Evangelism And Discipleship by Maxie Dunnam

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Georgia Harkness was once considered one of our most outstanding theologians.

She was certainly a brilliant thinker and spoke prophetically to the church. Here is such a word: “We must rescue evangelism from the red-light district of the ecclesiastical community.” That’s putting it unquestionably straight.

Evangelism has been prostituted for money and personal gain. That’s the reason we need to remind ourselves that the focus of evangelism must be the local congregation, not primarily the street corner, the storefront, or the television. What may be most helpful is to think of evangelism and discipleship together.

Jesus’ Charge to His Disciples

In his parting word to the disciples, Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

He spoke this word to the persons he had chosen, trained, tested, and nurtured. His charge to them was not a heavy command, “you ought to” or “you must”; not even “you should.” It was a simple statement of fact, “You will be my witnesses.”

The Great Commission

In another setting, Jesus gave his call to the early church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and remember, l am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). There’s no room for confusion about direction in this explicit instruction of our Lord. Spreading the gospel was to be top priority. No Christian was exempted from the task of disciple-making, and no aspect of life was excluded.

While the so-called great commission has been used as a foundation in evangelistic literature, and a challenge to churches to fulfill their missionary and evangelistic responsibility, it is more than that. It is a definition of the nature of mission itself. The resurrected Lord calls his disciples to “make disciples of all nations; baptizing and teaching them.”

Discipleship in Modern Evangelism

In the past three or four decades, there has been a renewed emphasis on discipleship in evangelism. One of the chief promoters of this emphasis, according to Mortimer Arias, has been the Church Growth school under the leadership of Donald McGavran; so much so that they have coined the term discipling as the verbal form to describe the evangelistic task. According to Arias, making disciples is for McGavran the specific evangelistic mission, and teaching and baptizing are left to other ministries in the church, and for a later stage in the life of the convert or disciple.

In our ongoing conversation we should note that Leslie Newbigin has charged that McGavran’s exegesis of the text will not stand scrutiny. It is clear in the original Greek that disciple the nations is the main verb, and that baptizing and teaching define what discipling’ is.(1) 

Thus, while we can agree with McGavran that discipling is the heart of evangelism, we can also agree with Newbigin, against McGavran, that discipling, and thus evangelism, includes “baptizing and teaching”.

Evangelism in Practice

This was our Lord’s definition. All too often, however, it has not been the practice of those who claim to evangelize. The evangelism of the electronic church, for example, does not seem to be too concerned about making disciples. Further, I doubt if these “trans-national corporations of evangelism,” as Mortimer Arias calls them, are taking seriously the call to make disciples, which in Jesus’ own words means “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.”

We can’t explore here the depth of all this means, but we can at least register the direction of what is implied for the local church. The Great Commission sends us back to everything Jesus taught. Certainly if we wanted a summary of the content of everything Jesus taught, it would be Jesus’ own summary of the law and the prophets and the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

The Great Commandment and the Great Commission

John R. W. Stott, the British evangelical leader, was right when he declared at the 1974 Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization: “There is no Great Commission without the Great Commandment” 

We can’t talk about evangelism in and through the local church without talking about discipleship. And we can’t talk about discipleship without talking about evangelism.

Future Reflections

I will be writing a series of reflections on discipleship and evangelism in the weeks to come. Though I may not be thorough and systematic in these articles, I will seek to underscore the core of the Christian faith and way from a Wesleyan perspective. If you have wondered, that’s the reason we are publishing on WESLEYAN ACCENT.

(1) Mission in Christ’s Way: Bible Studies (Geneva: WC C, 1987) quoted  in Arias “The Great Commision” p. 17

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