A New Makeover: Remodeling Discipleship From Within

“We can see that the changes had an impact in the way we intended because the Co-lab gave us these tools to put it all together.”

               -Katie-Lee Harrison, Children’s Church Director and Wife of Pastor Jon Harrison

Greensburg Christian Church

What happens when a church intentionally examines the role of discipleship from within? The church begins to rework its ministry to form a solid pathway towards spiritual growth. The end result is a stronger, more effective discipleship model that engages both the adults and the children on a church wide, congregational level never seen before. 

Two years ago, founder Mike Johnson began a discipleship partnership with Greensburg Christian Church in a Church Discipleship Co-lab along with another church in the community. Mike coached our church with the Ascending Leaders framework of discipleship growth.  Since then, this small church in rural Kansas has undergone phenomenal transformation. Katie-Lee Harrison shares the steps they took and the results they are now seeing. 

What was it like when you started working with Mike?

It was very comfortable.  It didn’t feel like an outsider coming in to tell us how to do things.  We were instant friends working towards the same goal.  That gave us more freedom to dig into what discipleship looks like at our church because there was camaraderie, not like a teacher student experience.

How was discipleship previously at GCC?

At the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing.  Mike really enabled us to figure out for ourselves what we were supposed to be doing.  We didn’t have a discipleship plan at all.  We didn’t know what discipleship looked like.  We knew we should have a Bible study.  We knew people should come to church on Sunday.  We knew that we should love God and love other people, but what exactly were we running towards and what was our goal?

What is something you have learned?

Jon and I have come from other churches in bigger areas where they have these cute little logos and charts, but you don’t really connect them in the life of the church.  From the bigger churches, discipleship is a programming idea rather than a personal idea.  It’s about asking, “How is your discipleship journey going?  How do we come together as a body of believers to figure out how our collective discipleship journeys are going?”

What were some steps that you took?

We consolidated everyone into the same curriculum.  We use the Gospel Project.  Jon preaches on Sunday through the passage.  Our adults do that same passage in Bible study midweek. The next Sunday, we have discussion group prior to the service using lighter questions about the previous week’s passage.

Were there any changes that affected children’s ministry?

In big ways.  Previously, kids left during the service and went to children’s church.  We rearranged our church service so that children’s church is now before the service–the children sit in the service with everyone else.  The kids are learning with the adults the same material.   That was a big difference to integrate our kids into the service.  We felt that discipleship doesn’t start when you’re eighteen or when you make any claim to christianity.  It begins with the seekers.  Our kids are the seekers.  We don’t want to leave them off the spectrum of ministry because they are young.  It makes them part of the body instead of being segregated off to an activity, babysitting function.

Can you describe some changes you saw?

We just started a new quarter of our Wed night Bible study after summer. Typically we would have an ice breaker at the beginning.  That would be the time when they were most chatty.  For Bible study, we almost didn’t even read the questions because the discussion took off.  There was this thought that we should do away with the ice breaker questions so we would have more time to discuss.  It just shows how much has changed in the group members because to get rid of the things that used to be the most fun, that had nothing to do with the Bible, because we want to talk about the Bible more, is a big difference.  It shows a lot of growth in the group.  

Have you seen the coaching trickle down to the individual church member?

You hear more Bibles open and pages turning while the message is going on. That is a direct result of some of the changes we’ve made.  We also have had more involvement from members in the service.  At Bible study there has been more preparation.  The conversation in the morning has been much more robust because of the repetitive nature of our week. It’s all just one passage.  People are  ruminating on it more.  And that is contributing to a more robust discussion, which then contributes to them thinking about it more.  That has been encouraging to see.

Any last thoughts?

People are engaged throughout the entire week – Sunday morning discussion and the sermon and mid week Bible study, so they’re getting hit on all sides.  To see that growth when it’s all working together the way that we planned it is hugely beneficial. We can see that the changes had an impact in the way that we intended because the Co-lab gave us these tools to put it all together.

Virtual Learning for Discipling Staff and Pastors

“My personal goal right now is to be all in with going through the materials that are sent. Because it keeps it in front of me, because this is what I do for a living. Also, it’s valuable being able to hear everyone else’s comments. I write phrases and notes and go back and look at them. It helps me in ongoing conversations as I go about the week, using more of the language and more of the concepts, while talking to other leaders; and reading other books, it connects to what I’ve been learning in DiscipleOn.”

Are you all in for discipleship? Season 4 is Feb.-June, 2018

Register for the next Informational Webinar and discover if you’re ready for DiscipleOn!

December 06 at 2:00-2:45 p.m. CST

The Discipleship Podcast for Church Leaders

In the weeks and months leading up to Harvey, we were working behind the scenes preparing a new resource for discipleship leaders that is easily accessible, relevant and convenient. We’re always looking for ways to share the information and tools we know will make a real impact on discipleship in churches, and podcasts are a rapidly growing means of communication. Nearly a quarter of internet users in the United States listen to podcasts at least once a week. Our recent audience survey showed that over 53% regularly listen to podcasts. Despite the effects of Harvey, Ascending Leaders released the first two episodes of our new podcast on September 4. In its first five weeks, people downloaded almost 200 episodes!

We’re convinced that a podcast can serve our audience—can serve you—by encouraging and educating in a way that integrates easily into existing daily routines. In Episode 00, you can hear Mike talk about what “discipleship” is. In subsequent episodes, hear conversations with different church leaders who are actively applying a stages of faith approach in their churches.

To further enhance the value the podcast provides church leaders, each episode transcript is available on our website, along with a free downloadable tool or resource related to that episode’s topic. For example, Episode 02: “Defining Discipleship” has a list of ten example definitions from churches of varying contexts and sizes.

God’s perfect timing for me. I listened to the first podcast episode on discipleship. It was what I needed to hear at this time. Thanks for your work!








  • Episode 06: Remain in Me—Moving Toward Mission
    With Joel and Patty Hogan, Spiritual Directors from Madison Square Church, Grand Rapids, MI


  • Episode 07: Naming the Stages for YOUR Church
    With Ken Schripsema, Executive Director of Ministry, Madison Square Church, Grand Rapids, MI

A Journey Towards Clear DisciplePaths: Prairie City, IA

Matthew McClure, the pastor of Prairie City Christian Reformed Church (PCCRC), was eager to move his congregation forward in discipleship. So in 2013, he began Charting Your CHURCH Course coaching with Ascending Leaders. “We as a church reflected on the past and started looking toward the future,” he said.

At the same time, Matthew was experimenting with accountability groups using discipleship resources from a church in Atlanta. But this turned out to be too big of a step for most of the congregation. While having small and intimate accountability groups was an excellent idea, not enough people were willing to commit to that level of discipleship. All but one of the accountability groups fizzled out in a year. That’s when Matthew realized they needed more than just a resource; they needed ongoing guidance for improving discipleship.

“We had to back up a bit in discipleship,” Matthew said. The next step he took was to attend Ascending Leaders’ discipleship seminars led by Mike Johnson. “I went to five of those sessions,” he said, “and I also encouraged the leaders who could not come with me to watch the sessions on YouTube.” The sessions covered the whole gamut of discipleship from forming a definition of discipleship to laying out the four stages of discipleship, and they even looked at how “the wall” factored into this journey of discipleship.

Matthew recognized that much of his church was stuck at “the wall”—the obstacle between Stages 2 and 3. He wanted more people to be able to move forward. In 2016, Pastor McClure and the church moved ahead with more coaching from Ascending Leaders through participating with eight other churches in the Congregational Learning Network, in which Mike was providing DisciplePath coaching. This church launched a project focused on helping people over “the wall” so that they could continue the journey into Stage 3 of discipleship.



Matthew’s church began this journey by developing a definition of discipleship that captured what they wanted to move toward as a church: “Discipleship is following after Christ in a lifelong process to grow closer to God, love others more deeply, and intentionally participate in the Great Commission.” (Listen to Matthew talk about this in Episode 01 of the podcast.) They also tested the quality of this definition using from Ascending Leaders the acronym C.O.R.E.—Continual, Ours, Rooted, Encompassing. To make the stages more meaningful for the congregation, they created their own visuals for the four stages of discipleship: an Acorn (First Stage), a Sprout (Second Stage), a Sapling (Third Stage), and an oak (Fourth Stage). Matthew then preached a sermon series on the four stages, to introduce the concepts to the congregation.



The church’s discipleship planning team met monthly by Zoom for coaching from Mike, which provided “new perspective and energy to keep moving toward Jesus and helping others move toward Jesus.” During their time together, all of the team members wrote and shared their own stories of being at “The Wall.” By relating his own personal experiences to his mission, Matthew was able to even more effectively guide more church members past “The Wall” and into becoming closer friends of Jesus.

Matthew also extended the DisciplePath concepts to the high school Sunday School class and led them through Ascending Leaders’ small group study, Your Pathways, connecting the spiritual revelations of each student’s faith story to the everyday practice of their faith.

This summer, Matthew began using REVEAL Survey Coaching to help ensure long-term progress and further effective discipleship. “We have taken the Reveal Survey and will wrestle with the results in the fall as a congregation.” Now Matthew is wanting to serve as an Adjunct Coach himself so that he can help other churches the same way he was helped by Ascending Leaders.

DiscipleshipDare: Inviting Relationship

Hospitality, fellowship and community are inseparably linked and permeate Scripture. Their basis is our common worth as being created in the image of God, beings for whom God Himself died. In fellowship, both parties are giving and receiving in relationship; the over-arching goal is to become more like Christ and in doing so, long for more fellowship with the Father.

The Christ habit of “community” is the habit of opening one’s life and offering friendship and acts of kindness to others, even to strangers and those whom you find most difficult to love. It is precisely in the latter situation, that we need to be most intentional to practice the habit of hospitality and extend the hand of friendship.

A “church of friends” is a church with a culture that expects people to freely open their lives to each other. Members share more than superficial greetings. They share their greatest joys and deepest sorrows; they know their church family will be there for them through thick and thin. They experience community— an honest, selfless sense of caring for one another.

Our challenge to you, disciple, is this:

Grow at actively inviting relationship.

Think of an upcoming lunch, breakfast or other meeting you are having with one other person. Picture yourself being totally present for that other person. What do you expect to potentially distract you? How can you help yourself remain attentive?

Ask God: “Show me how to treat this other person with dignity. Show me how to offer a sense that this person is honored and loved. Show me how to take seriously whatever he or she is struggling with, even if the person doesn’t feel free to talk about it.”

*Adapted from Community: Inviting Relationship from our Christ Habits collection of studies for targeted discipleship.

Harvey: Aftermath of a Monumental Crisis

On Thursday Aug. 24, 2017, the Ascending Leaders board concluded our annual meeting with a lunch-and-learn event at Houston Baptist University, listening to 30 area discipleship practitioners. The Houston-area attendees were checking the weather updates on their phones; the out-of-town board members wondered if their flights would be affected by Harvey’s imminent landfall. Board member Dr. Robert Sloan, President of HBU, checked in on the college’s emergency planning. Everyone agreed that the meeting was over just in time. On the drive home, Mike waited in a gas line to get enough gas to last a week, not realizing floods would keep his car in the garage for the next seven days.

No one expected the hurricane would stall west of Houston as a record-breaking tropical storm, sitting there for days picking up water from the Gulf of Mexico and dropping it over the area surrounding the United States’ fourth largest city. By Thursday morning, a week later, the rain gauge total at Mike’s home measured 44+ inches of rain. Harvey had officially broken the continental U.S. record for rainfall from one storm.

Like everyone else in the region, Ascending Leaders’ plans for the fall drastically shifted. Three staff members evacuated, family and friends endured flooding of their homes, and it was a month before the whole team was back together at our offices in Sugar Land. One church in a coaching partnership had over 200 members flooded. And yet, the storm provided opportunities for disciples to love their neighbors more selflessly, and to surrender to God during scary unknowns. In the aftermath of a community crisis, the real impact of doing discipleship well becomes clear. It shows up in the people sacrificing their best interests for the sake of the displaced. It’s seen in churches with open doors and lines of volunteers. When you get discipleship right in your church, you have an abundant outpouring of faithful service when crisis hits.

Here are some personal accounts of “God things” that happened during Harvey:

  • “I’ll never forget Gina stepping in to help a neighbor while the rest of the neighborhood was standing around gawking. It gave us the opportunity to minister to this Mandarin-speaking family. An unexpected benefit was the great dumplings they brought over the next day!”
    – Mike Johnson, AL Founder/President


  • “The reporter from Detroit spoke of his surprise over people coming together and sacrificing to help each other in the middle of this devastation. I was impressed that he said he had never seen this before.”
    – Teri Watson, Accounts Assistant


  • “A neighboring church invited our Chinese church members to a training session on how to help following a flood—mold remediation, and things like that. Despite little notice and difficult roads, a hundred people from our church showed up for that. That was a gift from God, because it helped equip us.”
    – Ellie Tow, Executive Assistant


  • “After Harvey hit, our church members called for help first to others in their community groups. And I witnessed that with my own community group, with everyone texting and calling each other with offers of shelter or help as the flooding got worse. It was beautiful to see everyone living out our goal of doing life together as a church.”
    – Megan LaFollett, Communications/Resourcing Lead

Mike and other staff members received calls, e-mails and texts from people out of town who wanted to help and needed advice on where to give aid that would effectively help people. Thanks to Ascending Leaders’ national connections, we were able to link people across the country who wanted to send resources to the front lines in the very early hours and days of recovery.

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…



What are you reading now? Rachel Young edition

“Right now, I’m reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’m also in the middle of Canoeing the Mountains by Todd Bolsinger, and it’s really blessing me. It’s about adaptive leadership — how do you lead in uncharted territory? I think it’s a helpful perspective for our staff and elders. I’ve asked my leadership team to read it too.”

Rachel Young, Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation
Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

#StartWithaSmile at smile.amazon.com/ch/20-2433799 for your holiday gifts and Amazon donates to Ascending Leaders.

A Framework for Focus: The Key to Getting Unstuck

One of the most important parts of my role as Communications Lead for Ascending Leaders is understanding not only what it is, exactly, that we do as an organization, but also why it’s needed. If I don’t understand the difference we make, then any communication of what we do or how we do it would be an empty vessel, words without meaning. I was drawn to Ascending Leaders because of my own passion for seeing people grow in Christ. In my ongoing quest to assimilate over a decade of work helping churches get more effective at doing just that, I’ve spent the past month researching our relationship with a few specific churches, each chosen to provide an example of churches at different—dare I say—stages of coaching. Here I’ll share the information I found most illuminating, before stating my personal understanding of the “why”.

Madison Church in Grand Rapids, MI, is crafting testimonies around the stages of faith to help people articulate their faith and understand the stages. Would you like to try your hand at it, and see what you might discover about yourself? Visit our blog for a guide on how to do just that.

A video of Mike Johnson’s “Stages of Faith” testimony is available to watch on our website or YouTube channel. Keep an eye out for more testimony videos from Ascending Leaders staff, as we continue to practice what we preach!

In Conclusion

Several key words and phrases came up repeatedly the research process: alignment, defining, assessment, measurable, outcomes, focus, perspective. The consistent theme I found was that the framework Ascending Leaders uses to help churches clarify their discipleship process takes “stuff” (and usually good but confusing stuff) and turns it into a well-defined pathway. Vital to this transformation is an outside perspective from a coach with an adaptive spirit, a common vocabulary among leadership, perseverance, a sensitivity to what God is already doing in the church, and a clearly defined and measurable desired outcome. The “why” a church might call us in to help turns out to be surprisingly simple: Do their people know where to grow? If they don’t, then they are STUCK. Coaching for clarity leads to momentum—and that means movement, or becoming unstuck.


Mike’s Note – 2016 Winter Highpoint

Dear friend,

Life for me, and for Ascending Leaders, has been full this fall. It is very good to not only see the need for discipleship in churches and the growing recognition of churches to address that need, but also the focus and resolve of the churches we work with to intentionally build paths for that. God continues to faithfully and wonderfully equip us to respond to that desire.

The executive director of another nonprofit recently told me she was frustrated that some of her board would not financially support the ministry. I am grateful that is not the situation with us—once again 100% of our board, many of our board emeritus and also some friends of Ascending Leaders whom together we call our Matching 2 Multiply 2016 Crew have pooled together this year to double all your year-end donations (a $200 donation becomes $400) and quadruple all National Giving Day donations (a $200 donation becomes $800). The opportunity to join in God’s purpose for us to help churches better make disciples is abundant.

In early October, I was presenting at a pastors’ conference in Tucson. One discipleship pastor there shared, “Lately people have been approaching me saying we need to do something to improve discipleship. I wasn’t sure where to turn. The last thing we need is another hyped program that provides limited results. Now this is something that makes sense and that we can apply in a way that fits our setting.” Thirty hours after the first words of teaching came out of my mouth, he registered for the last open slot of the DiscipleOn! community and thirty hours after registering was in his first Catalytic Gathering of DiscipleOn!

You can join in making moments like this possible as we head into a new year:

  • Ask God to bless our coaching, teaching and resourcing with a large harvest of disciples, leaders and churches flourishing.


  • Support us with a National Giving Day or year-end donation which our Matching 2 Multiply Crew will quadruple or double (up to a total of $40,000 in matching funds).


  • Invite us in 2017 to present to your church leaders or whole church on stages of discipleship.


Read the Winter Highpoint and be inspired by the DiscipleshipDifference God is allowing the Ascending Leaders team to make.

In His service,






Dr. Mike Johnson, Founder and Executive Director



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