“Stages” of Discipleship

As I continue to prepare for this Fall’s sermon series, The Normal Christian Life, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about discipleship. Jesus commands us to make disciples – not to have people make “decisions for Christ.” I believe Jesus envisioned a similar approach to what he did with the 12: grab some friends/relatives, walk through life together and, while doing so, teach and demonstrate what it means to be a son or daughter of God. Equip them, counsel them and develop Christ’s life within them. Then, when they are fully trained, they will be like their Master and can be sent out to repeat the process with others.

Like many people I’ve met, I was never discipled in an intentional way. Most of what I am and have has been gleaned from others, but my progress into maturity would have been much faster, much healthier and much more enjoyable had someone walked with me through the process.

As someone who is now discipling two young men, my challenge is to meet them where they are, figure out what stage of maturity they are in and help them to advance to the next stage of Christlikeness. It isn’t easy, I’ve never done it before, but it is invigorating and life giving. My goal is to get them to maturity faster than I got there and to see them surpass me when they get to the same stage of life I’m in. If I can do that, I know I’ve succeeded as a discipler.

Now, as to the “stages” I’ve mentioned. These are simply my own creation. I didn’t get them from anyone and they aren’t endorsed by any big-name preacher. They are simply how I think of people when I meet them. Feel free to take them and use them or change them into something that works better for you. The point is that you take ownership of the fact that you are called to disciple others and encourage them into Christlikeness.

I use the analogy of human life for my stages. It makes sense to me to think about discipleship in this way. The stages, as I see them, are: birth/baby, child, teenager, young adult, adult and elder.

(1) Birth/Baby
David Pawson has an excellent book and sermon series entitled, “The Normal Christian Birth.” The distilled version is this: in order for someone to have a good birth into the Kingdom, they need to (a) Repent of their sins and cut ties with their former life, (b) Believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, (c) be Baptized and (d) Receive the Holy Ghost. To miss any of these 4 components is to have a bad birth into the Kingdom that will hamper your walk with Christ until it is corrected.

Once someone is born again, they are a baby, a spiritual infant. They need a loving father and/or mother to look after them, love them and care for them. Babies are a lot of work. They require a lot of input and their only output tends to stink. Babies make messes, get into things they shouldn’t and need to be taught how to be part of a family. The Vineyard has a saying, “Faith is better caught than taught.” While solid Biblical instruction is essential to discipleship, people in the “Baby” stage rely more on models. The discipler has the divine responsibility to model for the Baby what it looks like to be part of the People of God. Doing life together is paramount in this stage.

(2) Child
As a Baby grows up into a Child, they start a more formal educational process. In addition to what the disciple has already learned about repentance from sin, believing in Jesus, baptism and being filled with the Spirit they also need to learn about living a holy life and have their entire world view shaped by a meditation on eternity – the New Heaven and New Earth that God will bring us into. Some think that teaching about Judgement, Heaven and Hell is for advanced disciples, but the Bible makes it clear that this is an “elementary teaching” (Hebrews 6). The sooner Christians start meditating on eternal life with God and storing up heavenly rewards the better.

A disciple in the “Child” stage tends to be really good at regurgitating information and really bad at critical thinking and application. They can correctly cite a bible verse, but don’t really know what it means or how the context of the verse nuances its application. Children tend to be very concrete thinkers and are, therefore, rather rule (Law) bound. They need skilled teachers who are able to affirm where they are and who also expose them to a wider range of truths, texts and applications. It is important to note that the Bible frequently holds two opposite and opposing views in tension and talks favorably about each.

(3) Teenager
Teenagers look all grown up, but are still immature. As disciplers, we can be too quick to think that someone has matured. Just because someone knows a lot of Bible verses, prays regularly, and has budding gifts does not mean they are mature or ready for leadership. They still need to go through a period of testing to see what is really inside of them.

Like their natural counterparts, spiritual teenagers tend to go through a rebellious questioning phase. They start examining the things they believe and try to push the boundaries, just to see if they can. A good example of this is the “hyper grace” movement currently circulating in the American Church. The “hypers” are exploring grace, trying to understand what it really means. Because they have that trendy, edgy feel so common in teenage cliques, they are getting quite a following. And they say outrageous things, “because Jesus paid it all, I don’t have to confess or repent. I live in sinless perfection.” OK, that sounds awesome – I’ll see you in five years, then you can let me know how living in a community of people who never confess or repent of their sins works for you.

Disciples in the teenage stage are at a critical juncture. They are in a place where they have a lot of knowledge (and think they know it all), they have spiritual gifts that are starting to manifest and an appearance of maturity. What they (oftentimes) do not have are mature characters. They are not in possession of the Fruit of the Spirit. This crisis point is essential to draw out what is really in the person’s heart. Will they rebel and go their own separate way, rejecting what they have learned and proving that they were stony or thorny soil? Or will they resubmit themselves to The Lord Jesus and enter into young adulthood?

(4) Young Adult
For those that successfully make the transition to the Young Adult stage, a whole new world opens up. They enter a world of endless possibilities and freedom. Because they have submitted themselves to authority (first Jesus, then their discipler and lastly their congregation) they now have authority. They can be trusted with some leadership responsibilities and their voice carries weight in the community.

Disciples in the Young Adult stage always have a busy life. Oftentimes people in this stage are working full time; married, engaged or seriously dating; living on their own and making their own way. They are learning to be responsible and productive. After receiving for so long, they are now making the transition to giving.

This is also a crisis point – will the disciple learn to choose relationship with Jesus as their highest goal and highest good. In the busy-ness of life, will they still take time to nurture their relationship with God?

Most people I know tend to get stuck in the teenage or young adult phase for a long time. They are either on the verge of total surrender and obedience or on just the other side and have gotten side tracked with life.

At this stage, the disciple is learning the cost of discipleship. They are beginning to realize that money doesn’t grow on trees and churches aren’t miraculously endowed with money each year. Just as it takes money to run a household, it takes money to run a church. They realize that all the food they ate in home group had to come from somewhere. They realize that everyone has a busy life and the time their spiritual family spent pouring into them was more precious than they could really comprehend at the time.

As these realizations begin to accumulate, the young adult starts to make the transition into Adulthood, maturity. They begin to give of themselves. They volunteer, they tithe, they evangelize and disciple others. Eventually, they decide that they will take responsibility for their own growth and seek to bless, love and encourage others.

(5) Adulthood
These are the people every pastor wants in their congregation. These are the committed, dedicated, passionate people that make ministry happen. These are the regular volunteers, the tithers, the people hosting home groups and teaching Bible studies. These are the people welcoming new believers into their homes and living lives of true discipleship.

These are the glory years of the Christian life. They are years where you are growing in communion with God, stepping into your true identity and calling, doing meaningful/fulfilling work, and seeing the Kingdom expand one man or woman at a time. The dividing walls between secular and sacred have come crumbling down and you can find God anywhere you look. You know God and are known by Him. You have peace.

(6) Elder
Very few people, in my opinion, make it to the Elder stage. For the record, I’m not using the term to mean the position of oversight talked about in the Bible. I’m using the term to talk about those venerable saints that make you shake your head in wonder.

In order to become an Elder, I think one needs to have been walking with Jesus for 40-50 years. Given that most of us really commit to the discipleship process between 20 and 30, that puts Elders in their 60’s to 80’s, provided they have done their homework and grown up before they grew old. Elders have an unmistakable air of grace around them. The only word to describe them is “holy.” These are the people Proverbs talks about when it says, “Grey hair is a crown to the aged.” These people have walked the walk, stood the test of time and been found faithful. These people know Jesus.

I’ve met a handful of Elders and they make me uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. On one hand, they seem to be able to look through my bravado and see the insecure young man underneath. And at the same time, they make me feel so loved and encouraged I think I can do anything.

Elders leave a lasting legacy. Their lives have such a dramatic impact on the world around them that they are not easily forgotten, at least by the people that knew them. There is an almost critical shortage of Elders in the Body. Too many grey haired wonders have hung up their spurs and retired. Too many have gotten weary. Too many have been ignored by those obsessed with the new and the young. We need a resurgence of respect for the Elders of the Church – they would save us from a lot of needless struggle.

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So there is my list. I know it was a lot of reading, but I hope you found it helpful. As always, I love to hear your comments.

Thanks for reading!

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