Spiritual Competence: what does it mean to fully grow followers of Jesus Christ?

Posted on: November 12th, 2011 in Competence - No Comments

Most workers in youth ministry and parents have a tacit understanding of what they want youth to know/believe/experience/do before they leave youth ministry.  However, many leaders and parents lack a clear definition of discipleship, and this lack of clarity may hinder efforts to guide youth toward being full-blown Disciples of Christ.

The Bible tells us about three key aspects of this important topic:

  • Dimensions of Discipleship (What knowledge, experience, and relationships are essential?)
  • The Process of Discipleship (How does one become a disciple?)
  • The Marks of a Disciple (What is the nature of Christ likeness, and what do we need to keep in mind as we develop curriculum to teach Christ likeness?)

In reality, most of us emphasize one dimension of discipleship more than the others. Some of us default to the practices that helped us grow. Perhaps taking a serious look at the subject will help us be more biblical and intentional in our approaches.

The Four Dimensions of Discipleship

Luke 2:52 gives us a window into the adolescent years of Jesus, telling us that he grew in two ways: horizontally (in favor with man) and vertically (in favor with God). These two dimensions also are modeled in the cross. Vertical discipleship includes being reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10), while horizontal discipleship means we must be reconciled with others (Matt. 5:24; 25:40).

This two-dimensional approach is superior to the one-dimensional “Jesus-and-me” approach promoted by some leaders. Although the vertical dimension is critically important, no one can grow as a disciple of Christ in isolation.
Still, this two-dimensional model does not go far enough in describing the multi-dimensional reality of the human experience.  Let’s consider a four-sided approach modeled on the pyramid, which has three visible sides and a base.  This pyramid model will help illustrate the following four dimensions of discipleship.

  1. Belief—This is the cognitive side of making a disciple. What are the core beliefs youth need to know to provide them with a biblical foundation?  Teaching and rehearsing these foundational truths is a critically important dimension of discipleship. Romans 10:2 speaks of those who “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”  It is a scary thing to observe ignorance on fire!  Yet in our effort to disciple youth, we sometimes have more zeal than knowledge, more pep rally than content. .
  2. Relationship—Accountability comes with relationship. Fruit of the Spirit is exhibited in community. In John 13:35, Jesus tells us exactly how people will be able to recognize his disciples, and it is not by how well they do on a Jesus pop-quiz. He reminds us that we will be identified as His disciples by our love for one another.  Knowledge is important, but the context of community is where discipleship is practiced and observed.
  3. Conviction—This side of the pyramid may be unobservable at times, although it is vital to discipleship.  This is the passion that drives our obedience.  Without it, youth are simply duty-driven in following Christ.  Paul speaks of this dimension of discipleship in 2 Corinthians 5:14 where he declares the love of Christ compels him because he is convinced.  These words are filled with passion and personal conviction.

    It is not enough to simply “know the right things” or “do the right things.”  Youth must have the “right passion and conviction” as motivation.  If we ignore this attitudinal dimension (as difficult as it is to observe or measure), our discipleship endeavor is simply the dead obedience of legalism.

  4. Mystery—This fourth dimension of discipleship is the hidden base of the entire pyramid. Though often overlooked, the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship is an essential dimension that we cannot orchestrate, manipulate, or control.

    We plan, plant, and water, but growth and sanctification are under God’s control (1 Corinthians 3:6–7; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). It is God’s timing, and we cannot nor should we seek to manipulate it.  Prayer is our most powerful resource in cultivating this mysterious dimension of discipleship.

The Path and Pace of Discipleship

God has wired each of us differently; although we might embrace this conceptually, we don’t always acknowledge it practically when we disciple youth. Each of us experiences God differently; and the rhythm and pace of our growth will vary, as well.

In his book Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas identifies nine paths of spiritual formation. The naturalist grows closer to God while summiting a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies or looking in awe at a spectacularly starry night. The intellectual finds God most profoundly in the pages of the Bible and books of theology. The enthusiast encounters God when  participating in full-throttle, unashamed worship. The ascetic finds spiritual growth in the places of quiet solitude with God.

Youth who may experience nothing while having their “quiet time” may be profoundly deepened in their relationship with Christ while actively helping the poor or building a home for the homeless. One size does not fit all.
One of the most common and costly mistakes made by youth leaders while discipling youth is the assumption that their youth will encounter God most profoundly in the same way the leaders themselves did.

Part of the cure is to accept the idea that God has wired youth differently. The other part is to identify how our youth are wired and lean into their lives appropriately. Youth ministries that focus on a single type of spiritual path will frustrate the discipleship of those who need other paths.
The New Testament depicts the disciples’ variety of pathways and pacing.

The apostle Paul was biblically accurate and theologically sound. He was well-trained and wrote letters filled with deep truth and instruction.
Thomas seemed to experience God most profoundly when he could see, touch, and speak with Him.  Although some of us have been a bit skeptical and suspicious of our senses, there are those such as Thomas who find in them an important part of their spiritual growth.
Peter was emotional and impetuous. He had a short fuse. He hacked off ears and blurted out statements that came back to bite him. It seemed Jesus had to repeat things to Peter a few times before they stuck. He tended to act and then think.

Marks of a Disciple

If our goal in youth ministry is to graduate fully devoted followers of Christ, then describe what it means to be such a follower. I believe most leaders have never articulated a clear description of a discipled youth. When youth graduate from your ministry, how will they be defined?  What is your curriculum for Christ-likeness?  If you don’t have a clear understanding of where you want them to be when they leave your ministry, they will have a difficult time knowing what is expected.  Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it.

Sometimes we better grasp a concept by understanding its opposite. In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard includes a chapter titled “Curriculum for Christlikeness” in which he describes what a curriculum promoting Christlikeness is not:

  • It is not simply external conformity.
  • It is not special experiences.
  • It is not faithfulness to the church or a profession of perfectly held doctrine.

Let me challenge you to create your best definition of discipleship, keeping your “finger in the biblical text” and resisting the press of political correctness, as well as cultural relevance.

The dimensions of discipleship, the path and pace of discipleship, and the marks of discipleship provide a solid foundation on which we can discuss methodology. Without that foundation, our discipleship endeavor will be susceptible to fads and formulas that may provide immediate but unsustainable growth.


  1. How am I addressing the four dimensions of discipleship (belief, relationship, conviction, mystery) in my teenager?  How could I do a better job of incorporating them?
  2. How do I encounter God most profoundly?  How does this impact the way I teach and relate to my teen?  What are some other ways I could try to communicate with teens that think and learn differently than me?
  3. Do I have an understanding of where I want my teens to be, spiritually, as a result of the ministry to youth at my church?  What marks of a disciple would I like to see in my teens?  How could I be more intentional about reaching these goals?

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