Growing a church doesn’t happen without first growing a person. Here are eight core principles we adhere to in our discipleship model at Saddleback Church.
The discipleship process at Saddleback Church is based on the belief that if we focus on building people, God will build the church. Through a study of how Jesus helped people grow spiritually, Saddleback senior pastor Rick Warren developed these eight laws for spiritual growth.
1. Spiritual growth is intentional.
Spiritual growth is not accidental. You must intend to grow; you must make a choice to grow. This means that we grow by making commitments. People in churches are at one of six levels of commitment: community, crowd, congregation, committed, core or commissioned.
The community is anyone within driving distance of Saddleback Church. There is no commitment at the community level. We want to get the community to come to a weekend service, and we want to move them from the community to the crowd. What’s required to be in the crowd? One commitment: show up at church.
Next, we want to move people from being an attender to being a member of the church—to move from the crowd to the congregation. At Saddleback, you do this by coming to know Jesus as your Savior, being baptized, attending our membership seminar (Class 101) and signing the membership covenant.
People then move from the congregation to committed. We do that with a course called Class 201, where we teach the habits for spiritual growth. The class doesn’t make you a mature person; it just shows you what it takes to become spiritually mature and ends with the opportunity to make a commitment to growth.
From the committed, people move into the core—serving Christ by serving others. They take Class 301, sign the ministry covenant, discover their S.H.A.P.E. (each person’s unique blend of Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality and Experiences) and start actively serving.
The commissioned are those who made it all the way into not just ministry but also mission. They have taken Class 401 and made a commitment to go into all the world as Jesus commanded.
2. Spiritual growth is incremental.
We know that incremental change is true in physical growth—so why not in spiritual growth? We know children grow in stages: They learn to breathe first; then to eat, to walk, to talk. No child has ever taken those steps out of order. They are developmental stages.
The same is true in your spiritual life. The order that we have here at Saddleback is all about helping people grow closer and closer to Christ. We want to see them know Christ, then love Christ, then grow in Christ, then serve Christ, then share Christ. Those are the systematic steps to spiritual growth.
3. Spiritual growth is personal.
You cannot mass-produce disciples because every person is different. There is no one-size-fits-all for spiritual growth.
To be a disciple is to be a learner. That’s the literal meaning of the word disciple. Because we all are different, we all learn differently. For instance, some learn best by listening, others by reading, some by discussing, others by doing a project.
One major tool we use to help people grow personally is our yearly growth campaign. For it, the entire church focuses together on some area of personal growth: 40 Days of Purpose, 40 Days in the Word, 40 Days of Love and so on. Our campaign for 2013 will be “What on Earth Am I Here For?” (To join us, go to saddlebackresources.com).
In these campaigns, the entire church studies the same thing for six weeks. We make use of all the different ways of learning so that everyone can grow. People hear it on Sundays, they read it in the book, they discuss it in a small group, they memorize a verse about it and they have a project to do for it.
4. Spiritual growth is practical.
God gives us practical ways to participate in the growth that He is causing. One of Saddleback’s goals is to help people grow by developing good spiritual habits. They’re called spiritual disciplines or devotional practices, but they’re really just habits.
For instance, we encourage the habit of spending time with God every day. Prayer is also a spiritual habit. Bible study is a spiritual habit. Tithing and attending a small group are spiritual habits.
In the end, we will become whatever we do habitually. To try to be a disciple of Jesus without developing the habits of a disciple is simply impossible.
5. Spiritual growth is relational.
We only grow if we are in community with others. This is one of the most misunderstood facts of growth among American Christians. American Christians think you can grow on your own. If I have a Bible and I have Jesus, I don’t need anybody else, we tell ourselves.
That kind of thinking is wrong! You cannot grow without the church. The Bible says in Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another” (NLT).
6. Spiritual growth is multidimensional.
At Saddleback we have learned that in order for us to grow spiritually, five purposes all are needed: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and mission. We are to grow stronger through worship, warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, broader through ministry and larger through mission.
If you go to a gym and get a trainer, you’re going to be required to work on the areas in which you are weakest. Do you have a weak shoulder? You’ll have to work on that shoulder. You have weak knees? Let’s work on your knees, your trainer will say. Spiritual growth is like physical therapy: God wants to strengthen us in all His purposes.
Of course, this means you can’t do the job alone as a church leader. But none of us are meant to do it alone! In Ephesians 4:12 we’re told to “equip” God’s people for works of service.
If I were starting a church again today, I’d get a volunteer leader to help me with each of these five purposes so he could grow as he helped the church to grow. At Saddleback, we now have entire staff teams dedicated to helping people grow in each of these five purposes.
7. Spiritual growth is seasonal.
You’ll relieve a lot of guilt in your people when you help them understand this one truth: that spiritual growth is seasonal. Nobody grows at a constant pace all the time. Plants don’t grow constantly; they grow in spring and summer and then are dormant in fall and winter. The same is true in our spiritual lives.
Some people are going through winter: “I just don’t feel like I’m growing much right now,” they say, “even though I’m doing the right things to grow.”
It will encourage them to know that’s OK. It’s part of life. In fact, there are some things that happen in winter that don’t happen in spring and summer. You deepen your roots in fall and winter for the next spring when you will have the next stage of growth and fruitfulness.
8. Spiritual growth is incarnational.
The final truth is that growth is not about what you can accomplish. Rather, it’s about the person of Jesus Christ living inside you. Galatians 2:20 says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (NKJV).
The goal of the Christian life is to live like Jesus. But it won’t come from your trying to be like Jesus. It comes from trusting Jesus to live inside you. The secret of the Christian life is not imitation but incarnation—letting Christ live through you. Nobody can live like Jesus better than Jesus!
None of these eight principles for growth can be done in our own power. It’s God who works in us because of the cross. We need to remember that, for the sake of our own growth as well as the growth of the church. This frees us from the frustration of what we can’t seem to get done and releases us from the even more dangerous temptation to try to do it on our own power.
We get to be fellow builders. Under Jesus’ leadership, and by following biblical principles for spiritual growth, God will build His church!
Tom Holladay is associate senior pastor at Saddleback Church, where he has served for almost 21 years, and teaches at Purpose Driven conferences worldwide. He is the author of The Relationship Principles of Jesus (Zondervan). Hear his podcast, “Drivetime Devotions,” at drivetimedevotions.com.