Making the SHIFT from Member to Disciple

By Ircel Harrison

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren writes, “It is worth noting in this regard that the word ‘Christian’ occurs in the New Testament exactly three times and the word ‘Christianity’ exactly zero. The word ‘disciple,’ however, is found 263 times.” It is also interesting that “member” is only found 45 times in the New Testament and 9 times in the Gospels. Of the 263 references to “disciple” in the New Testament, 235 are in the Gospels. This seems to have been Jesus’ preferred term for His followers.

Being a church member is not necessarily the same thing as being a Christian disciple. The SHIFT process takes this emphasis into account by challenging the 21st century church to move from the idea of church membership to Christian discipleship. We don’t need more members, we need more disciples who are responding to the call of God into the world.

How do churches go about addressing this and encouraging the movement of individuals from membership to discipleship? Let me suggest some ways.

A first step is understanding all that a disciple is or will be is grounded in that individual’s relationship with God. This reality changes one’s values and priorities. This might be called a “whole life stewardship” approach. Whatever God has placed at our disposal--spiritual gifts, time, relationships, finances, the created world--must be used as good stewards or managers. The life of a disciple is not meant to be fragmented but unified under the leadership of God’s spirit. This concept empowers the church to address not only the disciple’s spiritual formation but the implications of discipleship for all areas of life--family, work, service, hospitality, creation care, and so many more.

Second, many churches are developing and calling disciples to practice a rule of life. In Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson describes a rule of life in this way: “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provide structure and direction for growth in holiness . . .. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be.” Communities of faith are recovering this ancient practice to encourage growth in disciples and provide accountability.

Third, “disciple” and “discipline” come from the same root. Following a certain practice or discipline helps one to grow in his or her vocation. This is true of the vocation of being a disciple as well. Many ancient practices of the Christian church such as centering prayer, lectio Divina, fasting, and meditation encourage disciples to grow in their faith. Churches are reclaiming these disciplines as means for Christian formation.

Fourth, as believers join together in disciple development groups, they support and encourage one another in their spiritual growth, service, and relationships. These groups go further than the usual Sunday school or Bible study groups by focusing on intentional growth and application of scripture. Members hold each other accountable for their individual progress as disciples. The Disciple Development Coaching© process of Pinnacle Leadership Associates can inform and resource these groups.

As we move the emphasis from “member” to “disciple” in our churches, we open up our congregations and ourselves to new ways of being on mission for God in the world today. We are no longer simply voluntary members of an organization but an essential part of the Body of Christ.

(For more information of the shift from member to disciple, read Mark Tidsworth, SHIFT: Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church. )