Author’s note: This is a philosophy statement I recently submitted for consideration at a church.
Update (23 March 2012): Here is a pdf file of this statement
Discipleship and evangelism hold an important position in the purpose of the local church. Whereas the primary purpose of the local church is to exalt God, the secondary and tertiary purposes of the local church are to edify the saints and evangelize the lost respectively. This document is an offering toward a biblical philosophy of discipleship and evangelism. The reader will notice the order in which this document considers these two purposes. The order accounts for the nature of local church ministry—i.e., in some measure evangelism cannot occur unless discipleship has occurred. Christian discipleship will be considered first.
The primary basis for the oughtness of local church discipleship and evangelism is Matthew 28:19-20. This passage is a record of where the Lord Jesus initiated The Great Commission. This commission includes not only the mandate of evangelism but also the mandate of discipleship. Implicit in this commission is the universal scope relating to who is to heed the mandate. That is, all believers ought to obey the command to “make disciples.” In obedience to the Lord’s command, the local church should seek to faithfully proclaim the message of the gospel to the lost and see those who trust Christ and come under the authority of the local church become disciple-making disciples (cf. 2 Tim 2:1-2).
Christian discipleship is that task of the local church where the local church teaches believers to love God supremely and others genuinely. Flowing from this love is the work of the ministry (Eph 4). God gives to the church certain individuals to equip the members of the church to do this work. These individuals comprise the leadership of the local church who are both trainers and examples.
Church leaders engage in Christian discipleship through instruction, exhortation, and admonition. First, the local church instructs its members in knowing and loving God. The venue for such instruction is the Sunday School, small group fellowships, one-on-one discipleship, and corporate worship. This instruction may include basic theology, basic bible study methods, basic Bible study and exposition, church history, church polity, and answers to practical Christian questions. Second, church leaders exhort Christians to live out what they learn. Each believer must daily die to self and seek to live a spirit-filled life pleasing to God. As with instruction, exhortation occurs in Sunday School, small group fellowships, one-on-one discipleship, and corporate worship. Invariably, the sin nature at times will inhibit Christian growth. Thus a third aspect of Christian discipleship is in admonishing the Christian by confronting their sin and reminding them of their faith. Admonition also occurs in every venue of local church ministry.
The task of discipleship only begins with church leadership. It must continue through the entire body. Each member of the local church is responsible engage in discipling relationships. Examples would include older believers with younger believers (Titus 2), husbands with wives (Eph 5:25ff), parents with children (Eph 6:1-4), and members of similar life circumstance (e.g., young families). As with church leaders, members ought to engage in both formal and informal discipling venues.
Discipleship in a local church is a cyclical process that includes several levels. There are four: outreach, followup, growth, and training. The first level of church discipleship is outreach. Outreach (i.e., evangelism, which is discussed below) is that stage of discipleship when the body takes the gospel to the lost, sharing the bad news of man’s default relationship with God and the good news of Jesus Christ. Every believer carries the responsibility to reach out to the lost with whom they come in contact. When a sinner makes a profession of faith in Christ, the local church should followup with that professing believer. The professing believer must be encouraged to grow, be baptized by immersion, and be joined to the local church in membership. Next, when a new believer joins a local church, they must be mentored into a maturing relationship with Christ—growth. This may include plugging into a Sunday School class or small group fellowship, or this may include being specifically paired with a more mature believer for one-on-one discipleship. As believers mature (grow), their desire to serve in the local church begins to manifest. In the fourth level of discipleship, the church offers specific training to help believers add tools for the Christian life. This training may be toward equipping Sunday School teachers, deacons, pastors, preachers, ushers, or evangelists.
Evangelism is that aspect of discipleship where the local church faithfully proclaims the gospel to the lost sinner. Like other aspects of the believer’s sanctification, evangelism (i.e., a believer engaging in evangelism) is a natural outflow of a spirit-filled life. As with discipleship, evangelism is the task of the entire body that begins with church leadership. In considering evangelism, one must approach the task carefully.
There must be a certain mindset in each believer as they approach the task of evangelism. First, salvation belongs to God (Rev 7:10). It is He who saves; He alone is sovereign over his creation. Second, the means through which God brings men to salvation is the proclamation of the gospel by men. It is the responsibility of the believer to faithfully, confidently, and accurately proclaim the truth of the gospel. A third area is prayer. The believer must remember to pray, asking God for opportunities and the boldness to proclaim the truth (Eph 6:20).
In considering the act of evangelizing, there are at least three facets. The primary facet, what can rightly be called evangelism, is the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. But this facet is usually accompanied by others. First, the evangelist ought to seek to build a relationship with the lost person. This relationship building may be as long as a lifetime or as brief as a moment. It is not necessary to build long term relationships before sharing the gospel. As an example, one could build a relationship at the gas pump by commenting to the next person how expensive gas has become. This brief moment could be enough to move into a more spiritual conversation. Second, it may be necessary to engage in pre-evangelism with a lost person by answering their initial questions or concerns about spiritual truth. It is at this point when the evangelist should seek to communicate truth about God and truth about man. By telling them the bad news—i.e., that a holy God demands something that sinful man cannot attain on his own—the evangelist is honest with the nature of sin and is accurately communicating the urgent need of the gospel. The primary facet of evangelism is the declaration of the gospel itself. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is sufficient payment for sin before God, and each sinner is personally obligated to repent of their sin and trust Christ alone for salvation. These three facets—relationship building, pre-evangelism, and evangelism—comprise the evangelistic task.
When a sinner repents of their sin and trusts Christ, it becomes the task of the evangelist, and the local church by extension, to ensure that the newborn Christian is discipled to maturity. This process involves followup and initial instruction in the scriptures. Thus continuing in the cyclical process of local church discipleship.
Except for exalting God, there is no higher purpose for the local church than the discipleship of its people and the evangelizing of the lost. These purposes are fulfilled through each member taking responsibility for their part, beginning with the church leadership. Each member should seek opportunities to be a disciple-making disciple for the glory of God.