Evangelism without discipleship dispenses cheap grace.
The Chicago Tribune reported the story of a mother who let her nine children, aged 8 months to 11 years, fend for themselves in a gritty apartment filled with trash and excrement. Public officials, responding to a neighbor’s call, entered the apartment at 2 a.m. and took the children into custody. The mother, said the owner of the apartment building, was more interested in partying late than in caring for her children. The public was (rightly) outraged by this maternal malfeasance.
Evangelical Christians commit the moral equivalent of such child abuse when they pour all their energies into evangelistic programs and fail to make sure that spiritual newborns are given the nurture they need to grow into healthy, mature followers of Jesus. Each young believer needs a mature disciple who has walked this way before and who can, in a transparent relationship, help the newer Christian toward the dual knowledge of God and self. Such relationships are not efficient, but they are essential to our growing in grace.
At the First International Consultation on Discipleship, held on England’s scenic South Coast, John R.W. Stott called attention to the “strange and disturbing paradox” of the contemporary Christian situation: We have experienced enormous statistical growth, he said, without corresponding growth in discipleship. “God is not pleased,” warned Stott, “with superficial discipleship.” Theologian Tokunboh Adeyemo called attention to this same paradox on his continent, where the phenomenal numerical growth of Christianity is matched only by the mind-boggling butchery of Christians engaging in the horrors of ethnic cleansing. “The church in Africa,” said Adeyemo, “is one mile long, but only one inch deep.”
Agendas and Manifestos
The consultation’s assembly of 450 Christian leaders, representing 70 organizations from 50 countries, hopes to place disciple-making on the worldwide evangelical agenda—much in the same way that the 1966 Berlin Congress and the 1974 Lausanne Congress focused our collective attention and energies on evangelism, world mission, and social concern. The focus on disciple- making, they hoped, would redress the imbalance created by our truncated reading of the Great Commission. In that passage from Matthew 28, Jesus charged his apostles to make disciples of all nations and told them to teach those disciples to observe all he had commanded. Evangelicals quote this passage almost as frequently as they cite John 3:16. But too often disciple-making has been understood as preaching the gospel, helping a penitent pray the sinner’s prayer, or offering a compelling case for Christian belief. Disciple-making surely includes all these things, but it has as its goal Christian maturity. “Discipleship,” said Adeyemo, “is not information, but character formation.”
The consultation’s official statement defined discipleship as “a process that takes place within accountable relationships over a period of time for the purpose of bringing believers to spiritual maturity in Christ.”
James Houston, evangelicalism’s senior theologian of the spiritual life, expounded on the disciple’s formation in the context of an accountable relationship. Houston identified the primary pressure militating against effective disciple-making: the contemporary tendency toward reductionism, which places a premium on thought, emphasizes the rational over the mysterious, and operates in a utilitarian mode. Thus we manipulate reality so we can live by methodology. The great danger of methodology, he said, is that it becomes a replacement for the Holy Spirit.
Ironically, evangelicals’ penchant for methodology has both guaranteed statistical success and undermined spiritual life. “What is destroying Christianity is the marketeering of Christianity,” said Houston. But disciple-making is not about replicable, transferable methods, but about the mystery of two walking together. Methods treat discipleship as a problem to be solved, but mentoring treats discipleship as a relationship to be lived. Thus, Houston said, “Christian maturity is always a social, and never an individual, reality. There is no such thing as my maturity. There is only our maturity.”
The Disciplines of the Disciple
Now that the consultation has placed disciple-making higher on the global evangelical agenda, it is vital that our biblical scholars, theologians, and spiritual guides develop for us a full-orbed vision of the life of the disciple. At the consultation, there were signs of reductionism as speakers emphasized prayer and Bible study but gave scant attention to other spiritual disciplines or to theological themes such as the role of the Spirit, the nature of the kingdom of God, or the believer’s abiding in Christ.
We have experienced decades of enthusiastic evangelical recovery of the classic spiritual disciplines. Meditation, examination of conscience, fasting, participation in church life (including baptism and the Lord’s Supper), preaching, and works of mercy received scant attention at the consultation but are vital for creating a discipling community. Nor can we ignore the role of the Spirit, who brings us to new birth, leads us into truth, and witnesses that we are children of God in the making of disciples.
Knowledge of the historic disciplines and of a biblical theology of discipleship is essential to our formation. Yet in each culture, discipleship must wear its own face. Said Appianda Arthur, former member of the Ghanian Parliament and organizer of the consultation, “In Africa, the key issues for discipleship may include bribery, corruption, and polygamy. In the West, you might want to focus on hedonism and materialism. The subjects change, but the core need is the same—discipleship.”
The message of the consultation is a vital reminder for evangelicals worldwide. Ultimately, evangelism without disciple-making can only end in cheap grace, not God’s grace. It would be like a wedding without a marriage, a celebration without substance.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today, October 25, 1999 Vol. 43, No. 12, Page 28