Vision New England Blog

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The general blog of Vision New England dedicated to equipping and encouraging New England Christ followers to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and make disciples.


A Misguided Dichotomy? – Evangelism/Discipleship

As Christ followers, many of us have drawn a fairly specific dividing line in our minds between what we believe constitutes “evangelism” and what constitutes “discipleship”.  The dividing line that we have drawn is not based on the activities of these two enterprises, but based on the spiritual “condition” of the people whom we encounter with these two enterprises. 

 

Here’s what I mean by this...  When a Christ follower is involved in sharing the love and message of Christ with someone who is not yet a Christ-follower, we call this “evangelism”.  Evangelism in this sense being defined as sharing the love and message of Jesus with someone who is not a Christian in order to help them know who Jesus is and to help move them to a decision to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  Whether spoken or not, our focus in evangelism tends to be on bringing people to a place of decision, a decision to accept Christ (a “conversion” decision), moving them out of the ranks of the “unbelieving” and into the community of Christ-followers.  In this sense, evangelism takes place on the “front-end” of this person’s “conversion” decision.

 

We view discipleship, on the other hand, as what happens with/to someone who is already a Christian.  Discipleship in this sense being defined as a Christ-follower helping another Christ-follower grow in his/her Christian faith.  Whether spoken or not, our focus in discipleship is not on moving people towards making a “conversion” decision, but on helping them rightly live out the implications of that decision.  Discipleship, in this sense, takes place on the “back-end” of their conversion decision.

 

Within this line of thinking, the demarcation line between our “doing” evangelism and our “doing” discipleship is based on where we believe the individual is at in relation to whether or not he/she is a Christ follower.  In other words, for most of us, the dividing line is based on whether or not the individual has made a personal decision to accept by faith Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord (i.e. a “conversion” decision). 

 

While, in theory, there may be some advantages in compartmentalizing evangelism and discipleship in this way, in practice, maintaining this dichotomy can be problematic for the local church as a whole, and the individuals within it.  If we are not carefully diligent, maintaining this dichotomy (based on a “point-in-time” decision) can create and foster the following unintended consequences

 

A.    For the individual Christ-follower

 

1.     Defining the scope of evangelism (the sharing of the Gospel) based on a “point in time” decision can actually put a lot of undo pressure on the Christ follower.  If we are not careful, we can foster the false impression that anything short of our getting someone to verbally make a decision for Christ is an evangelistic failure on our part.  If we aren’t successful at bringing people to the point of decision, we must not be “good” at evangelism, or so we may think.  We might, then, be tempted to think that effective evangelism really requires us having the right technique, or the right debating skill, or the right amount of information, all of which we don’t believe that we have.  And because we don’t see evangelism happening successfully through our efforts, we shrink back from engaging in it, or give up on it altogether. 

 

2.     This dichotomy can also create and foster the false impression that we actually have a choice as to which of these two activities we want to be personally involved in – we can be involved in evangelism or we can be involved in discipleship.  If we don’t feel equipped for, good at, or “called to” evangelism, then we can opt out of it, hand the evangelism baton to others who are better able to do this, and focus our attentions on discipleship.  After all, these two enterprises are of equal value (at least on paper), and so I can spend my time with those who are already “in” the faith, and someone else can work with those who are not.

 

3.     Defining the scope of evangelism (the sharing of the Gospel) based on a “point in time” decision, can also lead to the false impression that the primary purpose of the Gospel is a conversion decision.  When Paul tells us that the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16), he is not saying that its power and thrust is limited to just bringing someone to a first-time faith decision in Jesus.  The power and content of the Gospel reaches into and across the entire life cycle of the Christ follower (before, during, and after his/her conversion “experience”).  It is just as critical for Christ followers to be continuously confronted with the truths (and the implications) contained within the Gospel, as it is for those who are not Christ followers to be confronted with, and make a decision about, these same truths.  The Christ follower needs to hear the Gospel, over and over and over again, and needs to understand how this Good News permeates into, and impacts, every dimension of their lives.

 

If we are not careful, maintaining an unhealthy approach to this dichotomy can and will limit the effectiveness of our personal and congregational efforts in sharing the love and message of Christ with those around us who are not yet Christ followers.

 

When Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19), He was (and is) calling His followers to be involved in an all-inclusive relational process, an “incarnational” (if I can use this term) way-of-life that encompasses all of the activities that fall into what we currently label as evangelism and discipleship.  It is the way-of-life that He calls “DISCIPLE-MAKING”.  And, a key element of the disciple-making way-of-life is a personal relationship within which the Christ follower invests himself/herself into the lives of others (regardless of where each of the “others” may be at on the conversion decision spectrum). It is within this relational context that the disciple-maker personally shares with others the love and message of Christ, while modeling for them the Christ following way-of-life, and calling them into that same “surrendered and costly” way-of-life. 

 

Bringing, sharing and personally living out the Gospel lies at the heart of the disciple-making way-of-life.  While our giftings, training and passions may incline each of us more towards engaging in the activities of evangelism or towards engaging in the activities of discipleship, none of us have the option of “opting out” of being involved in the disciple-making way-of-life.  We are to be Christ following, Gospel-centered, disciple-makers who seek to be involved with, and personally impacting the lives of, others, regardless of where they may be at along the continuum of their encounter with the person and work of Jesus Christ.  And, we need to remind ourselves continuously that while helping people make important faith decisions along the way is a vital part of this way-of-life, it does not solely define our effectiveness.