Evangelism and Discipleship

Which came first—the chicken or the egg? I suppose for creationists that is an easy question to answer—the chicken!

But which comes first—evangelism or discipleship? Some argue that without doing evangelism, discipleship is impossible. Some say it is only a disciple of Christ who can evangelise. Others may ask why we should even separate the two.

Our theologies and interpretations of scripture are always coloured by the strengths and weaknesses of our personalities, our own biases, prejudices, cultures, denominations, churches or organizational upbringings. Some cultures have a tendency to see things as integrated; other cultures tend to see things as segregated and sequential. As fallen beings living lives that are redeemed and renewed by scripture, we must listen and learn from one another instead of isolating ourselves from others.

The natural flow in our maturing process is to become a “disciple” first and then to start sharing the gospel. The idea seems to be a noble one of giving priority to growth. However, I see many problems in this. We must ask ourselves, is this a biblical model?

Historically, the local church has waited until a new believer has bonded to a congregation (the “come see” stage) and then has moved on to the discipling (the “come and follow me”) stage which includes the “bearing fruit” stage.1 David Watson seems to advocate something similar: “Naturally they were not launched into powerful and effective evangelism overnight. Gently Jesus had to help them to loose their fears, to overcome their inertia, to see the urgency of the harvest and to watch and pray.”2


Discipleship should emphasize evangelism from day one of the Christian life.


While agreeing with Watson, there is no need for the Church to make this a standard for all. Andrew, for instance, shared with his brother Peter on the day he met Jesus. John 1:41-42 reads, “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.” Isn’t this evangelism? Jesus did not say “wait until they come to you” or “wait until they seem ready to start on discipleship.” He said “go and make disciples.” This may seem difficult if you believe that one must be trained (discipled) in order to evangelize. Jesus never implied that any maturation was needed to prepare one to do evangelism. All that is necessary is to know the “evangel”—the good news of the gospel. According to my friend Dr. Bronson Stilwell, if someone is really a Christian, then the person can do evangelism.

Encouraging New Believers
Clearly defining when a Christ-follower is mature enough to do evangelism can be difficult. Discipleship should emphasize evangelism from day one of the Christian life. By compartmentalizing and programming spiritual growth to seasons and periods, we have limited the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. It is best to encourage new believers to do evangelism immediately after conversion. This could be done by asking them to share their testimonies. Bill Hybels illustrates with a graph the predicament faced by evangelicals worldwide. The longer we live our Christian lives, the less interaction we have with those “far from God.”3

At conversion, the Christ-follower experiences the “first love” stage. The individual still has his or her circle of unbelieving friends intact and is excited to share what Christ has done in his or her life. Instead of extricating him or her from his or her world of lost friends in order to join the newfound gathering of “saints,” we should strengthen the person to reach his or her lost friends for Christ. Instead of making the individual choose between the two worlds, we should disciple him or her on how to live in tension with both worlds. We should encourage the person to be “in the world but not of the world.”

A Biblical Model
There are at least four encounters Jesus had when the one who encountered him went on to share his or her testimony without any further discipling or spiritual growth experience. There are also at least two other New Testament examples of this phenomenon.

  1. The Samaritan woman in John 4. After her encounter with the Messiah, the Samaritan woman immediately left her water jar, went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (4:28-30). The Samaritans first believed because of the woman’s testimony (4:42). She told them about the Messiah and the Holy Spirit gave instantaneous fruit to her witness. Afterward, Jesus stayed on for two days and many more believed (4:41-42).

  2. The demon-possessed man in Mark 5. Immediately after he was delivered, the demon-possessed man in the region of Gerasenes begged to go with Jesus (5:18). However, Jesus encouraged him to “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (5:19). But the man “went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed” (5:20).
  3. The blind man in John 9. The blind man was willing to identify himself with Jesus even in the face of impending persecution at the hands of the Pharisees (9:25-34). After being healed, the man courageously declared, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see” (9:25).
  4. Matthew in Matthew 9. Immediately after being chosen by the Lord to be a disciple, Matthew the tax collector invited many tax collectors and sinner acquaintances to join Jesus and his disciples for dinner (9:10-11). This gave Jesus an opportunity to share his mission statement (9:12-13).
  5. The early believers in Acts 2. After Pentecost, the church in Jerusalem instantly devoted themselves to their new lifestyle of discipleship. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47). Much of this could have been the enthusiastic witness of the three thousand who were saved that day (2:41). Today, much of the fruit of evangelism is through the witness of Christians going about their day-to-day lives.
  6. Paul in Acts 9. After Saul’s (Paul’s) conversion, he “at once began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (9:20-21).

The above six examples show that early Christians could not wait for the discipling process to begin. They had found something and they wanted to tell the world around them.

Evangelism and Discipleship Hand in Hand
The reason for placing discipleship before evangelism could be because of an over correction within the Church to a lack of good follow-up or discipleship. So often the local church and evangelists are quick to report “decisions for Christ.” Being a proclamation evangelist myself, I could say that faithful follow-up is the Achilles heel of evangelism as a whole. While there is no excuse for not following up on new converts, a lack of it should never determine whether we do evangelism or not.

Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13) teaches us two lessons: (1) the importance of sowing the seed of God’s word and (2) the reality of the seed falling on unprepared ground. Although it is convenient for us to hold discipleship and evangelism separately, I am of the conviction that both should be integrated into one whole experience and not be held separate or in any preferred order.

On the one hand, although most evangelistic associations plan and prepare for good follow-up of converts, they do not see much of the fruit of evangelism preserved. On the other hand, groups that emphasize strong discipleship are perceived to be weak in evangelism. There is much tension in the Church as a result and negative reaction from these groups when weaknesses in their methods are pointed out. The Church must learn to bring strengths together and to blend them in a happy marriage.

In Church history we see how the visionary leader evangelist Billy Graham befriended and invited Dawson Trotman (the founder of the Navigators, a movement dedicated to strong discipleship of converts) to help him with the thousands who were coming to Christ at his meetings. At the Amsterdam Crusade in 1954, there were forty thousand people in the stadium Graham was preaching at. Of this event, Graham writes, “The Navigators had trained one thousand counsellors….But even after the training, the counsellors were still unprepared for the overwhelming response. Nevertheless, they pressed on, doing what they could, encouraging those who made commitments to grow in their faith through prayer and Bible study, as well as involvement in a local church.”4 History must repeat itself.


While evangelizing, we disciple; while discipling new believers, we encourage them to share the gospel.


An over-reliance on Matthew 28:19-20 to be the “only” or the most popular verse that refers to the Great Commission can also lead many to give greater importance to making disciples or discipleship. That is, discipleship that is solely self-centred on improving one’s self, local church or denomination. None of the other “Great Commission” passages refer to making disciples. On the other hand they do talk about the Christ-follower’s commission to “proclaim” (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47), “witness” (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8), and be sent (John 20:21). The Church must hold all of scripture in tension.

The Bible teaches the integration of evangelism and discipleship. “We proclaim (announcing the gospel publicly) him, admonishing (warn believers) and teaching (the word) everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). While evangelizing, we disciple; while discipling new believers, we encourage them to share the gospel.

Today, most evangelical Christians lack commitment to Christ and therefore to evangelism and discipleship. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) should be equipping the believers in local churches and organizations in this area (Ephesians 4:12-13). Evangelism and discipleship are two graces that a Christ-follower could not live without and the world will perish without.

 

Endnotes

1. Hull, Bill. 1984. New Century Disciplemaking. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Fleming H. Revell. 225.

2. Watson, David. 1981. Discipleship. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 187.

3. Hybels, Bill. 2006. Just Walk Across the Room. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan Publishers. 62-63.

4. Graham, Billy. 1997. Just As I Am. London: Harper and Collins Publishers. 242.


Dr. Kumar Abraham is a Sri Lankan national living in Melbourne, Australia and has served as a missionary in the Philippines for twenty-one years. He is an evangelist, a trainer of evangelists, equipper of Christ-followers in evangelism and a Bible school lecturer. He can be reached at: kumarabraham@bigpond.com.