Many of us in the church have drawn a dividing line between what constitutes “evangelism” and what constitutes “discipleship.” When a Christ-follower is involved in sharing the love and the gospel of Christ with someone who is not yet a Christ-follower, we call that evangelism. When a Christ-follower is involved in helping another Christ-follower grow in her Christian faith, we call that discipleship. In other words, 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 this may be an appropriate way to view this, it can also lead to some unintended consequences.
If we’re not careful, defining the scope of evangelism based on a point-in-time decision can actually lead to the false impression that the primary purpose of the gospel is a conversion “decision.” When Paul says that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Rom. 1:16), he is not saying that its power and thrust is limited 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 her “conversion experience”). It is just as critical for Christ-followers to be continuously confronted with the truths (and implications of those truths) 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. Christ-followers need to hear the gospel over and over and over again and to understand how this good news permeates and impacts every dimension of their lives.
Dichotomizing evangelism and discipleship can lead to distorted ideas about the Christian life.
A second consequence of this dichotomy is the undue pressure that it puts on the Christ-follower. If we are not careful, we can foster the false impression that anythinevanglg 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. We might, then, be tempted to think that effective evangelism really requires us to have the right technique, or the right debating skill, or the right amount of information.
This dichotomy can also foster the false impression that we have a choice as to which of these two activities we want to be personally involved in—evangelism or discipleship. If we don’t feel equipped for or “called” to evangelism, we can opt out of it and hand the evangelism baton to others who are better able to do this. But when Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), he was calling them (and us) to be involved in an incarnational way of life that encompasses all of the activities that fall into what we currently label as evangelism and discipleship. “Disciplemaking” is a way of life, and a key element of this way of life is that Christ-followers invest themselves in the lives of others (regardless of where each of those “others” happens to be on the conversion/decision spectrum), sharing with them the love and message of Christ while modeling for them the Christ-following life and calling them into the same.
Bringing, sharing, and personally living out the gospel lies at the heart of the disciple-making way of life. As Christians we don’t have the option of opting out of this way of life. We are to be Christ-following, gospel-centered disciple-makers who seek to be involved with and personally impact the lives of others, regardless of where they may be in their journey with the person of Jesus Christ. Helping people make important faith decisions along the way is a vital part of the Christian life, but it does not solely define our effectiveness.
Keith Tolley works with Vision New England, a Christ-following ministry dedicated to equipping and connecting the local church for discipleship and evangelism.