Post by Pastor Tim – Is discipleship an “optional extra” compared to the “more important” work of evangelism? Scripturally speaking, it’s not really a fair question, and I can’t help but think that even Jesus might have had a puzzled (and disapproving!) look on his face if asked this when he walked the earth.
This question was constantly at the forefront of my mind during the six years I worked with Chinese students/scholars in the Boston area. One of our ministry’s main goals was to evangelize the students until they got saved. We had so many programs and outreaches–airport pickups, clothing drives, Christmas parties and English classes–and everything we did had the purpose of introducing Jesus to the Chinese population.
These programs were often successful in helping people make decisions for Christ, but after this decision was made, we didn’t really know what to do next. Of course, we would welcome them to continue attending our evangelistic Bible studies and even become a part of an American church, but we had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite enough.
Our initial evangelism was purposeful and planned, but our discipleship efforts were an afterthought. And the results of these afterthoughts were very disappointing. Many of these Chinese students would eventually go back to China, and we were saddened to find that they were not actively practicing their faith there. A common theme among the returnee students was that they still wanted to follow Jesus, but they didn’t know how.
We hadn’t really taught them how to be a Christian in the context of their home country . . . or really any country, for that matter. We told new Chinese Christians to get plugged into a good church instead of, for example, teaching them how to start their own home church, which could have been more applicable in their home country of China.
Unfortunately, the conclusion of most of our staff was that although the results were disappointing, discipleship was God’s job rather than our job.
Well, yes – growth in Christ can only be done by God, but God has given us the command and the responsibility to be disciples and to teach others to be disciples.
Back to the original question: Is discipleship optional? I mentioned that Jesus himself might be puzzled by this question, because Jesus never really made a distinction between salvation, discipleship or even evangelism. John MacArthur said, “Jesus’ words emphasize not the moment of salvation but the lifetime of sanctification that follows.” Consider Jesus’ words in John 8:31 when he said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”
And that’s why Jesus told his own disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” because for Jesus discipleship was not an afterthought, not an optional extra, not something his Father saw to after our job was done. It was part of the “basic package” of being a Christian.
I believe that discipleship is not about training people how to attend church. It is about training them how to think. All of the people who have discipled me have been women who took a personal interest in me, who challenged me to live the word as it is written and challenged my thinking when it was away from scripture. They taught me how to pray, to seek God’s answer for my specific situation. That type of discipleship translates no matter the culture to which one returns afterwards.
Hi Cristy – You make some really good points! I have a t-shirt that reads “Don’t go to church . . . Be the church.” I think the same idea applies here. In America (it seems to me anyway) we have lots of opportunities to go to church, to sit on the sidelines, to listen to others pray, to listen to others preach, etc – and the sad part (as you mentioned) is that we consider that discipleship. In my example, when a new Christian goes back to China and all those things are stripped away, they are left without a good foundation to build on.
So teaching them to “be the church” rather than going to church is important for everyone, and as you mentioned, not just those from a different culture!
Right. I 100% agree. Thanks for your challenging posts.
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