Combining steps with cycles & seasons
When we view discipleship growth as a purely staged and linear journey we miss the potential of the scriptural dynamic of recurring seasons.
People do not experience any growth phase just once, we return to them continually throughout life. Hopefully we come back to them at a new level of understanding and character, building on new experiences and maturity. Otherwise it can feel like we are endlessly going around the mountain without ever climbing it.
A staged view of discipleship growth treats movements of maturity as once for all events. But we know that’s not our experience. God calls us repeatedly to into seasons of wilderness, pruning, new growth and multiplication.
Going from glory-to-glory does not look like a business chart rising to the right and up. It is more of a spiral that winds its way gently towards elevation, with a few levelling out points along the way.
I like to associate these spiritual dynamics with the annual climactic seasons we know so well:
Autumn: a time to shed old ways
Jesus said that any branch that bears fruit will be pruned (John 15:2). No one likes or invites that experience. But when God is preparing us for an upgrade into new levels of intimacy, character and influence, He will need to strip away some things before He can build. Some of those things are our most fruitful activities and methods.
It might surprise us that we experience Autumn when we seem to be at a new high-point of fruitfulness. But every summer must come to an end, lest we grow fatigued and stale.
Autumn is a time to renew. The loss of old ways gives us space to look at things differently and take on fresh mindsets. That which was previously ignored, may now become a growing priority.
A person who crosses the line into belief in Christ has often done so through a time of personal renewal. They become aware of God and the need for a Savior, and are prepared to leave their past behind to embrace their new walk with God. Likewise, a mature disciple might be drawn (perhaps forced?) into a new situation where old methods no longer work, and they need to seek God for new wisdom.
Winter: a time of forming new strength
This season receives a lot of bad press. But in reality, it is our spiritual winters that are the most transformative experiences of our life. It is here that we experience the liminality of the old being removed, whilst the new is not quite here.
You may know it as a wilderness experience. It is a time of profound internal change, often as a follow on to our recent Autumn. It is here that we not only turn from old ways, but we learn to embrace the new. For a disciple, it is often includes repentance of the old, and reliance on God for the new.
It is the traversing of this wilderness that builds greater capacity and faith, forming us to me more of the pneumatikos (spiritual person) described in 1 Corinthians 3:1. I wrote re:FORM to help people comprehensively traverse this journey and come out the other side.
If we do not learn how to partner with God in the Winter season, it is not without precedent to stay locked in that place for way too long. God invites us into the wilderness as a form of blessing (Hosea 2:14-16) but the 40-year experience of the Hebrew exodus tells us that our attitude in that place has ramifications (1 Cor. 10:1-11).
Spring: a time to experience new growth
The capacities and lessons gained from our Winter season bear their new fruit in Spring. We have more to give, and new ways to do it. This is an exiting and fresh season of positive change and growth that builds on itself.
However, even this great experience can have its shadow side. We can get a little off track with all this new energy and possibility, forgetting to focus on our core purpose and deviating instead into the frivolous.
Surprisingly, many people vocalise a sense of staleness as they navigate this season. They are looking for more, but feel their church is not able to make room for them. I wrote the re:FOCUS course to ensure people understand and honour their calling, remaining focussed on the few things that matter. God calls us to go deep, before we go wide.
Summer: a time to reproduce
In summertime, it is all go! This is the season of maximum fruitfulness and momentum. In the kingdom, all fruit has seeds of replication found within, and it is in this season that we reproduce others by building into them what we now have.
Spiritual Summer has a momentum of its own, we don’t need to produce that. What we can do however is train in how to maximise that momentum to take others on the journey with us. This is often the place to invest in skills training and leadership development.
A season and time for everything
Solomon once said that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens“ (Ecc. 3:1). That word for season (zem-awn) refers to an appointed occasion – a time that simply has to be.
The beauty of our walk with God is the sense of rhythm that He weaves into nature and life. The tides ebb and flow, we breathe in and out, the season come and go. The point though is that they must. They are times that “have to be”. We don’t just experience stages of growth once, but over-and-over as we build on years of learning and character growth.
As disciplers, we must cooperate and perhaps even facilitate these seasons in those we invest in. And don’t forget to read well the seasons that you too experience.