Most of the people who come to this site are – like me – evangelical Christians. As the word suggests, we put a very high premium on evangelism. We believe everyone needs to hear the evangel, the good news, the gospel, and it is our duty to proclaim that message.
The good news is that we are all sinners, separated from God, heading for a lost eternity, in need of redemption. Jesus came to deal with this need, taking our place at Calvary, and offering us forgiveness and newness of life, if we agree with God about our condition, repent, and receive Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Thus we seek to tell as many people as we can about this vital message of God’s great saving love. As the theological lingo goes, we want people to get saved, to be born again, to pass from death to life, to be set free by the power of God.
All this emphasis and action on evangelism must always be maintained. But as I get a bit older in my Christian walk, I sometimes wonder if we are not missing out on another important aspect of evangelism, namely, discipleship. The two go together of course and hopefully most who are involved in the former will also be concerned about the latter.
But I think the connection can be – and is – lost at times. We may think we have done our duty when we have preached the gospel and someone has responded. We then might be tempted to move on and work at getting our next spiritual scalp.
But we must always recall the final commission of Jesus as found in Matt. 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Here all the emphasis is on discipleship, not evangelism. Of course discipleship cannot take place unless one has first become a Christian, and that is why evangelism must always be a high priority. But the question is, have we always made discipleship as high a priority as well?
That after all is the real aim of evangelism. Getting people saved is often seen as an end in itself, but the New Testament picture is that conversion is simply the first step – the entry into what God in fact intends for us: a life of growth and maturation in Christ. Discipleship, in other words.
Thus when I receive news of evangelistic campaigns and hear about 55 people being saved here, or 120 souls saved there, I of course rejoice. But I also have to rightly ask: OK, but what about the discipleship? Is that being followed up on? What happens to all these new converts?
Indeed, just moments ago I received an email with these words: “Organizers of an evangelistic crusade in eastern Nigeria said more than 360,000 people made decisions for Christ during the five-day event held last month in the rural town of Takum.”
That is terrific. But now for the million dollar question: what next? Are concrete steps in place to disciple, church, and nurture these new believers? Hopefully this will not be an afterthought, but an integral part of any evangelistic strategy.
Sure, some people have the gift of an evangelist only, while others may have the gift of a pastor or teacher. But no church or Christian group should be involved in evangelism if it does not also have something in place to help disciple these new believers.
Part of the reason why some may have been a bit negligent in the area of discipleship is because they have a reductionist view of what the Christian life is all about. Many think simply in terms of getting souls saved and getting people to heaven. But there is more to salvation than just this.
As Paul reminds us in Col. 1:20, Christ seeks to “reconcile to himself all things”. All of creation is affected by the fall, and all of creation is meant to be reclaimed in Christ. Marianne Meye Thompson in her commentary on Colossians puts it this way:
“Through the cross God does not simply deal with the situation of the individual, but undertakes to bring wholeness to the whole world. The predicament of humanity and that of the cosmos are intertwined: both are in need of being rightly reordered by God, and neither will be so in isolation from each other.”
Or as N.T. Wright says in his recent volume, Surprised by Hope, “The work of ‘salvation’ in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not merely the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.”
Salvation, as we should know, encompasses justification, sanctification, and glorification. Too many Christians concentrate on the first while minimising the second and third elements. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”.
So, am I downplaying evangelism? Nope. I am playing up discipleship. Both are essential components of our Christian work and both must be diligently pursued. We must always ensure that we are not just making converts, but that we are making disciples.
And that will impact on what sort of message we actually preach as part of our gospel proclamation. Sadly we often offer a weak, anaemic and shallow gospel, which ignores or plays down human sinfulness and the need for radical discipleship, including denying self and crucifying the flesh.
These weak gospel messages will always result in weak Christians. When such a shallow and hollow message is proclaimed, we can expect little substantial fruit, at least for the long term. What we too often offer in our evangelistic meetings are ten choruses of “Just As I AM”, with people leaving just as they were.
By all means, let us never lose our zeal and passion for evangelism. But let us always couple that with a thorough and ongoing program of biblical discipleship. Without that we will simply see most of the fruit of our labours lost, an ineffective church, and a lot of wasted effort.