Creating an Intentional Discipleship Pathway

Date Posted: 1/8/2015

Avid reader and Vibrant Church Initiative coach Marilyn Wadkins completed a number of inspirational books during 2014. She shares her favorites with leaders wanting to clarify the pathway to stronger, more intentional discipleship within their churches.
There is no shortage of scripture references and books on discipleship, yet many churches lack a step-by-step progression designed to deeper spiritual formation – one of the hallmarks of a vibrant congregation. Directive Coach Marilyn Wadkins says, “We can recite our conference-wide mission statement to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but most of us are not sure what that looks like in our own lives and that of the church.” 

In “The Forgotten Ways” by Alan Hirsch, and the handbook that provides implementation strategies, Marilyn learned about the concept of “acting our way into thinking.”  “Churches might consider using the group processing questions and action plan sections at the end of each chapter to start conversations about this important aspect of each church’s DNA,” adds Marilyn. “These discussions will ideally generate consensus that the church needs a more defined discipleship pathway, which, in turn, helps the community to take ownership for designing and creating its own criteria for success.”
Insight on developing a stronger discipleship pathway is also highlighted in:
  • Move: What 1000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson,
  • Deepening Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation by Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy, 
  • Renovate or Die: 10 Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission by Bob Farr with Kay Kotan, and
  • Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley.
Deep and Wide author Andy Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries, Inc., which has planted over 25 churches in the Atlanta metro area. He believes going deep involves five catalysts: 1) practical teaching, 2) private disciplines, 3) personal ministry, 4) providential relationships, and 5) pivotal circumstances. The first three include activities of a growing faith that people choose. The last two catalysts have more of a sense of God's involvement.  Going wide involves creating “irresistible environments” and “double-barrel preaching.” Going deep and wide involves “going to blows with the status quo” and determining where the church wants to be by getting a clear picture of the “preferred future”. He challenges church leaders to “date their models” and “marry their missions” by asking difficult questions like “What am I most committed to…really?” and “What is my congregation most passionate about…really?” He encourages developing a “culture of questions” that will “ensure the vision of the church remains paramount” and presents seven categories of questions to circle through with church leaders.
Move utilizes the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey, taken by over a quarter of a million people in a diverse cross-section of over 1000 churches over six years to determine whether the church was investing its resources into what mattered most. The results of the survey identified 25 decisions that are critical to helping people stay on the path toward full devotion to Christ. The study identifies a spiritual continuum of that includes four segments of church attenders: 1) Exploring Christ, 2) Growing in Christ, 3) Close to Christ, and 4) Christ-Centered. Notes Marilyn, “Different segments have very different spiritual needs. Move elaborates on the needs of three main movements.” It seems that 40% of most congregations fall into the Growing in Christ segment. The book reminds leaders, forging new discipleship pathways, that spiritual growth is a complex process and unique with each new person. The book outlines insights and strategies based on the findings.
“Aha” Moments:
 The one common catalyst in the movement is reflection on scripture (moves from “frequently” to “daily”), not increased participation in church activities.  The other two main catalysts actually take place outside the church as a result of 1) daily immersion in their personal spiritual practices, and 2) stepping out of their comfort zone in favor of increased outreach efforts.
Deepening Your Effectiveness first offers an analogy of six stages of faith. “This author warns   that intentional discipleship is often hampered by a disconnected hodgepodge of activity that actually keeps people theologically uninformed and relationally isolated from one another,” she explains. The “discipleship pathway” in this book is unique in that it is a circular map or template to be used as a guide for developing a discipleship system that involves four quadrants in the wheel: invitational discipleship, instructional discipleship, relational discipleship, and servant discipleship. Adds Marilyn, “The goal is creating a culture of servanthood by creating opportunities for people to clarify their purpose and their call, creating value by removing obstacles, giving authority along with responsibility, and scheduling regular opportunities for feedback and discussion -- keeping in mind the importance of one-on-one structured accountability.”
Each book provides a slightly different approach to clarifying and strengthening the discipleship pathway. In Renovate or Die, the authors state that people learn to “play church” when there is no pathway defined. As Proverbs 29 confirms, without a vision, the people perish. Intentional steps help people discover, remember, and practice their story of living with God.  Adds Marilyn, “One of my favorite quotes comes from from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: “The church exists for nothing else but to draw [people] into Christ, to make them into little Christs. If they are not doing that, it’s a waste of time.”
Coaches within the TAC Vibrant Church Initiative system encourage each church to remember that a discipleship path is a path that may be truly unique to each ministry environment. Bear Creek UMC has been developing and defining their pathway in recent months. Rev. Jonathan Bynum shares his experience as an example. (PDF)  "At this point our plan is to let the individual assume responsibility for tracking where they are and we provide the tool and a variety of opportunities. The classes we associate with the different areas will be constantly changing, updating. This is all very experimental to figure out what works for our congregation. Having read so many different approaches, I can see there are many ways to get at this, so we are just barely getting rolling.”
“An example is helpful, but copying some other church’s path might not be the best idea,” notes Marilyn. “Creating the path is the important and transformational work, and all of these books offer unique insights. Altering the path may be a process – and that is okay. That is what it means to begin to act into a way of thinking.”