Episode 03: Moving Toward Belief

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Blair has been committed to Christ's mandate to make disciples throughout 33 years of ministry. He has served in the local church and as a missionary. He has devoted himself to becoming more effective in making disciples. Blair believes that "Ascending Leader training has helped our discipleship staff incorporate and plan a multiplying disciple making movement at our church."

"Come and See" (Stage 1)

Welcome to the discipleship podcast for church leaders, from Ascending Leaders. We are on the episode today about the first stage of discipleship. Some call it the "Come and See" stage. REVEAL, an instrument that's been used over the last ten years with hundreds of thousands of people, calls it "Exploring Christ." Some churches call it "Strangers with Jesus" or, I know one church that calls it "River of Life." Another church calls this stage "Discovering Jesus."

That's what we'll be talking about today.

You see in the gospels that Jesus gives four invitations and one declaration about discipleship. The four invitations are the four stages, and there's a declaration about overcoming the wall. And all four of those stages are important in a disciple's growth. Even though people don't move in a simple direct line, it's important for people to keep moving and to not stop and put it in park.

Now it's good for a church as we talked about in last week's podcast, to use for themselves

names for the stages that they want to use, that will work well for them.

It's important for people to keep moving and to not stop and put it in park.

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I have with me here, as my guest, Blair Lerner. Blair is from Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church in Katy, TX. And Blair, I think you guys have come up with some names yourself for the stages that you're using for the congregation. What are you using?

BLAIR

We use the four stages that the REVEAL study uses, and they are:

  • Exploring Christ
  • Growing in Christ
  • Close to Christ
  • and Christ-centered

And our goal this year has been to help people in our church identify what stage they're at and what their next step is. The discipleship pathway has been really our goal and our intentional focus this whole year. And so, we even at the back of the church, have a mural on the wall with the four stages and we've asked everyone in our church to take a footprint and to write their next step on that footprint and to put it in the next stage that they're going to take, or in the stage they're in, aware that they can take another step.

This is every week in front of our congregation. These four stages have a significant impact in where our church is going.
MIKE

That's a cool way, visually, to keep it in front of people all the time. I would love to just come down and to stand in front of that first stage and read some of those footprints. What is going to be their next step in moving forward, if they're in that "Exploring Christ" stage. Do you remember any of those that you've noticed up there?

BLAIR

I do remember some. They all were related to basic Christian beliefs. I remember one, that said something like, "Does God love me? Can I be loved?"

"Is there hope?"

Someone said, "Can I have another chance?" They were asking, can I be forgiven?

And so, many of those footprints in that Exploring Christ stage are wrestling with basic beliefs of the Christian life.

Many in that Exploring Christ stage are wrestling with basic beliefs of the Christian life.

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MIKE

I especially invited you today because we're going to focus on that first stage.

That's a stage of, actually before someone comes to believe in Jesus as their savior. Your role in outreach there at Grace Fellowship, you're doing a lot of discipleship with those kind of people. Helping the church actually do a better job at discipleship. What many churches are calling evangelism, is really the first step of discipleship.

In the gospels, we see that Jesus uses an invitation. He basically, at this stage, is inviting his first disciples to "Come and See."

In John 1 we read: They said, "Rabbi, where are you staying?" "Come," he replied, "and you will see."

It's interesting, some say that between John 1 and John 4, is where you really see the disciples at this Come and See stage. They're trying to figure it out; in fact, in John 1 we read about Peter. Andrew came, and met this Jesus guy, and was pretty impressed. So he went and found his brother Simon and told him, hey, I think we found the Messiah. And he brought him to Jesus to come and see.

BLAIR

We see this in our church a lot. We assume that on any Sunday, as much as 20% of our congregation are seekers. People who are exploring, or new to the Christian faith. And we have found that many times, someone comes to our church and then invites a friend, a neighbor, a relative to come and see. To come with them to worship.

So, initially that's how we see evangelism working.

"We assume that on any Sunday, as much as 20% of our congregation are seekers."

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MIKE

If I have neighbor and I know they're not following Jesus, and I want to reach them, one of the things I might do then is if I was part of your church, is to invite them to Sunday worship.

When I was church planting in the 90's, that's what I saw a lot of too. It's interesting, because, not for everyone, but you notice that often Jesus, when he's first talking to people, they're in large groups, they're in multitudes. There are crowds. There's sort of an anonymity in that. I can listen, I can consider, nobody is going to look me in the face and say, "So, Mike, what do you think?" Or, "So, Blair, what do you think?" It seems like that's probably something needed here, is that time to consider but also anonymity.

Now a friend takes you, you also have someone you know, so you're not a stranger. Although I've had people come as a stranger before. Have you ever had that in worship, where later you meet someone and they had just come all by themselves one Sunday? This whole crowd of people, and no idea what this is about.

BLAIR

I have a perfect story of that. And I would love to introduce it and then complete this whole story later in the broadcast. An Asian young man walked up to me one Sunday after worship and he said, "I've never been to a Christian church before. This is the closest church to where I live, and I don't know anything about Christianity." He had just moved to the United States and he said, "I'm an atheist. I don't understand anything about Christianity." So we do have that. And people do just walk in the door that know nothing. And then, how you relate to and reach out to a person like that, is critical to helping someone exploring Christ.

Is there something for them?

Is there an avenue, a way for them to hear about Christ?

 Or is it just, thank you for coming, goodbye, come next week?


MIKE

Do you remember what you said to him at that time?

BLAIR

I have the privilege of directing a ministry called Alpha in our church, and Alpha is our primary evangelism strategy.

I invited him to come to our Alpha course.

Just to check it out. It was starting the next week. And it was held in a home, it was in the summer, it was very casual. He came. We had dinner together. Alpha exists to accomplish three things: you have dinner together, and then there is a biblical message, and then there's a small group discussion. So it is very, very seeker friendly. It's not intimidating. And you assume that anyone that comes to Alpha knows nothing about Christianity.

And so, I invited him to Alpha. He came and attended the Alpha course. Asked a lot of questions. He wrote notes. He really wanted to know about the Christian faith, and it was all new to him.

MIKE

That reminds me of a guy I met, he had actually been a Christian for a couple of years. But he had come to the United States, I think it was for work, and he was Muslim in his background. And you know, "here I am in the United States, I know some Christians, I have never been inside a church." So, he said one Sunday he just went inside a church, cold turkey. And he went back, and he went back, and he was curious. And he came to the point of accepting Christ as his savior.

It's really neat when God works that way.

This stage, this come and see stage, it's interesting -- we're kind of touching on that -- in that stage, the way Jesus relates is, it's a lot of simple, straightforward explanations and invitations. And then, the disciples, they're considering, they're observing, there may not be a lot of debate. They're simply trying to figure this out.

Paul talks about this stage too. He calls it the infant stage. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, he's talking about the church that he planted in Thessalonica, and he tells them, "just as a nursing mother cares for her children, we care for you." So that man that comes to the service--this is a very tender person that God has entrusted to you. You want to care for him, you don't want to be too forceful, but you don't want to give somebody the cold shoulder and be too busy for somebody like that. You want to be available for them.

 

BLAIR

The quote that's been used in this stage that I've heard before is, that many people need to belong before they believe.

And, relationally, it's been said before that you may be the only Bible that someone ever reads. It's important for them to see the reality of Christ's love in a relationship. This is not just facts and information, that Christians are real, and they have something that's different, and in a relationship they can see who Christ is.

So at this stage, that's just such a key, important goal.

MIKE

Tell us a story of anybody that you remember in Alpha, like that gentleman, or somebody else, who came not believing. And what was it that got them to a point of moving from "Come and See" or as you call it, "Exploring Christ," to the next stage of "Follow Me" or "Growing in Christ?"

BLAIR

One story that comes to mind is about a man who had been attending as a guest. Had been attending worship with his family. And he identified himself as an atheist, even though he came to church a lot.

He genuinely was a skeptic. He had doubts about the veracity, the truth, of the Bible; he even had doubts about the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus really existed. Let alone that he had been resurrected from the dead. He just had a lot of genuine intellectual, historical doubts about the Christian faith.

And so, I met him one time, and listened to him for about an hour, and he just shared a lot of doubts. And through that initial friendship, I said, "You would love Alpha."

It was again, an opportunity to invite him into this course that would help him explore the Christian faith. He took Alpha and had a lot of questions, and he asked those questions. After that Alpha course, you'd be surprised -- no, he didn't become a Christian. He took the Alpha course a SECOND time.

And later on, he said that the first time he took it dealt with his objections to Christianity. And those objections were addressed. The second time he took it, he took it to find out what Christianity was and what the Bible said about Christ.

And it was just a short time after that second course that he gave his life to Christ.

MIKE

That's interesting. So, you first deal with his objections, and then he's, okay my objections have been settled. But now I want to go look at it from another light.

That reminds me, George Barna wrote a book called Maximum Faith. And he talks about four stops in this stage. It's interesting, he says the first one is, somebody is ignorant of their sin. "Why would I need Christ? There's nothing wrong with me, I'm a good person."

His next one is, "okay, I'm aware of my sins, but I'm indifferent to them."

The third one is, beyond being indifferent, "I might be aware of my sins, and now I'm becoming somewhat concerned about them."

And then, finally, the fourth one is, "confessing my sins to Jesus."

And so, in a similar way, your guy, the first thing was, he was antagonistic. He had these doubts. Once he got past that, there was another thing he needed to do.

So it takes some time. Sometimes people have to work through a number of different issues before they're ready to move from exploring Christ to actually accepting Christ.

BLAIR

And I believe that if they don't have an opportunity to be in a situation or a relationship where they can explore those objections, or questions, they're not going to have the opportunity to take the next step to get closer to Christ.

So we have to provide opportunities where people can explore the Christian faith, no matter where they're at.

"So we have to provide opportunities where people can explore the Christian faith, no matter where they're at."

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MIKE

From what I know of Alpha, that's what makes Alpha so strong, right? It's set up about basic core beliefs presented in just a very basic way, and people have the space to ask whatever is troubling them. There's no question that's too difficult.

BLAIR

Alpha really does that, and I'd love to give a brief background on Alpha and where it came from, and why I believe it's so effective at reaching people in this stage.

Alpha started out as a course to help someone be established in their faith. It was a course for new Christians. It started out in a home in 1977, in London, at a church called Holy Trinity Brompton. Since then, that course to help people explore and grow in the Christian faith, has reached 29 million people, and Alpha course is in 65,000 churches in 169 countries, and it's been translated into 112 different languages.

The thing I love about Alpha is it's an eleven-week course and it really takes you through three phases of exploring Christ. So for example, in weeks 1-4, Alpha explores "how can I begin a relationship with Jesus Christ?"

The topics that it looks at are, who is Jesus, how can I have faith, how can I know I'm forgiven.

The second part of Alpha looks at how I can grow in that relationship. It looks at subjects like how do I pray, what is prayer, how do I read the Bible, why is the Bible important, how does God guide me?

And then the third phase helps someone begin to think about how to live out the Christian life. How do I share my faith? How do I resist evil? How can I find a place in church?

And so Alpha takes someone through these stages and it doesn't matter what your background is, what your belief system is; no question we say is too naive, or too conflicting. There's no question that you can bring up that's not welcome.

And so, Alpha gives someone an opportunity to explore the Christian faith from where they're at. They have an opportunity to ask questions, and to interact and learn and grow, no matter where they've come from.

MIKE

Related to that, REVEAL says that there are some things that people in this stage, they've seen as they take this survey, what they especially are looking for from their church. What they need to move to the next stage. And one of them, the belief of salvation by grace. Another is the Trinity. And Alpha, I think, deals with those two very things.

And you just said, people ask -- "Can I really be forgiven?" That's about grace.

They also said that the church activity that people need is to be serving in the church. Now, some people might think that's weird; you're letting them serve in your church and they're not yet believers in Jesus?

I have a friend, he tells me that over a whole decade, he spent time leading the tech team at a church. He said, on the tech team, "we often get people who are in that first stage." Because, hey, they're into electronics, that's cool; it really doesn't demand a belief in Christ to do the technology.

But then he says, before each worship service, they've got their headphones on, they pause and they pray. Somebody prays. And he's seen people come to Christ because of that. So they're serving, they're serving in their church, they're serving on this tech team -- that can actually be something that moves them as well.

BLAIR

Not only is Alpha a powerful evangelism tool, but it's also an effective method to raise up ministry leaders in the church. And so, someone goes through the Alpha course, and they are invited to be a helper on the next course. And their only job as a helper is to care about the people in the group. Just to be friendly. They don't have to say anything.

What that ends up doing is exposing them to the Christian faith in an even deeper way. They learn more; if they haven't committed their life to Christ, they have the opportunity to commit their life to Christ the second time they go through this, but they're serving. And then that opens the door for them to become a small group leader down the line.

MIKE

That's pretty interesting. If somebody has crossed from the first stage of discipleship into the second one, you're giving them some of their first Christian leadership experiences in that, and that's setting the stage for leadership in the future.

I've been told -- and I think it's so true too -- in this stage, whether it's somebody they met for the first time, or somebody they've known for a while, people really need someone who is an authentic Christian who they can relate to. When I was church planting, this man walked into my office in the middle of the week. And he was obviously very distraught, and the story he told me, yeah, just some choices he had made in life was really creating havoc in his family and he was beside himself, and in that, I kind of lightly shared the gospel as we talked about that.

Because it was so intense, I encouraged him to come back in about 2 or 3 days. And he came back a couple of days later and he said, "Man, you know, I started reading the gospel, and I asked Christ to be my savior last night!" But he obviously trusted me enough. To have somebody you can trust is important at this stage.

To have somebody you can trust is important at this stage of faith.

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BLAIR

I remember when I was working with international students, when I was on Campus Crusade for Christ staff, after worship someone said, "There's a French college student that has visited our church for the first time. Since you have lived in France, we'd love for you to meet him." And I was intrigued. And he said that this was the first time that he'd ever stepped into a church, and I said, "Why? Tell me why."

And I said, "But you know what, let's go grab lunch. Let's go have lunch next week." So relationally set up that opportunity.

At that lunch, he shared that he had known a girl in France that he was close friends with, and she had mentioned that she was a Christian. He had no idea what being a Christian was. And so he just thought, if I walk into a church, maybe I'll discover what a Christian is.

And so, I said to him, "Let me get this straight. You want to know what a Christian is."

He said, "Exactly, because I have no idea."

And we met the next week and at that opportunity, at that lunch, I shared the gospel. And we met the third week, and he said he had received Christ.

What's really important is we began to meet weekly. I was available just to talk about issues and concerns he had, to talk about the Bible and basic Christian beliefs, and how to live out the Christian life. So, someone in this stage needs to be in a caring, loving relationship.

You've heard the cliche, "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." And I believe that whatever ministry, whatever we do, it's critical that people in this stage are in a relationship with a Christian.

MIKE

And even to continue on from there, it's not like, "I led him to Christ and now I'm on to the next person." He needs your time to keep growing. He needs someone to help him. A lot of people have become followers of Jesus and there's just nobody who has taken them from there. They've kind of gotten stuck at that very early, very elementary stage.

A couple of years ago, we had somebody who came into our small group and she'd been part of this church for a while; I assumed she'd been a Christian for a while. I think she probably had. But one night she says to the group, "I need your advice. I don't have a Bible. What kind of Bible should I buy?"

Wow, she didn't have a Bible. Some people believe in Jesus but nobody has guided them from there. They've just not moved much. It's exciting to see when they get moving.

BLAIR

One of the main descriptions of people who come to Alpha are people who were raised in a church, and then stopped going, for many, many, many years. Or, people who had been raised in a church, and they had no idea what to believe. And so, we have people who are in this stage, and they may have been in a church for forty, fifty years. But they just had never come into the realization that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

And so, again, that's why I love Alpha as a powerful evangelism tool, because they not only hear the essentials of the Christian life, they have a chance to explore it, but they're in a relational, loving environment in a small group, where they can be accepted and they can ask questions or someone will care for them. They will have a chance to grow.

MIKE

But one of the things I like about Alpha, too, from what I hear, not only are people in small groups around a table of five, six, seven people, but there's also anywhere from 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 people in the room. So it's not so intimidating.

If I'm coming to a small group and I walk in the room and it's just these seven people, it's pretty intimidating. But if I'm at a table of seven people, and there are other tables around me, it feels not quite so pressured.

BLAIR

Alpha begins with a dinner for the first half hour. Every week. Relationships are formed, friendships are formed, around the dinner table. So it has that casual feeling. You're not walking into a class.

People in this stage need relationships. More than just content and information.

MIKE

That's good that it does both - the content they do need, within the relationships that are so critical.

Now, at any stage, people can get stuck. I remember when I was church planting in the 90's, a gentleman who came into the church. He loved his wife and his daughter, and he would do anything for them. His wife thought they should be coming to church. So, he came with her to church. But then, he met with me, and came to a short Bible study I had about “Who is this Jesus?" around Christmas, and we talked about making Jesus his Savior, taking that step of faith. And he just said, you know, I'm a very logical person. If I can't reason my way all the way to him... He just couldn't take that leap of faith that's needed. Complete trust. For him, that was a stumbling block, that I think may have gotten him stuck there.

Have you seen any people get stuck at that stage? They're curious, but they just never get to the point of accepting Christ. What kind of things have you seen keep them at that stage?

BLAIR

I'm thinking of a person who came to Alpha, and he was an atheist, and he came because his friend had invited him. He really struggled with Christianity, and went through the course and there was no change in his belief system. He said, "I think I'll go back again." He was asking really, really tough questions. And he went back a second time, and again asked a lot of questions. And still, didn't commit his life to Christ.

So, he really was stuck. The thing that brought him out of that was a close relationship with a Christian friend that continued with him. In that friendship, he was able to continue exploring, wrestling with, some of those questions in a loving relationship.

For the full story and to hear Blair's personal experience of moving through stage 1 (it involves a memorable eight minutes in high school), tune into the podcast or download the complete transcript.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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