Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Confusing Evangelism and Discipleship

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Published Jul 24, 2014

The caricature is so tired it’s wearisome to even bring it up, but it’s so prevalent, we must: 

“If you emphasize evangelism, you must not be doing discipleship.”

This is such a patently ridiculous idea it’s almost not worth spending energy to dismiss. If it were true, then Jesus lied, for He is the one who said that not only were we to do both, but that both must co-exist in the church. The Great Commission makes it clear that we are to do both evangelism and discipleship. Doing one does not automatically negate the other.

Even more, if you aren’t doing evangelism, you won’t have anyone to disciple! And the goal of discipleship, if I understand the New Testament, is to be able to turn around and invest in the evangelistic mission! So without discipleship, there won’t be any evangelism. 

All to say, it’s not an “either-or,” but a “both-and.” And a very important “both-and.”

So why the tension? 

Why the snide dismissals of evangelistically-oriented churches as if it’s inherent that if they are reaching high percentages of unchurched people they must be either a) abandoning orthodoxy, or b) sacrificing discipleship?

It’s simple.

We don’t know what it means to do discipleship.

Most approaches to evangelism involve the “front door” of the church, meaning the weekend services and other large-scale events that members use to invite their friends to attend. As a result, the “front door” is opened widely for those guests, with attention to their needs. The message is not watered down, but the red carpet is rolled out in ways that help them understand and appropriate the message for their lives. 

Sometimes that means a different style of music, a different dress code, an attention to forms of communication that resonate, and more. Essentially, missiology 101.

So what’s the problem?

The countless numbers of churches who have equated the “front door” with discipleship. Rather than seeing an event such as the weekend service as the time when you throw open the doors for guests and outreach, it is seen as the time when the already convinced are targeted and developed. As a result, if “front door” events are used for anything else, discipleship is assumed to have been abandoned.

This thinking is flawed on two essential fronts:

First, large gatherings – even for worship – were seen as “front door” events for the unchurched by the apostles in the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians for holding worship services that would make the unchurched think them crazy (I Cor. 14). Going back even further, the large group gatherings of Jesus were almost always evangelistic in orientation.

Second, discipleship in the Bible was almost always enacted in smaller groups and settings, if not one-on-one. The most obvious is Jesus pouring into the 120, and from the 120, the 12. Paul went off for three years for preparation and discipleship before launching into his many missions, and then personally mentored various pastors for their ministry, such as Timothy.

This does not mean there is no place for “personal” evangelism (there is), and no place for mass discipleship (there is). It just means that we shouldn’t confuse a particular approach toward one with the absence of the other.

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), which I have had the honor and privilege of leading for over twenty years, the approach is simple: evangelism and discipleship.

Evangelism, at this stage in our church’s life in light of contemporary culture, has its locus on “front door, ” weekend events. Not solely, but primarily. People are trained in personal evangelism, but it is the invitation to a weekend event that is primary in our outreach strategy. This has resulted in an overall growth rate of over 70 percent from the unchurched.

Discipleship is rooted in the Meck Institute, a community-college type of approach to classes and seminars that offers everything from “Bible Basics” all the way to graduate level courses in systematic theology. Small groups, while focused on spans of care, supplement the Institute mightily. This has led to a community of over 10,000 active attenders.

And while long-time believers in attendance on the weekends would say it grows their faith exponentially (largely because the questions of today’s believers increasingly parallel the questions of today’s non-believers), that is not its primary focus. The primary focus is presenting Christ to the world at large, standing on Mars Hill and contending for the faith. It is Christianity 101 or 201. Essentially, the evangelism needed for discipleship; or, one could argue, the discipleship needed for evangelism to take root.

So rather than take shots at outreach-oriented churches for their lack of discipleship, delve deeper and see if what is really at hand is a different approach to discipleship. One that might just be more biblical,

…and more effective.

James Emery White



For more on how outreach can weave with discipleship, see James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker, 2014) as well as Rethinking the Church (Baker, 2007).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.