I have lost count of the conversations I have had with leaders who are struggling to understand the relationship of evangelism and discipleship in the local church. Many people I meet seem to believe these two parts of the church’s ministry are enemies… or at least rivals. There is a sense that one of these two values and practices must be the main focus of the church. One must win the place of primacy and the other needs to take the back seat.
Some churches, leaders, and even entire denominations place their primary focus on discipleship. They give massive attention and time to growing the believers in their church, creating learning opportunities, and helping Christians mature in their faith. Classes, Bible studies, and small groups are plentiful on the church schedule and believers engage in these to deepen their knowledge of the Bible, love for God, and spiritual maturity. In most discipleship-focused churches, there is an assumption that as people in the church become more spiritually mature they will also naturally engage in evangelistic activity. In other words, if we do great discipleship, evangelism will be the spontaneous bi-product.
There are other churches that make evangelism and outreach their driving passion. They believe that the Great Commission trumps everything else in the church. In these churches the focus is equipping believers to share their faith. The goal is reaching people who are spiritually lost. The commitment to conversion growth drives the church forward. I have heard leaders in these churches say things like, “There is no better way to get a person growing in spiritual maturity than to get them on the front lines of sharing their faith.”
Sadly, in both of these scenarios, Evangelism and Discipleship are seen as rivals. There is a sense that one is more important than the other. In some cases, churches believe they don’t have time and resources to focus on both.
In recent days I have found myself making three statements as I train people in Organic Outreach:
Statement One: Evangelism and Discipleship are not enemies. We need to get over any sense that these two biblical values and ministries of the church are at odds with each other. They are not! They can’t be. They are both biblical mandates and essential for the health of the local church and for every believer.
Statement Two: Evangelism and Discipleship are not friends. I say this because I don’t believe that the word friend is strong enough to reflect the relationship of these two fundamentals of the church. A friendship is good, but it is not seen with the covenantal intensity that is needed for the way evangelism and discipleship must relate to each other.
Statement Three: Evangelism and Discipleship are marriage partners! To have a truly biblical understanding of how evangelism and discipleship relate to each other, we must embrace the reality that these two ministries of the church are so closely bound together that they are like a husband and wife. The two become one! What God has joined together, let no one tear apart. There is a covenantal relationship that binds together the ministry of discipleship and the ministry of evangelism.
I have been married for thirty-three years and have some pretty good ideas about what makes a marriage healthy and thriving. Some of these same principles apply to the relationship of Evangelism and Discipleship.
Mutual Inspiration (One propels the other forward). In a strong marriage, the husband and wife both help the other become more than they would be alone. Intentional evangelism in the church propels the need for dynamic discipleship…in particular when there is a flood of new believers who need help growing in their new faith. In a similar way, truly effective discipleship that leads to Jesus-like maturity will always grow the heart of a believer to be more like Jesus. Our Savior is always passionate about lost sheep coming home to the Father.
FOR REFLECTION: How can your evangelism ministry propel your discipleship efforts forward? How can your discipleship ministry support and strengthen your evangelism ministry?
Distinct Contributions (Both are needed and valued). Every thriving marriage involves each partner making significant and unique contributions to the health of the relationship. In the same way, we are wise to recognize the massive contribution that both discipleship and evangelism make to the health of the church and the work of Jesus in our world. There should be regular celebration of both discipleship and evangelism and intentional collaboration between these partners.
FOR REFLECTION: What does your discipleship ministry do that uniquely strengthens and matures the believers in your church? How does your evangelism grow believers in their spiritual maturity?
Humble Partnership (Honoring each other). Territorialism and selfishness can destroy a marriage and a church. If we want both evangelism and discipleship to thrive, they must been seen as partners. Those who lead and move the evangelism ministry forward must see discipleship as part of the work of evangelism. In the same way, those who lead spiritual growth opportunities for children, youth and adults should have a firm conviction that a key part of their ministry is helping every believer engage in the work of the Great Commission. True spiritual maturity includes learning to make faith sharing an organic part of a normal day.
FOR REFLECTION: What is one step you can take to help your discipleship and evangelism ministries work more closely as true partners?
Hard Work (It takes consistent and focused effort to keep any relationship healthy). Good relationships take work. This is true in every healthy marriage. It is also true in the church. If evangelism and discipleship are going to thrive, they must strive to work together, move past competition to collaboration, and support each other. This calls for communication between church leaders and departments. It means the church will need to provide funds and staff for discipleship and evangelism. Each ministry should work toward success of the other.
FOR REFLECTION: How can your evangelism and your discipleship ministries work harder on behalf of the full ministry of your church to both believers and to those who are still not yet followers of Jesus?
Extra Focus (One often needs more encouragement and support). One final thought. Sometimes in a marriage, one of the partners needs more support and help. In many churches the ministry of evangelism has been avoided and neglected. The church’s energy and resources have been poured almost exclusively into discipleship. If this is the case in your church, seek to move toward a balance. This could mean spending more extra time, energy, and finances to ramp up your evangelistic efforts. The truth is, this is the case in many churches.
However, there are churches that have been so concentrated on evangelism that they have not been balanced in providing strong discipleship opportunities. They see people come to faith in Jesus, but these folks often move on to a church where they can find opportunities for growth. These churches would be wise to strengthen their discipleship efforts and make this part of the ministry healthier.
The key is making sure that both evangelism and discipleship are high priorities in the life of the church. When these two ministries begin to function like healthy marriage partners then they both propel each other forward. When this happens, it is truly amazing! People come to faith regularly and then they grow in their relationship with Jesus. As they do this, they begin to reach out and also help others grow in faith. The end result is healthy believers, evangelism extended into our communities and glory to God! What can be better than that?
Rev. Dr. Kevin G. Harney is the Founder and Visionary of Organic Outreach International. He is also the Lead Pastor of Shoreline Church in Monterey, California.