I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with leaders who are struggling to understand the relationship between evangelism and discipleship in the local church. Many people seem to believe these two parts of the church’s ministry are rivals. There is a sense that one must be the main focus of the church, while 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 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 them to deepen their knowledge of the Bible, love for God and spiritual maturity. Most discipleship-focused churches assume that as the people become more spiritually mature, they will naturally engage in evangelistic activity. In other words, evangelism will be the spontaneous byproduct of great discipleship.
Other churches make evangelism and outreach their driving passion. They believe that task trumps everything else in the church. In these churches the focus is on equipping believers to share their faith. The goal is reaching people who are spiritually lost. This 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 to grow 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. In some cases, churches believe they don’t have the time or resources to focus on both.
Recently I have been making the following three statements as I train people in organic outreach:
* Evangelism and discipleship are not enemies. We need to get over any sense that these two biblical 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.
* Evangelism and discipleship are not friends. I say this because I don’t believe “friend” is strong enough to reflect the relationship of these two church fundamentals. A friendship is good, but it is not seen with the covenantal intensity needed for the way evangelism and discipleship must relate to each other.
* 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 are so closely bound together that they are like husband and wife. The two become one. What God has joined together, let no one tear apart. A covenantal relationship binds the two together.
I have been married for 33 years and have some pretty good ideas about what makes a marriage healthy and thriving. Some of these same principles apply to the relationship between evangelism and discipleship.
1. Mutual Inspiration
In a strong marriage, the husband and wife 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.
How can your evangelism ministry propel your discipleship efforts forward? How can your discipleship ministry support and strengthen your evangelism ministry?
2. Distinct Contributions
A 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 large contribution 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 along with an intentional collaboration between these partners.
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?
3. Humble Partnership
Territorialism and selfishness can destroy a marriage—and a church. If we want both evangelism and discipleship to thrive, they must be seen as partners. Those who lead and move the evangelism ministry forward must consider discipleship to be 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.
What is one step you can take to help your discipleship and evangelism ministries work more closely as true partners?
4. Hard Work
It takes consistent and focused effort to keep any relationship healthy. This is true in every healthy marriage, and it is also true in the church. If evangelism and discipleship are going to thrive, they must work together, move past competition to collaboration, and support each other. This calls for communication between church leaders and departments. It means providing funds and staff for both discipleship and evangelism. Each ministry should work toward the success of the other.
How can your evangelism and discipleship ministries work harder on behalf of the full ministry of your church to both believers and to those who are not yet followers of Jesus?
5. Extra Focus
Sometimes in a marriage, one partner needs more support and help. In many churches, the ministry of evangelism has been avoided and neglected. If this is the case in your church, seek to move toward a balance. This could mean spending extra time, energy and money to ramp up your evangelistic efforts.
For churches that have been so focused on evangelism that they have not been balanced in providing strong discipleship opportunities, they 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, they each propel the other forward. When this happens, the results are 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?
Kevin Harney is the lead pastor of Shoreline Church in Monterey, California, the founder and visionary leader of Organic Outreach Ministries International, and the author of the Organic Outreach series and many other books, studies and articles. For more information: KevinGHarney.com