The Five-Step Discipleship Process to Spiritual Maturity
Many local churches and faith-based organizations have attempted to create processes that take people from unbelief to belief and then toward spiritual maturity. These sorts of discipleship processes are aimed at helping individuals reach a place where they are passionately pursuing Jesus, seeking to grow in their sanctification, and proactively helping others grow in sanctification too.
Before we dive in too far, however, let’s define what a discipleship process is.
What is a discipleship process? A discipleship process is an attempt to define different segments of a Christian’s spiritual journey. The process is a tool to help Christians, or their leaders, identify what stage they are in and what steps can be taken to grow in their faith.
Here are the five steps of the discipleship process I’ve identified:
- Unconverted to Intrigued Unbeliever
- Intrigued Unbeliever to New Believer
- New Believer to Engaged Believer
- Engaged Believer to Disciple Maker
- Disciple Maker & Beyond
Discipleship processes typically have multiple stages or phases and there are various opinions as to how we ought to define each stage and phase. However, it is key to remember that all discipleship processes should always be aimed at moving the disciple from one phase to the next while on their faith journey.
“Discipleship is just helping people take their next step of obedience.”
—Larry Osborne, Pastor & Author
1. Unconverted to Intrigued Unbeliever
The first phase is unbelief. If we use Pastor Osborne’s thought that discipleship is helping people take their next step of obedience, then the first step a person must take is becoming a believer in Christ. Discipleship starts there, at the obedience of belief.
In this phase, the person starts off as unconverted. In order to draw them from unbelief to belief, they need to be both wooed and intrigued.
The wooing is done by the Spirit of God. Traditional Christian Orthodoxy teaches us that God must first do something in the hearts of a person before they can respond to Him with faith. Jesus declared, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (Jn. 6:44). Then, just a few verses later, he stated, “No one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father.” (Jn. 6:65).
“Before a man can seek God, God must first have sought the man. Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him.”
Certainly, there are various theological opinions amongst evangelicals as to how this happens. Faithful Christians disagree on the details of how this “drawing” takes place, however, we can all agree that the unconverted person eventually places their faith in Christ as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit.
This truth ought to inspire us to pray. The Apostle Paul said to his protégé Timothy, “I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1). We ask the Spirit of God to woo individuals unto himself. A church that effectively disciples people will first be a church that prays for people.
Another thing that we can do to help people move from this phase to the next, is to relate with people in a manner that interests them. Anytime we interact with someone, we should treat them as if they are the ones being drawn by the Spirit of God. As the Holy Spirit woos people, they will have questions, and they’ll seek to connect with other people that they perceive might have the answers. This where we come in.
“If someone is asking questions about God or spirituality, it’s safe to assume that God has already done something in them, and we ought to be prepared to cultivate whatever it is the Holy Spirit is already doing.”
—Greg Atkinson, Author
Whether we have all of the answers to their questions or not is rarely relevant, but how we respond to them is always relevant. We must show genuine care and kindness for the person, as well as interest in their questions. If we dismiss them, or their questions and concerns, we potentially quench their interest. If we take no interest in them, we potentially offend them.
No person has ever been argued into the kingdom of God, but many have been loved into the kingdom of God. Before we jump to apologetic answers and defenses (which may or may not be necessary), may we first demonstrate love and kindness first.
Bottom Line: We must be genuinely interested in people, their lives, and their stories. We must be good genuine friends to those in this phase.
How do we move people from “Unconverted” to the next step?
- Pray for them
- Be a great friend
- Relate with them
2. Intrigued Unbeliever to New Believer
Once an unbeliever is intrigued, they go into phase two. This is where the person may have deep questions about spirituality, about God, and the Bible. They may have questions about ethics and morality. This is where good theological teaching and apologetics may come into play.
Each person is unique, so they’re all going to have different questions that demand all sorts of different types of responses. Some people will only be in this phase for a short time period, while others may be in this phase much longer. Regardless, you’ll want to challenge people to place their faith in Christ, while simultaneously being gracious with those who still have not reached the place where they genuinely believe.
Sometimes Christians assume that the Intrigued Unbeliever will just “figure it out.” This is simply not true. They won’t.
With effective discipleship, this Intrigued Unbeliever must get connected with a source that can help answer their questions. This might be a pastor, a seasoned member of the church, or a trusted leader. It is essential to have resources available for any person in this phase, but those resources can vary significantly based on the context. The goal for these relationships and resources is to demonstrate that the Christian worldview is the most coherent worldview that exists.
There’s a famous quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” We’re not sure if this quote actually originated with St. Francis, but it’s often cited when seeking to challenge believers to behave in accordance with Gospel ideals.
Many of us like this quote. I get the sentiment behind. We should indeed be preaching the Gospel with our actions, attitudes, and deeds. Yes, we all agree. However, many people simply use this quote as an excuse to avoid opening their mouths and articulating the Gospel message.
I certainly agree that we should always be preaching the Gospel with our behaviors, but we must use words too. Words are more necessary, far more than what most people realize. The Intrigued Unbeliever must hear the truth if they are ever to believe.
“How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?”
We want to make sure our Gospel presentations are simple. We also want to ensure that our lingo is easy to understand and culturally relevant. And, all the while, as we stressed in the last phase, we want to continually pray for them.
Bottom Line: The Intrigued Unbeliever needs to hear the Gospel message, preached with boldness, conviction, and clarity. Otherwise, they cannot ever believe.
These are the types of things we should be praying for the Intrigued Unbeliever:
- That God would give them new hearts and that God would put his own Spirit within them (Ez. 11:19; 36:27).
- That God would open their hearts to believe the Gospel (Act. 16:14).
- That God would remove the devil’s blinding influence on their lives (2 Cor. 4:4).
- As the Apostle Paul prayed, that God would grant them the gift of repentance. (2 Tim. 2:25-26).
Eventually, by the power and grace of God, many of the Intrigued Unbelievers will place their hope and faith in Christ, and in Christ alone. Praise be to God! At that moment, they go from being an unbeliever to a believer. This is the moment they enter the next phase.
How do we move people from “Intrigued Unbeliever” to the next phase?
- Give them access to resources that will answer their questions.
- Preach the Gospel
- Pray for them
3. New Believer to Engaged Believer
The New Believers phase is so much fun to watch. Typically, New Believers are zealous and very enthusiastic about their new faith. It’s amazing.
Frequently there are visible signs of change in their life. Sometimes, some of the more demonstrative sins are immediately shed. Drug use, alcohol abuse, criminal activity, pornography, foul language, sinful media consumption, etc. are all gone in a matter of days.
Of course, not everyone’s story is the same. Some New Believers struggle with some of these besetting sins for long periods of time before finding freedom. We should not expect that every person’s experience will be the same. However, a common sign of genuine faith is indeed an enthusiastic desire to obey God’s commands.
No matter how well we structure our church services or Christian education curriculums, if a person’s foundation is rocky, it will be extremely difficult for them to succeed in sanctification or ever develop a vibrant relationship with Jesus. Tragically, this is where most North American Christians live for the rest of their spiritual lives. Most lack a strong spiritual foundation. That is why we, as church leaders, want to help the New Believer build a strong foundation.
The New Believer is in a very important phase and we want to ensure a strong foundation. Strong foundations consist of Christian disciplines and the work of the Holy Spirit.
- Bible Reading
- Prayer life
- Christian community and resources
- Spiritual practices
- Formal discipleship
During this phase, we want to put a heavy emphasis on spiritual disciplines, particularly regular Bible reading and prayer. For the new believer, we want to teach them and equip them and inspire them to read the Bible, understand what God is seeking to communicate to his people and exhort them to apply it to their everyday lives.
We want to encourage them to commune with God, to talk with God on a regular basis, and even on a daily if possible.
Christian Community & Resources
We want to encourage things like church attendance, Bible studies, and small groups. We potentially want to give the New Believer in this phase good books that teach on spiritual disciplines.
We also want to introduce the New Believer to Christian disciplines like fasting, financial giving, and Christian meditation. Tragically, many people follow Jesus for years (and even decades) without ever graduating from the New Believer phase because they never develop spiritual disciplines in their lives.
A local church may also choose to enroll the New Believer in some formal discipleship programs or other forms of Christian education such as Sunday school classes, equipping classes, or a local Bible institute that is designed for the layperson. There are varies ways to accomplish this, but the goal must always be the same, inspire the New Believer to dig into the Bible and help shepherd the New Believer to develop the essential Christian disciplines that will yield a lifetime of fruit.
The Holy Spirit
Lastly, for a person to grow in their faith, they need the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul rebuked the Galatian Christians for thinking that human efforts would be the thing that caused them to continue living the Christian life. He made clear that it is foolish to try to “finish in the flesh” that which began “by the Spirit” (Gal. 3:3). Not only is growing in our faith a spiritual thing, but we are also dependent on the Spirit. We can only grow in our faith if God himself permits it (Heb. 6:3).
For this reason, the Apostle Paul prayed for the church in Thessalonica, “May our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. May he make your hearts blameless in holiness.” (1 Thess. 3:11-13). Two chapters later he prayed again, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24). We ought to pray these types of prayers for New Believers.
How do we move people from “New Believer” to the next phase?
- Inspire them to read the Bible.
- Help them develop Christian disciplines.
- Pray for them
4. Engaged Believer to Disciple Maker
Once the spiritual disciplines are in place, the New Believer begins to move into the next season of their faith journey. This is where they tend to be highly involved in Christian community and the spiritual disciplines have truly begun to impact how they live each day. This is the Engaged Believer.
Signs of an Engaged Believer:
- Highly engaged and active within Christian community and Christian service.
- Has shown a strong track record of living out their faith.
- They have begun to develop strong, trusted friendships with other believers.
- Significant alteration in his or her motivations.
The Engaged Believer tends to make significant efforts to share the Gospel with his or her friends and family. They are also no longer seeking to merely get rid of bad or sinful things, but the Engaged Believer is now seeking to fill his or her life with the ideal things that will help shape his or her worldview. And, sooner rather later, the Engaged Believer becomes an avid Bible reader and seeks to study deeper concepts of Christian theology.
Sharing the Gospel
To ensure that we develop and shepherd the Engaged Believers well, we want to equip them to effectively share the Gospel. This may involve having formal classes or seminars where you teach people how to share the components of the Gospel narrative. This may mean you curate videos or other digital resources that teach people how to succinctly articulate the deeper theological implications of the Gospel. A church can also accomplish this by launching a street evangelism team that forces people to get out there and talk.
Mentoring New Believers & Leadership
In addition to sharing the Gospel, we want the Engage Believers to become mentors to the New Believers. We want Engaged Believers to begin to take some leadership initiative. Their leadership potential and bandwidth may be dependent upon (and occasionally limited by) their personality, skills, and experience. However, every person can be a leader to some extent.
Bestselling author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell has often said, “Leadership is influence.” That’s it. Maxwell argues that everyone has some level of influence, whether they realize it or not. We simply want to challenge the Engaged Believers to begin to realize whatever influence God has given them and then to begin to intentionally use it for the betterment of others.
Seminary professor Charles Smith has argued that Christian leadership is defined by any Christian taking the “initiative to influence” others. We do not need to be leadership experts or theologians to take initiative, any Christian can be a Christ-exalting leader by simply taking the initiative, by simply putting forth the effort to seek to influence others in a positive manner.
We ought to exhort the Engaged Believers to take initiative, to realize that the Lord had given them opportunities to influence others, and to intentionally and proactively seek to influence others, to push them toward Christ. This is not a matter of expertise, it’s a matter of effort.
Strong Christian Worldview
The Engaged Believer has begun to develop a strong Christian worldview. Frequently, they have developed a very real and deep obsession with the Gospel, which has begun to inform their ethics, their politics, their generosity, and their daily decision making. We want to foster this well.
The Grace of God
Lastly, as I have already highlighted in the previous phases, for a person to develop in their faith and continue to grow, we need the power and grace of God. We need to pray for Engaged Believers, that God would continue to develop them and give them opportunities. The Christians in Philippi had developed a track record of being Engaged Believers, and yet, the Apostle Paul continued to pray for them every time he remembered them (Phil. 1:3). We should continue to pray for the Engaged Believers in our midst.
How do we move people from “Engaged Believer” to the next phase?
- Equip them to share the Gospel
- Challenge them to mentor New Believers
- Give them leadership opportunities
- Help them develop their Christian worldview
- Pray for them
5. Disciple Maker & Beyond
The fifth and final phase of the discipleship process is the Disciple Maker. The Disciple Maker is someone who has been an Engaged Believer for a significant period and can effectively help others become very mature followers of Christ. The Disciple Maker has demonstrated Biblical wisdom, consistent Christian maturity, and strong Christian worldview. But more than this, they have consistently begun to help other Christians move from New Believer to Engaged Believer to Disciple Maker.
The person qualified to be a great Disciple Maker is the Christian that has become very sensitive to their own sin and they continually respond to God with repentance. I once heard a pastor say, “The longer I serve Jesus, the more I realize that I don’t necessarily sin less, but I am far more aware of my sin.” The Christian that is most equipped to make disciples is the Christian that understands this sentiment very well. The Disciple Maker seems to have deep gratitude for the grace of God and is marked by humility.
The Disciple Maker also is someone who knows how to spend time with other people and teaches them how to become spiritual mentors. The Engaged Believers may know how to do some level of mentorship to other believers, but the Disciple Maker is mentoring the mentors. The Disciple Maker does not just make disciples, the Disciple Maker then trains other peoples to be Disciple Makers too.
Not Only For Pastors
We want our churches to be filled with Disciple Makers. We do not want disciple making to become something only pastors do, no, we want lots of congregants in on the discipleship actions of our churches. Also to important to note, the Disciple Makers are not at all obligated to become pastors (or even official church leaders), however, your pastors and church leaders most certainly ought to be Disciple Makers.
Disciple Makers are typically going to be your top-notch leaders and most influential people; therefore, they need to continue leadership development. One of the best ways to shepherd the Disciple Maker well is to continue to challenge him or her with great leadership training and equipping.
Importance of Emotional Health
Also, the Disciple Maker is the Christian that is growing in emotional health. They understand the emotional baggage that we all carry, and they know how to respond appropriately.
Frequently we may have New Believers, or even Engage Believers, that are emotionally unhealthy. An emotionally unhealthy person feels different emotions and they simply don’t know what to do with those emotions. They overreact in situations or they allow their emotions to inform their choices. The emotionally unhealthy person allows their emotions and feelings to govern their choices, rather than being self-controlled and being governed by the truth of Scripture.
Emotional health is grossly underrated in contemporary Christian circles. It is hard to measure at times, but of immense importance.
“Being emotionally healthy is the greatest gift a church leader can give to his church.”
—Pastor Jonathan Parnell
Emotional health, also, is not a one-time thing. Emotional health is something we are always growing and maturing in. The Disciple Maker is the person who has recognized this and is continually growing in this arena of their lives. Churches would be wise to develop programs or make resources available that help Disciple Makers grow in their emotional health.
If a Christian has not yet developed in their emotional health, no matter how long they have been a follower of Christ, they are likely not yet in the Disciple Maker phase but are likely still an Engaged Believer or New Believer.
Tragically, many practicing Christians never graduate from the Engaged Believer phase, even after many years (and even decades) because they never develop their emotional health. My two personal favorite books that address this topic are Leading with a Limp by Dan Allender and Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero.
Besides emotional health, the Disciple Maker is theologically savvy. They know the Bible very well. They understand Biblical concepts. They can teach others these concepts too. While formal theological education can be very valuable and helpful in the life of the Disciple Maker, it is not necessary. However, churches and faith-based organizations that want to see strong Disciple Makers would be wise to give their Disciple Makers some form of quality formal theological education.
The Disciple Maker is someone who has matured in their faith. They have a strong understanding of the Bible and theology. They are highly engaged in church and missional activities. They are self-sacrificing. They are focused on spending time with other people. This is the place we want everyone to get to.
The Disciple Maker is the person who doesn’t rely solely on Sunday morning sermons for his or her spiritual growth. Sermons are helpful, but the sermons have become a supplement, long ago, because the Disciple Maker is regularly engaging with God through prayer and Bible reading. The Disciple Makers have learned to feed themselves.
Even Disciple Makers Need Guidance
The one pitfall for Disciple Makers is that they get overlooked by pastors and leaders. Because they seem like the rock-stars of the spiritual community, most people assume that the Disciple Makers are always “all good.” But this is not true. Disciple Makers need love and pastoral care too. This is best to come from other Disciple Makers.
The best way to shepherd Disciple Makers is to create a structure where they can spend time with other Disciple Makers where they can “let their hair down” and just relax and be themselves. Many Disciple Makers end being such great mentors to others, they rarely end up being in settings where they themselves can be mentored and pastored well.
Lastly, as with all the phases, the most valuable step is to pray for Disciple Makers. Jesus prayed for his disciples right before he sent them out to become Disciple Makers in the world (Jn. 17:6-26).
The Apostle Paul instructed the Roman believers to “persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12:2). Paul followed his own command by continually praying for his son in the Lord, Timothy, even though Timothy had already been a pastor and effective Disciple Maker for many years (2 Tim. 1:3-7). And Paul even asked for prayer for himself, “so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere.” (2 Thess. 3:1).
Even the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest Disciple Makers in church history, needed prayer. How much more do our contemporary Disciple Makers need prayer? Let us pray for the Disciple Makers in our midst.
How do we best shepherd the “Disciple Makers”?
- Continue to challenge them with leadership development
- Continue to help them strengthen their emotional health
- Offer quality formal theological education
- Pray for them
If we are going to effectively take people through discipleship processes, then we need to be intentional and strategic in our efforts. Discipleship, mentoring, and leadership development take significant time and energy and resources and effort.
However, with God’s help, we can develop effective discipleship plans that will help those we care about, helping them mature and grow in their faith. May the Lord work through you as you seek to disciple others, for the glory of his name and for the good of his people.
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a professor and recruiter at Bethlehem College and a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, MN. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also a podcaster, author, and Ph.D. student. Kenneth lives in Bloomington, MN with his wife Malaina, they have one daughter.