Growing Christlike Together
As the pastor of adult discipleship in a local church, I find myself increasingly haunted by two questions. First, to what extent is genuine, lasting, supernatural life transformation happening in our congregation? I know we are doing a lot of religious things, but where is the life change? Where is the joy, the risk, the passion, the sense of adventure in following Christ? Where are the baptisms, for that matter?
The second question is more pastoral and practical: What is my role in encouraging, promoting, and assisting people’s spiritual growth? For that matter, what does it mean to “make disciples”? How do we know if we are being faithful to the Great Commission? And what does “maturity in Christ” even look like?
We tried to create an environment where as many people as possible could begin experiencing the life-change that God desires for them. We found this kind of emphasis to be neither burdensome, time-consuming, nor overly-programmatic.
Without solid, biblical answers to these foundational questions, I fear that, in all of our religious activity, we might inadvertently substitute busyness and duty for the life, joy, and transformation that God seems to see as normative for people living in the way of Jesus.
Let me just say from the outset that we at Belleview are far from having much of anything figured out. We have lots of challenges and at times ministry feels pretty messy. At the same time, driven by the above questions, we developed and implemented some strategies that people have found profoundly life-giving and life-changing. So with that disclaimer, it is a privilege to share a bit of our story with you, offering a descriptive look at our journey as we try to be faithful to Jesus’ call to “make disciples.”
DISCIPLES OF JESUS
We believe that Scripture essentially defines a disciple of Jesus as one who trusts Christ with his or her whole life by actively and joyfully loving God and loving others in Christ’s name (Luke 10:25-37; 5:27; Matt. 13:44-46). We also believe that as we trust Jesus with our whole lives, in relationship with him God graciously transforms our entire person: our thoughts, our emotions, our attitudes, our desires, and our actions. We become more like Christ; that is, we actually are transformed to take on more of Christ’s character: honesty, generosity, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, etc.
This lifelong process of dying to sin and allowing Christ to come alive in us as we follow him is what discipleship (sometimes called sanctification, or spiritual growth, or spiritual formation) is all about. And the more we are like Christ, the more we will experience the life Christ intended us to live (John 10:10)!
Even with this working definition of discipleship, however, we were left with a vague and sometimes unclear picture of what we wanted to see happen in peoples’ lives. What does maturity in Christ actually look like? What are we shooting for in our own lives and in the lives of those we lead?
We felt that surely Scripture gives us some clues as to (1) certain things maturing disciples know, (2) character traits which are increasingly evident in disciples’ lives, and (3) activities which disciples are equipped for and actively do. 1 And so, starting with the end in mind, we pored over Scripture and developed what we call our “Discipleship Target,” something against which we can evaluate our own lives and determine where we are in most need of transformation.
TEN KEY GROWTH AREAS
This target, which consists of what we call our Ten Key Growth Areas, is as follows:
- Lordship of Christ
Mature disciples (followers) of Jesus recognize that Christ is the sovereign King of the universe, regardless of whether people acknowledge him as such yet, and trust all aspects of their lives to God’s authority.
- Identity in Christ
Mature disciples understand and joyfully live based on the reality that they are “new creations” in Christ.
Mature disciples are supremely satisfied by God and live their lives as a joyful response to who God is and what he has done.
- Emotional and Relational Health
Mature disciples are able to radically and powerfully love others because they minister out of a place of wholeness and health.
Mature disciples thirst and crave God’s Word, joyfully submitting to its authority.
Mature disciples are stunned by the shocking reality that the Creator of the universe desires a relationship with humans, and are thrilled to regularly commune with him.
Mature disciples love the church and know that church is simply the people called by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ in a dark and desperate world.
Mature disciples understand that fellowship with other followers of Jesus is an objective reality based solely on the work of Christ (not a feeling or a choice), and have a heartfelt desire to “do life” together in Christ.
- Social Justice
Mature disciples love justice—the right exercise of power or authority, have compassion for those who suffer injustice, and seek active rescue for the victims of oppression.
Mature disciples are supremely satisfied with the greatness of God and long for others to experience life in Christ. 2
One of the most practical benefits from establishing a discipleship target has been that it allows me as a pastor to provide more strategic, focused pastoral leadership for our adult ministries. In other words, instead of providing some vague sense of direction for women’s ministry, men’s ministry, and adult Sunday school, I can get to the heart of the matter by asking specifically how each of these ministries is helping people grow in these ten areas.
Although we believe that this list represents a great target for our lives, as a pastor I am much more concerned about whether people are on the right path toward maturity in these areas than I am about people somehow reaching “perfection.” In other words, I am just as concerned with the journey as I am the destination—as long as they are on the right path!
THE ROLE OF LEADERSHIP
One of the things that I think we did right was giving our pastoral staff and leadership team an active role in dreaming about and developing our discipleship strategy. I remember a team meeting in which I came prepared with only a blank legal pad and the question, “What are the things that we hope characterize our lives as we follow God in the way of Jesus?” A lively discussion ensued, and we filled seven pages! After we defined discipleship and determined a target for our lives, our staff began to dream about how we could best facilitate growth in these ten areas.
We wanted to highlight the Ten Key Growth Areas and begin doing the things that would actually lead to transformation. Although we certainly recognize that God’s activity in our lives is both complex and mysterious—and therefore can never be reduced to some form of “if-then” equation—we do believe that, in general, spiritual growth happens over time when ordinary people experience the truth of God’s Word in the context of intentional relationships within the body of Christ. In other words, we believe that transformation happens when we regularly immerse ourselves in the Bible—reading, meditating, and applying God’s truth to our lives—and when we are in healthy, transparent, accountable relationships with other believers. If we take either side of that equation away, or if we do not understand that growth takes time, our potential for life transformation is radically diminished.
This type of thinking seems entirely consistent with our Anabaptist heritage which, among other theological distinctives, places a strong emphasis on the church as a covenant community, on the authority of Scripture, and on the importance of a radical devotion to Christ. We want to get away from the “educational model” of discipleship, so prevalent in our churches, that implicitly asserts that information alone leads to life transformation. We have seen too many cases in church history and in our own lives where intellectual consent to biblical truths has not automatically led to transformation. Based on the premise that spiritual formation happens when we explore and encounter truth in community, we developed a ten-week spiritual growth emphasis called “Ten Weeks of Transformation.”
A PLAN FOR CHANGE
During Ten Weeks of Transformation, we invited each person in our congregation to be highly intentional about three things.
First, we asked people to regularly spend time reading and meditating on Scripture. We put together a Bible reading plan, which consisted of five short passages to read each week corresponding to the Key Growth Area in focus that week. We feel strongly about helping people interact with Scripture in a way that will be transformational, not just informational.
One of the unfortunate things that seems to have happened over the last fifty years in many churches is that Christians have built up a tremendous amount of Bible knowledge without a similar emphasis on allowing the Holy Spirit to use the text in a way that would change their lives. So, instead of asking people to read a lengthy passage of Scripture, we asked them to focus their attention on a smaller text, perhaps even one verse. Although we certainly believe in the importance of inductive Bible study, we felt that this approach (lectio divina), allowed people to interact with Scripture in a fresh, personal, and powerful way.
Second, we asked people to commit to journaling, which simply involved reflecting on and appropriating what they read in Scripture. We published a spiral-bound notebook for each person which contained both the Bible readings and journal pages. The journaling process that we adopted followed the acronym S.O.A.P., asking people to write out the Scripture verse they felt was most meaningful, detail a few Observations from the passage, determine a personal Application, and then formulate a short Prayer. We found this journaling strategy to be both easy to use—even for journaling novices like me—and life-changing. 3
Third, we asked people to commit to meeting weekly with a group of two to four people for the purpose of friendship, accountability, and encouragement. We believe that not only are these kinds of intentional relationships the best way to live out the New Testament commands to love one another deeply, walk in fellowship with one another, bear each other’s burdens, and to encourage and build each other up, but that in fact we cannot grow spiritually outside of the church body. Each of the fruits of the Spirit, for instance, requires a context of close (and sometimes uncomfortable) relationships with others.
Groups met together weekly in order to share with each other what God was doing in their lives, to confess sin, and to encourage each other on toward love and good deeds. This was perhaps the most important, challenging, and rewarding part of the campaign. Although we have used small groups for some time, our “Discovery Groups” were somewhat smaller, almost always same gender, and turned out to be contexts of significant spiritual growth. Each week during our service, people shared stories during our “open mic” time of struggles and ways in which God was working transformation in their lives. Regularly their Discovery Group played a central role in this spiritual growth.
What we tried to do with Ten Weeks of Transformation was to create an environment where as many people as possible could begin experiencing the life-change that God desires for them. We found this kind of emphasis to be neither burdensome, time-consuming, nor overly-programmatic. Our prayer was that God would use this spiritual growth campaign to do something miraculous in the lives of the people called Belleview Community. Measuring the “success” of something like this quantitatively is difficult if not impossible, but I believe that God worked in ways that can only be described as supernatural.
Although I am still haunted by the questions about how we’re doing at “making disciples” and know that we have miles to go as a church, I am encouraged by the feedback we’ve received. One person on our leadership team remarked that it was the most exciting thing we have done in fourteen years. Many others appreciated something practical and hands-on that facilitated spiritual growth. And not infrequently did I hear something to the effect that “I am not the same person I was ten weeks ago.”
That’s enough to make me want to continue the journey, pointing people to the One who can change them from the inside out, and playing my part in becoming a community that makes spiritual transformation possible.
- I am indebted for the overall framework to Denver Seminary, whose core competencies of Knowing, Being, and Doing shape much of what happens at the institution.
- Readers who are interested in more than just the introductory sentence for each Key Growth Area may request the author for the entire descriptions (including Scripture references) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I first came across this journaling method in a resource published by New Hope Christian Fellowship, Honolulu, Hawaii.