Anyone who can read God's Word can help change lives through discipleship.
Anyone who can read God's Word can help change lives through discipleship.

The Bible teaches the importance of both evangelism for converts and discipleship to mature believers in the faith. But many Christian churches focus heavily on one or the other, even debating, in some cases, which is more important or necessary. Because both are big jobs, it is difficult to do both well at the same time, but not impossible, advises David Coker, founder of Gateway Believers Fellowship in Carnesville, Georgia, and Breakthrough Apostolic Ministries. When a church understands the relationship between the two, it becomes easier to fuse evangelism and discipleship and grow people from new converts to mature people of faith.

The Difference Between Evangelism and Discipleship

Evangelism is aimed at non-believers who recognize they have a need in their lives and want to learn more about trusting God, explains Dallas Willard, philosophy professor at the University of Southern California, lecturer and author of several books on Christianity. Christians reach out to these people through evangelism to share the message of the gospel with the intent of persuading them to make decisions to follow Christ. In other words, evangelism is the activity through which many people are brought to initial repentance and acknowledgement of their need for God. Discipleship, on the other hand, is a long-term project that involves teaching and mentoring believers along a path of growing faith to help them adopt the likeness of Christ more and more in their daily lives. It goes beyond the simple prayer of conversion and confession of Christ, involving a total lifetime commitment. Professor Willard defines a disciple as, "a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do."

The Relationship Between Evangelism and Discipleship

Although evangelism and discipleship describe different aspects of the Christian life, they are interrelated. Evangelism without discipleship leaves new converts hanging in the wind, unsure of how to actually live a Christian life, and gives the impression that "conversion" is the end of the story as far as getting their "tickets to heaven." Winfield Banks, Ph.D., lead pastor of Church of the Outer Banks in Nags Head, North Carolina, clarifies that making disciples means to "make out of others what Jesus made out of them." So reaching them through evangelism is not enough if a church cannot keep them through discipleship that guides them into the new thought patterns, habits and lifestyles required of a mature Christian believer. As a new convert is taught and learns to imitate the ways of Christ, he will be more motivated and equipped to reach out to others. Discipleship feeds the work of evangelism by producing more workers.

Fusing Evangelism and Discipleship

The relationship between evangelism and discipleship debunks the misconception that it's an either-or proposition, that they are mutually exclusive, incompatible activities. Greg Atkinson, pastor of Forest Park Carthage in southwest Missouri, points out that this is an artificial distinction that Jesus never made. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) calls Christians to more than simply bringing in new converts and baptizing them and creates a necessary fusion of evangelism and discipleship for greatest effect at maturing believers. The term "make disciples" implies that Christians are supposed to spend time training new believers and grounding them in the faith. The Navigators, an interdenominational Christian ministry, states: "A disciple is not truly a disciple unless he is engaged in reaching lost people and consequently, someone is not truly evangelized until they have begun the growth process called discipleship."

Growing in Faith

It is a truism among teachers that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Since evangelism merely requires a believer to tell what she has learned about life in Christ, verbalizing that to another person expedites the learning curve of discipleship, promoting healthy faith growth. It gives the believer a chance to encounter unrehearsed questions for which she has to do further study into the scriptures in order to find the biblical answer. This process benefits the faith of both the novice evangelist and the person to whom she is witnessing. As mature believers practice the habit of sharing their faith whenever the opportunity arises, it sets an example for new believers to follow and allows the spirit of evangelism discipleship to be "caught not taught."