Why Evangelism and Discipleship are Ultimately the Same

By: Nicole Kelp, Resonate Pullman

Over the summer, I’ve been working with college students who will be small group leaders in our church, helping them strategize for the school year. As I’ve asked them to consider their strengths and weaknesses in leadership, invariably they will say they’re strong at evangelism and struggle with shepherding and discipling people, or the reverse.

It’s got me thinking. How is it that our brains have such a dichotomy between reaching new people with the gospel and discipling them into missional, obedient followers of Christ? Why do we think that engaging nonbelievers in evangelism and engaging believers in discipleship is so different? I’m definitely guilty of dividing these things in my head, making excuses based on my personality and gifting to swing towards one or the other at different seasons in my life. But I don’t think Jesus ever intended for there to be a difference.

Right before he left earth, Jesus commanded his followers to “Go and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Evangelism - the “making” - and discipleship - the “teaching to obey” - are wrapped up in his commission. The two go hand-in-hand.

But how do we accomplish this vision for making and teaching disciples? We’re not Jesus, after all! Some of us may be introverted and struggle to meet new people and make new disciples. Some of us may be insecure and struggle with the confidence necessary to teach someone to obey Jesus. Some of us may be disorganized and struggle to follow up with new people and maintain relationships for the long haul.

We aren’t Jesus, and that’s exactly the point. We have to rely on the gospel, which is ultimately the answer to this conundrum. Evangelism and discipleship both rely exclusively on the truth of the gospel.

  • The gospel is the answer for me. The gospel tells me that I’m not enough, but Jesus is. The gospel empowers me to be a person who make disciples.

  • The gospel is the answer for my non-believing friends. They need to know the truth of the God who loves them so much that he sacrificed everything for them.

  • The gospel is the answer for my believing friends. They need to know that God is for them just as much now as when they first accepted him. They need to know that God’s Spirit is in them, to comfort and to empower them. They need to know that God sent his Son, and his Son therefore sends us to be missionaries as well.

I recently had a major Kairos moment about this, in which God showed me a lie I was believing. I was getting frustrated with believers for not being missional. I so badly wanted non-believers to know the gospel and felt like that was the only thing that mattered. If I couldn’t make that happen, then I must be a failure at discipling and leading. People who are already Christians - myself, or anyone else - didn’t matter if they weren’t presenting the gospel to non-believers.

But God taught me that this wasn’t true. Yes, the non-believers in my life need the gospel. But so do the believers in my life. And therefore, so do I. 

When I feel like a failure, I need the gospel to remind me that Jesus loves me in spite of my mistakes. When I feel pride, I need the gospel to remind me that everyone is equal in our need for Jesus. When I feel alone, I need the gospel to remind me that Jesus is with me always.

I sometimes struggle with discipleship and get frustrated with believers. Instead I need to preach the gospel to believers, just as much as I desire to preach the gospel to non-believers. We never graduate from needing to hear and believe the truths of the gospel.

Yes, you may feel like you’re more gifted at engaging nonbelievers in evangelism or engaging believers in discipleship. But ultimately, they’re really the same, because it’s all about preaching the gospel, over and over and over again. Because what Jesus did on the cross affects all of our lives. The gospel both saves and sanctifies. The gospel both starts and sustains our walk with Christ.

For college students in Resonate, their summer projects are wrapping up. They’ve been in California or overseas or at church plant cities. They’ve been learning a lot about evangelism and about discipleship, and many of them are gearing up to be leaders this fall. My prayer for them, and my prayer for myself and everyone else in our church, is that we would continue to learn and grow, but that we would never forget the foundational truth of the gospel. We can’t make disciples without it.

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