Thank you for your deeper interest in the science behind DDA!

The Science Behind The Assessment

Assessing Spiritual Growth and Development in Christian Communities
Johan Mostert, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary & Geoffrey W. Sutton, Evangel University
Mostert, J. and Sutton, G.W. (2015, April). Assessing spiritual growth and development in Christian communities. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, International Conference, Denver, Colorado.

Assessing Spiritual Growth and Development in Christian Communities

Several constructs (e.g., forgiveness, gratitude, love, spirituality, well-being) within the field of positive psychology (Snyder, Lopez, & Pedrotti, 2011) overlap with dimensions of Christian spirituality and offer researchers, clinicians, and clergy opportunities for collaboration in assessing well-being and growth from a holistic perspective. Previous research has examined the role of strengths assessment in a Christian sample (e.g., Sutton et al., 2011). In this presentation, we review initial findings of a five-dimensional instrument designed to integrate psychology and Christian theology in the assessment of spiritual growth and development. The spiritual journeys of Augustine (Niño, 2008) and St. Francis of Assisi (Peck, 1931) offer examples of the long history behind the quest for spiritual growth. In his aptly named work, My Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis (1954) focused the Christian on the life of Christ. In the last century, Bonhoeffer (1974) explained the call to discipleship as an “attachment to his person” and stated, “Discipleship means adherence to Christ” (63). In this tradition, we viewed discipleship as a total commitment of the whole person. Consequently, the inventory was named, Discipleship DynamicsTM (DD).

Psychological scientists have made considerable advances in the development of instruments to measure religious and spiritual constructs (Hill, 2013; Hill & Pargament, 2003). Recent explorations of spirituality as a relational concept are particularly relevant to this project (Davis, Hook, Van Tongeren, Gartner, & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2012). From a theological perspective, scholars like Moberg (1972) opined that conservative Christians had reacted to liberal theology by ignoring the importance of meeting human needs. In passionate language he observed that evangelicals: “overemphasized man’s horizontal relationships (man to man), while conservatives accentuated the vertical (man to God) and forgot the horizontal. Each group read different parts of the Bible….The sharp polarization that developed during the conflict made it politically impossible to remain both an evangelical and a social gospeler, and emotional involvements prevented Christians from recognizing the fallacies of being impaled upon the horns of a false dilemma”(Moberg, 1972, p. 34).

We hope that the foregoing overview provides readers with a sense that there are converging trends in theology and psychology that may be integrated into a relational spirituality, which promotes individual spiritual growth as a function of an individual’s relationship with God and with others. We now turn to specific psychological inquiries relevant to the formation of the five domains of DD. Bonhoeffer’s reference to attachment and adherence bears a strong resemblance to attachment theory. Following Bowlby’s (1969) work in attachment, researchers have explored attachment to God (e.g., Hall et al., 2009; Kilpatrick, 2012) and found conceptual (Sutton & Mittelstadt, 2012) and empirical support (e.g., Beck & McDonald, 2004) for the value of attachment theory in understanding Christian spirituality. Perspectives on the link between loving God and loving others have been offered by psychological scientists (e.g., Exline, 2012) and sociologists (e.g., Poloma, 2012). Others have found positive associations among measures of hope, attachment, forgiveness, compassion, and spirituality (e.g., Sutton, Jordan, & Worthington, 2014). Attachment theory and Bonhoeffer’s notion of discipleship provides a theoretical basis for two domains of the current inventory, Spiritual Formation and Healthy Relationships. Research on hope (Snyder et al., 1991), self-control (Zell & Baumeister, 2013), and gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003) is long established and provides a basis, along with other concepts, for items assessing the domain of Personal Wholeness. Although vocational counseling has been a mainstay of counseling psychology for decades, only recently has research examined links between vocation, meaning, and the concept of calling in Christian spirituality (Phillips et al., 2011) thus, we examine the viability of Vocational Clarity as a fourth dimension of spirituality. The final dimension, Economics and Work, explores how one contributes to and benefits from ethical and creative work. A theology of work has been developed by several theologians including DD contributor, Charlie Self (2012).

Pilot Study

After reviewing the literature and discussing what a holistic approach might mean, Mostert (2014) and his team concluded that five broad domains captured at least a substantial portion of what it means to function as a disciple. The five domains are: Spiritual Foundations (SF), Personal Wholeness (PW), Healthy Relationships (HR), Vocational Clarity (VC) and Economics and Work (EW). Following is a description of the outcomes associated with each domain.

  • Spiritual Foundations One of the most traditional conceptions of discipleship involves drawing on the spiritual disciplines, which broaden and enrich the way we love God. The outcomes in this domain include a love for Scripture, praying without ceasing, listening to the voice of God, pursuing godly knowledge, worshipping God in spirit and truth, sharing the gospel wisely, seeking Christian fellowship, and learning to meditate in the presence of God.
  • Personal Wholeness The second domain reflects aspects of personal character and wholeness and emphasizes the importance of self-care. The behavioral outcomes in this domain include speaking the truth, gratitude, managing anxiety and fear, displaying self-discipline, managing personal resources well, managing depression and negative emotions well, displaying humility, maintaining a positive self-image and maintaining a clean conscience.
  • Healthy Relationships The third domain reflects aspects of healthy interpersonal relationships, which express love of neighbor. The behavioral foci of healthy relationships are a capacity to love unselfishly, forgive, live in harmony and peace, manage sexuality, demonstrate hospitality, recognize the needs of the marginalized in society, respect authority, and if applicable, develop intimacy in marriage.
  • Vocational Clarity The fourth domain focuses on work as a missional concept and is tied to the fifth domain of economics and work. Vocational clarity includes a sense of calling, awareness of gifts and talents, awareness of one’s contribution to employers, creativity, capacity to mentor, and sense of teamwork, including one’s spouse if applicable.
  • Economics and Work The fifth and final domain focuses on the importance of one’s role in economics and draws on behavioral economics as well as a theology of work. Specific foci include the dignity of labor, marketplace ethics, work economics, people as a human resource, as well as awareness and management of other resources.

Method Procedure

Item development. Expert contributions were sought from theologians, psychologists, and business educators at Evangel University. Some items reflecting psychological constructs were taken from the International Personality Item Pool ( Within each domain, 10-12 items were selected or written to assess eight behavioral outcomes that could operationally define each domain. Test items were written as statements with instructions for participants to rate them on a scale of 0 (“not at all like me”) to 7 (“just like me”).

Participants Volunteers were recruited from seminary students and churches to take various sections of the test item pool, which was placed online. The sample size varied but most items were rated by a minimum of 139 participants with many items rated by more than 200. The number of people rating items in each outcome is provided in the Appendix.

Materials A 12-14 page personalized report, The Discipleship Assessment, was created to provide feedback to participants based on their quartile scores. Higher scores reflected a high degree of progress within the outcome. The feedback includes a description of the outcome with suggestions for further development.

Results and Discussion Items for the final form of DD were selected on the basis of high correlations with each of the 40-outcomes. Descriptive statistics and coefficient alphas were calculated for each outcome and are presented in the Appendix. All alpha values were within acceptable ranges (above .60) with most values above .75. Based on these findings, a 200-item instrument has been placed online. The results of the Pilot Study were also used to modify the number of outcomes within the five domains. As noted above, feedback was based on using a person’s quartile scores. This seemed more useful to individuals who would then be able to track progress toward personal goals. Although we calculated descriptive statistics for the outcomes (See the Appendix), a strict normative approach was not linked to the feedback. There is one exception. The instrument includes one 10-item subscale that measures motivational distortion. Feedback for this outcome used a normative approach (alpha = .90; M = 18.7, SD = 5.99). Motivational distortion is not associated with the five domains.

Field Study A large scale field study is underway. So far, more than 200 people have completed the online assessment. Plans are in place to recruit participants from Europe, Canada and Africa in 2015. Initial feedback from clergy and lay leaders has been positive both for the survey as well as the accompanying feedback report. Research plans include assessing the psychometric structure of the five domains and 40 outcomes, computing reliability values for all subscales, and modifying items as may be indicated. We hope that graduate students and scholars will contribute to ongoing research with reliability and validity studies. Finally, plans also include modification and expansion of the feedback report by providing links to online and other resources relevant to spiritual growth within the domains.


  • à Kempis, T. (1954). My imitation of Christ (Revised translation, Illustrated). Brooklyn, NY: Confraternity of the Precious Blood.
  • Beck, R., & McDonald, A. (2004). Attachment to God: The Attachment to God Inventory, tests of working model correspondence, and an exploration of faith group differences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 92-103. Bonhoeffer, D. (1959). Cost of discipleship. NY: Touchstone.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
  • Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., Gartner, A. L., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2012). Can religion promote virtue? A more stringent test of the model of relational spirituality and forgiveness. The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 22(4), 252-266.
  • Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M.E. Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. Doi 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2377
  • Exline, J. (2012). Godly love from the perspective of psychology. In M. T. Lee & A. Yong (Eds), The science and theology of Godly love (pp. 141-156). DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press. Hall, T. W.,
  • Fujikawa, A., Halcrow, S. R., Hill, P. C., & Delaney, H. (2009). Attachment to God and implicit spirituality: Clarifying correspondence and compensation models. Journal of Psychology and Theology37, 227–242.
  • Hill, P. C. & Pargament, K. I. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 58, 64-74. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.1.64
  • Kilpatrick, L. A. (2012). Attachment theory and the evolutionary psychology of religion. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, 231-241. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2012.679556 Moberg, D. (1972). The great reversal: Reconciling evangelism and social concern. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
  • Mostert, J. (2014). Discipleship DynamicsTM technical report: Development and validation. Unpublished manuscript. Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, MO.
  • Niño, A. (2008). Spiritual exercises in Augustine’s confessions. Journal of Religion & Health, 47, 88-102. doi:10.1007/s10943-007-9143-0
  • Peck, E. M. (1931). A study of the personalities of five eminent men. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 26, 37-57. doi:10.1037/h0074505
  • Poloma, M. M. (2012). Sociology, philosophy, and the empirical study of godly love. In In M. T. Lee & A. Yong (Eds.), The science and theology of godly love (pp. 157-182). DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
  • Phillips, S. L., Schneider, L.A., Longman, K.A., & Sutton, G. (2011). Path models of vocational calling in Christian college students. Christian Higher Education, 296-323.
  • Self, C. (2012). Flourishing churches and communities: A Pentecostal primer on faith, work, and economics for Spirit-empowered discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library.
  • Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Holleran, S. A., Irving, L. M., Sigmon, S. T., Yoshinoba, L., Gibb, J., Langelle, C., & Harney, P. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570-585. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.60.4.570
  • Snyder, C.R.., Lopez, S. & Pedrotti, J.T. (2011). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths (2nd ed.). Washington DC: Sage.
  • Sutton, G. W., Jordan, K., & Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2014). Spirituality, hope, compassion, and forgiveness: Contributions of Pentecostal spirituality to godly love. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 33, 212-226.
  • Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology31, 157-166.
  • Sutton, G. W., Phillips, S., Lehnert, A. B., Bartle, B. W., & Yokomizo, P. (2011). Strengths, academic self-efficacy, admission test scores, and GPA in a Christian university sample. Journal of Psychology and Christianity30, 28-36.
  • Zell, A. L. & Baumeister, R. F. How religion can support self-control and moral behavior. In R.F. Paloutzian & C.L. Park. (Eds.). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.) pp. 498-518. New York, Guilford. Notes The research into Whole Life Discipleship supporting this project was supported by a grant from the Kern Family Foundation.

The original project development team included the following members: Johan Mostert (Ph.D. Professor of Community Psychology), Deborah Gill (Ph.D. Professor of Biblical Studies and Exposition), Melody Palm (Psy. D. Professor of Counseling Psychology), Gary Black (Ph.D. Now Chair, Department of Advanced Studies, Azusa Pacific University), Andrea Mostert (M. Psych., Pre-Primary), Jan Gill (Professional Architect), and Susan Black (M.Div.,LPC). For more information on Discipleship Dynamics, contact the first author, Johan Mostert at More information is also available on the website.

Appendix A Descriptive Statistics and Reliability Values for Discipleship Dynamics Domain Outcomes

Domain with Outcome ScalesNAlphaMSD
A Spiritual Foundations
A1 Love the Word2120.82313.855.47
A2 Pray w/o ceasing2120.86413.625.38
A3 Voice of God2120.80716.695.93
A4 Knowledge2110.72713.534.83
A5 Worship2120.87412.495.32
A7 Fellowship2120.69712.234.52
A8 Meditate2120.80514.875.41
B Personal Wholeness
B2 Forgive2090.75711.644.91
B3 Anxiety2020.68311.853.88
B4 Self discipline2060.76514.114.68
B5 Depression2040.86114.016.38
B6 Humility2040.63713.554.87
B7 Image2080.82514.65.93
B8 Conscience2070.77414.315.59
C Healthy Relationships
C1 Love2100.72515.645.96
C2 Grateful2110.86810.193.95
C3 Harmony2110.60915.114.53
C4 Sex2110.83510.56.03
C6 Marital1630.86912.415.77
C7 Hospitable2130.79911.264.54
C8 Teachable2130.64112.273.52
C9 Marginalized2140.63412.714.69
Domain with Outcome ScalesNAlphaMSD
D Vocational Clarity
D1 Mission at Work1390.83512.595.39
D2 Sense of calling1400.90411.916.51
D3 Insight gifts and talents2110.82713.85.5
D4 Mission w Spouse1640.93812.746.98
D5 Mentor2110.85414.836.1
D6 Creative innovation2110.83413.675.23
D7 Teamwork2130.77416.595.52
D8 Common good2130.7616.85.45
E Economics and Work
E1 Dignity of Labor1400.75411.494.81
E1 Dignity of Labor1400.75411.494.81
E2 Marketplace ethics1400.74110.714.85
E3 Work economics1120.66812.324.17
E4 Asset to Employer1390.7719.713.36
E5 Resources2120.75713.735.61
E6 Manage org’s resources1400.7129.63.4
E7 Biblical Holism2120.72514.84.46

Appendix B The 5 Dimensions and 35 Outcomes of Discipleship Dynamics