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Revisiting Discipleship

It has been suggested that there has been a focus on church growth rather than spiritual growth, which happens through discipleship.[1] But a lack of discipleship comes at a cost. Dallas Willard suggests that there is a great cost for nondisicipleship, "nondisicipleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (Jn 10:10)."[2] Moreover, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, through their research at Barna, have noticed that "the main reason young people drop out of church or fall away from faith is insufficient discipleship.”[3] However, discipleship must be defined. This proposal will firstly define what is meant by discipleship. Secondly, using Kinnaman's and Matlock's research. It will identify the needs of the current young adults. Thirdly, it will identify the need for discipleship for moving through the stages of faith by integrating Christopher Adsit's levels of discipleship and Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich's stages of faith. Lastly, a research-based neo-liturgical discipleship plan for young adults will be discussed.

Defining Discipleship

Contemporary Western thought has degraded the meaning of discipleship, what it is, and its purpose. Nevertheless, many renowned thinkers, philosophical, theological and pastoral, have written on the true meaning of discipleship. Using their thoughts as guides to counter contemporary lies of discipleship, a robust definition can be created.

The contemporary church has shifted towards an individualistic approach to discipleship, echoing "the cultural refrains of the moment: You do you. Find yourself by looking within. Speak your truth."[4] Yet as Eugene Peterson notes, "scripture knows nothing of a solitary Christian."[5] Discipleship is personal, for sure, but it is not individual. Instead, discipleship is a communal practice. It equips and encourages you to serve others,[6] "deliberately doing spiritual good to someone so that he or she will be more like Christ."[7]

A. W. Tozer's observation that discipleship has been thought of as a choice of obedience that can be postponed is still prevalent today.[8] Willard echoed this, observing that discipleship has not been "a condition of being a Christian" in the western church for several decades.[9] Yet, the characterisation of “discipleship to Christ is obedience to His call to follow” him and to His word.[10] Discipleship is self-denying, taking up your cross, and following Jesus.[11] It is to be an all-consuming, life-changing process.[12]

Discipleship is knowing God. Jesus tells us to make disciples by teaching them to obey (Mt 28:20), yet people cannot obey what they do not know. Thus, teaching is foundational.[13] Discipleship is about knowing, not feeling. It is a decision to live by what one knows about God, not what they feel about Him, themselves or their neighbours.[14]

Discipleship is about becoming more like Christ through spiritual formation. "Knowing God changes how we live (see Gal 4:9)"[15] , and it is through spiritual formation that change happens to have Christ formed in us (Gal 4:19). In spiritual formation, the spiritual disciplines, the things that Jesus did, orientate the soul towards the fulfilment of the Great Commission and Christ's commandments. [16]

In sum, discipleship is an all-consuming communal, yet personal, journey of knowing Christ and obeying his commands while becoming more like Him. It is Christ and others focused.

Generational Needs

Kinnaman and Matlock point out that society is "especially and insidiously faith repellent"[17] and that what worked for previous generations in the way of discipleship is insufficient for the young adults[18] who consist of Generation Y (b. 1980-1994[19]) and Generation Z (b. 1995-2009[20]). Through their research, they identified five practices that can form "disciples of Jesus who thrive as exiles in digital Babylon."[21] The practices, developed from a "decade of work, research, thinking, and listening to discover hopeful ways forward,"[22] are experiencing intimacy with Jesus; developing cultural discernment; creating meaningful, intergenerational relationships; training for vocational discipleship; and engaging in countercultural mission.

Experiencing Jesus refers to discovering our deepest identity in Jesus. Discipleship efforts begin with removing religious baggage to achieve a closer relationship with and joy in Christ. Experiencing Jesus answers human longings through addressing the question, "Who am I, really?"[23]

Cultural discernment answers the question, "How should I live?" [24] It is primarily concerned with how we think about and understand our place in a post-Christian world. Exercising wisdom is more difficult than ever before, as life's increasing complexity coincides with rising worry. In reaction to these tendencies and to foster cultural discernment, churches must transform into vibrant learning communities that assist individuals in addressing important concerns. [25]

Intergenerational relationships that are meaningful have been frequently thwarted by isolation and mistrust. While society's "centrifugal force of individuality"[26] tends to separate people, the church needs to bring them together. A community where people enjoy spending time together and model their lives after one another's is essential to resilient discipleship. As a result, the question "Am I truly known and loved by anyone?" is answered positively. [27]

Vocational discipleship involves developing “integrated lives of purpose, particularly in the workplace. Generation Y and Generation Z are well educated, connected, ambitious, and career-oriented. By reframing concepts like "ambition, generosity, productivity, and meaning," [28] the church can disciple them into their God-given callings—what they were created to do. Vocational discipleship lays the groundwork for people to deal with the question, "What am I called to do with my life?" [29]

Lastly, countercultural mission is the continuous pursuit of "faithful and fruitful presence in our communities by living in opposition to cultural norms (pursuing holiness) and trusting God to show up." [30] Christians seek a life of "sacrifice and service to others," [31] despite cultural tendencies towards self-centeredness and entitlement. Pursuing countercultural mission requires acknowledging that God's plan for life is much broader than we can comprehend. It helps answer questions like "What is the meaning of life?" and "What type of legacy do I want to leave?" [32]

Moving Through the Stages of Faith

Discipleship is a scaffolded process. As a disciple's relationship with God grows, so does their ability to live the Christian life, doing what Jesus did. In Personal Discipling, Chris Adsit comments that just as we compare the development of our children over time according to "behavioural evaluation experts", so should we compare the ability and milestones of those being discipled. [33] "Charts are not absolute, but they are helpful," he adds, alerting "us to potential issues, allowing us to take corrective action." [34] Adsit defined four stages of disciple growth: baby (L1), child (L2), adolescent (L3), and adult (L4). [35] Each level has its own need, motivation, and responsibilities for the disciple-maker.[36] Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich, like Adsit, found stages of the faith journey.

Hagberg and Guelich define the spiritual journey as "our response to or confidence in God with ensuing life changes." [37] They note the disciple's challenges and struggles for purpose and identity, revealing early religious hurts and doubts. [38] With this in mind, they include more introspective stages than Adsit. These profound times of contemplation and deconstruction can be seen in late adolescence. Ineffective management of these stages can jeopardise the disciple's faith. Hagberg and Guelich identify six faith stages:

1. The Recognition of God

2. The Life of Discipleship

3. The Productive Life

4. The Journey Inward

The Wall

5. The Journey Outward

6. The Life of Love.[39]

What makes Hagberg and Guelich's stages unique are stage four and the Wall, which are often overlooked in discipleship plans but essential for more profound spiritual formation and discipleship.

Our spiritual journey is navigated through discipleship. Hagberg and Guelich's critical journey can be followed via Adsit's growth levels. It is important to note that both Adsit and Hagberg and Guelich note that their levels or stages, respectively, are fluid. [40] The experiences, motivators, needs, and challenges of the disciple and the responsibilities of the disciple-maker will be covered below each level.

L1. Baby: Recognition of God to The Life of Discipleship

At this level of discipleship, the disciple moves from Jesus as Saviour to Jesus as Lord. Their experience of awakening and awareness of need[41] shifts to an experience of belonging, learning, security and connection within a Christian gathering.[42] The disciple, motivated by their "spiritual vacuum,"[43] looks for comfort, clarity, support, tools and recourses.[44] The disciple-maker becomes like a mother[45] who cares and teaches basic knowledge. At this stage, the disciple might become stuck due to feelings of worthlessness and ignorance.[46] The disciple needs support, application and community.[47]

L2. Child: The Life of Discipleship to Productive Life

Here the disciple moves from shifting their allegiance (Jesus as Lord) to service. They start to experience a sense of responsibility and unique service as their faith is shown outwardly.[48] They are motivated by the disciple-maker[49] who trains and equips them for service.[50] They need encouragement and opportunities to serve and constant, strong guidance as they take risks using spiritual gifts.[51] The disciple might get stuck, becoming rigid and closed.[52]

L3. Adolescent: Productive Life to The Journey Inward

The disciple-maker becomes a coach as the disciple is strengthened through experiences and takes on responsibility. [53] As they push deeper into God, they look inward towards who they are. New questions arise as they feel a sense of uncertainty, vulnerability and crisis[54] akin to Kierkegaard's existentialism.[55] If coached well, they move from a communal or familial faith to a profoundly personal conviction of faith. The disciple may become stuck, becoming overly zealous, self-centred, image-conscious and performance-focused.[56]

The Wall

The Wall is a crucial stage between an adolescent disciple and a mature adult disciple. It is here where healing is found. It "represents the place where another layer of transformation occurs, and a renewed life of faith begins."[57] The experience is unpredictable and frightening as it breaks through the barriers and layers built up as protection to bring renewal and submission to God. Not all will go through the Wall. Some will "decide to return to an earlier stage,"[58] and other might "get stuck… not wanting to submit to God"[59] due to strong ego's and appearance, guilt or shame.[60]

L4. Adult: The Journey Inward to The Journey Outward and Life of Love

Here the disciple moves towards an others-focused calling. They exude the fruits of the Spirit in their daily life.[61] They lead and serve others in the way of Jesus. They are motivated by God[62] and pursue spiritual direction. They may appear stuck by appearing impractical, detached and distant.[63] The disciple-maker become a peer as the disciple begins making disciples. [64]


Discipleship for young adults needs to be all-inclusive and able to penetrate every sphere of life. The idea is to facilitate the continuation of the new creation through intentional rhythms and practices. In a digital age, content through digital and physical mediums is designed to give space to experience Jesus, build meaningful relationships, equip disciples with cultural discernment and countercultural mission, and engage vocational discipleship. The primary purpose is not to go through the checklist. Instead, it is to be in a continuous relationship with God and others.

Next post, I will put this research into a plan, predominantly aimed at young adults, that incorporates the research of sociologists, pastors, physiologists and theologians.


Footnotes [1] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2010), 3; Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship, 1st ed (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 4. [2] Willard, The Great Omission, 9. [3] Kinnaman and Matlock, Faith for Exiles, 28. [4] Kinnaman and Matlock, 50. [5] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 176. [6] Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 20. [7] Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus, 13. [8] A. W. Tozer, I Call It Heresy: And Other Timely Topics From First Peter (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1974), 5. [9] Willard, The Great Omission, 4. [10] Joseph McGarry, ‘Formed While Following: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Asymmetrical View of Agency in Christian Formation’, Theology Today 71, no. 1 (2014): 108; Detrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Jason D. Godsey and Geffery B. Kelly, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2001), 181. [11] Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus, 15. [12] Willard, The Great Omission, viii. [13] Dever, 83–84. [14] Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 87. [15] Dever, 84. [16] Willard, 76. [17] Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company, 2005), 15. [18] Kinnaman and Matlock, Faith for Exiles, 15. [19] McCrindle Research, ‘Generations Defined: 50 Years of Change over 5 Generations’ (McCrindle Research, 2012), [20] McCrindle Research. [21] Kinnaman and Matlock, Faith for Exiles, 15. [22] Kinnaman and Matlock, 35. [23] Kinnaman and Matlock, 208. [24] Kinnaman and Matlock, 208. [25] Kinnaman and Matlock, 208. [26] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [27] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [28] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [29] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [30] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [31] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [32] Kinnaman and Matlock, 209. [33] Christopher B. Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading a Christian from New Birth to Maturity (Orlando, FL: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1996), 60. [34] Adsit, 60. [35] The names of the levels (e.g. Baby) or level numbers will be used interchangeably. [36] Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking, 61–62. [37] Hagberg and Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, xxi. [38] Hagberg and Guelich, xxi–xxiii. [39] Hagberg and Guelich, 7. [40] Hagberg and Guelich, 7. [41] Hagberg and Guelich, 35–37. [42] Hagberg and Guelich, 53–59. [43] Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking, 73. [44] Adsit, 72–73. [45] Adsit, 74. [46] Hagberg and Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 43–44. [47] Hagberg and Guelich, 46–47. [48] Hagberg and Guelich, 74–78. [49] Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking, 74. [50] Adsit, 75. [51] Hagberg and Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 66. [52] Hagberg and Guelich, 62–64. [53] Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking, 75. [54] Hagberg and Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 83–84. [55] George Pattison and Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard and the Crisis of Faith: An Introduction to His Thought (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 17–25. [56] Hagberg and Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 81–83. [57] Hagberg and Guelich, 114. [58] Hagberg and Guelich, 115. [59] Hagberg and Guelich, 115. [60] Hagberg and Guelich, 116–19. [61] Hagberg and Guelich, 134–41. [62] Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking, 74. [63] Hagberg and Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 144–46. [64] Adsit, Personal Disciplemaking, 75.

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