Membership or Discipleship?
by John F. Bradosky (January / February 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 1)
Our congregations need to ask what are we doing, making members or disciples? In our culture, membership often is connected to entitlement. Discipleship is a different matter altogether
In order to understand the value of discipleship, it is important to see it in contrast to the model for ministry in place in most congregations: membership.
Through the first 20 years of my ministry, I have been successful in connecting people to institutions and promoted belonging by involvement. I have made lots of members and become creative in finding ways to include people as members.
The problem in our culture, as I see it, is the connection between membership and entitlement. We have memberships in video clubs, grocery store clubs, and country clubs. We join because of the benefits. We fill out some basic information, pay a fee, and we are in. We think of it as a good deal or a symbol of our success. As members, we have rights and privileges, and receive preferential treatment and praise.
But membership doesn't "go" anywhere. It is more about having arrived than it is a journey. For our congregations, this is a deadly idea. Those who have "arrived" don't need to go or grow!
This understanding of membership promotes spiritual immaturity. Sensing they have arrived, members are free to learn as much or as little as they desire; to be as involved or inactive as they prefer; to give as much or as little as they find convenient; and to attend as frequently or as infrequently as they find helpful.
The local congregation becomes a spiritual "pit stop." The results are members who know the institution and how to meet their needs but don't know Jesus (that is, not in terms of an exclusive attachment as a disciple of Jesus).
But not only does this model for membership not require a connection with the "Head," but also it does not require the appropriate connection to the other parts of the body. We have promoted a sense of personalized spirituality that reflects the needs of our culture but not the design of the body of Christ, the church.
There are members who believe that the content of Christian faith is to simply have an opinion about Jesus and to design one's own personal faith. Some members believe the good news of Jesus has set us free to follow ourselves.
Discipleship is the only alternative to the membership model worth pursuing. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 confirms that the call of Jesus is to be disciples and the command of Jesus is to make disciples. This is Jesus' only plan for expanding and extending his church.
If the goal is to grow people into disciples of Jesus, we must provide them with direction, mentor them, and be willing to stay with them for a prolonged period of time. If Jesus took three years to make those first disciples, isn't it presumptive for us to think we could do it in less time?
Let me suggest the following definition of "discipleship":
A process, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in which a person comes to a life saving relationship with Jesus; accepts and embraces the content of the one, holy, and apostolic faith; lives a transformed life through faith-filled obedience to all that Jesus commands; and is willing to become a spiritually mature leader in the church.
How did I manage such a definition? We often look at the Gospels of Jesus as biography, theology, or the history of the fulfillment of God's redemptive plan. What if we considered the Gospels to be the instruction manual for making disciples? It is the best record we have of the process Jesus used to make the very first disciples.
This model for ministry is filled with exciting possibilities. To take up this cause is a major change in our culture. Changing cultures is not for the weak or timid. To take seriously the call to discipleship will require persistence, devotion, commitment, perseverance, honesty, discernment, wisdom, and action.
Personally, I don't think we have a choice in the matter.
As I have investigated the process Jesus used to grow those first individuals into his disciples, I discovered these following steps in Luke and Acts.
Luke tells us that he is writing an orderly account, so if your goal is to identify a process or sequence, then order is helpful.
First, Jesus calls people to become his followers. The focus is on a relationship which Jesus offers himself. (Luke 5:1-11, 27-29)
Second, Jesus offered instruction and revealed who he is. If we don't know who he is, how can we be willing to follow him, entrust our lives to him, and give our lives for his purposes? The purpose of learning as a disciple is not to collect information. It is to deepen the relationship with Jesus and learn by his example. (Luke 9:18-20; search chapters 1-8 for the answers Luke offers to the question of Jesus' identity.)
|If the goal is to grow people into disciples of Jesus, we must provide them with direction, mentor them, and be willing to stay with them for a prolonged period of time.|
Third, Jesus sent them out to do ministry in his name. The disciples no longer observe Jesus doing ministry but participate in a ministry with authority, power, and direction that Jesus gives. Ministry with the power to heal, renew, and transform lives brings joy and celebration. (Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-20)
Fourth, the disciples experienced the power of Jesus at work through their lives for the sake of others. They were ready to be challenged to utilize that same power to make needed changes in their own lives. Their relationship with Jesus deepened and grew even more intimate. As this relationship affected every aspect of their lives, they became living examples or role models for others. (Luke 9:18-26, 46-62)
Fifth, disciples living transformed lives are a powerful witness in the world. They could share the good news of Jesus from personal experience and mature understanding. Once they were living life in the reality of the kingdom of God, the next step was to lead others into that same reality, to make them disciples of Jesus.
Evangelism is developing a relationship with a person in the name of Jesus, maintaining that relationship until they have become mature disciples, equipped and capable of evangelizing others.
The goal is still the same, to reach the world! (Luke 24:44-49 and Acts 1:8, 2:1-6, 22-47)
Sixth, Jesus trained his disciples to become the leaders of his church. As we move from the Gospels to Acts we discover the goal for this process of discipleship. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and take on that leadership role. From the beginning of the process, Jesus' plan was to train and empower those who would be equipped to lead others. (Acts 6:1-15)
The church of Jesus Christ can only grow when we grow people into disciples — that is, leaders of his church who are willing to take personal responsibility for all that it means to be a disciple of Jesus and for fulfilling Jesus' command to make disciples.
For me this is not just another program. Those who share ministry with me have finally realized that I am not moving on to some other priority. This is all there is, and it is more than enough. Watching people mature in their faith and live transformed lives is more fulfilling than any statistical chart, no matter how amazing the numbers look!
John F. Bradosky recently was called as senior pastor at Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dayton, Ohio. Just prior to this call, he was a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, California, a congregation in suburban Los Angeles.
Discipleship, the Alpha Way
To make disciples, start at the beginning. We have used a discipleship resource called Alpha as that beginning step of discipleship.
Alpha is designed to introduce people to Jesus in several unique ways. It is designed as a safe place for people to bring their questions, be affirmed in their struggles, and hear some plausible answers without any pressure to simply conform or confess.
There are four components to Alpha: hospitality, content, small group interaction, and transformation.
While Alpha is especially helpful for persons new to the Christian faith, we have encouraged people who have been involved in the church for many years to also come and experience Alpha. Here are some of the comments they have made in their evaluations at the conclusion of Alpha:
"I've been a Lutheran all my life, but Alpha gave me the chance to explore more than ideas. I began to explore my relationship with Jesus."
"This has been wonderful. I feel like a dark cloud has been lifted from my life and for the first time I can see the light of God's love for me shining in my life and giving me reason to have hope again. That light is Jesus...I don't want this to end!"
It is impossible to believe in the redeeming love of Jesus and not expect transformation in the lives of those who follow him. What was true for those first disciples continues to be true for those who are willing to follow him now!
To receive introductory materials call 1-800-36 ALPHA. Or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on this ministry or any other aspect of discipleship. I will be glad to offer assistance, encouragement, or helpful advice as you take the next step in following Jesus and leading others to do the same–John F. Bradosky.