The Great Commission implies that disciples need to be made. Walter Henrichsen wrote, “Disciples are made, not born.” In other words, disciples are not the unintentional by-product of a lot of church activity, which is the typical church disciple making strategy today. We have lots of worship opportunities. We have lots of Bible studies. We have lots of fellowship opportunities, lots of opportunities to serve. And somewhere, in the midst of all that activity, we are hoping that believers are developing the mind of Christ, obeying the commands of Jesus, being transformed into the image of Christ, and participating in the mission of Christ.
But, according to Jesus, disciples need to be made. They need to be formed. And that takes an intentional process to produce an intentional result. So, we must ask the question, “How are disciples made?”
Stages Of Growth
In the book Real Life Discipleship, pastor and author Jim Putman describes the different stages of spiritual growth with remarkable clarity. With each of the five spiritual growth stages, he describes their beliefs, common things they might say (what he calls “phrases from the stage”), and what the church should do with them to help them grow. His five stages are the spiritually dead, spiritual infants, spiritual children, spiritual young adults, and spiritual parents.
The Spiritually Dead
The spiritually dead are the unsaved, unredeemed, those not yet born again. These are characterized by their disbelief in the supernatural, disbelief in God, anger towards Christians or the church, ignorance about the nature of God, spiritual blindness, a belief in their own goodness, and a rejection of moral absolutes. You might hear the spiritually dead say something like: “I don’t believe there is a God,” “The Bible is just a bunch of myths,” “Evolution explains away the need for God,” “I have been a good person so I will be okay,” or “There is no absolute right and wrong.”
The spiritually dead need a secure relationship with a mature believer, a picture of the real Jesus lived out before them, and an explanation of the gospel message. The church needs to do the following for the spiritually dead: share our personal testimony, build relationships with them so that we can earn the right to share the gospel, pray for opportunities to share the gospel, and be prepared to explain the gospel to them.
Spiritual infants are characterized by their ignorance, confusion, and dependence. While they have accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord, they still don’t know much about what it means to be a Christian. They still have a worldly perspective about life with some spiritual truth mixed in. You might hear them say things like: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” “I didn’t know the Bible said that,” “I don’t have time to be in relationship with another Christian,” or “We were born as spirit children in heaven before we were born down here, right?”
Spiritual infants need individual attention from a spiritual parent, to have the Word explained to them, and to have the habits of a believer explained to them. The church needs to help spiritual infants come to learn the truth, to learn how maturation in the faith happens, and to develop the spiritual disciplines.
Spiritual children are young in their faith but have grown up in many ways. They remember who they were as unbelievers so they appreciate how God has changed them. They understand much of the Christian language. They are serving in ministry but often only as long as the benefits outweigh the costs. They might lack wisdom about how to put into practice what they are learning. Feelings are important to them, which leads to spiritual highs and lows. They know more about what other Christians say than about what the Bible says.
You might hear spiritual children say things like: “I love my small group but let’s don’t add any more people to it,” “My church is not taking care of my needs,” or “I am not being fed by my church.” They believe things about life and faith that might not be biblically accurate. They do the right things but often for the wrong reasons. What the church needs to do with spiritual children is to give them a solid biblical foundation and help them develop Christ-like heart and hands.
Spiritual Young Adults
Spiritual young adults might still struggle with their sin nature, but their heart is to glorify God and to love others as themselves. They know what God wants them to do, but often don’t think about reproducing disciples. You might hear spiritual young adults say things like: “I love my group and I know others who could use a group like this,” “In my devotions I came across something I have a question about,” or “I noticed someone missed our group meetings today so I called on them to check on them.”
Spiritual young adults need help in finding an appropriate ministry to serve within the church. They need a spiritual parent who will debrief with them about ministry experiences. The need ongoing relationships with other believers that offer encouragement and accountability. They need assistance in identifying their gifts. The church needs to help them understand ministry and give them opportunities to do ministry.
Spiritual parents are intentional, strategic, reproduction minded, self-feeding, mission minded, team minded, and dependable. They can both feed themselves and bathe themselves (i.e., cleanse themselves from sin through confession and repentance). They think in terms of a team instead of just themselves. They want to see others mature and grow in their faith. They naturally think about how to help a younger believer take the next step in their faith.
You might hear a spiritual parent say something like: “Can you pray for my friend at work who is asking questions about the Bible,” “I want to see our small group go on a mission trip,” or “Will you hold me accountable for disciplining my children?” The church needs to give spiritual parents a team to play on and direction.
Spiritual Maturation is a Developmental Journey
While we may quibble with Putman about some of the specifics associated with each of his five stages, he does help us to see that believers do have to grow up just like humans do. We are born again as infants needing to be spoon fed the Word of God in milk form. But we are not intended to stay that way. We ought to grow up. We ought to move beyond the milk of the Word and grow to where we can sustain ourselves on solid food, even becoming spiritual parents who are able to teach others.
Which begs the larger question, “How does a spiritual infant grow up?”
Keys to Transformation
In Transformational Discipleship, authors Eric Geiger, Michael Kelly, and Philip Nation describe the “transformational sweet spot,” a phrase the authors use to describe that most powerful and unique position where the Spirit of God is at work and where we are most prepared to be changed but His work. Spiritual growth is a divine human synergy over a lifetime. God is the One enabling His people to mature and grow while His people are invited to place themselves in the right posture. They use the images of sailing or water skiing to illustrate the power of position and the dependence upon supernatural forces. Like the captain of a sail boat, our role is to place ourselves in the pathway of God’s transforming power.
As a result of their extensive research, they identified eight attributes of disciples who are positioning themselves in the “transformational sweet spot:” Bible engagement, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships, and being unashamed. These are the attributes that continually show up in the life of a maturing believer, according to their research. According to them, “The transformational sweet spot is the intersection of truth given by healthy leaders when someone is in a vulnerable position.” They illustrate this with three interlocking circles: truth, posture, and leaders.
Others who have thought deeply about making disciples echo the same ideas. For instance, the same idea was captured by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne in their book, The Trellis and the Vine. They wrote, “Growth happens only through the power of God’s Spirit as He applies His word to people’s hearts.”
According to Neil Cole (Ordinary Hero), the keys to transformation are community, accountability, confidentiality, flexibility, and reproducibility.
Robby Gallaty (Growing Up) wrote that the three spiritual change agents are people, circumstances, and the spiritual disciplines.
According to Bill Hull (The Complete Book of Discipleship), the “transformational triangle” consists of community, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, training and pattern of life, events and circumstances, and mission.
All of these leaders in disciple making point to the same essential keys to transformation, realities that must be present if a person is going to grow up into a fully developed follower of Christ who is equipped to make disciples who can make disciples. They may illustrate it with different diagrams, and they may use different words, but the concepts are the same. And here they are.
There is absolutely no denying the essential role of Scripture in the spiritual formation of a follower of Christ. This really should be no surprise considering the clarity of what Scripture tells us about itself:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3.16-17)
The way that a man or woman of God becomes equipped for every good work is through the Scriptures. They are profitable to teach us the truth, correct our beliefs and behaviors, to train us in the continual pursuit of what it means to live in righteousness, and to make us competent to do what God has called us to do. If any believer ever hopes to be transformed, they must develop a healthy relationship with the Word of God.
Which brings us to what believers have called for centuries the “spiritual disciplines.” What are spiritual disciplines? According to Donald Whitney (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life),
The spiritual disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.
Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) defines spiritual disciplines as “a means of receiving His grace. The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.” Dallas Willard (Spirit of Disciplines) wrote, “A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” According to Henri Nowen, the disciplines are a means “to create space to meet with God that you otherwise had not planned on.”
What Christians have known for centuries is that the spiritual disciplines put us in a position, the transformational sweet spot if you will, to be transformed by God’s grace. And just like any discipline, whether it be exercise or healthy eating or financial management, they require regular practice, self-denial, and patience. The disciplines themselves don’t do anything, just as the sail by itself does nothing. But just as hoisting a sail catches the power of the wind, so does the regular practices of the spiritual disciplines.
What are the spiritual disciplines? While each of the above authors presents their own list, the common disciplines are: the regular reading of Scripture, prayer, fasting, Bible study, meditation, Scripture memory, corporate worship, service, giving, silence, confession, and simplicity.
If a believer has any hopes of experiencing transformation, he or she must be developing the spiritual disciplines.
The Holy Spirit
The third essential in transformation is the Holy Spirit. I do not list the Spirit as third in any way to imply that the Spirit is the third most important aspect of spiritual maturity, but to follow on the heels of what has come before. We instinctively turn to the Bible when we think about growing in our faith, but we quickly see that casually reading the Bible ever once in a while is not enough. Scripture must become part of the larger picture, the overall picture of the spiritual disciplines.
But then we see that the disciplines by themselves are powerless to produce transformation. They only put us in a position where God can do a change within us. Which leads us to the most significant transforming work of the Spirit.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3.18)
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2.13)
Being transformed into the image of Christ, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit is the work of the Spirit within us. This is why keeping in step with the Spirit and raising our sails to be filled with the Spirit is such a key to transformation.
The process of spiritual transformation requires the body of Christ, and not just attending corporate worship where we all face the same wall for an hour. Consider the words of Eric Geiger (Transformational Discipleship):
While interviews with believers who are being transformed revealed a posture of weakness to be absolutely essential for spiritual maturation, the discipleship leaders we interviewed overwhelmingly declared that transformation best occurs when a believer is in an interdependent posture with other believers. They were deeply concerned that the timeless truth of maturation in community is subtly being replaced with an American individualistic approach to spiritual growth that constantly promises roots that go deeper without roots that widen into relationships that intermingle. Because transformation occurs when a disciples is in an interdependent posture, discipleship leaders must slaughter individualism rather than celebrate it.
Community is a vital aspect of spiritual transformation because we hammer out and hammer in the gospel message as we live alongside others. We learn to forgive as we live in community. We learn to serve in community. We learn to care about others in community. We learn to give to others in community. We learn how to love, to be kind, to be patient, to bear one another’s burdens, and a hundred other real gospel truths only in the context of community.
But for community to be effective, it must have an accountability element. It is not enough to be a fellow attender to a large worship gathering. Real community requires accountability to be, well, a real community. And accountability requires confrontation, confession, and compassion. Only if we are known well enough for another to know that we are not living in obedience to Christ can we be confronted with our disobedience. And only if we are confronted, can we confess our sins to one another. And only in a community with real accountability, can we ever really know the grace of forgiveness and restoration.
Smooth seas do not skillful sailors make. And the same is true of disciples. One of the reasons that committing ourselves to maturing in our faith can be so difficult is the simple truth that the Spirit often matures us into the image of Christ through trials and tribulations.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1.2-4)
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5.3-5)
The simple truth is that if we want to mature in our faith, then we had better expect and welcome the trials of various kinds as instruments in the hands of the Savior.
Spiritual transformation is an on the job training situation, meaning that we do not become a disciple and then serve, but we become a disciple as we serve. Discovering the good work God has created us to do can only be done as we are serving. Serving others, serving in the church, serving the community, and serving strangers are all ways in which the Spirit works to transform us into the image of Christ. So, if we want to be in the transformational sweet spot, we need to be active in our service in the name of Christ.
Simple Plan: Worship to Community to Discipleship Context
In order for disciples to be involved in disciple making, they must have a plan, and the church needs to offer a clear path to both becoming a disciple and to becoming a disciple maker. Consider the following blunt statement by Bill Hull (The Disciple Making Pastor):
Telling people what to do without providing the means to do it is cruel and defrauding. It creates spiritual schizophrenia, Christians who are experts on what they are not experiencing. Not only does it leave people unprepared for ministry, they become guilty and frustrated with the Christian life. This also gives the devil a choice opportunity to create problems inside the church. When an army never goes to war; it by necessity focuses on shining boots, making beds, and marching in a straight line. The church that does not move to action by necessity must focus on Roberts Rules of Order, committee rules, and acquisition of pulpit furniture.
Ouch! A church without a plan for disciples to get involved in disciple making is cruel and defrauding? Clearly, it is not enough for us to be convinced of the need to make disciples, but we must have a process for doing so.
Thom Rainer (Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples) also advocates for a local church to have a clear process for making disciples. A simple church is a congregation designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. Rainer focusses on four key words: clarity, movement, alignment, and focus. Clarity is the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people. Movement is the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment. Alignment is the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process. Alignment ensures the entire church body is moving in the direction, and in the same manner. Focus is the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process.
Bill Hull (The Disciple Making Pastor) advocates for a three phase process to move people through the stages of spiritual growth. The “come and see” phase is where the church calls people to come and see who Jesus is and what it means to follow Him. In this phase, the church gathers, exposes, and inspires people to follow Christ. The most ready-made gathering tool of the church is the Sunday morning worship service. In addition, the church offers “Velcro ministries,” activities to help people stick with the congregation. These are small group Bible studies, Sunday School classes, children’s activities, social gatherings, sports teams, choirs, etc. These are other opportunities for people to “come and see” what Christ and His church are all about.
But a disciple must move beyond the “come and see” phase and into the “come and follow” phase. In this phase, one actually begins to mature as a follower of Christ. And key to this phase is a discipleship context. Disciples are not made in corporate worship or even in community groups like Sunday School classes. Disciples are made in a disciple making context. And unfortunately, according to Hull, only 50% of Christians ever move from the “come and see” phase into the “come and follow” phase.
Rainer and Hull use different expressions and differ on the specifics of how to carry it out, but they are both saying the same thing. The local church must have a process to move people along the stages of spiritual growth. Corporate worship and community groups are important but are not sufficient to produce disciples. They are the first and second step towards are more comprehensive goal. We must be moving believers into a discipleship context in order to “make disciples.”
So, what do these disciple making contexts look like?
(Note: This is an excerpt from the book D14: A Strategy for Making Disciples Who Make Disciples at the First Baptist Church of Benbrook by Dr. Todd Pylant)
 The third phase is the “come and abide with me” phase, a way that Hull describes those who are called to be ministers and missionaries. This context is best fulfilled by seminaries and Bible colleges, and as such, is not really part of his disciple making strategy for the local church.