Pathway and Ecosystem: Two Views of Discipleship

garden pathwa

As a leader, how do you look at disciple-making in the local church? Do you take more of an “organized” approach or an “organic” approach? Often these two philosophies are seen as polar opposites, and sometimes ministries are exclusively one or the other. But what if true flourishing comes from a healthy understanding and application of both working together?

The organized approach values systems and structure, but the appearance of progress can be artificial. The organic approach values the seasonal rhythms of life, but the reliance on personal relationships can become a lack of intentionality.

One of the best illustrations for healthy disciple-making that I’ve ever come across is from a book of the same name: The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. The best gardeners understand how to put structures in place to accommodate and direct natural growth. A great structure in the wrong place or one that is broken is of little value. A growing vine will bear more fruit if it’s intentionally supported.

 

Rethinking Discipleship Strategies

What many of us have felt in our gut for years, even decades, is now clearly seen with data from the 2022 State of Theology. As noted in last week’s post, it’s time for the American church to think differently about discipleship. Most disciple-making systems seem to be either broken or in the wrong place, because we’re not seeing the healthiest fruit.

For example: 43% of U.S. Evangelicals believe that Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.[1]

This statistic is not based on self-identified “Evangelicals;” it’s a shocking point of confusion among Christians who hold other Evangelical beliefs. This does not mean that everything churches are doing is wrong or ineffective. But it does mean that we have to take a careful look at our disciple-making and be honest about what we see. If Christians are confused about basic theological truths like the nature of God (and they are) then we need a new plan. So, how do we evaluate our existing plan and form a better one?

Two ways that I’ve found helpful in thinking about an intentional disciple-making strategies are the discipleship pathway and the discipleship ecosystem.

 

Discipleship Pathway

One of the most popular ways of mapping out a disciple-making strategy is the “pathway.” Imagine stepping stones—distinct spots making up a cohesive path. What’s great about this view of discipleship is that it’s an organized sequence of steps arranged to move people along in their spiritual walk with Christ and the church. The pathway provides clear next steps—if a person is currently at “point A,” then “point B” is next in line after they complete any expectations and are ready to move forward in their journey.

For example, the first step may be a new believer’s class or church membership class. Once someone completes those steps, they are encouraged to join a small group or Sunday school class. Once they’ve been involved in that form of community for a while, they are encouraged to take a step into leading a group or serving in another area of the church. And so on.

Strength: It’s clear, sequential, and linear. Staff and members all know what’s “next” based on where they currently are along the pathway. That’s a huge benefit.

Weakness: This view can be overly simplistic, rigid, or forgotten about. Often leadership assume that the steps are clear, but they aren’t regularly communicated along with invitations to take next steps. Other times, leaders have a general idea of what growth looks like for individuals—especially for those identified as potential leaders—but they haven’t taken the time to actually map out realistic steps and how to develop people to maturity within each step. In both of those instances, there’s more of a general direction implied than clear steps along a pathway to follow.

Ask yourself: What are the essential steps for people to take as they grow in spiritual maturity, walking with Christ and the church?

 

Discipleship Ecosystem

Another way to view disciple-making in your church is an “ecosystem.” This is more complex but vital to flourishing. Think back to your days as a young kid in science class, identifying the various cycles and factors that influence one another in any environment. A change in the landscape, temperature, water, or native species of plants and creatures, will all impact the overall health of the interconnected ecosystem. For simplicity, consider how a plant needs a variety of nutrients from the soil, sunlight, water, and the right relationship with other plants and creatures to flourish. It doesn’t need those things one at a time in a specific order. All of those things are needed in a unique balance throughout its life. Relocating that plant to another spot won’t necessarily help it grow if you don’t take into consideration the various factors needed for its health.

In reality, life is not linear and we have to consider a variety of things to understand and encourage health and growth. This is true in nature, physically, and in our lives, spiritually.

Within a church, people are coming together with a variety of needs, gifts, and experiences. A healthy Christian and active church member requires more than just a one-size-fits-all sequence of steps. Individuals may need care as a student, parent, single parent, married person, man, woman, etc. They need discipleship in the areas of relationships, work, finances, grief, addiction, etc. They need to understand how their Christian beliefs trickle down into each area of life and their fruitfulness and flourishing require more holistic discipleship.

Strength: The ecosystem recognizes a variety of dynamics essential to spiritual health. It also recognizes that people may enter the pathway at a variety of points and even cycle back through different steps. Like a river does not simply flow from one point to another, but it has multiple pools and streams throughout its journey, so the Christian life is not always linear.

Weakness: This view can slip into a pick-and-choose “buffet” style approach to discipleship that doesn’t have any real direction. Churches can provide so many options that people don’t know what to do now or next. Church members may settle into comfort zones rather than continuing to grow without direction.

Ask yourself: What does Christian flourishing and fruitfulness look like in every area of life, not just church involvement? What unique needs exist among your people and community?

 

The Church Is Like a Garden

Hopefully you see that both the pathway and ecosystem have strengths and weaknesses. We need both views of discipleship.

Imagine a pathway leading through a garden. The pathway exists to lead people through a space that has been established for beauty, nourishment, and refreshment. The pathway ensures that clear direction exists and boundaries are in place for the sake of everyone’s enjoyment and the flourishing of the garden. But within the garden, multiple entry points may lead to the main path, detours may exist for specific areas of growth or rest, and the garden itself is a uniquely balanced ecosystem working together for the mutual benefit of the entire space.

If both a pathway and ecosystem are taken into consideration, people can come and go, enjoying the garden, and the fruit grown within can reach far beyond the borders of the garden, blessing others and even producing seeds for new gardens somewhere else.

Ask yourself: Am I looking at disciple-making from a holistic perspective? Does our church have a plan that includes both a pathway and an ecosystem? Are people growing in theological maturity—not just in knowledge but also application to their daily lives? 

 

2 Free Tools

The Rooted Network exists to inspire, equip, and resource your God-given mission of making disciples who love God and love their neighbors as themselves. The current conversation around the State of Theology and our need to think differently about discipleship has prompted us to offer you two free tools this month.

  1. Your Discipleship Pathway and Ecosystem PDF—Sign up below for our email list to receive our free monthly resources. October’s download includes worksheets to help you think through your own pathway and ecosystem.
  2. Online Event + Q&A with Eric Geiger and Ed StetzerSign up and submit questions for “Theology in the Local Church.” Rooted Network will stream this important conversation and answer your questions on Thursday, November 3 at 9:30am (PDT). You don’t want to miss this opportunity to hear from Eric and Ed as they share valuable insights from their pastoral experiences.

Keep your eye out for a new post each week as we continue to explore disciple-making strategies throughout the month of October. Next week’s topic will focus on the importance of groups in personal discipleship.