In a conversation with a church leader whom I deeply respect, he raised a concern about churches putting an emphasis on discipleship. His concern was that with a stress on spiritual formation and whatever else churches might consider as part of discipleship, it was possible that an emphasis on evangelism could completely disappear.
I have thought about that conversation many times since it took place. It is true that evangelism is the forgotten priority in most of our evangelical churches. It is a priority in that everyone acknowledges its importance. If a church has written a mission statement, you can be sure that it will include something about the need for evangelism. The whole evangelical world believes in its head that evangelism is important.
The problem is that it is also the forgotten priority in that almost no one is doing it. There is almost no church- large or small- that is growing through reaching people with the gospel. Proportionally, very few people who are not raised in a church culture are becoming Christians. That is simply a reality that we all must face up to if we are ever going to become effective is sharing our faith.
Where does the problem lie?
Over the years I have participated in a wide range of evangelism programs. I have gone door-to-door. I have done street evangelism. I have spoken at open air meetings. I have handed out tracts. I have been part of outreach teams that have targeted major cities. I have been a counselor at a Billy Graham crusade. I have planned special events to which people were encouraged to invite their friends. I have led evangelistic Bible studies. I have preached evangelistic sermons. I have planted new churches. I have held seeker-sensitive services. I have been part of an Alpha program. These are just a sampling of the different programs that I have tried.
At some point all of these were presented as the latest and best means of bringing people to faith in Christ. What they all have in common is that while they produced limited success, for the most part they failed to meet the expectations of those involved. I look back with joy on those people who came to faith through these efforts but they were far fewer than the program had led us to believe.
Having said that there is one thing of which I am certain. At some point in the next couple of years, someone will come up with a new evangelistic program, that will be presented as the answer to churches that want to grow through bringing people to faith in Christ. There will be wonderful stories of miraculous decisions promoting the idea that this is God’s answer to the church’s problems.
The program will sell because church leaders are always looking for a quick answer to their lack of growth and they hope to find it in the latest, sure fire program.
Someone wisely said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Churches are often guilty of this type of insanity. They have tried a number of different programs over the years, none of which produced the hoped for results and yet they go looking for yet another program hoping that this one will be different.
The problem lies in the fact that it is the same people who are involved in the new program.
The answer lies in a discipleship that transforms the people involved.
Discipleship and evangelism
I began this article by suggesting that for some people there is a tension between discipleship and evangelism. They are seen as two distinct elements in the life of the church. For these people, discipleship is inward focused while evangelism is outward. The church is already too inward in its focus which means that if there is more of an emphasis on the inward focus of discipleship, the outward focus of evangelism might disappear altogether.
I would suggest that this is a wrong way of understanding the relationship between the two. To properly understand this relationship, it is necessary to wrestle with two truths.
First, evangelism probably won’t happen without discipleship.
Second, discipleship isn’t happening unless there is evangelism.
Without the transforming work involved in discipleship, churches are trying a new approach using the same people that failed in the previous approach. If a new approach is going to work, there must be a deep change within the people involved. This happens when a church becomes serious about discipleship.
A church I visited recently talked about turning people into passionate followers of Jesus Christ. It is that passion that is the missing ingredient in most of our churches. The passion comes only through a deeper, more dynamic walk with Jesus. Without that passion there is no program that is going to result in people coming to Christ.
On the other hand if discipleship isn’t resulting in people sharing their faith, then discipleship is failing. One of the signs that people are becoming disciples who are growing in their faith and in their walk with Jesus is that there is a desire to bring other people to Christ.
In Acts 1 Jesus commissioned his disciples with these words:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
It is interesting that this commission does not contain a command. It is a simple statement of what will happen when the disciples experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The Holy Spirit will come and the result is that they will be witnesses.
Outward witness (evangelism) comes about because there is an inward work of the Spirit (discipleship). If the church is successful in its task of making disciples, the result will be people coming to Christ. If people aren’t coming to Christ, the church is failing to make disciples.
Evangelistic programs have their place. They can be helpful tools in the evangelism process but they will never take the place of that inward reality in the hearts of those who are growing into a deeper walk with Jesus.