(The following is part 1 in a four part series:
This Sunday, we studied Mark's summary of the message that Jesus preached and how this was personally applied to his disciples. Jesus is a Savior King whose kingdom transforms every facet of our lives, and his identity and presence demands a decisive response from every individual person.
In Mark 1, we see Jesus preaching his gospel far and wide in Galilee, casting a wide net, but specifically calling and catching a few. His few selections for his Kingdom workers are unexpected: fishermen casting their own literal nets in the sea. These men were not looking for a rabbi at all. But his call initiates a process - a pathway - that will forever change their lives. "Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men" (Mark 1:17 ESV). Their response to this call happens in a moment, but changes every moment thereafter throughout all eternity.
Jesus' call to these fishermen effectively describes the pathway of every disciple. It is the nature of "repentance and belief in the gospel" (see Mark 1:14-15).
"Follow me" is the call to forsake all other paths and walk the path of Jesus with Jesus. (this corresponds to the "proclamation" phase of our pathway, below)
"I will make you become" is the call to be humble enough to learn and grow by abiding in Jesus. It is the commitment of Jesus to equip his disciples with everything they need to follow and be his witnesses. (this corresponds to the "equipping" phase of our pathway, below)
"Fishers of men" is the call to be sent as a witness and multiply disciples. (this corresponds to the "sending" phase of our pathway, below)
From the very first call of Jesus, the discipleship pathway was made clear to Peter, Andrew, James, and John. So it must be for every follower or would-be follower of Jesus Christ. While our journeys all look different in the specifics, the overall pathway is generally the same (see footnote 2). We must personally learn to walk this path with resolve, and we must call others to this way with clarity and urgency. Putting words to our collective experience can help many disciples gain their bearings on the journey and effectively "take the next step."
This is what our discipleship pathway seeks to do. We are trying to capture the shared Christian experience so that disciples can effectively see and take their next step (the seven growth stages). We are aiming to visualize the way the church primarily relates to each disciple on their journey (the three phases of interaction), and we are demonstrating how all of this connects to our mission as a church. Finally, we are seeking to help disciples get plugged into the primary discipleship environments for effective growth in their stage and phase.
It is our desire that every follower of Jesus knows where they are on the pathway, can identify their own next steps, and is also helping others who are in earlier stages take their own next steps. We long to see our church activities and relationships maximized for purposeful discipleship. This pathway is not merely a tool for personal development; it is a tool for individual members' development in community.
What a Discipleship Pathway is NOT
We must understand the limitations of a tool before we can effectively use it. It's important to clarify what a discipleship pathway is not.
A Pathway is NOT a Specific Curriculum - When people hear the idea of a "discipleship pathway," often they think of a specific study or book that you take someone through in order to help them grow in Christ. While certain curricula might be helpful and even recommended along the way, a pathway is not just about moving people through a class or a set of information. You can't expect to simply take a class and come out a more mature disciple on other side. Discipleship requires relationships, experiences, and heart work in connection to the truth of the gospel. A pathway is about identifying those relevant relationships, environments, and resources that can help people take their next step of growth.
A Pathway is NOT an Attempt to Box People In - Often people take labels like those we use in our growth stages and turn them into identities. However, none of these growth stages or interaction phases describe a permanent position. Instead, they are trailblazes and mile markers on a journey. In fact, it's not that we ever move "beyond" earlier stages. Rather, each stage builds on and incorporates the last, adding new growth without subtracting old growth or relational needs. Further, we occasionally go back and revisit old landmarks and build upon (or even reinterpret) what we've previously learned.
A Pathway is NOT a Straight Line - Someone might protest, "But your pathway diagram IS a straight line." Visually, yes, but experientially, no. While the goal for discipleship is to be constantly growing, growth rarely happens in a straight line. We grow strong in some seasons of life and get stuck in others. Certain parts of our lives lag behind in maturity or wisdom while other parts grow faster due to circumstance, passion, or spiritual giftedness. We must acknowledge the fluid nature of the pathway even as we acknowledge general patterns.
How a Pathway Can Be Used
If all of these limitations exist, then why even bother identifying the pathway? Here are a few reasons you should recognize the pathway yourself, and help clarify it for other believers:
Jesus Called People with the Big Picture in View - To the first disciples, he said, "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men." To the rich young ruler, he said, "go, sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me." To the man who wanted to bury his father, he said, "let the dead bury their own dead." Jesus wanted people to know that his call would change their whole life, not just the next few minutes or eternity after they died.
It Can Provide Perspective - Sometimes we can stagnate in our growth, and it can be hard to see our way out. We know all the things that a Christian is supposed to be and do, but that seems like an insurmountable mountain when you are a new believer. A discipleship pathway is meant to help people take the next step, not all the steps.
It Can Help a Church Grow Together - Every church has common language and artifacts that help it express its culture. The more we all use this language and teach it to others, the more fluent we will become. This language and the accompanying tools are part of the culture at Oak Hill. We pray it is a culture that seeks growth through humility and is inviting to all who want to follow Jesus.
It Can Help us be Purposeful - Discipleship and growth doesn't happen by default. Each disciple must "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12–13 ESV). Every disciple-maker must proclaim Jesus, "warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Col. 1:28–29 ESV). Explain the pathway to others and then ask, "Where are you on this pathway? What do you think is your next step?"
Ultimately, we are called to follow Jesus, not a discipleship pathway. He is the power behind all our growth, and he is the ultimate picture of maturity. Still, throughout church history, disciples of Christ have used tools and systems to help them and others grow. No matter the tool, the goal must be purposeful discipleship in the context of local church community for the sake of the glory of Christ among all peoples.
So what is your next step in following Jesus? How could the discipleship pathway help you clarify the call to follow Jesus for an unbeliever or a less discipled believer? Visit www.oakhillfellowship.com/pathway to take our self-assessment designed to help you discern areas of needed growth and to guide you in pursuing tangible next steps.
The 7 Growth Stages we use are adapted from The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, © 2009 Matthias Media.
John Bunyan knew this and captured it in great detail in his Pilgrim's Progress (see links at the end). Bunyan pulled vast amounts of scripture together in story form to show how these inspired truths typically play out in the life of a believer. The fact that so many can look at Bunyan's work and identify with Christian's journey three-and-a-half centuries later serves to prove the common, timeless nature of discipleship in a fallen world.