The 4 Dimensions of Growing as a Disciple

Webber’s model of developing a plan to grow as a disciple is so simple that I have used it with my eight-year-old daughter as well as those who have been pastors for thirty years. The way I help people think of these four different types of activities that they need to incorporate is to think about four different directions.

By Dana Allin, author of Simple Discipleship

Every follower of Christ should have a personal plan for discipleship. As we develop these plans, we must do so in a way that is consistent with how Jesus made disciples. For example, Jesus did more than just give information to His disciples; He also led people into experiences that solidified the truth and caused them to grow.

Another fact about Jesus’s discipleship is that He understood true growth takes time and intentional effort. My experience finding my identity in the gospel rather than accomplishments is a perfect example: Simply having more information about who I was in Christ wasn’t going to bring transformation. My approach was going to have to be holistic and intentional, and it was going to take time.

The model for approaching growth as a disciple that we’ll talk about here is greatly influenced by the work of Malcolm Webber, the Executive Director of LeaderSource SGA. Malcom’s approach to helping people grow is very simple and yet very profound. He asks individuals to develop and commit to opportunities around four different dimensions, or what he calls 4Ds. These four dimensions are:

1. Engaging with God

2. Engaging with truth

3. Engaging with community

4. Engaging with experience

When we create a well-balanced set of activities in these four areas, over a period of time we will have a much greater chance of experiencing growth in our discipleship and leadership.

Webber’s model of developing a plan to grow as a disciple is so simple that I have used it with my eight-year-old daughter as well as those who have been pastors for thirty years. The way I help people think of these four different types of activities that they need to incorporate is to think about four different directions. I use the following diagram to help illustrate these directions:

Engage with God: the First Direction

The first direction that we need to engage is with God. This probably seems relatively obvious, and yet it is easy for us to forget to make this facet of our growth plan particularly robust. Especially if our area of growth relates to growing in knowledge or ministry skills, it can be tempting to leave this aspect out of our development plan.

The basic question in this facet of our plan is How do we bring the Lord into our development plan? If we want to grow in areas related to our heart (the first characteristics), then we might want to ask what spiritual disciplines we want to engage. In developing my plan for growth in living out my identity as a follower of Jesus, I went on a day-long silent retreat where I journaled and prayed for the Lord to show me the places in my life where I was not living out of my own sonship of Jesus. I also committed to the spiritual practice of a daily examen: at two scheduled times, I asked God how I had been doing living out of my adoption as a child of God. This discipline of regularly stopping activity and asking God to examine my heart was extremely helpful to keep my discipleship design at the forefront of my mind, especially since I can be impatient, and pausing to reflect doesn’t always come naturally to me. I also daily asked the Lord to help me to live out the details of my design. I knew that there would be other things that could easily derail me from fulfilling my discipleship plan, and I needed God’s help to persevere.

The key in this area is to find ways to engage with the Lord that will specifically address your design. Some general activities can be useful to all types of designs, such as praying for God’s help. Other activities are particularly helpful to address specific qualities and characteristics. For example, if someone wants to grow in the characteristic of devoted living, which is related to faithfulness and self-control in the fruit of the Spirit, that person may want to fast, as that is particularly related to having the Spirit of God help control our appetites.

If a disciple wants to grow in one of the qualities related to the hands (i.e., what we do for the Lord), then we will want to engage with God in ways that are specific to those particular needs and focus. For example, a person may want to grow in their ability to disciple a new believer. Ironically, it could be easy to leave God out of the equation. The temptation could be simply to read books about discipleship and try to apply the information contained in those books to particular situations. But we want to make sure that our plan for growth as a disciple in this area includes engaging with God. This person could also take a retreat to ask God how He has formed that person as a disciple, since it is often easy for us to forget that God has led us on our individual journeys.

If a disciple wants to grow in areas related to increasing knowledge, then perhaps in addition to asking God for the ability to stick to their plan, they may also want to ask God to reveal His truth. Several passages remind us that we can’t obtain truth apart from God. Passages like John 16:13, which says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Paul also reminds us that we need the Spirit of God to understand truth. In 1 Corinthians 2:12, he says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

Engage in Truth or Knowledge: the Second Direction

On the other side of the diagram, we see the need to engage in truth or knowledge. The most obvious form of knowledge that we need to engage in is connecting with God’s Word. It is particularly helpful to consider how we will engage with God’s Word as it relates to the needs presented in our design.

When I wanted to increase my ability to take my identity from my position in the Lord, I decided to try reading the Gospels through the lens of how an individual’s identity in Christ changes his or her attitude and actions. As I read through the Gospels asking this question, it added a component to these stories that I had not experienced before.

For example, I read Luke 18 and encountered a wealthy man who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus was unusually combative with him: “Why do you call me good?” He asked, in what I imagine to be a testy tone (verse 19). Jesus invites the ruler to obey five of the Ten Commandments—those associated with how we live among other people. The ruler asserted his righteousness, which Jesus countered by confronting the man’s attachment to his wealth—the sixth social commandment. As the ruler abandoned Jesus, Jesus pointed out the problem of a works-based righteousness: There’s always something we stop short of doing, something we love that we won’t surrender to God.

And then I turned to Luke 19, where I met another wealthy man, Zacchaeus. Universally derided as a sinner, Zacchaeus does nothing to argue his case to Jesus. He doesn’t even introduce himself to Jesus—Jesus introduces himself to Zacchaeus! And while the ruler in Luke 18 refused Jesus’ invitation to divest himself of his idol (wealth), Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ kindness by replacing his idolatry of money with an eagerness to learn about Jesus and His Kingdom!

Turning back to Luke 18, I noticed that shortly before his encounter with the ruler, Jesus told a parable about a righteous man and a tax collector in which the righteous man left the temple without the peace of God, but the tax collector—the sinner—went home justified before God! Stripped of our idols, I learned from these stories, we discover grace!

As we engage with knowledge, we not only want to connect with Scripture but we may also want to tap into other types of information. There may be particular books, articles, podcasts, and so on that are helpful for your particular area of growth. For my initial plan, I had two books that were part of my reading. I read all of one of the books, and I re-read a chapter from John Ortberg’s book about the life you’ve always wanted called “An Unhurried Life,” which was extremely helpful in looking at my own patience.[i]

If you want to grow in particular skills for ministry, you may want to read study guides or manuals about pertinent topics. I once worked with someone who wanted to better understand and apply their spiritual gifts. They found a course that included audio and video lectures about spiritual gifts. They also engaged in a spiritual-gifts assessment and some material to unpack their findings.

The great and challenging thing is that we live in the information age, which means that many helpful resources are available to enrich your discipleship plan. It also means that we can get overwhelmed by the amount of resources and the task of determining their quality. As we develop our plans, it is important that we do so in conjunction with others. Other individuals and the leadership of our larger church community can help make sure that we find the appropriate resources to aid in our development. This brings us to the third direction we need to experience: engage with others.

Engage with Others: the Third Direction

It is important that we involve the greater community around us as we engage in discipleship. Especially for introverts, it is easy to simply include God and personal study in our discipleship journey—without involving others in the process. But God has given us the great gift of the church. These other believers encourage us and use their gifts to help us become mature disciples of Jesus.

Two of the churches I served celebrated Communion by distributing the elements separately. The tray of bread would come around, and people would take one, and then later, the tray with small cups of grape juice would be passed. In these churches, I would have people take the bread on their own timing after prayer and reflection, to get across the fact that we all need to come to Jesus individually. We are not Christians because our parents were Christians; we need to confess our sins and faith as individuals. The cups, however, we held until everyone had received one, and then the entire congregation took the element at the same time. This was done to symbolize the fact that when we are saved, we are saved into the larger body of Christ, which was the local and universal expression of church.

The question in this third direction is how other people participate in our personalized plan for discipleship. In some cases, we may want to ask individuals who know us well to give us feedback in a particular area. For example, since I often struggle with patience, one of the things that I did was ask my kids to point out when they sensed that I wasn’t giving them my full attention.

We can also involve other people by asking them to pray for our discipleship design or to keep us accountable to it. We might, therefore, choose two to five people to share our design with, and then have weekly check-ins to identify progress and address challenges together.

Engage with Experience: the Fourth Direction

When Jesus encouraged others toward discipleship, He would give them tasks that let them apply what they were learning but also became opportunities to reflect and refine their thinking. I think of the saying “You don’t learn how to swim in a classroom” as helpful for this aspect of our growth. This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The classroom can give you some information. In the classroom, an instructor can show you videos of other people swimming so you can observe and dissect the mechanics of their stroke. The instructor can also provide critical feedback about your own stroke. But the real way you learn how to swim is by getting into the pool and swimming.

We therefore need to ask what experiences we might create for ourselves to stimulate growth in a particular area. If we need to grow in areas of the heart, then we will want to engage in particular experiences that help us in this area. This reminds me of someone I work with who wanted to grow in sacrificial living. They felt they were pretty stingy in their use of money and time with others. The best way they could grow is by practicing sacrificially giving of themselves for the sake of others; therefore, they decided to begin regularly giving away a greater percentage of their finances than before. They also decided on practical ways to redistribute their time sacrificially to serve others. This experience was very helpful in breaking them of the self-centered mentality that humans frequently display.

If someone wants to grow in the area of knowledge, then they may want to develop some experiences to help ensure that they gain the knowledge they are looking for. For example, if someone wants to grow in knowledge of the New Testament, then they may want to find an opportunity to share what they know already with a younger or newer believer. They may want to write a paper on some aspect of the New Testament they feel particular passion about, have someone ask them questions, or take an online test.

The most obvious need for experiences come in the area of developing skills and abilities—the qualities of the hand. I worked with a person who wanted to be able to disciple other believers. It makes sense that in order to grow in our ability to disciple others, we actually need to practice discipling others. They identified two people that they were going to meet with to help them grow as disciples. In the category of community, they put as part of their activity to meet with me twice a month to reflect and debrief their discipleship experiences.

In creating these discipleship plans, we want to avoid approaching them as a formula to grow as a disciple. Our growth as a disciple is not formulaic; instead, these four directions help us ask the right questions to address our desire to grow as a disciple. Creating these can be both fun and challenging. It is challenging to try think of how best to design my own growth, but I find that when people develop this type of plan, they are excited and eagerly anticipate what the Lord is going to do.

[i] John Ortberg, “An Unhurried Life: the Practice of ‘Slowing,’” chap. 5 in The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).

Simple Discipleship by Dana Allin

Discipleship can feel like a meandering journey—we don’t know what we want, and none of the programs offered seem to get us anywhere.
We need something to orient ourselves, and something to direct our steps toward a clear destination. Simple Discipleship, with its companion assessment tool, offers a plan for discipleship that is tailored to your real life and your personality, and clearly pointed in the way of Jesus.
Most discipleship resources are designed as mass productions—efficient for touching many, but often failing to see individuals grow in Christ. This is the best of both worlds—an assessment tool for your entire church, combined with an achievable, personalized discipling strategy.


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  • As a practitioner and researcher on disciple-making for close to fifty years, this is a welcome contribution to popularising thinking on this imperative from the Lord to us.


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