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.

Episode 05: Moving Toward Sacrifice

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Greg Hawkins was on staff at Willow Creek for 22 years, and is the co-founder of REVEAL research. He’s the author of five books, including Move and More. He’s currently on staff at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, TX, working with Senior Minister Max Lucado.

His latest book, More, is the first book written from REVEAL research targeted to church attenders, not church leaders. It primarily details the journey from “Stage 3 to Stage 4,” using your language.

“Come and Be With Me” (Stage 3)

Welcome to another episode of The Discipleship Podcast for Church Leaders, from Ascending Leaders. In previous podcasts, we’ve talked about Christ’s last will and testament: to make disciples. To make better disciples, to make more disciples. And how important it is for churches to actually define what they mean by a disciple. Here at Ascending Leaders, we consider disciples as someone who is growing in their love for God, loving Him more deeply and resulting in loving others more selflessly.

You’re probably listening to this because you would love to do a better job of discipleship in your congregation. I’ve really found that the four stages, that Christ used with the first 12, and also that’s been talked about in the REVEAL Survey and in other books, is just very, very helpful in improving how we do discipleship.

We’ve been talking in recent episodes about the first stage and the second stage. That second stage is really about learning, growing, doing. It’s often largely dependent on the local church body for spiritual growth. Today we’re going to focus on the third stage, the stage that Jesus calls, “Come and Be With Me.” In Mark 3:14 we read, “…he appointed the twelve that they might be with him.”

Some estimate that that stage lasted for up to almost two years as part of Jesus’ ministry for the twelve.

We have a very special guest with us. I’m pleased that my friend Greg Hawkins is here, and Greg has been part of REVEAL from the early days. He was sitting in the front seat when they were dreaming up REVEAL back there at Willow Creek, and then he wrote several of the books about REVEAL. The original book, Reveal, then Move, and recently in the last year I read his book, More, which focuses really on that fourth stage. That Christ-centered stage.

Greg is the perfect person to be chatting together about people at the third stage, the “Close to Christ” stage; what they’re like, what they need, how we can better help them as a church, what we can expect from them.

So, Greg, welcome! Really glad you’re here.

Anything else you can tell us about yourself that people would like to know?


Thank you, Mike. It’s good to be with you.

You can look on the surface at work and all that kind of stuff, but this really is, this journey for me, is my daily life. It’s not like you study it at arms’ length or something else like that. It’s the goal of my life. And work follows out of that.

It’s not like I do work, and then hey, it would be good to know this stuff. As I was talking to you earlier, as recently as a conversation this morning with my wife, triggered a thought and that led me into a conversation with God and had me divert part of my morning — instead of going straight to the office, I stopped at Starbucks for half an hour and sat and thought about something God had put on my heart.

So it’s a constant process. It’s not like a bunch of us figured this all out. It’s still part of the process. I want to make that clear; I love to share what I’m learning, not what I’ve learned.

I can tell you what I’m learning TODAY. I know a lot of people think, I haven’t arrived yet, or who am I to tell a bunch of people how to disciple and lead people in a process… and I’m telling you, what God needs is a person who goes, “I don’t know most of the day, but here’s what I do know. Here’s who I love. Here’s what I’m pursuing.” Just a tremendous amount of openness and tolerance. And when I hear that from people… And what I mean is, tolerance of your own failures. And you hear people say, “Well, I don’t know much.” But you hear their heart, and I just smile because I go, that’s the right heart! That’s what God needs. God needs an open and responsive and a soft heart, and He promises He’ll do the rest. He does.

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Thanks. And speaking about yourself, that’s a good place to go because it reminds me in your most recent book, where you talked about one of the key differences between those who are close to Christ and those who are Christ-centered. Let’s see if I get that right. That is, at Christ-centered you’re going to obey purely out of the act of obedience to God. Close to Christ, you’re often obeying still for the benefit for yourself. At those times where I’m probably acting more like I’m close to Christ than Christ-centered, one of the ways I know that is that I get caught up in how I feel about something that I’m doing. Even if I am obeying, how I feel about it.

How about you? What does it look like in your life, those moments when you think you’re acting more like a “Stage Three,” Close to Christ person? What does that look like for you?


The big shift is, the move from two to three, three is where people are integrating their faith into their daily life. Two is really an activity-based, very church-centric faith. A lot of church activity, getting up to speed about what it means to be with God and this relationship, and all that, and you’re still learning a lot. The move to three is you’ve decided you WANT this relationship with God to go beyond Sundays, or Saturday nights, Wednesday nights, whenever it is, and you work to integrate it into your daily living.

But still, the focus is about the benefit you get to your life. Like you said, “Be With Me.” So, I’m going to be with him, because it’s great to be with him. I gain something from being with him. And that’s great. And we learn the skills of how to spend time with Jesus, how to follow him better. But it’s still from the point of view of my ego-centric self. I gain something. The “I”… that’s the key phrase.

The move to four is when you drop the “I.” Meaning, I am wanting to be with you, Jesus, just to be with you. Not because it gives me something.

The key that tells me I’m operating out of a three or four space, is my motive. Why am I doing this now?

Or, when I feel upset, like this morning I was a little upset. My wife, very loving, just said something that just bugged me. It wasn’t about her, it was about me. It was about my self-perception, it was about me protecting a self-image. Which told me there was still too much of “me” in my life right now.

I can’t love another person if I get in the way of loving them. I’ve got to get out of the way and have Christ be present through me. And so, that’s the key.

And the other thing I’m finding is when I do that, and then I get to where I laugh at myself, or I have a smile on my face, it’s like, okay, that’s stage four. Where you don’t shame yourself. I just go, yeah. The smile is realizing that Jesus is smiling, going like, “I just want to be with you. I’ve got all of this. I will take care of all this. You’re going to be okay.”

And I’m learning that I’m actually smiling more, and it’s interesting because I’ve been known as a serious person. I like to have a lot of fun, I think, and I’m fairly creative and animated and stuff, but there’s a lightness in stage four. Three is still striving, all the daily disciplines, what I’ve got to do… and you’re just feeling like this is so… now it’s not just Sunday stuff, now it’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday stuff, and time with God alone… Because we still have this activity model of the stuff we do for God, with God, all that stuff.

Which, developmentally, I’ve got to do. I’ve got to develop some core ways of being with God, but at some point, what happens as people develop in stage three, it’s not just a static thing, it’s a dynamic process. In late stage three, what starts happening is you’ve now integrated all of this. You’ve figured out, what about church activities that you’re going to do, plus your personal stuff, and you kind of find this portfolio of spiritual practices both with others and by yourself with God, that you’ve kind of adopted. My sense is then, that you go back to still going, “Why don’t I feel completely fulfilled? Why don’t I feel completely at peace? I’m doing everything I know I can possibly do.” That’s the conditions where someone then, and I think God draws them to, another way of being. It’s not the next activity, it’s actually your motive, what’s at the center and then you lay down.

You literally lay down your life, which means the “I”-centered, ego-centric… “I use God.” I’m using God to have a better life. God helps me every day essentially have a better life. Which is true, but you get to a place where you kind of, I don’t know, God works on you or you see somebody else living another way, and you go, “That can’t be right. That person doesn’t have all this burden on them.” Because that’s when you lay it down and go, “Alright, this isn’t about me.”

This is not a one-and-done. This is every single day, many moments in the day, and the Spirit does the work to show you the moments that you’re living for yourself versus really living WITH Him. Truly being with Him means the abiding, the ever-present awareness that you are connected to Him and there is nothing that can sever that connection, and nothing you need to do…

Does that make sense?


That does. You’re bringing to mind, probably one of my early experiences of moving from stage two toward stage three was about 20 years ago. I’d hope after 20 years, I’m solidly in the fourth stage, but I feel like I’m often vacillating between three and four, and at my worst times back into the doing and feeling sorry for myself.

But something you said that really made me think about that experience I had 20 years ago… So, I had been going through a relational wilderness. Really had done some experimenting with the classical disciplines, but in that time got into a lot of solitary retreating, and a spiritual director. And found that that was one of the things that really got me through that very difficult time in my life. But then, after it was subsiding, all of a sudden in a spiritual retreat, I was thinking, “I’m on this spiritual retreat because I get more peace out of it. I’m not on it, first of all, to be with God.” And thought, huh, there’s something wrong with that picture.

Even though it’s taken me a while to get beyond the benefits I get… I kind of think that’s what you’re talking about. Kind of stage three, there’s the benefits, and that insight 20 years ago, was putting your toe into stage four. Saying, “I need to be alone with God simply for being with Him because He desires that, not even because of any rewards which I’ll reap out of this.”


Again, on the surface you might be doing the same things. It’s kind of what’s going on inside of you. You were seeking something for yourself, like, “I want this peace.” And then you can find yourself retreating to just be with God. There’s no agenda.

Oh, and by the way, you’ll be filled with peace.

I’m always mindful of, it’s not a shame thing. There’s a gentleness on the other side that, I’ll be honest, to experience the gentleness of God. “My burden is light…” Really, yeah, seriously?

No. That’s what that means. When you feel totally as accepted as you know how to feel accepted, beyond any human understanding of what acceptance looks like.

It’s not performance based. And then you realize, what is this that I’m encountering? This is beyond… And then you know you’re okay.

If I heard myself say that ten years ago, I’d be like, “What in the world?”

So that’s why this idea of a migration, and there’s no shame in three or two or anything, it’s just, you have to learn it. I grew up in the church, and I think I grew up in a good church, and I want God, so I’m going to do all of this, because that’s what I know to do. And if no one has ever told you any different, the work of stage three, really, from two to three, is to invite people into daily living with God. To move out of the activity-based, mostly centric around the church activity, into this how to live daily with God.


Can we just go a little bit deeper with that? This is what is so counter-intuitive for churches. They say, “What do we do to help people get from stage 2 to stage 3?” And that movement is actually from doing to being. So, how can churches help people better move to or toward or into that third stage?


I don’t think I’ve found the right words to talk about this yet, but I’m going to keep working at it until I land on something that… People don’t know what’s next.

I see all this church organization, and this invitation to be involved in this activity or that, that makes sense to me, I understand that. Then they go, “Now you need to spend time with God personally.” And I go, “Why?” I don’t even get it.

The first step to helping them is to cast a vision, to give them a narrative, a logic flow, a teaching, all of the above, that goes, “Wait a minute, the next step for us is this daily living with God.” It’s not just an episodically, around activities…

Now, it’s not the goal to make you a better person, more saved, or anything like that.

It’s, this is how we were designed to live. This is your internal wiring as a human being…was made to be in this abiding union with God.

Stop right there with people, because their first barrier is, “What? I just thought God was like, if I’m in a little trouble, He swoops in, it’s great to have Him as a back-up plan.” Or, “Hey, I thought that was just about the afterlife. What are you talking about? Let’s not get crazy about religion. I go to church like a couple of times a month. Seriously?”

But it’s wooing people. If in your example, as you talk about your walk in front of them, and they should see the fruit of the Spirit coming out of your life. Joy and laughter and peace and an anchoredness, and they go, “Wait a minute.” Yeah, that’s because I’m spending time with God. That doesn’t mean I’m pious or any better than anybody, it’s just… what I’m learning is, it’s not about what I do, it’s this quiet space, or this slower space, or private space, or it’s even in community with others. This invitation that God makes to be with Him, like you say, and the way we help them is A) we give them a vision for it, B) we have some things about what does that mean, about prayer, about the Bible, and about community with others. Simple little things like that.

So, let’s talk about prayer as a relational thing, not as a — as you and I were talking about earlier before this started, as a two-way dialogue. How do you hear God? Maybe we need to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit a little bit. Or the Bible, how do I engage with the Bible relationally? I thought the Bible was just about knowledge, and like, teachers needed to know it. Versus, this is a very…it’s a love letter. It’s a very long book about crazily in love God is, and how regardless of what we do, He still pursues us and wants us and has a plan for us and is never going to give up. On us or the human race.

And how time with God draws us closer to God. And most people are like, “What? I thought it was just to be smarter or…”

My point is, community with others is beyond what you do at church. The invitation to have friends that you share your life with, and have them speak into your life and you speak into their life, and how we integrate our faith into our daily living. Well, we do that with others.

So, it’s a vision, it’s giving some basic tools, and then there’s more advanced practices. But that’s the thing, is establishing them and how to integrate… I’ll just keep beating that over the head.

Now, once that happens, in the move to three or four, then that’s a different thing. Because there’s another vision for it.

But if I cast a vision of life with God in stage four to someone early in stage two, they’re going to look at you like, “No, you’re freaking me out right now.”


I find that even can get them stuck, because it’s so crazy that they just shut themselves off to it, right?


And see, here’s the thing I learned a long time ago, Peter Senge in the book The Fifth Discipline, one of the fathers of the learning organization work twenty, thirty years ago, he had this great metaphor in this book. He says, imagine your two hands are fingers spread apart and you’re putting them together like you’re clapping and your fingers are touching each other. Index finger to index finger, etc. Now imagine you stretch rubber bands across each pairing of fingers. And you then separate your hands, and as the rubber bands engage you feel that tension. Now, have them be one hand on top of the other hand. The hand on the bottom is your current reality. Where you are. The hand on top is where you want to go. And the tension you feel is the energy you need to make change in your life. Or, the tension is such that you go, “I don’t want to work that hard,” and you release the tension, so the gap between the two hands is kind of small.

What it represents is this kind of tension. What he says is, if your vision for the future is… if the gap between the future vision and where you are now is too big, the rubber bands break and there is no tension.

So, you think casting a bigger vision of this gap of where we want to go aspirationally is the right thing to do. He goes, it’s not, because you’ve lost all tension in the conversation.

If I cast a radically with-God “four” to a two, that gap between where their living and where you’re describing to them is so large in their mind, that’s not compelling at all. Like you just said.

In fact, there’s no energy in that. That doesn’t move them to take the next step. Right?

So, you need to cast a vision that’s appropriate for a next step for them, and then sort of envision them, and then offer some coaching, and potentially offer, whether that’s equipping or class, or… you know, there’s a fresh vision for everybody along the way. There’s a fresh vision for a stage four person. What the far end of this journey, before we see God face-to-face, looks like.


I really appreciate you emphasizing the vision. Because it is so easy at that point, when you try to call people into stage three, to kick into the guilt motivation. Right? You “should” want this, hey, if Christ is important to you, if he is, you “should” desire this. Shame on you if you don’t.

It’s just so easy to shift into that. It’s so subtle.


If you catch yourself doing that, you have a problem. Because there’s no way in the world Jesus would want you to talk that way to his people. A) You’re going to have a little interesting talk with him at some point about that, and B) It should be the signal in your own life that something is off.

You’re inviting them to do something that you’re not living.

You can’t do that.

So, there is a gentleness because you know what path you ran, you should feel in your body how it was to be in their shoes. Implying that you were in their shoes and you’re a little bit further on the journey. A little bit further. That’s all you need. A little bit further.

If you can’t conjure that up, it’s not there.

The invitation is “Be With Me,” and THEN I will send you. Then you understand what my job is, is to extend the gift of presence, His presence, to every single person I interact with in every moment of every day. Which looks like loving them, and caring for them, and serving them, and have their interests be above your interests. So, big deal if your schedule is inconvenienced and your day got disrupted. It’s not your day.

Being mindful of the pronouns will show you where you are in your spiritual life.


You’ve already touched on this a number of times, but let’s really focus and dig into this. What does somebody in that third stage, “Close to Christ,” look like at their best? What are some of the strengths of this stage? What does it look like when somebody is spending a lot of time at this stage?


For most of this stage, there’s a lot of excitement. Because, you’re discovering a whole different realm of your relationship with Christ. When it’s activity-based, you get this value, it’s episodic, it’s sort of event-driven. When you can access that regularly, it’s very empowering, you feel like this is fantastic. Now you are going to another level of experience in a relationship. It’s be like, imagine your closest friend, you see once a year, or you see once a month, or every other week… that’s a good relationship. If we got to be together pretty much every day, like you were my next-door neighbor and we got breakfast three days a week, and our kids are in the backyard, and we have a meal together with our family, that’s another level of richness in the relationship.

That’s what’s happening here. You have access to this. So, it’s very, very exciting. I think you feel more empowered, knowing you’re not dependent on the structure of a church-based activity for your relationship. You can see the benefit of that, but you have more of God in your life so you actually have something to share to somebody else. And can start playing the role of a discipler and helping another person, which is very gratifying.

For most of this, it’s very exciting. And then what happens is that plateaus. You’ve now done everything that you know to do, and you’re still kind of doing a bunch of stuff. And then, you hit this kind of glass ceiling of intimacy and closeness with God, because it was growing at this rapid rate and now you’re going, huh?


Let’s pause there. What does that look like, when someone gets stuck? I think you’re starting to touch on that.


You start hearing it in people’s voices. “My church isn’t doing it for me anymore…” And you’re like, well, it wasn’t supposed to do everything to begin with, so let’s deprogram that out of your brain.

I hear it a lot in people that my wife and I are around; a lot of people from different churches, they start church hopping, shopping, because their experience of God kind of hit a plateau, which exposes that they’re still very event-driven or activity-driven and they’re looking for the next coolest activity or experience of God. And when no one is telling you that there’s anything different, and then when others tell you about this cool new ministry or this other thing you should do, or this podcast you should listen to, or this preacher, it saddens me, because I don’t think these people are exposed to the true idea of what Jesus is inviting them to next.

So, what happens here is, some of these folks go, “I guess this is as good as it gets now. The longing I feel is the longing for heaven.” So they label it, and they go, “Oh, okay. Well, this is life now, and I just gotta wait to die.” That’s not true. And there is more. And the more is, where you go, the realization that “I’m really kind doing all this for me.”

And the invitation from Christ is, sell all your possessions, leave everything behind, and follow me. Now, we read that and freak out. The equivalent of that though is, you don’t have to put it all on eBay. You can let go of everything that you have an attachment to. And say, “God, I want you more than anything else.” Period.

Not so that I have more peace or prosperity or whatever you want to say.


It’s interesting, last night my wife and I were reading Colossians 3, and it just caught me like it’s never caught me before, where it’s talking about gossip, and whatnot, and it says, “which is idolatry.” All that stuff, not the stuff we own, but the character stuff we struggle with, wow, it’s because of idolatry.

I always knew that, but then just to see that so clearly in Scripture in a way that it had never jumped out at me before.


My reading of Scripture these days is so very different. Because I now understand it through… Every time around, there’s something new we can learn, every time.

Anyway, so, three is a great place to be. The thing is, is really to celebrate this — it sounds odd, in a way — independence from the dependency on the church to organize spiritual things for you. You organize them for yourself, taking advantage if you will of what the church offers, but knowing you’re part of the body to give back. But to also have people around who understand that that’s not the landing place.

There is a FOUR, whatever you want to call it.

To ever imply that people… when people go, “Did I do everything I needed to do.” And you go, okay, that alone should give you a clue as to where someone is at developmentally. They’re just trying to check off a box. And that’s okay. So at least I know where they’re at, and we can have a conversation about what might be next for them.

I’m finding that the discipling work… See, the other thing is, organizing discipleship efforts in a church, to guard your words so carefully and really guard your motive. Because a lot of people just want to build the right box. “I want to put you in this box, and you come out the other end a disciple.” And it’s like, oh gosh, that’s dangerous.

Now, if we go, here’s the journey we’re on, and we’re all on a journey, and the journey is toward restoring our relationship with God and others, the way it was intended to be lived, and we believe that heaven can come to earth now, and not just later, and what does that mean to be restored in a relationship with God? It’s not just to tell God, once and forever, I am so sorry and I need Jesus, and oh okay…now, that’s true, and that’s an important piece…understanding that relationships cultivated over your human life where you essentially are stripping yourself bare and just being with Him and giving Him access to everything in your life, and giving Him access to your agenda, your calendar, your pocket book, your relationships, your work, everything. And any area of your life that is still your own is a form of idolatry. It’s like, I’m holding onto this for myself because I want this thing more than I want you, God, was really what we’re telling Him.

The point is, discipleship is relational. And there’s these things that we can do to help people develop some skills and to be exposed to environments that can cultivate this reunion with God and others.

For us, the ones designing these kinds of programs, we’ve got to get clear. It starts with, we have to be on this journey ourselves. I find myself in conversations like this and others where I have this thing in my head just checking myself, going like, “Am I really, really living that way.” And then I go, probably not consistently, but am I trying? Is that in my desire? Is that what I’ve laid bare before God? Do I understand that I am never done?

And it’s not to prove anything. It’s just when we get to heaven, and we see how it was supposed to be on Earth, but we’re all going to go, “Oh my gosh, that was how we were supposed to live? On Earth? That’s how it could have been, and I just settled for…” And there’s no shame in that, there’s not. But there’s going to be that moment of awareness. Some people are going to go like, “Why did no one ever tell me?” And as a pastor, I feel the responsibility to go okay, on my watch, or at least the people God puts in my life, starting with my wife and my kids, to understand what we’re here for… I have that picture in my head. I have it in my head, and it’s like, oh my gosh, what was it supposed to be like to be with you, God? There was power available? And there was more that you wanted to say, and I just didn’t slow myself down and listen to you?

I promise you, if you are remotely open to hear Him, He will speak. In a way that you can hear, and you will know it’s Him and not, like, the pizza from last night.


One of the things I’m thinking too, related to that, is that one of the best ways to help people move from the second stage into the third towards the fourth, there’s no program to do it, but is really to help people listen to God. Listen to Him.

Even not…you know, sacrifice means doing “A.” Sacrifice is different for different people. It means hearing God telling you to do something that’s very difficult for you. You may be an extroverted person, and it’s to do something very introverted. Or vice versa.

But just teaching people to… and we can all grow at that. I think that’s a key part of it, helping people to listen to God. Maybe even more so than listen to you. Right?

To listen to God and to know His voice. There’s the part about obeying it, but still not obeying these external pressures on you, even if they’re pressures from a church, hearing God.


That is dead-on. If you’ve heard from Him, now you have a choice. A lot of times, it’s like, “What am I going to do with what I just heard?” And then if you can listen, and you realize He’s speaking all the time. To get to a place where you really, really believe He wants to be with you moment by moment, period.

And we just go so fast that… even when you think you’re slow, on the outside, your inside could be churning.

I’m working on a whole new set of ideas for a new book, and it’s coming out of this daily living stuff, which is, at some point, you get to a place where, “I don’t need another church activity. I don’t need another…I mean, I read my Bible every day, and I do that because, I tell you what, I’ve gotten to where I NEED to hear from God through that tool, through that medium of the Word of God, and I’ve had enough bad days where I look back and go, a bad day is where I hurt somebody. I know I was supposed to do one thing, and I had a slight hesitation, even in that slight hesitation was a self-centered idea, and that hesitation cost another person something.” My tolerance for that is…not because I’m a perfectionist, it’s just that I knew what the thing to do would have been loving and I chose in a moment to choose not to love that person that way because of whatever reason. Some days I have more of those moments than others. I trace it back to, I started this day off too fast. I had my agenda, I microwaved time with God, I didn’t really spend time… I didn’t start my day centered. It’s not magic, and it’s not some kind of goofy thing I’m doing. I just know, my gosh, the stakes… The stakes become clearer and clearer to me every day.


In your book, you say something really good — we talk about making it a habit, but notice when you make it a habit, like flossing my teeth, I’ve got to say, okay, set myself a reminder, floss my teeth each day. Rather, it’s like eating a meal. I don’t have to force myself to eat a meal. I get hungry, and I want a meal. That’s a distinct difference.


And again, moving that direction… I’ve taken on some new disciplines and doing some things a little bit differently starting maybe about a year ago. And now they’re becoming second nature. I’m finding that there are certain things that…but it had to be so conscious, and that’s a topic for another time…

The point being is, it’s this ongoing, ever-exciting adventure.

See, that’s the other thing. If we’re casting vision, for three and four, it’s NOT to be a better person, a better Christian, a better disciple, a better anything… There is this relationship with the most remarkable person ever, period. Bar none. Who you can spend the whole day with, day after day, forever. And you don’t have to wait until you die to do that.

And yeah, some days are going to be so hard and painful, and it will be so sad, okay. And why that’s how that is, you can go through a million things, this doesn’t make all that go away. It’s just there’s this peace in the middle, this presence in the middle, this hope in the middle. And there’s joy.

It might sound really weird, but I think that in the last year of my life, I’ve discovered joy. I turn 55 in a couple of weeks, and I’ve been walking with God I think pretty much 50 years of that. And it’s like, “Oh, THIS is what this is!”

My point is, it’s not this burdensome crazy thing, “I’ve got to be with God every day.” My first goal is to help you want to be with God, more than on Sunday. If I can’t live in front of you in a way that you’d want maybe a fragment of what you see in my life, that’s where it starts. But if I’m exhorting them… I mean, sometimes you need to do that, I guess, but… I’m wooing them. They should see in my life, they should see the Spirit of God living through me, and the Spirit of God in me resonates with the Spirit of God in them. Where there’s this desire, and that gets stirred. Not because I’m clever, it’s just because I’m transparent.


This has been wonderful, and just to summarize a few of the key themes I heard from you as we talked…

One is that you need to be there yourself. You need to be growing through stage three towards and into stage four. You need to be painting that vision for what it is for people to be there, and call them to that, not try to push them to that or guilt them to that. Give people some avenues for moving in that direction of deeper intimacy with God, not about doing more things. Helping them get there.

And that people at this stage, they’re excited, but you can also get stuck there. I even wonder if, you know, there’s been this new phenomenon that’s been written about, people who have been in church a long time and they leave the church completely. For some, I think it is maybe a stuckness in stage three. Just saying, the church is just “do, do, do” and I want to be with God, so maybe I just need to leave the organized church.

But hey, it’s been great, Greg. This is a wonderful stage. It’s an important stage in our growth. And yet we need to not get stuck there, and move past that. A big part of that is moving toward obedience and sacrifice — not for what it does for me, but…


The thing is, we don’t want to microwave people through three. Because here’s the thing. You HAVE to get to the end of yourself before you let go of yourself. If you’re not letting go of yourself, you’re not letting go of much. You’ve got to get to a place where you’ve done everything you know to do to experience the fullness of God. And you realize, it’s not about me.

You need to have a life to lose a life. You need to have something to let go of it, so you’ve actually let go of something. I’m learning that, where it’s like, “I wish I had gotten here sooner.” NO. I can’t appreciate this…


So, grow deeper into stage three in order to get to stage four. That’s part of it right?


And if I move into three, and you go, this is so great, then live the heck out of that. You’re going to eventually hit a wall, I think you will. And it’s like, “Oh…it means I now have to let go.” And that, to me… if I’m still appealing to your ego of what this is going to do for you, helping you go from two to three, there’s still a value proposition that’s good for me. Three to four is like wait a minute, that’s when you’re really letting go.


And that’s why maybe so few people actually get there in their lifetime.

Hey, it’s been great. May God richly bless you and may you have today a very good day, which means maybe at the end of the day you say, I can’t recall a moment when I hurt someone else today.


That’s right. Thank you for that prayer.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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Episode 04: Moving Toward Intimacy

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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.

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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

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Episode 03: Moving Toward Belief

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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

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Episode 02: Stages of Faith

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Bob Johnson has served as the executive pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist church in Houston, TX, for 14 years, where he has led lay and staff teams related to discipleship. He recently shifted focus to bring more attention to the church’s discipleship-related strategic goals. He has recently joined Ascending Leaders as an adjunct consultant/coach.

Bob and I have been acquaintances for years, but in the past probably six months, Bob and I have gotten to know each other very well. He has been part of one of Ascending Leaders’ DiscipleOn communities – which are virtual communities of people in churches of a variety of denominations around the United States who are working on discipleship.

We’re going to focus in on four stages of a disciple’s growth. You know, Jesus’ last words to his eleven disciples were, “Make disciples.” (Matthew 8:18-19) In other words, make more people like themselves. People who are growing more deeply in love with Jesus.

And it shows us in the gospels, we see actually how Jesus did that with the twelve and with other disciples. He gave four major invitations and actually one declaration in the growth of a disciple.

Bob, how does this relate to churches today? What do you see going on in churches?


A lot of churches, and Chapelwood included, I would say particularly large churches and Chapelwood among them, are very program-based. But we’re discovering that our programs and participation in programs doesn’t necessarily equate to discipleship growth. Our mission, along with all other United Methodist Churches, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And we’ve kind of struggled with, well, making disciples is our mission…but how do we know when we’ve made one?

Ford motor company’s mission is to make automobiles. Well, they know what an automobile looks like when they’ve made one.

So, we’ve actually spent a lot of time trying to wrestle with the idea, “What is a disciple, and what is it we’re trying to do?”

And then, you can’t tell if you’ve been successful or not, until you know what it is that success is.

That’s the first thing that we’ve been doing, Mike, and I think that’s probably an issue that a lot of churches are dealing with, Methodist or not — what is a disciple?

And then, try to figure out, how does what we offer, in terms of ministries and programs and so forth, how does that relate and are we actually making disciples? Or are we just busy?


You’re on to something there. You know, there are a lot of churches today that are struggling. And I believe that one of the key reasons is that they just are struggling with how to do discipleship. In a recent study, Barna Research saw that just one in five Christians say they’re involved in some intentional discipleship activity.

That is a very depressing statistic. And then, you talked about activity. About 10 years ago, REVEAL released their results. And the funny thing is, when they started out, that was at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, they were sure that increased church activity meant more mature disciples. And they just found out, as you said Bob, that’s not true.

There are people who are very active who are immature as disciples, and there are those who are not so active who are more mature.

It’s not about activity.


That’s right. There seems to be no direct or very strong correlation between how busy I am in church ministries and my growth as a disciple.

Just another little anecdote from Chapelwood – we have over 300 different ministries. We used to brag about that all the time to new members. And we discovered that rather than encouraging people, it actually discouraged them. They didn’t even know where to get started. It felt totally overwhelming.

So, I go into the grocery store and want to buy a box of cereal, and find that there are 300 different flavors of cereal. It overwhelms you. And then on top of that, it didn’t actually produce disciples.


I think that some people call that “choice fatigue.” We have so much choice that our minds just shut down.


Don’t even get started. It’s too hard to make a decision.


Yeah, that’s it. In the REVEAL study, it was interesting that in that survey they gave people descriptions to describe themselves. And they came out with – what they saw over hundreds of people who took the survey – were four different descriptions that describe the growth of a disciple.

The ironic thing is that those four descriptions, they connect clearly with those four stages that Jesus used. Those four invitations.

Let’s spend a couple minutes and just explore with people, or at least share with people, what these four invitations are.

The first one is “Come and See.”

We see that especially in John 1:38-39, where the first disciples come to him and they’re wondering, might he be the Messiah? And he says, well, “Come and see.” Come and see where I live.

The REVEAL survey called that “Exploring Christ.”

The person at this stage is saying, “I may even believe in God.” Those early disciples, they were Jews, they believed in God the Father. But hey, Jesus, as the Messiah — they weren’t sure. They didn’t know.

For some people, even today, they say faith in Christ is not a significant part of my life.

 Anything else you’ve found when you see these people at your church, Bob?


I like the words come and see, because I think people that are in this exploring Christ stage, if they show up at our church, they kind of come with the attitude of, “I’m just going to come and see if you guys live out this faith that you talk about the way you say you are.”

A lot of them come, not with a negative attitude, but just, “I want to see. Is there anything to this? Why should this matter to me? Show me that this matters – why it should matter.”

So yeah, I definitely see that exploring Christ phase in people that show up here.

They might even be hoping that you have some answers for them. But they may have had a bad previous church experience or they may have some doubts that they’re up against. A lot of time people I think that I’ve met in that stage, they really are hoping that you’ve got something to offer. It’s not like they’re anti-church or anti-faith or anything like that. But they need to be convinced that there’s really something here.


So they need to hear clearly the gospel, the call to the gospel. At the same time, what my experience has been, don’t push too hard. Because they need time to consider. Say, hey, you’ve got to make an answer right now — you almost push somebody away.


People in that stage, I think – I call it bunk detectors – they have very, very sensitive bunk detectors. They can sense hypocrisy from a mile away. So it’s really important not only to teach the gospel, to state the gospel, but to live by it. They’ve got to be able to see it, not just hear it.


Let’s go to that second stage. So, Jesus invited the early disciples to come and see, and then he moves onto, “Come and Follow Me.” Matthew 4:19 is a good example of that. Many of us have that memorized, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

The REVEAL survey called it, “Growing in Christ.”

This is a very interesting stage. So, you’ve come to a place of belief. You believe in Jesus. You’re working on what it means to get to know him. I’ve heard it described as, when you’re exploring Christ, he’s outside your car. In this stage, he’s now inside your car, but it’s like you’ve got a passenger sitting with you and you don’t know them that well.

I remember, Bob, the first time you and I went out for lunch, and I was sitting in the passenger seat of your car. And we didn’t know each other very well. We were getting to know each other. So I was in your car, there’s no way you’re going to allow me to drive your car. And I wonder if that’s part of it too, right?

You’re in this stage where Jesus is in the car, but trusting him to drive it? That’s a big step.


That’s a great metaphor. I don’t know you well enough yet to let you drive my car. I don’t know you well enough to drive my life. But I trust you enough to let you inside the car. 

When people first get into this stage, I think that they’ve come through the exploring Christ stage, they’ve developed enough trust and confidence in the gospel and in the church, the people that are presenting the gospel. They tend to be kind of excited at the beginning of this stage. They’re hungry, and they’re learning. Now they’re beginning to serve and they’re experiencing kind of the rush that goes with seeing Christ at work when you serve in mission and so forth.

I think this is the stage that has the most danger of people getting stuck in it. And it’s because this is the stage where you can grow comfortable. Towards the end of this stage, maybe some of that enthusiasm wanes a little bit and complacency begins to take over.

I think this is where people that are stuck, spiritually, not growing — I think this is the stage where they tend to be stuck the most.


The REVEAL survey said that this is usually the largest of the stages. This is the largest percentage in the average church. And I’ve seen a number of churches’ REVEAL results, and there’s only one I’ve seen for whom this stage is not their largest.


I attended a DiscipleForward workshop that you did a couple of weeks ago. And you said something that made the light bulb go on for me — I’d never seen it this way before.

So, I knew that the growing in Christ stage was the largest stage. I think the Willow Creek folks say something like 40-60% of people in a church might be in this stage. But what occurred to me was, you get what you design for. And because a lot of churches are program-based churches, and programs serve the needs of church members, and they feel good doing it and so forth… my theory – my theory, you might want to challenge me – but we actually have so many people in this stage because we’ve actually designed our churches to produce people in this stage.


Yeah, I think it’s more than a theory. I think there’s some truth to that. When I led a church, pastored a church congregation, I think I did that as well. That’s where most of the people are at, and that’s what we ministered to.

And the sad thing is that, yes, the stats say that we’re not moving that many forward.

But I think there’s another reason too. And that brings us to Jesus’ declaration.

One of the authors of one of the books, I know you appreciate this book too, The Critical Journey. They talk about a wall. That there’s something you hit that’s very confusing.

For me, it was disappointment in life over, actually over some career things. And, really disappointment with God. I mean, you think you can trust God, and all of a sudden you’re not sure about it.

A good illustration I think from Jesus’ life is in Matthew 8 through about 14, where you see a number of those things. You see the disciples with him, the twelve with him, in a boat in a storm. And they’re terrified. Yes, they believe in him, but they’re in a storm and they’ve forgotten about their belief in him.

And they’re saying, “What are you doing sleeping through this?” And they’re actually bewildered by the fact that, oh yeah, he can calm a storm.

Then again in Matthew 14, you see Peter walking on the water. And what you need to remember is that these disciples of that day…the fishermen of that day… they couldn’t swim. For them, the open sea was kind of a sign of hell. It was awful. And then, in a storm, it was even worse.

I wonder if for some people, it’s really hard to get past that wall. And that’s what keeps them in that second stage, the “Come and Follow Me” stage.

What have you seen about that wall in people’s lives?


I think the wall can be caused by, or what the bricks in the wall are made of, can be different.

So there’s certainly the wall that people hit when they face a life crisis, and they begin to doubt whether their faith is sufficient. You know, the storm has overtaken the boat, Jesus seems to be asleep in the stern, and there’s doubt as to whether or not he’s either going to wake up and do something or whether he’s strong enough to do it. I think there’s that kind of wall.

But I also think there’s a wall that’s built more out of complacency and comfort. You’re in this growing in Christ stage perhaps, and you become satisfied. Your Bible knowledge is growing and there’s this joy of serving that we’ve talked about.

And you know, that feels good. It’s kind of comfortable here in the boat. I don’t know if I want to get out of the boat and try walking on the water.

So it’s not an existential crisis, per se. And I think there’s another issue too that comes up for some people. After you’ve lived in that growing in Christ stage for a while, there’s this kind of shadow thought that begins to come over you. It’s like, “Is this all there is?” I mean, this is good, but I can get this at the country club too. Is this it? Is this all you’ve got?

And I think that can be a wall too. So again, it’s not so much of a personal crisis — which can certainly be a wall — but more one that is built out of complacency.


Just yesterday I had somebody ask me — they knew someone who I think had been on staff in a church and had been let go, a painful experience, and was at a wall.

And the person asked me, “What would you recommend for somebody who’s at a wall?”

Wow, what do you say in two sentences for that?

I said, “Well, I think for a person like that, it’s going to take time, but maybe Celebrate Recovery, or it could be Al Anon. In the sense that yeah, it seems like others have treated us cruelly, and that can become a wall for us. Part of that is identifying what are our own idols that we’re hanging onto. What is our own addiction? Whether it’s success, or it’s happiness… I think that’s part of the way through that wall.

Because then you get to that point of that third stage, “Come and Be With Me.” Where it’s a much deeper, more intimate, relationship with Christ. It’s a deeper trust. It’s a trusting him, in spite of the disappointment. Or, in spite of the injustices in life.


I like those invitations from Jesus and the way they state the change that takes place, the moving from stage 2 to stage 3. So in “Come and Follow,” follow is an active verb. It’s something that I do. But “Be,” it’s hard for me to BE. Because it doesn’t involve doing.

I’ve got to BE WITH me, I’ve got to trust him. I’ve got to trust myself to him.

It’s no longer about me and what I do. It seems like a subtle shift, but it’s a huge shift.

Let me say another thing too, because you used the word “addiction” a couple of times. Chapelwood has a ministry called Mercy Street. It’s not based on Celebrate Recovery, but it is a ministry that draws a lot of people with alcohol or drug or other addictions.

The people that I know in that worship community, that have gone through — and certainly addiction is a wall, right? I mean, that’s a WALL.

But people I know in that community, that have got on the other side of that wall, they’ve got clean and sober, they’re in recovery… I’ve learned to say, by the way, that you never say, “You’re healed” or “You’re cured” of your addiction, but you’re in recovery. The “Be With Christ” part of that for them is huge.

I’ve been able to see in those people what it looks like to break through the wall of addiction and to be with Christ, what that means to them.


I wonder if, in a sense, you look at any of us, and our sin inclinations in our lives, and think of those as addictions, then maybe that third stage is actually, “That is a Christian in recovery.”

That is a person in recovery from whatever, if my addiction is to anger, or even, I could have an addiction to peace — I just want things to be peaceful.


Following up on that idea, that metaphor a little bit, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the 12 steps, what the steps are. But the first one is basically recognizing that there’s a higher power than you. There is a God. And you’re not Him.

And the second step is to realize that you’re powerless over your addiction.

You know, that second stage, where the action verb is “follow,” well, maybe because it still feels a little like it’s about me at that stage, maybe we’re not quite willing to recognize or to admit, “I’m powerless over this sin addiction.” But when you get to stage three, you get through the wall, you’re in that place where you’re able to admit that not only is there a God and you’re not Him, but, yes, I’m powerless to overcome on my own this addiction. It may not be alcohol or drugs for you, but whatever it is.

So, I think that’s a good marker of stage three.


Definitely. And then the distinction you drew between doing and being; it’s interesting in the local church sometimes, it seems to me that we have more calls to doing than calls to being.


And that’s what I meant when I was saying that churches being so heavily program-based, and here’s Chapelwood bragging about 300+ ministries, right? “We have 300+ ways for you to DO.” Just a little bit of an oversimplification, because we do have ways to be, but — I think making a point here, do we have in terms of church program design, do we have as much focus on “be” as we do with “do?”

Probably not.

And that’s why so many folks end up in stage two.


No doubt. I think that’s probably the case.

You’d think that that stage of “Be with Me,” well that is IT. You’ve arrived.

But Jesus gives a fourth invitation. We find that in John 15, where he says over and over again, “Remain in Me.” Or some people would say, “Abide in me.”

The REVEAL survey called that, “Being Christ-centered.”

The distinction about this is, this is the person for whom life is an act of obedience. They’re willing to sacrifice.

Now, people in the third stage are willing to sacrifice, but what this fourth stage is especially marked by is sacrifice.


I recently had a chance to hear Greg Hawkins, who was one of the authors of the REVEAL study that you’re referring to, recently came out with a new book called More. He was describing that the biggest difference between stage 3 and stage 4, he uses the word “Surrender.”

Stage 4 is when you are able to fully surrender your life to Christ. There’s enough trust in Christ. So for Peter to get out of the boat, if he’s in stage 4 — if he sinks, that’s okay, because he knows it’s going to be okay in Christ. If he walks on the water, that’s going to be okay, because he knows he is centered in Christ.

Whereas if you’re in stage 2, and maybe even a little bit in stage 3, it’s really about, “I want to perform. I want to walk on the water.”

It’s less about surrender. Does that make sense?


Yeah – and I don’t know if you remember, but you had recommended that book to me, and I read it. The book is called More, and it is an excellent book. I really gained a lot out of it.

One of the things I remember in it is he said, the difference between a third and fourth stage — you may sacrifice some in the third stage, but you still do it for what it’s going to do for you.

“If I sacrifice in this way, it will give me more peace. It’ll make me feel good.”

You often hear that — “serve others, because you’ll feel better!”

That fourth stage, it doesn’t matter how I feel. I simply do it out of an act of obedience. The emphasis is off how I feel, and onto “Christ is my all and I will do what I hear him calling me to do.”


We at Chapelwood, when we talk about these four stages, for this fourth stage, we’ve changed our description of it a little bit. Instead of calling it “Christ-centered,” we call it, “Christ-centering.”

“Centered” kind of sounds like it’s a done deal, I’ve done all the growing that I can do. I’ve arrived. I’ve gotten to the top of the class. Christ-centering, to us, is trying to convey the idea that this is still an ongoing process in learning to surrender more, learning to sacrifice more, learning to trust more. That’s still part of the journey.


That’s interesting, because we don’t have to stick with these titles from REVEAL or even the way that Jesus puts it. I find it’s most helpful for churches if they can come up with some titles for these that really fit them well. 

For the full story and to hear how Chapelwood United Methodist Church arrived at their descriptions for the stages of faith, tune into the podcast or download the complete transcript.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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.

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