Are you on a spiritual cruise ship or an ocean liner?
The terms “cruise ship” and “ocean liner” are often used interchangeably. However, while both are types of passenger ships, there is a difference.
An ocean liner is a ship designed to transport passengers from point A to point B. The classic example of such a voyage would be a transatlantic crossing from Europe to America. Because a ship could encounter all types of weather on the crossing, an ocean liner must be built to be strong by using a great deal of steel in the hull. The bow is long and tapered to allow the ship to cut through the waves and it has a deep draft for stability.
In contrast, cruise ships are built to take passengers on a journey that begins and ends in the same port. An example is a Caribbean cruise that begins and ends in Miami, Florida.
When air travel took the place of ocean liners, ship companies were left with huge investments with no purpose. The solution was to turn ocean liners into cruise ships. However, it was soon discovered that modifications were required. Cruise ships didn’t need all the steel, pointed bows, or deep drafts since they sailed in moderately calm water. They did need to become more “boxy” to accommodate more passengers.
A few years ago my wife and I took a Caribbean cruise on what was, at that time, the largest cruise ship in the world. The travel agent promoted it by saying, “This cruise is not about going somewhere. The ship itself is the destination.”
Discipleship is like an old-fashioned ocean liner designed to take us from point A to point B. The implication is that we are on a journey or a quest that utilizes process. The New Testament uses several metaphors to describe this process: architecture, agriculture, human development, and athletics. Each model offers a unique picture of discipleship, but what is common to all of them is process. Whether it is building, growing, maturing, or running, they all model discipleship as a process of moving from one stage to another. In each case the process is progressive, intentional, and systematic.
In early church times, Paul rebuked the Christians in Corinth not for being spiritual children, but for being children far too long (see 1 Corinthians 3). Similarly, the author of Hebrews rebuked his audience for remaining immature when they should be able to teach others (Hebrews 5).
In contrast, intentional discipleship advances our journey by establishing a process to reach our destination. It is a progressive journey that requires taking one step at a time through specific “stages” that move us toward spiritual maturity.
For example, Jesus led the Twelve through a number of stages in their pathway to maturity. Here is a quick summary from Bill Hull’s book Jesus Christ Disciplemaker:
“Come and see” (John 1:39) Exploring stage to learn about Jesus and connect with Him.
“Follow Me” (Matthew 4:19) Establishing stage to grow in heart commitment to Jesus.
“Be with Me” (Mark 3:14) Equipping stage to develop lifetime habits for walking with Jesus.
“Go for Me” (John 20:21) Extending stage to serve and share truth as His ambassador.
Using the metaphor of human growth, Jim Putnam suggests five stages of spiritual development in his book Real Life Discipleship:
spiritually dead, infant, child, young adult, parent. He also describes some helpful indicators for each stage. Here’s how I would define the latter stages:
Child stage: understanding our new identity in Christ, eating a healthy spiritual diet, knowing and connecting with our new family, learning to feed ourselves.
Young adult stage: taking responsibility for choices, learning self-discipline, gaining an overview of Scripture, developing skills for spiritual warfare, developing healthy spiritual habits.
Adult stage: contributing to the kingdom cause, living a balanced life, demonstrating love and self-control, setting and maintaining priorities, modeling a lifelong apprenticeship.
Parent stage: investing in others, mentoring, equipping the next generation, passing on spiritual wisdom.
Of course, this process is not a straight-line progression. At times a child may act more mature than an adult or an adult may act childish. The growth process is more like a spiral that moves in a direction. It requires intentionally, taking one step at a time.
So, are you on a spiritual cruise ship or an ocean liner? Are you content with where you are, or are you moving forward in your spiritual journey?
There is nothing wrong with being a child . . . only with being one forever.
Questions for Reflection:
What stage would you say you are in right now? What would help you move to the next stage of maturity?
What other indicators would you expect at each of the stages above?
Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress). This article is adapted from his blog, The Adventure of Discipleship.