When I became serious about being in church and made my first baby steps in the Christian walk, I learned about evangelism. If I cared about people and loved Jesus, my teachers told me that I must also tell others about Jesus and how He made the way for them to go to heaven. Honestly, I can’t argue with that. It was basic then. It is basic now.
However, I didn’t hear a lot about discipleship until I went to seminary. As I have talked with others through the years, I’ve seen that my experience is not unique. It seems that many churches, church leaders, and others hold evangelism and discipleship in an unnecessary tension. Some almost seem to think if you do one, you have to diminish the other. In fact, I have heard that expressed verbally. However, Jesus never had such a conflict in mind.
In the Great Commission, Jesus gave one command: Make disciples. The other verb forms in those verses–going, baptizing, teaching to obey whatever Jesus commanded–are all participles. Because they explain an imperative form, they also carry an imperative or command form meaning. As we use the phrase today, most people relate making disciples to what happens after people become followers of Jesus. We baptize them* and teach them. We usually associate baptizing and teaching with discipleship. Evangelism is going to unbelievers and sharing the gospel with them.
However, based upon the structure of the Great Commission, I believe that we should think of making disciples as one process with parts–parts that today we often refer to as evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism and discipleship should not compete with one another for a church’s attention but should both be part of any church’s ministry. The reasons are very practical.
- We won’t have believers to disciple without evangelism since faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. People have to listen to the gospel before they can profess faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior.
- Discipleship does not slow down the witness. Rather, it multiplies it. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul encouraged Timothy to pass on what Timothy learned from him to faithful men who would teach others. Let’s apply that teaching to sharing the gospel. The town where I attend church has a little less than 9,000 people. For the sake of argument, let’s assume I am the only believer in the city. By the end of this year, I share Christ with two people who I teach to witness to others. Next, each of us teaches two others, and this pattern is consistent for several years. Assuming that this trend continues, between year 7 and 8, everyone in the town would hear and respond to the gospel. Evangelism alone adds believers. Evangelism with discipleship multiplies believers.
- Evangelism and discipleship together use the entire spiritual gifting of a church. One-on-one discipleship (or mentoring) is important and helps especially with accountability. I highly recommend it. But no one person has all the spiritual gifts necessary to help a believer reach maturity in Christ. While all should share the gospel, some are more gifted at it than others. My experience has been that most people with evangelistic gifts are not as gifted with the gifts needed to teach these new believers to obey Jesus’ commands. It takes the entire body of Christ working together to help one another grow into the likeness of Christ. So, no church should ever ask, should we emphasize evangelism or discipleship. Both are equally important parts of the process of making disciples.
*I am a Baptist, and I believe biblical baptism is a baptism of believers only by immersion in water. The Great Commission implies this understanding.