Episode 04: Moving Toward Intimacy

Listen to Stitcher

Subscribe to receive freebies

Get automatically notified when a new episode is released and get the freebies automatically delivered to your inbox. * indicates requiredEmail Address *First Name Last Name

Julia Johnson has been Small Groups Director for over eight years at Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church at Katy, TX. Her goal is building Christ-centered communities to spur on spiritual growth. She has participated for two years in Ascending Leaders’ DiscipleOn! communities and is currently participating in the Catalytic Gathering hosted by Ascending Leaders. Her husband, Dan, is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Katy and they have four adult children.

Richard Blackaby is an author and international speaker on leadership and the Christian life. He is co-author of the revised edition of Experiencing GodHe has authored over 31 books, including Hearing God’s Voice, Unlimited God, Spiritual Leadership, and Living Out of the Overflow.

“Come and Follow Me” (Stage 2)

Welcome to episode number four of the Ascending Leaders discipleship podcast for church leaders. I’m Mike Johnson, President of Ascending Leaders. Really glad to be here talking to you today. To you, staff and leaders of discipleship in churches. We know you’re very interested in how to move people forward as disciples.

You’re probably listening to this because you wonder, how can I do this better in my church? I find that the four stages of discipleship that we really see in Jesus’ ministry, where he has these invitations of Come and See, Come and Follow Me, Come and Be With Me, and Remain in Me, is a great way to look at it.

And already in these episodes, we’ve talked about the first stage, Come and See. And that exploring Christ stage, where people are curious. In that stage they may be wary but they’re curious. They have discipleship needs to move to belief, and it’s often that a large worship service or an Alpha group speaks to those needs well.

Today, we’re going to focus in on that second stage. “Come and Follow Me,” as Jesus says in Matthew 4:19. “Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”

The REVEAL survey called that stage, the “Growing in Christ” stage. And there are other titles that churches have used for that stage as well. One of the ones that I like is, “A Congenial and Good Friend with Jesus.” Or another one is, “Growing and Serving in Christ.”

But I have two guests with me today who I think really can speak well to this stage. We have Richard Blackaby, and Richard is the President of Blackaby Ministries. Richard and I met each other years ago, and one thing that really impressed me was his breadth of experience, his breadth of love, and his humility. So, when I thought about this and I thought of the curriculum that Richard and his father, Henry, wrote, Experiencing God, I thought we had to get Richard on here.

We also have Julia Johnson. Julia is the Director of Small Group Ministries at Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church in Katy, TX. Julia is part of one of Ascending Leaders’ DiscipleOn! virtual communities. And doing a great job of applying this in their church. 

I just briefly introduced each of you. What is something else about you that the audience might like to know?


Well, I could just say, I’ve got three kids that are all in ministry themselves now. Two years ago I became a grandfather. I’ve got four grandsons now, two and under. I’ll just say that when you look at these little innocent lives, it’s a challenge for me personally, it became one, to say, as much as I’ve grown in Christ already, I realize there’s still more to go. There’s nothing like looking at this innocent little life that is looking back at you and realize you want to be all the man or woman of God that these little ones will need you to be.

And God said to me, “When your grandkids look at your life, are they going to be attracted to your God? Or will they be indifferent to your God?”

And I realized, I could take it to another level, and God wanted me to.

First Name Last Name Email Address (function($) {window.fnames = new Array(); window.ftypes = new Array();fnames[1]=’FNAME’;ftypes[1]=’text’;fnames[2]=’LNAME’;ftypes[2]=’text’;fnames[0]=’EMAIL’;ftypes[0]=’email’;}(jQuery));var $mcj = jQuery.noConflict(true);MIKE

Wow. Wonderful. Thanks, Richard. Julia, how about you?


I am married and have four kids. They’re all in their twenties. And I’ve been on staff here at Grace about eight-and-a-half years.

One of the quotes that I love is by a Scottish preacher named George Morrison. And it says, “The victorious Christian life is a series of new beginnings.”

And, I just love that. Because I look back and see so many new beginnings, but then it also makes me look very, very forward to what God has for me in some new beginnings as I move forward. I just love that phrase, and just thinking about what God has for me.


Let’s dig into this stage of growing in Christ. As you’ve met people that you would say are in this stage, what are some of the strengths you’ve seen? Just beautiful stuff you’ve seen as people are growing through this stage.


Well, you know, when you see people that are just kind of interested, that stage one, and then something captures their imagination. They see a glimpse of Christ, it attracts them to go further, not just be a bystander. And I love that. In a crowd of people, I’ve seen where two people maybe start off in stage one, but for some, they get captivated and they have a hunger. They know there’s more. I love seeing that in people. And they just begin exploring, and start following. Others stay where they were. They’re happy observing. But I love to see those ones where it catches.

And they have no idea, as they start taking those initial steps after Jesus, just exactly how far he can take them and what they could experience on that journey.


You know, in the 90’s I was a church planter, and that especially gave me the opportunity to see people not only accept Christ, but to grow in him. And some of those people in the early part of stage 2, in some ways so naive, in some ways thinking they’ve arrived; and knowing they’ve got so far to go…I remember one gentleman that said, “Man, it must have been great to have been a Christian a long time.”

I said, “You know, it’s interesting. Because when you’re a young Christian, everything is very black and white, based on your previous life. If you’ve been a Christian for a lot longer, the decisions can almost be more tricky sometimes.” 

And he just couldn’t understand that, and that was okay. He didn’t need to understand it at the time. But just to see him growing dramatically.


I had that experience this week. I have three two-year-old grandsons. My wife and I took them to a McDonald’s playland, and it was just like heaven. They’d just never experienced anything like it. And I’m thinking in my mind, one day I’m taking you to Disney World. Today, Playland blows your mind…but trust me, there’s a lot more still to come.

And there’s no point in even really telling them about Disney Land right now, because they couldn’t comprehend it. They’d be happy to spend the rest of their lives in a McDonald’s Playland. I see that with Christians so often, and when you’ve been at it for a while, you realize they’re all thrilled about this quiet time they’re having, or whatever, and to say, “You know what, it is awesome. I’m so glad you’re enjoying that, but trust me, you’ve just barely dipped your toe in the water right now.”


Julia, have you seen anything — what are some of the qualities, the really good qualities you see in people at this stage?


I love to see when people start to acknowledge as they look back and are surprised and excited to see that God has been working. You know, it really gives them…they’re able to accept those experiences, that they’re very real, that they’re valid, that they’re God.

They get real excited about looking back and realizing and acknowledging those experiences. Which shows them where God has been, but it also, I think, encourages them. Knowing that God’s got something also for them.

That acknowledgement, of God in their life, and making those decisions to decide that, “Oh yeah, that was God.” I love seeing that.


I call that, it’s connecting the spiritual dots. They’re not just a bunch of random God experiences. Suddenly they start connecting that, wait a minute, I prayed this morning for God to show me, and then this happened. And this opportunity arose, and this person called. When all of a sudden they realize that God is a lot more at work around them than they had realized, that’s awesome.


I remember when I was in those early stages too, it was like any new concept that I heard, in a sermon, or something about scripture, it was like, ahhhh, it was so exciting! Right? In me teens and early twenties.

So, that’s the early part of that stage. Let’s go toward the latter part of that stage. You’re moving toward the third stage, the Close to Christ stage, which is much more about intimacy. What does it look like when you see people who’ve been experiencing the second stage, the growing in Christ stage, then they start dipping their toes into that third stage. They start moving in that direction. What has that been like, maybe in your own life, or you’ve seen in others’ lives?


My experience, I think, when I was a young Christian, was about activity. “Okay, God, I’m going to start memorizing scripture, or I’m going to discipline myself and get up and read my Bible. I’m going to try to be a witness for you.” Those are huge steps. Trying to be obedient, trying to follow Christ. What I began to realize though, what I wasn’t taught early on, was just enjoying Christ.

I remember when someone asked me at one point, “Have you been enjoying God?”

That was the most bizarre question I’d ever been asked.

If they’d asked me, “Are you serving God, are you giving to God, do you beleive in God…” Yeah, all that, check the box. But enjoying God? That was just foreign to me.

Especially, learning just from my dad and later years in my Christian life, I began to realize, that’s really what… I know I’ve gone to another level when I can just bask in His presence, and not be doing anything.

 I’m kind of moving from the Martha, perhaps, to the Mary.


I think that a couple things about becoming a little more confident and what I loved, going back and looking at my original Experiencing God book, that I used years ago, the two things that made a difference in that movement for me was when it talks about that He’s going to lead you to a crisis of belief. I don’t know that I knew that I could have a crisis of belief. The word “crisis…” I thought of my journey as, I’m going to get on this journey, and the people that I saw, I didn’t see or hear them talk about that.

That was important for me, to know that, that’s a part of it. And, something that you move into, and out of. So, that crisis of belief, when I see people in that, they’re wanting to take some risks, they’re wanting to move forward, and allowing them to know that also, then those adjustments, those major adjustments again out of Experiencing God, there are some adjustments. And are you willing to do that?

And that you don’t have to do that on your own, yet it requires the faith to do that. So allowing people to know that there’s going to be this crisis of belief, and then moving forward and taking risks. I love to see that in people. And you can tell when they’re thinking about it. And they’re thinking about, “Oh, what does God have for me next?” It makes a big difference.


I think we kind of, early on, sort of pick and choose our following. “That looks interesting, I think I’ll follow Jesus on that trip. But that looks a little uncomfortable, I think I’m going to sit this one out.” You realize as they get a little further along in that crisis of belief that you mention, they realize, “I don’t really have the option of coming in and out with Christ here. This is a total surrender.”

So, even though this scares me to death, I don’t have the option of going home today. This is where Jesus is taking me today, so I’m in. I’m going anyway.


For me, that moving towards or into stage three was probably in my early-to-mid-thirties. And it was a crisis of relationship. It was a crisis of Christians acting in ways that I thought, “What is this about?”

Very damaging ways. Certainly there was a lot of my own stuff I needed to work through, but it was on the tail end of that… I went through Experiencing God with a couple of different groups from the church I was pastoring, and seeing a number of people really making some significant moves away from stage two, some first moves through Experiencing God, through the life of Moses, seeing… As a child, I was always taught Moses was pretty much about obedience. But also, the life of Moses showed the need for intimacy.

Another thing for me was the spiritual disciplines. The classical disciplines. I started to go into that crisis of belief, and I started using the classical disciplines more. And it reminded me of the first book about the disciplines that I read, that many people have read, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster; I started reading it when I was in seminary, and I right away put it down, thinking, “This is weird stuff. If I start espousing this stuff, no church is going to want me to pastor them.”

And yet, it was those classical disciplines that later, when I was in a crisis, actually moved me away from that trying, and doing, and serving, through the crisis. Because something told me that I’m not going to get further if I go back to just trying to work my way out of this, I’m just going to go around the mountain another time. I’m not going to get to a new place.


I think with that whole area, what I’ve seen, especially Experiencing God has helped to expose… a lot of people, it’s about obeying God’s commands, but not necessarily following Jesus. It’s more of an obedience thing than a relationship thing. Even the disciplines, I think it’s great to be a disciplined person, but my father has often said, “Love is the discipline.” If you love Jesus, you will do those things. If you don’t love him, then you really have to discipline yourself to spend time with him. 


I’ve found that it’s interesting to see the movement of people, whether they grew up in the church and stayed in that lifestyle, live in the faith, or came to Christ later in life… I know from my own experience, I did leave the church, for about twenty years. When I came back to the church, I was desperate to find God and know His love, and know the forgiveness that Jesus gives.

I found myself talking with other people, that many times, those things that maybe we grew up with, with the doing and trying, when you come to Christ later in life I feel like many times it’s a little more desperate. A little more fresh, maybe. So, we’re not so controlled by the doing, and jumping right into loving God. Jumping right into loving Jesus, and knowing that love, and maybe not get quite as caught up in the doing.


There’s a lot of people that grew up going to church, and they’re good people, and they continue going to church because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s a discipline their parents taught them, and so they were disciplined to be good and moral people, and good parents, and so they do all those things. But you realize, there’s another whole level they need to go to, where it’s…it’s great that they do those things, but to really be intimately related to Christ as a person that they love with all their heart, that’s just foreign to them.


One of the ways I’ve heard this described that makes a lot of sense for me, is that this is a place where your relationship is personal but not necessarily very close.

For people who come to that faith a little later in life, they may be moving through this quicker because they’ve tried everything else. And they know, they maybe experienced, that doing doesn’t work.

A lot of Christians even get stuck here, where it’s personal, they’re doing, they’re praying, they’re reading Scripture, they’re worshipping, they’re serving. But they have a hard time getting real close. Real intimate.

In fact, REVEAL says that of the four stages, this is the one in their database that is the largest. I recently coached seven different churches through REVEAL. Let me just tell you some of the percentages I had.

One church, 35% of the congregation was here. Another one, it was 45%. 48%. 50%. 54%.

I mean, some churches, as much as 50% of their people are here!

 And some of these people have been here for decades.


I think the central point is that relationship with Christ. If you talk to a bunch of people that are Christians and have been for years, and say, “Do you pray?” “Yeah, I pray (maybe) regularly.” Then you ask them, “And so, in this conversation you’ve had with God, what have you heard God saying to you?” They just have this foreign look on their face. I say prayers, but I would never expect God to actually interact with me.

You read your Bible every day, when’s the last time God spoke to you through His Word? And they just get this foreign look on their face, like that doesn’t compute for me.

There’s a huge, huge group of people that it’s really kind of a one-way… it’s religious rituals. You read your Bible, you say your prayers, but there’s no sense that you’re actually interacting with a person that is wanting to be in a personal relationship with you.

If you ever can make that leap, and realize that actually my walk with God is with a person, then He can take you all kinds of places. But if you’re stuck just performing religious rituals all the time, then it’s really hard to get out of that spot. Because there’s nowhere to go from there. Just do more rituals. But you’re basically at the same place.


I’ve seen people there too, who are even scared of that intimacy, or what it takes to get into that intimacy. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Even when it’s presented to them where they could go to, no I’ll just choose to stay here.

What is that all about? What is it that makes people afraid of that? And what might churches be able to do about that. Any ideas?


I think it’s an issue of control, in large part. If I’m just doing a discipline, I’m in control. I decide what book of the Bible I’m going to read. I decide when I’m going to quite. I decide what verse I’m going to memorize. And so I’m in control.

I don’t want to read the book of Job, because I don’t even want to entertain the thought I might have to suffer, so I’ll go over here and read about “Blessed are you” today.

But I really think that when you enter into a relationship with Christ, it’s not safe. I think the disciples said to Jesus, well where are you going? And he said, come and see.

All of a sudden, it’s like I’m not in control anymore. I don’t even know where this is going to lead. I’m just following.

That’s a huge step, where you’re basically surrendering control, and you don’t even know where the journey will end at the end of the day, what he might lead you to do. I think that in part, it’s saying, “No, I’d rather be in control.” 

But when I’m following Jesus, I’m out of control. I’m just a follower now. And that, to get to that point of absolute surrender where you say, “Wherever you lead, I will follow,” that’s a huge step that will get you out of that stage ultimately.


One of the things I was thinking about, moving into that next stage for me in my own experience, I remember some very influential leaders. Modeling that living of the scripture, reading the scripture, taking pieces of scripture, not sitting down and reading an entire book of the Bible… I had leaders modeling spending time with God, with small amounts of scripture, and meditating on, just a few verses.

So some of those things were very influential in the way the leaders modeled for me, and modeled for the group, and then, what their experience was, what they were then able to let us know what they experienced from that time they had with God. For me, that was very new. It was very personal.

I think the leaders, if they’re modeling for people in stage two, that is very important for some of those personal experiences that they’re having. And then sitting in that group, youn can… I don’t know, you might be skeptical…I don’t know if I’ll have that experience, but you know what, I’ll try it. And then you have those experiences.


I think you’re right, and those stories are so important. If I’m a leader, anytime I see someone that I’m discipling, that takes that leap of faith, I want them to share their testimony. Because I can teach them Mark chapter one and talk about Jesus showing up besides some fishermen’s boats and saying, “Come follow me,” and everybody believes that, but a lot of people can’t make that connection with what that would look like if Jesus showed up beside their boat.

So when someone actually does that, and they’ve said, “All of a sudden, I just felt like God was telling me to quit my job and take this step of faith, well this is how it turned out, this is what God’s doing.” You keep celebrating that, saying, this is what that looks like. This is your boat, this is what your boat looks like. This is what it looks like when Jesus shows up and invites you to take this huge step of faith and follow him. And this is what God’s done.

Your boat will look different, your experience will be different. But this is what it’s like.

Then people start getting it.

Because we believe what’s in the Bible often, but we just can’t translate that to what that would actually look like in our life.


And I grew up not hearing that, in the church where I was, I did not hear any of those personal experiences. So Jesus was a very moral figure to me, but I didn’t have any of those personal experiences. So when I got into a group that the leaders, it was actually the couple that was leading my Experiencing God group, they were so real and talking about these personal experiences, and they just lit up talking about them. I thought, wow, there must be something to this.


You know, there’s a big debate among preachers about how many stories you should even tell in your sermons. I’m a firm believe in the power of story. Explain what the scripture says, and then show what it looks like in modern 21st century living. And all of a sudden, people connect the dots and realize, wait a minute, that could happen to me. That is happening to me.


You know, I think what you’re both saying, leaders need to be beyond this too. I know there were years where I spent a lot of time in this stage, and a lot of my answers were, well, just do this, just do that, and I was struggling myself with God. And it’s harder to lead when you’re there.

Julia, you talk about modeling of leaders. That is right. And yet, at the same time, I see in churches, sometimes it’s hard to even get close to leaders for the time it takes to see that model. How was that in your life? Was it a small group that you saw that in? Or how else did you get close to them?


Yes, absolutely. My Experiencing God group was actually a small group. There were about twelve of us in there. Then as I ventured into other studies, and into other communities, I always stayed in a smaller community of people. And would then meet, maybe, with two or three women who I knew were ahead of me. Or had more experience with God than I did.

That always drew me, because I wanted to know, what do they know? What have they experienced? Again, coming in at 37 years old and just desperate, and knowing that my life was a mess, and I was ready for this. I really sought it out.

But what we’re doing here now at Grace Fellowship is also trying to communicate and allowing people to look for different types of groups. Yes, we’re a church with small groups but it doesn’t just mean it looks like these twelve people. Give yourself permission to contact people that you have met and want to spend some time with. That type of thing, I think, getting more into the twos and threes, really helped propel my journey.


I think, actually, as you move towards the right of that discipleship journey, where small groups are important for stage two, but getting into stage three, I’ve noticed that the average North American evangelical small group–video, no homework, ask a couple of questions–doesn’t really get you into stage three. But it takes, maybe, a small group that’s very focused, like Experiencing God, where you’re doing work each day yourself, and you’re having to reflect on things, or even a smaller group like a quad or a triad. What curricula have you seen that, what kind of things have you seen, that you think help get people out of this second stage?

So if there are pastors, church leaders, discipleship leaders hearing us and saying, that’s all good, but what do I do? I know it’s more about being than doing, but what kind of opportunities can churches open up for people that might help more people move from stage two more into that third stage?


I think it so much depends on the leader. I know when my dad put Experiencing God together, his big prayer was, “I don’t want this to just be another study.” That was his mantra. God’s people have had lots of studies where, a lot of times the teacher will just sort of lecture and point things out, and dominate the conversation, and you come away and maybe you filled your head a bit but you haven’t really interacted personally.

So, I think part of the genius of courses like Experiencing God was, we said to the leader, you’re not to teach this. They’re going to learn this throughout the week. You facilitate it. You just encourage God’s activity among the people. In a crisis of belief, you could have a very mature Christian who’s having a crisis of belief, just like a brand new believer; same principle, but very different places along the journey.

A good facilitator will bring that out. This is just a baby step, but it was a crisis for this person taking a baby step, over here this guy’s been a Christian for 40 years and God’s taken him to places he’s never been before–that’s still a crisis of belief, just a different place. I find, if you’re a pastor or leader, that ability to join what God is doing in your people’s life, instead of you just sort of a one-size-fits-all lecture to that group, it can make a huge difference as well.


Richard, building on that, I don’t think I ever told you this, but back when I was doing a lot of writing for the Ascending Leaders discipleship books, Experiencing God was at the back of my head. How can I create more materials that will help people have the kind of experiences that I’m seeing people have in Experiencing God, and take them to the next place?


I love that it’s asking the right questions. You ask good questions, you’re going to get good interaction. I remember, I kept pushing with Experiencing God even in the revision, let’s not ask easy questions. People at church have not been challenged to think. “Who built the ark?” Well, that’s not a real challenging question. Let’s ask them “why” questions, and let’s get them asking questions that aren’t real simple, and get God’s people to start thinking, and that’s how they start growing.


I also found, those kind of questions, processing them on a daily basis through the week was really important for me. For me to actually slow down enough to process a question… you know, where have you seen this in your own life, this kind of experience, God doing this kind of thing?


If you’re a leader, don’t feel compelled to always lead with all the questions answered. To have the comfort of saying, you know what, you may need to park this question before God for the next couple of weeks. Because it may take a while for God just to show you. With God, there are a dozen different answers, or at least dimensions to that answer that you may get dimension number one answer, but there’s eleven other dimensions and levels if you’ll stay with it that God will take you a lot deeper than just a quick surface answer by the leader during the group time.


That’s one of the things that was so great with this study, was that it had so many different levels. So, you had scripture to read, there were prayers in there, there were some very direct questions that had very direct answers, but then it also included those other questions that you had to think about for your own life. And that’s what I loved about this study, that it had all those pieces and at that time in my life, I needed to learn some facts, I needed to learn about the Bible, I needed to learn about people in the Bible, but then it also challenged me to look at my life and walk that out, what did that look like right then?

Those pieces were instrumental for me.


Not only Experiencing God, but other studies, and I think Experiencing God does that well. Things that cause you to get more honest with yourself. I think that’s really critical. Knowing your shadow side; often, when we react out of anxiety, a lot of that is kind of a stage two-type approach to life, you know, I’ve got to have everything answered.

Another one is ministries that help you deal with your own addictions. It may not be a chemical addiction; for you it may be an addiction to anger or an addiction to avoiding conflict, or an addiction to having everything under control. Like Celebrate Recovery or some of the other ways to get people to deal with themselves, like Experiencing God does.


If the leader is not authentic and honest, it’s going to be real hard to lead a group to be. A leader can’t lead people to places they haven’t been themselves. You want a really authentic, honest group, you’ve got to model that, and you have to make it a safe place for people to do that.

It’s very contagious. If you’re in a group where people are being honest, it’s amazing how others will then feel free to be honest. But if walls and masks are on, you’re not going to get anywhere with that group.

For the full story and to hear the advice Henry Blackaby didn’t give his son in college, listen to the podcast or download the complete transcript.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

First Name Last Name Email Address (function($) {window.fnames = new Array(); window.ftypes = new Array();fnames[1]=’FNAME’;ftypes[1]=’text’;fnames[2]=’LNAME’;ftypes[2]=’text’;fnames[0]=’EMAIL’;ftypes[0]=’email’;}(jQuery));var $mcj = jQuery.noConflict(true);

Episode 03: Moving Toward Belief

Listen to Stitcher

Subscribe to receive freebies

Get automatically notified when a new episode is released and get the freebies automatically delivered to your inbox. * indicates requiredEmail Address *First Name Last Name

Blair has been committed to Christ’s mandate to make disciples throughout 33 years of ministry. He has served in the local church and as a missionary. He has devoted himself to becoming more effective in making disciples. Blair believes that “Ascending Leader training has helped our discipleship staff incorporate and plan a multiplying disciple making movement at our church.”

“Come and See” (Stage 1)

Welcome to the discipleship podcast for church leaders, from Ascending Leaders. We are on the episode today about the first stage of discipleship. Some call it the “Come and See” stage. REVEAL, an instrument that’s been used over the last ten years with hundreds of thousands of people, calls it “Exploring Christ.” Some churches call it “Strangers with Jesus” or, I know one church that calls it “River of Life.” Another church calls this stage “Discovering Jesus.”

That’s what we’ll be talking about today.

You see in the gospels that Jesus gives four invitations and one declaration about discipleship. The four invitations are the four stages, and there’s a declaration about overcoming the wall. And all four of those stages are important in a disciple’s growth. Even though people don’t move in a simple direct line, it’s important for people to keep moving and to not stop and put it in park.

Now it’s good for a church as we talked about in last week’s podcast, to use for themselves

names for the stages that they want to use, that will work well for them.

I have with me here, as my guest, Blair Lerner. Blair is from Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church in Katy, TX. And Blair, I think you guys have come up with some names yourself for the stages that you’re using for the congregation. What are you using?


We use the four stages that the REVEAL study uses, and they are:

  • Exploring Christ
  • Growing in Christ
  • Close to Christ
  • and Christ-centered

And our goal this year has been to help people in our church identify what stage they’re at and what their next step is. The discipleship pathway has been really our goal and our intentional focus this whole year. And so, we even at the back of the church, have a mural on the wall with the four stages and we’ve asked everyone in our church to take a footprint and to write their next step on that footprint and to put it in the next stage that they’re going to take, or in the stage they’re in, aware that they can take another step.

This is every week in front of our congregation. These four stages have a significant impact in where our church is going.First Name Last Name Email Address (function($) {window.fnames = new Array(); window.ftypes = new Array();fnames[1]=’FNAME’;ftypes[1]=’text’;fnames[2]=’LNAME’;ftypes[2]=’text’;fnames[0]=’EMAIL’;ftypes[0]=’email’;}(jQuery));var $mcj = jQuery.noConflict(true);MIKE

That’s a cool way, visually, to keep it in front of people all the time. I would love to just come down and to stand in front of that first stage and read some of those footprints. What is going to be their next step in moving forward, if they’re in that “Exploring Christ” stage. Do you remember any of those that you’ve noticed up there?


I do remember some. They all were related to basic Christian beliefs. I remember one, that said something like, “Does God love me? Can I be loved?”

“Is there hope?”

Someone said, “Can I have another chance?” They were asking, can I be forgiven?

And so, many of those footprints in that Exploring Christ stage are wrestling with basic beliefs of the Christian life.


I especially invited you today because we’re going to focus on that first stage.

That’s a stage of, actually before someone comes to believe in Jesus as their savior. Your role in outreach there at Grace Fellowship, you’re doing a lot of discipleship with those kind of people. Helping the church actually do a better job at discipleship. What many churches are calling evangelism, is really the first step of discipleship.

In the gospels, we see that Jesus uses an invitation. He basically, at this stage, is inviting his first disciples to “Come and See.”

In John 1 we read: They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

It’s interesting, some say that between John 1 and John 4, is where you really see the disciples at this Come and See stage. They’re trying to figure it out; in fact, in John 1 we read about Peter. Andrew came, and met this Jesus guy, and was pretty impressed. So he went and found his brother Simon and told him, hey, I think we found the Messiah. And he brought him to Jesus to come and see.


We see this in our church a lot. We assume that on any Sunday, as much as 20% of our congregation are seekers. People who are exploring, or new to the Christian faith. And we have found that many times, someone comes to our church and then invites a friend, a neighbor, a relative to come and see. To come with them to worship.

So, initially that’s how we see evangelism working.


If I have neighbor and I know they’re not following Jesus, and I want to reach them, one of the things I might do then is if I was part of your church, is to invite them to Sunday worship.

When I was church planting in the 90’s, that’s what I saw a lot of too. It’s interesting, because, not for everyone, but you notice that often Jesus, when he’s first talking to people, they’re in large groups, they’re in multitudes. There are crowds. There’s sort of an anonymity in that. I can listen, I can consider, nobody is going to look me in the face and say, “So, Mike, what do you think?” Or, “So, Blair, what do you think?” It seems like that’s probably something needed here, is that time to consider but also anonymity.

Now a friend takes you, you also have someone you know, so you’re not a stranger. Although I’ve had people come as a stranger before. Have you ever had that in worship, where later you meet someone and they had just come all by themselves one Sunday? This whole crowd of people, and no idea what this is about.


I have a perfect story of that. And I would love to introduce it and then complete this whole story later in the broadcast. An Asian young man walked up to me one Sunday after worship and he said, “I’ve never been to a Christian church before. This is the closest church to where I live, and I don’t know anything about Christianity.” He had just moved to the United States and he said, “I’m an atheist. I don’t understand anything about Christianity.” So we do have that. And people do just walk in the door that know nothing. And then, how you relate to and reach out to a person like that, is critical to helping someone exploring Christ.

Is there something for them?

Is there an avenue, a way for them to hear about Christ?

 Or is it just, thank you for coming, goodbye, come next week?


Do you remember what you said to him at that time?


I have the privilege of directing a ministry called Alpha in our church, and Alpha is our primary evangelism strategy.

I invited him to come to our Alpha course.

Just to check it out. It was starting the next week. And it was held in a home, it was in the summer, it was very casual. He came. We had dinner together. Alpha exists to accomplish three things: you have dinner together, and then there is a biblical message, and then there’s a small group discussion. So it is very, very seeker friendly. It’s not intimidating. And you assume that anyone that comes to Alpha knows nothing about Christianity.

And so, I invited him to Alpha. He came and attended the Alpha course. Asked a lot of questions. He wrote notes. He really wanted to know about the Christian faith, and it was all new to him.


That reminds me of a guy I met, he had actually been a Christian for a couple of years. But he had come to the United States, I think it was for work, and he was Muslim in his background. And you know, “here I am in the United States, I know some Christians, I have never been inside a church.” So, he said one Sunday he just went inside a church, cold turkey. And he went back, and he went back, and he was curious. And he came to the point of accepting Christ as his savior.

It’s really neat when God works that way.

This stage, this come and see stage, it’s interesting — we’re kind of touching on that — in that stage, the way Jesus relates is, it’s a lot of simple, straightforward explanations and invitations. And then, the disciples, they’re considering, they’re observing, there may not be a lot of debate. They’re simply trying to figure this out.

Paul talks about this stage too. He calls it the infant stage. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, he’s talking about the church that he planted in Thessalonica, and he tells them, “just as a nursing mother cares for her children, we care for you.” So that man that comes to the service–this is a very tender person that God has entrusted to you. You want to care for him, you don’t want to be too forceful, but you don’t want to give somebody the cold shoulder and be too busy for somebody like that. You want to be available for them.



The quote that’s been used in this stage that I’ve heard before is, that many people need to belong before they believe.

And, relationally, it’s been said before that you may be the only Bible that someone ever reads. It’s important for them to see the reality of Christ’s love in a relationship. This is not just facts and information, that Christians are real, and they have something that’s different, and in a relationship they can see who Christ is.

So at this stage, that’s just such a key, important goal.


Tell us a story of anybody that you remember in Alpha, like that gentleman, or somebody else, who came not believing. And what was it that got them to a point of moving from “Come and See” or as you call it, “Exploring Christ,” to the next stage of “Follow Me” or “Growing in Christ?”


One story that comes to mind is about a man who had been attending as a guest. Had been attending worship with his family. And he identified himself as an atheist, even though he came to church a lot.

He genuinely was a skeptic. He had doubts about the veracity, the truth, of the Bible; he even had doubts about the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus really existed. Let alone that he had been resurrected from the dead. He just had a lot of genuine intellectual, historical doubts about the Christian faith.

And so, I met him one time, and listened to him for about an hour, and he just shared a lot of doubts. And through that initial friendship, I said, “You would love Alpha.”

It was again, an opportunity to invite him into this course that would help him explore the Christian faith. He took Alpha and had a lot of questions, and he asked those questions. After that Alpha course, you’d be surprised — no, he didn’t become a Christian. He took the Alpha course a SECOND time.

And later on, he said that the first time he took it dealt with his objections to Christianity. And those objections were addressed. The second time he took it, he took it to find out what Christianity was and what the Bible said about Christ.

And it was just a short time after that second course that he gave his life to Christ.


That’s interesting. So, you first deal with his objections, and then he’s, okay my objections have been settled. But now I want to go look at it from another light.

That reminds me, George Barna wrote a book called Maximum Faith. And he talks about four stops in this stage. It’s interesting, he says the first one is, somebody is ignorant of their sin. “Why would I need Christ? There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m a good person.”

His next one is, “okay, I’m aware of my sins, but I’m indifferent to them.”

The third one is, beyond being indifferent, “I might be aware of my sins, and now I’m becoming somewhat concerned about them.”

And then, finally, the fourth one is, “confessing my sins to Jesus.”

And so, in a similar way, your guy, the first thing was, he was antagonistic. He had these doubts. Once he got past that, there was another thing he needed to do.

So it takes some time. Sometimes people have to work through a number of different issues before they’re ready to move from exploring Christ to actually accepting Christ.


And I believe that if they don’t have an opportunity to be in a situation or a relationship where they can explore those objections, or questions, they’re not going to have the opportunity to take the next step to get closer to Christ.

So we have to provide opportunities where people can explore the Christian faith, no matter where they’re at.


From what I know of Alpha, that’s what makes Alpha so strong, right? It’s set up about basic core beliefs presented in just a very basic way, and people have the space to ask whatever is troubling them. There’s no question that’s too difficult.


Alpha really does that, and I’d love to give a brief background on Alpha and where it came from, and why I believe it’s so effective at reaching people in this stage.

Alpha started out as a course to help someone be established in their faith. It was a course for new Christians. It started out in a home in 1977, in London, at a church called Holy Trinity Brompton. Since then, that course to help people explore and grow in the Christian faith, has reached 29 million people, and Alpha course is in 65,000 churches in 169 countries, and it’s been translated into 112 different languages.

The thing I love about Alpha is it’s an eleven-week course and it really takes you through three phases of exploring Christ. So for example, in weeks 1-4, Alpha explores “how can I begin a relationship with Jesus Christ?”

The topics that it looks at are, who is Jesus, how can I have faith, how can I know I’m forgiven.

The second part of Alpha looks at how I can grow in that relationship. It looks at subjects like how do I pray, what is prayer, how do I read the Bible, why is the Bible important, how does God guide me?

And then the third phase helps someone begin to think about how to live out the Christian life. How do I share my faith? How do I resist evil? How can I find a place in church?

And so Alpha takes someone through these stages and it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your belief system is; no question we say is too naive, or too conflicting. There’s no question that you can bring up that’s not welcome.

And so, Alpha gives someone an opportunity to explore the Christian faith from where they’re at. They have an opportunity to ask questions, and to interact and learn and grow, no matter where they’ve come from.


Related to that, REVEAL says that there are some things that people in this stage, they’ve seen as they take this survey, what they especially are looking for from their church. What they need to move to the next stage. And one of them, the belief of salvation by grace. Another is the Trinity. And Alpha, I think, deals with those two very things.

And you just said, people ask — “Can I really be forgiven?” That’s about grace.

They also said that the church activity that people need is to be serving in the church. Now, some people might think that’s weird; you’re letting them serve in your church and they’re not yet believers in Jesus?

I have a friend, he tells me that over a whole decade, he spent time leading the tech team at a church. He said, on the tech team, “we often get people who are in that first stage.” Because, hey, they’re into electronics, that’s cool; it really doesn’t demand a belief in Christ to do the technology.

But then he says, before each worship service, they’ve got their headphones on, they pause and they pray. Somebody prays. And he’s seen people come to Christ because of that. So they’re serving, they’re serving in their church, they’re serving on this tech team — that can actually be something that moves them as well.


Not only is Alpha a powerful evangelism tool, but it’s also an effective method to raise up ministry leaders in the church. And so, someone goes through the Alpha course, and they are invited to be a helper on the next course. And their only job as a helper is to care about the people in the group. Just to be friendly. They don’t have to say anything.

What that ends up doing is exposing them to the Christian faith in an even deeper way. They learn more; if they haven’t committed their life to Christ, they have the opportunity to commit their life to Christ the second time they go through this, but they’re serving. And then that opens the door for them to become a small group leader down the line.


That’s pretty interesting. If somebody has crossed from the first stage of discipleship into the second one, you’re giving them some of their first Christian leadership experiences in that, and that’s setting the stage for leadership in the future.

I’ve been told — and I think it’s so true too — in this stage, whether it’s somebody they met for the first time, or somebody they’ve known for a while, people really need someone who is an authentic Christian who they can relate to. When I was church planting, this man walked into my office in the middle of the week. And he was obviously very distraught, and the story he told me, yeah, just some choices he had made in life was really creating havoc in his family and he was beside himself, and in that, I kind of lightly shared the gospel as we talked about that.

Because it was so intense, I encouraged him to come back in about 2 or 3 days. And he came back a couple of days later and he said, “Man, you know, I started reading the gospel, and I asked Christ to be my savior last night!” But he obviously trusted me enough. To have somebody you can trust is important at this stage.


I remember when I was working with international students, when I was on Campus Crusade for Christ staff, after worship someone said, “There’s a French college student that has visited our church for the first time. Since you have lived in France, we’d love for you to meet him.” And I was intrigued. And he said that this was the first time that he’d ever stepped into a church, and I said, “Why? Tell me why.”

And I said, “But you know what, let’s go grab lunch. Let’s go have lunch next week.” So relationally set up that opportunity.

At that lunch, he shared that he had known a girl in France that he was close friends with, and she had mentioned that she was a Christian. He had no idea what being a Christian was. And so he just thought, if I walk into a church, maybe I’ll discover what a Christian is.

And so, I said to him, “Let me get this straight. You want to know what a Christian is.”

He said, “Exactly, because I have no idea.”

And we met the next week and at that opportunity, at that lunch, I shared the gospel. And we met the third week, and he said he had received Christ.

What’s really important is we began to meet weekly. I was available just to talk about issues and concerns he had, to talk about the Bible and basic Christian beliefs, and how to live out the Christian life. So, someone in this stage needs to be in a caring, loving relationship.

You’ve heard the cliche, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And I believe that whatever ministry, whatever we do, it’s critical that people in this stage are in a relationship with a Christian.


And even to continue on from there, it’s not like, “I led him to Christ and now I’m on to the next person.” He needs your time to keep growing. He needs someone to help him. A lot of people have become followers of Jesus and there’s just nobody who has taken them from there. They’ve kind of gotten stuck at that very early, very elementary stage.

A couple of years ago, we had somebody who came into our small group and she’d been part of this church for a while; I assumed she’d been a Christian for a while. I think she probably had. But one night she says to the group, “I need your advice. I don’t have a Bible. What kind of Bible should I buy?”

Wow, she didn’t have a Bible. Some people believe in Jesus but nobody has guided them from there. They’ve just not moved much. It’s exciting to see when they get moving.


One of the main descriptions of people who come to Alpha are people who were raised in a church, and then stopped going, for many, many, many years. Or, people who had been raised in a church, and they had no idea what to believe. And so, we have people who are in this stage, and they may have been in a church for forty, fifty years. But they just had never come into the realization that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

And so, again, that’s why I love Alpha as a powerful evangelism tool, because they not only hear the essentials of the Christian life, they have a chance to explore it, but they’re in a relational, loving environment in a small group, where they can be accepted and they can ask questions or someone will care for them. They will have a chance to grow.


But one of the things I like about Alpha, too, from what I hear, not only are people in small groups around a table of five, six, seven people, but there’s also anywhere from 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 people in the room. So it’s not so intimidating.

If I’m coming to a small group and I walk in the room and it’s just these seven people, it’s pretty intimidating. But if I’m at a table of seven people, and there are other tables around me, it feels not quite so pressured.


Alpha begins with a dinner for the first half hour. Every week. Relationships are formed, friendships are formed, around the dinner table. So it has that casual feeling. You’re not walking into a class.

People in this stage need relationships. More than just content and information.


That’s good that it does both – the content they do need, within the relationships that are so critical.

Now, at any stage, people can get stuck. I remember when I was church planting in the 90’s, a gentleman who came into the church. He loved his wife and his daughter, and he would do anything for them. His wife thought they should be coming to church. So, he came with her to church. But then, he met with me, and came to a short Bible study I had about “Who is this Jesus?” around Christmas, and we talked about making Jesus his Savior, taking that step of faith. And he just said, you know, I’m a very logical person. If I can’t reason my way all the way to him… He just couldn’t take that leap of faith that’s needed. Complete trust. For him, that was a stumbling block, that I think may have gotten him stuck there.

Have you seen any people get stuck at that stage? They’re curious, but they just never get to the point of accepting Christ. What kind of things have you seen keep them at that stage?


I’m thinking of a person who came to Alpha, and he was an atheist, and he came because his friend had invited him. He really struggled with Christianity, and went through the course and there was no change in his belief system. He said, “I think I’ll go back again.” He was asking really, really tough questions. And he went back a second time, and again asked a lot of questions. And still, didn’t commit his life to Christ.

So, he really was stuck. The thing that brought him out of that was a close relationship with a Christian friend that continued with him. In that friendship, he was able to continue exploring, wrestling with, some of those questions in a loving relationship.

For the full story and to hear Blair’s personal experience of moving through stage 1 (it involves a memorable eight minutes in high school), tune into the podcast or download the complete transcript.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

First Name Last Name Email Address (function($) {window.fnames = new Array(); window.ftypes = new Array();fnames[1]=’FNAME’;ftypes[1]=’text’;fnames[2]=’LNAME’;ftypes[2]=’text’;fnames[0]=’EMAIL’;ftypes[0]=’email’;}(jQuery));var $mcj = jQuery.noConflict(true);

Follow us

© 2022 – Ascending Leaders – All rights reserved.


for Additional Scholarship

Your Cart

Cart is empty.