View the Tools of the Trade Index
Evangelism or Disciple Making?
By Charles Arn
A growing body of evidence exists in church growth research, as well as in the practical experience of pastors and church leaders, that causes me to make the following startling observation: Many current evangelism methods are, at best, irrelevant to church growth and are, at worse, inhibiting the effective outreach of well-meaning Christians and churches.
When I first considered this paradox, I found it both curious and discouraging. Most churches can point to some results from their evangelistic endeavors. But if we are honest with ourselves, the return on the investment of our people, time, and resources spent in evangelism does not show a healthy stewardship of the “talents” the Master has left in our care (Matthew 25:14–28). In fact, the methods used in many evangelistic activities seem to confine the gospel within the walls of the church.
But church growth research does not study traditions simply to create disorder in the status quo. Instead, it searches for best practices that help maximize results in response to Christ’s command to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:20).
Toward this end, I would like to highlight some basic differences between traditional evangelism, as commonly practiced today, and disciple making, a term that more accurately describes our efforts in response to the Great Commission. A more complete discussion of both the research and a church growth model of evangelism may be found in the book, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples.1
What Is Success?
This question highlights one of the basic differences between evangelism and disciple making.
Evangelism. Success is when a non-Christian gives a verbal response that indicates his endorsement of a set of convictions reflective of his new Christian faith.
Disciple making. Success is when others observe a change of behavior in a person that indicates his personal integration of a set of convictions reflective of a new Christian faith.
Notice the subtle, yet fundamental distinction. Because the goals are different, the process used to achieve these goals often differs.
The church-growth goal, in response to the Great Commission, is: “to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to persuade people to become His disciples and responsible members of His Church.”2 Observation is the only way to identify a responsible church member.
The evangelism goal, by contrast, usually has a decision-oriented objective, and focuses on leading a person to verbal repentance and commitment to Christ. Whereas a decision focuses on a specific event, a disciple suggests an enduring lifestyle. Do not assume that decision making and disciple making are synonymous. Nearly every pastor can testify that not all decisions result in disciples and responsible church members.
Because evangelism defines success on the basis of a decision, to hasten a non-Christian’s decision for Christ is the purpose of its activities. The good news is that many evangelism methods are successful in doing just that. The bad news is that, in so doing, they may be diminishing the successful assimilation of people into active church involvement and discipleship. How so?
What Is the Method?
Evangelism. This method focuses on bringing a person to an intellectual endorsement of Christian beliefs, observed by a verbal acknowledgement of these new beliefs. Since a verbal acknowledgement validates this endorsement of Christian values, the process of effective evangelism is a verbal presentation of these Christian convictions.
Disciple making. This method focuses on bringing a person to a behavioral change that reflects the integration of Christian values into that person’s life, as observed by his participation in the life and fellowship of a church. Since behavioral observation validates one’s endorsement of Christian values, the process of effective disciple making is experiential observation of such Christian behavior by the non-Christian.
The two need not be mutually exclusive. But distinguishing the objectives helps us more clearly consider the best practices for achieving them. The key question is whether a non-Christian’s lifelong values, attitudes, and lifestyle are more likely to be changed through the verbal presentation of information, or the experiential observation of behavior.
The phrase, actions speak louder than words, is particularly true when bringing others to new faith and Christian discipleship. If the goal is a changed life, and not just repeated words, the method employed will make a difference in the result observed. The apostle John makes a similar observation about sharing God’s love with others: “Love must not be a matter of words or talk; it must be genuine, and show itself in action” (1 John 3:18, NEB).3
Effective disciple-making strategies need to provide opportunities for non-Christians to come in regular contact with and observe a variety of believers in many situations. Research bears out the importance of multiple exposures to the Christian message and people.
A study compared two groups of new believers. One group was comprised of new converts who had become active church members in the year following their conversion. The second group were people who had dropped out of church, or had never gotten involved following their conversion. The variable that was studied was the difference in the number of Christian exposures the people in each group had experienced prior to their conversion. The difference was significant. Active members had an average of six Christian exposures to the gospel in the year prior to their conversion. Dropouts, by contrast, had seen or heard the Christian message only twice before their decision. The researcher’s conclusion: “When non-Christians have multiple opportunities to see, hear, and experience the Christian message, they are more likely to understand the implications of their commitment, and have fewer surprises following their commitment.”4 (And are therefore more likely to stick with their commitment.) Traditional evangelism strategies, by contrast, often assert that now is the moment, and encourage a response regardless of the history or context.
Who Is Involved?
Evangelism. The assumption is that any Christian can adequately represent Christ and sufficiently model the Christian faith so a non-Christian can grasp the implications and meaning of becoming a Christian disciple.
Disciple making. The assumption is that any Christian cannot adequately represent Christ, and only through exposure to the body of Christ — the church — can a non-Christian understand the implications and what it means to become a Christian disciple.
This distinction does not imply that a Christian cannot lead another person to a new relationship with Christ. Many have. God uses any and all means to bring people to new life.
What these two statements do suggest is that in our response to Christ’s Great Commission, we need to be aware that the church — with its complementary assortment of spiritual gifts — more accurately reflects the body of Christ than any individual member. Exposure to the church provides the most accurate picture available of the incarnation of Christ in today’s world. A person exposed to the body of Christ is more likely to see and experience the incarnation of Christ on earth.
Using spiritual gifts in the church is an important strategy for disciple making. Scripture shows that spiritual gifts are for building up (that is, growth) the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:12). We can reasonably expect that Christians will be able to witness to the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15), but this does not mean every Christian is a gifted evangelist. According to Ephesians 4:11, God gave some in the church to be evangelists—those who are better able to lead people to new Christian faith.5
Can a person have a role in making disciples if he does not have the gift of being an evangelist, but does have the gift of hospitality? Yes. Such persons most effective witness may be in opening their home to non-Christian friends, church visitors, or people in need. As a result, using one’s gift in disciple making does not require that every Christian possess the characteristics required in traditional evangelism: extrovertive personality, verbal fluency, resolute tenacity, good memory, and quick answers to complex questions. Disciple making is using your unique spiritual gift in concert with others’ gifts to bring people into the family of God.
More than 30 years ago, Win Arn and Donald McGavran made an important observation in their groundbreaking book, How To Grow a Church: “You would misuse Christ’s gifts if you used them solely for the service of existing Christians. That is not why these gifts are given. As we see God’s overwhelming concern for the salvation of humanity, we must assume that His gifts are given, at least in large part, that the lost may come to know Him, whom to know is life eternal.”6
It is a guilt-producing inaccuracy to suggest that every Christian needs to be an evangelist. In the New Testament the word evangelist occurs only three times (and the word evangelism does not occur). In each case evangelist refers to exercising the particular spiritual gift and/or performing a special activity expected of only certain persons. Acts 21:8 describes Philip the evangelist. In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul tells Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.” And in Ephesians 4:11 the spiritual gift of evangelist is introduced.
Evangelists were select people responsible to “tell the good news of victory in battle” (the Greek meaning of evangelist). At the same time, the New Testament has more than 100 references in which followers of Christ are to spread the good news of the Christian faith. Many evangelism approaches mistakenly assume making disciples means telling the good news — which is the work of the gifted evangelist. The most effective strategy for disciple making is to build on the unique gifts of each member of the Body, and develop a strategy for using those gifts — in concert — to share the love of God. Remember, the more Christians (that is, the more parts of the Body) a potential disciple knows, the more complete his understanding of God’s love.
What Is the Approach?
The approach Christians take when presenting the gospel to a nonbeliever has a great deal to do with their results.
Evangelism. Traditional evangelism takes two possible approaches in the persuasion process. The first is a content approach. This approach sees evangelism as a presentation of facts the hearer needs to know to make a reasonable decision. Christians can communicate the gospel verbally, in print, electronically, or through an audiovisual medium. In this view, when believers adequately present the gospel, it is reasonable to ask for a response (that is, a decision for Christ). Any Christian can succeed in evangelism if he learns how to present the content of the gospel correctly. The relationship between the Christian and non-Christian is characteristic of a teacher-to-student relationship, with the objective being to communicate correct information.
A second approach sometimes employed in evangelism methodology is the manipulative approach. This approach sees evangelism as a process of using the right technique to solicit a decision. This technique could be offering an emotional appeal, or leading a person through a set of previously rehearsed questions and answers. Evangelism training, in this approach, means teaching the correct technique. With the manipulative approach, any Christian can succeed in evangelism if he learns the right persuasive approach. The relationship between the Christian and non-Christian in this approach is characteristic of salesman-to-customer, the objective being to get a positive decision.
Disciple making. This approach to the persuasion process is relational. In this approach conversion is the result of a genuine relationship of caring, listening, sharing, and trusting between the Christian and non-Christian. The disciple-making approach takes considerably more time than the other approaches. It assumes that the love of God’s people is the most accurate expression of God’s love. This approach assumes that since every non-Christian is different, one pre-planned and pre-canned approach will not work in every situation. In the relational approach, any Christian can succeed if he learns how to love. The relationship between the Christian and non-Christian, in this approach, is characteristic of a friend-to-friend. The goal is to allow God’s irresistible love to be experienced.
A seminal research study considered whether there was a relationship between how a Christian viewed the evangelistic process and the subsequent result of his evangelistic endeavors.7 The study isolated three groups of subjects (240 people in each group) who received an evangelistic presentation: the first group were those who, in response to an evangelistic presentation, made a Christian commitment and subsequently became involved in a church; the second group were those who had made a commitment, but had no ensuing church involvement; the third group were those who did not positively respond at all to the evangelistic presentation. The results were startling. Seventy percent (169 of the 240) of the now Christians and active church members (group one) came to their faith through a Christian who employed a relational approach (friend-to-friend). In contrast, 87 percent of those persons (209 of 240) who made a verbal commitment but did not join a church (group two) came to their decision through a church member who viewed evangelism as manipulative (salesman-to-customer). The 75 percent (group three) who did not convert (180 out of 240) had heard the gospel from someone who saw evangelism as sharing content, facts, and theology (teacher-to-student). This study seems to indicate that a manipulative approach to evangelism (salesman-to-customer) results in the greatest percentage of persons making a verbal decision. However, the dropout rate of such an approach is 8 of every 10. As previously mentioned, the goal of evangelism can affect the method. If the goal is to get a decision, the manipulative method apparently works best. But this approach seems to be counter-productive if the goal is making disciples.
What About Assimilation?
In a few evangelistic approaches, a person’s eventual church involvement is not a critical factor to “success,” and evangelizers leave the results to God. Such approaches assume that the Great Commission will be fulfilled when everyone has heard the gospel. Most evangelizers, however, express a genuine desire that their converts become involved in a congregation. Assuming this is their desire, what are the differing assumptions about how new believers are assimilated into a church?
Evangelism. The assumption is that the foundation for active church membership is a common faith between the new believer and other church members.
Disciple making. The assumption is that the foundation for active church membership is a strong relationship between the new believer and other church members.
Numerous church growth studies indicate that the primary reason people remain involved in their church is the friendships and relationships they establish with other members. When people do drop out, the reason is usually a relational issue, not a theological one. One study found that 81 percent of dropouts left their church because they “did not feel a sense of belonging.” When asked what would be most important in their search for a new church, 75 percent said “the friendliness of the people.”8 Another study found that persons who became active church members made an average of seven new friends in the church, while dropouts made fewer than two.9
The assimilation of a newcomer into a church needs to begin long before that person’s conversion. Friendships that non-Christians develop with members of your church will play a key part in their eventual assimilation into your church. In fact, one of the most fruitful activities your church could engage in during the coming year is to help members develop or strengthen friendships with non-Christians. These relationships will have a far greater impact on your church’s eventual outreach and growth than training those same people to verbally present the plan of salvation.
But a common response heard in churches is: “If we make friends with non-Christians and invite them to church it will adversely affect our Christian community.”
Consider the strategy of one of the most productive disciple makers in recent history. In his ministry, John Wesley had three objectives for people: First, that they experience the grace of God and the gift of faith, and become conscious followers of Jesus Christ. Second, that they become part of a class or group of believers. Third, that, upon achievement of 1 and 2, they experience growth toward Christian perfection.
It is crucial to point out that a person could achieve the first two objectives in either order, and the more usual sequence was 2, and then 1.
That is, most people who became Methodist converts first joined a Bible study group and later became Christians. This helps explain why Wesley, in his extensive open-air field preaching, never invited people to accept Jesus Christ and become Christians on the spot. This statement may shock those whose assumptions about public evangelism have been formed in the Billy Graham era, as it might shock the evangelical Christians of any generation since Charles Finney first began inviting responders to the mourners’ bench.10 While Wesley’s methodology does not negate the validity of giving altar calls, we can see how his methodology was a forerunner to our present discussion of evangelism and discipleship methodology.
Lyle Schaller makes a similar observation: “The ones most likely to become active members are those who become part of a group where membership in that face-to-face small group is meaningful before formally uniting with the congregation. They are assimilated before they join.”11
Flavil Yeakley, a church-growth researcher who closely studied the differences between church dropouts and active members, concluded his doctoral dissertation by observing: “When people have no meaningful contact with church members in the process of their conversion, they are likely to feel no meaningful identification with the church after their conversion, and are therefore likely to drop out.”12
When it comes to the idea of encouraging Christians to develop meaningful relationships with non-Christians, many churches would greatly benefit from having an abundance of pagans in their midst. Christ did not shrink from the prospect of sitting, eating, and talking with sinners. In fact, Jesus’ reputation was “a friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34).
In contrast, some churches that pride themselves in their evangelistic fervor would have little tolerance for cigarette butts on church property, dirty blue jeans in the sanctuary, or cuss words in the classes. One pastor brought a teenage Christian rock group to the church for a Saturday night event. More than 700 young people from the community attended and heard the gospel, and more than three dozen indicated a desire to commit their lives to Christ. But the next morning, because the custodian had been out of town, members discovered empty beer bottles by the dozens in the parking lot. Imagine the reaction of many long-attending members! But this should have been cause for celebration — the world had finally come to their church.
People today who respond to the gospel are those who respond to the love and caring of Christ’s people. People do not respond to religious opinions or theological arguments. We cannot talk people into the Kingdom; we love them in. Reflecting God’s unconditional love is the essence of the gospel, for God is love. And people experience love. We have heard, “People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.” Christ taught us a great disciple-making strategy: Love God first, then love others as much as you love yourself (Matthew 22:35–40). Then He said go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).
CHARLES ARN, Ed.D., president of the American Society of Church Growth, an association of professors, executives, pastors, and consultants dedicated to the study of evangelism and church growth.
1. Win and Charles Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998).
2. Donald McGavran and Win Arn, Ten Steps to Church Growth (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 1.
3. The New English Bible. New Testament, 1961. C.H. Dodd, ed., The New English Bible. New Testament. Oxford and Cambridge: Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1961. Bible, 1970. C.H. Dodd, ed., The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970.
4. Flavil Yeakley, Why Churches Grow (Arcata, Okla.: Christian Communications, 1981), 37.
5. Peter Wagner, Discover Your Spiritual Gift (Ventura, Calif.: Gospel Light Publishers, 2005), 30,31.
6. Donald McGavran and Win Arn, How To Grow a Church (Ventura, Calif.: Gospel Light Publishers, 1973), 36.
7. Flavil Yeakley, “Views of Evangelism,” in The Pastor’s Church Growth Handbook, ed. Win Arn (Pasadena, Calif.: Church Growth Press, 1988), 139.
8. “Friendliness: A Key to Growing Churches,” The Win Arn Growth Report 14 (n.d.): 3.
9. Arn, The Master’s Plan, 156.
10. George Hunter, III, To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987).
11. Lyle Schaller, Assimilating New Members (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 44.
12. Flavil Yeakley, Views of Evangelism, 285.