Vision New England Blog


The general blog of Vision New England dedicated to equipping and encouraging New England Christ followers to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and make disciples.

A Misguided Dichotomy? – Evangelism/Discipleship

As Christ followers, many of us have drawn a fairly specific dividing line in our minds between what we believe constitutes “evangelism” and what constitutes “discipleship”.  The dividing line that we have drawn is not based on the activities of these two enterprises, but based on the spiritual “condition” of the people whom we encounter with these two enterprises. 


Here’s what I mean by this...  When a Christ follower is involved in sharing the love and message of Christ with someone who is not yet a Christ-follower, we call this “evangelism”.  Evangelism in this sense being defined as sharing the love and message of Jesus with someone who is not a Christian in order to help them know who Jesus is and to help move them to a decision to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  Whether spoken or not, our focus in evangelism tends to be on bringing people to a place of decision, a decision to accept Christ (a “conversion” decision), moving them out of the ranks of the “unbelieving” and into the community of Christ-followers.  In this sense, evangelism takes place on the “front-end” of this person’s “conversion” decision.


We view discipleship, on the other hand, as what happens with/to someone who is already a Christian.  Discipleship in this sense being defined as a Christ-follower helping another Christ-follower grow in his/her Christian faith.  Whether spoken or not, our focus in discipleship is not on moving people towards making a “conversion” decision, but on helping them rightly live out the implications of that decision.  Discipleship, in this sense, takes place on the “back-end” of their conversion decision.


Within this line of thinking, the demarcation line between our “doing” evangelism and our “doing” discipleship is based on where we believe the individual is at in relation to whether or not he/she is a Christ follower.  In other words, for most of us, the dividing line is based on whether or not the individual has made a personal decision to accept by faith Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord (i.e. a “conversion” decision). 


While, in theory, there may be some advantages in compartmentalizing evangelism and discipleship in this way, in practice, maintaining this dichotomy can be problematic for the local church as a whole, and the individuals within it.  If we are not carefully diligent, maintaining this dichotomy (based on a “point-in-time” decision) can create and foster the following unintended consequences


A.    For the individual Christ-follower


1.     Defining the scope of evangelism (the sharing of the Gospel) based on a “point in time” decision can actually put a lot of undo pressure on the Christ follower.  If we are not careful, we can foster the false impression that anything short of our getting someone to verbally make a decision for Christ is an evangelistic failure on our part.  If we aren’t successful at bringing people to the point of decision, we must not be “good” at evangelism, or so we may think.  We might, then, be tempted to think that effective evangelism really requires us having the right technique, or the right debating skill, or the right amount of information, all of which we don’t believe that we have.  And because we don’t see evangelism happening successfully through our efforts, we shrink back from engaging in it, or give up on it altogether. 


2.     This dichotomy can also create and foster the false impression that we actually have a choice as to which of these two activities we want to be personally involved in – we can be involved in evangelism or we can be involved in discipleship.  If we don’t feel equipped for, good at, or “called to” evangelism, then we can opt out of it, hand the evangelism baton to others who are better able to do this, and focus our attentions on discipleship.  After all, these two enterprises are of equal value (at least on paper), and so I can spend my time with those who are already “in” the faith, and someone else can work with those who are not.


3.     Defining the scope of evangelism (the sharing of the Gospel) based on a “point in time” decision, can also lead to the false impression that the primary purpose of the Gospel is a conversion decision.  When Paul tells us that the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16), he is not saying that its power and thrust is limited to just bringing someone to a first-time faith decision in Jesus.  The power and content of the Gospel reaches into and across the entire life cycle of the Christ follower (before, during, and after his/her conversion “experience”).  It is just as critical for Christ followers to be continuously confronted with the truths (and the implications) contained within the Gospel, as it is for those who are not Christ followers to be confronted with, and make a decision about, these same truths.  The Christ follower needs to hear the Gospel, over and over and over again, and needs to understand how this Good News permeates into, and impacts, every dimension of their lives.


If we are not careful, maintaining an unhealthy approach to this dichotomy can and will limit the effectiveness of our personal and congregational efforts in sharing the love and message of Christ with those around us who are not yet Christ followers.


When Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19), He was (and is) calling His followers to be involved in an all-inclusive relational process, an “incarnational” (if I can use this term) way-of-life that encompasses all of the activities that fall into what we currently label as evangelism and discipleship.  It is the way-of-life that He calls “DISCIPLE-MAKING”.  And, a key element of the disciple-making way-of-life is a personal relationship within which the Christ follower invests himself/herself into the lives of others (regardless of where each of the “others” may be at on the conversion decision spectrum). It is within this relational context that the disciple-maker personally shares with others the love and message of Christ, while modeling for them the Christ following way-of-life, and calling them into that same “surrendered and costly” way-of-life. 


Bringing, sharing and personally living out the Gospel lies at the heart of the disciple-making way-of-life.  While our giftings, training and passions may incline each of us more towards engaging in the activities of evangelism or towards engaging in the activities of discipleship, none of us have the option of “opting out” of being involved in the disciple-making way-of-life.  We are to be Christ following, Gospel-centered, disciple-makers who seek to be involved with, and personally impacting the lives of, others, regardless of where they may be at along the continuum of their encounter with the person and work of Jesus Christ.  And, we need to remind ourselves continuously that while helping people make important faith decisions along the way is a vital part of this way-of-life, it does not solely define our effectiveness.

The Story of a Crazy, Church Person

Lately I’ve been wrestling with how to approach the subject of making disciples, which is quite a difficult topic for me because of my personal background. In my contemplation, however, I’ve realized that it may actually be this unique background which provides me with surprising insight regarding disciple-making. That said, today I would like to address stigmas and stereotypes, and I would like to share my own experiences with stigmatization both by and against myself.

I did not grow up in the church, but was raised a kind of “strict atheist.” I was taught that proselytizing, and inflicting my beliefs upon others unsolicited was presumptuous, rude, and generally wrong. I was taught that science conflicted with many religious beliefs, and that there were many contradicting messages in religious doctrines and actions. Basically, I was taught to be skeptical of religion, and focus on pure logic and reason.

Once I grew into a judgmental and petulant age, I viewed my atheistic beliefs not only as truth and reality, but also as part of me that made me fundamentally superior to “church people.” Even Christians close to me I saw as naïve and weak, because they looked to God for help and meaning, rather than taking ownership of their life, and accepting what I believed to be true – that there was no real meaning, and that we all simply live and die, and that was that. I was very cynical, critical, and ignorant to many of the true teachings of Christianity, which I never cared to learn, because I assumed it was all absurd, and that even if my perceptions were wrong, there was still nothing there for me. I was close minded, and I lumped all Christians into one (misunderstood) box. If you had told me back then that I would be where I am now, believing what I do, I would not only laugh in your face, but I would have seen such a statement as an accusation and an insult. I thought I was so indisputably right that I was unwilling to see anything else.

The fact that most of my exposure to religion in the media primarily depicted judgment, condemnation, violence, intolerance, etc. didn’t help assuage my negative attitudes. I didn’t understand how religion could be seen as positive or helpful in any way and, actually, saw it as destructive. There’s a stereotype and stigma associated with “church people” that non-church people succumb to, and I was as much a perpetrator of this crime as anyone. Small groups of people claiming to be Christians (truly, this can be said for extremists of any group, religious or secular) can quickly sully the name and cause of what genuine followers of Jesus are trying to do – and the ironic truth is that the humble nature of what we are called to do in our following of Christ makes it so that those who are doing the right thing may seem to be overshadowed by those who are not. It is understandable to be discouraged by this, but I’ve learned that we can confront these issues by forging on, and being bigger than them.

This was my experience with stigmatizing others. Yet I have been on the other side of stigma, as well. You see, I have severe mental illness – bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, specifically. All three feed off my environment, circumstances, and one another, and they will be with me for my entire life. It’s impossible to accurately describe the warzone that is my psychology, but I try to explain that I feel everything tens of times more than the average person – from love, to guilt, to anger, to pity – and feeling everything so deeply causes a certain amount of pain and suffering to rage through my soul every day, and there’s nothing I can do about it, even when it seems that everything is fine. I’ve been hospitalized multiple times because of mental health crises, and even had to take a year off from college in 2012. That same year, I also became heavily overmedicated, causing me to become illiterate, and sporadically go blind for periods ranging from 10-45 minutes. I engaged in horribly inappropriate and promiscuous activities, many of which I don’t remember clearly because I was so dissociated from reality; and I was aggressive, even with people who loved and cared for me. On December 10, 2012, I attempted suicide.

Even if this mere list (abbreviated, with gory details omitted) causes you to label me “crazy,” you aren’t alone. In truth, I’m not “normal” in the conventional sense. In fact, there were members of my own family who couldn’t deal with me, and who withdrew from me and my mess. To this day, my issues cause a variety of relationship problems with a few of my friends, who simply don’t understand why I struggle with certain things, and they can’t accept that I have a legitimate condition. Well-meaningly, they’ve told me I need to “stop thinking and overthinking,” and that I “need to just chill out,” not understanding that I can’t, despite the overwhelming progress I’ve made.

A lot of ordinary people only see the many instances of individuals who use mental health as an excuse for not dealing with everyday life, or their perception of mental illness is shaped by movies that show the mentally ill as menaces to society. Yet by ignorantly labeling people, we doom ourselves to only see others’ actions as fitting the mold of whatever stereotype we’ve placed on them; if we label someone crazy, their actions seem crazy, no matter how justified they may be. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to how frustrating this is, because people don’t take you seriously, particularly when you need them to most because you’re in incredible pain. I want more than anything for people to learn and overcome their misconceptions, but having been on the side of holding strong misconceptions as well, I realize how difficult this is to accomplish.

There is hope in my story, though. Since experiencing God on the night I intentionally overdosed, my life has been on an uphill trajectory. This doesn’t mean I don’t fall back, have breakdowns, or fail, because I do, all the time, but I have a renewed life since choosing to follow Christ. I understand that the struggles I face were put in my life for a reason, and that I have remarkable strength because of them, and I’m grateful to still be here, and have the opportunity to help other people, because so many individuals with problems such as mine don’t make it. Learning to live with these problems has not only led me to God, but has also showed me that I have a purpose, and that if I’m striving for it, God will equip me with the courage, fight, resilience, and determination that I need to overcome anything. And that’s really powerful.

I see my past religious stigmatization much differently now. I relate it to my own experiences with stigma, and I consider how stigmatization influences our abilities to connect with others, and communicate with them, and how it impedes our efforts to make disciples.

Here is what I’ve learned about living with mental illness, and changing peoples’ attitudes towards it. Regardless of the obstacles, if you love and care for people, act courageously, and live in a way that is engaging, compassionate, and inspiring – so much so that others can’t help but be curious about your reasons – they will ask you about what makes you so strong and passionate. When this happens, tell them your story, unashamedly, so that they can hear the truth they may have not understood or known.

Here is what I’ve learned about following Jesus, and changing peoples’ attitudes towards Christianity. See above.

Start a dialogue with others by being the difference you want to see first, and building an influential relationship. In doing this, disciple-making opportunities will arise. If you show people something intriguing and compelling, they will be receptive to learning about it, even if what you say is contrary to the biases and stigmas they unknowingly adhere to. In this way, making disciples is tightly related to our other Christian duties – to do justice, walk humbly, and love mercy. If you’re demonstrating these qualities, God’s light moves through you, and people can see it, even if they don’t know what it is. Just be ready to explain it to them when they ask. 

4 Hindrances To Transformative Accountability

I Can’t tell you how many conversations that I’ve been in with people, or leadership training sessions that I’ve participated in, where the subject of “the need for accountability” has come up.
And more times than not, this subject comes up within the context of a discussion about battling against, and/or protecting ourselves against, a particular area of sin or brokenness in our lives (or in the lives of others).

In books, blogs, YouTube clips, seminars, Bible studies and from the pulpit, we are continuously reminded of our need to have accountability built into our schedules to protect ourselves, to protect our marriages, to protect our families, to protect our ministries, etc…

And, many of us claim to either currently have, or desire to have, accountability in our lives (at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves).
But, “what does it really mean to be held to account, to be held accountable?”

Let me offer this as a definition – to be held accountable, means to be put in a position of having to explain, to answer for, to justify, to report on, and/or to accept responsibility for, something (or someone).

So, when we say that we want to be held accountable, we are saying that we want to intentionally put ourselves in a position of having to explain, to answer for, to justify, to report on, and/or to accept personal responsibility for, something about ourselves (our thoughts, our words, our behaviors, our decisions, our progress, etc…).
How we view this thing called accountability will play a determinative role in how we approach our own personal accountability.

If we view accountability as a form of surveillance, or intrusion, or imposition in our lives, then we probably won’t be too motivated to embrace it for ourselves, or to submit ourselves to it.
If we view having an accountability “partner” as more like having a kind of spiritual “parole officer” with whom we check in with periodically, then we will most likely shy away from pursuing this.
If, however, we view it as a protective “safety net” for ourselves, a healthy and necessary tool for our personal good, then we will be much more likely to seek it out, and to submit ourselves to it.
I’m wondering, however, how many of us are really capable of actually entering into the kind of transformative accountability “safety net” that we really need.

The reason that I say this is because of the kind of natural “instincts” and “tendencies” that are inherent within us that tend to impact many of the decisions that we make; instincts that actually work against this kind of “life-giving” accountability.

Let me share a few of these instincts:
1. Self-Protection – Most of us are experts at self-protection. It is a natural tendency of ours to want to do everything that we can to protect ourselves. We want to protect ourselves from being hurt, from being uncomfortable, from being vulnerable, from being too transparent and from being “found out”. Our self-protection “instinct” drives us to try to find ways to manage our “image”, doing everything that we can to protect what others see in us and what others think about us. So, when we think about being held “accountable” by anyone, our instincts tell us “no, not going there”, or if we do go, we will only want to “go there” on our terms. Transformative accountability, however, requires authentic transparency on our part.

2. Self-Denial – Many of us have a tendency to operate in a constant state of self-denial, denying that we are in trouble, denying that we need help, denying that we really can’t fix ourselves, and on and on and on (Biblical images of this can be seen in – Ps. 36:2; Is. 44:20; Gal. 6:3; 1 Jn. 1:8; Rev. 3:17). So, when we think about being held to account, our natural instinct is to deny our need, or to deny our level of need. Transformative accountability, however, requires an honest acceptance on our part of the realities of who we really are and what’s really going on within us.

3. Self-Diagnostic – Another natural instinct that can get in our way, is our tendency to self-diagnose, to look to ourselves to determine what’s going on within us, how significant (or insignificant) our issues are, and what we need to do to fix them. We deceive ourselves into thinking that because we actually are our own best advisor, and thus can correct our own flaws, we don’t need outside
help. After all, no one knows me like I do. God said that “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes…” (Pr. 12:15). Transformative accountability requires that we admit that we don’t always know what’s best for us, and, that it is a healthy thing for us to regularly seek out, listen to, and act upon the counsel (and the correction) that we receive from others.

4. Self-Selection – When it comes to accountability, our natural tendency is to self-select who we want to hold us accountable, at what level we want to be held accountable, and what we actually want to be held accountable for. And because we tend to self-protect, self-deny and self-diagnose, we will tend to self-select an accountability “mechanism” that fits within the framework of the outworking of these other natural instincts of ours. Transformative accountability, however, requires that we connect with someone who not only loves us, but who is also wise enough to “see through” our natural tendencies, and patient (and strong) enough to help us get beyond where we would most naturally want to “settle”.

Our natural instincts drive the way that we tend to approach accountability in our lives. And if we’re not careful, instead of experiencing real and significant breakthrough, healing, protection and growth in our lives, we will end up perpetuating a harmful behavior pattern or character flaw.

One of the life-giving components of a biblically-guided, disciple-making relationship, is the built-in accountability “safety net” that it contains. Within the context of this kind of loving and trusting friendship, we are able to put down our defenses, be transparent about ourselves, accept our limitations, and allow someone else to help us gain a stronger understanding of what’s going on with us.

So, how ‘bout you? Are you currently on the “receiving” end of a disciple-making relationship with someone who provides the accountability safety net that you need?
If we’re not relationally connected in this way, then I think it’s reasonable to ask, “why not?” Could the reason be that we have fallen prey to our own self-protecting, self-denying, self-diagnosing, or self-selection instincts?

Keith Tolley, Lead Consultant, Vision New England & Lead Pastor, Greenfield Alliance Church.