There are many ways to break disciple formation down into understandable components. When you boil it down, each model seeks to describe an ongoing process by which people are awakened to God’s love, grow in God’s love, and come to share God’s love.
One way I have found helpful to talk about the disciple-making progression is to ask people to compare it to the human developmental process. To oversimplify, I invite you to think of the spiritual life as having three overlapping stages of development.
First, we begin with a phase of not knowing anything about God or Jesus Christ. This is our pre-Christian stage. During this phase, the Holy Spirit uses all sorts of means to awaken us to the reality of God and to God’s love. Methodists call this prevenient grace. Similar to the arriving at the day of our birth, coming to the point of expressing faith in Jesus Christ is the goal of this stage. The Bible talks about this as being “born again.”
The church is called to be an instrument of awakening grace during this stage. With a great deal of intentionality, we offer loving acts seeking to meet a specific human need, to relieve suffering, to lighten a burden as concrete expressions of God’s love. In other cases, we make friends and build relationships so we can let the aroma of Christ be experienced.
No matter what the means, we are seeking to communicate God’s love through word and deed in such a way that we are positioned to invite people to connect our activity with that of our gracious God. The goal is to introduce people to God and invite them to experience Jesus Christ as Savior.
Second, we go through a nurturing stage of spiritual development. Like infants, we begin feeding on what the Apostle Paul called the spiritual milk. We are taught the basics of God’s love and what it means to follow Jesus as Lord.
Like the goal in nurturing young children, the church seeks to move folks off the milk bottle or sippy cup and gradually introduce them to more solid spiritual food. We want to feed the soul in such a way that the newborn Christian becomes a mature follower of Jesus.
Each church works to nurture every level of spiritual maturity in age-appropriate ways.
There are children, youth and adults at every stage in the spiritual diet. Our goal is to meet people at their present level of spiritual development and help each one grow spiritually toward full adulthood.
Third, we begin the final stage of spiritual development when we move out to make disciples of others and live our lives in such a way as to grow a more Christlike world. This is a stage that continues through the remainder of our earthly life.
In this stage, we become the ones who exude the fruit of the Holy Spirit so those who know us take note at the obvious transformation. People begin to notice when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. And, we begin to surprise ourselves when we take a stand over an issue that breaks God’s heart.
Also, we begin to guide others seeking to know God and grow as Christ followers. We become the leaders of small groups that nurture people in the faith. We become the ones who help people discover and cultivate their spiritual gifts. We coach and mentor people as they seek to help others move through the stages of spiritual development.
Understanding the stages of growth is the first step in knowing how to make disciples. How does your church intentionally help people move through these stages of Christian formation?
What if you thought about the current “stage” of each ministry participant and designed every ministry activity to meet people where they are and nudge them toward greater maturity? This would be a great way to maximize your partnership with God in the marvelous enterprise of making disciples.
Dr. Brad Brady is the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries.