“A lot of churches are very program-based. But we’re discovering that our programs and participation in programs doesn’t necessarily equate to discipleship growth. Making disciples is our mission . . . but how do we know when we’ve made one?

Bob Johnson, the pastor at Chapelwood UMC in Houston, perfectly captured this common issue in churches when he and Mike Johnson met to discuss the stages of disciple growth for our podcast.

Bob pointed out,

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

Matt McClure and Peter Cammarano, two other head pastors Mike interviewed for our podcast, confirmed the problem. “We ran into the roadblock of assumption,” said Matt. “That assumption was that as soon as you do a ministry within the church, it is discipleship.”

“My denomination wanted to know about activity,” added Peter. “They wanted to know, as I like to say it, ‘how many hineys were in the pews and how many dollars were in the plate.’ But discipleship seemed to be more than THAT.”

Through Ascending Leaders, these pastors tried a new way of measuring discipleship growth in order to know how best to help their conversations. They used the Scripture-based Four Stages of Faith.

Jesus’ last command to His disciples was, “Make disciples” (Matthew 8:18-19). In the gospels, we see actually how Jesus did that with the twelve and with other disciples. He gave four distinct invitations that correspond to each stage.

The first invitation is “Come and See.” We see it especially in John 1:38-39, in which the disciples ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” and Jesus replies, “Come, and you will see.” Essentially the disciples are wondering if Jesus might indeed be the Messiah, and Jesus invites them to come and observe him. The “Come and See” stage applies to people who are not yet believers but who are interested in seeing what Christianity is all about.

Jesus then extends the invitation to “Come and Follow Me.” In Matthew 4:19, he states, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” This is the stage in which people take the step of actually becoming followers of Christ. It’s also the stage in which you may face the most danger of becoming stuck. Your initial enthusiasm can wane and complacency take over. We call this “The Wall.”

As you traverse past the wall, the third invitation becomes more personal: “Come and Be with Me.” Mark 3:14 states that Jesus appointed the twelve “that they might be with him.” Being becomes here more important that doing.

You might think that in this third stage, you’ve arrived at the most intimate time with Christ. But Jesus gives a fourth invitation. We find that in John 15:4, where he says, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit in itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” The increased intimacy of being with Jesus leads to deeper surrender and fruit-bearing that comes from remaining deeply connected to Him.

“For us at Prairie City,” Matt stated, “it was really a God-gift to engage with Ascending Leaders and scripturally lay out this maturing process as we grow closer to God.”

Of course, not everyone wants to have their discipleship journey measured and given labels. As Peter Cammarano described, “We did get some pushback. People would say, ‘If you’re telling me I’m at stage 2, does that mean you’re putting me down? Is it an attempt to classify and contain me?’

“Well no. If you’re on a trail, and your goal is to get to the end of the trail, you probably want to figure out what challenges are going to be in front of you and how not to slide back. At the end of the day, don’t you feel good about getting to the next place?”

Mike concurred: “In my twenties, I did a lot of hiking in the Cascade mountains, and I learned that the best way to identify hikes is by the elevation gain. I actually did myself a favor by not trying to take on a hike that had too much elevation gain. If you think of the stages, think of it as elevation gains, you’re actually doing yourself a favor when you say, ‘Okay, I’m ready for this elevation gain but not for that one’ or, ‘Now I want something more challenging than a walk around a meadow.’”

“That would have been super-valuable information for me five years ago,” said Matt. “Because I kicked off this discipleship thing with small discipleship groups, and that’s like ‘stage 4 elevation gain.’ I got together some leaders who were interested in it, but with most of them, it just fell flat.”

Peter shared the story of when he joined some other church leaders on a three-day hike. The water had been rationed out over the three days.

“I remember that last day. We had only a mile left. But you couldn’t see very far, and it was really hard to know what your progress was. So, I had signaled for a break, and we drank the rest of the water. Some of the guys had given me some of their water; they were concerned that the pastor was not going to make it to the end of the trail. But here’s the one thing that made all the difference. The guy in charge of the hike said, ‘Peter, it’s x number of steps’ – I think it was something like 2500 steps in a mile.So I started counting each in my head, and after we made the mile, the guys said, “Pastor, that was the fastest mile you’ve ever done. What made a difference?”I said, “You told me how to measure my progress.”

Peter concluded,

What a powerful experience, to be able to be challenged. To be able to mark your progress, and then to experience the beauty of something that you’ve always had but now is new. Isn’t that essentially what we’re talking with discipleship?”

Hear the conversation between Matt, Peter and Mike in episode 1 of the Discipleship Podcast for Church Leaders.

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