How do I grow from here? – phases in discipleship

Building a tower

The famous “pit” of the incomplete Chicago Spire

I am always surprised at my impatience every time I pass a construction site where “nothing seems to happen” for weeks on end – sometime even for months. When the foundation is being laid it might easily look to the ignorant onlooker as if there is no work being done because – everything above ground looks the same!  We tend to think that because I can’t see any development on the surface, no progress is being made.  But that’s not the truth.  We all know that constructive growth happens in progressive phases.

An artists representation of the completed Chicago Spire tower.

So too with discipleship – our growth in Christ happens in phases.  And – like in our sky-scraper example – the strength and longevity of our spiritual health depends on the quality of its foundation.  When the necessary foundation phases are not laid down properly, the disciple will lack endurance and vitality in their spiritual life.

Phases in discipleship

One of the most helpful research studies on the various phases in discipleship was done by the Willow Creek Association in 2007.  After an extensive study of over 200 churches and 80’000 members, Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson identified a framework of four phases where church-attendees found themselves in their relationship with Christ.[1]  This framework ranges from those who have a basic belief in God, but seek surety regarding Christ’s person and role in their lives (exploring Christ), through attendees who are growing in relationship with Christ (grounded) and feeling close to Christ (maturity) in daily communion with him, to believers who see their relationship with Christ as the central most important aspect of their lives (leadership).  After identifying these phases, the researchers identified three “growth-movements” and sought to identify the spiritual catalysts that most likely caused spiritual growth to the next phase of a disciple’s relationship with Christ.  These catalysts were grouped as (i) spiritual beliefs and attitudes, (ii) organized church activities, (iii) personal spiritual practices and (iv) spiritual activities with others (i.e. activities not organized by local congregation).

Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007
Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007

The graph above is adapted from this REVEAL study, showing four phases in discipleship with the catalysts they found most likely to produce spiritual growth in a disciple within that phase. Below is a summery of the findings as illustrated in the graph above.

  1. After conversion, during the grounding phase in discipleship, the two agents that contribute the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are Biblical Teaching (growing in knowledge and attitudes) and participation in church activities (like Foundation classes, Bible school, small group and weekend services); these two groups of activities causes the most spiritual growth within this phase of discipleship growth.
  2. During and after the initial grounding in Christ, the two factors contributing the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are firstly personal devotional disciplines, and secondly a lifestyle of witnessing, where the disciple shares his/her faith with others. (It is important to note stress again that devotional disciplines must be demonstrated – the habits are best acquired through participation and demonstration; so also with witnessing). No further growth in Christ will occur without a lifestyle of devotional disciplines; the disciple must become a self-feeder to grow in spiritual maturity – just like a baby that needs to learn to feed itself.
  3. The last significant growth phase, where a disciple grows from maturity to leadership, happens as the disciple acts on his/her own conviction or initiative and takes responsibility for a church-related ministry or activity, or even the care of some younger disciples. Just as a boy grows from a baby dependent on others, through maturity as he cares for himself, into a the young man who cares for his own family, so the disciple must grow to become one who takes ownership and responsibility for the spiritual well-being of others in some form.  Without this step, mature believers tend to become discontent, frustrated and tend to disengage from faith or move to another ministry, because they are not “fed” in church any more.  If they do find a place to serve faithfully and see the impact it has on others, these members will continue to grow and inspire others to partner with the church in a similar manner. Along with this “initiative” the disciple also needs to grow in understanding and response to the Lordship of Jesus over his/her personal life.  The study shows that, in this stage of the disciple’s life, he/she needs little from the local church to grow apart from encouragement and opportunities of engagement in full participation in Christian service. [2]

Greg Hawkins comments’ on the results of the study is indeed noteworthy…increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities [read “church programs”] does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does not predict whether they love God more or they love people more.” [3]  This is a very important conclusion: each disciple should be personally coached, given what he or she needs within their own walk with God.  One cannot give a one-size fits all program for every disciple – one must consider the phase of the disciple and coach them within in their current challenges.

There should be little surprise that the number one catalyst that provokes spiritual growth in a disciple is the Bible (studying, reflection, and the belief of its accuracy and authority). [4]  [I might add that helping people study it is the also the most neglected in contemporary church discipleship programs].

The Bible – still the most influential catalyst for spiritual growth.

Hybels refers to this as “the wake-up call of my adult life,”[5] since the church spent all their efforts and resources in developing programs to produce disciples, yet now he knows that that all they should have done was teach people “to take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders’… …how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” [6]

This study has brought a new perspective to contemporary discipleship models: where in the past the commonly held notion was that greater participation in church activities (or discipleship activities) ensured spiritual growth (becoming like Christ), the result of this study indicates that church programs only initiate the discipleship process by grounding converts in their faith, but continuing in these programs will probably not lead to maturity in Christ.  The more mature a disciple grows, the less significant will a church program be on that person’s spiritual growth into Christ.[7]

Consider the maturity

Therefore, in summary, their reveal study concludes that the journey through discipleship has distinguishable phases: after conversion the young disciple needs to be grounded in the faith through instruction in doctrine and shown how to abide in Christ through the basic disciplines. During this phase instruction into basic truth and settling into a habitual life of personal devotion is important. Thereafter the disciple matures in character through training in the Christian lifestyle through observation and emulation of modeled behavior.  In this phase participation in fellowship and practices such as service and witnessing are important. In the last phase leaders are trained through delegation and participation in the discipleship process of others, and later through commissioning or deployment.  During this last phase mentorship and shared responsibility, with coaching in skills and character shaping is the focus.

Thus, to encourage growth towards maturity in Christ, a disciple should be helped firstly to be faithful in attending fellowship and bible study (such as church celebration, small groups, Bible School, etc).  Secondly, the apprentice needs to be coached in devotional disciplines in meeting with God faithfully.  Thirdly, as he/she grows in relationship with Christ, the disciple should grow in confidence in serving and taking initiative as the need arises or the Lord directs, so that his/her love for God may find expression in serving others.

So what should you do to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)?  What is your next goal?


[1] Hawkins, Parkinson, REVEAL: Follow Me, p20-21.

[2] Ibid, p78.

[3] Hawkins G., from video results of study: [Accessed 12 March 2011]

[4] Ibid, p105.

[5] Hybels B., from video response to results: [Accessed 12 March 2011].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spiritual Life Survey Results Revealed, Willow Magazine, Issue 3 2007,  [Accessed 12 March 2011]

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