Evangelism & Discipleship: A Tug of War?

By Luke Cawley

A couple of months ago, I spoke at a chapter retreat in the UK. I knew that my audience would include followers of Jesus and also those who didn't yet know him. As I prepared my talk, I was struggling with how I could address both groups at the same time.

I felt that, if I spoke mainly to the Christians, I would miss an opportunity to invite the other people to follow Jesus. But, if I focused on gospel basics, I would only inspire yawns in the seasoned believers who had heard it all before.

As I prepared for the weekend, I spent a lot of time wrestling with this dilemma of whether this was primarily a discipleship occasion or an opportunity for evangelism.

Perhaps you are facing a similar situation. Maybe your chapter includes a mix of Christians and newcomers, and you're wondering how you should structure your upcoming retreat, your large-group meeting, or your small-group Bible studies. You may even be meeting one on one with someone and you can't figure out if you need to lead them to Christ or help them grow in their relationship with him.

Reunifying Evangelism and Discipleship

As I struggled to prepare my talk, a line from Paul's letter to the Colossians began to creep into my consciousness. Paul tells them that "Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him" (). He was emphasizing that we move forward as Christians in the very same manner we become Christians: We say “yes” to Jesus and allow him to work in our lives.

This understanding substantially simplified my talk preparation. Instead of trying to choose between two types of message—or, even worse, attempting to blend two different presentations into one—I was able to focus on presenting Jesus and inviting everybody to respond to him.

The message I gave focused on how Jesus is both an attractive and an intimidating figure, yet to know him is to know forgiveness and, ultimately, this is an irresistible draw.

After I spoke, I invited people to come to a prayer room where they could respond to Jesus by praying with a member of our team. A good number of people came. Some said clearly that they wanted to open their lives to Christ for the first time, while others said that they were long-time Christians who needed to reconnect with Jesus. The majority of those who came for prayer, though, occupied a kind of hazy middle. It would be hard to pin down whether they were already Jesus' followers or not. But we didn't need to neatly categorize them; we simply needed to help them say "yes" to him there and then.

Everybody Can Do This

Even if you're not a speaker, it's still helpful to avoid making too distinct a dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship.

Whether you are reading the Bible with another person one-on-one, planning a small-group curriculum, or scheduling the topics for your large-group meetings, it may be helpful to ask yourself: "Is Jesus being presented and response to him being invited?"

Invitation can occur in a variety of different ways. Ravi Zacharias, for example, is normally invited to give one-off talks to people he will never see again. I recently heard him say, "I can't afford not to be intense every time I speak, but a pastor who does that loses (or at least burns out) his congregation pretty quickly."

He's right. The more ongoing our relationship with a person or group, the less we can be constantly issuing intense invitations to follow Jesus. But invitation doesn't have to be intense. As you sit and look at a passage of scripture over coffee with a friend, for example, there's nothing intimidating about asking them, "In light of what we see about Jesus here, what kind of response do you think would be appropriate?"

In fact, if everybody needs ongoing invitations to say "yes" to Jesus, then it is not just the other person who must make a positive response. We evangelists and disciple-makers must also be constantly welcoming Jesus into all areas of our own lives. We must not only issue the invitation to others, but also be willing to model positive response.

After my talk at the chapter retreat, I prayed with a student who wanted to begin following Jesus for the first time. We now meet regularly and chat about a range of topics. But a common feature of every discussion is that we talk about a passage from one of the gospels and share what we think it would look like for each of us to say "yes" to the Jesus presented in what we have read. Then, we pray for each other as we respond affirmatively to Jesus.

Where are you currently facing the same "evangelism versus discipleship'" tension I encountered before speaking at the chapter retreat? What would it look like practically for you to simply present Jesus and invite response to him? Leave a comment or question below.