When Jesus called James and John, he said, ‘Follow me , and I will make you become fishers of men.’ (Mark 1:17)
Have you ever been fishing? You should go. You can learn a lot from fishing. My older cousin took me fishing when I was a teenager. I learned to cast a line, draw in a fish, kill it, clean it, and cook it. The first time he went fishing he literally cut a pole from a tree, tied some twine to it, hung a safety pin and bait on the end and waited for the fish to bite; very Huckleberry Finn. He quickly learned the importance of good equipment, the right bait, and the value of patience.
You have to have a good rod and line, ideally more than one, depending on whether you are fly fishing, using a spinning lure, or sticking a worm on your hook. Your equipment will be determined by what you will be fishing for, river trout, salmon, bream, carp, etc. and that will determine where and when you fish. You need a lot of patience, you see the fish don’t want to be caught. But it is all worth it when you land a decent trout, prepare it, cook it and put it on a plate in front of someone you care for.
If you went to the fish market with a fishing rod and announced you had come to fish, people would think you mad. The fish here are already caught, killed, and fresh ready for the table. In the fish market and kitchen you need a completely different set of skills and tools. What you will buy will depend on how confident you are, although fish are always pretty easy to cook. You will need to have kitchen implements instead of rod and line, condiments have to be carefully chosen, a cooking method decided upon, steaming, grilling, frying, etc. and something like vegetables, or salad and suchlike, to complement the meal.
Evangelism and discipleship are like that. When you evangelise you need a particular set of tools and skills, depending on who you will want to reach out to – children, students, adults, neighbours – and you need a lot of patience because, you see, they don’t want to get caught either. People don’t wake up one day thinking, ‘I hope a Christian comes by today and evangelises me.’ We need to test our methods, ask if our message is clear, whether we are speaking to the heart of their questions, and we need to persevere.
Before ascending back to the Father, Jesus charged his disciples:
‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Mt.28:17-20)
When people become Christians, they are meant to be as committed as those fish in the fish market, dead to their old lives and environment; there is no going back. The difference is, the fish remain dead, but Christians are born again into a new reality. The tools we need to deal with the saved are different from those we use to reach the lost. To make converts we need tools that bid them come, to make disciples we need tools that bid them grow. To the lost we unpack the bad news of their lost state, and bring the good news of Christ. To the saved we unpack the good news of their saved state and bring the challenge of kingdom living.
Too often I see the tools of evangelism brought to the task of discipleship. It does no good to use a lure to win your congregation to the church programme, to encourage engagement. Such a course produces a people who feel they must be convinced all the time, won over to the work of the kingdom. But they are already committed in becoming Christians and if they don’t understand that something is wrong. It only confuses, even robs people, to treat them as though still needing to be persuaded. A church is ill-served that is served the milk and not the meat of the gospel. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, ‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready for it.’ (1 Cor.3:1-2)
There is a sense of frustration here that, with the passing of time, there is still a singular lack of maturity where Paul looked for it. The writer to the Hebrews strikes the same vexed tone:
‘We have much to say…but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.’ (Heb.5:11-14)
Paul sees the fault in a church that fails to respond and grow. Today, I wonder how many churches are in that place because leaders are evangelising the saved, and not discipling them, chiding congregations for not getting involved, when those congregations are ill-prepared for involvement because not discipled. Used to being evangelised, ‘Why should we do this?’ they ask, expecting to be continually persuaded and convinced of the worth of kingdom living before launching out on the course set before them. Such people, to use a sporting analogy, may know the rules of the game, be familiar with the ideas of evangelism, discipleship, worship, and sacrifice, but don’t know the game. They are on the field of play, but have no instinct for what they are meant to do when the whistle blows. Such instinct comes from the discipline of training, learning it, and doing it until it becomes second nature to think and act like a disciple.
I spoke recently to an old friend I hadn’t seen in some time. He told me that his church was doing alright but that people ‘come and go.’ Its a common enough experience as Evangelical Christians across the city, and no doubt across the country, jump from bandwagon to bandwagon, following the crowd to the latest excitement and commotion. Of course, there will always be those spiritual gypsies who wander from place to place, whatever provision a church makes. But what of those who ‘move on’ because where they are simply isn’t meeting their need for discipleship. People have an instinct for growth, for asking ‘what happens now?’ and what are they to do when it appears to be ‘happening’ over there and not where they are?
The greatest obstacle to a church’s growth and development is not the challenges it faces, but the challenges it is protected from. Challenge people in discipleship and they will grow to be the people God intended them to be.