Jesus’ Primary Method of Evangelism
In our book The Discipleship Gospel Ben Sobels and I talk about how “discipleship becomes evangelism.” Let’s unpack this by looking at the life of Christ. Of all the methods of evangelism that Jesus demonstrated in the Gospels—and there were many—the one highlighted above all the others is discipleship. Jesus preached the gospel to great crowds, and he shared it with people one on one. But the Gospel writers keep bringing us back to the fact that Jesus discipled a few good men in what the gospel was and how they were to live it out. For Jesus, discipleship was how he evangelized both the men in whom he invested and the people they reached as a result. We suggest that the Gospel writers were clear that discipleship was Jesus’ most effective method of evangelism. In other words, the gospel seemed to “stick” best with those whom Jesus discipled most.
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Reading the Gospels gives us the distinct sense that Jesus’ discipleship of the Twelve was an experience of “one step forward, two steps back.” Just as it looks like the disciples are getting it, they do something that shows they don’t (what was true of them at that time is also true of us now). Jesus walked a long way with them before the gospel was truly formed in them; it took them a long time to really know what the gospel was and even longer to begin denying themselves, taking up their cross daily, and follow Jesus in the power of his resurrection.
When we think about it like this, we start to realize that the gospel wasn’t fully formed in the disciples’ hearts until sometime after Jesus’ resurrection. No matter when you pinpoint the moment the disciples actually “got it,” our aim here is to show that discipleship among the Twelve was evangelism for Jesus—and it took time.
This is what Scot McKnight refers to when he writes of evangelism that “slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.” It’s also what pastor and author (The Message) Eugene Peterson speaks of when he says that “forming people in Christ is a slow work, so it can’t be hurried; it is an urgent work, so it can’t be delayed.” The most transformative environment for maturing people into Christlikeness happens when we allow people the time they need to come into a full understanding of the gospel in the context of committed discipleship relationships. This was true in Jesus’ ministry, and it is no different in the local church today. It’s the opposite of “hit and run” evangelism.
I (Ben) remember talking with one of our ministry leaders a few years ago about multiplying disciples within our congregation. We had just begun intentionally making disciples in groups of three and four, and he asked, “Who are we going to start discipling?” I answered, “We’re going to begin with our own members. Our goal is make sure every member has been given the opportunity to be discipled.”
He thought for a moment and said, “What are you going to do after you’ve discipled all our church members? You won’t have anyone left to disciple, will you?” I smiled and said, “I hope by that point our church members will be making disciples of people in our community and in other places.” A puzzled look crossed his face. I realized that he had never thought about discipleship as a form of evangelism before. Discipleship, at its best, is evangelism.
1. Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 18.
2. Eugene Peterson, “Doing the Right Thing in the Wrong Way,” Spiritual Formation Forum Conference, May 2004, Bill’s personal notes.