“Can you believe what they’re doing?”
“I’m glad we don’t do that.”
Differentiating self from not-self is probably one of the earliest lessons we learn in life. There’s actually a point in an infant’s life when she can’t distinguish between herself and her mother. At some point along the way, she learns that she is “me, here, now,” growing in understanding of identity, space, and time. The other major frame of reference one learns in tandem is “you, there, then.” This is so intuitive later in life that it’s hard to believe it’s ever learned. Any confusion of these three points, often from trauma, results in big problems later in life, like a broken bone that never properly sets.
Sometimes we take it too far. Bold lines are drawn between ME and YOU (think of an teenager pushing back against their parents), or between US and THEM (think of tribalism and nationalism). Within the group there is safety, and the group is at least partially defined by what it is not: we’re not like them; we don’t talk, dress, or act like them; we don’t like what they like; we don’t believe what they believe. Differentiating one from another is inevitable; it goes too far when there is a diminished recognition of the image of God in another person, and when there is no posture of humility and love in how we interact with others.
Both evangelism and discipleship seemingly require us to differentiate “us” and “them”: is this person in or out of the flock of Christ, the Church, the cloud of professing faithful? If someone is “in,” then we engage in discipleship – Christian short-hand for helping someone to grow in Christ-likeness through any number of means. If someone is “out,” then we engage in evangelism – proclaiming to them the gospel of Jesus, perhaps as if they’ve never before heard it.
What may short-circuit our differentiations, though, is that some who appear to be “in” may have less familiarity with the gospel than those who appear “out,” for any number of reasons. They may believe something that isn’t even the gospel. Alternatively, God may be pursuing someone who is “out,” as a shepherd seeks after his lost sheep. The deep truths of the gospel may be eroding their heart’s defenses even by the time you’ve met them.
In order to help someone grow in Christ-likeness, one needs to rely on and proclaim the true gospel (really a form of evangelism), and in order to proclaim the gospel to someone who has no faith, one has to go with the desire of seeing that person grow in Christ-likeness (really a form of discipleship). Therefore, rather than these being two disparate concepts, they are inseparable activities with one posture of humble love.
What’s in a Word?
I remember when I was a medical student, I was riding the elevator to return, reluctantly, to my work on the OB ward. I was probably reciting some minutiae in my mind I’d have to know for the day when a well-dressed older man carrying a Bible and his wife joined me. I asked them where they were going, he murmured his floor, and I politely pushed the button.
After the doors shut, he said in a clearer voice, “Actually, I’m going to heaven. Do you know where you’re going?” I was taken aback. Even when I wasn’t a Christian, I’d never been so directly targeted by an evangelism pitch. I turned and acknowledged that, yes, I knew I’d be going to heaven. “Ah, good,” he said, smiling, “It’s good to know Jesus Christ as the Lord, isn’t it?” I agreed and after a few seconds, they reached their floor and left me, wishing me a good day. That was it.
I honestly don’t know what he was expecting. If I had declared that I was some heathen angry at the Church, would he have interrupted his agenda to talk with me? Would he have tried to invite a longer conversation by asking me to step off the elevator with him? Or did he have a Bible tract in his pocket, ready to distribute and do the remainder of his work? Was he interested in discipleship, or merely winning a soul as if it were a notch in the win column? I can’t say. But such a tactic presumes, it seems, a difference between evangelism and discipleship; he didn’t care to engage me further once I professed my faith.
At least a handful of things swirl around the “doing” of evangelism. The “us and them” dynamic is one such example. Evangelism, construed as a separate activity from discipleship, also tends to orient itself toward a singular goal of procuring a profession of faith, which may put pressure both on the evangelist and the one to whom they’re evangelizing – that each conversation (even this one conversation!) must build toward The Decision. How many have made such decisions, time and again, with no lasting change in their heart or behavior for want of discipleship? How many prayers murmured, how many cards signed, how many altar calls embraced, how many anxious baptisms?
Other things may swirl around the “doing” of discipleship. Although the dynamic of “us and them” may be less apparent, it’s still there: you’re part of “us” now, and we may be lulled into believing that certain things can be go without saying. It may or may not be true that just because someone has professed faith, 20 minutes or 20 years ago, one has a grasp of the true gospel of Christ. While Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2) and the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-13) assume that as a Christian grows in faith, they will move from “milk” (basic principles of faith) to “solid food,” they do not assume that the Christian will move beyond the need for food altogether. Our daily bread is the very gospel itself.
Distinguishing between evangelism and discipleship does have advantages. It’s important to know the people with whom you’re speaking. Clearly, Paul adjusted how he spoke depending on who was in his audience (Acts 17:22-31), and the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contextualized their telling of the gospel to the audience for which the proclamation was intended. This is true, though, whether you’re engaged in what we typically think of as “evangelism” or “discipleship.”
I don’t think we can be let off the hook by saying, “I’m called to be more of a discipler,” or “I’m called to be more of an evangelist.” There are some biblical distinctions I’ll set aside for now (e.g., Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5). For most purposes, both are very similar. The proclamation of good news without a heart for discipleship is compassionless, competitive, and downplays the importance of living and being formed as a Christian. Discipleship without proclamation of good news is moralistic, legalistic, and mere striving after the wind. Therefore, I would suggest that one can do these things without making unhelpful distinctions between whether one is doing, at any given moment, evangelism or discipleship.
Westminster Seminary professor and PCA teaching elder John Leonard says this to help us untangle these things:
In Matthew 28, Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. He doesn’t tell us to make converts or call for people to make decisions for Him. When you separate discipleship from evangelism, one of the results is two messages. In evangelism we offer grace to unbelievers, but for discipleship we shift to works and are no longer Christian.
We disciple people to Christ because they know so little about Christianity. We must lay a new foundation by teaching the Bible. This is a long process of transforming people’s secular worldview and establishing a Christian worldview. It requires many conversions over one’s lifetime.
We should also disciple non-Christians because this was our Lord’s approach. When did the disciples convert? Hard to say. We need to move away from a one-time decision approach to becoming a Christian to an every-moment decision to follow Christ.
And regarding those who profess faith, he says:
We need to evangelize Christians because, like the Christians in Galatia, we are quick to abandon the Gospel (Galatians 1:6). There is a default switch in our hearts, and when we do something really good or something really stupid that switch is pushed, and we revert to our default setting of a works approach to God. When that happens we become just like the Pharisees: judgmental, angry, and graceless people — people who are not very good witnesses.
Such talk about evangelizing Christians could lead us down a self-righteous path of correcting what we perceive to be heresy wherever we go, but it need not do that. The grace of Christ is our daily bread. It sustains us at every moment, even when we don’t consciously acknowledge it. Sometimes we can veer away from that – maybe not because of wrong belief, but because of demoralization, depression, frustration, or any number of other things. Preaching the truth of the gospel to ourselves and our brothers and sisters every day need not be self-righteous, but quite the opposite.
Likewise, talking about discipling non-Christians could tempt us to forego proclamation of the good news altogether, leading to universalism, but it need not do that. The grace is Christ is a call to follow him; in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. There is cross-bearing. It is not enough to be a mere hearer of the Word; one must be a doer too (Romans 2:13; James 1:22-23).
A Change in Approach
To evangelize a Christian brother or sister is to remind them, in word and in deed, of the God who made the world and who loves them.
To disciple someone who does not profess faith is to remind them, in word and in deed, of the God who made the world and who loves them.
I’m not as interested in giving you new ideas about evangelism and discipleship as I am in training your eyes, ears, and heart to see, hear, and feel something different. One can apprehend new thoughts without any changed character, but a changed character will inevitably yield new thoughts. That ultimately requires more than a blog post, which is why your elders are available when you want to talk.
I want to leave you with a few questions with the hope that by ruminating on them, they can allow new sights, sounds, and feelings to become apparent, or reinforce those that the Holy Spirit or others were already bringing to your attention.
- What is it like to think of everyone, from the worst person you know in the world to the most saintly, as desperately in need of Christ? While you might know this intellectually, do you see it with your eyes when you look at who is in the news, hear it with your ears when you listen to the words of those with whom you disagree, and feel it in your heart as you move through your day?
- What is it like to think of evangelizing the most faithful person you personally know? Is there a brother or sister in Christ that you know who needs to be evangelized? Are you going to be their evangelist?
- What is it like to think of discipling someone you know who does not profess faith? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
In some ways, it may be better to let go of the use of these terms in trying to describe what we’re doing and instead rely simply on three things: love God, love others, and make disciples (which necessarily involves “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you” [Matthew 28:20]).
How do we love God? How do we love others? How do we go and make disciples? All good questions…