For centuries, the growth of Christianity has been calculated in terms of church membership. Although Christ's call to discipleship has been stressed, it has not in fact significantly influenced the church as an organization. Discipleship has not become the basic orientation it was in the first century of the church, thus affecting the effectiveness of the mission of mainline denominations.
Meanwhile, church-growth gurus and researchers agree that accession rate of the church in modern times has and is diminishing in many countries, under the influence of a postmodern culture—noted for its institutional distrust and disloyalty, its religious pluralism, and its unabashed individualism.
Many churches have already closed their doors, others are downsizing and restructuring, and some are limping along, hoping for positive changes to take place. The few who have been creative and tough-minded enough to face the challenge of post-modernity are experiencing some measure of growth.
This crisis in church membership—for example, little or no growth, membership apathy, disloyalty, sporadic church attendance, and growing apostasy—has sent many church leaders and organizations back to the spiritual drawing board to rethink growth and conservation strategies.
In recent times, the word discipleship has begun to resurface from the dusty archives of apostolic tradition, as a part of an ongoing conversation in many churches and denominations. However, the word is still being used very loosely, because many churches have become victims of rigid organizational structures that are prescribed by the church traditional values that are behind the church membership orientation—which, for many ecclesiastical institutions, has been reduced to the survival practice of counting heads and managing cash flow.
For many, discipleship is only a politically correct buzzword, swirling around in the community of faith, instead of being the resident lifestyle that defines that community.
It is, however, worth noting that although church membership is a viable biblical concept, it was never meant to stand on its own as the predominant shaping and denning influence in a believer's life and experience. Herein lies the error: Membership is not discipleship. One can be the member of a church and not be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The dilemma of Christian denominations today is that they possess few members, but even fewer disciples.
Church membership must always be defined and regulated by Christ's personal call to discipleship. Discipleship was always intended to be the immovable framework that shapes and defines the believer's life and practice, with membership being the automatic outcome.
Accepting the personal call of Christ makes one a member of His body, not just of an organizational structure. Christ's call to disciple ship is not another evangelistic option for the church. Rather, it is the lifeblood and the lifestyle of the church.
We simply cannot grow the kingdom, or its people, without giving heed to and embracing discipleship. In most congregations, this may require a complete paradigm shift in current evangelistic and conservation thinking and practice. To accomplish this, it is important that we examine Christ's call to His first disciples.
Understanding the call
The call to discipleship is a command: "Follow me and I will make you fish for people" (Matt. 4:19, NRSV). This call did not occur in a vacuum. It was an integral part of Christ's kingdom strategy and forms the immovable platform for growing and sustaining that kingdom here on earth.
Discipleship can be understood only when it is viewed through the window of the kingdom of God. Any other vision will be woefully barren and myopic. The uncomfortable truth is that, in many believing communities, we have allowed the vision of the church and/or denomination to over shadow the view of the kingdom of God, and by extension, the concept of membership to eclipse Christ's call to discipleship.
Unlike John, Christ came not only to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God but also to take action to establish it. In chapter 4 of Matthew, we see Christ walking by the Sea of Galilee (4:18). This was not just a casual stroll but a kingdom search and a mission strategy. This walk by the sea was an intentional step in laying the foundation of the kingdom by calling His first disciples into service.
Interestingly, this act of Jesus was opposite to rabbinical tradition, which required the prospective disciple to seek out the teacher of his choice and ask for the opportunity to sit at his feet as his student. Jesus was a rabbi of a different order, and by this exemplary act, He was giving His very first lesson in a cardinal principle of the kingdom: "Whosoever will be chief among you let him be your servant" (Matt. 20:27).
Personal invitation: Follow Me
First and foremost, Christ's call is direct and personal. "[You] follow Me!" This call cannot be blocked or terminated. It cannot be abrogated by any ecclesiastical, executive, or denominational mandate. No born again believer can escape its appeal. It is not transferable due to personal preference or excusable due to some "higher" perceived obligation.
At first glance, "Follow Me" may appear simplistic, rudimentary, and nonstrategic. On closer examination, however, these two words contain the potent seed for exponentially growing and sustaining the kingdom of God. "Follow Me" implies more than just come after me. It is a call to imitate the Master in life and word. It demands being who Jesus was, and doing as Jesus did. A true disciple has only two obligations: become like his master; and pass on the master's teaching and way of life to others.
By this simple invitation, Christ was establishing the foundational principle for successful kingdom growth. It is called the principle of self-duplication, and it is powerful. Over and over again Christ repeated this "follow Me" principle. (For example, see Matt. 8:22; 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27; John 1:43; 21:19.)
By this process of disciple replication, Christ intended to extend Himself and His influence through an endless network of disciples who would produce more and more disciples for the kingdom of God.
Powerful transformation: I will make you
The call to discipleship is not only personal, it is powerful. It is supported and guaranteed by Christ's personal promise: "I will make you ..." (Matt. 4:19).
Who or what a person is, before that person receives the call of Christ, is of no consequence to the Master. All the human appendages and accomplishments, frailties and failures, melt away in the presence and power of "I will make you!"
What a pitiful group Christ chose to form the core of His kingdom campaign. Their backgrounds, characters, and personalities were so diverse and discordant that they were a perfect formula for failure. These men, perhaps all of them, would not pass the test or qualify for fellowship in any Christian communion today. But Christ chose them anyhow. Under His patient, empowering tutelage, these men, except for Judas, emerged to be the spiritual progenitors of the Christian church.
Bill Hull correctly states that "Jesus sees his followers for what they will be, not for what they are in 'the spiritual raw.' Everyone is a candidate for something, and there are no exceptions. Regardless of what we might see in a person, pro or con, there is much more than meets the eye, things that only God understands."1
Productive occupation: Fish for people
Christ's call had an ultimate purpose in view—that is, to fish for people. It is very important to under stand that the driving force and emphasis of discipleship is not in the fishing; it is in the following.
Fishing for unsaved people is always the "unavoidable" result of following Jesus, because it is produced by the enabling power of the Master through the Holy Spirit. Christ promises: If you follow Me, I will make you fish! There is abso lutely no room for failure here, since Christ holds Himself responsible for the fishing outcome.
This fact leads to one irrefutable conclusion: Since fishing is the unavoidable result of following Jesus, it becomes the acid test of one's true connection or relationship to Him.
Simply put, if I am not fishing for people, I am not a true disciple or fol lower of Jesus! I may be following someone or something else—religious leader, system, organization, or denomination—but I am certainly not following Jesus the Nazarene!
Jesus said fruit-bearing (disciple making, see John 15:16) is the test of true discipleship (John 15:8).
Fishing without following?
On the contrary, there may be those who are fishing without following Jesus, since the former is, by far, much easier to do than the latter. Such a back to front activity is quite beguiling and dangerous. One can spend one's entire life fishing—like the disciples who fished all night and caught nothing (Luke 5)—and come to the end to hear the Master's words: "Depart from me, I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23).
Here are some drawbacks and pit falls of fishing without following:
(1) The tendency to focus on the fish. This often leads to an inflated self-image (the "I'm-better-than-you-are" attitude) on the part of the fisher, since the vision of Christ and His call is usually tertiary or altogether absent.
(2) Having a preoccupation with trying to "clean" the fish before they're caught. This may be done by erecting man-made barriers between Christ and sinners who are trying to come to Him.
(3) Trying to separate good fish from bad fish in the boat (church).
(4) Focusing on particular group(s) of fish to the neglect of others.
(5) Replacing Christ with the self. In the process this ends up causing one to hold oneself responsible for the fishing outcome. In this scenario, success is measured by one's ability (or lack thereof) to land a large number of catches. This may be done on a personal, corporate, or denominational level.
(6) Placing the emphasis on catching fish (the numbers game) but not on caring for the catch.
When we follow Christ, we learn to fish as He did.
We will work for all types of people—regardless of their orientation, lifestyle, culture, or race—using different mediums, methods, and locations (baits, tackles, and fishing vehicles) to reach people where they are.
Fish do not make adjustments to the size and shape of our boat or to our attitudes and preferences as fishers. It is in our interest (and that of the Kingdom) to make the strategic mental and tactical adjustments in order to land a catch. This is important since all fish are not the same size or shape, neither do they share the same habitat or feeding patterns.
Christ met people on their own turf and gave to all of them—irrespective of their life and practice—unhindered, unrestricted access to Himself. His true followers will do the same. We must cooperate with Christ in catching the fish, but in the end He reserves the sole right to the fish cleaning process.
The call of Christ is a call to discipleship and not a call to membership. It is a call to serve, not to sit. This call cannot and must not be replaced or superseded by the call of a church, a denomination, or any other organization. The call enunciated by such entities is only authenticated by heaven as it is given as an extension of the call of the Master.
The body can only call because the Head directs it to call. While discipleship and church membership are not mutually exclusive, they both con note two distinct experiences. Church membership connotes a sense of community and belonging, but discipleship communicates a sense of mission and purpose. Having examined the mission of Christ in the world: to establish the kingdom of God by calling people into service for the same; and having understood the nature of Christ's call: that it is personal, powerful, and productive; it is important that we make the appropriate response to that call. It is a call to follow Christ (no one else) and be His disciple. Very closely linked to the person of the disciple is the process of discipleship. This is what makes the disciple what he/she is supposed to be. Discipleship is the lifelong commitment to, and process of, making a disciple like the Chief Discipler—Jesus Christ—in precept and practice.
This involves both being like the Master in public ministry and in private disciplines—in solitude, quietness, prayer, fasting, benevolence, and meditation.2 Into this experience every believer has been called and through the same extends that call to others.
Ellen White reminds us that "He who called the fishermen of Galilee is still calling men to His service. And He is just as willing to manifest His power through us as through the first disciples. However imperfect and sinful we may be, the Lord holds out to us the offer of partnership with Himself, of apprenticeship to Christ. He invites us to come under the divine instruction, that, uniting with Christ, we may work the works of God."3
1 Bill Hull, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1994), 20.
2 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of The Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1991).
3 Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1940), 297.