Movements of Maturity
For many years now researchers and practitioners have sought out and identified the significant initial way-points on a person’s spiritual journey.
Inevitably they compile these way-points into specific stages of growth. The general idea is that one stage cannot be successfully embraced until the previous one is complete. And in reality that’s about right for the newly developing believer, give or take the odd step backwards that most of us take.
In our moment in history however, this concept of a discipleship continuum might seem to present us with an inconvenient truth.
The emerging generation repels at the thought of systematic and linear growth. They want it to be organic and free.
However, as one who has taken thousands on this journey, I have found that there needn’t be a clash of worldview here. If you add the ideas of stages, with that of repeated seasonal and cyclical growth, you come up with more of a spiralled helix of development. People tend to revisit the same concepts repeatedly, but at a new level of maturity that can only come once they have embedded the truths of yesterday.
Let’s look, then, at the generally accepted stages of spiritual development so we can identify the key way points on our people’s journey.
Jesus laid out a really convenient descriptor of the journey when He said to Simon:
“Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)
I doubt that He was being as intentional in the statement as we are, but nonetheless He nails the key dynamics of growth towards fruitfulness.
- “Come” – Jesus never ceases His invitation to the lost to be found.
- “Follow Me” – Those who say yes are called to lay down their life and walk as Jesus did.
- “I will make you” – As we surrender our life, Jesus undertakes inner formation towards Christ-likeness.
- “Fishers of men” – As we are filled with love and identity, we naturally reach out to win others in our unique way.
These key stages (give or take a few adjustments) are present in many of today’s popular models of discipleship. The original continuum developed by James Engel for Billy Graham defined discipleship as a continuum from -10 to +10 with zero being the point of conversion as someone surrenders their life to Christ. From his research he identified the key moments both pre and post-conversion.
See below how the Engel scale lines up with Paul’s definitions (from 1 Corinthians 2:15-3:1), and the resources on this site.
For a comprehensive look at the various elements that work together to catalyse movement – download free the E-Book – Introduction the Rhythms of Grace.
I refer often to Reveal’s findings throughout my material. The thoroughness and basis of their research is difficult to criticize, and much can be learned from it. Our church undertook their survey twice in order to ascertain movement in our spread of maturity over a 7 year period. It was incredibly helpful and worth the expense. I have adopted their terminology for the stages in this material, but the resources of all the other models have benefits also.
Let’s look then at the stages briefly:
This phase is basically pre-Christian in regard to faith, even though a person may be quite knowledgeable of the scriptures, or have been around “church circles” for a long time. As yet they have not placed their faith in Christ to atone for sin or redeem their life. They are however on the way!
As people approach their zero point, an awareness of the gospel and the ramifications of their own sin increases. Eventually they come to a crunch point where they are compelled to either place their faith in & surrender to Christ, or turn away. If they balk, we find they often cycle back to around -4 to take up the journey again.
The key need for people in this stage is to know God personally.
Growing in Christ
In this initial stage of growth the disciple is in a sort of “integration” phase. All they know is that they have placed their faith in Jesus to save them. And so they begin the process of learning the basics about God, the Bible, the Church, and how to relate to each. They become aware of the ramifications of their faith decision, and the fact that there may well be things about their life that need to change.
At this point, some stall here. For whatever reason they are unwilling or unable to let go of past habits, wounds, priorities or addictions. Paul called these the Carnal ones, those who have a lot of the “world” still at play within. They are a child of God for sure, and yet have not yet embraced a surrendered life where the Spirit of God empowers and produces fruit.
The key need for people in this stage is to grow in God more fully.
Close to Christ
A key shift in maturity comes when a believer is prepared, with eyes wide open, to let God have access to every part of their life. As we surrender a determination to sin in a particular area, we open ourselves up to the empowering work of God to enable us to do in Him what was previously impossible in our own strength.
This is an exciting phase where old ways are stripped away, and new freedom embraced. The key here for leaders is to understand the symbiotic relationship between behavioral growth, and communion with God (see illustration). These two factors are reliant on each other in the sense that you can’t change behavior without a closer walk with God, and an increase in intimacy will compel you to become more holy anyway.
Those who are close to Christ begin to take responsibility for their own growth, and in their new found fullness begin to look outwards at how they can apply it to their world.
The key need for people to embrace here is an urgency to Go.
The Christ-centred person is one who has Christ as first and foremost in their life. To be Christ-centred invariably means we become mission-focused and ready to multiply ourselves.
The Christ-centred person is aware of their spiritual gifts, their developing calling in Christ, and the abundance within that compels them to reach out. They are Spirit-empowered to live out both fruitfulness and giftedness in Christ. They grow themselves and look to be growing others.
These then are the primary stages of development. Recognising them is the easy part! The real joy comes when you know how to facilitate movement from one stage to the next. Reveal’s research highlighted a crucial truth. Knowing the stages is one thing, but helping people grow and keep growing is the main goal.
The resources promoted on this site help catalyse the movements outlined here.