By Colton Lott
I can quickly tell you my favorite parts of worship: communion, the pastoral prayer, times of meditation and silence. Even though I don’t attend a church that regularly practices this, I even find significance in a unified confession of sin and an assurance of pardon.
While there are some elements of worship that I question or have difficulties with, none of them parallel the problems I have with the typical understanding of the invitation to discipleship. The offer to make a public confession of faith, otherwise known as the “alter call,” has been at the end of every service of the three churches I have been involved with. I didn’t pay it much mind when I was growing up; if anything, I thought it to be a slight embarrassment or heartache for my pastor, who saw the invitation come back to her empty on average fifty-one weeks out of the year.
When I began leading worship services a predicament emerged. The invitation to discipleship was not only awkward due to the fifty-one rule, but increasingly painful to perform. To cope with my uneasiness, I tried to wrap the time at the end of the service as a catch-all for any need—confess your faith, receive additional prayer, take a seventh inning stretch, or snap a picture with the boy preacher, come on down, you’re the next contestant on The Price is Right!
The core of my discomfort was the feeling that the invitation to discipleship was either about peddling heaven or growing church membership. Either way, I felt like a dishonest used car salesman. I was growing convinced that intellectual affirmation is not a definition of Christian identity and I was especially convinced that maintaining official church membership is a bizarre exercise to keep.
But I began wondering if the emphasis of the practice was wrong. I separated the two words “invitation” and “discipleship” and considered what this phrase could mean if it were reconstructed without the overtones of sinner’s prayers, televangelists, crusades, and hellfire.
When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be disciples, he uses the evocative language of: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mt 4:19, Mk 1:17; New Revised Standard Version). In both cases the two left their nets immediately and began following Jesus to seek out people in need of holy healing, love, and rejuvenation.
Jesus did not say “make a statement of affirmation which will cause you to be saved,” or “shake the right hand of Christian fellowship and be a card-carrying member of my church.” Jesus said, “Follow me.” Taking Jesus up on his offer puts the invitee in a labor that redeems people—hands on, dirty, sweaty, heartbreaking work.
This invitation to discipleship received by Simon and Andrew had teeth and meaning and the threat of hardship. It was not a social formality, it was a life-changing choice. It was the invitation to come and die, it was the opportunity to live life abundantly (albeit not by traditional metrics).
This invitation—one of life-altering work and service—is one I need, and closer to what Jesus may have been intending. This is the invitation to fish for people, not only despite, but because of the unspeakable evil we see in this world, such as: racial terrorism, insatiable greed, disregard for God’s creation, and the mistreatment of children. If we call this time in worship an “invitation to discipleship,” then it is time that the church recognizes and lives into the depth and richness of what these words truly mean.
This Way of Jesus is not an inherently easy way to live and inviting people into such a life may have lower response rates than the traditional confession of faith. I see this in my own life. It is not personally advantageous to speak out against white male privilege. It is not convenient to live a life of sacrificial love. It is not heartwarming to face poverty and brokenness and be virtually powerless to halt the cycles that cause it. But it’s this difficulty in living the Way that demands we recall and restate our devotion every week. The renewal of our vow to live ordinary lives extraordinarily has to be bolstered often.
No matter how long, if ever, those gathered have been disciples of Jesus, all present are being asked to continually accept the call of Christ to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”