“Make the tree good, and its fruit will be good,” Jesus said, “or make the tree rotten, and its fruit will be rotten” (Matthew 12:23). Given the choice between a thriving life that makes the world a better place, or a life that primarily brings brokenness and pain to us and others, wouldn’t you choose the first? We want to become the best version of ourselves. But how do we do that? How can you make your tree good?
The first step after committing your life to Jesus is simple, but not always intuitive: taking responsibility for their own spiritual growth.
I’ve seen many people experience real, lasting transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit combined with hard work and patience over time. The amount of transformation I have come to expect seems unrealistic or almost utopian, but isn’t this exactly what Jesus promised?
Jesus’s first and closest disciple, Peter, wrote about this in his second letter. He says that by his divine power, Jesus has “lavished on us everything we need for life and godliness.” (2 Peter 1:3). Isn’t that an amazing promise? He goes on to write that God’s promises “enable you to share his divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil cravings” (v.4). Who doesn’t want that?
So how do we get it? Peter continues: “make every effort to supply your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control,” and so on (v. 5-7). And he tells us why: “if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they will keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful” (v. 8).
Peter teaches several crucial points for us. Spiritual growth is an orderly process. In addition, it requires great effort. Maturity doesn’t just happen. We have to choose into this process. We have to persevere in it, even when the going gets rough.
“Make the tree good, and its fruit will be good,” Jesus said, “or make the tree rotten, and its fruit will be rotten”
Where to Start?
But how do you discern what areas you need to grow in? After interviewing dozens of smart people who had decades of experience helping people be transformed into fruitful disciples, I led a team process to synthesize a simple, memorable diagram.
Finally, God gave me a biblical image to encapsulate it all: the tree. To bear good fruit, a tree needs deep roots, a solid trunk, sturdy branches, and fruit-producing apparatus— not only blossoms that turn into fruit, but leaves to generate energy, and sap to pump nutrients into the fruit.
The Tree Diagram brings focus to key areas that we need to attend to in our spiritual growth.
The Discipleship Tree Diagram
Let’s start with the fruit-bearing part of the tree, which represents ministry, and consists of three aspects.
Call & Desire: While we all have to serve others in ways we don’t particularly want to, growing as a disciple also means gaining a growing sense of God’s call towards particular ministries and growing desire to serve in those areas.
Ministry Skills: Wherever you’re serving, you’ll be more effective if you work to grow in the skills for doing that particular ministry.
Ability to Influence: Many of us don’t realize we can improve our ability to influence. You can become much more fruitful by intentionally developing your skills in communication and trust-building, along with your personal strengths. Most crucially, you must learn to influence others toward Jesus, not yourself or other people or passions.
Much of our ability to influence comes from our spiritual gifts. Some comes from our personality and our experiences. And I must emphasize that our ability to influence well, in a godly way, depends on the quality of our character, and the quality of our relationships with others and with God.
We often overlook the less glamorous lower three parts of the tree, Relationships, Character, and Intimacy with God. So many leaders have made a shipwreck of powerful ministries by ignoring one or more of these areas. Jesus exhorted his disciples to pay close attention to developing these areas of their lives, and if you want to flourish, you must take initiative to keep cultivating vigorous roots, trunk, and branches.
The Discipleship Tree Diagram can be used in two ways. One is discernment. As you seek God’s guidance, looking at the strength and qualities of each of six these areas will help you (as Parker Palmer’s title puts it) to Let Your Life Speak.
One quick example: if you have a passionate call and desire to work with children and a mercy gifting may be suited for a job as a social worker, preschool teacher, or pediatric nurse. But if you have the same call and desire but a pastor/teacher gifting, you may find a better fit as a school teacher or youth ministry leader.
Secondly, this diagram can be used for development: to identify areas (in ourselves or those we’re discipling) that need growth. For example, you may realize that your current circumstances require you to develop a particular ministry skill. But with reflection you may also see that they require you to strengthen an aspect of your character that you weren’t paying attention to, prayerfully and with God’s help.
Look at the Discipleship Tree Diagram. Which areas in your life have been developed? Which need attention? You may want to ask a few people you trust for input.
Ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify one or two areas you want to cultivate now.
Will you take initiative to grow in that area? Growth happens best with vision, intention, strategy, and a plan (I remember these with the acronym VISP).
- Vision: What would it look like to have grown in this area?
- Intention: Will I commit to do this with God’s help?
- Strategy: How can I grow in this area?
- Plan: What steps will I take?
Growth Fertilizer & Tools
God graciously gives us many resources to increase transformation. Which of these do you want to seek out?
- Models & Heroes
- Mentors & Coaches
- Reading & Media
- Skill Development
- Buddies & Accountability Partners
Helping Others Grow
If you want to help others grow, you can get a great start by reflecting on this Tree Diagram. Have them reflect on it, too. Then talk about their insights and share your insights in an encouraging way.
The following tools have proven to be very useful, in our experience of developing disciples and leaders.
- Listen to them
- Watch their life
- Ask Questions
- Modeling (leading by example)
- Prayer for Healing
- Exhortation and Encouragement
- Books, Articles, Videos
- Skill Development
Here is my prayer for you as you use these tools.
I ask God to fill you with the knowledge of what he wants for you, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. This will mean that you’ll be able to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Lord, and so give him real delight, as you bear fruit in every good work and grow up in the knowledge of God. I pray that you’ll be given all possible strength, according to the power of his glory, so that you’ll have complete patience and become truly steadfast and joyful.
—Paul & Timothy, Colossians 1:9-11 (Kingdom New Testament)