Episode 04: Moving Toward Intimacy

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Julia Johnson has been Small Groups Director for over eight years at Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church at Katy, TX. Her goal is building Christ-centered communities to spur on spiritual growth. She has participated for two years in Ascending Leaders' DiscipleOn! communities and is currently participating in the Catalytic Gathering hosted by Ascending Leaders. Her husband, Dan, is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Katy and they have four adult children.

Richard Blackaby is an author and international speaker on leadership and the Christian life. He is co-author of the revised edition of Experiencing GodHe has authored over 31 books, including Hearing God's Voice, Unlimited God, Spiritual Leadership, and Living Out of the Overflow.

"Come and Follow Me" (Stage 2)

Welcome to episode number four of the Ascending Leaders discipleship podcast for church leaders. I'm Mike Johnson, President of Ascending Leaders. Really glad to be here talking to you today. To you, staff and leaders of discipleship in churches. We know you're very interested in how to move people forward as disciples.

You're probably listening to this because you wonder, how can I do this better in my church? I find that the four stages of discipleship that we really see in Jesus' ministry, where he has these invitations of Come and See, Come and Follow Me, Come and Be With Me, and Remain in Me, is a great way to look at it.

And already in these episodes, we've talked about the first stage, Come and See. And that exploring Christ stage, where people are curious. In that stage they may be wary but they're curious. They have discipleship needs to move to belief, and it's often that a large worship service or an Alpha group speaks to those needs well.

Today, we're going to focus in on that second stage. "Come and Follow Me," as Jesus says in Matthew 4:19. "Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people."

The REVEAL survey called that stage, the "Growing in Christ" stage. And there are other titles that churches have used for that stage as well. One of the ones that I like is, "A Congenial and Good Friend with Jesus." Or another one is, "Growing and Serving in Christ."

But I have two guests with me today who I think really can speak well to this stage. We have Richard Blackaby, and Richard is the President of Blackaby Ministries. Richard and I met each other years ago, and one thing that really impressed me was his breadth of experience, his breadth of love, and his humility. So, when I thought about this and I thought of the curriculum that Richard and his father, Henry, wrote, Experiencing God, I thought we had to get Richard on here.

We also have Julia Johnson. Julia is the Director of Small Group Ministries at Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church in Katy, TX. Julia is part of one of Ascending Leaders' DiscipleOn! virtual communities. And doing a great job of applying this in their church. 

I just briefly introduced each of you. What is something else about you that the audience might like to know?

RICHARD

Well, I could just say, I've got three kids that are all in ministry themselves now. Two years ago I became a grandfather. I've got four grandsons now, two and under. I'll just say that when you look at these little innocent lives, it's a challenge for me personally, it became one, to say, as much as I've grown in Christ already, I realize there's still more to go. There's nothing like looking at this innocent little life that is looking back at you and realize you want to be all the man or woman of God that these little ones will need you to be.

And God said to me, "When your grandkids look at your life, are they going to be attracted to your God? Or will they be indifferent to your God?"

And I realized, I could take it to another level, and God wanted me to.

"When your grandkids look at your life, are they going to be attracted to your God? Or will they be indifferent?"

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MIKE

Wow. Wonderful. Thanks, Richard. Julia, how about you?

JULIA

I am married and have four kids. They're all in their twenties. And I've been on staff here at Grace about eight-and-a-half years.

One of the quotes that I love is by a Scottish preacher named George Morrison. And it says, "The victorious Christian life is a series of new beginnings."

And, I just love that. Because I look back and see so many new beginnings, but then it also makes me look very, very forward to what God has for me in some new beginnings as I move forward. I just love that phrase, and just thinking about what God has for me.

"The victorious Christian life is a series of new beginnings."

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MIKE

Let's dig into this stage of growing in Christ. As you've met people that you would say are in this stage, what are some of the strengths you've seen? Just beautiful stuff you've seen as people are growing through this stage.

RICHARD

Well, you know, when you see people that are just kind of interested, that stage one, and then something captures their imagination. They see a glimpse of Christ, it attracts them to go further, not just be a bystander. And I love that. In a crowd of people, I've seen where two people maybe start off in stage one, but for some, they get captivated and they have a hunger. They know there's more. I love seeing that in people. And they just begin exploring, and start following. Others stay where they were. They're happy observing. But I love to see those ones where it catches.

And they have no idea, as they start taking those initial steps after Jesus, just exactly how far he can take them and what they could experience on that journey.

MIKE

You know, in the 90's I was a church planter, and that especially gave me the opportunity to see people not only accept Christ, but to grow in him. And some of those people in the early part of stage 2, in some ways so naive, in some ways thinking they've arrived; and knowing they've got so far to go...I remember one gentleman that said, "Man, it must have been great to have been a Christian a long time."

I said, "You know, it's interesting. Because when you're a young Christian, everything is very black and white, based on your previous life. If you've been a Christian for a lot longer, the decisions can almost be more tricky sometimes." 

And he just couldn't understand that, and that was okay. He didn't need to understand it at the time. But just to see him growing dramatically.

RICHARD

I had that experience this week. I have three two-year-old grandsons. My wife and I took them to a McDonald's playland, and it was just like heaven. They'd just never experienced anything like it. And I'm thinking in my mind, one day I'm taking you to Disney World. Today, Playland blows your mind...but trust me, there's a lot more still to come.

And there's no point in even really telling them about Disney Land right now, because they couldn't comprehend it. They'd be happy to spend the rest of their lives in a McDonald's Playland. I see that with Christians so often, and when you've been at it for a while, you realize they're all thrilled about this quiet time they're having, or whatever, and to say, "You know what, it is awesome. I'm so glad you're enjoying that, but trust me, you've just barely dipped your toe in the water right now."


MIKE

Julia, have you seen anything -- what are some of the qualities, the really good qualities you see in people at this stage?

JULIA

I love to see when people start to acknowledge as they look back and are surprised and excited to see that God has been working. You know, it really gives them...they're able to accept those experiences, that they're very real, that they're valid, that they're God.

They get real excited about looking back and realizing and acknowledging those experiences. Which shows them where God has been, but it also, I think, encourages them. Knowing that God's got something also for them.

That acknowledgement, of God in their life, and making those decisions to decide that, "Oh yeah, that was God." I love seeing that.

RICHARD

I call that, it's connecting the spiritual dots. They're not just a bunch of random God experiences. Suddenly they start connecting that, wait a minute, I prayed this morning for God to show me, and then this happened. And this opportunity arose, and this person called. When all of a sudden they realize that God is a lot more at work around them than they had realized, that's awesome.

MIKE

I remember when I was in those early stages too, it was like any new concept that I heard, in a sermon, or something about scripture, it was like, ahhhh, it was so exciting! Right? In me teens and early twenties.

So, that's the early part of that stage. Let's go toward the latter part of that stage. You're moving toward the third stage, the Close to Christ stage, which is much more about intimacy. What does it look like when you see people who've been experiencing the second stage, the growing in Christ stage, then they start dipping their toes into that third stage. They start moving in that direction. What has that been like, maybe in your own life, or you've seen in others' lives?

RICHARD

My experience, I think, when I was a young Christian, was about activity. "Okay, God, I'm going to start memorizing scripture, or I'm going to discipline myself and get up and read my Bible. I'm going to try to be a witness for you." Those are huge steps. Trying to be obedient, trying to follow Christ. What I began to realize though, what I wasn't taught early on, was just enjoying Christ.

I remember when someone asked me at one point, "Have you been enjoying God?"

That was the most bizarre question I'd ever been asked.

If they'd asked me, "Are you serving God, are you giving to God, do you beleive in God..." Yeah, all that, check the box. But enjoying God? That was just foreign to me.

Especially, learning just from my dad and later years in my Christian life, I began to realize, that's really what... I know I've gone to another level when I can just bask in His presence, and not be doing anything.

 I'm kind of moving from the Martha, perhaps, to the Mary.


JULIA

I think that a couple things about becoming a little more confident and what I loved, going back and looking at my original Experiencing God book, that I used years ago, the two things that made a difference in that movement for me was when it talks about that He's going to lead you to a crisis of belief. I don't know that I knew that I could have a crisis of belief. The word "crisis..." I thought of my journey as, I'm going to get on this journey, and the people that I saw, I didn't see or hear them talk about that.

That was important for me, to know that, that's a part of it. And, something that you move into, and out of. So, that crisis of belief, when I see people in that, they're wanting to take some risks, they're wanting to move forward, and allowing them to know that also, then those adjustments, those major adjustments again out of Experiencing God, there are some adjustments. And are you willing to do that?

And that you don't have to do that on your own, yet it requires the faith to do that. So allowing people to know that there's going to be this crisis of belief, and then moving forward and taking risks. I love to see that in people. And you can tell when they're thinking about it. And they're thinking about, "Oh, what does God have for me next?" It makes a big difference.

RICHARD

I think we kind of, early on, sort of pick and choose our following. "That looks interesting, I think I'll follow Jesus on that trip. But that looks a little uncomfortable, I think I'm going to sit this one out." You realize as they get a little further along in that crisis of belief that you mention, they realize, "I don't really have the option of coming in and out with Christ here. This is a total surrender."

So, even though this scares me to death, I don't have the option of going home today. This is where Jesus is taking me today, so I'm in. I'm going anyway.

MIKE

For me, that moving towards or into stage three was probably in my early-to-mid-thirties. And it was a crisis of relationship. It was a crisis of Christians acting in ways that I thought, "What is this about?"

Very damaging ways. Certainly there was a lot of my own stuff I needed to work through, but it was on the tail end of that... I went through Experiencing God with a couple of different groups from the church I was pastoring, and seeing a number of people really making some significant moves away from stage two, some first moves through Experiencing God, through the life of Moses, seeing... As a child, I was always taught Moses was pretty much about obedience. But also, the life of Moses showed the need for intimacy.

Another thing for me was the spiritual disciplines. The classical disciplines. I started to go into that crisis of belief, and I started using the classical disciplines more. And it reminded me of the first book about the disciplines that I read, that many people have read, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster; I started reading it when I was in seminary, and I right away put it down, thinking, "This is weird stuff. If I start espousing this stuff, no church is going to want me to pastor them."

And yet, it was those classical disciplines that later, when I was in a crisis, actually moved me away from that trying, and doing, and serving, through the crisis. Because something told me that I'm not going to get further if I go back to just trying to work my way out of this, I'm just going to go around the mountain another time. I'm not going to get to a new place.

RICHARD

I think with that whole area, what I've seen, especially Experiencing God has helped to expose... a lot of people, it's about obeying God's commands, but not necessarily following Jesus. It's more of an obedience thing than a relationship thing. Even the disciplines, I think it's great to be a disciplined person, but my father has often said, "Love is the discipline." If you love Jesus, you will do those things. If you don't love him, then you really have to discipline yourself to spend time with him. 

JULIA

I've found that it's interesting to see the movement of people, whether they grew up in the church and stayed in that lifestyle, live in the faith, or came to Christ later in life... I know from my own experience, I did leave the church, for about twenty years. When I came back to the church, I was desperate to find God and know His love, and know the forgiveness that Jesus gives.

I found myself talking with other people, that many times, those things that maybe we grew up with, with the doing and trying, when you come to Christ later in life I feel like many times it's a little more desperate. A little more fresh, maybe. So, we're not so controlled by the doing, and jumping right into loving God. Jumping right into loving Jesus, and knowing that love, and maybe not get quite as caught up in the doing.

RICHARD

There's a lot of people that grew up going to church, and they're good people, and they continue going to church because that's what they've always done. It's a discipline their parents taught them, and so they were disciplined to be good and moral people, and good parents, and so they do all those things. But you realize, there's another whole level they need to go to, where it's...it's great that they do those things, but to really be intimately related to Christ as a person that they love with all their heart, that's just foreign to them.

MIKE

One of the ways I've heard this described that makes a lot of sense for me, is that this is a place where your relationship is personal but not necessarily very close.

For people who come to that faith a little later in life, they may be moving through this quicker because they've tried everything else. And they know, they maybe experienced, that doing doesn't work.

A lot of Christians even get stuck here, where it's personal, they're doing, they're praying, they're reading Scripture, they're worshipping, they're serving. But they have a hard time getting real close. Real intimate.

In fact, REVEAL says that of the four stages, this is the one in their database that is the largest. I recently coached seven different churches through REVEAL. Let me just tell you some of the percentages I had.

One church, 35% of the congregation was here. Another one, it was 45%. 48%. 50%. 54%.

I mean, some churches, as much as 50% of their people are here!

 And some of these people have been here for decades.

RICHARD

I think the central point is that relationship with Christ. If you talk to a bunch of people that are Christians and have been for years, and say, "Do you pray?" "Yeah, I pray (maybe) regularly." Then you ask them, "And so, in this conversation you've had with God, what have you heard God saying to you?" They just have this foreign look on their face. I say prayers, but I would never expect God to actually interact with me.

You read your Bible every day, when's the last time God spoke to you through His Word? And they just get this foreign look on their face, like that doesn't compute for me.

There's a huge, huge group of people that it's really kind of a one-way... it's religious rituals. You read your Bible, you say your prayers, but there's no sense that you're actually interacting with a person that is wanting to be in a personal relationship with you.

If you ever can make that leap, and realize that actually my walk with God is with a person, then He can take you all kinds of places. But if you're stuck just performing religious rituals all the time, then it's really hard to get out of that spot. Because there's nowhere to go from there. Just do more rituals. But you're basically at the same place.

"You read your Bible every day, when's the last time God spoke to you through His Word?"

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MIKE

I've seen people there too, who are even scared of that intimacy, or what it takes to get into that intimacy. Let's talk a little bit about that. Even when it's presented to them where they could go to, no I'll just choose to stay here.

What is that all about? What is it that makes people afraid of that? And what might churches be able to do about that. Any ideas?

RICHARD

I think it's an issue of control, in large part. If I'm just doing a discipline, I'm in control. I decide what book of the Bible I'm going to read. I decide when I'm going to quite. I decide what verse I'm going to memorize. And so I'm in control.

I don't want to read the book of Job, because I don't even want to entertain the thought I might have to suffer, so I'll go over here and read about "Blessed are you" today.

But I really think that when you enter into a relationship with Christ, it's not safe. I think the disciples said to Jesus, well where are you going? And he said, come and see.

All of a sudden, it's like I'm not in control anymore. I don't even know where this is going to lead. I'm just following.

That's a huge step, where you're basically surrendering control, and you don't even know where the journey will end at the end of the day, what he might lead you to do. I think that in part, it's saying, "No, I'd rather be in control." 

But when I'm following Jesus, I'm out of control. I'm just a follower now. And that, to get to that point of absolute surrender where you say, "Wherever you lead, I will follow," that's a huge step that will get you out of that stage ultimately.

"But I really think that when you enter into a relationship with Christ, it's not safe."

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JULIA

One of the things I was thinking about, moving into that next stage for me in my own experience, I remember some very influential leaders. Modeling that living of the scripture, reading the scripture, taking pieces of scripture, not sitting down and reading an entire book of the Bible... I had leaders modeling spending time with God, with small amounts of scripture, and meditating on, just a few verses.

So some of those things were very influential in the way the leaders modeled for me, and modeled for the group, and then, what their experience was, what they were then able to let us know what they experienced from that time they had with God. For me, that was very new. It was very personal.

I think the leaders, if they're modeling for people in stage two, that is very important for some of those personal experiences that they're having. And then sitting in that group, youn can... I don't know, you might be skeptical...I don't know if I'll have that experience, but you know what, I'll try it. And then you have those experiences.

RICHARD

I think you're right, and those stories are so important. If I'm a leader, anytime I see someone that I'm discipling, that takes that leap of faith, I want them to share their testimony. Because I can teach them Mark chapter one and talk about Jesus showing up besides some fishermen's boats and saying, "Come follow me," and everybody believes that, but a lot of people can't make that connection with what that would look like if Jesus showed up beside their boat.

So when someone actually does that, and they've said, "All of a sudden, I just felt like God was telling me to quit my job and take this step of faith, well this is how it turned out, this is what God's doing." You keep celebrating that, saying, this is what that looks like. This is your boat, this is what your boat looks like. This is what it looks like when Jesus shows up and invites you to take this huge step of faith and follow him. And this is what God's done.

Your boat will look different, your experience will be different. But this is what it's like.

Then people start getting it.

Because we believe what's in the Bible often, but we just can't translate that to what that would actually look like in our life.

JULIA

And I grew up not hearing that, in the church where I was, I did not hear any of those personal experiences. So Jesus was a very moral figure to me, but I didn't have any of those personal experiences. So when I got into a group that the leaders, it was actually the couple that was leading my Experiencing God group, they were so real and talking about these personal experiences, and they just lit up talking about them. I thought, wow, there must be something to this.

RICHARD

You know, there's a big debate among preachers about how many stories you should even tell in your sermons. I'm a firm believe in the power of story. Explain what the scripture says, and then show what it looks like in modern 21st century living. And all of a sudden, people connect the dots and realize, wait a minute, that could happen to me. That is happening to me.

MIKE

You know, I think what you're both saying, leaders need to be beyond this too. I know there were years where I spent a lot of time in this stage, and a lot of my answers were, well, just do this, just do that, and I was struggling myself with God. And it's harder to lead when you're there.

Julia, you talk about modeling of leaders. That is right. And yet, at the same time, I see in churches, sometimes it's hard to even get close to leaders for the time it takes to see that model. How was that in your life? Was it a small group that you saw that in? Or how else did you get close to them?

JULIA

Yes, absolutely. My Experiencing God group was actually a small group. There were about twelve of us in there. Then as I ventured into other studies, and into other communities, I always stayed in a smaller community of people. And would then meet, maybe, with two or three women who I knew were ahead of me. Or had more experience with God than I did.

That always drew me, because I wanted to know, what do they know? What have they experienced? Again, coming in at 37 years old and just desperate, and knowing that my life was a mess, and I was ready for this. I really sought it out.

But what we're doing here now at Grace Fellowship is also trying to communicate and allowing people to look for different types of groups. Yes, we're a church with small groups but it doesn't just mean it looks like these twelve people. Give yourself permission to contact people that you have met and want to spend some time with. That type of thing, I think, getting more into the twos and threes, really helped propel my journey.

MIKE

I think, actually, as you move towards the right of that discipleship journey, where small groups are important for stage two, but getting into stage three, I've noticed that the average North American evangelical small group--video, no homework, ask a couple of questions--doesn't really get you into stage three. But it takes, maybe, a small group that's very focused, like Experiencing God, where you're doing work each day yourself, and you're having to reflect on things, or even a smaller group like a quad or a triad. What curricula have you seen that, what kind of things have you seen, that you think help get people out of this second stage?

So if there are pastors, church leaders, discipleship leaders hearing us and saying, that's all good, but what do I do? I know it's more about being than doing, but what kind of opportunities can churches open up for people that might help more people move from stage two more into that third stage?

RICHARD

I think it so much depends on the leader. I know when my dad put Experiencing God together, his big prayer was, "I don't want this to just be another study." That was his mantra. God's people have had lots of studies where, a lot of times the teacher will just sort of lecture and point things out, and dominate the conversation, and you come away and maybe you filled your head a bit but you haven't really interacted personally.

So, I think part of the genius of courses like Experiencing God was, we said to the leader, you're not to teach this. They're going to learn this throughout the week. You facilitate it. You just encourage God's activity among the people. In a crisis of belief, you could have a very mature Christian who's having a crisis of belief, just like a brand new believer; same principle, but very different places along the journey.

A good facilitator will bring that out. This is just a baby step, but it was a crisis for this person taking a baby step, over here this guy's been a Christian for 40 years and God's taken him to places he's never been before--that's still a crisis of belief, just a different place. I find, if you're a pastor or leader, that ability to join what God is doing in your people's life, instead of you just sort of a one-size-fits-all lecture to that group, it can make a huge difference as well.

"I think part of the genius of courses like Experiencing God was, we said to the leader, you're NOT to teach this."

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MIKE

Richard, building on that, I don't think I ever told you this, but back when I was doing a lot of writing for the Ascending Leaders discipleship books, Experiencing God was at the back of my head. How can I create more materials that will help people have the kind of experiences that I'm seeing people have in Experiencing God, and take them to the next place?

RICHARD

I love that it's asking the right questions. You ask good questions, you're going to get good interaction. I remember, I kept pushing with Experiencing God even in the revision, let's not ask easy questions. People at church have not been challenged to think. "Who built the ark?" Well, that's not a real challenging question. Let's ask them "why" questions, and let's get them asking questions that aren't real simple, and get God's people to start thinking, and that's how they start growing.

MIKE

I also found, those kind of questions, processing them on a daily basis through the week was really important for me. For me to actually slow down enough to process a question... you know, where have you seen this in your own life, this kind of experience, God doing this kind of thing?

RICHARD

If you're a leader, don't feel compelled to always lead with all the questions answered. To have the comfort of saying, you know what, you may need to park this question before God for the next couple of weeks. Because it may take a while for God just to show you. With God, there are a dozen different answers, or at least dimensions to that answer that you may get dimension number one answer, but there's eleven other dimensions and levels if you'll stay with it that God will take you a lot deeper than just a quick surface answer by the leader during the group time.

JULIA

That's one of the things that was so great with this study, was that it had so many different levels. So, you had scripture to read, there were prayers in there, there were some very direct questions that had very direct answers, but then it also included those other questions that you had to think about for your own life. And that's what I loved about this study, that it had all those pieces and at that time in my life, I needed to learn some facts, I needed to learn about the Bible, I needed to learn about people in the Bible, but then it also challenged me to look at my life and walk that out, what did that look like right then?

Those pieces were instrumental for me.

MIKE

Not only Experiencing God, but other studies, and I think Experiencing God does that well. Things that cause you to get more honest with yourself. I think that's really critical. Knowing your shadow side; often, when we react out of anxiety, a lot of that is kind of a stage two-type approach to life, you know, I've got to have everything answered.

Another one is ministries that help you deal with your own addictions. It may not be a chemical addiction; for you it may be an addiction to anger or an addiction to avoiding conflict, or an addiction to having everything under control. Like Celebrate Recovery or some of the other ways to get people to deal with themselves, like Experiencing God does.

RICHARD

If the leader is not authentic and honest, it's going to be real hard to lead a group to be. A leader can't lead people to places they haven't been themselves. You want a really authentic, honest group, you've got to model that, and you have to make it a safe place for people to do that.

It's very contagious. If you're in a group where people are being honest, it's amazing how others will then feel free to be honest. But if walls and masks are on, you're not going to get anywhere with that group.

For the full story and to hear the advice Henry Blackaby didn't give his son in college, listen to the podcast or download the complete transcript.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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