Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Evangelism and Discipleship are Inseparable

I am currently serving in the United Methodist Church and have found that in the last four years philosophy of ministry has changed to some extent. Having come from an evangelical background to a mainline denomination, I have notices some stark differences between the way we approach different things, particularly evangelism.

What I've noticed in attending ecumenical events since I've begun working in a mainline church is that any time an event is planned where there may be non-believers in attendance, there must be a concerted effort to present them with the message of the gospel (specifically the idea that Christ's death and resurrection demands a response from us) hopefully causing them to repent of their sins and give their lives to Christ, putting their faith in him as their Lord and Savior. This is not a bad thing at all, so don't think I'm being critical of it. But there are a few problems with making anything specifically evangelistic.

1. With all the effort put into the presentation of the message, there must be an equally concerted effort on follow-up with the new believers. Unfortunately, this is rarely ever done effectively. Young believers are given a commitment card where they are asked to put their church home if they have one. And are otherwise left to follow Christ on their own until a pastor, youth worker, or another believer comes alongside them to get them plugged into the church. This should be a seamless transition, but in over ten years of ministry, I don't think I've ever seen it work well. You can also read a great post by my friend Tim Schmoyer about his struggles with outreach events.

2. New believers go to these outreach-focused events and think everything else in the church or ministry is just like that. Then when they show up to a normal Wednesday night youth meeting without the great band, the lights, and the videos, they are very disappointed. Then they feel like they've been a victim of a bait and switch coupon circular where they were lured into a store for a great buy on a great product only to find they only had two in stock which sold out the first day of the sale.

3. Edification of existing believers must be sacrificed to meet the needs of those who are curious about faith. I have heard some preachers say that every message preached ought to point to the gospel. While I agree with that, I think it gets off track when we put "the gospel" in a box. Making every message point to the fact that Christ died for our sins and we should put our faith in him to be saved will eventually sound like a broken record. While that is the primary tenet of the Christian faith, the fact is the "good news" is so much more than that. So a message can be directed at mature believers and still point to the good news of Christ.

4. Events that are focused primarily on bringing the lost to Christ can be designed to be emotionally manipulative and leave little room for the Holy Spirit. I've been to events where the gospel is presented in some dramatic fashion using vague terminology and a lack of specific criteria where every person in the room could have easily been made to feel that their status with the Almighty was lacking and in need of repair. Maybe some strong guys broke some stuff. Maybe some fantastic athletes shared the message that you can do "all things through Christ." Maybe a great story teller told the most dramatic, captivating rendition of a Bible passage. Maybe there was a band playing the same three chords over and over for 30 minutes lulling the audience into a trance and people start going down front just so they can go home soon. Maybe every head was bowed and every eye was closed and the person who had been made to feel guilty lifted their head, then later walked down front, talked with a stranger, filled out a card, and went home feeling just like she did when she arrived.

5. We equate lots of people coming down front with lots of conversions and spiritual change. I think there is a difference between effective evangelism and giving a good sales pitch. Unfortunately, I've found myself trying to "help God out" by making a dramatic sales pitch for the gospel. And some people do it very well, and the aisles are flooded with teary-eyed spiritual derelicts. But then after all the cards have been filled out and everyone is ready for the next day of work or school, has anything truly changed?

So what is the answer? Am I saying we should not be evangelistic? Absolutely not. But I am saying that we should not separate evangelism from discipleship. When I look back at Acts 2 and read where the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer, I notice that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. While we don't know what specific teachings they were studying, I have a feeling that if the only tenet they studied was the idea of saving faith through belief in Christ's resurrection, their congregation would not have lasted very long. And remember, this was at a time in history when literally the whole world had not heard the message of Christ. If there was ever a time to be specifically evangelistic, it was then. But they devoted themselves to the entirety of the apostles' teaching.

Another hint is found in the writings of Paul. He refers to mature and immature believers and those who are young in the faith. He also refers to those who are non-believers. He encourages Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. He writes in Ephesians 4:11 that "some are called to be evangelists, while others are called to be pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of the ministry." While those evangelists have their place, their ministry is ineffective without the pastors and teachers who can nurture those young converts in their faith. Look at the encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch. There were no showy gimmicks. There was no worship-band-induced trances. There was no preaching of guilt and eternal damnation. Philip simply was obedient to the Lord and met the Ethiopian where he was. He was already seeking. The Holy Spirit was already at work, Philip was just being available.

The message of Christ really speaks for itself. We should be more concerned with introducing people to it and less concerned with embellishing it to make it appealing. Then, when true conversion occurs, we know it's the work of the Holy Spirit and not the work of our indulgence.


hnb said...

Excellent points. So many times we leave people of all ages to figure things out themselves. Like choosing to follow Christ is a one time decision and not a decision we must make every day.

Jason Huffman said...

Heather, thanks for your thoughts. The older I get, the more I'm reminded that this journey is a process, not a one-time decision.