STOP doing evangelism. (Make disciples instead!!)

In this video I want to explain why I think the way the church is going about evangelism at the moment is not helping and in fact even hinders the gospel. I think we need to stop evangelising and start doing discipleship instead.


Normally I make content about aspects of Christianity and the Bible, but occasionally I do something a bit different. In this video I want to argue that the way the church is going about evangelism is not only counter-productive, it is actually hindering the gospel.

The best way to explain it is to begin with my story and the lessons I’ve learned over the last ten years.

I was brought up in church, but since I was ordained in 2014 I’ve been actively involved in church leadership. For almost all that time I’ve been involved in evangelism, as well as helping new Christians to take their first steps in the Christian faith. I’ve led the ‘big name’ courses – Alpha and Christianity Explored – as well as some of the smaller ones. I’ve also led groups for people who’ve done one of those courses and want to find out more.

One of the most striking things I’ve found is that almost all our efforts and resources are focussed on the initial steps to conversion, explaining the basic gospel message – but then there’s almost nothing after that.

Let me share with you five lessons that I’ve learned before we go on to think about where we’ve gone wrong with evangelism.

Five key lessons

Firstly, people know next to nothing about Christianity. I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate just how little people know about Jesus and the gospel. We are not living in Christendom any more, where most people have at least a basic understanding of Jesus and the Bible. In fact, my experience has been that the vast majority of people have next to no understanding of the gospel or knowledge of the Bible. This is especially true of younger age groups.

Secondly, most people in this situation won’t get much from a Bible study. When I started a Bible study for new Christians, I naively thought it would be a good idea to start by working our way through Mark’s Gospel. I didn’t know of any resources to help new Christians understand what they needed to, so I thought we’d do a Bible study in the same way that I’d done Bible studies before. I expected that they would read and engage with the Bible just like more mature Christians. Instead, my expectations were confounded. They really struggled to understand and engage with the Bible. But why?

I think it’s because they didn’t have a Christian worldview. They didn’t understand about God, and about creation, and about the fall and sin, and human nature, and so on. We needed to start a lot further back than simply reading Mark’s Gospel! Before we could get to a normal Bible study, they needed a lot of input as to what the Bible teaches about all those things.

Thirdly, most courses go nowhere close to teaching people what they need to know. I have used several different courses through the years. They are all good, but their scope is necessarily very limited.

What I’ve found is there are hardly any courses which go into detail about what you need to know to be a Christian: creation and the fall, the Trinity, justification and sanctification, living by the Spirit, the new creation, and so on. All our evangelistic efforts are focussed on getting someone over the line of conversion, but then once they’re over the line we leave them to it. This is a serious imbalance.

Fourthly, people who are brought to faith this way often fall away. I’ve seen far too many people come into the church after a course, only to stop coming after a short while. In fact, more often than not they didn’t start coming regularly on a Sunday in the first place. There are obviously many reasons for this, but I believe part of it is because we don’t provide people with a clear way to progress. When somebody finishes a course we don’t then say to them, “why don’t you join us next week for a longer course explaining the core doctrines of Christianity?” Too often people are simply expected to come to church and join a home group – and that’s it. I can think of several people in my old church who did the Alpha course more than once, but never really made a commitment to come to church.

Finally, people have a real desire for knowledge which is largely unfulfilled at the moment. One of my biggest surprises from the last ten years was discovering that people will come to a midweek group for new Christians before coming to church. They won’t come to church regularly, but they will come to a “learn what Christianity is” course. For example, I can think of a young man who came on Christianity Explored. When we finished that course, he didn’t come to church but he did come to a midweek group for new Christians where we were working through the Heidelberg Catechism. However – after a few weeks, he started coming to church every week of his own accord

Another young woman – about 30 years old – had been in the church since she was 15. She would often say to me, “I’ve never thought about God like this before”. Even though she’d been in church for half her life, she’d never heard the basic doctrines of Christianity explained to her.

What I take from this is that Christianity Explored and other courses might be a good introduction, but people will often finish the course and not be ready to make a commitment. Coming to church might seem like too big an ask at that point. What then? We need to be teaching people what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

The “line of belief”

Let me try to illustrate where the problem lies and where I think a lot of churches get it wrong.

Imagine a line which represents our Christian maturity. I’ve called it the “line of belief”. At one end you have complete atheists, say, someone like Richard Dawkins. At the other end you have a mature Christian like Rico Tice, for example. (Let’s give him a halo…)

Everyone is somewhere on this line, and all Christians should be moving towards the right hand side of the line, becoming more like Christ (not Rico).

Many people have a specific moment of conversion, when they decide they want to follow Jesus. Most of our evangelistic efforts assume that there will be such a moment of decision. On the left hand side – not a Christian; on the right hand side – Christian. You move from one to the other in a moment, and that’s that. Think Billy Graham and the ‘altar call’ moment.

As a consequence of this ‘moment of conversion centric’ approach, churches have focussed their evangelistic efforts on that first part of the line. We want to get people across the line, we want to bring people to encounter Christ and commit to him.

But what do we have for someone once they’ve crossed that line? I don’t think most churches have even seriously considered that question.

Why is that? I expect most church leaders think that whatever they’re already doing is enough. Just let people come to church, join a Bible Study group, and they’re all set. But my experience has shown me that is often not enough. People need to be intentionally discipled – taken by the hand and moved on from where they are. Especially at the beginning. And this is exactly what we are missing.

Discipleship – the missing word

I’ve just mentioned a word which I’ve intentionally avoided up until now: disciple, or discipleship. Let me expand on what I mean by that. Simply put, to be a disciple means to be a follower of Jesus – to be a Christian. But what does that involve? A lot of churches look to the Great Commission from Matthew 28 as their mission statement, so why don’t we start there:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus says, he has received all authority in heaven and earth from the Father – which means we should really listen to him. This is just as much a matter of obedience to Jesus as any other commandment.

He commands us to “make disciples” of all nations, and then spells out what that means: firstly, baptising them. Right from the beginning, baptism has been seen by the church as the ceremony of Christian initiation. So we should definitely be welcoming new people into the church and baptising them. But then he says, secondly, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Being a disciple means not just ‘crossing the line’ to become a follower of Jesus, but learning everything he taught about following him.

I hope you can see how that links in with what I was saying about the ‘line of belief’. My argument is that we have focussed totally on the first thing, to the exclusion of the second.

Now, you might be thinking, if I am right about this and we have focussed on ‘evangelism’ rather than ‘discipleship’, what effect might that have on the church?

I would say that we would see a church filled with shallow Christians. A church with people who don’t have deep roots in the Word and in the gospel. A church where people come to church once or twice a month, when it suits them, who don’t take reading the Bible seriously, who don’t take personal holiness seriously. Who can be judgemental and moralistic. Not to mention, people who are confused and divided about contemporary issues like marriage and sexuality. 

It is my contention that this is exactly what we do find. I can think of several people in my old church who had come to faith through a course, but then whose spiritual growth had stalled. Once again, there are many reasons for that, but I think at least part of the blame has to be the fact that we didn’t teach them how to grow. We didn’t disciple them once they had become Christians.

The people I can think of who did grow as Christians did it through reading the Bible and exploring for themselves. But they were very much the exception.

What should we do?

I appreciate that what I’ve said so far has been very critical, but I haven’t outlined a positive way forward. I’d like to redress that balance now. I’m going to suggest three steps for churches to adopt.

Firstly, change the focus from evangelism to discipleship. Those who are pastors and church leaders need to be thinking in terms of how we can move everybody forward in their faith. Not just the new Christians, but the older Christians as well. The first big change that needs to happen is our mindset: we are not simply trying to get people across the line from nonbeliever to believer; we are trying to make disciples of Christ and teach them everything he commanded. We should be prepared to think through exactly what that should look like, and not simply assume that we’re doing the job already.

Secondly, take a step back from evangelism for a while. I would strongly suggest for all churches to put evangelism on the back burner for a period of time – maybe a year. If we’ve gone down the wrong road when it comes to evangelism, the best thing we can do is stop, turn around and go back. We won’t get anywhere if we simply carry on doing something which isn’t effective. Additionally, part of the problem with churches is that they are so busy running evangelistic events that they don’t have time to step back and think about why they’re doing it. Is there a better way?

Thirdly, focus on how to disciple the people already in our churches. Think about the people sitting in our pews week by week. Think about where they are, and where they ought to be. Think especially about those people who are not growing in their discipleship. What can you do to encourage them? Can you replace an evangelistic event with a discipleship course? Can you invite people to take the next step? You could work through something like the New City Catechism. Or all the Understand the Bible videos are free – there are courses on the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments – all of them are free of charge and they work for groups as well as individuals.

Some encouragement from history

The good news is, the situation we are in has been experienced before – and solutions have been found before. What I am describing is much like the situation that Richard Baxter found himself in back in the 17th century. In his classic book The Reformed Pastor, Baxter describes the problem and his solution. Let me give you one quote from the book:

For my part, I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can … and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death, as if they had never heard it before. And of those who know the history of the gospel, how few are there who know the nature of that faith, repentance, and holiness which it requireth, or, at least, who know their own hearts. But most of them have an ungrounded trust in Christ, hoping that he will pardon, justify, and save them, while the world hath their hearts, and they live to the flesh. And this trust they take for justifying faith. I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.

The Reformed Pastor

Baxter found that people who had been coming to church for ten years sometimes knew almost nothing about Christianity and the holiness that we are called to. Not only that, they simply assumed that whatever they had was justifying faith and there was no problem.  Are we not living through similar days? And yet Baxter found that people responded when he had the opportunity to speak to them one-on-one. He and his two assistants started travelling round the parish of Kidderminster, catechising people – that is, teaching them using a catechism. This transformed the church and the town.

We need to take a leaf out of Richard Baxter’s book, and think about how we can encourage people to grow in their discipleship – not just take it for granted that they will if they’re coming to church. This is not a ‘nice to have’ – this is essential if the gospel is going to make an impact.

Sinclair Ferguson put it like this, which precisely sums up what I have been trying to argue in this video:

In the recovery of biblical exposition that has marked the church in our own time, it has not always been recognized that in addition to such exposition the Reformers and Puritans placed great stress on catechizing. We tend to think of this as children learning catechetical questions and answers by rote. But what the Puritans had in view was in many ways a more profound exercise. They saw the need to build into the thinking of all their people frameworks of reference, grids that would help them receive, understand, digest, and apply the biblical teaching given from the pulpit.

This is an essential ingredient in the recovery of biblical Christianity. Neither the Reformers nor the Puritans envisaged their task of the public exposition of Scripture without finding ways of anchoring what was heard in the hearts and minds and memories of their hearers. Without the framework of doctrine provided in some such pedagogical tool as a catechism a person might find it extremely difficult to assimilate all they were being taught. And without the personal probing of catechetical questions they might never work the public exposition through into practical understanding and application.

Some Pastors and Teachers

The road to fruitful evangelism

Let me finish with an encouraging thought. If our focus on discipleship has the desired effect, then – by God’s grace – we will end up with a church which is full of believers with deeper roots in the gospel, walking humbly with the Lord in the power of the Spirit. This will have a far bigger effect on evangelism than anything else we could do.

Evangelism is not a job which should be left to the professionals. Evangelism is not putting on another event. Evangelism is loving other people enough to pray for them and share the gospel with them. Evangelism is something which is done by the church as a whole. I believe a church with ten believers who have a deep faith and are living in the power of the Holy Spirit will accomplish more in the long run than a church which has a hundred shallow believers putting on evangelistic events every day.

This is why I said at the beginning that our evangelistic efforts were actually hindering the gospel. I believe a truly effective evangelistic strategy comes from a church which has deep roots in the gospel. And this in turn comes from our discipleship strategy. If we really want to reach our communities, our towns, our nation for Christ – then we need to refocus on discipleship.

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