Responding to God’s Work: Congregational Discipleship

Congregations can respond to the way God grows disciples
person walking

Written by contributing author, Richard Webb

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev

Jesus taught his disciples that the kingdom of God is like the farmer who scatters seed on the ground. All by itself the soil produces grain—the sprout, the stalk, the head, and finally the kernel, which over time ripens for the harvest (Mark 4:26-29). Jesus makes clear there is nothing the Farmer does to make the seed grow. Growth is God’s business. 

Five years ago, our congregation, Lutheran Church of Hope, began rethinking our strategy for growing disciples. Initially we kept defaulting into strategies that were essentially “spiritual biotech” designed to engineer spiritual growth. As we struggled to develop a strategy, we noticed a pattern in the way God grows disciples. Like the seed that God grows for the harvest, God uses circumstances, events and relationships to shape disciples in Christ’s image (Romans 8:28-29). In turn, disciples make discoveries about God, themselves and the world around them. These discoveries produce times of reflection, evaluation, insight and personal alignment to their vocation. The church responds to what God is doing by supporting disciples through various relational, developmental and missional opportunities. 

Based on these observations, we began to explore what a strategy would look like that was not so much designed to make disciples grow but to resource the disciples God was growing. As a result, we produced a “strategy of response” based on the four stages of faith from our original discipleship pathway, the Hope Circle (see this PDF for more). In all four stages, the church responds by providing resources that help disciples:

  • Connect to intentional Christian community and friendships 
  • Grow in their awareness and relationship with God
  • Serve others by realizing their calling, both inside and outside the congregation

At each stage the congregation responds by supporting the disciple with resources as he or she responds to God’s work with continued growth in faith, character and calling. Here are the four stages of the Hope Circle—Seeker, Believer, Follower, and Servant Leader—in detail. 

First stage: Beginning the journey as a seeker

The journey begins where God is at work in the Seeker’s childhood and family of origin. Throughout the life journey, God’s character and presence is revealed, preparing the Seeker ultimately to say “yes,” to Christ’s love and friendship and join his people in his kingdom and mission for the world.

The congregation responds to the Seeker’s journey by welcoming and embracing the Seeker through personal invitation and guest-friendly worship and community events. 

Seekers respond as they connect to community, learning and service opportunities, including support and recovery ministries, all designed to help Seekers explore the Christian faith in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

As Seekers say “yes” to God’s love, they transition to the Believer stage of the Hope Circle. Through personal guidance, the congregation responds by helping them discover the next steps of their journey of faith.

Second stage: Journeying from seeker to believer

As Seekers become Believers, God is at work, revealing their identity and calling in Christ. Through nurturing community, believers discover their own story and God’s presence within that story. 

As Believers continue their journey of faith, the congregation responds by engaging them in relational and discovery-based learning experiences as well as service and leadership/influence opportunities. 

In response, Believers connect to small groups and mentoring relationships and continue to grow as they participate in learning experiences that introduce them to the Scriptures as well as the practices of prayer, service and the sharing of their faith. 

During this faith stage issues of spiritual and emotional health may surface. The congregation responds by providing prayer, recovery ministries, pastoral care and referrals to faith-friendly counseling. 

As Believers grow, they begin to serve both inside and outside the congregation. Serving opportunities might include worship hospitality, children’s ministry and local and global missional outreach. At this stage Believers begin inviting their friends to worship services and other guest-friendly events. 

As Believers develop habits of Scripture reading, prayer, community, witness and service, they begin to perceive God’s presence in their story, and transition to the Follower stage. Through mentoring and discernment the congregation responds by helping Believers discover the next steps of their faith journey.

Third stage: Journeying from believer to follower

As Believers become Followers, God is at work shaping them as Christ’s image and helping them live out their calling. Followers discover how their story fits into God’s story, what it means to live in God’s story and how to help others discover God’s story.

The congregation responds by equipping and empowering Followers to live “story-formed” lives through group and self-directed learning experiences. These experiences are supported by spiritual guidance designed to help believers more deeply integrate their story into God’s story.

Followers continue their journey of faith as they connect to leadership opportunities such as worship teams, children and student ministry teams, small group leadership, as well as leadership in missional outreach.

Followers continue to grow as the congregation helps them acquire Bible study tools, discover their spiritual gifts, learn how to hear and respond to God’s voice, cultivate life skills and increase their ability to live lives of significance. The congregation also responds by helping Followers develop habits of constant learning, selfless generosity, and the ability to pass on to others what God has given them. 

During this time, issues relating to calling, life trajectory and purpose may surface. Unresolved emotional and spiritual issues may also present themselves. The congregation again responds with prayer, care, mentoring, spiritual direction and referrals to faith-friendly counseling.

Followers also serve by assuming greater leadership and influence roles, inside and outside the church. Followers are also more able to discern their calling and are learning how to share their faith more freely with others as God leads them. 

As Followers live more deeply in God’s story and grow in their ability to help others discover God’s story, they transition to the Servant Leader stage of their journey. While the congregation responds by providing mentoring and coaching, Followers often self-resource through peer mentoring conversations with other Followers, regular periods of solitude and ongoing spiritual direction. 

Fourth stage: Journeying from follower to servant leader

As Followers become Servant Leaders, God is at work through them impacting the world in significant ways. Servant Leaders become more deeply united to God presence and story in every sphere of their lives. As Servant Leaders fully live out their story in God’s story, they help others discover and grow in God’s story and empower them to live lives as high-impact servant leaders.  

The congregation responds by entrusting Servant Leaders with opportunities to make a significant impact on others, inside and outside the congregation. Servant Leaders often become teachers, guides, mentors and leaders of other leaders wherever God calls them. As volunteers or staff, they often lead entire ministry areas within the congregation. Outside the congregation, Servant Leaders may create their own ministries or organizations outside the congregation dedicated to some form of service, advocacy or social change. 

Servant Leaders nurture their journey of faith as they connect primarily to friendships that provide mutual encouragement, support, prayer and accountability. Servant Leaders also find community in ministry teams within the congregation and through the friendships of those they mentor.

At this stage of their journey, Servant Leaders grow less through formal church programming and more through self-directed study, attentiveness to the Spirit and mutual mentoring relationships as they live out their God-given calling and purpose. While remaining constant learners, they partner with church staff nurturing other disciples. The congregation may support emerging Servant Leaders through advanced education opportunities, peer learning groups and on-the-job training to develop them for the unique roles to which God has called them.

While Servant Leaders may serve through formal ministry opportunities, most of their witness and service is a natural outgrowth of their lifestyle as a follower of Jesus. Led by God’s Spirit, Servant Leaders experience conversations with others where it seems only natural to share what God has done in their lives. They enjoy looking for creative and natural ways to serve those around them. 

As Servant Leaders move forward in their journey of faith, they often find themselves under-challenged by the congregation and its ministries. They may even wonder if their church still has a place for them. If these questions remain unanswered, Servant Leaders may look for another congregation or drift away from the church entirely. 

The congregation can respond to this developmental challenge by accompanying, encouraging and empowering Servant Leaders as they discover and live out their unique calling and contribution within their life setting.

Our discipleship strategy, the Hope Circle, is just one way of supporting the complex, mysterious and grace-filled process of spiritual formation. It is also an evolving strategy, attempting to utilize as much of our congregation’s existing discipleship resources as possible. Through studying other churches and reflecting on the experience of our own congregation, we’ve discovered that our biggest challenge is not creating new resources but realigning existing resources in such a way that they are designed to respond to God’s work in our lives.

About the Author

Richard Webb is Pastor for Adult Discipleship at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa. He recently completed his doctoral thesis (D.Min., Bethel Seminary) on the challenge of cultivating discipleship within the context of a Lutheran mega-church. In his spare time Richard likes to write music, play jazz and talk theology and history over fine coffee.

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