Making Disciples Is Not a One-Man Job
I've just returned from in Boston, where I participated in the Lausanne Orthodox Initiative (LOI) with Orthodox and Evangelical Christians from the U.S., Canada, Africa, Europe and Asia on the topic of Discipleship. (Touchstone published an interview with LOI co-founder Coptic Bishop Angaelos of the United Kingdom in which he tells how LOI began.)
The Lausanne Conference was founded by the late Billy Graham and John Stott to help various leaders in the global Evangelical movement to become acquainted with each other and collaborate in the task of evangelizing the world for Christ.
We also noted that the definition of what discipleship means varies among Christians. Its use by Evangelicals is heavily shaped by Jesus' Great Commission to make disciples, a process that begins with conversion to Christ, who made his disciples "fishers of men."
Particularly strong in the DNA of Evangelicals, among whom I was raised, was the conviction that Christians are called to lead others to Christ, to share the Gospel message about him. You can bet that whoever started holding up the John 3:16 banner during televised professional football games is an Evangelical, as John 3:16 is probably the most widely-used summary of the Gospel today.
Many were led to Christ and accepted him as Lord in Acts. The converts are thereafter called disciples and appear often during what became known as Paul's "missionary" journeys. Missionary is not found in Scripture, but evangelist is. In Acts 21:8 Philip is called the Evangelist.
Billy Graham was the quintessential evangelist, as his aim was to preach the Gospel (John 3:16) and invite you to make a decision for Christ, to accept him as Lord and Savior and ask him into your heart, confessing that you are a sinner in need of God's forgiveness, which is given through Christ's death on the Cross. Graham's monthly magazine Decision is still in print. One who decides for Christ is a convert.
Evangelist is one of the several key gifts given by Christ to the Church. (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5) What unites an Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian who wish to call themselves Evangelicals is not their theology of the sacraments or views on liturgical worship but their prioritization of this task: they emphasize sending missionaries to preach the Gospel. (This is not to say there are no missionaries in the Catholic or Orthodox churches or in their histories. That's another story.)
Since "making disciples" begins by making a convert, including baptizing him, and because this is usually carried out by those with the gift of the evangelist, the second part of the Great Commission -- teaching them obedience -- is often fulfilled by others with the gift of teaching, one of the other gifts Paul lists. Thus, fulfilling the complete Commission involves more than one gift and more than one role.
Philip the Evangelist in the Book of Acts is an example of these distinct roles when he witnesses to the Ethiopian Eunuch and baptizes him: immediately thereafter, "when they were coming up from the water," the Holy Spirit takes Philip away miraculously, a divine sign his work as with the Ethiopian was completed. Someone else who have to pastor and teach him. Billy Graham sent converts to local churches, where they would be pastored and taught.
Is the Evangelical church, then, the gathering of those who especially identify with or prioritize this Evangelical gift to and work of the church? (This is not to say that their work ends with baptism, for it does continue in Bible teaching, fellowship, and worship.)
Churches that do not identify with the label Evangelical may criticize them for not emphasizing the "breaking of the bread" (Holy Communion) and "the prayers" [not just prayer in general but the established prayers used by all] (Acts 2:42); Evangelicals may criticize those churches for evangelizing little, if at all. An honest assessment of practices (and track records) here, humbly speaking the truth in love to one another, as members of the same team, fighting the same spiritual battle for Christ, could bear fruit.
I simply offer these reflections for further conversation.
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.