Evangelism is discipleship isn’t it? The great command of Jesus was to “make disciples” of all peoples. We have truncated the two disciplines by making each too narrow. Here is what I mean.
Yesterday, I went to a meeting with a team that will run the Chicago Marathon (Chicago, Illinois, USA) in October. Each team member is hopeful of running the 26.2 mile/44 kilometer race and finishing it. Many of our team are new to this kind of running. I am not. I have run three marathons. It is an extremely difficult task, but if completed, extremely rewarding.
One mistake a new marathoner makes is to think the finish-line is the finish. It is not. Rather, one must labor for almost an hour after crossing the finish-line, doing specific activities or doing damage to one’s body. First, the marathoner must restore warmth to the body. After four or more hours of running, the body is depleted of energy. Hypothermia is a dangerous reality. At the Chicago Marathon, hundreds of volunteers meet runners at the finish line with “space blankets” to cover the body and hold in what energy/heat remains. Second, new energy must be put in the body. That means food and fluids. Again, able volunteers offer the runners yogurt, hamburgers, energy bars, Gatorade, candy, almost anything that will put calories/energy into the depleted body. We are told to eat and drink even though we do not feel hungry or thirsty, because our bodies are under attack from deprivation. Third, finish-line runners must keep walking for fifteen minutes or more so the body does not tighten up and cramp. All the runner wants to do is lie down, but he or she must not. He or she must walk and stretch and walk and stretch and walk and stretch some more. The warming, feeding and gentle walking and stretching must actually continue for the next twenty-four hours or more in order for the finish-line runner to be restored. And even then, it takes several days for the soreness and energy levels to return to full healthy levels. The finish-line is not the finish.
Evangelical theology rightly believes in the new birth as a requirement for being a Christian. We call it regeneration. I liken this to the spiritual “finish-line.” Our problem is how we evidence that supernatural reality in the outer life. For some, the outward evidence is for the seeker to pray a prayer. Others ask for public acknowledgement through coming forward, raising a hand, baptism or many other expressions. Many, like me, argue caution at calling any “initial” outward expression proof of regeneration1. But regardless of when the “finish-line regeneration” occurs, that is not the finish. It is here that evangelism and discipleship must better meet.
A pastor once told me that the “forty days” following a spiritual commitment to Christ were the most important. He based this loosely on the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness and the forty days of Jesus with the disciples following the Resurrection. Whether it is forty days is not the point. The point is that the first days, weeks and months following the commitment are times for the Church to provide “urgent care.” Different churches do it differently. In my opinion, very few do it well. We put so much effort to get people to commit to Christ (cross the finish-line) that we poorly provide the all important and pervasive aftercare. This aftercare, just like the marathon, must be given by real people providing prayer, care, counsel, friendship and the like. The relational nature of aftercare is more important than the curriculum utilized. It is about God’s people wrapping people in Christian warmth, offering them the food and drink of the Word and worship, and lots of instruction on stretching the new soul into Christ-likeness.
1. See Lon Allison and Mark Anderson. 2003. Going Public with the Gospel. 149-150