Our church is seeking to grow in our understanding and effectiveness in evangelism so I am teaching an eight-week class on practical evangelism and discipleship. Among several other texts, I am using Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by J. Mack Stiles. I received the book from attending the Together for the Gospel conference this year. Each Monday, I will be posting a short summary of that week’s class. I hope it is helpful.
As is crucial for any topic, it is important that a baseline definition of what it is that is actually being taught is presented. Three important terms to look at in a study of evangelism are evangelism itself, the gospel and discipleship. Stiles, in his aforementioned book provides a couple helpful definitions that I will summarize:
The Gospel – “The gospel is the joyful message from God that leads us to salvation,” (pg. 33). Breaking down his definition it is important to note that the gospel is news or a message as he calls it. Messages or news take words to deliver them, whether they are spoken or written. Many have heard the quote that was most likely not said by Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Many have probably also heard someone rail against the fact that the quote is not actually correct in how the gospel is to be preached. Preaching takes words.
Also, this message has a purpose or an impact when presented. This message leads to salvation. Stiles says that four main questions should be answered by any presentation of the gospel: Who is God? Why are we in such a mess? What did Christ do? How can we get back to God? (pg.33). The answers to these questions sum up the high-level points of the gospel. I challenged the class and asked if someone could give me a basic definition of the gospel in thirty seconds or less. A woman raised her hand and said, “the gospel is the good news about the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.” I told her I thought that was a pretty good definition, but asked her if someone with no church background would understand that. She said that she wasn’t sure and that seemed to be where it became difficult. Being able to say what the gospel is in a way that is understandable and clear is quite necessary. I just watched my first NFL draft this year; well I only watched a portion of it. There are guys who can probably rattle off what schools all the draft picks went to, how much they weigh, what position they play, how fast they can run a 40 and what their grandmothers’ names are, but we struggle to define the life-changing news of the gospel.
Evangelism – “Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade,” (pg. 26). Stiles explains that many things that we do are not necessarily evangelism in that they do not contain the vital parts of this definition. Those vital parts consist of teaching, the gospel and with the aim to persuade. If one were to take any of those parts away, one would no longer have evangelism. I talked about how it is popular now (and admittedly has been for many years) to do Christian service projects in one’s community. The problem is when people try to call raking someone’s leaves evangelism. If nobody talked to the homeowner and just raked the leaves, there was no evangelism happening, just raking. The raking is fine, but we can’t call that evangelism or even service evangelism. That is just service. It comes back to the necessity of words in evangelism. As Jesus said in the Great Commission, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” (Matthew 28:20a, ESV). There is a necessity for teaching the gospel for something to be considered evangelism.
Discipleship – It might seem strange to talk about discipleship in a class primarily about evangelism depending on your own background with discipleship and evangelism. One of the elders in the church reminded me after class that many in the church come from an understanding that discipleship is a program that you enter and finish at some point. He wanted me to make sure I pressed in on the fact that discipleship is a life-long process and I attempted to do that. I was helped by the book Gospel-Centered Discipleship by Jonathan K. Dodson in helping communicate the link between evangelism and discipleship. Dodson says, “The gospel integrates, not dichotomizes, evangelism and discipleship by announcing a grace that saves and sanctifies disciples,” (pg. 40). Dodson also says that discipleship is three things: rational, relational and missional, (pg. 29-31). We see that each of these things can be said of evangelism as well. Both are rational in that they deal with teaching and delivering information. Both are relational in that they require open and involved relationships with people. Both are missional in that they have a purpose and an intent to seek after people as God has sought after us.
I spoke on the need in my own life for discipleship relationships. As one woman in the class mentioned the classic idea, “we all need a Barnabas and a Timothy in our lives.” I need someone over me in the Lord speaking into my life just as much as I need someone that I can disciple and give away what the Lord is working in me. Reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer has provided another voice in my own understanding of the necessity of discipleship in the life of a Christian. Guys like Mike Breen, Alan Hirsch and others have said something to the effect of when we are doing evangelism we are really doing discipleship. We are doing life together with that person in some way, developing a relationship, teaching and so on. Of course, when someone becomes a Christian the aim of that discipleship relationship changes from persuading the person to come to Christ to encouraging that person to grow in Christ. A connected view of evangelism and discipleship helps us understand the fact that Jesus called us to make disciples not converts.
We will be looking at the why and who behind evangelism and discipleship. Are they just gifts for certain people? Are they callings? Are they commands? Are they emphases that certain churches have and others don’t and that’s ok? What are we saying when we don’t do or value evangelism or discipleship?