The question seems simple, and the answer would appear to be obvious: Does good and consistent discipleship lead naturally to evangelism?
Of course it does. If people grow in spiritual maturity, sharing their faith should flow freely. The more we read the Bible, the more we follow God’s directives. As we become more like Jesus, we will spontaneously tell others about him. Of course good discipleship ministry will propel Christians outward with bold and intentional evangelistic activity, right?
Actually, the answer is a sad but emphatic, “No!” I have heard discipleship leaders and “experts” state otherwise, but I believe in most churches that have consistent and healthy discipleship ministries, the evangelism impact is nominal at best.
I have the privilege of knowing and working with a number of national discipleship leaders who oversee entire denominations in the United States and Canada. In every case, they lament the reality that they are doing a lot to help Christians grow in faith and mature as disciples, but all of these denominations are struggling in evangelism. They have discovered that rigorous and consistent discipleship programs don’t automatically propel people outward with meaningful outreach activity. When these denominations and congregations look closely at the fruit of their labors, they are seeing Christians grow in their faith but not share Jesus with others.
There are many reasons why this happens. Here are a few of them.
Massive Spiritual Resistance
There are lots of things that Christians do that fail to grab the attention of Satan and his host of demons. But when a follower of Jesus walks into enemy territory and begins to shine the light of the Savior, tell the story of God’s grace and give testimony to the power of the cross, all the forces of darkness take notice. This is a declaration of war. For evangelism to happen, we need to be ready to stand and fight against the very forces of hell. There are very few situations where evangelism just happens spontaneously. It is a battle, and we need to be equipped to pray, fight, serve and articulate our faith in the face of hellish resistance.
Most Christians are fearful of putting their faith into words. They might be kind to strangers, serve with compassion and even extend an occasional invitation to a church event. But sharing their faith can terrify many followers of Jesus. No matter how mature they might be or how many Bible passages they know, this fear still exists. We must help our church members—and pastors—move past fear to a place of bold confidence in sharing the love, grace and truth of the gospel.
Lack of Training
If you want to run a marathon, trying will never get you across the finish line unless you have also trained—a lot. This reality is even truer when it comes to evangelism. We need to be equipped, inspired, held accountable and then trained some more. Trying won’t work if we are not training. Local churches need to become a training ground for evangelistic excellence. We must inspire our people, keep them accountable, equip them and then plan for outreach with the same intentionality as we do our discipleship ministry.
There are all sorts of faulty beliefs that will keep people from sharing their faith: “God’s love will win and everyone will find themselves in heaven eventually” or “Evangelism is God’s job; he will save whomever he wants and what we do has no impact on the outreach equation.” When our theology is errant it can be misused to be an excuse to keep us from sharing our faith. Church leaders need to teach solid theology and biblical beliefs that will propel people outward with the good news of Jesus.
For total disclosure, all evidence shows that a robust evangelism program in a local church does not lead spontaneously to discipleship. In three decades of outreach ministry and serious discipleship effort, I have learned that a healthy church must pay close attention and invest huge energy in both evangelism and discipleship. These are two sides of the same coin, but we must pay attention to both.
A strong discipleship ministry will help drive intentional evangelism, but it would not create it. In the same way, a great outreach ministry in a church strengthens discipleship, but we must develop and maintain a ministry that grows believers. These two ministries can inspire and move each other forward, but there is not a direct cause and effect.
We must pay equal attention to both the discipleship efforts of the church and evangelism training and activity in our congregations. We can’t do one or the other.
But what can we do to connect discipleship and evangelism more closely so they help and inspire each other? How can we wed these ministries and help their union glorify God, strengthen the church and change the world?
1. Pay close attention to your discipleship ministry.
Always be developing and feeding this program. Never let discipleship wane. Invest time, prayer, planning, finances and people. Be innovative and learn new approaches. At the same time, honor the past and use proven methods to grow Jesus followers into mature believers. As you do this, be emphatic that your discipleship ministry always includes helping Christians naturally share their faith with those who have not yet received the grace and gift of Jesus.
2. Invest heavily in evangelism.
No ministry of the church will face greater spiritual resistance, so be sure to keep evangelism training, events and ministry on the front burner. Be relentless in your call for all believers to share the good news of Jesus with ever-growing frequency, passion and effectiveness. As you do this, be clear that we are all more effective in our outreach when we are growing more mature in our faith.
3. Create discipleship and evangelism programs for all ages.
As part of your discipleship ministry for children, teach them how to tell their story of faith in Jesus. Equip the kids to share the story of Jesus’ love, life, death and resurrection. Have them practice sharing faith, praying for lost people and putting their faith into words. Do the same for teens, young adults, men’s and women’s groups, etc. Be sure to do general equipping for faith sharing, but train each group in an age-appropriate way.
4. Equip your whole congregation.
Use your Sunday worship services and sermon time for training the congregation in sharing the message of God’s love, grace and the life-giving power of what Jesus did on the cross. Do this on a yearly basis for three or four weeks. Vision leaks, and evangelistic vision seems to leak the fastest.
For three decades I have heard leaders say that their church focuses on discipleship and expects evangelism to follow in some kind of spontaneous and automatic way. I have watched these same churches struggle, decline and, in some cases, close. It is time to ramp up both our evangelism and discipleship and let them inspire and fortify each other for the glory of Jesus.
Kevin Harney, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the lead pastor of Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, California, the founder and visionary leader of Organic Outreach Ministries International.