Discipleship and a Healthy Church

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Becoming a true disciple comes only after discovering God’s will for your life, while true discipleship involves discovering God’s will for your church and the role you will play in achieving that vision. Both of these stages only emanate after studying, interpreting, meditating, and applying the word of God to your life through sacrifice, relationships, and transformation, and in discipleship by developing healthy disciples who know Christ, grow in Christ, and go forth in Christ’s name sharing His love with others. To ensure the success of this process, it is the church’s primary mission to ensure this development takes place in a healthy environment. This paper will examine the characteristics of a healthy church and explain why a healthy church is the ultimate goal of discipleship. In addition, it will also highlight the specific roles and importance of the local church and emphasize specific ways to create a healthier body of Christ in preparing disciples to fulfill the Great Commission.

WHY A HEALTHY CHURCH IS THE GOAL OF DISCIPLESHIP

For an organism to be considered healthy it generally means all systems and parts are operating at optimum levels and are working in conjunction with each other. In a like manner, the church, which is the body of Christ must also be healthy by using all its parts to be effective in the mission and mandate that Jesus has passed on to the called out ones. In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth relating to the body, Gordon Fee points out:

With a set of parallel rhetorical questions, Paul begins to apply the analogy, but does so by keeping the analogy itself alive. Taking up the two members of Ch. 12 v. 16 (eye/ear), he asks: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” Then, keeping to the sensory organs, he adds: “If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” This interchange of the sense organs makes it clear that Paul’s point is not the “inferiority” of one to the other. The point is the need for all members; otherwise some function of the body would be missing.

As Dr. Jay Sulfridge further illustrates, “Christians are called out of the world and [are] called to a Savior who calls them to a mission. The church is a fulfillment of the kingdom and the kingdom is a fulfillment of the mission of God and the mission of God springs from His nature and love.” By engaging in this mission, the church essentially becomes a living organism as people find their role in His body and begin to engage in proclaiming the gospel. Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus broadens the emphasis on “His body” as F.F. Bruce explains:

Because “we are members of his body,” and collectively “his body,” Christ “nourishes and cherishes” us. The church as the body of Christ and the church as the bride of Christ are two concepts with distinct origins, but a link between the two is found in Gen. 2:24, where husband and wife become “one flesh.

If a healthy body equals a healthy church then a sick body would point to sick church. Using this methodology, understanding the vital signs of the church and the principle: if you take care of your body, the body will take care of you gives great insight to the importance of discipleship as a goal in becoming a healthy church. In the diagnosis, as Dave Earley points out, “The world tries to measure health by externals, [but] Jesus is looking deeper; He is looking inward to see the condition of the body… [And] Jesus… is analyzing the health of His body and we would be wise to follow His example.”

These passages of scripture denote an undeniable sense of unity, which must be attained within the church where despite diversity there is harmony and oneness. To accomplish this, there must be a deep connection that exists between disciples and leaders in the church to ensure the success of the mission. A true spiritual leader is someone who not only follows God’s will for their life, but also helps others to influence God’s will in their lives as well. It is the job of the spiritual leader to move people from their own agenda onto God’s plan for their lives. An effective spiritual leader also knows how to equip, empower, and then release disciples to do God’s will in fulfilling the Great Commission. Dietrich Bonhoeffer poses the question if it is harder to be a disciple today than it would have been when Jesus physically walked the earth. With the mindset that Jesus was physically with the twelve, but that He is not with us, Bonhoeffer illustrates:

This question refuses to take seriously that Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and still speaking to us today through the testimony of scripture. He is present with us today, in bodily form and with His word. If we want to hear His call to discipleship, we need to hear it where Christ Himself is present [and] it is within the church.

Part of being a healthy church means you have healthy leaders who understand the importance of growing further in their spiritual disciplines because as Donald Whitney points out, “The greatest danger of neglecting the Spiritual Disciplines is the danger of missing God.” Leaders are meant to train and equip the saints so the saints can do the work of the church, but the problem is as John Maxwell highlights, “Most Christians are educated well beyond their level of obedience.” Obedience and submission are true signs of a healthy church, but our culture has twisted the meaning of these words to mean oppression and judgment.

Healthy leaders know their roles and giftings and understand how and why it is so important to grow new disciples and teach them spiritual disciplines. Thomas Frederick illustrates how, “Spirituality as defined from a purely psychological perspective is inadequate to capture the depth of this human experience because it misses the core of spirituality—discipleship and discipleship in the contemplative tradition fosters a deeper experience of the divine in the believer’s life.” This knowledge comes from proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. There must be no doubt of the importance of winning new believers to Christ and teaching them how to grow by surrendering and sacrificing for the kingdom of God, and by devoting time with them so they can truly appreciate the price that was paid to make them a new creation.

Healthy churches are vital to the advancement of the gospel and proper discipleship in the process is the only way people are going to grow closer to the Lord in understanding their role as disciples and the big picture role of the church. Baptism is a crucial act in this process, because as Sulfridge illustrates, “The person who accepts Jesus as Savior also accepts Him as Lord , and the evidence of this submission and surrender is baptism [and] the church that does not baptize new believers is not healthy.” This public declaration of faith should just be the beginning of their changed life and it should serve as a promise to fulfill the Great Commission.

The discipleship process is crucial in helping believers understand exactly what God is calling them to do and one of the most important principles to teach new believers is the principle of the tithe because a healthy church is one where the members understand where their time, talents, and treasures are, so will their hearts be also. Teaching the word of God is not enough because it is not truly effective in the discipleship process if you cannot add practical application. James tells his readers, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” The scriptures should be taught for the purpose of obedience by understanding how they apply to the church today. Stressing the importance of missional discipleship, Christopher Beard believes, “The missional church movement has emerged as a voice calling for a return to the church’s inherent missionary nature and identity. As a part of that call, “discipleship” has been identified as the key to success of the movement as well as the success of the Western church as a whole.”

As the leaders begin to take a more active role in equipping and empowering the saints and the pastor begins to focus more on pouring into the leaders, the church will naturally begin to become healthy. Depending on how far removed from this model the church is determines how long the progression may take and how many parts may need to die off. Using the analogy of the human body, which is full of complex systems, we recognize when they are all working together, the body matures and grows with little effort. In a like manner, when all the systems and parts of a church are working together and you do not have people or ministries trying to go against the flow and vision of the church, the natural outcome is health, vitality, and longevity. As the saints begin to mature and truly recognize Christ as the head of the church they will begin to love others even more, so a healthy church must have an environment where love flows freely. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Another key indicator of a healthy church is one where people are plugged into areas of ministry where their spiritual gifts are being best utilized. In order for any church to be healthy, they must be intentional in helping believers identify, grow, and use their giftings. In just about any model you will see, eighty percent of the work being done by twenty percent of the people. This 80/20 principles carries over to almost every aspect of the church, especially in giving, so one of the priorities of any church that wants to become or remain healthy needs to focus on recognizing and developing the spiritual gifts of more of their members, so they will know how to use them properly and so they can become part of the Great Commission.

Finally, the importance of prayer cannot be overstated for believers, laborers and non-believers. For those currently serving, they need prayer so they do not burn out; for those who just started believing, they need prayer so they will get plugged in some form of ministry and for the non-believers, they need prayer for opportunities to arise for someone to speak life and truth into their lives and that their hearts would be receptive to God’s word. The sad reality is that the harvest is plentiful, but those willing to work are few. A healthy church understands what they do for the least of the people they do for the Master. The members of a healthy church through sound discipleship know they must practice what they preach, they must constantly be equipping and empowering new believers, and they must be moved by what moves the Lord’s heart.

PERSONAL CHURCH / MINISTRY AND AREAS FOR GROWTH

The mission for the church I am a pastor at is to create an environment where anyone at any stage of life can experience the dynamic presence of God. We are a church built on love, acceptance, and forgiveness with a heart to make sure that no on has to fight alone. Life can be brutal and is often the cruelest teacher, so the primary ministry of my church is to be a healing center. The DNA of our church is very multigenerational so we continually look for ways to use the wisdom of our Abrahams, the creativity of our Isaacs, and the energy of our Jacobs. Just as there are many parts to the body, we have found how much can be accomplished when all the generations work towards a common goal like advancing the kingdom.

Area One

The top three areas that our organization needs to focus on to become a healthier body of Christ starts first with getting people who are not serving into some role where their giftings can be identified and then utilized. There is a spirit of apathy and complacency that runs rampant in congregations where believers think once they are saved they can just sit back, relax, and turn church more into a club of whose who instead of actively becoming involved in the Great Commission. It is the role of the pastor to equip the saints so they are able to do the work of service. By helping saints grow spiritually, they will be able to grow closer to God and by equipping the saints, they will learn how to share the love of God with others. As a mother bird pushes a young chick out of the nest, there are full-grown individuals that need the same nudge. After getting people engaged in ministry, focusing on spiritual disciplines like Bible intake is crucial, because the more one reads the word of God, the more they will understand His ways; the more they understand His ways, the more they will learn to trust Him; and the more they trust the Lord, the more confidence they will have standing upon His promises and proclaiming them to others.

Area Two

The second area that will help develop a healthier body of Christ is by being better shepherds over our flock. In I Peter 5:2, we see Peter addressing the elders proclaiming, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” As Putman points out, “This verse points to the pastor’s responsibility to see that the people are being cared for spiritually.” After we get a declaration of faith, we fail at moving the new believer immediately into a developmental stage where they can begin to serve and learn about their giftings and callings. Peter Davids elaborates further on this imagery illustrating how, “The image of shepherding God’s people ‘or His people’s being his flock’ is an OT image that is common in the NT, but the command to elders to shepherd is found only here and in Acts 20:28-29. Both places significantly connect shepherding with ‘watching over it,’ showing that shepherding is a job of oversight.” By failing to use our elders as mentors and teachers for new believers, we are also robbing them of the growth they can attain by pouring into someone’s life. Just as the body is made up of many parts, so too are there many gifts and when we do not allow them to operate fully, essentially we are quenching the work of the Spirit. As the church, we also 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. In essence, the goal is to win them to Christ, grow them in Christ, and then to send them out in Christ’s name and this only happens by continually developing spiritual disciplines and through training them on how to evangelize and make new disciples.

Area Three

The third area our organization can still work on is the care and compassion of our attenders. We have a catchy motto of “no one fights alone,” but without a system in place to put action behind it; they are just empty words. My primary role as the care pastor is to keep up with all our members and the turmoil and disasters life often presents. Since our church has become a healing center for people who have been wounded in their past, this often presents many obstacles to speak truth and life into people who have been so broken as a result of deep hurt, legalism, or any other number of ways the church has handled issues poorly. This is an area I believe would drastically improve the overall spiritual health, if we were able to develop a discipleship program where individuals more mature in their faith could come along side and stake themselves next to new believers or spiritually wounded believers and help them navigate the stormy waters of life back to the calm waters of God’s will. As a church, we have chosen to operate with complete transparency because even as pastors, we have the same temptations and face many of the same struggles as the congregation faces. We want the congregation to know they are not alone and that we all have fallen short of the glory of God because we live in a fallen state. This has been well received by the majority, but for some, it was too much and as a result, they chose to leave the church. The interesting thing has been watching some of the same families who left come back when they were facing a crisis. Without a doubt, pastors are far from perfect and there is no way they can do all the ministry alone and I have never understood why some pastors insist on trying to because in the end, it spreads them too thin and makes them ineffective. Sara LeGrand conducted an amazing study of pastors, which revealed:

Female pastors felt guilty for taking personal time and experienced pressure to prove themselves; local pastors reported financial strain and utilized a variety of interpersonal relationships; young pastors indicated child-related stress but also greater interest in nutrition, exercise, and church-based health promotion; and large-sized church pastors expressed increased confidence in negotiating personal time and reported more sharing of pastoral duties.

Pastors should focus on excelling in their areas of giftings while looking for others who are strong in their areas of weakness. This is contrary to academia that says to turn your weaknesses into strengths. I disagree and submit that by concentrating on your strengths and delegating your weaknesses the entire organization will thrive and produce more healthy disciples. This lack of confidence and insecurity puts a lid on any organization and causes you to never hire someone or put someone in a leadership position that could be potentially better than you in an area.

INITIAL STEPS TO IMPROVE SPIRITUAL HEALTH

Just as when you are sick you go to the doctor to get a diagnosis by evaluating your overall condition and symptoms, the same can be done when establishing the spiritual health of a church. The first question you need to answer is, are your leaders spiritually healthy? Things have a way of trickling down and if the prominent people in your organization lack the spiritual maturity and discipline to be leaders; that is an immediate red flag. In addition, the church staff as William Tuck points out should model this standard:

In the total organizational structure of a church, it is essential that the paid professional staff base their understanding of each other and their varied ministries on a strong theological and biblical foundation. An understanding of the theological foundation on which healthy leadership rests will hopefully enable ministers to labor more effectively and respect and appreciate the services of their fellow workers. Attitude toward and treatment of one’s fellow staff workers are indications of one’s theology. The practice of ministry is intrinsically involved in one’s understanding of theological truth.

By allowing someone to serve or lead who violates God’s word or the bylaws of the church you are basically saying that behavior is acceptable since you have not dealt with it, but you must tread carefully here and you must always bring instruction before correction. Michael Beasley reminds us, “Quick-fix solutions to the challenges of enabling church growth simply do not exist. Rather, ensuring the growth of churches is incidental to the more important task of ensuring their health; an endeavor that demands time, honesty and commitment.”

The second question you should ask is do your leaders have the proper understanding of their role in helping to grow believers? The role of the spiritual leader must be to help move people closer to God’s agenda by encouraging, equipping, empowering, and then releasing them to continue the work God has started in them. To improve the spiritual health in the church, your spiritual leaders must understand the importance of communicating God’s plan and will in their lives, which involves knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and ultimately joining Him on His mission to save the world.

Each church is made up of multiple systems i.e. evangelism, stewardship, mobilization, discipleship, or other mission mindsets, so having a clear definition of these are crucial. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses in your systems, you not only can gauge the health of your church, but you can also implement a plan to improve the overall condition. Through strategic planning and accountability you will position yourself for maximum results.

CONCLUSION

A healthy system equals a healthy body of believers and a healthy body of believers leads to a reproducing church. As disciples learn God’s will for their life, through spiritual discipleship, they begin to see God’s will for their church and will become engaged in that mission. By ensuring this process takes place in a healthy environment, a healthy church full of healthy believers will be the end result. Lastly, by understanding the role of pastors is to equip the saints and the role of the spiritual leaders is to equip and empower new believers to do the same will multiply and reproduce new believers and will follow the teachings God has provided.

Bibliography

Beard, Christopher. “Missional discipleship: Discerning spiritual-formation practices and goals within the missional movement,” American Society of Missiology, April 2015 vol. 43 no. 2 175-194. doi: 10.1177/0091829614563059 (accessed 12-2-15).

Beasley, Michael. “The Healthy Churches Handbook Review.” Theology March 2013 vol. 116 no. 3 224-225 http://tjx.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/116/3/224.full.pdf doi: 10.1177/0040571X13475404s (accessed 12-2-15).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4: Discipleship. Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 2003.

Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Davids, Peter H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

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.

Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Frederick, Thomas V. “Discipleship and Spirituality from a Christian Perspective,” Pastoral Psychology. July 2008, Volume 56, Issue 6, pp 553-560. http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/10.1007/s11089-008-0148-8/fulltext.html (accessed 12-2-15).

LeGrand, Sara et al. “Healthy Leaders: Multilevel Health Promotion Considerations for Diverse United Methodist Church Pastors,” Journal of Community Psychology. 41: 303–321. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21539. 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/doi/10.1002/jcop.21539/abstract (accessed 12-2-15).

Putnam, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

Tuck, William Powell. “A theology for healthy church staff relations.” Review & Expositor 78, no. 1 (1981 1981): 5-14. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed 12-2-15).

Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.

Stages of Discipleship

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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.

Bibliography

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.

Spheres and Stages of Discipleship

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INTRODUCTION

In order to go anywhere, you must first know two things: your current location and your intended destination; only then can you implement steps and directions needed to reach your objective. This paper will begin by recognizing how lost and dead individuals are before coming to faith in Christ, but also how after coming to faith, a new destination has been programmed in which also comes with a new mission as a disciple of Christ. Through our death we find life and by applying Jim Putnam’s five stages of discipleship and four spheres of life as directions, this paper will show the path to reaching one’s God-given purpose and calling in life. In addition, this this paper will stress the centrality of Christ referring to the call to the cross while emphasizing the importance of complete submission to Christ in all areas of one’s life.

FIVE STAGES OF DISCIPLESHIP

Anyone who has attempted to learn something new can attest that discipline without direction is nothing more than drudgery. This is an important principle to understand because most believers do not have a clear picture of what their true God-given potential could be if they simply applied themselves to growing closer to the Lord. This writer firmly believes if God were to teleport someone twenty, thirty, or forty years in the future to show what reading His word daily would accomplish, more people would start reading the word. By reading the Bible, one comes to understand the Lord. As one comes to understand the Lord, they learn to trust Him. Finally, once you learn to trust the Lord, you will have the confidence to stand upon the promises of God as well as living your life as a testament and living sacrifice to the Lord.

Before coming to faith, everyone was dead in his or her transgressions, but through the atoning sacrifice Jesus suffered and died for on the cross, He made a way for everyone to have restored communion with God. Donald Whitney points out that as a Christian, “We must understand what we shall become as God’s elect [because] God’s eternal plan ensures that every Christian will ultimately conform to Christlikeness.” Knowing and truly understanding this means as followers of Christ, God intends for us to grow and pursue holiness. While no one besides Christ is or ever was perfect, we are forgiven and when Christ is the priority, the Holy Spirit will generate an unquenchable hunger for more of God in every area of one’s life.

For a new believer, it can be very overwhelming to explain everything God has done as well as what He expects out of them. One of the best ways to start the discipleship process is to explain how coming to faith is just the beginning of the journey and as Jim Putnam suggests, “[Realize] the responsibility for spiritual growth never rests on the disciple maker alone.” Putnam identifies three major components in the process: your part, their part, and God’s part. The only part you are responsible for is yours because you cannot do their part and you certainly cannot do God’s part. The rate of spiritual growth is different for every individual, so Putnam encourages disciple makers to focus more on the path of progress and the direction, which leads to development.

The first stage of an individual is level one: Spiritually Dead. This may sound harsh, but as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “You were dead in your transgressions and sin.” This stage refers to people who have not accepted Christ and as F.F. Bruce highlights, “It was necessary that the readers should be raised to life, because they were spiritually dead, severed and alienated from God, the source of true life. Their spiritual death was the result of their trespasses and sins.”

Putnam suggests several excuses for remaining in this stage: “They may reject God, they may be seeking God, they may call themselves spiritual, the may even claim to know God or call themselves Christians, but there is no true fruit in their lives.” Believing in God is not enough; even the devil and demons believe in God. Followers of Christ are expected to bear fruit because that is evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside. Putnam poses a very real question: “What would you expect from a dead person?” As anyone would conclude: not much… Because of this, one should not be surprised by the way those who are spiritually dead act. You should be focused on introducing them to who they are in Christ instead of being concerned about their behavior. Unbelief and even rebellion are common characteristics of someone who is spiritually dead because without Jesus living within them, they will always be empty. Disciple makers should focus on sharing what Jesus has done in their life and what He would like to do in theirs. Putnam also emphasizes they need, “Love through honest friendships and relationships with believers, …they need to be introduced to Jesus and to see the life of the gospel lived out, …and they need a clear explanation of the gospel and an invitation to trust and follow Jesus.”

The second stage of an individual is level two: Infant. In this stage you commonly find new believers, but unfortunately you may also find longtime believers who just never matured in their faith. I Peter 2:2-3 illustrates newborn babies craving pure spiritual milk so they can grow in their salvation. While people in this stage are considered to be spiritually alive, the problem arises when one is content with just milk. Hebrews addresses these individuals stating, “By this time you ought to be teachers, yet you still need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” It is here, Putnam reminds the disciple maker, “They are not unintelligent; they are simply uninformed and in need of truth [and they] are often the product of the culture they live in.” If the spiritually dead act according to their dead nature, then an infant is going to be messy and in need of constant care. This is to be expected and one should not be surprised how much energy and time they require; the problem presents itself when they choose not to continue to grow spiritually. The goal is to eventually teach them how to feed themselves on the word of God while guiding them through this vulnerable stage. The habits they form during this stage will form their entire life as a follower of Christ, so it is crucial to teach them truth while also walking in humility.

The third stage of an individual is level three: Child. In this stage the believer has progressed from being an infant or as we will discuss later, has possibly regressed. The goal in this stage is continual growth with God, but a new element is added as believers learn to form not only vertically relations with God, but also horizontally as they develop relationships with other believers. The more they are able to apply the word of God in their daily lives and conclude the world does not revolve around them, the quicker they will mature. As with the infancy stage, someone who reaches the child stage can also be a new believer as well as a person who has been saved for many years. Putnam argues, “It is not the amount of time that passes that marks the difference between the mature and immature; it is what has happened or not happened in a relational discipleship process during that time.” In this stage, they are still dependent on a caregiver or mentor for guidance, so they may do things they are told, either without an understanding why they are doing it or just doing it because it is expected of them. This stage highlights their level of commitment by asking the question: “Will you still serve when the benefits no longer outweigh the cost?” This is a very vocal stage and much can be revealed by the words they speak because what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Putnam illustrates their primary need is a, “Strong relational connection to a mature believer so they can make the transition to a more God and kingdom focused life. They need someone who will help them learn how to make the developmental transition from dependency to learning how to spiritually feed themselves.” This is also a stage where they are very aware of those around them and are highly impressionable to what others are doing instead of learning to trust and be obedient to God, so it is imperative not to cause unmet expectations. The more they continue to make their life about God, the more they will grow spiritually learning to do the right things for the right reasons.

The fourth stage of an individual is level four: Young Adult. It is in this stage the believer has applied the word of God to their life and overcome the Evil One. Putnam identifies, “Spiritually young adults [as people who] are making a shift from being self-centered to being God-centered…[and are becoming] doers of the Word.” It is at this stage where the believer has the realization God has created them with a specific purpose and has given them the giftings and tools to accomplish it. Putnam lists several needs for believers at this stage to thrive: “First, they need a place where they can learn to serve, they need a spiritual mentor, …they need deep ongoing relationships with people who offer encouragement and accountability, and they need help to establish boundaries.” It is important for these believers to have realistic and attainable expectations while also fostering their giftings and callings.

The fifth and final stage for individuals is level five: Parent. In this stage, the believer moves into more of a parental or mentoring role as they start to disciple other new believers. By Putnam’s definition, “If they are not discipling someone, they are still spiritually immature because spiritually mature people make and reproduce new disciples and if they are capable but are not parenting, then they are really just young adults at best.” II Timothy 2:1-2 speaks of disciples who have grown and matured to the point where they are now qualified to teach others what they have learned. It is important to note, just because the believer has arrived at this stage does not make them perfect because everyone is human and subject to their flesh and sinful desires. The difference is at this stage they are intentional about putting Christ first in their relationship. As spiritual parents, the need for relationships with other spiritual parents is crucial, so they can share one another’s burdens and not get burned out.

FOUR SPHERES OF LIFE

Discipleship has a direct correlation to relationships and as Putnam illustrates, “As a disciple abides in Christ, each sphere of his or her life is transformed.” There are four spheres of life a disciple can grow in: their relationship with God, their relationship with God’s family: the church, their personal relationship and home life, and their relationship to the world. In each of these spheres as Putnam highlights, “A disciple understands God’s commands and submits to His authority (head), is transformed by Jesus (heart), and joins Jesus on a kingdom mission (hands) in all these areas of their lives.” In each of these spheres it is important to maintain realistic expectations so the disciple maker can best help the believer grow where they currently are.

The first sphere of an individual is the centrality of a relationship with God. In Ephesians, Paul reminds the readers they are adopted by God and this sphere as Putnam illustrates is, “The hub that unites the other spheres together [and] … our most important sphere is our relationship with Jesus.” If Christ is not the motivating force behind one’s motives and actions they will find bearing fruit impossible because Christ is the vine. Matthew Thomas proposes, “That we have to take the story of Jesus as the starting point for a radically new, revolutionary understanding of the world. With this clue, one should set out, not only to understand the world, but also to change it.”

The second sphere deals with relationships with the family of God: the church. Using Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, after he establishes the importance of maintaining one’s relationship with Jesus, he shifts the focus to developing relationships with other believers. Putnam identifies this sphere as, “Where we grow as the body of Christ [and] … if the first sphere of relationships is our relationship with Jesus, it should naturally lead us to living with and loving others in the second sphere.” Susann Liubinskas also illustrates how, “The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ describes a real, although not literal, relationship that exists between Christ and the church. This suggests that this metaphor is not simply illustrating unity and diversity in the Christian community, even though that is part of its meaning. Rather, the church is the body of Christ in the sense that it is constituted by Christ and enlivened by his indwelling.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer elaborates further on the importance of relationships stating, “Formation occurs only by being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, by being conformed to the unique form of the one who became human, was crucified, and is risen. This does not happen as we strive to become like Jesus, as we customarily say, but as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it molds us, conforming our form to Christ’s own.” Essentially, he is saying Christians do not form the world with their own mind; instead it is Christ forming us into His image. Craig Nessan adds to this claim portraying, “The church as a community, like other forms of community, consisting of diverse individuals who nevertheless together come to constitute a collective person. This collective person displays its own unique pattern of distinguishing characteristics, [but] in the case of the church this community is not entirely of human origin but also of divine origin.”

The third sphere deals with relationships at home and the family. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians continues to explain what the biblical model of the home should look like. Husbands should love their wives, wives should respect their husband, and children should honor and obey their parents. Putnam points out, “This sphere is important for us to address, because it is possible for people to grasp the concepts of the gospel but fail to apply them in the home.” As disciple makers, it is imperative to make sure your family is not sacrificed on the altar of ministry. The only way this can be assured is when Christ is truly first in your life and the Holy Spirit is allowed to permeate every sphere of your life. Families go through life together, they love together, and they mourn together; what is important in this stage is for individuals to lose their self-centered love and replace it with family-centered love.

In the fourth sphere, the relationship with the world is addressed. This sphere as Putnam suggests is based on, “Our relationship with Jesus affecting how we live and work in the world.” In our relationships it is important to remain humble and transparent even in failure because the world is watching and if one’s lifestyle is counter to their beliefs; they are doing more harm than good in spreading the Gospel. The end goal is to have all these spheres come together under the control of Christ. Only then can one become truly effective and move from just informing people to truly equipping them. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God and the only way real life change is going to happen is by applying God’s word so the transforming power of the Holy Spirit can renew your minds.

CURRENT STAGE

Being completely transparent and honest, I find myself predominantly in the parental stage, but there are times where I find myself regressing to the young adult stage. In the past, this has been the result of disappointment, trials, and unmet expectations. During these seasons I had essentially forgotten God had created me for a specific purpose and as a result my confidence and trust in God was strained. I had failed to remember, “ For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

There have also been times where compassion fatigue has set in making ministry burn out not far off. On my own, I am powerless, but through Christ, I can do all things. Thankfully, these seasons are long since past and I strive to maintain this healthy balance by keeping God as the focal point of my life, followed by my wife, then my children, and then my job. With these priorities established, I can now tell when this hierarchy is out of balance or when life is attempting to attack this pivotal sphere. I hold my complete faith and trust in God alone because, “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

Areas Needing Submission

One area I must daily remind myself of is in the area of significance. Our worth and value are found in God alone, not in people or things. Salvation was not free; it cost Jesus His life and he endured such suffering and rejection so everyone would have a way to find significance, peace, meaning, purpose, and restored communion with God. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Apart from God we are nothing and our righteousness is compared to filthy rags. I am also guilty of blurring some of these spheres when life gets hectic. Keeping the relationship with God first is the only way to assure all the other relationships are in balance. As a believer, you cannot teach someone something you yourself do not know just as you cannot bring someone along in spiritual maturity to a place you have not yet reached. This is why it is crucial to not only have a teachable spirit, but also to be continually learning and relevant. I do well in this area, but struggle with complete transparency because of past wounds, but by not allowing God to use even our failures we are robbing God of what He may want to do in and through us. His word says He causes all things to work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose. This is a conditional promise, which means it is dependent upon allowing God to use everything, including our failures and the lessons learned along the way to advance the kingdom and bring glory to His name.

Centrality to the Cross

Bonhoeffer’s call to the cross highlights the centrality of Christ in our daily walk. As believers, we are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer states, “The call to discipleship is connected here with the proclamation of Jesus’ suffering…[and]… when we know only Him, then we also no longer know the pain of our own cross.” It was necessary for Jesus to suffer and be rejected and any attempt even by His own disciples was rebuked. As followers of Christ, each believer must endure the specific amount of suffering and rejection God has preordained for them. Bonhoeffer concludes, “God honors some with great suffering and grants them the grace of martyrdom, while others are not tempted beyond their strength. But in every case, it is the one cross.”

The cross every believer must bear is unique, but is in direct relationship to our allegiance to Christ. After becoming a Christian, you first encounter the cross; for some they are ostracized for their faith, but once you are able to turn your living into dying you will gladly follow Christ as he calls every follower to die to themselves daily. Bonhoeffer suggests, “Christ’s own suffering is the only suffering that brings reconciliation … thus suffering becomes the identifying mark of a follower of Christ.” While Paul does not specifically mention the passion of Christ, as Will O’Brien explains, “Every time he mentions the cross, he as well as his hearers and readers understood the reference: the gruesome torture, the unbridled violence of state terrorism, the perversion of justice that consumed Jesus.” Paul understood the importance as well as the call to the cross and O’Brien shows, “Paul boldly throws the cross back at the executioners, taking Rome’s symbol of ultimate power and using it as a sign of God’s ultimate power. When Paul speaks of Christ’s victory, the unwritten but very clear assumption is that the losers are those who pretentiously claim power.”

Mark Miller suggests, “Imitating Christ on the cross is commonly thought to consist in bearing suffering without complaint or question… as a way of remaining faithful to God, for the pain and hardship are part of God’s plan to punish, to test, or to improve us.” By bearing our cross we are acknowledging as Miller puts it, “The cross [was] punishment that Christ bore so that we would be spared destruction, a kind of payment to God or the devil for our sins. In gratitude and sympathy, we bear our small crosses just as Christ bore the sins of all humanity.”

CONCLUSION/SUBMISSION TO CHRIST

When someone is brought to faith in Jesus Christ, they are saved for a purpose and they are a new person. In this message to the church at Corinth, Paul wanted them to know his mission and calling were the direct result of Christ’s love and Paul Barnett illustrates how, “The evidence of Christ’s love is to be seen in his death and resurrection for all, in consequence of which all “die” [to self-centered living]. The purpose for which Christ died and was raised is that those who live, as by spiritual resurrection, now live for him.” While salvation is wonderful, God does not intend anyone to stay at the first stage of infancy. No one truly knows how lost and dead in his or her transgressions and sin they were before they accepted Christ into their life, but after coming to faith, a new mission as Disciples of Christ should become their driving force.

Through our death to ourselves daily, we find abundant life and by applying Jim Putnam’s five stages of discipleship we move from self-centered living to God-centered living and by applying Putnam’s four spheres of life we understand the importance of oneness with Christ, relationships, encouraging one another, and bearing each other’s burdens. Only then are we able to discover our God-given purpose and calling in life. Christ must always be at the center and focal point of what we say and what we do as we live our lives in humility and transparency giving God all the honor and glory He deserves. Putnam claims, “No one stage of discipleship is more important than any other,” but I would argue moving someone from spiritual death to at the least infancy should be of the utmost importance. Make no mistake about it; there is a spiritual war being raged and Satan hates losing what was once his. The devil is constantly looking for the opportunity to inflict the most damage to the believer and their ability to be a disciple maker. You must always remember natural death is only the beginning as our spirit lives on either in the magnificent presence of our Savior or in the depths of hell surrounded by the gnashing of teeth.

In addition, by understanding the centrality of Christ and recognizing our constant call to the cross we find submission and suffering to be a joy. Putnam brilliantly concludes saying, “It is in our best interest [to be] under His control, as we tend to make a mess out of all we try to be lord over.” Bonhoeffer takes submission one-step further stating, “In the middle of the most terrible torment that the disciples bore for their Lord’s sake, they experienced the greatest joy and blessedness of His community. Bearing the cross proved to be for them the only way to overcome suffering.” Being a disciple of Christ is being bound to the cross and the suffering of Christ, but as James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James understood the battle that raged between good and evil and knew the importance of the centrality of Christ. When suffering and trials present themselves, often it is only through embracing the suffering you will be able to overcome it, and as James Adamson illustrates, “As a goldsmith, who allows the silver in the fire and the gold in the crucible to be purified not longer than necessary, so God purifies the righteous each one according to his rank and his deeds.”

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