Episode 02: Stages of Faith

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Bob Johnson has served as the executive pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist church in Houston, TX, for 14 years, where he has led lay and staff teams related to discipleship. He recently shifted focus to bring more attention to the church's discipleship-related strategic goals. He has recently joined Ascending Leaders as an adjunct consultant/coach.

Bob and I have been acquaintances for years, but in the past probably six months, Bob and I have gotten to know each other very well. He has been part of one of Ascending Leaders' DiscipleOn communities - which are virtual communities of people in churches of a variety of denominations around the United States who are working on discipleship.

Disciples are people who are growing more deeply in love with Jesus.

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We're going to focus in on four stages of a disciple's growth. You know, Jesus' last words to his eleven disciples were, "Make disciples." (Matthew 8:18-19) In other words, make more people like themselves. People who are growing more deeply in love with Jesus.

And it shows us in the gospels, we see actually how Jesus did that with the twelve and with other disciples. He gave four major invitations and actually one declaration in the growth of a disciple.

Bob, how does this relate to churches today? What do you see going on in churches?

BOB

A lot of churches, and Chapelwood included, I would say particularly large churches and Chapelwood among them, are very program-based. But we're discovering that our programs and participation in programs doesn't necessarily equate to discipleship growth. Our mission, along with all other United Methodist Churches, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And we've kind of struggled with, well, making disciples is our mission...but how do we know when we've made one?

Ford motor company's mission is to make automobiles. Well, they know what an automobile looks like when they've made one.

So, we've actually spent a lot of time trying to wrestle with the idea, "What is a disciple, and what is it we're trying to do?"

And then, you can't tell if you've been successful or not, until you know what it is that success is.

That's the first thing that we've been doing, Mike, and I think that's probably an issue that a lot of churches are dealing with, Methodist or not -- what is a disciple?

And then, try to figure out, how does what we offer, in terms of ministries and programs and so forth, how does that relate and are we actually making disciples? Or are we just busy?

Making disciples is our mission...but how do we know when we've made one?

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MIKE

You're on to something there. You know, there are a lot of churches today that are struggling. And I believe that one of the key reasons is that they just are struggling with how to do discipleship. In a recent study, Barna Research saw that just one in five Christians say they're involved in some intentional discipleship activity.

That is a very depressing statistic. And then, you talked about activity. About 10 years ago, REVEAL released their results. And the funny thing is, when they started out, that was at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, they were sure that increased church activity meant more mature disciples. And they just found out, as you said Bob, that's not true.

There are people who are very active who are immature as disciples, and there are those who are not so active who are more mature.

It's not about activity.

BOB

That's right. There seems to be no direct or very strong correlation between how busy I am in church ministries and my growth as a disciple.

Just another little anecdote from Chapelwood - we have over 300 different ministries. We used to brag about that all the time to new members. And we discovered that rather than encouraging people, it actually discouraged them. They didn't even know where to get started. It felt totally overwhelming.

So, I go into the grocery store and want to buy a box of cereal, and find that there are 300 different flavors of cereal. It overwhelms you. And then on top of that, it didn't actually produce disciples.

Without a definition of discipleship, we were searching for activity.

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MIKE

I think that some people call that "choice fatigue." We have so much choice that our minds just shut down.

BOB

Don't even get started. It's too hard to make a decision.

MIKE

Yeah, that's it. In the REVEAL study, it was interesting that in that survey they gave people descriptions to describe themselves. And they came out with - what they saw over hundreds of people who took the survey - were four different descriptions that describe the growth of a disciple.

The ironic thing is that those four descriptions, they connect clearly with those four stages that Jesus used. Those four invitations.

Let's spend a couple minutes and just explore with people, or at least share with people, what these four invitations are.

The first one is "Come and See."

We see that especially in John 1:38-39, where the first disciples come to him and they're wondering, might he be the Messiah? And he says, well, "Come and see." Come and see where I live.

The REVEAL survey called that "Exploring Christ."

The person at this stage is saying, "I may even believe in God." Those early disciples, they were Jews, they believed in God the Father. But hey, Jesus, as the Messiah -- they weren't sure. They didn't know.

For some people, even today, they say faith in Christ is not a significant part of my life.

 Anything else you've found when you see these people at your church, Bob?


BOB

I like the words come and see, because I think people that are in this exploring Christ stage, if they show up at our church, they kind of come with the attitude of, "I'm just going to come and see if you guys live out this faith that you talk about the way you say you are."

A lot of them come, not with a negative attitude, but just, "I want to see. Is there anything to this? Why should this matter to me? Show me that this matters - why it should matter."

So yeah, I definitely see that exploring Christ phase in people that show up here.


They might even be hoping that you have some answers for them. But they may have had a bad previous church experience or they may have some doubts that they're up against. A lot of time people I think that I've met in that stage, they really are hoping that you've got something to offer. It's not like they're anti-church or anti-faith or anything like that. But they need to be convinced that there's really something here.

MIKE

So they need to hear clearly the gospel, the call to the gospel. At the same time, what my experience has been, don't push too hard. Because they need time to consider. Say, hey, you've got to make an answer right now -- you almost push somebody away.

BOB

People in that stage, I think - I call it bunk detectors - they have very, very sensitive bunk detectors. They can sense hypocrisy from a mile away. So it's really important not only to teach the gospel, to state the gospel, but to live by it. They've got to be able to see it, not just hear it.

MIKE

Let's go to that second stage. So, Jesus invited the early disciples to come and see, and then he moves onto, "Come and Follow Me." Matthew 4:19 is a good example of that. Many of us have that memorized, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of people."

The REVEAL survey called it, "Growing in Christ."

This is a very interesting stage. So, you've come to a place of belief. You believe in Jesus. You're working on what it means to get to know him. I've heard it described as, when you're exploring Christ, he's outside your car. In this stage, he's now inside your car, but it's like you've got a passenger sitting with you and you don't know them that well.

I remember, Bob, the first time you and I went out for lunch, and I was sitting in the passenger seat of your car. And we didn't know each other very well. We were getting to know each other. So I was in your car, there's no way you're going to allow me to drive your car. And I wonder if that's part of it too, right?

You're in this stage where Jesus is in the car, but trusting him to drive it? That's a big step.

BOB

That's a great metaphor. I don't know you well enough yet to let you drive my car. I don't know you well enough to drive my life. But I trust you enough to let you inside the car. 

When people first get into this stage, I think that they've come through the exploring Christ stage, they've developed enough trust and confidence in the gospel and in the church, the people that are presenting the gospel. They tend to be kind of excited at the beginning of this stage. They're hungry, and they're learning. Now they're beginning to serve and they're experiencing kind of the rush that goes with seeing Christ at work when you serve in mission and so forth.

I think this is the stage that has the most danger of people getting stuck in it. And it's because this is the stage where you can grow comfortable. Towards the end of this stage, maybe some of that enthusiasm wanes a little bit and complacency begins to take over.

I think this is where people that are stuck, spiritually, not growing -- I think this is the stage where they tend to be stuck the most.

MIKE

The REVEAL survey said that this is usually the largest of the stages. This is the largest percentage in the average church. And I've seen a number of churches' REVEAL results, and there's only one I've seen for whom this stage is not their largest.

BOB

I attended a DiscipleForward workshop that you did a couple of weeks ago. And you said something that made the light bulb go on for me -- I'd never seen it this way before.

So, I knew that the growing in Christ stage was the largest stage. I think the Willow Creek folks say something like 40-60% of people in a church might be in this stage. But what occurred to me was, you get what you design for. And because a lot of churches are program-based churches, and programs serve the needs of church members, and they feel good doing it and so forth... my theory - my theory, you might want to challenge me - but we actually have so many people in this stage because we've actually designed our churches to produce people in this stage.

MIKE

Yeah, I think it's more than a theory. I think there's some truth to that. When I led a church, pastored a church congregation, I think I did that as well. That's where most of the people are at, and that's what we ministered to.

And the sad thing is that, yes, the stats say that we're not moving that many forward.

But I think there's another reason too. And that brings us to Jesus' declaration.

One of the authors of one of the books, I know you appreciate this book too, The Critical Journey. They talk about a wall. That there's something you hit that's very confusing.

For me, it was disappointment in life over, actually over some career things. And, really disappointment with God. I mean, you think you can trust God, and all of a sudden you're not sure about it.

A good illustration I think from Jesus' life is in Matthew 8 through about 14, where you see a number of those things. You see the disciples with him, the twelve with him, in a boat in a storm. And they're terrified. Yes, they believe in him, but they're in a storm and they've forgotten about their belief in him.

And they're saying, "What are you doing sleeping through this?" And they're actually bewildered by the fact that, oh yeah, he can calm a storm.

Then again in Matthew 14, you see Peter walking on the water. And what you need to remember is that these disciples of that day...the fishermen of that day... they couldn't swim. For them, the open sea was kind of a sign of hell. It was awful. And then, in a storm, it was even worse.

I wonder if for some people, it's really hard to get past that wall. And that's what keeps them in that second stage, the "Come and Follow Me" stage.

What have you seen about that wall in people's lives?

BOB

I think the wall can be caused by, or what the bricks in the wall are made of, can be different.

So there's certainly the wall that people hit when they face a life crisis, and they begin to doubt whether their faith is sufficient. You know, the storm has overtaken the boat, Jesus seems to be asleep in the stern, and there's doubt as to whether or not he's either going to wake up and do something or whether he's strong enough to do it. I think there's that kind of wall.

But I also think there's a wall that's built more out of complacency and comfort. You're in this growing in Christ stage perhaps, and you become satisfied. Your Bible knowledge is growing and there's this joy of serving that we've talked about.

And you know, that feels good. It's kind of comfortable here in the boat. I don't know if I want to get out of the boat and try walking on the water.

So it's not an existential crisis, per se. And I think there's another issue too that comes up for some people. After you've lived in that growing in Christ stage for a while, there's this kind of shadow thought that begins to come over you. It's like, "Is this all there is?" I mean, this is good, but I can get this at the country club too. Is this it? Is this all you've got?

And I think that can be a wall too. So again, it's not so much of a personal crisis -- which can certainly be a wall -- but more one that is built out of complacency.

MIKE

Just yesterday I had somebody ask me -- they knew someone who I think had been on staff in a church and had been let go, a painful experience, and was at a wall.

And the person asked me, "What would you recommend for somebody who's at a wall?"

Wow, what do you say in two sentences for that?

I said, "Well, I think for a person like that, it's going to take time, but maybe Celebrate Recovery, or it could be Al Anon. In the sense that yeah, it seems like others have treated us cruelly, and that can become a wall for us. Part of that is identifying what are our own idols that we're hanging onto. What is our own addiction? Whether it's success, or it's happiness... I think that's part of the way through that wall.

Because then you get to that point of that third stage, "Come and Be With Me." Where it's a much deeper, more intimate, relationship with Christ. It's a deeper trust. It's a trusting him, in spite of the disappointment. Or, in spite of the injustices in life.

BOB

I like those invitations from Jesus and the way they state the change that takes place, the moving from stage 2 to stage 3. So in "Come and Follow," follow is an active verb. It's something that I do. But "Be," it's hard for me to BE. Because it doesn't involve doing.

I've got to BE WITH me, I've got to trust him. I've got to trust myself to him.

It's no longer about me and what I do. It seems like a subtle shift, but it's a huge shift.

Let me say another thing too, because you used the word "addiction" a couple of times. Chapelwood has a ministry called Mercy Street. It's not based on Celebrate Recovery, but it is a ministry that draws a lot of people with alcohol or drug or other addictions.

The people that I know in that worship community, that have gone through -- and certainly addiction is a wall, right? I mean, that's a WALL.

But people I know in that community, that have got on the other side of that wall, they've got clean and sober, they're in recovery... I've learned to say, by the way, that you never say, "You're healed" or "You're cured" of your addiction, but you're in recovery. The "Be With Christ" part of that for them is huge.

I've been able to see in those people what it looks like to break through the wall of addiction and to be with Christ, what that means to them.

MIKE

I wonder if, in a sense, you look at any of us, and our sin inclinations in our lives, and think of those as addictions, then maybe that third stage is actually, "That is a Christian in recovery."

That is a person in recovery from whatever, if my addiction is to anger, or even, I could have an addiction to peace -- I just want things to be peaceful.

BOB

Following up on that idea, that metaphor a little bit, I don't know if you're familiar with the 12 steps, what the steps are. But the first one is basically recognizing that there's a higher power than you. There is a God. And you're not Him.

And the second step is to realize that you're powerless over your addiction.

You know, that second stage, where the action verb is "follow," well, maybe because it still feels a little like it's about me at that stage, maybe we're not quite willing to recognize or to admit, "I'm powerless over this sin addiction." But when you get to stage three, you get through the wall, you're in that place where you're able to admit that not only is there a God and you're not Him, but, yes, I'm powerless to overcome on my own this addiction. It may not be alcohol or drugs for you, but whatever it is.

So, I think that's a good marker of stage three.

MIKE

Definitely. And then the distinction you drew between doing and being; it's interesting in the local church sometimes, it seems to me that we have more calls to doing than calls to being.

It seems to me that in the church, we have more calls to doing than calls to being.

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BOB

And that's what I meant when I was saying that churches being so heavily program-based, and here's Chapelwood bragging about 300+ ministries, right? "We have 300+ ways for you to DO." Just a little bit of an oversimplification, because we do have ways to be, but -- I think making a point here, do we have in terms of church program design, do we have as much focus on "be" as we do with "do?"

Probably not.

And that's why so many folks end up in stage two.

MIKE

No doubt. I think that's probably the case.

You'd think that that stage of "Be with Me," well that is IT. You've arrived.

But Jesus gives a fourth invitation. We find that in John 15, where he says over and over again, "Remain in Me." Or some people would say, "Abide in me."

The REVEAL survey called that, "Being Christ-centered."

The distinction about this is, this is the person for whom life is an act of obedience. They're willing to sacrifice.

Now, people in the third stage are willing to sacrifice, but what this fourth stage is especially marked by is sacrifice.

BOB

I recently had a chance to hear Greg Hawkins, who was one of the authors of the REVEAL study that you're referring to, recently came out with a new book called More. He was describing that the biggest difference between stage 3 and stage 4, he uses the word "Surrender."

Stage 4 is when you are able to fully surrender your life to Christ. There's enough trust in Christ. So for Peter to get out of the boat, if he's in stage 4 -- if he sinks, that's okay, because he knows it's going to be okay in Christ. If he walks on the water, that's going to be okay, because he knows he is centered in Christ.

Whereas if you're in stage 2, and maybe even a little bit in stage 3, it's really about, "I want to perform. I want to walk on the water."

It's less about surrender. Does that make sense?

MIKE

Yeah - and I don't know if you remember, but you had recommended that book to me, and I read it. The book is called More, and it is an excellent book. I really gained a lot out of it.

One of the things I remember in it is he said, the difference between a third and fourth stage -- you may sacrifice some in the third stage, but you still do it for what it's going to do for you.

"If I sacrifice in this way, it will give me more peace. It'll make me feel good."

You often hear that -- "serve others, because you'll feel better!"

That fourth stage, it doesn't matter how I feel. I simply do it out of an act of obedience. The emphasis is off how I feel, and onto "Christ is my all and I will do what I hear him calling me to do."

BOB

We at Chapelwood, when we talk about these four stages, for this fourth stage, we've changed our description of it a little bit. Instead of calling it "Christ-centered," we call it, "Christ-centering."

"Centered" kind of sounds like it's a done deal, I've done all the growing that I can do. I've arrived. I've gotten to the top of the class. Christ-centering, to us, is trying to convey the idea that this is still an ongoing process in learning to surrender more, learning to sacrifice more, learning to trust more. That's still part of the journey.

MIKE

That's interesting, because we don't have to stick with these titles from REVEAL or even the way that Jesus puts it. I find it's most helpful for churches if they can come up with some titles for these that really fit them well. 

For the full story and to hear how Chapelwood United Methodist Church arrived at their descriptions for the stages of faith, tune into the podcast or download the complete transcript.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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