Vision New England Blog

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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 Humbled Gunslinger

            Do you remember Ken Jennings? Maybe a better question is: do you know who Ken Jennings is? When I was younger, I went through a phase where Jennings was one of my heroes. During his run of 74 wins on Jeopardy!, watching him crush his competition was one of the highlights of my day. In many ways, I felt I related to him, because he was a bit of a know-it-all, and I considered myself one, too (although I definitely would have qualified this remark by adding the caveat: “for my age,” to create an excuse for not being as much of a know-it-all as I liked to think.) Naturally, because of how much I enjoyed watching Jennings on Jeopardy!, I tuned in to watch him, and fellow human champion Brad Rutter, face off against what was considered the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence: IBM’s Watson. Over the course of the tournament Watson – literally a thinking computer – completely destroyed the two most prolific champions in the show’s history, giving hope to his creators that they had successfully created a piece of technology capable of quickly and accurately processing oral information, finding the appropriate solution, and then conveying it in actual human language with appropriate context. In all fairness, as much as I would have liked to see mankind triumph over technology, it was amazing, and the evolution of Watson’s practical uses today is just as incredible (albeit subtly terrifying.)

            Recently I came across a TED talk given by Jennings. During the talk (link below), he explained how he felt about both his dominance on Jeopardy!, as well as his loss to Watson. Though the speech wasn’t overtly about humility, I realized some interesting points about the importance of being humble from what Jennings said. These lessons are relevant to us, both as Christians with the direct responsibility to walk humbly, and moreover as global citizens who face challenges every day that push us further away from community, due to a societally created value of self-promotion, external validation, and superficial appearance.

            I was quite struck by hearing Jennings discuss how, after losing to Watson, he wondered for a time about what his life meant, because something had been created to replace him in the only thing he felt he was ever good at. He had achieved widespread fame and wealth due to his performance on Jeopardy!, and naturally he was proud of this accomplishment, and it made him feel validated and important. We can all relate to this in some way or another, because success, accomplishment, external validation and recognition have all become enormous parts of our culture. While I think we should strive to accomplish great things, and take pride in them when we do, I completely admonish the fact that the majority of our worth has become wrapped up in how others see these accomplishments; because this causes us to fear one another, and avoid challenges, thinking they will possibly disturb our sense of value if we fail. We see this reflected not just in our never-ending search for approval, but also in the way we relate to one another. We water down all of our relationships to mere superficial, tenuous, highly controlled interactions, in which we can show others only the positive, and only the success; we don’t have to be threatened by others being better than us, and this attitude is detrimental to both us and our society on the whole.

In truth, though, Jennings shows that we need to all have different strengths and areas of expertise. I found it very humbling when Jennings spoke about how it is virtually impossible to be a Renaissance Man today, and to be an expert on a variety of different subjects. As someone who is probably pathologically competitive, and who has to regularly confront my tendency to try to outdo and one-up everyone, Jennings’ message that we need to embrace the fact that we all have different knowledge and skills, and that we should use this as a basis for community and relationship was one that I really needed to hear.

It’s no secret that I have many unflattering narcissistic tendencies; most of my family and close friends have always known this. My dad used to lecture me when I would go off on some tirade or rant about publicly taking down my “idiot” classmates, and he would often say, “You know, there’s always a faster gun.” Normally I would just respond with anything that would get me out of being lectured through the use of dated gunslinger references, but I heard this line in my head while listening to Jennings’ talk. When we don’t embrace humility, and consider the beauty of our differences with others (even when these differences make others better than us at certain things) we walk through life with a disproportional view of our abilities, and we think we can’t be beat. Additionally, because we fear, deep down, having this grandiose perception shattered, and we create a life for ourselves in which we stifle our own progress by shying away from challenges. In reality, though, there’s always a faster gun, and failure to accept this means you will be dead when you eventually encounter it. With Ken Jennings, this could have come in the form of Watson, beating him when he was originally so confident in his chance of winning. Where Jennings really showed his genuine intelligence, though was in his description of how this experience made him realize that failure doesn’t need to be devastating, but that we should all humble ourselves to the fact that each of us has something unique to offer one another.

Nothing, not even IBM, can take away Jennings’ accomplishments, and the fact that he is one of the greatest trivia wiz bangs to ever live, but his true value doesn’t come from the opinions of gameshow viewers, or prize money, or even the approval of his family and friends. It comes from within, and I think one of the beautiful things about humility is that when you embrace it, you not only find it easier to see your sense of self-worth truly within yourself, independent of society, but also to see others’ worth in the fact that they may be better than you at somethings, and this isn’t scary, hurtful, or shameful, but necessary.

We weren’t created to live in isolation, but our world instills values and beliefs in us that separate us further from one another, replacing real, deep, meaningful connection – where we can rely on one another’s strengths and weakness and see these things as gifts – with superficial, fearful exchanges in which we constantly feel threatened by the mere thought of someone being better than us. Fortunately, humility offers us a solution to this problem. We don’t need to stop trying to learn, grow, know, and achieve, because this fuels community advancement, but humility takes the emphasis off ourselves as individuals, and focuses on the bigger, collective picture, by allowing us to realize that everyone plays a role. This view of humility should help us set a practical foundation for our relationships, in which we teach and learn from one another, and we admire rather than envy one another. Walking humbly helps us bring each other up, and elevate one another, rather than incessantly living condescendingly in order to feel better about ourselves. With humility, we don’t have to go through life, regarding ourselves and others as simply cocky gunslingers that need to be avoided and feared for the sake of psychological survival. Instead, we should appreciate our coexistence with people who are both better and worse than us in different areas, and both learn from them, and educate them in return. This is how we were created; to be neither the best nor the worst, but to live in relationship with others, and humility is the key to managing this in our society that is so focused on competition and success.

 

Link to video: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_jennings_watson_jeopardy_and_me_the_obsolete_know_it_all?language=en


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.