Spiritual Growth and the Discipleship Square

How do people grow spiritually?  That’s been a serious question for me for a number of years.  Willow Creek released several books based on the REVEAL survey taken by something like 400,000 people in churches.  It (ahem) revealed that many, many people in churches were stuck spiritually.  I saw that same reality in my own congregations and it troubled me.  That got me thinking, praying, and searching the scriptures.  Willow Creek’s work revealed four sociological stages of spiritual growth.  I wanted to know if those same four stages could be found in scripture (They could).  More importantly, I wanted to know what could be done to help people grow.

First, let me summarize the pattern.  1) People encounter Jesus Christ and choose to follow him. 2) People surrender their ability to handle their sin problem.  3) People surrender their world to Christ and choose the one He offers.  4) People surrender their self-serving view of Jesus and accept Him for who he truly is.  To move from one stage to the next requires a break-through. Willow Creek identified practices and relationships that tend to help.  I think the key is the relationship.  To grow through those stages, we need someone to lead us through them.  In the scripture, the disciples had Jesus to lead them through each stage.  Later, they would lead others by imitating the way Jesus led them.

From 3dm, I have learned a very helpful tool for this process.  It’s called the Leadership Square and it has four distinct stages.  I don’t know that the points of surrender line up neatly with stages. Surrender, relationships, and faith are too messy for that.   But having a process helps.  In short, it involves a leader who invites a few people into a discipling relationship.  

In the first stage, the leader does ministry while the disciples mainly watch. This stage is marked by excitement and enthusiasm on the part of the disciples. At this stage, the leader gives a lot of direction, sets and example, but doesn’t explain much.

Turning the corner to the second stage, the leader does ministry while the disciples start helping.  This stage is marked the disciples not being so sure they can do it.  Enthusiasm wains.  Confidence drops as the realities of low experience and low competence hit.  The disciples get discouraged.  It is not unusual for the disciples in this third stage to want to bail out.  I can recall times when this happened.  It’s painful to watch.  So the leader needs to be very intentional about giving a lot of direction, explanation, encouragement, and example.  The leader needs to be accessible, ready to listen, and ready to pray with the disciple. If the disciples hang with it through this stage, they begin to gain abilities which usher in stage three.

In stage three, the disciples do the ministry and the leader helps. Stage three is marked by the disciple growing in confidence. Enthusiasm returns because the experiences of the second stage have built confidence for the third.  The transition for the leader at this stage is to back off on the direction – to work for consensus, have a lot of discussion, and stay accessible.  If the danger for the disciple in the second stage is quit – at this stage the danger is to wander off track.  When that happens, a short directive from the leader probably won’t satisfy like it would in stage one.  This is a high conversation stage.

Stage four is a very exciting stage.  The disciples does ministry while the leader cheers and celebrates.  The disciple is often enthusiastic about following Jesus and eager to make disciples on their own.  Their enthusiasm is undergirded by understanding.  They have confidence and competencies based on experience.    This is a joyful stage for a leader.  The leader’s job is not to give direction anymore, but to build consensus about ministry tasks, to offer lots of explanation and encouragement.  One job for the disciple is to seek others to disciple.  The leader needs to offer a fair amount of coaching at this point.  I think the danger for the disciple at this stage is to postpone discipling someone themselves, so the leader’s task is accountability and follow through.

Here’s a helpful tool for remembering the four stages.  

leadership square

If you want to learn more, download a copy of Building A Discipling Culture by Mike Breen.  You can order it from 3dm or at Amazon.

About Pastor Jesse

I am a disciple of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, and engineer. I am passionate about making deeply surrendered disciples of Jesus who are motivated and equipped to make more.
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