Monday, May 06, 2013

Discipleship Vs. Evangelism

I wanted to respond to some things in Sunday’s  sermon, because I believe there’s a lot of stuff there worth discussing, and I have a few objections to some of the assumptions inherent in the message.

The pastor on Sunday referred to an issue that a lot of churches seem to have in leaning too heavily in favor of discipleship or on evangelism, either way to the detriment of the other. In other words, it seems like a church is either really good at evangelism and really bad at discipleship, or vice-versa.

The assumption here is really that evangelism and discipleship can be two essentially separate things. I see this as a false assumption which creates a false dichotomy. 

We get this messed up, when we don’t fully understand what it means to be engaged in discipleship and when we don’t have a true, wholesome sense of the importance of “good news.”

Let’s first take a look at discipleship:

I’m going to start with my experience of discipleship as I grew up, because I think it’s similar to what we think of today.

The way I remember it in my church, to focus on discipleship was to learn church doctrines, participate in bible studies and daily personal devotions, and to understand more of God’s love and how we’re supposed to live. There are some very good things about this understanding of discipleship. I still believe spending time with God is essential to daily living life in his way, and the Bible is still a great instrument for hearing God’s voice and understanding his will. Unfortunately, measuring “spiritual growth” in this setting is confusing at best. There is a large emphasis on head knowledge, doctrines and dogmas. And I’ve known enough people who have a lot of knowledge of doctrines and a lot of smart things to say about God and life, who have little to show for it in terms of spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.). Unfortunately, I can often put myself in that category. Discipleship, for too many churches, is about adherence to some understanding of truth, and can often be measured on a checklist, somewhat akin to the Nicean Creed. Do you believe in the Trinity? Can you ever lose your Salvation? How do you understand God’s Sovereignty? What’s going to happen in the future? Your answers to these and other questions can often be the primary focus when you get down to measuring your spiritual growth. When it comes to actions, we ask: are you spending time In prayer and bible reading? Are you giving money to the Church? Are you actively serving at a church? These are all activities that are designed to help produce the fruit of love and kindness and gentleness and patience, but instead they become the standard themselves. These activities become our checklist. I read my Bible this morning. Nevermind that I went to work and chewed out my coworkers and mocked my boss on the internet and then got home and yelled at my kids, etc. Do I look back at my day and say that I’ve grown spiritually, that I learned about kindness, patience, and grace?

When Jesus practiced discipleship, he lived with people. He taught them every day, correcting them, rebuking them, eating with them, loving them. And the things he taught them had little to do with doctrines and much more to do with actions: love your neighbor; love your enemies; forgive your brother every time he repents; even if it’s several times in one day; don’t judge others, or you’re going to be judged in the same way, for the same thing; guard your thoughts and your hearts; the first will be last—don’t put yourself above everyone else, but be a servant instead; be ready to face persecutions and trials; have faith, even just the faith of a mustard seed; and the list goes on. How do we measure whether we’re living up to these standards? How do we measure spiritual fruit? How do you measure love or peace or joy? You can’t collect them like a bushel of apples and say, “Look! I’ve got 126 apples this year. That’s 25 more than last year, so I must be doing pretty well.” And yet, we do need to look at discipleship and spiritual growth more like an orchard or a farm or a garden than the way we currently look at it, like a philosophy test in school.

We’re going to come back to that. But for now let’s just acknowledge that measuring our discipleship is going to be a tricky thing. It’s not going to be black and white. It’s not going to be very mathematical.

Now let’s go to evangelism. It really gets me to hear people say that a church can be poor in discipleship, but really great with evangelism. I have a hard time understanding what this means. And I almost always have a deep suspicion about the nature of the evangelism taking place. Evangelism is about “Good news.” That’s its definition. I find it hard to believe that a people who are not growing in love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, understanding, grace, and gentleness with one another can have any really great thing to say to the rest of the world about any sort of Good News.
Instead, such people seem more intent on converting people to their belief system than to sharing good news. It often becomes clear in the nature of their message. “You’re going to hell, and you’d better believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven instead,” is not good news. “Human beings are all wretched, worthless sinners in need of God’s grace,” is also not good news. Instead of sharing good news, people who go out in the world with these views in mind seem more interested in sharing very disturbing, troubling news. They need to convince everyone about what bad shape they’re in before they spring the good news that now they’d better change their ways and turn to God for forgiveness.

Others know it’s more than that, and they really believe there is something to be excited about, but they don’t always feel it or know what it really is. They can say it. “It’s new life.” “it’s hope of resurrection.” “It’s forgiveness and freedom.” But have they experienced it? Can we share about peace with God, when we’ve never or only rarely known the peace of God that passes all understanding? Can we share about the forgiveness and embrace of God, if we’ve not learned to forgive our neighbors? We might have good news of new life in Christ, but what are we really talking about if we’re not living it? You can’t have excellent, amazing evangelism, without solid discipleship. Without good discipleship, you have a whole lot of enthusiasm without a lot of substance. Often you have a whole lot of empty words, and at best the appearance of hypocrisy. There is no such thing as good evangelism without good discipleship.

So what does this mean for us? Does this mean we don’t tell anyone about Jesus unless we’ve somehow made it? Do we spread the good news, only when we’ve achieved perfection? Of course that can’t be right, otherwise nobody would ever hear about Christ. Yes, we are a work in progress. Yes, the fruit of the spirit is going to take time, we’ll only see gradual progress, and we will probably never know the completion of being in Christ in this life. And yet… and yet evangelism has to be a natural outpouring of discipleship. It is ludicrous to spread the word of abundant life without having at least some experience of that life.

When I waited tables at a restaurant, our trainers were always diligent to give us a meal during training. Whenever the restaurant added a new item to the menu, there would be a few days of trying it out first, and the waiters would all get samples to taste. The reason was obvious: they wanted us to sell the product effectively. Unless you’re a good liar, you’re not going to be able to effectively sell a product you’ve never tried. You can’t tell people it’s your favorite thing on the menu, if you’ve never tasted it. When people asked about items that I hadn’t tasted, the best I could tell them was, “yeah, lots of people like it.” Hmm… That’s not really the most hearty endorsement. If you’re telling people about Jesus and don’t know what it means to be forgiven or to love your neighbor or to be kind and gentle or to control your anger, then you have the same problem as a waiter who’s never tasted the food. Either you’re a liar… or you tell people how much other people have benefited from knowing Jesus.

You have to be a disciple of Jesus, to live a life whose trajectory is in the way of Jesus, if you ever want to genuinely spread good news. Earlier I said that there’s no such thing as good evangelism with poor discipleship. The converse is also true. You can’t have good discipleship and bad evangelism. And I don’t mean that the discipleship is bad simply because it doesn’t include learning to spread the word. I mean that good discipleship produces good fruit, and good fruit wants to be shared. It doesn’t take courage to share something wonderful. Ever since I first tasted Honeycrisp apples, I’ve been telling people that they’re the best, that they’re the most delicious apple you can ever try. If people disagree with me I rant about how wrong they are and have trouble believing they’ve actually tried them. If you’re experiencing new life, the natural result is to share it. It doesn’t take courage. So when we hesitate to tell people about our new life with Christ, the problem is not a lack of courage, but a lack of discipleship, which leads to a shortage of conviction. Spreading good news is a natural outflow of experiencing good news.  And really, that’s all we’re talking about. If you’re a disciple, then in some way, you’re experiencing good news. Naturally, you’re going to share that with the people around you.

Think of it this way. If you’ve struggled with depression, but you finally found a therapist that helped you and changed your life, and then you met another person struggling with depression, would it take courage to suggest to this person the same solution that already worked for you? No, of course not. All it would take is a conviction that your therapy was what really did the trick, and some enthusiasm about how your life has changed. But many of us lack that conviction, don’t we. We’re not sure if our lives are any different from anybody else’s, and some of us are not sure if we’re any different than who we were. If we’ve followed Jesus since we were four years old, what can we compare it to? Maybe our lives were never horrible, and they’ve always been generally okay, but we still have loads of baggage: anger, bitterness, confusion, discontent, hatred, sorrow, and all manner of issues plaguing us, just like they plague the rest of the world. We hesitate to evangelize, to spread good news, when we’re not sure how good it is.

The problem is not about your conviction of the truth of your doctrines. When it’s only about doctrines, our fervor dies out. We might dogmatically believe in this or that strain of Christianity for years and count it as our duty to convince others of our own beliefs, but if we’re not experiencing good news, our pursuit of conversion becomes empty and hollow. And so it comes full circle, because it’s really about discipleship. And that’s all about what we’re doing, how we’re living, and what we’re thinking, day after day after day. It’s about living life with God day after day after day. And for many of us, that’s what we want, but we don’t know how, or we lack the real discipline necessary to make it happen.

It seems that many of us know all this, maybe instinctively. We know that we just need more discipline. We know that we need to put our faith in God and look to him for guidance, and for power, to live in his way. We know that spiritual growth is not about praying elegant prayers  or giving powerful sermons, or going to chat rooms and arguing about our theology. We know we just need to submit to God, live in love and consider others’ needs as well as our own. And yet we struggle to get there. We don’t know how to defeat complacency. We don’t know how to keep the concerns of our daily lives from choking out our spiritual determination. We know what to do, and we want to do it deep down inside, but we lack the will. It is in discipleship that we truly lack courage—not evangelism. We lack the courage to sacrifice the things in our lives that are in reality utterly worthless. Often, I lack the will to go to bed at a decent hour or to get up out of bed to spend some time with God before my kids wake me up.

We go on and on, wondering, “what the heck is wrong with us.” We’re in this mess, and we all know it, and we all know that we shouldn’t be there, that God has offered us power to overcome our failures and our weaknesses.

I’m running pretty long here, so I’m going to introduce my next topic for next week: “ It’s Messy: There’s No Formula Or Magic Key.” Hopefully, that gets your attention without starting every word with the same letter or something churchy like that.

But to sum up:

The balance between evangelism and discipleship is a false dichotomy. Good evangelism can only truly flow out of good discipleship. The truth is, a lot of us don’t really know how to do good discipleship, and when churches try to focus on it, they don’t usually do a good job. Often they don’t even know they’re not doing a good job. They claim to see “spiritual growth,” but they don’t know how to measure it. So we need to really get a handle on how to delve into life with God together, otherwise we don’t really have any good news to talk to people about. Stay tuned for “It’s Messy”

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