When I was a little girl, every time it snowed, my mom would remind me that no two snowflakes have ever been exactly alike. I’m not sure whether or not this statement is true, but it instilled a sense of wonder in me that I can still remember vividly. I can picture myself peering through a window of my childhood home, observing the snowflakes piled up on the windowsill, and admiring their differences. This whole idea—that of the incalculable amount of snowflakes that have ever fallen upon the earth, no two were identical—became my favorite thing about snow.
Similarly, individuality has become my favorite thing about humanity.
Over 100 billion people have lived upon this earth, and every single one of them has been unique. And they have differed in much broader, much more beautiful ways than snowflakes.
In God’s magnificent creativity, He created each individual on this earth with not only unique physical features—but with unique strengths, unique weaknesses, unique personalities and temperaments, unique stories, accomplishments and trials, unique upbringings and backgrounds, unique desires and aspirations, and unique ways of processing, coping, and learning. There is no one else exactly like you. There is no one else exactly like your spouse. There is no one else exactly like your mom, your dad, your child, your best friend, your hairdresser, or your pastor. Our Creator fearfully and wonderfully made each one of them (Ps 139:14). He called them His “workmanship”. He prepared specific good works in advance for them to walk in (Eph 2:10).
These truths should not only leave us awestruck at God’s vastness and omnipotence. They should also affect our understanding of spiritual growth.
HOW INDIVIDUALITY INFLUENCES SPIRITUAL GROWTH
There are many aspects of the spiritual maturation process that are true of each and every Christian. The most pertinent commonalities are that, through Christ, the Holy Spirit is drawing all believers out of the state of total depravity (Gen 6:5) and forming all believers into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). If you are in Christ, He is in the process of transforming you from sinfulness to Christlikeness, from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor 3:18). However, many variances exist between people. Therefore, aspects of this process also differ from person to person. To a degree, the starting point of the process, the process itself, and the goal of the process are unique to every individual.
1. THE STARTING POINT
In order to properly understand the spiritual growth process, it is crucial to grasp what believers are being formed out of—complete brokenness, as resulted from the fall (Gen 3). Christians are not inherently good people who need a little fine-tuning. We are inherently evil, rebellious people undergoing a complete heart and life transformation toward godliness. We all have this in common.
However, each human being also has a unique pattern of sin that is deeply ingrained in him. Of course, we might share certain sin tendencies, but beneath those tendencies are sin natures that have distinctively formed within each individual. We each cling to certain idols, exalt ourselves in certain ways, possess certain bad habits and unbiblical attitudes, reject certain truths about God, and react to the world and to others with certain harmful behaviors. The starting point for all Christians is a position of complete rebellion against God—but the ways that rebellion displays itself will vary from person to person.
2. THE PROCESS
When a man places his trust in Christ, a lifelong process of transformation is set into motion. Because of sin’s presence in the world, he will not fully obtain Christlikeness before glorification. However, the Spirit will be continually moving him in that direction. The Spirit uses God’s Word to sanctify all believers. He uses methods such as the local church, relationships, spiritual disciplines, and hardships to make each of His children more like Jesus. However, in a more detailed sense, the spiritual formation process will differ from Christian to Christian.
Because our sin presents itself uniquely, the Spirit must do an individualized work in each of us to separate us from our sin. For example, He will certainly not need to challenge one who struggles with legalism in the same way as one who abuses His grace. And even among those who share sin patterns, He will develop them distinctively, according to His unique plan for each of them.
All believers share an eternal destination. All believers share a guide to that destination (and some helpful tools for the journey!). However, no two believers have ever shared the same journey to that destination.
3. THE GOAL
Not only does Scripture teach that believers are being formed out of complete brokenness. It is also undeniably clear about what the Holy Spirit is forming believers into – the image of Christ. This concept is all over the New Testament. Romans 8:29 says, “For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
Although the Holy Spirit is forming every believer into the image of Christ, there is also a sense in which the Holy Spirit is forming each believer into someone unique. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compares the relationship between two Christians to the relationship between two human body parts. The Spirit gives different gifts to different individuals so that communities can function collectively and interdependently, like human bodies. Therefore, a sanctified version of one Christian will not be identical to a sanctified version of another Christian. They will conform to the same Christlikeness, but they will not lose their individuality. They will develop the same character qualities, but those qualities might manifest themselves in different ways through their corresponding strengths.
HOW INDIVIDUALITY INFLUENCES OUR DISCIPLESHIP
Of course, there are biblical principles that should be true of every discipleship relationship, and of course, we can glean wisdom and ideas from others who have modeled healthy discipleship to us. However, because no two humans are exactly alike, no two discipleship relationships should look exactly alike. We must individualize our discipleship. In order to effectively lead a believer from his unique state of depravity into the fullness of who God created him to be, you must know your disciple and lead him accordingly.
1. KNOW YOUR DISCIPLE
This step seems obvious, but believe me when I tell you that it is often forgotten! Out of an eagerness to impart the things they’ve learned – a great desire! – many forget to really get to know those they lead. Get to know each person you invest in: their story, their cultural and family background, their personality type, their sin tendencies, their spiritual gifts, their greatest longings, greatest fears, greatest hopes, and biggest hurts.
We tend to assume that others function like we function, enjoy what we enjoy, and need what we need. We must fight this way of thinking. Don’t assume that your disciples have the same needs that you did in their phase of life. Discern their individual needs. Don’t assume that they learn, connect, and are motivated in the same ways that you are. Discern how they learn, connect and are motivated. And don’t assume that God wants to use them in the same ways He has used you. Discern how they are gifted and wired, and encourage them accordingly. Don’t assume; discern. This will involve time, true relationship, a lot of question asking, and a lot of listening. “Be quick to listen” and “slow to speak”–even in your discipleship relationships (Jas 1:19). The Lord would not have designed relational discipleship if he wanted you to do all of the talking. He could accomplish that from the pulpit.
2. LEAD HIM ACCORDINGLY
We live in a time and culture that heavily values systems and mass production. We want results we can count on, and we want to obtain those results as quickly, as efficiently, and as effectively as possible. We see this in automatic bill pay, Amazon Prime, smartphones with voice recognition, and watches that hold our credit cards.
I appreciate many of these systems. They allow us to spend more time elsewhere. However, we cannot let this piece of our culture determine how we make disciples. Spiritual growth is a life-long process. We would be foolish to expect immediate results. It is also an individualized process. We can’t put younger men and women through some type of one-size-fits-all system and create a bunch of well-rounded followers of Jesus.
The things you learn about your disciple should affect how you lead him. Lead each individual according to who he is, where he has been, and who God is shaping him to be. Lead him away from his unique sin patterns. Lead him according to his preferred learning styles. Lead him in a way that develops his specific strengths and passions.
Resources such as discipleship curriculum are very helpful. I definitely encourage their use in certain circumstances. However, you can’t expect them to do all of the work for you. The authors of many of these tools are experienced, well educated, and have great wisdom to share. However, they don’t know your disciples. They did not write these studies with your audience in mind. Take advantage of these resources, but be sure to customize the content according to individual needs.
All believers are called to make disciples. All disciples are called to become like Jesus. However, this does not warrant a formulaic approach to spiritual leadership.
Don’t lead your disciple through a methodical system. Instead, seek to understand:
- his unique sin nature, so you’ll know what to steer him away from,
- his unique style of learning, so you’ll know how to lead him effectively, and
- his unique set of strengths, so you’ll know where the Lord wants to take him.
In discipleship, one size does not fit all.