The Reagan-era theory of trickle-down economics is hotly contested among pundits who question whether or not the poor are actually helped by benefits given to the wealthy. In theory, various tax cuts and benefits to the rich should trickle-down to the poor and allow for mutual advantage. Feed the cow enough, and eventually the sparrows will find some seeds in the steaming piles it leaves behind.
But does it work? Although I have some opinions, I’ll stay in my lane and leave that question to the economists, and instead ask a parallel question concerning the church.
Does trickle-down evangelism work? If we feed the disciple enough, will he or she become a powerhouse warrior for the Kingdom of God?
Here’s the version you’re most likely to hear: “We have to focus on our people. So many of them are immature and in desperate need of spiritual instruction. If we prioritize the growth and maturity of our people then that will have a trickle-down impact on their passion and ability to live on mission and share the gospel.” And so we design our churches for growth, consciously or unconsciously, through this filter.
This rationale at first-blush seems prudent, but far too often the stated goal never comes to fruition. Rather than passionate, mobilized, mature believers, the church’s efforts end up fostering an inwardly-focused people who are increasingly isolated from the world they are commissioned to reach. Instead of a kingdom warrior, our trickle-down efforts seem only to muster an isolated, insulated, and evangelistically impotent churchman.
In reality, the longer it takes for new disciples to become disciple-makers, the more unlikely it is they will prioritize this work. Over time, the gravitational pull of their new relationships in the church will extract them from their relationships with others who are far from God and his church. The stronger the signal that church sends of ‘come and see’ over ‘go and tell,’ the less likely personal evangelism will ever take place. What’s worse, the more the pastor is observed as a ‘teller’ rather than ‘doer,’ the less likely the flock will be personally engaged in the work of evangelism.
So the trickle-down evangelism theory suffers from two fatal flaws: it creates a busy leadership that in their busyness become largely evangelistically unengaged; and, in our unending efforts to ‘equip,’ we have unintentionally isolated the mission force from the mission field.
New Believers and Evangelism
That’s why it’s vital that we create structures to unleash new believers into the harvest immediately after conversion. Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul reminds believers that all those who have been reconciled to God through Christ have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16–21). This work isn’t for those who have crossed a certain threshold of sanctification; it is a mission given to all those who’ve trusted in Jesus for their salvation. “God saves and sends” isn’t a trite cliché; rather, it is the two-fold pattern God uses throughout Scripture and history to foster his missionary work in the world.
The temporal link between saving and sending maximizes the potential evangelistic impact and builds life rhythms that foster evangelistic intentionality throughout the new believer’s maturation process.
First, those who have recently come to faith are far more likely to live, learn, work, and play with those who are far from God and his church. Their previous patterns of life were likely infused with those in need of seeing and hearing the gospel. Not only are they in relationship with the lost, but these relationships are the prime context to model the transformation that the gospel brings.
Who better to notice the change of thought and practice that follows conversion than those friends who have seen the fruit of unrighteousness that once defined a person’s life? Since the relational bridge to these relationships is already in place, it is wise to immediately leverage them for the sake of the gospel.
Second, this level of evangelistic intentionality creates rhythms that should define the life of anyone seeking to walk faithfully with Christ. The malaise and apathy toward evangelism that far too often characterizes God’s church is likely attributable to the fact that many new believers internalized their church’s priorities which failed to engage them in evangelism early in their Christian walks.
As a result, in order for evangelistic fervor to mark God’s church once again, they must unlearn all sorts of habits that seem to imply that evangelism is an arbitrary add-on to an otherwise sufficient Christian life. Linking saving and sending allows the church to build healthy practices from the outset, rather than expecting healthy rhythms to mystically emerge after long contradictory patterns have already been forged.
This mindset need not imply that it’s unnecessary to equip and train believers to maturity. What’s at issue isn’t this laudable goal, but the pursuit of discipleship in a way that is disconnected from the work of evangelism. We can’t expect that an extracted disciple’s growth in maturity will trickle-down to a waiting harvest no matter the quality and quantity of the sacred buffet that we offer.
After all, if disciple-making is the assignment that Jesus gave his church, then evangelism really isn’t finished until the evangelized find themselves as evangelists.
Jeff Christopherson is the North American Mission Board’s Vice President of the Send Network. He and his wife, Laura, live in Alpharetta, Georgia.