Day 199: Matthew 23:15

 How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You sail the seas and cross whole countries to win one convert; and when you succeed, you make him twice as deserving of going to hell as you yourselves are!

[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day.  In this section I look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.] 

Here is one that is totally applicable today.  Churches all over America continue to debate this issue:  What’s more important?  Evangelism or discipleship?

Evangelism is the process of preaching the Gospel for the purpose of securing conversions to one’s own faith. In the case of this scripture it was about converting people to Judaism, and to today’s churches it’s the activity of recruiting new Christians – “saving souls” from hell by exhorting people to pledge their commitment to Christ.

Discipleship is the activity of following and teaching the doctrines and precepts of one’s religion.  For Christians, it’s doing what Jesus did and sharing what he said.  It’s living a life that would be pleasing to Jesus.  It’s about walking the talk.  It’s about spiritual growth and transformation.  It’s about wisdom, faith, and love.

Traditional mainline churches emphasize discipleship.  Evangelical churches, as one might guess, emphasize evangelism.  Traditional churches say evangelical churches are shallow – “a mile wide and an inch deep.”  Evangelical churches say traditional churches are “turned in.”  Traditional churches say evangelical churches offer cheap salvation.  Evangelical churches say traditional churches scare people away.  Traditional churches say instead of encouraging their members in the faith, evangelical churches use people to support their own self-perpetuation.  Evangelical churches accuse mainline churches of being too “liberal” and “relativistic.”   Traditional churches say evangelical churches are all flash and no substance.  Evangelical churches say traditional churches are boooorrrrriiiinnnnngggg.  It’s really a case of quality vs. quantity.

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Of course, in a healthy church or denomination there would be both evangelism and discipleship going on.  A healthy church grows because the participants are excited about it so they naturally endorse it to others, and when people come in the door there are a variety of programs and activities that encourage participants to grow spiritually.  Most churches, however, are not very balanced.  They definitely tend to lean one way or another.  Either they spend their time and effort on getting new recruits, or they spend their resources on developing the people they already have.  It’s just the way it is.

Deep and Wide

I guess the inclination would be to say that both evangelism and discipleship are equally important.  Moderation in all things, right?  But wait….that’s not what Jesus says here.  Hmmmm….seems he has a preference.  In this scripture he is clearly saying that he’s not all that crazy about evangelism.  He says, “You sail the seas and cross whole countries to win one convert; and when you succeed, you make him twice as deserving of going to hell as you yourselves are!

He said that the Pharisees wanted to go wide rather than deep.  He said that they taught people the wrong things through their words and actions because they didn’t understand God’s will.  He accuses them of conversion perversion.

On the basis of this scripture I think it’s safe to say that Jesus would prefer that churches concentrate on going deep.  He is saying in this scripture that focusing on going wide is wrong. Because wide doesn’t work without deep.  You have to get the deep part down first.  Jesus was all about deep.

For a while we went to a Pentecostal church that really functioned as an evangelical church.  As time went on we saw that there was no real fellowship, no encouragement, no real spiritual formation, no compassion.  The only thing the leadership was interested in was “winning souls.”  All of the teachings were geared to recruitment.  Whenever they did a mission project the only thing they reported on was how many converts they secured in the process.  They thought it was a waste of time to give people things or improve their physical circumstances unless they were “saved” in the process. Week after week every sermon ended with an altar call for those who were not yet “saved” to come forward and get a metaphorical ticket to heaven.  In all the time we were there we only saw one person go forward, and that person was never seen again.

The pastor eventually put up a foam board on a display stand.  The board was divided in half horizontally.  People were encouraged to write down the names of their “unsaved” friends and relatives and tack them up on the bottom of the board.  The idea was that when the people at the church got these underachievers to “confess their faith in Christ” they could move the name to the top part of the board amidst great fanfare.  When we left the church the bottom part was full of names but that top section was still empty. Maybe there was one, I can’t remember.  It was easy to leave that church.  Everyone was kind of detached and grumpy and aloof.

I once heard someone say that churches should be sure they understand the Great Commandment (loving God and one another – Day 193) before they try to work on the Great Commission (making disciples).  I don’t know if the author of this statement was familiar with this particular scripture.  I certainly never noticed it until today and I’ve never, ever heard a pastor preach on it.

It kind of puts an end to the debate about evangelism vs. discipleship.  Well, to me it certainly makes a lot of sense.  Like they say, you can’t teach what you don’t know.  And if you are kind and loving and faith-filled and empathic and encouraging and accepting and peaceful and humble (like Jesus encourages us to be), then people will probably want hang out with you and learn from you and talk about faith issues and you will have the privilege of being able to share your innermost thoughts with them.

And it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t evangelize like people do today.  He didn’t sign people up or ask them to commit to anything, nor did he coerce them into reciting creeds or making confessions of faith.  He didn’t even pressure them to make baked goods or volunteer to be on a committees or contribute to the youth mission trip.  No, he befriended them.  He ate with them.  He loved them.  He taught them and told them stories.  He traveled with them.  He healed them.  He fed them. He protected them. Yes, it seems pretty clear to me.   Jesus would prefer for us to go deep and leave the wide part to the Holy Spirit, who is, after all, the great evangelist.

What does this scripture say to you?

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