I have become more and more convinced over the years that the key ministry (or job) of the church (that is believers in Jesus), whether they be local or universal, is what the Bible calls discipleship (that is making followers of Jesus). It seems to me that discipleship also encompasses evangelism, that is, people trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus for their eternal salvation.
There is a tendency to use the terms evangelism and discipleship as though they were largely interchangeable. As I read the mission statements of various mission groups I find that they talk about evangelism and discipleship as part of their overall mission but nowhere define these as separate entities in their ministry goals or objectives. I believe this leads to confusion and cloudy thinking about what each entails.
I believe that evangelism is largely the telling of the good news, that Jesus came to rescue fallen personhood from their hopeless position before a holy God. Hopefully this will lead persons to make a choice to put their trust in Jesus and what He did for them on the cross. Whereas, discipleship is the ongoing process of becoming a more and more devoted and perfect follower of Jesus in all aspects of our lives (mind, emotions and body).
Some would like to say that evangelism (being born again) is a point in time decision, whereas discipleship is a process of becoming more and more like Jesus during our total time here on planet earth. This may be largely true, but even being born humanly involves a certain process which may be relatively short or it may proceed over hours and even days. I think the same can be true of our spiritual birth.
The Engel scale that was developed by James Engel in the 1970s is helpful to understand that evangelism and discipleship are both processes although evangelism is usually considerably shorter, whereas discipleship continues until the end of our life in this present age. It should be noted that there are various versions of the Engel scale that have evolved over time and with different authors. Even so I will use a personally modified version of the scale in this article, although I hope I am being true to the original authors thinking with these modifications. Following is this personally modified Engel scale:
The above scale indicates how both evangelism and discipleship are a process, although the time of decision in evangelism is generally seen as a point in time. The continuum of evangelism means that some find it hard to determine where that point of decision was in their lives. This fact should not be overly disconcerting if somewhere on this continuum a decision was made to put their trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus for their eternal salvation.
Discipleship is that life long process of realizing our need for a Saviour and then after a decision to trust in His work on the cross, we continue in spiritual growth to become more and more like Him in all aspects of our lives until our time on earth is complete.
It is hoped that this short discussion of these two processes will help us to understand God’s desire for us as we live on planet earth. May evangelism and discipleship be total priorities in our earthly journey.