The Call of the Disciples and the Decline of the Church

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What would make you drop everything and pursue an entirely new life? A great job offer? A marriage proposal? The chance to make a huge difference in another part of the world? What do you think — what would prompt you to take off from everything you know for something entirely different? What if it was a former carpenter and itinerant preacher talking about the kingdom of God come near?

That’s essentially the scene that Mark describes and, truth be told, most of us — or maybe even more, most of our hearers — have a hard time imagining doing what the future disciples do. The details, as is customary with Mark, are few, which means there’s a lot more we don’t know than we do. Mark tells us that after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee and started proclaiming the kingdom of God. We don’t know how long this is after his baptism and sojourn in the wilderness. And we don’t know if the connection to John’s arrest is a coincidence or if there is something deeper at stake. We do know that as he passes along the Sea of Galilee he calls out to several fishermen and bids them follow and, without any other prompting, they do.

Again, there aren’t a lot of details, so we don’t know much, if anything, about what might have prompted their decision. We don’t know, for instance, if they didn’t really like fishing and were eager for a chance to do something different. Nor do we know whether Simon and Andrew, James and John already knew each other. That might make it easier to imagine that once one of them decided to follow Jesus the others were soon to follow. Or maybe one or more of them already knew Jesus — maybe they’d heard him preach and teach, even talked with him before and were already considering joining him. That would make the immediacy of their response more understandable to us.

But, again, we don’t really know any of this. What we do know is that there was something compelling enough about Jesus and his message that prompted these four — and later many others — to follow him, to become his disciples, students of this teacher and servants of his mission.

What do you think that might be? What would be compelling enough to draw you away from all you knew? Even more, what would be compelling enough to draw our people to new lives? I think that’d be an interesting question to ask and have some conversation about. Because the thing about this passage that makes it kind of hard to preach is that while most of us may admire what the disciples do, few of us would consider following their example. Maybe it’s harder for preachers to remember that, because we kinda feel that this is what we have done; you know, left other possibilities and careers to follow our call to be a disciple of Jesus and minister of his Word. But let’s not kid ourselves, even those of us who may be second-career preachers didn’t quite undertake the kind of sudden departure — picking up and leaving everything — to start a life on the road, relying only on the generosity of strangers and providence of Jesus. Yes, there are similarities, but it’s still not quite the same. Simon and company had no salary, no denominational health plan, no pension — they just picked up, left the only life they’d known, and followed.

So how do we enter into this account in a meaningful way? I’d suggest starting with this idea of what might be so compelling to invite you to leave what you know and venture out in quest of, and service to, something new. What would make us do that?

After ruminating — or maybe even conversing — about that for a bit, maybe we move sideways and talk about similar situations that have drawn us to make a big change, to move in a new direction. Maybe it’s not the quite the same as what the disciples did, but what were the compelling factors that made us undertake a significant change in direction and what was it like to make — and live with — that decision.

Okay, one more possibility for conversation — and this might be the riskiest. We all know that church attendance is on the slide. It has been for about 40 years or so in mainline congregations and is now declining in Evangelical congregations over the last decade as well. There have been lots of studies on what is causing this, and of all the suggested reasons that I’ve come across two in particular have made the most sense to me. First, we’ve moved from the age of duty — where you do things because you know you’re supposed to — to the age of discretion — where nearly overwhelmed with choices about how to spend your time you exercise discretion based on how it helps you make sense of and get the most out of your life. To boil it down to just one sentence: attending church isn’t a cultural given anymore and there are a whole lot more options on how you might profitably spend your Sunday morning.

The second reason I’ve found convincing is that many church-goers haven’t found the Christian narrative a particularly helpful lens through which to view and make sense of their lives. Maybe they don’t know it all that well. Maybe they have a hard time connecting what happens on Sunday to the rest of their week and life. Maybe we as leaders thought it was obvious why the faith matters and so we assumed it was clear to others as well. Whatever the reason(s), folks don’t take the biblical story with them out into the world and, indeed, often find other stories (religious or not) that guide their everyday negotiations and decisions more directly. And given the same 168 hours in a week that everyone else gets, more and more of them have decided to spend that hour or two in those pursuits that most help them to navigate the other 166.

So what if we decided to talk about what would make the time we spend together on Sundays more compelling? What would church need to look like to make it worth their time? How can our congregational life enable them to become the kind of people they want to be and, even more, believe God is calling them to be?

These can be frightening questions, because we may worry that once we ask them we’ll have a hard time coming up with any good answers. But I think people are asking and answering them already, and they might be well served (and I sure know we would be well served) by asking them together.

Well, that’s just one possibility for taking on this important, familiar, and slightly vexing text, Working Preacher. I hope it’s helpful — but if not, at least there are several other commentaries on the site! 🙂

Whatever you might decide to preach, blessings on your ministry and proclamation. What you do matters so very much, and I am grateful that you, too, have heard Jesus’ call and tried your best to follow.

Yours in Christ,