In my early years as a Christian I got rather confused. Some Christians seemed to be into evangelism. They were passionate about helping people come to know Jesus. Others were more interested in people who were already Christians, helping them grow in the faith. And sometimes these two groups didn’t seem to relate to one another very well. How was I to make sense of this seeming division between evangelism and discipleship?
For me, it all came together in Jesus’ call to ‘make disciples’ (Matthew 28:16-20). In my mind that involves two journeys: the journey to becoming a disciple of Jesus (the journey to faith), and the journey of being a disciple of Jesus (the journey of faith). Our role as the church is to accompany people on both these journeys, to help people take the next appropriate step, whichever journey they are on.
The journey to faith – becoming a disciple
Evangelism can be defined as:
‘the processes by which people become disciples of Jesus Christ.’
I find this definition helpful.
It reminds us that there is no one-way people become disciples. One of the things I love is watching or hearing stories of people becoming followers of Jesus. They are all wonderfully different. One person is captivated by the person of Jesus when reading a gospel for the first time. Another asks all their questions on an Alpha course and finds the love and acceptance of the leaders melts their barriers away. Another person finds themselves at a crisis point in life and cries out to God for help. Another is blown away by the generosity of a neighbour and accepts an invitation to church one Thursday. Gloriously, wonderfully different.
It clarifies what we are praying for. We want people to become disciples of Jesus, not just to have a spiritual experience, or feel better about themselves. We long for people to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour, to find forgiveness for their sin and a new start in life, to discover that human flourishing is fully found in submitting themselves to the one who made them.
It encourages us to see what part Jesus may invite us to play in accompanying people on their journey to faith in Jesus. There is such a wonderful variety of ways that we can show and share the faith with others, and everyone can play their part. Although not everyone’s part will be the same. It’s still true that most people become a disciple of Jesus through someone they know showing love, care and concern, and sharing something of the good news about Jesus. So in our churches we will want to look for ways to encourage and resource people to play their part in God’s disciple making process.
The journey of faith – being a disciple
Once someone has come to faith in Christ their journey continues, but now from a different place. To use the language of the gospels, they have moved from darkness to light, from a broad way to a narrow way, from death to life. Everything changes because the person’s desire is now to learn to live life the Jesus way, to order their lives around the person of Jesus and the priorities of the kingdom. That is an adventure that will last until their dying breath, and then it will be continued in a different way beyond death.
This journey is also ideally an accompanied journey, where we help one another to faithfully follow Christ through the inevitable ups and downs of life. It’s why we meet with sisters and brothers week by week, to encourage one another, build one another up and support one another. So that as we continue to be church in our Monday to Saturday lives, we may faithfully show and share the faith with those we interact with in our places of work, communities, neighbourhoods and families.
Evangelism and discipleship – the relationship
Therefore discipleship is the big thing; that is what we’re about as a Church, making disciples. And this discipleship journey is in two parts. In evangelism we help people on the first part of the discipleship journey, coming to faith in Jesus. In edification we build people up, we help people on the second part of the discipleship journey, the journey of faith.
It is so important we hold these two things together and see them all as part of discipleship, so that there is a seamless continuation from one journey to the next.