Public evangelism is under attack. Too of ten we hear the same cry: "New members don't stick—they're here today, gone to morrow." "Schedule that crusade in some other church." "Most baptisms are hurried." "We are spending more and getting less." "Evangelism? No thanks. We want to concentrate on nurture."
This seeming dissatisfaction is not unique to Seventh-day Adventists. Dr. Win Arn, president of the Institute for American Church Growth at Pasadena, California, finds "that the very word 'evangelism' is so closely associated with many ineffective and unproductive activities intended to Christianize the unconverted that even the use of the word created obstacles in the minds of laity in most local churches." "Perhaps a few generations from now," he adds, "the word can be re introduced, when the in accurate stigmas and stereotypes are gone. But for now, even the word is get ting in the way of the process."1
But why this dissatisfaction when all along public evangelism has been the most successful method of adding new members?
To be sure, the discontent does not come from the fact that converts are added to the church. I see our members everywhere praying for the lost and hoping to win them to Christ. I believe that much of the discontent with evangelism can be traced to how we measure the success of evangelistic endeavors and our increasing failure to assimilate new members into the church.
Too often we attempt to fulfill Christ's Great Commission by outreach activities alone, and therefore we tend to measure our achievement by the number of baptisms we get rather than by the number of disciples we make. As a result, great attention and effort are expended to gain new members, but little nurture or follow-up occurs to keep those persons within the fold. So the real problem is not what we have done in evangelism, but what we have ignored in assimilation. Too often we act as if our responsibility ends when a person comes to Christ. We are content with evangelism when we really should move on to discipling.
Evangelism and disciple-making
A fundamental distinction exists be tween evangelism and disciple-making. In evangelism, success is achieved when a non-believer responds to and endorses personally a new set of convictions reflective of the Christian faith. That success is measured by an event—call it baptism—at a particular point in time. In disciple-making, success is achieved when that believer moves forward to adopt a change in lifestyle and behavior so that the new set of convictions reflective of the Christian faith obtained in evangelism becomes integrated into personal life and interpersonal relations.
Although we have experienced great success in evangelism, it is the kind of success that could destroy the very thing it intends to support. Unless we find effective ways to keep new members within the church and to assimilate them into the life of the congregation, evangelism is doomed. As Dr. Peter Wagner, a church growth specialist, argues, evangelism is a means to disciple-making. If that end result is not there, "it is hard to justify continuing it [evangelism]. Why? Because only accomplishing the end—making disciples—can justify the means."2
When Jesus presented the gospel mes sage to Nicodemus, He talked about Christian life in terms of birth (John 3:1- 7). The Scriptures clearly demonstrate that being born "of water" refers to baptism (Rom. 6:3) and that being born "of the Spirit" involves walking "in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4; 8:1). Both experiences—being born of water and being born of the Spirit—are essential components of Christian life.
While these two experiences are in separable, it is necessary to mark their distinct differences. Failure to keep this distinction leads many to the assumption that discipleship automatically follows baptism. Birth is a joyous event, complete in itself—but it is not sufficient. If a child were to remain a newborn, its birth would not long remain a happy one. We expect growth sustained, meaningful, expressive growth. At the same time we are also aware that no one is born an adult. Adulthood is achieved by nurture and growth over time.
The analogy of birth offers many lessons regarding the life of newborn Christians:
1. A baby's arrival completely upsets the status quo for the family. Established patterns of "how things ought to be" are quickly discarded.
2. Newborns are totally dependent. Left alone, without parental support, the infant would quickly find itself in difficulties.
3. Babies, being totally self-centered and unaware of the fact that anyone else has needs, expect that family members will fully meet their needs.
4. Babies usually express their demands in socially unacceptable methods—crying, kicking, screaming—because these are their only communication options. Growth brings about a change.
5. Newborns need consistent monitoring of growth so that corrective measures may be taken if and when necessary. . ..
6. Newborns are incapable of discernment and may readily ingest some thing that could cause harm.
7. Although infants will quickly recognize their own caregivers, they are just as likely to accept nurture or to receive abuse—from others.
8. When a baby is born premature, efforts must be redoubled and heroic measures taken to save its life. Failure to do so may lead to serious consequences.
9. Steady and consistent growth requires appropriate nourishment and nurture. The responsibility for providing these belongs to the parents, not to the infant.
10. Maturity takes time, but it does not automatically occur with the passing of time. Parents must repeatedly teach children simple tasks in order to help them eventually make their own decisions.
Likewise in spiritual life: baptism is only the moment of birth; a time to rejoice, yes, but not to rest and relax. Like a newborn coming into a family, new members joining a church may upset our status quo; may require constant support; may call for the monitoring and fostering of their growth process; may be premature, needing special care and lots of time and attention. A church cannot escape its responsibility of caring to assure sustained growth and health of the new believers.
Carl Wilson argues that Satan has tricked the church into divorcing evangelism from disciple building. "Where in the Scriptures do Jesus or the apostles separate the two ideas or debate one against the other? Evangelism is the process of winning men, enabling them to enter the kingdom of God. Disciple building is the process of teaching the new citizen how to obey the laws of the King and how to win and train others to do the same." 3
In a way, therefore, it is our ecclesiology—the way we look at the nature and mission of the church—that will determine the growth and transformation of the church. If the church remains only an evangelistic agency, we will have baptisms, but no guarantee of sustained discipling; on the other hand, if the church accepts along with its evangelistic mission the full responsibility of pastoral care and church growth, we will be on the march to disciple making. 4
Henrichsen uses this parental motif to emphasize post-evangelistic nurture: "Follow-up, then, is spiritual pediatrics. It has to do with the care and protection of the spiritual infant. It deals with the development of new babes in Christ from the time of their new birth until they grow and provide for themselves." 5
How, then, shall we focus on this spiritual pediatrics ? How do we ensure that new believers get a fair deal in church nurture and assimilation? I suggest five principles.
1. To an evangelism-oriented church, nurture is a necessity, not an option. Indeed nurture is an integral part of the whole process of evangelism and pastoral care. Anything less than an all-out effort to conserve the harvest of souls that the Holy Spirit gives is spiritual child abuse!
Evangelism to which the church is called is never complete until the new believers are actualizing the will of God in their choices and actions. Equipping newborn Christians for this task and guiding them in the process is disciple-making.
This is the task of the church. Unfortunately, it is a task we often fail to accomplish. We have a tendency to dip and drop. The New Testament, however, clearly teaches that development of the Christian walk occurs within the church. Making disciples and baptizing believers is followed by "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded" (Matt. 28:19, 20, RSV). Those who turned to Christ on the day of Pentecost "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42, RSV). Apollos had ardently accepted Christ, but he greatly needed Priscilla and Aquila to take him aside and expound to him the way (Acts 18:26).
"The transformation of life into the image of Christ is personal, but not private. It is individual, but always in the context of a community of faith (1 John 1:3). ... The individual requires the nurture of the church, and the church for its completeness requires the gifts of all the members. Transformation occurs in individuals, but in the context of community (1 Cor. 12:12-26). " 6
2. Incorporate new members into the full spectrum of church fellowship and activities. Studying our own denomination, Roger Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr., wrote: "Of what use is it to baptize new converts if we fail to incorporate them into responsible membership and they soon slip out 'the back door' ? Is not a member preserved as valuable as a convert won ? If we do not promote a strong spiritual internal growth within our congregations, we will soon find that we are working against ourselves. We may slip back faster than we progress forward. In the end we find that we have not only not grown internally, but even the numerical growth that we so eagerly sought has eluded us. We have lost everything."7
We need an ongoing rethinking of the processes by which we help new members assimilate into the life of the church. Personally, I'm encouraged to see a great step forward with the new seven-session orientation course, "Welcome to the Family," that Home Study International has produced. The course is an introduction to the Adventist world its history, traditions, culture, hope, and demands. It talks about how we keep Sabbath, why we have schools, how our stewardship system works, and what the church is all about. It attempts to assimilate the new member into the entire life of the church. The point is not more information but the sense of an open door that conveys the urge to get in and stay in. That is nurture.
3. Recognize that knowledge alone is not sufficient for nurture. When we are disappointed at the lack of maturity in the lives of new believers, it is tempting to interpret their spiritual inadequacy and struggles as evidence that they were not sufficiently instructed prior to baptism. We reason that if appropriate instruction had been given, the new members would "fit into our church." Such an assumption equates knowledge with spiritual development, and struggle and failure with spiritual poverty. When the new members see such an equation in the church, they get discouraged and drop out of fellowship even before they under stand their new-found hope.
While I would not want to defend shoddy preparation of baptismal candidates or encourage less instruction than is currently given, it is important to realize that knowledge alone will never produce the desired fruit of the Spirit.
Engel and Norton analyze this emphasis on "right teaching" to produce discipleship and conclude: "Some would . . . assert that the amount of doctrinal knowledge one has is the best gauge of his spiritual maturity. On this assumption, the new believer thus would be cultivated primarily through straightforward doctrinal teaching and preaching. If doctrinal knowledge itself is the essence of spiritual maturity, however, then the evangelical church, especially in the United States, should be characterized by believers who are using their spiritual muscle to 'turn the world upside down.' " 8
4. For new believers the postbaptismal period can be full of stress and struggle. In his thought-provoking book Rethinking Evangelism: A Theological Approach, Ben Campbell Johnson demonstrates that in the process of development a person experiences moments of awareness, redecision, and response followed by growth and development. "The experience of regeneration creates a new relationship with God which manifests itself as joy, peace, and the unity of one's being. But this new life does not develop without distraction and struggle. The old life of alienation immediately challenges this new creation (Rom. 7:21-25; Gal. 3:1- 5). For some persons, the new life of the Spirit breaks into consciousness with such dramatic force that they feel separated completely from the old life. But in course of time, old habits return, with their perverse imaginations and evil lusts. Caught in this contradiction, they realize that the new center has not created experientially a whole new person. This inner struggle between the old and the new forms the matrix within which the work of sanctification takes place."
Engel and Norton also underscore this struggle of new believers as they attempt to apply the biblical norm to problems of everyday life. "This [struggle] is a natural but tortuous process in which the believer is conformed by the Holy Spirit to the image of Christ. The point is that the believer must be helped in this struggle. This is the true meaning of cultivation (follow-up). At times it will be necessary to prune and admonish. At other times the need is for fertilization—encouragement, guidance, and teaching." 10
5. Nurture takes time. Hurry is often the hallmark of our expectation of maturity in new believers. In our eagerness to see quick results we would even glue wax fruit onto the tree rather than wait for the genuine to appear. Speaking of the church's role in the process of Christian maturity, Richard Neuhaus says: "The impulse to impose the Christian lifestyle or the model of ministry is wrong-headed. Unless it is restrained, it inevitably results in the 'unchurching' of Christians." 11
To conclude: Evangelism and discipleship do not constitute an either-or issue. We need both good baptismal preparation as well as thorough follow-up. New believers who struggle spiritually need our acceptance and love as well as a specific process designed to assist them in developing spiritual maturity. We must match well-prepared candidates with congregations who are well-prepared to accept and nurture them even when they struggle in spiritual warfare.
But some long-established members might ask, "Why can't this happen prior to baptism? Why can't we have maturity right from the moment they are added to the books?" George Sweazey appeals to the apostle for an answer: " 'As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him.' It must all start with receiving Christ Jesus as Lord. No amount of teaching or training can make a Christian out of someone who has not done that. 'You can't teach an egg to fly before it's hatched.' " 12
Walking in Christ follows receiving Christ. Both are vital. Both are necessary. But the order is important. "Evangelism must not only bring people to look to Christ as Lord; it must also start them on their Christian walk."13 Sweazey charges that the church's neglect of this is the great scandal of evangelism. When the church overlooks its duty to nurture the new believers, it fails in its responsibility to Jesus, who says, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
1 C. Peter Wagner, Church Growth: The State of
the Art (Wheaton, 111.: Tyndale, 1986), pp. 57, 58.
2 ____ , Your Church Can Grow (Ventura,
Calif.: Regal Books, 1984), p. 161.
3 Carl Wilson, With Christ in the School of Disciplebuilding
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p.
4 George E. Sweazey, The Church as Evangelist
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 193.
5 Walter A. Henrichsen, Disciples Are Made—
Not Born (Wheaton, III: Victor Books, 1974), pp.
6 Ben Campbell Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), p. 95.
7 Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr.,
Adventures in Church Growth (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983), pp. 33, 34.
8 James F. Engel and Wilbert Norton, What's
Gone Wrong With the Harvest? (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 1975), p. 52.
9 Johnson, p. 95.
10 Engel, p. 54.
11 Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 99.
12 Sweazey, p. 193.