14 July, 2024

Evangelism and Discipleship . . . Evangelism Comes First

by | 1 July, 2024 | 4 comments

By Jerry Harris 

The word evangelism seems to have fallen out of favor with many in church circles these days and been replaced with the word discipleship. I believe this change to be a relatively new phenomenon in our movement. 

Recently, we scanned and archived issues of Christian Standard going back to 1966. During that process, something that jumped out to me was the frequent use of the word evangelism—or something synonymous with it—in most of those issues. I read much about “personal evangelism,” “soul-winning,” “witnessing,” and “sharing your faith.” These words frequently highlighted news of spring and fall revivals, church crusades (another word that has fallen out of favor), canvassing neighborhoods or-door-to door evangelism, evangelism explosion, gospel tracts, Vacation Bible School, etc. References to discipleship seemed to be nearly entirely missing. Why? 

Churches of the evangelism era dedicated a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to a deeper understanding of God’s Word and Christian lifestyle through such activities as Sunday school. Adult relationships formed around Sunday school class identity. Classes named themselves to honor that desire; some examples include Noble Bereans, Faithful Followers, and Truth Seekers. These classes typically became involved in missions and community-based ministry. Time was carved out every Sunday to meet. Many had their own budgets and purchased their own study materials. Much of the cost of church buildings was dedicated to classroom spaces for education in God’s Word.  

Children and teens had their own classes, their own curriculum, Sunday or Wednesday evening Bible clubs, Bible Bowl, Youth Sundays, and much more. They “did life” together this way. Every service ended with an invitation to come to Christ, be baptized, join the church, or to rededicate oneself to their faith. My point is this: even though the word discipleship wasn’t often used, it was exactly what was happening . . . and it was comprehensive.  

Most in our churches today have no understanding or recollection of those days. 

The church growth movement ushered in much larger congregations and a greater focus on the worship and preaching experience. As the concept of small groups that meet in homes was adopted, church architecture changed, and Sunday school classes and classrooms were largely consigned to history.  

Many have criticized these changes by saying such things as, “Many churchgoers are consumers rather than committed,” “Churches are making converts but not disciples,” “Churches are a mile wide but an inch deep,” “Small groups are just group therapy,” and “We are more biblically ignorant than we’ve ever been.”  

Those criticisms aren’t completely off-base, so it makes some sense to emphasize discipleship. 

Evangelism First 

However, I don’t believe that discipleship should be emphasized at the expense of evangelism. In fact, I would contend that evangelism comes first. You can evangelize someone but fail to build them into a disciple, but you can’t make a disciple unless you evangelize them first!  

I have seen some react to evangelism as if it’s only a part of discipleship, and I’ve seen evangelism de-emphasized to the point that we don’t even ask people to come to Christ during our church services anymore.  

Church leaders who separate evangelism and discipleship can cause a church to become inwardly focused instead of fully embracing the Great Commission. “Going” and “baptizing” precede “teaching” in Jesus’ command, and it pains me to see churches with healthy worship attendance numbers in our movement but scarcely any baptisms.  

A Worthy Goal 

Do we set goals today for how many our church should be evangelizing in a given year? As I look at our church reports, I see that many churches achieve a 10 percent ratio of baptisms to regular attendance . . . some even more! What a great goal to aim for!   

Do we train people to share their faith personally? Personal evangelism was a required class at Ozark Christian College when I attended, and part of the homework was to actually share one’s faith and then write a report on it. Do we model sharing our faith during invitation times at church? Do we witness and celebrate it in public confession and baptism? Many churches today have done away with the invitation; some say it might be too confrontational or that it uses up too much time. I will paraphrase the words of James, the Lord’s brother: “Maybe we do not have because we do not ask” (James 4:2). We are what we celebrate!  

Evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel, either public or private, and that gospel is the foundation of disciple-making. Our Lord said a house should be built on a solid foundation. If a church’s foundation is Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel, its construction will survive the circumstances of life. A foundation serves little purpose if we do not build upon it. It is like Jesus’ illustration of an unfinished tower in Luke 14:28. Foundations are laid so that structures can be built on them, and in the church setting, discipleship is that structure. As the gospel is freely given and received, a foundation in the gospel is provided without cost. Discipleship, however, comes with great personal cost. The result for those who fail to count that cost is only ridicule.  

4 Comments

  1. Dann Spader

    To the best of my research, the word “discipleship” was never used until 1850 by a man named Charles Adams. He separated “evangelism” from “discipleship” in trying to explain the two wings of an airplane in explaining the “making disciples” of Matt 28. Disciple-making is our mission (not discipleship). Biblical discipling begins and ends with evangelism.

    In Matt 28 when Jesus gave us the command to “make disciples”, his original intent was the whole process of “winning the lost”, “growing the new believer” and “equipping the few workers”. Discipleship tends to only focus on growth. Biblical discipling focuses on the whole process of winning, building, and equipping. Thus the three participial verbs in the Great Commission… go, baptize and teach to obey.

    Great article and well needed.

  2. D Eric Schansberg

    Interesting article with a number of good points! Building on what’s here…

    1.) I would also guess that we’ve slipped a notch in terms of discipleship over the years– e.g., with the decrease in the modest discipleship tool of Sunday School. But I doubt we’ve ever been much good at it (at least in our lifetimes). How many churches have (ever had) a plan to emulate the disciple-making, 12-at-a-time, long-term, multiplying ministry focus of Jesus? How many churches have nearly as much focus on men’s discipleship as women’s? How many churches have a plan to encourage people to read the Bible– beyond holding up a large book with small font and, in essence, saying “good luck to ya”?

    2.) Dallas Willard notes that evangelism and conversion can be along an explicit path of discipleship– and makes the case that this may be the ideal. I’ve seen it happen a handful of times as folks use our discipleship curricula. But in practice, I doubt it happens all that often. Of course, it can’t happen that way if we’re not doing discipleship well in the first place.

    3.) Like many other things, evangelism will (largely) follow naturally when folks are (actually) disciples of Jesus. Giving, serving, evangelizing, good marriages, hospitality, not acting like yahoos, etc. We can try to get people to conform their behavior, but one can’t expect it to be all that effective. In this sense, a “discipleship first” mindset is correct. In a word: if you aim at effective discipleship with Jesus and the Word, then evangelism (and so much more) will be added unto you.

  3. Melinda J.

    I agree that most churches do emphasize discipleship over evangelism. And I’ve seen that small groups have taken over Sunday school and serious Bible study way too often. So I also agree that the congregation is still very ignorant and therefore some pastors still feel that they have to keep sermons to very basic principles. I know they also do that for newcomers to the faith, as well, and visitors.

    I agree with Dr. Schansburg’s third point that out of discipleship comes evangelism. That makes sense.

    Right now, we are part of a megachurch that has focused on evangelism for several years. And I was just talking with the lead pastor last week and he is aware of that and said he would like to focus more on discipleship now. Then my husband said that in churches, they go back and forth between the two, they focus on evangelism for awhile and grow wide, and then focus on discipleship and grow deep.

    But why not both? Why not bring back Wednesday night classes and/or Sunday schools where we actually teach Biblical literacy, similar to what Bible colleges teach? Small groups are great for “doing life together.” But what if the leader of these groups aren’t Biblically literate themselves. What materials are they using? In our megachurch, most small groups are using the questions and materials that the church puts together that are almost generic in nature with open ended questions. Who’s to say that the small group will come to a Biblical answer at the end of those?

    Personally, I’ve always seen these two things happening at the same time. Evangelize, bring them to Christ, baptize them, and then plug them into a small group, as well get them into something where the Bible is taught like a class.

    This megachurch used to have those kind of classes and did have people that did both and grew deep. But it had a hand off from one lead pastor to the next, which went really, really well. Everything did shift though, and I pray that has things continue to grow and settle with this younger, very knowledgeable and capable pastor, a new generation will carry the torch and educate themselves and go out and bring more people in. There’s been a decent amount of baptisms.

    Great article, but I can see how it is the reverse in some churches I know about. Thanks.

  4. D Eric Schansberg

    Sunday School and (effective) small groups can be a helpful part of development– taking us beyond the inherent limits of (even the best) preaching. Churches need “just show up” opportunities. But they also need small groups that require “homework” and then active facilitated discussion to foster robust growth. When people make those sorts of investments in their own discipleship– and are then guided by a leader, encouraged into apprenticeship, etc.– the pace of growth is *far* stronger.

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