Reprinted from the June 2014 issue of “Gospel Advocate” Magazine.
Some will undoubtedly read the title of this article, raise an inquisitive eyebrow, and ask, “Aren’t they the same?” Others will read a little deeper into the question and, with the same raised brow, muse aloud, “You really can’t have one without the other, now can you?” Both of these questions reveal the greatest threat to the fulfillment of the Great Commission: We have become confused about what the church is doing.
The Great Commission charges Christians to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 nasb). In the Greek, the only word in the imperative mood, making it a command, is “disciple.” “Go,” “baptize,” and “teach” are all subordinate parts of making disciples. In other words, to make a disciple you must go, baptize and teach.
Rethinking the Great Commission
Church growth gurus have suggested a number of ways of fitting the three parts of the Great Commission into a working model of evangelism. After reading a number of these over the last 12 months, I find the vast majority to be wrong. Here is the basic model I found:
Go = Evangelism
Baptize = Assimilation
Teach = Education
In this model, “going” is evangelism, “baptizing” is bringing others into the body, and “teaching” is educating them. On the surface, this model looks fairly accurate and has been generally accepted by most Christian religions, including most ministers within the churches of Christ.
That being the case, what has happened? Churches have developed evangelism programs to take the Word into all the world or at least to their neighbors. Some have even bought into the idea of hiring ministers of evangelism to develop and implement those programs. There are all kinds of programs that “reach out” to the community: fall festivals, food pantries, Christian preschools, door-knocking campaigns, and a plethora of others. In the last 20 years, the church has become much better at outreach but much worse at evangelism.
How can that be? Are they not the same thing? Isn’t outreach just another piece of evangelism? The answer, at least where the church stands today, is no. To illustrate, try another model for the three-fold Great Commission:
Go = Outreach
Baptize = Evangelism
Teach = Maturation
This model recaptures a theological element that was surrendered when we adopted the more popular model. For those within the Restoration Movement, baptism did not represent merely the assimilation of a new Christian into the body, as is taught in most denominations; it represented the heart of the gospel message: “Repent, and each of you be baptized” (Acts 2:38). The command given by Jesus to make disciples is a command to make Christians by baptizing and teaching others. Therefore, “baptizing” is evangelism.
If “go” is fulfilled by outreach and “baptize” is fulfilled by the sharing of the gospel message, why say outreach has replaced evangelism? Are they not merely two sides of the same coin? Unfortunately, while they should be, they are not. If the gospel is shared every time an outreach event takes place, then one could argue they are two sides of the same coin. A simple recounting of outreach events, however, will quickly indicate this is not always the case.
How many times do people get food from a food pantry and never hear the gospel? How many times do people attend a fall festival and never hear the gospel? How many times do we knock doors and hand out invitations to special events but never share the gospel? How many presents get wrapped at Christmas, cars get washed, lawns get mowed, and people get prayed for, yet no gospel is ever heard?
Why is it that churches can expend so much time, energy and money on outreach events and still the churches of Christ continue to dwindle? It is because we think outreach is evangelism and, as such, have allowed it to replace the actual sharing of the gospel.
Recommitting to the Gospel Message
How could this have happened?
First, it was subtle. Programs like vacation Bible school were successful, so they were repeated and modified. New and more varied programs were put into place – each time drifting further from attaching to attracting.
Second, it seemed right. The desire for growing churches may have led many to look for ways that seemed to work and “seemed right in our own eyes” but weren’t biblically sound.
Third, outreach is less risky than evangelism. The risk of rejection when offering food to a hungry family or a toy or game to a small child is remarkably low.
Fourth, outreach requires much less training and preparation. One might even say it is much easier than evangelism. If working at a festival booth or at the food pantry is evangelism, then most will do that rather than learn to teach the plan of salvation or learn to engage the lost in evangelistic conversation.
Finally, outreach is quick. Real evangelism is an investment in the life of another person, and that takes more time than most will make for the work of the kingdom.
What can be done about this unfortunate turn of events? Churches must begin by praying for the lost and for their attitudes toward them and their eternal destiny. At the same time, churches should rethink their “evangelism” models in light of a biblical understanding of the Great Commission. Are events and programs sharing the gospel, or are they simply reaching out to the lost? Christians must also recommit themselves to learning, and churches to teaching how to share the gospel message, and then pray for the boldness to do so.
After the Titanic sank and rescuers arrived, many people were found floating in the water on wreckage and in life preservers. They were all dead. They had not drowned; they had died from hypothermia due to the frigid waters. It was the cruelest kind of fallacy. The life preservers offered a hope of salvation, but ultimately, they were ineffective because they left the people in the cold waters.
The current outreach events are the same. If churches extend to people a hope of salvation but never help them move from the cold, dead world to the wonderful kingdom of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel, then the church has become as ineffective and cruel as those life preservers on the Titanic.
David Srygley serves as the pulpit minister for the Arlington Heights Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.