It’s amazing how much human beings like to sort and categorize. Even very young children are drawn to the order that sorting brings: yellow blocks here, red ones here, blue ones over there. Suddenly a confusing jumble of blocks is transformed into a neat series of colorful piles.
Our innate desire to create order out of chaos follows us into our adult years, which is, of course, a good thing. But like many aspects of life, you can get too much of a good thing. That’s what’s happened in the arena of Christian faith. We’re so intent on categorizing – evangelism here, discipleship here, social engagement over there – we’ve created a neat, series of piles that have no longer have any connection to one another.
Yet here is a challenging truth: Christian faith can never be reduced to a series of separate piles. There is no such thing as evangelism disconnected from discipleship, or social engagement isolated from personal holiness. The faith that has been delivered to us is of one piece, not to be torn asunder so we can separate the fragments.
Here are three reasons why that’s true.
- Evangelism is a process. It may include individual activities, but it’s never an isolated event or one-off effort. That’s because evangelism is about making sure that people are firmly rooted in the kingdom of God, something that doesn’t happen overnight.
But how do people become firmly rooted in the kingdom of God? We disciple them.
Is this evangelism? Yes. Is this discipleship? Yes.
Think of the moment when dawn ends and the day begins. We have astronomical and nautical understandings of that moment; we have mythological and religious understandings of that moment. But generally we don’t experience that moment as a moment. Twilight, dawn, daylight, they flow into one another in a seamless movement where an individual moment is mostly unrecognized until it has passed.
So it is with evangelism and discipleship. If we are engaged in both well, they become a seamless movement and we cross the threshold between one and the other without even realizing.
- Conversion is not the goal of evangelism. It seems we have to remind ourselves of this over and over. The goal of evangelism is to see people firmly rooted in the kingdom of God (see #1). Conversion is often times simply the beginning of that process. This was particularly true for John Wesley, who believed that conversion launched a lifelong process of spiritual growth he called sanctification.
Obviously we don’t dismiss conversion; but if we stop there, we become like the farmer whose seed fell on the shallow soil and among the weeds, where the sun beat down on the tender plants and the weeds threatened to choke them of life. If we assume that our work is done because someone makes a commitment to Christ, then we risk turning our backs on those who may have received our message with joy, but have not become strong enough to face the problems and worries that can batter everyone’s faith.
Wesley was on to something when he created the class meeting. That place where evangelism and discipleship intermingled as people experienced safe spaces of trust and care. An environment of exploration, where people were given freedom to discover faith together – some further along on the road of faith, others a bit behind, but all sharing their hopes, struggles, fears, joy, questions, meaning.
When we understand evangelism and discipleship as a seamless movement from dawn to daylight, we’re given an opportunity to participate in the wholeness of God’s grace – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying, where faith is discovered and deepened, and people are formed into disciples of Jesus Christ, fully rooted in the kingdom of God.