The Four Stages of Discipling This Generation, And How We Finally Move Past Stage One

October 3, 2023

We’ve all encountered this at some point: We’re just living our lives. Minding our own business. Living the dream. And then one day we get a Facebook message from someone we haven’t seen in ages. We think, “What could it be? Why would they message me after all these years? Are they in trouble? Are they in need?”

Nope. They’re just trying to sell me some knives.

Oh, multi-level marketers. Whether you like them or can’t stand them, you can’t knock their hustle. They are motivated. I sometimes wish I had as much boldness in sharing the gospel with strangers as they do with sharing about HerbalLife. But one thing I do appreciate about their work is this: They all have well-defined goals. They have stages. You may start out at the bronze level, but if you work hard, you hit silver, then gold, diamond, double diamond, and eventually infinity stone!

I think it’d be helpful if the church had well-defined stages in our development. It’s hard to devote a lot of time to something if you don’t know the point, the goals, or what a win looks like. 

Often our stages to develop new believers are to become a member, join a small group, start serving, start giving, and start bringing your friends. I believe all those stages are essential in the process, but I wonder if there are more opportunities to develop our people outside of our church events, and especially in their everyday life and mission? In the following, I’ve tried to give some language that has worked for us. These are our four stages of discipleship.

1. Learner

Until you invite a person to follow you while you follow Christ, you are still in the learning phase. I believe many people today perceive themselves as a leader but are technically still a learner. I don’t care if you preach every Sunday, read Greek, and write bestselling books. If you have not invited someone to follow you in your walk with Christ, then you have yet to take on the mantle given to us by Jesus in the great commision. It’s still just a good suggestion; helpful, but not necessary. And I know it sounds strange to be called a learner when so many have maybe called you a leader. But in the words of John Maxwell, “If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you’re just taking a walk.” 

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe you can influence, impact, teach and even manage people in this stage. But you can do all those things over your lifetime without ever committing to disciple one single person. When looking at how Jesus modeled leadership, his mission hinged on discipleship. The world didn’t even know what he was doing until he started discipling. And the world today wouldn’t have his message if he didn’t start discipling. His mission hinged on his investment in the 12 far more than his teaching of the 5,000.

2. Leader

Leading means having at least one committed follower. Once you have explicitly invited someone to follow you, then you have moved from the learner stage to the leader stage. A lot of people think they’re a leader simply because they influence or impact people. But that’s how the world views leadership, not the church. The church has a higher standard, a focused plan. The church isn’t called to just make an impact. The church is called to make disciples. Thus leading demands disciplemaking.

If you’ve become a leader, you’re so close to being a disciplemaker. You’re on your way. Once your disciple starts discipling, then you’ve become a bona fide disciple maker. But you can’t be a disciple maker until you make a disciple who disciples.

3. Disciplemaker

This is where it gets fun, because you can see the fruit of your labor. At this point, the people you once discipled are now out making other disciples, and it has nothing to do with you. You are, hopefully, off making even more disciples.

4. Multiplier

Multiplying is when your fruit has begun growing on other people’s trees! Paul experienced this with Timothy when he said, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul, pouring into Timothy, asked Timothy to pour into others, who would in turn pour into others.

A multiplier  is constantly cultivating someone new. He isn’t threatened by new, young talent. He’s thankful for it. Because success without a successor is just temporary impact. And young passion without older wisdom is just a flash in the pan. Both need each other.

Today half of American pastors are older than 55. In 1992, 24 percent were that old. Pastors 65 and older have almost tripled in the last 25 years, from 6 percent to 17 percent. Meanwhile, pastors 40 and younger have fallen from 33 percent in 1992 to 15 percent today. So the older generation is holding on to leadership longer, while younger people are leaving the church sooner. I think there might be a correlation. 

The world is getting younger, while the church is getting older. Whether that’s simply a result of increased longevity, fewer options for retired pastors, or, sadly, the older generation’s desire to cling to power, the results are devastating because many of these older leaders have no successor in place to take over when they leave.

Multipliers don’t let this happen. They understand that if the church isn’t investing in the future right now, it won’t have much of a future at all.

The solution is discipleship. It may seem old school, but it’s timeless. I think the enemy sees our generational division and loves it. He wants to stifle the church. If you were the enemy and you heard Jesus say, “The gates of hell cannot prevail against my church,” you’d probably think, Spoiler alert. I now know how it ends! 

The enemy knows he can’t defeat the church. He can’t even defend himself from the church. (Gates aren’t an offensive weapon. Armies don’t throw gates at each other.) But he’s crafty. He can’t defeat the church, so he attempts to divide the church. Just look around and you’ll see it: race, politics, denomination, education, generation, etc. 

I’m convinced division is the number one tool and strategy of the enemy. So if that’s his strategy, we have to elevate our strategy.

Satan is trying to divide.

The church is trying to add.

But Jesus chose to multiply.

Grant Skeldon

Grant Skeldon

In response to millennials being labeled as noncommittal, lazy, entitled “slacktivists,” Grant Skeldon started Initiative Network with the goal to unite and train young leaders to be Christ-loving, city-changing, church-investing, disciple-making local missionaries. Initiative has united and accelerated some of the most diverse and dynamic next gen leaders from across the country to collaboratively transform their cities together. Grant has written for RelevantChurchLeadersThe Gospel Coalition, and his new book on millennials, The Passion Generation, has helped thousands of pastors and parents who are trying to reach, raise, and retain the next generation. Grant serves on the board of Catalyst and is an associate for Leadership Network and Exponential.
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