, and 3. Action, which leads to a change in what we do with our hands after we have made the decision to follow Him in our heads.” Essentially being a disciple means: Following Christ (head), being changed by Christ (heart), and being committed to the mission of Christ (hands).” As a disciple of Christ, we are on a mission to love others to Christ by sharing our life experiences and what God has done in our life with them. This is why it is so important that we reflect the image of Christ in our words and our actions.
By understanding these characteristics and having defined each of the three stages of discipleship, it is necessary to provide context and application to the disciple-making strategy, which Jesus implemented. As the church, we need to make it as easy as possible for others to come to faith while at the same time providing goals and setting realistic expectations for new followers of Christ. Unfortunately, as history and recent statistics dictate, most churches have high walls: making entry difficult and low expectations: leaving a new follower with no clear way of growing in their faith and becoming a disciple maker. As one moves from being a believer through a declaration of faith, to a disciple by following Jesus, the next step is to become a disciple maker by fulfilling the Great Commission. In essence, the goal is to win them to Christ, grow them in Christ, and then send them out in Christ’s name and this only happens by developing spiritual disciplines and through training on how to evangelize and make new disciples.
For those in the declaration stage, I would demonstrate how important the body of Christ is by showing how each member has a specific role. As a new believer, it can be very overwhelming because you know very little about the word of God and how it relates to your calling. In my church, we have had a new believers class, which starts them on the right path of learning the fundamentals and equipping them to fulfill their part in the Great Commission. God’s word says we overcome the enemy by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony; so teaching new believers how to share their testimony with those in their spheres of influence is something we focus on from the beginning. In addition, we encourage new believers to begin praying for the unsaved people in their life and to identify family members, associates, and people in their neighborhood and community they can share the Gospel with. We also stress the importance of praying opportunities would present themselves so they can share what God has done in their life while also helping them understand the magnitude of God’s provision. In the future, one goal I would like to work towards is putting faces with names by creating a tracking system of new members. In a church of over one thousand people, it can become very easy to get lost in the mix or fall through the cracks. Because of this, many people may stop coming or be going through a crisis without the church ever knowing about it.
For those in the development stage, our church strives to help individuals plug into areas of ministry where they are most effective. Unfortunately, I find this stage is where the bulk of the congregation finds themselves most of the time. There is a spirit of apathy and complacency that rises up within a congregation. The young generation feels entitled and the older generation feels as though they have paid their dues already. In reality, we need the wisdom of the Abrahams, we need the creativity of the Isaacs and we need the energy of the Jacobs. With this mindset, we have become very conscious of being multigenerational in our areas of ministry. Teachers must continually be learning and mentors must always be discipling. A cord of three is not easily broken, so we also encourage those in this stage to accept some form of accountability in addition to helping bear one another’s burdens. This stage is all about growing the believer, so just as in the declaration stage, we encourage them to continue praying for others, but we now ask them to start looking and praying for areas God can use them. As the church and body of believers, we are now looking for opportunities to spend time in helping them further develop their spiritual disciplines i.e.: prayer, praise, journaling, meditation, solitude, and reading God’s Word. In addition, we look for ways to give them more responsibilities possibly in a small group or other area of ministry. This is the model Jesus used when a new follower chose to become a disciple and the next thing He did was give them a responsibility with accountability.
The final stage of deployment is when the disciple begins making other disciples by investing time and building relationships with others. This is a stage where we begin asking the believer to continually intercede for one another and to invite and involve others in their daily lives. We have found in most cases, one must earn the right to speak into someone’s life and it takes a real intentional relationship to make this happen. We emphasize special training for individuals in this stage as they begin making new disciples. This is the stage God desires His followers to stay in, so we are very intentional about making sure people do not get burned out or develop compassion fatigue during ministry. As we send out these disciples and commission them, we encourage them to take on more responsibilities like leading a small group. In addition, we continue to identify their spiritual giftings while helping them grow in them. Our main goal is teaching them to lead and ultimately grow in Christ by multiplying and reproducing new disciples.
Bruce, A. B. The Training of the Twelve. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1988.
Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is… How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group. 2013.
Gittins, Anthony. Called to Be Sent. Liguori, MO: Liguori Press, 2008.
Putnam, Jim, et al. Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2013.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Soul Winner: Or, How to Lead Sinners to the Savior. Grand Rapids, MI: Eedmans, 1965.
Towns, Dr. Elmer. Winning the Winnable. Lynchburg, VA: Church Leadership Institute, 1986.