The Matthew 28 version of the Great Commission speaks of developing Disciples. There appear to be three basic steps: They are Evangelize, Baptize, and Teach/Train.
The question is where does it start. Within the context of the various Great Commission versions, the start seems to be with Evangelize. That is because the key issue of the Acts 1 version is for the apostles (“sent out ones”) to serve as witnesses of Jesus and proclaimers of Jesus’s message to the world. And since the recipients are people who are not followers, it rather makes sense that Evangelism is the first step.
Of course, things did change. As Christianity, as a religion, became naturalized to families and communities, there was more of a move toward the initial step being baptism. Babies of Christian families would be baptized and brought formally into the church. the children would be trained within the church until they become confirmed in the Christian faith. So Baptism in this case would be the first step. As a Baptist myself, I don’t really prefer that particular starting point, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
But it could also be argued that Training can (or even should) be thought of as the starting point. This can be seen in a couple of ways.
Number 1. There has been a growth of “try before you buy.” Many seekers will become involved in church before they decide to believe. They want to see Christianity lived out. That can be awkward, because they may not just sit in the back of the congregation. They may want to jam in the worship team. They may want to discuss uncomfortable topics in Bible study or Sunday School. They may want to get involved with social ministries. They may want to join a short-term mission trip.
This first one can be awkward. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable in church with uncomfortable questions. I remember a woman standing up during church service after a deacon had given an (overly strong, and perhaps manipulative) appeal to tithe, and she asks the question to the entire congretation, “Does God’s love need to be bought?” It was a good question, but the church response was to guide her out of the church. Not ideal. I have sat in an evangelistic bible study with a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes. The bible study leader does a fine job for quite awhile and then the dam burst as she started rattling off every verse she knew that spoke negatively of homosexuality.
In both of those cases, I feel that the guests were handled poorly by Christians. They showed up at the church for some reason. Maybe their reasons were sincere… maybe not. The result was that the church pushed them out. The woman never returned, and although the young man did not walk out of the Bible study, he did not continue with the weekly studies.
Number 2. Engel and Dyrness in “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000) on pages 65 and 66 note that it is not really Biblical to start with transmitting a message without giving people a “taste” of Christian compassion and holy living. I kind of think that this statement is taken a bit far. However, I do believe it is generally true. Charles Kraft speaks of Power Encounter always preceding Truth Encounter. Again, I think that this pushes a particular tradition rather than expressing a Biblical principle. However, Jesus almost always gave a taste of the Kingdom first. This may be miraculous signs, and healing. It may be violating cultural taboos, and upending social structures.
Engel and Dyrness in the same book (see page 64) described Evangelism as it has become popular in the Market Evangelism of the late 1900s Evangelicalism. They noted the Great Commission became tied to two Omissions:
- Evangelism became disconnected from Social Transformation. Many believed that social transformation would follow Evangelism. Engel and Dyrness noted that at least since the mid-1800s this has not happened. Social Transformation should work hand-in-hand with (or even precede) Spiritual Transformation. Focusing on cognitive change (without an understanding of how such a cognitive change is supposed to connect to a life lived for God) commonly leads to anemic Christianity.
- When Evangelism drifts into Marketing a product to as many people as possible to get the most people to make some sort of identifying indication of response, discipleship as a total process tends to wilt.
Perhaps a better idea is to start in a better place:
- Welcome people into the church, bible studies, ministry activities and more as seekers and skeptics to experience the Christian faith lived out, and where they can ask uncomfortable questions and get honest (unpracticed thoughtful) answers. In this way they can experience an aspect of the Kingdom that is tied to the message. Of course, this requires Christians to live out their faith socially, as well as doctrinally. This can result in 4th century Christianity where churches moved from small groups of the faithful to being large groups of the immature. But I don’t think this is a necessary result. A church can be a holy gathering of the faithful while maintaining it as a safe space for inquiry and doubt.
- Welcome these people to place their faith in Christ to become what they have been experiencing.
- Welcome believers into the mystical church— the body of Christ— through baptism.
- The people would were trained as believers become trainers of new seekers and skeptics, living out their faith with humility, and demonstrating holy brokenness and social concern to all. (And the cycle continues.)
I don’t think it is controversial to say that we teach unbelievers. It may sound controversial to say that we disciple unbelievers, but if discipleship is the entire process, of course one must disciple unbelievers. What probably IS controversial is to suggest that Proclamation/Evangelization is most commonly the wrong place to start.
And Evangelism that is built around marketing schemes does tend to lack the Biblical base and Spiritual foundation of regeneration.
I think we need to wrestle with this.