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Discipleship is Evangelism

August 31, 2009
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Thus far in my series on reevangelizing the church I have addressed the problem of gospel reductionism, a condition that has reduced the gospel to nothing more than the privatized plan of salvation. In response, I have sought to recover the broader historical understanding and implications of the gospel of the kingdom and, in light of this, explain how the church should best express this gospel. I have offered a threefold approach for expressing the gospel of the kingdom that is drawn from Scripture. 

I have written that the church must first manifest this good news of the kingdom by demonstrating what life looks like under the reign of God within a distinct community: the church, a community characterized by its radical love for one another (see John 13:34, 35; John 17). Second, this unique community manifests the gospel by serving the world through acts of service, compassion, and mercy, working to reverse and/or mitigate the effects of sin (see Matt. 5:16, 22:39; Eph. 2:10; James 2:14–26).

I now turn to the third and final aspect: proclamation of the gospel. How and what do we tell others about Jesus and this kingdom that has come into the world? The modern approach to this question seems to have gravitated, almost exclusively, toward highly simplistic and formulaic expressions of the gospel story. What I mean is that we have tried to condense the gospel to the most basic “facts” about Jesus, formulate simplistic mediums or tools for the conveyance of these facts, and then send folks out among strangers in an organized and frequently impersonal fashion.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the Lord can’t use these means to accomplish his ends. He can and often does. However, the commission that we were given by Jesus (and that which we should take as our guide) was to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20, ESV). Clearly, the process of making disciples involves more than simply sharing some propositions about Jesus. Also notice that Jesus actually places disciple making ahead of conversion, which is then followed by their being joined to the church through baptism. Today we almost always speak of discipleship as something that follows conversion, a program whereby we acquaint new converts with the basics—more facts—of the Christian faith, church doctrines, and so forth, often in four weeks or less! 

The New Testament usage of the Greek noun math¯et¯es (commonly translated “disciple”) is key to understanding the Great Commission. In the original Greek, math¯et¯es referred to a student who would attach himself to a teacher in order to acquire theoretical and practical knowledge in a certain discipline (e.g., philosophy, medicine, a trade). In other words, the student strived to become a follower of said teacher, to think and act like the teacher.

Following Jesus as a disciple means that we are bound to live according to his teachings as well as to pass on his teachings to others. The link between discipleship and teaching is clear in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. Moreover, in this text, Jesus’ fundamental expectation of his disciples is evident—specifically, that his disciples will “observe all [things]…I have commanded you” (verse 20). Thus obedience to Jesus’ commandments is essential to living as his disciple.  

Taken in light of the fact that the gospel—or good news—is the announcement of God’s in-breaking reign (i.e., the kingdom) in which he is making all things new, and recalling that Jesus stressed repentance and obedience as being essential to entry into the kingdom (see Matt. 7:21–23), disciple making involves instruction in the principles of the kingdom and obedience to Christ’s commands. In other words, making disciples is a relational activity that involves instruction about new life in the kingdom of God under the lordship of Jesus Christ. The goal is one of action: changed thinking that animates changed behavior that reorients the life of the believer to Jesus’ kingdom-oriented goals and activities.

Discipleship is preparation for citizenship in the kingdom, which we actively prioritize (see Mathew 6:33). There is an expectation implicit in discipleship that culminates in the convert’s participation in the redemptive mission of Christ. This participation is anything but passive. Jesus calls us to action, to take up the cross, to follow him, to live like him, to present ourselves as a living sacrifice (see Romans 12:1, 2) into the hands of God who empowers us for use in his redemptive purpose in creation. The follower of Christ—or disciple—seeks first to advance the rule and reign of Jesus Christ with all vigor (see Matthew 11:12).

Where discipleship precedes conversion it is evangelism; where it follows conversion it serves sanctification. The man or woman moved by God will receive this instruction, becoming a follower of Christ, whereas the natural man will reject these things. We don’t convert people through arguments or persuasion; Christ alone receives credit for the conversion of human souls. 

Again, we are called to make disciples—and making disciples, unlike proselytizing, is intensely relational, hard work that requires grace and perseverance. Loving your neighbor, as Christ commanded, is the genesis of disciple making as evangelism. It can be talking with your neighbor about life and the world in which he lives, offering the biblical truth of reality applied to the particulars of his life whenever possible after you have earned the right to speak into his life by first loving him. This could be offering answers relative to his marriage, how he raises his kids, financial problems, and on and on. As Christians who are biblically informed, we have real and substantive answers to the questions of this life; we posses a wisdom and understanding of reality that the lost do not; we live with the hope of a better future when all things are finally and forever made new. Our engagement in the lives of our unchurched neighbors should compel them to ask why we posses this hope! It is here that we tell them about this Jesus, what he did for us, and what he desires to do for them; we tell them, “Repent and enter his loving kingdom where you will find peace and rest!”

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : susan  

August 31, 2009 10:08 AM


Response from : gail Brewer  

August 31, 2009 10:22 AM

wow! wow! Wow! THe cart of ALL my evangelism "approaches" has been joyously upturned!! This is a grand news that you have taught!!!!!! Thank you!!!!!

Response from : Diane W.  

August 31, 2009 2:38 PM

This makes me feel much better about some things that I have worried about. It is hard to evangelize, but for me, easy to disciple.

Response from : Patrick Poteet  

August 31, 2009 8:21 PM

Brother, Superb article! When you say,

"The modern approach to this question seems to have gravitated, almost exclusively, toward highly simplistic and formulaic expressions of the gospel story. What I mean is that we have tried to condense the gospel to the most basic facts about Jesus, formulate simplistic mediums or tools for the conveyance of these facts, and then send folks out among strangers in an organized and frequently impersonal fashion."

I agree and would add that in some of what I have seen, it is perhaps worse in the evangelical community than even that. For, I also see that the gospel has been deduced to merely a subjective personal testimony. There obviously is nothing wrong with personal testimony. However, when the subjective is above the objective "first importance" of 1 Cor 15 then we turn our faith into what works for us - how good it is for us - instead of Jesus dieing on the cross and raising from the dead for our sins and to appease for Gods wrath.

This speaks so much to the moralistic, therapeutic, deism than we find ourselves in today. Keep up the good fight Michael and thanks for the timely biblically based article.

Response from : James Hutson  

September 1, 2009 10:57 AM

Amen, brother Craven, amen! Too bad the corporate mentality of the church has promoted the 'save the seeker' mentality rather than working the Commission.....well said, hopefully the church will hear the message

Response from : Phil Blackstone  

September 1, 2009 9:29 PM

I have just re-read all your articles on the Gospel and evangelism. I came to faith through the presentation of the "4 Laws" as a student at Arizona State in 1964. I have steadily grown in my faith since then so that now I have a thorough-going knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology. And I have a great appreciation of the "Kingdom among us" thanks to Dallas Willard. Does evangelism have to be either/or can it be both/and? I am afraid many will perish while waiting for the church to get its act together.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

September 1, 2009 9:54 PM

Dear Phil,
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. In answer to your question I would say this. There is no "either/or" proposition available to us in Scripture when it comes to proclaiming the gospel. There is finally the Great Commission given by Jesus. Your question of "either/or" only has resonance in the shadow of modern evangelical efforts that are rooted in the reductionist gospel. Do people still come to faith in Christ? Of course but this has nothing to do with human methods but rather God's grace, which neither needs or is dependent upon men. It is the privilege of men to participate in God's redemptive work; we dare not take credit for what is ultimately of God. Conversely, NONE WILL PERISH if you fail to share some facts with them about Jesus or fail to do it "effectively" because none are saved by our efforts. The issue is what do the Scriptures command us to do: make converts or make disciples? Clearly it is the latter. The former has produced a nation in which 77 percent claim to be Christian. Many of these make that claim on the basis of having "made a decision." If that were true then one would hope to see evidence of these conversions in the form of moral rectitude and spirit-lead people whose lives are transformed and bear undeniable witness to Christ come into the world. Sadly, this is clearly not the case. Can you tell people about Jesus, simply and plainly? Of course you can but the church should not then institutionalize that as the universal approach and fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Again, thank you for your thoughts and I hope this offers further insight into the matter.


Response from : Marica Maas  

December 16, 2009 6:10 PM

Keep on referring to this very helpful article during discussions relating to teaching sinners -- before conversion -- about living according to God's commandments. The understanding that discipling is part of evangelism, really does serve as encouragement for those of us involved in public activism especially, since we are so often told by fellow Christians that we are wasting our time and energy, that the collective noise we are making means nothing for the kingdom, and that in fact we are rather chasing souls away by pointing to their sins, since that is not 'the good news what they need to hear in order to get saved.

Response from : Louis Akporiaye  

September 8, 2011 9:54 PM

Hello Michael Craven, I just read your article and must express how happy I am to see someone who still has the truth burning in him. However, I must seek your permission to repost this article on the website I am currently building. I have a vision to make disciples globally and I am currently working on the system which is online training system. Of course we do not train, the Holy Spirit does the training, but we teach them how He taught us. I sincerely seek your permission to post this article on the front page of our discipleship website. The kingdom needs more fire. I believe many will be convicted as the Holy Spirit will speak through the words of this article to them.

Please note, that the discipleship training is completely free of charge: freely we were given, freely we also give.

I sincerely hope my request is granted.

Thank God for someone like you.

God bless and use you more to enlighten His people.


Your Faithfully,
Brother Louis.

Response from : Noel  

September 10, 2011 3:06 AM

Thanks mike for your incisive analysis on the subject of Discipleship vis a vis Evangelism.
For me the greatest impacts i have had in the conversation of souls was more from loving people and being of help in whatever way I can-this then leads to speaking and talking about christ.


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