As we get older we look back on things we have done with a sense of awe, accomplishment, and in some cases horror. This is because life is a learning process that starts from the time we are born. We learn to walk, speak, ride a bike, and later in life we teach others to do the same. Discipleship is similar in this regard. In Discipleship we start with our birth which is making Christ our savior, we learn to walk and talk, and later teach others the same.
According to Jim Putnam, discipleship consists of the following five stages: Spiritually dead, infant, child, young adult, and parent. He goes further and introduces four relational spheres which are the centrality of a relationship with God, relationships with the family of God, relationships at home, and relationships with the world. The combination of the stages and spheres assists the disciple in determining where they are with their walk with Christ. It also assists disciple makers in making better disciples, because each stage and sphere will require a different approach to get the person to the next level. Following the process assists the church because stronger disciples help create other disciples, and it ensures that leadership positions are not filled by those that are not ready for the task.
We have all met someone who is in stage one. These individuals may believe there is a God, but want to follow their own path. Or they may not believe in God at all, but either way an acceptance of Christ as savior has not happened. Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. The outcome of “sin is different from that of obedience to Christ. Remuneration is the principle by which we become heirs to death.” It is important to understand how to interact with an individual in this stage. Putnam says it best when he says “They need love through honest friendships and relationships with believers. We often preach our best sermons with our lives and not words.”
The second stage of discipleship is that of an infant. An infant is someone who is most likely a new believer, but it can be someone who has been a Christian for years and has failed to grow. 2 Peter 2:2 describes this stage as “like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.” What is an infant? An infant makes messes, cries when they need something, and they need twenty four hour care. Though infants are a lot of work they are incredible blessings that God bestows on us. It is the same with spiritual infants. David Platt writes “He created human beings, not only to enjoy his grace in a relationship with Him, but also to extend His glory to the ends of the earth.”
The infant has been spiritually transformed by coming to faith and accepting Christ as savior. We have all been in this stage and it is very important to remember that. The infant will have zeal, and hopefully will ask a lot of questions about the faith. They are new to it and do not understand. Putnam states “They need someone to care for and feed them so they can grow and thrive. Eventually they will learn to feed themselves, but at this point, they don’t really know how. They need protection and guidance during this vulnerable stage of discipleship.” It is not enough to show them how to do it, but just like any parent we must pray them through it. Prayer is critical.
The third stage is that of a Child. A child must be nurtured, and they are growing in their relationship with God and with other Christians as well. Hey can be either a new believer or someone who has believed for many years. The can do things for themselves but still depend on others to lead them. A Child can be “overconfident, prideful, and full of himself, but they can also be insecure, self-loathing, and full of defeat.” They need to be instructed about what to expect from others, and to be obedient to God. On a personal note this is where I currently fall in my spiritual life. When things do not go my way the first thing I try to do is fix it instead of going to prayer and seeking God’s wisdom. Also if I get to much affirmation pride starts to set in. It is truly irritating when this happens, but I do not realize it until it is too late.
The fourth stage is that of the young adult. The young adult is God focused and making the shift from being self-centered to others centered. The Apostle John describes young adults as overcoming the evil one. 1 John 2:13 states “I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the father.” They are involved in ministry and they put the needs of others before their own. They do not seek affirmation for the things they do, but are humbled because they are able to participate in ministry. They are starting to see the mission that God has in store for them, they want to study, serve, evangelize, and go on missions trips. They need help in be held accountable for their ministry experiences, plenty of coaching, and a lot of love.
The final stage is that of a parent. This is someone who has progressed through the five stages, has matured, and can now teach others. A perfect example would be a Pastor of a local church, and for some of us it could take a lifetime to get there. God is the center of their lives and they seek to study, and live His word on a daily basis. They have a strong desire make disciples that will serve the Lord Jesus. Parents also have an innate ability to determine where a person is on their spiritual journey. As a result they will know what attention they need, and how to get them the help and resources needed to progress. Though a Pastor is a good example it does not need to be only them. It could be a Sunday school teacher, the secretary, and the list can go on. Parents are not perfect and should not be expected to be. They need to be aligned with other parents who can help them, and keep them accountable to keep progressing with their own spiritual lives.
To go along with the five stages of discipleship there is also the four relational spheres. The first is in the disciple’s relationship with God. We must remember that God is the nucleus of everything, the center on which everything else rests. We are saved by grace, and should never forget the necessity of this fact. If we do we run the risk of trying to work out things for ourselves. If God is the center of our lives then we should also be bearing some fruit. If we are not then we need to take a closer look to see if we are truly submitted to this first sphere.
The second sphere involves our relationship with the Church as a whole. The church in this case means other believers not just a building. How is our relationship with other believers? We should be building each other up just as the early church did in the book of Acts. We are human and there will be disagreements, but are they left to infect the whole church? Or are they hearty disagreements that are discussed rationally to better the community. If Christ is central in our lives then our love for others will naturally grow.
The third sphere is about our relationship in regards to our home. This sphere is one that can sometimes get neglected, and to be honest one that I need to do a better job at. Sometimes I get this notion that if I am not at the church teaching then I am not doing God’s work. The Lord gave me a wife and four children and their relationship with God should be more important to me then someone else. I also tend to get selfish and wants things, and some time to myself which can lead to neglecting my primary responsibilities as a husband and father. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes “Self-Denial means only knowing Christ, no longer knowing oneself.” The needs of the family, and me being the spiritual leader of the household need to be a stronger priority. This can be done by remembering these words of Bonhoeffer. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:25 “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” If we are unable to disciple at home then chances are we will not be able to do it anywhere.
The final sphere involves our relationship with the world. Whether we like it or not, if we say we are Christians then we are representatives of the kingdom. Everything we do should be for the glory of God, and that involves everything not just those within the confines of the church. Do people you work with know you are a Christian? In this way we are missionaries. There are lost people at work, and they need to know the saving grace of God. We are to be Christians 100% of the time and work, school, and home are not exempt. Colossians 3:23 states “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than men.” Everything we do is for the Lord and that must remembered.
The five stages of discipleship and the relational spheres come together to ask one question. Are we being submissive to Christ? In Luke 9:23 Jesus defines what this meant. He told His disciples “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” The look on the faces of the disciples probably emanated fear. Today the image of the cross, though important, is a symbol of what Christ did for us. When Jesus spoke this it meant death and humiliation.
Are we willing to follow our master’s example? By no means does this mean we have to physically die, but it does mean we must die to ourselves. It means to put him first, and the needs of others such as our family. Bonhoeffer writes “The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments of the world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ.” When the disciples were called they left everything and followed. Will we do that? Dr. Earley states “Any disciple-making strategy that merely adds Jesus to an already busy life is doomed for failure. Potential disciples must be called to forsake all to follow Jesus.”
Following Jesus will ultimately lead to the cross. This is where his transforming work was done for us, and we will eventually reach a point of no return. We will either give none or all because there is no middle road. Submission to Christ will eventually mean the end of what we want, because Christ will have something much greater for us to do.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.
Earley, Dave, and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is…How to live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&h Publishing Group, 2013..
King James Version Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005.
Platt, David. Radical. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010.
Putnam, Jim, and Bobby Harrington With Robert Coleman. Discipleshift. Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN: Zondervan, 2013.
 Jim Putnam and Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman, Discipleshift (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 61-69.
 Ibid, 85-88.
 King James Version Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005), 1419.
 Jim Putnam and Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman, Discipleshift (Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN: Zondervan, 2013), 62-63.
 David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010), 65.
 Jim Putnam and Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman, Discipleshift (Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN: Zondervan, 2013), 64.
 Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…How to live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&h Publishing Group, 2013), 152.
 Jim Putnam and Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman, Discipleshift (Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN: Zondervan, 2013), 66.
 Jim Putnam and Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman, Discipleshift (Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN: Zondervan, 2013), 69.
 Jim Putnam and Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman, Discipleshift (Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN: Zondervan, 2013), 85.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 86.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 87.
 Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…How to live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&h Publishing Group, 2013), 86.