It seems to me that there is an ongoing discussion (or you could even call it a family fight) among us evangelicals over whether we should be focusing all our attention and efforts on evangelism or discipleship. This is a big deal in the church right now. If you could hear just a small fraction of the conversations I have as I travel and preach, you would see how divisive these perspectives can be.
Because I am an evangelist by call and trade (see Ephesians 4), I get bombarded by the discipleship camp with questions like, "What happens after all those people respond to the gospel when you preach?" Because I am a pastor, I also get comments from soul winners like, "If all you ever do is teach the Bible to Christians, how will the lost ever hear the gospel and be saved?" These are both very good and eternally important questions.
To answer those questions, let me first draw your attention to the false dichotomy that we have created in our little evangelical church culture here in the West. This is a simplification, but is a fairly accurate synopsis of the two views.
1. We follow the Great Commission. Jesus never said make converts. He said make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). That is what the church must do.
2. A true disciple will become a witness, will share their faith and will lead the lost to Jesus. Therefore, we don't have to focus on evangelism.
3. Focusing on evangelism hurts the process of discipleship because evangelism is all about numbers and results and ignores spiritual growth.
4. Discipleship takes more time and investment than evangelism, and therefore is spiritually superior and more important.
5. We would never declare that a person is "saved" or a "Christian" until they have proven their faith by following Christ over a period of time.
6. God alone converts people to faith, but it is our responsibility to make disciples out of those that God saves.
7. Jesus made disciples! (Peter, James, John, Thomas, Mary, Martha, etc.)
1. We follow the Great Commission! Jesus told us to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15-18). We preach the gospel and God saves the people.
2. A true Christian should automatically want to share their faith, so we teach them how to be a witness and bring others to Christ.
3. Focusing on discipleship hurts the work of evangelism because it focuses too much on the individual who is already saved, ignoring those who are lost.
4. Evangelism is more grueling and difficult than discipleship because it takes us to the front lines of the lost world, making it spiritually superior and more important.
5. The Bible says that when a person confesses sin, repents and believes in Christ, they are saved (Romans 10:13, 1 John 1:9). It's not "false assurance" to say they're saved.
6. The same God who saves a sinner will complete the work of discipleship in that new believer (Philippians 1:6).
7. Jesus was an evangelist! (The woman at the well, Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, Nicodemus, etc.)
Go back and re-read these lists. Do you see how the wedge can easily be driven down into the church if all we ever do is repeat our platitudes? These are extreme statements that represent extreme positions, and neither position helps the Kingdom of God grow or the gospel reach the nations.
Are these two tribes really in disagreement? Are they mutually exclusive? I believe that intuitively, we know that evangelism and discipleship cannot be separated. Moreover, they must not be, less we fail to be faithful in our stewardship of the story of the gospel on our mission of being witnesses to the world of who Jesus is and what He has done. Allow me to introduce a perspective into the ongoing conversation (or in some tribes and cultures, the battle) between those who favor one over the other.
Important Questions To Consider
If you and I were having coffee and I wanted to see where you stood on this issue, I would ask you the following questions:
1. Do you enjoy sharing your story of coming to faith in Christ with people? Friends? Strangers? Does that energize you?
2. Do you prefer spending time with a new Christian reading the Bible, working through a book, and discussing their new faith?
3. Are you constantly looking for ways to talk about God in conversations at work, school, the gym, etc?
4. When you hear about someone who has responded to the gospel (at church or an event or in private) is your first reaction "Yes! Praise God!" or is your first reaction, "I wonder who is going to follow up with them now that they have made a profession of faith in Christ?"
5. Do you most often find yourself praying for people that are not Christians to repent and believe in Christ, or do you most often pray for the church to grow, new believers to mature in their faith, and for believers to go deeper in the walk with Jesus?
6. When you think of "witnessing" or "sharing your testimony" with others, does it make you feel awkward and nervous, or does it excite and inspire you?
7. Do you secretly doubt that big numbers of people can honestly be saved all at once?
8. Do you secretly think those who emphasize discipleship are lazy, lack boldness, or are just plain scared?
I think the real issue behind our tendency to pick evangelism or discipleship over one another is, at the end of the day, not so much about doctrine or theology, but it is much more about personal preference; the way we are wired and gifted by God.
This is a blind spot for each of us, myself included. Here is what I mean: I am an extreme extrovert. I love people and I never meet a stranger. I can talk to anyone about anything, even if I am in another country. When I see people, I see lost people that God loves and that Jesus died for. I want to meet them, strike up a conversation, turn that conversation toward God somehow, share my story with them and plant a seed of God's love in their hearts. It's how God wired me.
I have a good friend who is an introvert. He's been in ministry for 20 years. He feels weird doing what I do, the way I do it, when I talk to folks about Jesus. He loves to take immature Christians and prepare them to be light in a dark world. He teaches well in small settings. He has discipled dozens of believers one on one, and many of them are in full time ministry (both inside and outside church structures). It's how God wired him.
Am I a better Christian than him because it's easier for me to share my faith? Is he a better Christian than me because he has made more disciples than I have? In your gut, which one of these do you prefer? Which do you naturally gravitate toward?
It's time we stop picking sides in a fight that does not exist. Assuming that a Christian must pick evangelism or discipleship is like asking me to pick who I love more, my wife or my son. I love them both, I need them both, and I am committed to them both. The same is true when it comes to reaching the lost and discipling the saved.
We must remember that two gospel writers emphasized both elements in their recording of the Great Commission. In Matthew 28, Matthew records that Jesus commanded His followers to "make disciples." Yet, Mark records in Mark 16 that Jesus commanded them to "preach the gospel to every creature." Are the gospels at odds with each other? Absolutely not! Then how absurd and unhelpful is it today when we attempt to pit one against the other, or to elevate one over the other? Do them both. Teach and preach them both. Practice them both. Embrace your own spiritual gifting and how God wired you as a minister, and join hands with those who are strong where you are weak. Evangelism and discipleship are intrinsically married to each other and we are foolish to try and separate them.