Asking the question, “Why must evangelism and discipleship go hand in hand?” is like asking, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Yet, on closer inspection one observes that Jesus gave the Great Commission to his disciples and told them to evangelize in order to make more disciples. Here the sequence is clear: disciples evangelize in order to produce more disciples. The word “disciple” in the New Testament literally means “learner”; being a disciple is being a perpetual learner when it comes to the character of God and his call on the disciple’s life to do his work in the world.
When Jesus called the twelve to himself, “he appointed twelve; so that they might be with him and that he could send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). The word translated “appointed” is the Greek word poieo; it is the word from which comes the English word poem, and literally means to do, or to make. The text literally says that Jesus “made twelve that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” He made the twelve; he built into their lives and shaped each of them uniquely according to their particular personalities and gifts that each could be effective in ministry. Discipleship preceded the evangelistic mission; God begins the process of building the men and women he uses, then he sends them out.
God Uses Flawed Disciples
The disciples were not perfect men—far from it. Even today, God uses flawed individuals to accomplish his work in the world. Flaws are no excuse for mediocrity or arrested development. God expects his disciples to grow in him, and the process of growth is not completed before service is initiated and rendered to Christ. No one is ever fully ready for any significant endeavor. No one is ready to get married. No one is ready to have children. No one is ever ready to do evangelism and fulfill the evangelistic mission of the Church in the world.
We cannot wait until we are ready. Jesus made twelve to be with him and sent them out. This is still the obligation of all who would serve him. His disciples always learn more and more of his love and forgiveness; they are continually nurtured by his grace. Knowing him in this way lends authority to the message that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” In Acts 4:13, Peter and John preached boldly to those who needed the message of God’s love and forgiveness and the text says those who heard the disciples and noted their confidence “recognized them as having been with Jesus.” They were called disciples when they were with Christ during the days of his incarnation; they were called apostles after his resurrection and ascension. Apostle means “sent one.” Discipleship comes first, then comes the sending out to evangelize. Then the work of discipling begins all over again. Evangelism begins and ends in discipleship. The disciples were not perfect; however, they stepped faithfully into a process that multiples and has affected generations.
While no disciple is perfect, every disciple should be maturing in Christ. Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators and the man who developed the follow-up ministry for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, once said, “A person is mature physiologically when he or she can reproduce physically; so too, a person is mature spiritually when he or she can reproduce spiritually.” The growing, maturing Christian is one who is committed to lead another to Christ and nurture that new convert until this person can also lead others to Christ and nurture them to be reproducers of reproducers. This is the way in which all evangelism is couched in discipleship. Disciples evangelize in order to disciple. This is not a self-serving process. The goal of discipleship is to bring people into an ever maturing relationship with Jesus Christ. Those who are with Christ will get to know and love him; they will also come to love what he loves: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). True disciples want others to come to know him and love him as well. True disciples will be evangelistically fruitful.
If we piece together the accounts of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-11; 26:1-29), we find that Paul asked two noteworthy questions of Christ: “Who are you, Lord?” and “What would you have me do?” These are the questions every new convert and every disciple must ask continually.
In the first question, the disciple discovers more and more of Christ in order that he or she might grow in the context of that discovery. As we discover more of his love for us, we discover more of our sin and his power to forgive it and mend our lives. Such growing awareness of God’s love and our need for his love and forgiveness should be the daily experience of the disciple. There is always fresh insight and learning about God’s grace. Few things will make the disciple’s message more fresh and relevant than his or her personal growth in grace.
In the second question, the disciple gets his or her marching orders to go and do what Christ prescribes. Here the disciple discovers the love of God that equips God’s own that they might serve God’s purposes by ministering in his name. True disciples are ambassadors for Christ!
Similar to Paul, Moses was called by God. Moses asked questions similar to Paul’s. He wanted to know who God was; he learned in response that God was the all-sufficient one. To do the work of God, Moses had to be a continual learner, a student of the character and nature of God. The life of the disciple is prior to his or her ministry and the disciple’s continual learning about God in faithful relationship with him adds vitality to the disciple’s ministry. Each person must go deeper in the knowledge of the holy if he or she wishes to lead others to these depths as well. Once Moses was introduced to the depths of God, Moses was given his assignment from God. He defined himself and his mission out of his relationship with God. The vision was personal and particular. This idea has shaped how the Church has looked at its mission through the ages.
Medieval spirituality and service reflected on what was called the “Scale of Perfection.” The Scale must not be understood as a means toward perfectionism and performance. It is best understood as a pathway toward maturity in Christ. The Scale of Perfection was developed from an application of Isaiah’s call to ministry as it is recorded in Isaiah 6. It was a troublesome time, the year of King Uzziah’s death. Uzziah had reigned for fifty-two years. His life had been a sign of political stability and now he was gone and uncertainty prevailed.
In this world of mutability, even the most stable of times can dissolve in an instant. God’s calling on his followers is not contingent upon political stability, nor is it diminished by unstable times; it is based on the very character and nature of God himself! And so, the prophet says that in unstable and uncertain times, “I saw the Lord lofty and exalted.” The prophet defined himself by who he was in relationship with God. This self-definition appeared to have at least three phases.
- The Purgative is the moment when the disciple is aware of his or her own deficiency before a holy God. Isaiah’s attention was riveted on God’s holiness and by contrast he defined himself as unclean. Such awareness puts the disciple in a place of abject dependence upon God and his sufficiency. The evangelist must always remember this when he or she does his or her work.
- The Illuminative is the moment when the disciple becomes aware of the grace, mercy and love of God that touches him or her and restores what is broken. There is joy in knowing that God loves unconditionally. The disciple has a sense of being accepted and defined by the love of God. This will empower him or her when reaching out to others.
- The Unitive phase is the moment the servant of God sees the heart of God and his care for the world. Here the disciple is united to the purpose of God in the world and directs his or her energies toward service. God does not grant visions of his glory without a purpose. He calls all true disciples into ministry to others.
Evangelism begins and ends in discipleship. Perhaps “ends” is an inappropriate word, for the ministry of Christ in the world is ongoing. God grants to each generation both the responsibility and privilege of serving his purposes. To be a disciple of Christ is to know the love and calling of God and to assume the responsibility to tell others that they are deeply loved and forgiven by God.