November 12, 2015

By Eddie Pipkin

I have a friend named Shari who hates to throw things out.  She is environmentally attuned, composts and conserves, recycles and repurposes.  The folks at her church wait to throw things into the dumpster until she’s out of town.  That’s because she has been known to climb into the dumpster and rescue them.  Perfectly good items that could still be perfectly useful if reimagined and repurposed.  An abandoned pulpit which could be deconstructed, the wood reconfigured into something beautiful.  Old metal light fixtures that could be recycled—melted down and reborn as something new.

This gift to see in something worn out and abandoned something potentially new and wonderful is a gift of the Spirit.  It is the heart of stewardship.  It an illustration of the transformative power of God at work.

So it is with our understanding of discipleship and our traditional model of Christian Education.  These familiar ideas are ripe for a reimagining, and that’s exactly what we do in our new book, Membership to Discipleship: Growing Mature Disciples Who Make Disciples.

We look beyond the culturally stale, standard models of raising up disciples and instead work from the actual flesh-and-blood faith journeys of followers of Christ to understand the phases of their growth and what has equipped them along the way to make that growth possible.  The faith journey into deeper discipleship can be described as occurring in distinctive phases of searching, exploring, beginning, growing, and, finally, maturing (phases that parallel those of natural human growth and development, like birth, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood/parenting).  Unlike the natural, automatic progression of human physical development, however, there is no inevitable spiritual progress.  Churches have plenty of pew inhabitants who never move past the beginning stage.  At emc3 we have developed tools like the Real Discipleship Survey to help church leadership get a clear understanding of where their members are on the discipleship journey (an eye-opener for many, who find that, given a strong tool for measuring their progress, they are not as far along on their discipleship journey as they perceived themselves to be).  Pairing that clear-eyed analysis with a clear understanding of how we move through the phases of growth, we can construct a framework for moving more followers toward maturity.

Here’s a story from the Membership to Discipleship book:

The Wesley small group at FUMC is comprised of a group of guys who, for the most part, have been active in the congregation for several years.  They get together twice a month for a time of fellowship, prayer, learning, service, and accountability for their journey as disciples of Jesus.  The Conference had recently provided access to the Real Discipleship Survey and the group had decided to each take the survey and see where they placed themselves on the continuum of maturity as disciples.  Once they completed the survey and compared their results, the members of this particular group were all surprised to have placed themselves in the Beginning phase in the “Life Opening to Jesus” dimension of discipleship.   The certainly didn’t think of themselves as beginners—each of them had been practicing a daily devotional time for as long as they had been together—it was part of their covenant accountability!  It took the survey to highlight the reality that this perfunctory daily practice had become rote.  They had not really explored other ways to encounter Jesus through spiritual practices.

The group leader had a conversation with the Christian Education Director and learned that the church provided a great resource called Companions in Christ which explored a wide variety of spiritual practices.  The group members decided that it would be beneficial for them to engage these materials, and they committed the next several months to going through this study as part of their time together.  This is the role of Christian Education—to resource the development of disciples in the journey toward maturity.”

In addressing the many challenges that face congregational leadership (from developing stronger stewardship habits to broadening people’s theological understanding to inspiring people to servant leadership), it is highly effective (and efficient) to understand this interplay between phases of discipleship growth and where they intersect with our traditional methods and models.  That is to say, the right class or study offered at exactly the right time in the developmental journey of a disciple, produces lasting results.

  • Discipleship is not just about information.  It’s about behaviors.
  • Discipleship is not just about education.  It’s about transformation.

There are many models for shepherding the transformational process, but the same model does not work well for each individual disciple.  In fact, most disciples need varied models as they move through the different phases of growth.  Different phases of growth lend themselves to different models and strategies.  A growing disciple may feel right at home in a small group Bible study setting—but a maturing disciple needs to be moving on to independent study under the guidance of a spiritual mentor, while serving as a guide and shepherd to someone else just starting out on their own journey.

Membership to Discipleship lays out these phases and models in words and graphics that leaders can use to develop a discipleship strategy that is best suited to their own particular settings and congregational strengths.  Congregations who have used the material report a renewed sense of direction and purpose that comes from having a clear plan for how to plug people into discipling relationships that give them a clear way forward—regardless of their starting point.

If you’d like to learn more about the Membership to Discipleship book, publishing November 20th, just click HERE.  If you have questions or observations, use the comments section.  I’d love to hear your feedback.