I have often seen a false dichotomy emerge between evangelism and discipleship in many churches and with many Christians. Some individuals who emphasize evangelism seem to say things like, “If you aren’t sharing your faith regularly, how can you even call yourself a Christian?” Or at least, “How can you consider yourself a strong Christian?”
On the other side, people who focus on discipleship have often told me that they do not share their faith because evangelism is not their gift. Instead, they believe their gifts lie in the realm of discipleship and so that is where they focus.
This dichotomy is also apparent in churches and movements more broadly. Some churches and ministries have a laser focus on evangelism at the expense of discipleship, and the church ends up a mile wide and an inch deep. Other ministries have decided that they don’t want shallow Christians, so they spend all their time and energy emphasizing discipleship.
This, however, easily results in ‘coffee club’ or ‘Sunday school’ Christians (which one of these often depends on the generation!) who get together, drink coffee, study the Bible, and pray. While those are certainly important components of discipleship, this is only a partial picture.
A quick reminder from Jesus
Both sides are missing the point, because both sides have accepted the divorce of evangelism and discipleship. Ultimately, it’s a problem to separate the two, because Jesus didn’t separate them in his own life and ministry.
At the start of his ministry, Jesus’ opening salvo was to preach the kingdom, call Israel to repentance (evangelism), and gather a group of disciples to join his mission (discipleship). At the end of his ministry, Jesus’ final mandate in Matthew 28:18-20 was to send out his group of disciples to make more disciples by both baptizing (evangelism) and teaching (discipling) them.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus constantly and seamlessly integrated evangelism and discipleship into his everyday actions and into the way he spiritually formed and shaped the 12 disciples. If we are followers of Jesus, how can we do less or differently?
When did a bifurcation occur?
If that was the original vision, how did evangelism and discipleship get so separated in our minds and in our practice? In short, it took a Christendom church and an intellectualized faith to bring about the divorce.
A Christendom church is a church that has the society’s and government’s blessing, and vice versa. The government and the larger society give advantages to the church. The church gives legitimacy to the government. As a result, pastors tend to be more focused on maintaining and pastoring and teaching (good social stabilizers) than they are on multiplication and expansion.
But when the church is not on mission to reach new people and expand her leavening influence into society, she is not really the kind of community Jesus modeled and will eventually dwindle.
Along with that, when the church is only on mission (evangelism), she is also not the counter-cultural community that Jesus modeled and will eventually dissolve. She becomes merely another institutional expression of the dominant society.
An intellectualized faith is a faith of the head and not the heart or the hands. During the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the central focus of human existence for many in the West shifted to the mind’s capacity for reason.
The huge cultural influence of the Enlightenment has contributed to forming a more intellectualized faith, where we see discipleship mainly as information transfer rather than life-on-life transformation. In the wake of this, when we practice discipleship without evangelism, our discipleship becomes heady and often irrelevant because it lacks practical application.
A reconciliation of terms and practice
The threads of history help us understand how we got to where we are. But how do we move forward? What will help us remarry the two dimensions of evangelism and discipleship? Here are five steps can we take to begin restoring that unity:
Begin with honest self-evaluation. It can be easy to find ourselves focusing on discipleship or evangelism at the expense of the other, and it’s important to acknowledge that this can actually be destructive. In order to grow, we must be willing to ask ourselves a few difficult questions: Where have we bought into a distorted definition of discipleship that leaves out witness? Or where have we bought into a shallow evangelism that merely recruits attenders and not apprentices?
Restore the apprenticeship model of discipleship. In the apprenticeship model, imitation is much more important than information transfer. If you are mentoring someone, consider how you might together engage in efforts of both compassion AND witness. What you live out is what gets passed on, and that is especially true when you live it out with people. As they watch your life, they will begin to imitate the ways you practice your faith.
Practice accountability in witness. There are few things more powerful than accountability when you’re trying to cultivate a change in your lifestyle, and this is also true about discipleship and evangelism. When was the last time you were asked how you are doing in your life of personal witness where you live, work, play, and study?
If you are in a church, how often are you asked about who you are personally investing in so that they live more and more like Jesus? From our work with over 100 pastors, we have found that if you are not asked those questions by someone who keeps you accountable, you will experience mission drift and discipleship decrease after just 30 days.
Abandon the divisive debates. It’s time for us all to acknowledge that when it comes to evangelism and discipleship, we can’t have one without the other. If you are a disciple, you ARE a witness, sharing with others what God has done for you. If you are a witness, you will need to be fueled by the basic practices of discipleship like praying, reading scripture, and so on. They are inseparable and don't exist in isolation from each other.
In light of that, let us stop the misleading conversations about whether we are more gifted in discipleship or more gifted in evangelism. That is like asking if we are more gifted in breathing in or breathing out.
Combine, combine, combine.Both evangelism and discipleship need to be integrated into every program, event, initiative, and practice you have as a congregation. How they get incorporated in each context differs. For example, what the two combined look like in worship services will be very different than what they look like combined in small groups or youth ministries or tech teams. But that they integrate should never be an issue.
What will it look like if we can take these steps and once again reintegrate evangelism and discipleship, seeing each as impossible without the other? The church will be renewed and restored. We will find again our first love. We will know a much more powerful experience of the presence of God (Matt. 28:20). We will taste what it was like in the early days of the church, becoming more of a healthy, growing, Acts 2-like church.
I believe this is what we all long for but too often live without. Let’s get reenergized by the remarriage of evangelism and discipleship and watch our lives and our churches more fully imitate Jesus and come more fully alive.
Dr. Rick Richardson, with Dr. Ed Stetzer, leads the Evangelism and Leadership graduate program at Wheaton College, which trains leaders to lead missional churches, ministries, and church plants, always with an evangelistic edge. Rick is also Director of the Church Evangelism Initiative.