How grateful I am for the church that gathered around me when I first became a believer. I was young (13 years old), biblically illiterate (I did not own a Bible), and anxious (I did not know the “church lingo” or the Sunday school answers)—but I was certain that God had worked a miracle in my life. I did not know enough to use the word “calling,” but I also knew that God was somehow calling me to give my life for Him. The believers that made up that church invited me into that Christian family, loved me, prayed for me, and gave me opportunities for ministry.
What they did not do was systematically teach me so I would be a disciple of Jesus. To be sure, my pastor preached the inerrant Word, and my Sunday school teachers taught the scriptures. They challenged me continually to tell others about Jesus. I would not be where I am today had that congregation not grounded me in the truth of the Word.
Nevertheless, they had no plan in place to lead me intentionally through Christian discipleship so I would know how to study the Word, fight temptation, evangelize non-believers, and reproduce Christian faith in others. I was a baby believer receiving too little food for growth.
What my church did wrongly was view evangelism and discipleship as separate components of the Great Commission. Surely, evangelism and discipleship are not the same, but nor are they so distinct that one can exist without the other in a healthy church. We are to baptize and teach new believers (Matt. 28:18-20). To do only one of these tasks is to attempt to fly a plane with a missing wing. My church had the evangelism wing in place, but not the discipleship wing.
Like so many other congregations, my church assumed my faithful attendance would automatically result in Christian growth. Instead, what resulted was a struggling young believer who wanted to grow, but who was too embarrassed to admit his struggles. I longed for someone to guide me, but I did not know where to turn. “I’m the only one struggling,” I thought, and I chose not to bother other believers who seemingly had their act together.
To make matters worse, the church too soon gave me a leadership position teaching a Sunday school class. Frankly, I was leading before I was ready to lead. I was a baby teaching babies.
Multiply that story by millions of believers, and you have the state of the church in North America: believers who are undiscipled . . . followers of Jesus who have not learned how to follow . . . Christians who fail more often than not . . . church leaders who are not spiritually ready to lead . . . members who are susceptible to every wind of doctrine, but who still claim spiritual superiority. We are multiplying mediocrity rather than life-giving, self-sacrificing Christians.
Now, multiply that story by millions of believers around the world, and you sense the state of much of the global church. Without question, many churches around the world are rightly focused on the entirety of the Great Commission task, and I praise God for those congregations. At the same time, though, there are other churches that lack the depth of discipleship necessary for lasting reproduction. The result is congregations that quickly depart from biblical moorings to follow the current fad or the latest “teacher” with the most money to give.
This blog, though, is not intended to be pessimistic. In fact, I see signs of a shifting emphasis that can result in healthier churches in the long run.
First, the young generation rising to leadership in our churches is well aware of the problem, and they intend to move the church in the right direction. As church planters through the North American Mission Board or young pastors leading established churches, they are committed to leading life-transforming churches. They want to correct the errors of my generation.
In fact, if I have a concern about this young generation, it is that they will so focus on fixing the discipleship problem that they will lose focus on evangelizing the lost. To “fix” the church before we evangelize is to guarantee a lack of evangelism. On the other hand, healthy discipleship must necessarily result in passionate evangelists; if not, “discipleship” is nothing more than imparting information, and the church is nothing more than a classroom. It is again to fly the plane with one wing missing.
Nevertheless, I trust these young leaders will learn the necessity of both wings of the plane.
Second, I hear missionaries echoing the cry for discipleship that follows evangelism. I have been meeting recently with International Mission Board leaders around the world who are developing strong discipleship strategies. They are teaching basic doctrine, calling new believers to holiness, and grounding believers in the Word of God, even while maintaining an uncompromised commitment to reaching the unreached through church planting.
I have seen missionary-produced discipleship strategies that are more intense, more developed, and more deeply biblical than anything I have seen in the States. These missionaries are striving to get it right as they engage the darkness of a lost world. God is using them to produce healthy believers who are determined to lead healthy churches. Not all missions strategies lead in that direction, of course, but I am seeing incredible signs of hope around the world.
So, must we multiply believers through evangelism? Without question. If we do not evangelize, the world dies lost.
Must we multiply churches through church planting? Absolutely. We will never reach North America and the world unless we plant more healthy churches – many of them.
Must we multiply the right way, holding together Great Commission evangelism and discipleship? We must, lest we produce baby believers who do not grow and young churches that do not last.