Growing Disciples Organically:
The Jesus Method of Spiritual Formation
By Don Detrick
Growing up with dirty hands, muddy boots, and manure-caked jeans — my recollections of farm life might seem to have little in common with my memories of going to church wearing my Sunday best, with face and body freshly scrubbed from a Saturday night bath. But a closer look reveals striking similarities between the lessons I learned on the farm and spiritual growth — especially when I examine them through the lens of the Gospels.
Farming requires physical labor and emotional commitment coupled with a realization that farming requires hands-on participation. Anyone who has farmed knows that growing things is hard work. So it is with growing people, as any parent or educator can tell you. The laboratory of life provides the necessary ingredients; and, when mixed with appropriate quantities of love, grace, and discipline, a person learns and grows through a process that can be as organic, smelly, and messy as changing a baby’s dirty diapers.
In much the same way, growing disciples best takes place the way Jesus did it, in the field of human existence, while rubbing shoulders with ordinary people. You may think we best accomplish becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ by sitting in a church or classroom, while listening to a podcast on some biblical topic, or by reading a book. But is it possible that scenario is far from reality, sort of like playing an online game about farming compared to the real sights, smells, and activities of agricultural life?
We are in the midst of an organic whole foods revolution, and these believers seem to be gaining traction as evidenced by the rise of organic grocery chains like Whole Foods Markets. Anything organic captures attention, with the promise of organically produced commodities leveraging an ever-larger market and ever-increasing cohort of enthusiasts. Menus in some of the most high-end restaurants feature organically grown, locally resourced foods. Anything labeled organic, locally raised, and sustainable is in high demand and commands a premium price.
Organic agriculture symbolizes more of an ethos, or a cultural shift, than simply a preference or appetite for different foods on the menu. In this case, the palate is not the tongue, but the heart and mind, reflecting the soul of individuals who feel the need to shift to organically produced foodstuffs. It is easy to see the prominent place organic concepts play in today’s version of culture wars. But, you may ask, “What does all this have to do with discipleship or spiritual formation?”
It is possible to see many parallels with organics and the current tensions between traditional and emerging streams in the church. Younger generations are discovering that bigger churches do not guarantee spiritual formation in the life of attendees, nor do they equate greater numbers with greater levels of spiritual passion or vibrancy. Seeking what they have been missing, many are opting for simpler structures that are more focused on community and interpersonal relationships. And a growing number are leaving the established church behind altogether.
Might the passing from the scene of evangelical icons like Billy Graham signal the end of successful mass evangelism crusades, at least in North America, and a return to simpler, “viral” relationships as a means of bringing people to Jesus and promoting spiritual formation? Might our growing observation that program-driven megachurches seem to have a lifespan directly correlating with the lifespan of the founding pastor be changing our focus away from that particular model of church growth or spirituality? Do we really believe that discipleship should have a shelf life?
InYou Lost Me, author David Kinnaman describes why young Christians are leaving church and rethinking faith. He states, “Many are searching for new ways to be effective in their work with this new generation, and many are waiting for the next generation of leaders to emerge. Among these groups, there is a growing sense that we need new ways of discipleship, a new way of teaching, instructing, engaging, and developing the lives of young people. We need a new mind to focus on apprenticeship in the way of Jesus.”1
Apprenticeship precisely describes my experience growing up on a farm. I was present. I participated by working alongside my father, and thus I learned. It seems that the basic components of spiritual formation, or what we often call discipleship, are fairly simple to understand and readily available to those willing to be apprenticed. We best accomplish organic discipleship as a participator, not a spectator.
Using Jesus and His disciples as a model, I notice that the process did not require any of the staples of modern notions about discipleship: curriculum, buildings, schedules, or programs. The entire 3-year process was far more organic and fluid than programmatic and structured. And from what we see in Acts and beyond, it certainly seems sustainable with the enablement of the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospels, growing disciples appears as natural a process as watching a child grow into maturity. Didn’t Jesus specifically instruct us to consider the qualities of children as a model for His kingdom? Based on that model, organic spiritual formation describes a vision for discipleship, or growing disciples organically. Simply put, it involves the components of faith, life, and community. Below is a working definition.
Organic spiritual formation: the natural growth that occurs when we merge authentic faith in Jesus Christ with intentional alignment to the principles of Scripture and empowered by the Holy Spirit, while living with and serving others.
Authentic faith in Jesus Christ is the primary component of organic spiritual formation. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith is the predominant theme of the New Testament, and Jesus often addressed authentic faith. Jesus referred to faith as a seed, and seeds are meant to sprout and grow.
A seed can appear to be dead and lifeless until it sprouts to life. To produce organic spiritual formation requires a life committed to Jesus Christ — that sprouting seed of faith going from death to life. This leads to obedience to His Word. It is impossible to do this in our own strength. Growth occurs as we put down roots by aligning ourselves with Scripture and consciously receive the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Seeds multiply. So does living faith. For spiritual formation to occur, we must live out our faith and life in a community environment. The Great Commandment involves loving the Lord first and loving our neighbor as ourselves. If faith does not work while living with others, and if it does not compel us to serve others, then we will not witness significant spiritual growth.
Jesus told stories as a basic teaching tool. Some describe history as “His story.” Because stories convey emotional energy, narratives do more than tell facts; they evoke feelings and engage the reader in the drama. Not only was Jesus a master storyteller, but the Gospels are a continuing story of His life and ministry.
Jesus’ stories or parables involved common, ordinary things that everyday people could relate to. His stories covered topics such as gardening, building, investments, birth, parenting, death, and everything in between. Oral tradition formed Jewish history, and Jesus was a master at capturing the attention of His listeners through storytelling.
On the farm, stories framed much of our conversation. Although I could have quoted my mom and dad’s stories about farm life in the good old days word-for-word by the time I was 10, I cannot escape the fact I learned them by hearing these stories told repeatedly with emotion and passion. What parent hasn’t placed his child against a wall and taken a ruler to mark his height at a particular date? Over time, those marks on the wall tell a story — actually many stories.
Virtually everything on the farm reflects life and has a story to tell. The land itself, with its hills, valleys, streams, forests, and fields, tells a story through the years. We often use the expression, “if walls could talk.” If they could, then the various homes, barns, and buildings on a farm would house memories that people could tell and retell throughout the generations. Even the equipment and livestock have stories to tell. The curious and those willing to take time to listen can learn lessons through stories.
Seasons of Life
Looking at old sepia-toned or black-and-white family photos one gets the impression that everyone was older back then. The lack of color makes every scene take on a monotonous ambiance reminiscent of damp, shadowy, cold winter days. The people from the past seem as distant and stoic as the expressions seen on many of their faces. Seasons come and go, and someday our present reality will be another person’s ancient history, too.
The concepts of time and seasons are ingrained in farm life. Daily chores determine the schedules farmers need to accomplish in order of importance. From milking cows to hoeing the garden, there is a time in the daily schedule for everything and those tasks vary, depending on the season. Season, more than any other category, defines farm tasks.
For Jesus and His disciples, their activities also seemed to be scheduled more by the season than on a daily or weekly schedule. Reading their activities on the pages of the Gospels, one does not get the sense that they had a daily schedule. Although the New Testament mentions specific hours of the day in a few places, people did not watch the clock as we do — in fact they had no clocks to watch.
When it comes to spiritual formation, time is our ally and friend. It takes time to form into the image of Christ — that is a component we cannot alter. There is great wisdom from learning to wait and read the signs of the seasons, to cooperate with them for optimum growth. Farmers also realize the perennial nature of certain crops. In the dead of winter, you might never know that an apple tree will be laden with apples in September unless you understand the seasonal nature of the fruit. It would be a grave mistake to assume the tree was dead or worthless just because it was in a season of dormancy. Spiritually, we may go through dormant seasons as well; that does not indicate death, but more likely it indicates a season of rest in preparation for a season of harvest.
God has placed rhythm in nature. You can hear it in the croaking of frogs in the spring, the clap of thunder and splattering raindrops during a summer shower, the rustle of leaves in autumn’s wind, and the chattering of our teeth from winter’s icy chill. The seasons provide a rhythm to life, cycles that prompt us to do more than merely survive or exist, but to grow.
Chronology of Spiritual Development
We call the apostle John the “beloved disciple” because of his closeness to Jesus. For 3 years John was part of the inner circle of Jesus’ most trusted disciples. Years later, he wrote specifically about spiritual formation. He lists three categories of maturity in 1 John 2:12–14: children, young adults, and older persons.
John was in a unique position among the apostles to discuss cross-generational discipleship. Tradition tells us that he was the only one of the original 12 disciples to die a natural death, and do so at an old age, following his exile to the Isle of Patmos. No doubt the isolation of that exile made him keenly aware of the importance of a community of faith. During his lifetime he experienced and noted the value of spiritual growth over time. Older believers need younger believers in a community of faith. The elderly need the youth just as much as the youth need their elders in a healthy family or church.
Organic spiritual formation occurs when we make the best use of the time we have. Ephesians 5:16 says, “Making the most of every opportunity.” Other translations say, “redeeming the time.” In a few minutes a day you could learn a foreign language, read a book, hone your musical skills, explore a new job skill or hobby, or become physically or spiritually fit. Most people who do these things don’t have the luxury of large blocks of time in which to accomplish their goals.
Once used, we can never replace our allotted time. To one and all, rich or poor, big or small, we eventually exhaust our time account. To some, it happens swiftly and unexpectedly. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Center, you may have every reason to believe that you will last for many more years. Then the unexpected happens, and in one tragic moment your account is empty. Your friends and family mourn your loss. But nothing they do will bring you back or change those final seconds.
To most, though, they gradually deplete this account, as a healthy bank account that provides a comfortable living for years, but whose withdrawals eventually exceed the deposits. Like a bucket of water with a small leak, the full account slowly erodes, in an almost unnoticeable fashion. Eventually it is completely empty. And an empty bucket is still an empty bucket, whether it suddenly lost its contents by a swift kick or they gradually leaked out over time.
When you are 16, you think you will live forever. A 30-year-old seems ancient. After all, your 16-year-old brain reasons: “They have already lived almost twice as long as I have.” But before you have a chance to blink twice, your teenage years are gone, and half a decade goes by.
You are now 25 and beginning a career and family. You barely have time to cut the birthday cake when you hit the big 3–0. After all, time flies when you’re having kids. And wasn’t it just a few days ago you were saying something about 30-year-olds and ancient history?
You hit the 40-year mark and realize it hits back with the shocking realization that you have spent half of your life. But you can easily rationalize, “I still have another half to go.” And so, like a compulsive shopper with an extended line of credit, you go on, not thinking much about the coming day of reckoning — when you will eventually reach your credit limit and you must pay the bills.
At half a century you wonder why young people think you are “old.” Why, only yesterday you graduated from high school and got married and started a family. But reminiscing about the past does not change the present. Every look in the mirror is a reality check. The application for AARP membership sits on your desk. As hard as it is to accept, you know you are not a kid any more, and your body tells you so every day.
Then come the sixties. At retirement most people wish for health and strength to enjoy life, and thankfully many do. But some folks discover they lost these two in the pursuit of something else along the way. You could spend the next several years wishing you had made better use of your time and taken better care of yourself when you were young.
At 75, 80, or even 85 you look back and simply cannot explain where time has gone. It seems like only yesterday your children were young, you were busily involved in your career, and thinking life, as you then knew it, would last forever. Today, a few faded photographs and scrapbooks in the attic are all that remain of that era. While loving family members and friends may surround you, it just does not seem possible that those days will never be again.
At 90 or 95 you are painfully aware of your mortality. Your aches and pains are like the ticking of a clock, a steady reminder that the minutes are passing by, just as life seems to be passing you by. Many at this stage of life do not understand the younger generation. Perhaps they long since gave up trying. Direct marketers and advertisers target you with mailings and phone calls about Medicare supplements or extended care facilities. You hesitate to buy green bananas, thinking, Why take the chance?
Your account is nearly empty and you know it. So you measure the future in days, not decades. Over the past several years, you have attended far more funerals than weddings. So many of the faces from your past are now only memories. Like the last grains of sand trickling from the top half of an hourglass, you can see the remnant of your friends and peers disappearing from sight. And like those grains of sand, your generation will soon be gone. You are constantly aware that at any moment the next grain of sand might be you.
I do not mean to scare with dramatics; because, whether we are 9 or 90, none of us have a guarantee of more time. The Bible says “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). The truth is, every one is never more than a heartbeat or a breath away from eternity.
Seeing our dilemma, at the right moment in history, Jesus Christ left eternity and entered into our dimension of time. Galatians 4:4,5, says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption.”
Jesus came to provide something for us that we could not provide for ourselves. Regardless of our wealth or social status, He came to provide something that money cannot buy. He came into time, from eternity, to bring eternity to us. Although it seems complicated, it is as simple as John 3:16,17: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (KNJV2).
The motto I have read is true, “Only one life, will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Jesus asked, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NKJV). At the end of the day, and at the end of the journey, everything invested in our spiritual formation through all the seasons of life will be worth it.
1. David Kinnaman,You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 511–13). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition. (2011-04-01).
2. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For Further Personal/Group Study
- Would you describe yourself as patient or impatient? How does your answer make you feel, and how does it affect others?
- What does James 1:1–4 say about patience and spiritual growth?
- What does Hebrews 10:35,36, say about patience and God’s promises?
- How would you describe the season of life you are in right now? What is God doing in your life to help you grow during this season?
- How would you describe your spiritual maturity? Where would you like to be spiritually, and what will it take for you to get there?
- “Organic spiritual formation occurs when we make the best use of the time we have.” What could you do to become a better manager of the time you have? How might that help you or others grow spiritually? Why not find a friend to pray with you about this and help you be accountable in this area?