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Episode 01: Defining Discipleship

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A friend of mine likes to say, rather than defining a disciple, he talks about describing a disciple.

I have with me two friends of mine, Rev. Matt McClure and Rev. Peter Cammarano. I’ve known Matt for about four or five years now; Peter and I met just a year ago but have become fast friends.

Rev. Matt McClure is the pastor of Prairie City Christian Reformed Church in Prairie City, Iowa. It’s a small farming community; Matt came there seven years ago after he graduated from seminary. This is a church that had a history before that of beating up pastors, one of those churches that almost closed, and then they went through a pretty remarkable recovery and looked forward to a better future. The church has been growing well under Matt’s leadership. I’ve been coaching with Matt and the church for about the last four years. We worked first on charting their next course as a church, and then around discipleship, and they’ve done a good job of this. I’m glad that Matt’s with us here for this episode.

And also here with me is Pastor Peter Cammarano. Peter is the pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Lake Jackson, Texas. That’s a church of about 160 people on Sunday morning. Peter has been there seven years, and 260 on a Sunday.

We’re going to have a conversation today around defining discipleship. Both their churches have done a really good job of this, as well as a lot of other churches. I thought it would be good for us to sit down and talk about this.

You know, a lot of times, churches say it can be frustrating trying to work on discipleship, and I can understand that. When people, a church, doesn’t have a clear sense of what we are talking about — are we all talking about the same thing?

Matt, tell us a little bit about what it was like for you all, trying to work on discipleship before you had a definition.


Before we had a definition, it was…an easy answer. So when we talked about doing discipleship in the church, we actually never really talked about discipleship, we just talked about “Sunday School,” or we talked about, “Cadets,” and “Gems.” And we ran into the roadblock of assumption. That assumption was that as soon as you do a ministry within the church, it is discipleship.


Bizarre is a good word for it. And those assumptions — yeah, people bring a lot of assumptions to the table. Kind of like you were saying, that anything you’re doing inside the church is discipleship, and how much of it is actually growing a disciple.

Peter, did you run into any of those assumptions, or other challenges you had before you all actually came up with a definition?


Yeah, I can agree with Matt’s conversation. Without a definition of discipleship, it was either, we were searching for activity, right? What things can we put on that will attract and make people active? But not all of those things were making disciples. And of course, we didn’t have a good definition for what a disciple was, and so as a church leader, when you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

The other thing that was interesting is that my denomination wanted to know about activity. They wanted to know, my phrase is, “how many hineys were in the pews and how many dollars were in the plate.” But discipleship seemed to be more than THAT. Those who attended often and gave often, were not often considered our deepest disciples.

So, yeah, it was frustrating and challenging.


Peter, you referred to denomination. What’s neat here is that Peter and Matt represent two different theological backgrounds. Peter is United Methodist out of a Wesleyan background, and Matt is Christian Reformed out of more of a reformed background. Two brothers that have a lot in common, but we also have some theological nuances, which is good too. Feel free to talk about that if that impacts this at all.

So, Peter, what is the definition that you guys came up with there at Chapelwood?


Right, we had done vision, mission, and values using CHURCH UNIQUE. It’s a good book, it was a good process. And we’d come up with this idea that what the church is about is helping people take their next step. But what we found within the first three years of having that kind of mission, vision, value framework is that we kept encouraging people to take their next step, but we gave them no idea of what their next step was.

Our definition, with the help of Ascending Leaders, we took that vision, mission, and values, and some other images that were working well in the church. We had a church lay leader hike the Appalachian Trail one year, and he came back really changed and transformed. Then he turned around and took a couple men of the church to hike an easier trail, the Lonestar Trail, and we learned about how there are these little white blazes all along a hiking trail — they don’t happen on every tree but they happen within sight of each other. And so you know where you’re going because you follow the white blazes.

There are other indicators for difficulty or challenge. And so coming back from that trip, the leaders of the church really loved the idea that a disciple is someone who has identified and is taking the next step in their faith journey with Christ and helping others to do the same. So that’s our definition.

It gets beyond just hineys in the pews and dollars in the plate, and it begins moving people towards God’s desired future for them.


So I can see, people at Chapelwood UMC, when you talk about a disciple, hopefully they’re thinking about hiking a trail, taking your next step.

Matt, how about you? What’s the definition you guys came up with?


Alright, so the definition that we came up with. A disciple is one who is following Christ in an ongoing life process to grow closer to God, love others more deeply, and participate in the Great Commission. Our tagline that we really like to use is to be disciples who make disciples.

Those were a couple things that were birthed out of the fact that it can’t be seen as something that you arrive at, and then you’re done. We continually struggle with the mentality that you hit a certain point and you’re done.

So we wanted to help people move through that mentality and continue to see broadness and the depths of being a disciple, and so we worked a lot through the stages of faith that we got from DiscipleForward workshops with Ascending Leaders and Mike, and the breakdown of those stages.

We as a church really felt that a representation of that for us personally would be the stages of a tree. Acorn is that first “Strangers to Jesus,” and then the Sprout is “Friend to Jesus,” and Sapling is “Close to Jesus,” and Oak is “Christ-centered.” And I really love the ending one, the oak tree, because it’s not really an end. The oak tree provides food for animals, provides shade for the traveler, it provides security and groundedness… it keeps even the ground grounded. It offers a place to play; for me, it’s one of those continuation ideas of DiscipleOn.

Tune into the podcast for the full story of how these two different churches arrived at their definitions of discipleship, and what struggles they each faced.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

Beyond Yourself – Stewarding Your Influence

As you progress through the Stages of Faith, the Beyond Yourself collection is an excellent choice for furthering your spiritual growth. We recommend you start with Your Pathways, then the Spirit’s Fruit series, and then Christ Habits before jumping into Beyond Yourself.

Beyond Yourself challenges you with this question: Do you really own anything?

We complain that people are wasting our time, we are possessive of our money, and we get angry when circumstances upset our lives. But those things are not really ours at all; they are God’s.

Beyond Yourself teaches you to be a good steward of the things God graciously gives to you. This perspective of being a steward rather than an owner provides relief from the anxiety that a controlling attitude brings, and it enables you to use your resources more effectively and meaningfully. At the end of our lives, what will matter most will be to hear God tell us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21).

 There are five books in this collection, and we suggest you use them in the following order:

  1. Big Rocks First: Stewarding the Time God Entrusts
  2. Dollars and Sense: Stewarding the Goods God Entrusts
  3. Handle with Care: Stewarding the Life God Entrusts
  4. Circles of Influence: Stewarding Your World
  5. Thriving: Stewarding Unexpected Change

As a Participant, you will:

  • Receive, in concise and practical means, ideas regarding life stewardship
  • Gain a fuller understanding of what you uniquely bring to the situations God calls you to steward, allowing you to experience the satisfaction and joy that comes as you provide godly stewardship
  • Begin to experience recovery from past poor stewardship decisions
  • Build a plan for growth as a wise steward

“Scripture teaches that everything belongs to God. Ultimately, nothing really belongs to us. He created this world and everything in it. He made it. He gave it, and He can take it away.” From Handle With Care (pg. 4)

Look Inside

Order Today

Christ Habits Collection – Real Change for Real People

If you’re a visual learner, good news! You can see where our small group studies and resources fit within the Stages of Faith.

As you can see, after Spirit’s Fruit we recommend you pick up the Christ Habits collection.

Christ Habits looks at perhaps the most crucial question for any Christ-follower: how can I open my life as fully as possible to the transforming grace of God, and so be ever more shaped into the likeness of Jesus? God has a deep desire to form us into the image of Christ–and as he does, so we find ourselves less and less thirsty for sin, and at the same time more able than ever to experience His love.

We are saved by grace, and we are remade by grace; there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more Christ-like. But we can learn from Christ how to order our lives so that rather than sipping grace cautiously from a teacup, we can drink deeply from it’s soul-refreshing stream.

There are nine books in this collection, and we suggest you use them in the following order:

  1. God’s Workmanship: Growing in Christ
  2. Listening Together: Gaining Spiritual Direction
  3. Confession: Experiencing God’s Grace
  4. Scripture Speaks: Beyond Reading
  5. Prayer: Listening to God’s Voice
  6. Worship: Beyond the Sunday Service
  7. Community: Inviting Relationship
  8. Simplicity and Sacrifice: Embracing More with Less
  9. Balanced Discipleship: Covering All the Angles

As a participant, you will:

  • Experience life change, even if in only a small way, from experiencing over forty different Christ habits (spiritual disciplines).
  • Discover some Christ habits that you would like to make a regular part of your life.

”My life is lived out in the tension between longing and reality. The longing of my heart is to be drawn ever deeper into intimacy with God: to increasingly celebrate his sacred presence in my everyday world. But the reality of my life is that my disordered character–the desires and drives, vices and behaviors form the root of my brokenness–drag me in the opposite direction, alienating me from God. My appetite for God and my appetite for sin are in violent and destructive conflict. If you share that tension, the may be about to take you on the the most important journey of your life. These are practical books. The disciplines and practices described here by Ascending Leaders have the potential to change our lives, our churches, and our communities–but only if we are prepared to live them, rather than simply discuss them.”

Look Inside

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Where does Spirit’s Fruit fit in?

The Spirit’s Fruit collection was the second set of books Ascending Leaders published for small group use, after Christ Habits, but we recommend you start with these as soon as you’ve gone through Your Pathways and before you dive into the spiritual disciplines found in Christ Habits.

There are nine books in this collection, and we suggest you use them in the following order:

  1. Fruitful Living
  2. Thriving Love
  3. Giving Forgiveness
  4. Living Joy
  5. Practicing Peace
  6. Choosing Patience (Gentleness and Humility)
  7. Nurturing Goodness (Kindness, Generosity and Compassion)
  8. Fulfilling Faithfulness
  9. Satisfying Self-Control

Each book has six sessions for your small group. In general, each session is divided into three unique learning experiences.

  1. Personal preparation: Each participant should read the session material and do the short exercise at the end of the reading. If you are ever short on time, you will be better served if you skim the reading and do the exercise, than if you skip the experience of the exercise.
  2. Small-group discussion: The group discussion questions follow the exercise page for each session. You are NOT expected to have answers for these questions before you meet. Join in the discussion and share your thoughts and insights.
  3.  Hiking Partners: The last question on the group discussion page can be most effective in smaller sub-groups of 3-4 people, which we call “hiking partners.” This is a time to step out and apply the principles from the session. If it is feasible to keep the same “hiking partners” each week, the encouragement experience is even stronger.

Our desire is that this is not simply a learning experience, but an opportunity for the Spirit of God to work in our hearts to make our natural behaviors be more like Jesus.

Becoming like Jesus is what the Christian walk is all about. And becoming like Jesus requires us to change how we live, think, talk and love. And this is where the Spirit’s Fruit collection is so meaningful: It challenges us to not only discover the truth about who we really are, but it takes us on a “journey of sanctification.” It helps us cultivate the Spirit’s fruit in every part of our being. It is my privilege, therefore, to commend this resource to all readers.

Look Inside

Once you’ve completed the Spirit’s Fruit studies, you’ll be ready for Christ Habits! Stay tuned for more information next week…

Order Today

Where to start with our small group studies

One of the questions we hear a lot is where to start with our small group studies. To answer that question, we’re starting up a series of blog posts to give you a peek inside each of our study collections! If you want to dive in, the best place to get started right away is with Your Pathways: Strong Connection with God.

The core idea behind this study is that the most meaningful way that one person relates to God may be very different from the way another feels closest to or best communicates with their Maker. What works for one person may not work for another. That is the beauty of our diversity and the majesty of our God.

As a participant in this study, you will:

  • Become more aware of the unique features of your pathways as a first step to experiencing life change, even if in an elementary way.
  • Begin to understand the pathways and how they impact your life.
  • Grow closer to God your Creator by gaining greater understanding of your personal primary pathways.
  • Develop discernment into your primary pathways.
  • Gain insight into how to use your pathways to deepen your love for God.

The single most important and powerful body of information a leader possess is self-awareness. Please take this study seriously. Do it for you.

Look Inside


Once you’ve completed Your Pathways, next up we recommend jumping into the Spirit’s Fruit collection. Come back next week to learn more!

Order Today


Congregational Impact from DiscipleOn Season 2

In a continuing effort to improve our support of discipleship in churches, we recently asked the members of DiscipleOn! to complete an end-of-season survey. Here’s just a sample of the congregational impact stories shared in the survey:

”Our staff and the discipleship team have a much greater understanding of how to review our programs and we seek to make our classes and programs cover all of the stages as a core planning tool.”

”It kept me focused on developing the spiritual pathway.”

”We were able to learn from the community and the vault about a team charter for our discipleship team – which was timely and wonderful for renewing the team’s commitment.”

We are also taking some of the feedback on where we can improve and making some important changes for next season. The biggest change is that we’re offering a “BASICS” community for people who are newer to the concepts of the stages of faith and a discipleship continuum approach. This group will have access to everything the other groups have, but will have a set series of topics for their monthly catalytic gatherings. Our desire is for this to address the needs of those who felt overwhelmed and unsure about where to start.

Our favorite takeaway from the survey?

100% of respondents agreed (or strongly agreed) that “I am likely to recommend DiscipleOn to others!”


Listening Together: Gaining Spiritual Direction

Spiritual friends are as essential to our individual following of God’s directions as close trusted friends are to life in general. In holy listening, we can serve each other by truly being present and asking probing questions – while trusting the Holy Spirit to do His work, and respecting the spiritual journey of your friend. In this setting, you are not the teacher, advice giver, or counselor; this requires humility and a deep trust of God to do His work without your input. Spiritual direction focuses entirely on the relationship between God and the person seeking direction. Become for your friend a mirror in which can be seen a more accurate reflection of his or her beliefs about God and his or her discipleship.

Even though God’s direction for us is unique and personal to each of us, the norm for the directing process includes a community of like-minded followers of Jesus.

  • Grab two friends, open up your calendars, and schedule a 30-minute block of time to go through an exercise of holy listening for spiritual friends.
  • Print off our free guide and follow the instructions for a wonderful experience of intentional practice.
  • Remember that you and your friends meet in the company of God, who is the true guiding presence of this time together.

When we intentionally grow through spiritual guidance, whether we use groups, friendships, or individuals…we will grow in our connectedness to God.

This group exercise is adapted from Listening Together: Gaining Spiritual Direction in our Christ Habits collection of small group studies. Read more…The quarterly publication of Ascending Leaders, for churches, leaders and disciples. Read more…



DisciplePaths – Behind the Scenes or Out in Front?

Coaching Question:

“In your experience, is it important that we name each of our discipleship studies (boulders, rocks, pebbles) by which stage it’s in for people in the congregation to see, or is that more for our discipleship staff and team in a ‘behind the scenes’ sense?'”

Mike’s Answer:

I suspect you and I agree on this statement–the best answer is the one that will clearly and simply encourage people into growth opportunities that will move more people at each of the four stages of a disciples’ growth forward in their love for Jesus.

Using stage names publicly will only help if the majority of the congregation understands discipleship by stages because of various means of communication over months and years and recognize the titles you have given to the stages.

If that is not yet the case, then do not confuse people by putting it out there. Rather, simply describe a growth experience by what may be true for them. For example, you could say ‘If you are trying to grow in Christ and sense you need to take one step forward in growing more intimate with Christ, this group may be just what you need.’ And take more steps over coming months to help people understand discipleship by stages and what it can mean for them.

If you want to be a part of this work, please consider making a donation today.


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