Visualising Discipleship: A Model for Churches — Sarah Dunlop (DMA Series)

Visualising Discipleship: A Model for Churches — Sarah Dunlop (DMA Series)

How do we choose resources that suit the needs of the people in our congregation? First, we need a model of how discipleship works. When we know how change happens, then we can consider not only where people are at, but where they would like to go.

[This post is the sixth in our series, Discipleship in a Media Age, sponsored by Trove. See also the IntroPart 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5.]

A model (or “matrix”) may seem like a rather scientific approach to such a mysterious, spiritual process. This may be true, but models have been used in Christian ministry for some time to extend our thinking about the processes involved. For example, James Engel developed a scale to describe evangelism as a process. His aim was to help people see conversion as more than just asking a person to pray a prayer of salvation. Instead, he charts how a person may start with a knowledge that a supreme being exists, and then, over time, may progress up the scale toward becoming a practicing Christian. The decision prayer is just one step in a much longer journey:

Frank Gray, who was a post-graduate student of James Engel, noted that the effectiveness of communication of the gospel was not limited to the hearer’s knowledge or awareness of God. He adapted the scale, adding in a horizontal axis to chart how much the Christian communication was working toward ‘opening people to change and receptivity of the Gospel’.

In his commentary on the matrix, Gray proposes that a third dimension could be the Holy Spirit, who guides the process. In the graphic above he charts one possible path of a person’s movement within the quadrants, showing how a person could move in their faith journey from being closed and having no knowledge about God toward being open and having an increasing level of knowledge about God.

So, building on this, let’s create a discipleship matrix, again with openness to change charted on the horizontal axis. What we learn from the use of the Gray Matrix is that instead of a focus on the location of a person or group within the matrix, the most important thing is the direction they are travelling in. In our new matrix, we similarly seek to chart a movement upwards, in this case not exclusively in knowledge and faith, but in “spiritual engagement”: the application of Christianity to the whole of life.

If you’re attending church but not spiritually engaged, and not open to new possibilities, then you’re in the bottom left quadrant (“Attending and Identifying”). Opening up to new ideas begins to move you across into the bottom right quadrant (“Exploring and Seeking”). From there, you might begin to discover new experiences of spiritual engagement, moving up to the top right quadrant (“Growing and Adopting”). Finally, some Christians become so satisfied with their spiritual engagement that they stop looking for anything new at all, moving to the top left quadrant (“Normalising and Static”).

We believe that the goal of discipleship is to reach the upper right quadrant, to be always growing in faith and adopting new possibilities. One might instead suggest that the goal of discipleship is to be in the process, to move towards a biblical maturity in faith (Philippians 3, Galatians 5, 2 Peter 1). In opposition to Engel’s Scale, we would argue that discipleship is not a linear process. Different Christians will start from different places and map different journeys within this matrix. Instead, this model is helpful because it enables us to describe the direction of travel.

Of course, a challenge with a matrix like this is that it can be difficult to measure people’s spirituality. Instead, it may be easier to measure change, and this may be where the vectors can act as guides for the direction of the change. Discerning this direction requires conversations with people, to gently draw out how things have changed recently for them.

God’s call to loving engagement is considerably more comprehensive than our matrix, of course. Perhaps, though, this matrix goes some way toward helping us to conceptualise the process and choose appropriate resources for our community. When we understand where people are and where they are already going, we can begin choosing resources and approaches that will facilitate people’s movement toward the Growing and Adopting stage of discipleship.

By Sarah Dunlop

Dr Sarah Dunlop has served as Tutor in Mission at Cranmer Hall, Durham, and she has recently been appointed Tutor in Practical Theology at Ridley Hall, Cambridge—a post she takes up from 1 September 2018. Her research includes topics such as visual ethnography for the study of religion, chaplaincy as public theology, and London’s megachurches.


Would you like to learn more about how to encourage discipleship in your congregation? Trove is full of books, courses and resources to help you!

Try the free 6-part “Journey of Faith” course, produced by the Diocese of Guildford to help adults develop their faith as whole life disciples. You can download the introduction here.

Or try the free “Way of Life” range, produced by the Diocese of Truro, which includes lots of different 6-session courses on topics like following Christ at work, in prayer and through evangelism.

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