I grew up in the era where stadium evangelism was very popular. During these events, a well-known evangelist would come to town and pack the stadium with thousands of people who gathered to hear them preach. While preaching the message, the gospel would be presented and at some point there would be an altar call given. At these events there would literally be thousands of people coming out of the stands and they would flood the altars to pray the sinner’s prayer and give their lives to Jesus. It was truly a sight to behold.
I remember the last great evangelistic crusade I took part in was when Billy Graham did his last crusade in New York. It was truly a fantastic event that lasted over several days. I don’t know how many people got saved but it was a lot, and I was proud to play even a little part in such a wonderful event.
Over the years as I have gotten away from these types of events I have begun to look again at the Great Commission. In looking at that and the way we do evangelism today it makes me wonder if there is something that Christians and churches are doing wrong? Not from the perspective of filling or not filling stadiums, but are we actually fulfilling the Great Commission?
What Is the Great Commission?
I never like to take anything for granted. In case you are not sure what I am referring to this is the portion of Scripture known as the Great Commission:
Jesus gave us this instruction or commission after his resurrection and before he ascended into heaven. As I have thought about this Scripture, there is something that jumps out at me that seems to be missing in the way we try to fulfill this instruction today.
What I am about to say may seem a little crazy, but we have made the Great Commission about preaching the gospel. However, that is not what Jesus said. If you look closely the Great Commission goes beyond preaching the gospel. It is about making disciples. This issue of making disciples is where I believe many in the body of Christ and many churches have gotten it wrong.
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The Difference Between Evangelism and Discipleship
In case you are a little puzzled, let me explain the difference between evangelism and discipleship. By definition evangelism is spreading the gospel by public preaching or by personal testimony. Discipleship is when a person becomes a follower or student of Jesus Christ. As you can see these are two different things. In fact, once you have proclaimed the gospel you have evangelized, regardless of the results or outcome. Discipleship does not work that way. Let me give you some other comparisons that I believe will help you understand the difference between evangelism and discipleship.
Evangelism is the excitement that comes from preaching or sharing the gospel and seeing someone give their life to Christ. Discipleship is the work that comes after that.
Evangelism is like the wedding ceremony where two people pledge their love to each other for a lifetime. Discipleship is the work that is necessary to make the marriage last for a lifetime.
Evangelism is celebrated and gets big applause when you tell how many people got saved. Discipleship hangs out in the background with little fanfare and almost no applause.
Evangelism is the planting of the seed. Discipleship is the watering of the seed that makes sure it produces fruit.
Evangelism gets a person to start the race. Discipleship makes sure they can finish it.
To be clear I am not in any way trying to make light of evangelism because this is a very important first step. People cannot respond to the gospel if no one goes and tells them. We are reminded of this in Romans.
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15).
So yes, evangelism is vital to the church and necessary for spreading the message of the gospel. Like I said this is the first step. Unfortunately, this has often been the last step as well. Some churches will even have altar calls and baptisms happen all at the same time in the same service. While this is wonderful and exciting to witness people get saved and baptized, I wonder if we are doing these people a disservice by doing it as an all-in-one experience?
I don’t have an immediate yes or no answer to this question, but I do believe the question is worth examining. I fear that if we are not careful, it is possible to see salvation and baptism as the end of the process. We are ready to shout mission completed when in reality it is just the beginning.
Imagine for a moment you have a woman who is pregnant and it is now time to deliver the baby. She goes to the hospital and the labor process begins. After a number of hours she successfully delivers the baby. After the baby is born the woman gets up and says my job is done. She turns to her newborn baby and says “I brought you into this world, I have fulfilled my duty. Now you are on your own.” Most if not all people would look at that woman like she is crazy. We all know that it takes years of nurturing and rearing to help that child grow. This is an essential part of the child’s development and key to their very survival. If that child is left alone, the chances of survival are next to zero.
Yet why do we do this to so many who get saved? They get born again and then left to fend for themselves because we think the job is done when the work is just beginning. Once you get past the fanfare and hoopla of the new soul reborn, the hard and long work of sanctification and discipleship starts.
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The Second Part of the Great Commission
When you go back to Matthew notice what Jesus says in verse 20:
“and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
That statement right there gives you an imagery of the work required of disciple making. Taking people who may not know anything about Jesus and what he taught and walking them down this road from delivered to discipleship. From convert to committed. From salvation to sanctification. This is the work. It is not always glamorous. It doesn’t always get the most attention. It can be tedious and yes, it is sometimes messy. After all we are dealing with people and their “stuff.”
Yet regardless of what it takes, this is what the Great Commission requires. It’s not just people getting saved, but helping people become committed followers of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t happen overnight. It can’t be done in one service. It will take commitment from the person who is discipling and the person who is being discipled. However when done properly, it will produce the type of Christ followers who can be true salt and light and make a difference in this world for the Kingdom of God,
4 Discipleship Questions You Must Ask Yourself
1. To the person you are witnessing to, what is your plan should they give their life to Christ?
2. Are you willing and able to disciple that person?
3. If you are not, is there a direction you can steer them in to help them get discipled?
4. Is there a plan of discipleship in your church?
The way you answer these questions will shed light on whether there is a real problem or not. I think we can’t just be satisfied seeing people get converted. We have to be diligent and follow through to see people become committed, which is the discipleship process. Clearly this is what matters to Jesus. And if he thinks it’s that important then it is that important.
At this point there is only one question left to ask. Will you take up the challenge? Will you recognize that maybe the way we have been doing it may not be the best way? If so, will you put your energy into the disciple making process? Doing this will not only benefit you and the one you are discipling, but it will help to carry on this legacy of faith in Christ that has been passed down for over two thousand years. I pray that it would be said of the 21st Century church that we didn’t just produce converts but we made disciples. After all this is what the Great Commission really is.
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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, author and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He has spent more than 30 years serving the body of Christ in various capacities and has just released his first book, The Pursuit of Purpose. If you have ever struggled trying to find God’s will, this book will help you discover the different ways God leads you into his perfect will. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.