Evangelism's big picture

Evangelism's big picture: From baptism to discipleship

Any approach to evangelism that focuses primarily on the number of people baptized misses the mark.

Mark A. Finley is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, United States.

Christ’s great commission (Matt. 28:19, 20) involves much more than baptizing new converts. Any approach to evangelism that focuses primarily on the number of people baptized misses the mark. Jesus’ commission to His followers was not merely to baptize, but to make disciples—to develop faith-filled, praying Christians who are daily growing in grace, studying His Word, worshiping with His people, and witnessing to the glory of His name. When the church fails to nurture new converts, the church fails in the mission of Christ. Evangelism is incomplete without a comprehensive strategy of nurture and discipleship.

The Annual Council1 of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 2003 voted on a document on evangelism and church growth titled, “Evangelism and Church Growth— From Baptism to Discipleship.” The document sounded this note of alarm: “There is ample evidence and growing concern that evangelistic success does not always translate into proportionate growth in discipleship. In far too many instances there has been a dramatic loss of attendance and membership within a relatively short time following the evangelism.”2

Baptism is not some magic formula to solve all spiritual problems or some panacea to deliver people from all their difficulties. Baptism does not signify the end of a spiritual journey but the beginning of a new life of fellowship with Christ in the context of His church.

The Acts model

The New Testament church exploded in growth. Three thousand were baptized on the Day of Pentecost alone (Acts 2:41). The evangelistic zeal of these early Christians was unabated as “believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14).3 These committed believers were so passionate about sharing the story of their resurrected Lord that “daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). Their teaching and preaching powerfully impacted first-century society, and “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7).

In Acts, chapter 7, Stephen chose to die rather than cease sharing the Jesus he loved so deeply. Even in death, he witnessed for his Lord. The disciples placed priority on winning the lost as Acts 8:25 declares, “So when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.”

The church grew so rapidly that new churches were planted throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (Acts 9:31), and within a few short years, the Christian church grew from a small band of believers to tens of thousands. This rapid evangelistic growth necessitated a carefully thought-through process of nurture to enable new believers to become strong disciples. Luke consistently records, not only baptisms in Acts, but the methodology of the early church in nurturing these new converts to Christianity.

After the Pentecostal baptism of 3,000, Luke states, “[T]hey continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). This passage lists three clear elements of New Testament nurture: repeated doctrinal instruction, social fellowship, and a personal devotional life of prayer. Verse 46 adds a fourth element: “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple.” Corporate worship was a vital part of the nurturing process. These new converts were not baptized and left on their own but were nurtured by the church. When Paul was converted, he was led to Ananias who mentored him for three years in Damascus. Similarly, Cornelius was led to Peter to be nurtured and to grow in his newfound faith. Throughout Acts, strong evidence shows that the disciples genuinely cared for the large number of new converts who were coming into the church. The disciples nurtured these new believers in small groups, prayer, and Bible study. They emphasized the importance of corporate worship and praised God together (Acts 2:42; 4:31, 32).

The disciples also were concerned about the social and physical needs of these new converts. The early Christian church was a caring church, with members revealing love in action as they met one another’s needs (Acts 6:1–7). The more they shared their life and faith, the more the church grew. It is a divine law of spiritual life that the more we give our faith away, the more it increases.

God is a nurturing God

Nurture flows from the heart of a loving God who desires to see those who have just come to faith grow in Him. He is the dedicated Physician who tenderly cares for His patients. He nurses each one to health. He applies the healing balm until they are whole (Jer. 8:22). He is the loving Parent who instructs, guides, corrects, and disciplines His children. Even if they fail, He never gives up (Isa. 49:15). He is the Good Shepherd who cares for His flock, and battles against the ravenous wolves who want to destroy the sheep. His overriding concern is the safety and well-being of His flock (Ps. 23; Luke 15:1–7; John 10:11–16).

Thus, nurture is deeply embedded in the very nature of God’s character because He is more concerned about making disciples than counting baptisms.

Discipleship: A process

Discipleship is a process. It does not occur instantly at conversion and is not complete at baptism. Any evangelistic plan that does not include a comprehensive strategy to nurture and disciple new converts is incomplete. When the number of people baptized becomes the criterion for success rather than people growing in Jesus as disciples, the Great Commission becomes distorted.

If the goal of evangelism is to develop disciples, how can the church implement the principles of Acts in the twenty-first century to nurture new believers? Luke makes one thing clear in Acts: it is possible to have large numbers of converts— tens of thousands—and not have high apostasies. We cannot excuse our complacency about winning the lost with the excuse that we are more interested in quality converts than the number we baptize. It is not either-or. It is both-and.

A careful study of the Acts model reveals three critical aspects in the life of the new believer: the convert’s relationship with God, with the church, and with the community.

Relationship with God. If new converts are going to grow into faith-filled, productive disciples, their relationship with God is paramount. This relationship grows through our private devotional life and in fellowship with other Christians as we pray and study God’s Word together. When the personal devotional life is weak, with little serious Bible study, the spiritual life withers and dies.

For the last 40 years, I have been conducting major evangelistic meetings around the world. During this period of time, I have seen thousands come to Jesus and rejoice in His truth. When local congregations have implemented the discipleship principles outlined in Acts, apostasies generally have been quite low.

Here are some things we have discovered about helping new believers in their relationship with God. Immediately after baptism, we seek to find a spiritual guardian for each new believer. Our goal includes finding spiritually minded church members with like interests and a similar background to the one baptized. The established church member becomes a friend and mentor for the new member. The week after the individual’s baptism, the spiritual guardian visits the new member’s home and delivers the book Steps to Christ.4 He or she shares what Jesus means to him or her and encourages the new believer to begin reading a few pages from Steps to Christ each day. We find Steps to Christ especially helpful for new converts. The first six chapters deal primarily with justification and the assurance of salvation, while the last seven deal with sanctification and growth in Christ. The spiritual guardian offers to visit the new convert weekly to study selected pages and pray together. The spiritual guardian may also invite his or her new friend to a small Bible study group to participate in weekly studies on Christian growth.

To also help new believers in their relationship with God, enroll them in a new believer’s class to re-study the great teachings of the Bible. Although they may grasp the essential truths of Scripture the first time around, at least some of these truths will be hazy in their minds. Do not assume that merely because an individual has been recently baptized that they understand each new biblical truthfully. Repeating these truths a second time fixes them in the mind of the new believer and anchors their faith.

In all of our evangelistic meetings, we recommend that pastors begin either a midweek Bible class or a Sabbath morning class for new converts to review the message. Often they use the book Studying Together as a tool to help these new believers mark their Bibles on the key Bible truths. In our small group ministry, we have used Unsealing Daniel’s Mysteries, a series of lessons in pamphlet form on the book of Daniel, focusing especially on the character of God and the character qualities necessary to live in the end times. These studies deepen faith, encourage faithfulness, and enrich the devotional life.5

Relationship with the church. The early church was a worshiping church. The believers met together to hear God’s Word, sing praises to Him, pray together, fellowship with one another, and share what God had done in their lives. These times of worship, praise, and fellowship were moments of great encouragement for these new believers (Acts 2:42; 5:42; 13:44; 14:27; 16:13; Eph. 5:19, 20). If new converts consistently miss corporate worship and Sabbath worship, their spiritual growth will be stunted and their faith will be aborted. God’s plan includes believers growing in the context of a community of faith. All successful plans for the nurture of new converts involve ensuring the new converts’ attendance at weekly Sabbath worship services. This necessitates attendance tracking.

The Good Shepherd knew the difference between 99 sheep and 100 sheep. You cannot tell the difference between 100 sheep and 99 sheep by merely looking—you must count. After each major evangelistic series, we print out the names of each person baptized and check each Sabbath morning to see if they are in church. If they miss even one Sabbath, we call them to pray for them. If we detect there are any problems at all, we visit that very Sabbath afternoon. A Seminary professor once told our class this story: After the baptism of a couple in his local congregation, he invited them to join his small Bible study group. They attended weekly. They were making good progress growing in Christ until they had a disappointing experience in their lives. Discouraged, they missed church. The professor noticed they were not there and visited them that Sabbath afternoon. While he was in their home, encouraging them, the doorbell rang. Two members of their study group dropped by to see them. Within 30 minutes, the doorbell rang again. It was another couple from the group. The discouraged new converts were surrounded by love. The small group members offered them the support they needed, and they were back in church the very next Sabbath.

Many converts are lost because members do not visit them when they miss church. They feel isolated and alone in facing their problems. Visitation is critical if new members are going to feel like they belong in their new church home. A new convert may possibly be doctrinally convinced but not socially integrated into the church. Although they have been baptized, they feel like an outsider. They still feel somewhat uncomfortable with this new group of people. How can we make them feel at home? Discover what they enjoy and connect them with a like group of people in the church. Be sure they have personal invitations to the church’s social events. Remind them when a fellowship dinner is taking place and encourage them to attend. If they come to church late and leave early, this is a sure sign that they are not socially integrated into the church. If they have children, introduce them to other parents with children. Ask one of the committed teenagers in your church to invite the teenagers of your new converts’ family into the church’s youth group. Develop a hospitality committee to watch for new converts and visitors to be sure they are warmly welcomed and invited home for dinner.

Someone has said, “You know you belong when you feel needed.” As soon as possible, find something for a new convert to do. Ask them to help. It might be something that needs to be done around the church, assisting in setting up tables for the fellowship dinner, working with the audiovisuals, picking up a shut-in to bring to church. The task may be simple but helps them feel needed. The more a convert feels needed, the more they will not want to miss one Sabbath.

Relationship with the community. New converts grow in Christ as they have something to share with people who do not know Christ. Christian growth and Christian witness are indissolubly linked. The Samaritan woman immediately shared what she had learned about Jesus. Our Lord said to the delivered demoniac, “ ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you’ ” (Mark 5:19). The New Testament church was a growing church because it was a witnessing church.

Converted hearts have a story to tell of God’s grace and power. Encourage new converts to join a witnessing class at your church. They will need guidance, but they will grow as they tell the story of God’s grace. Help each new convert become actively involved in some form of witnessing. They may be involved in literature ministry, visiting the sick and shut-in, small group Bible studies, health ministries, or youth or evangelistic ministry. Supply them with literature, CDs, and DVDs to give to their friends. Encourage them to participate in some form of outreach.

There are at least two decided benefits in getting new believers involved in soul winning. First, soul winning drives people to their knees, and they become dependent on Scripture. Soul winning will dramatically strengthen an individual’s faith. The questions others ask will lead them to study God’s Word more deeply themselves. Second, new converts have a network of friends that can be won. They have family members who will be eager to know what they believe. Witnessing believers generally do not leave the church, for participation in soul winning strengthens the faith of those who shares their faith.

Conclusion

Nurture and discipleship do not happen by accident but must be carefully planned. Without a strategy of discipleship in place, apostasies will be high. If the church does not provide nurturing opportunities for new believers, they will either be weak in the faith for years and create problems in the church or leave the church altogether. When discipleship is a way of life for pastors and local congregations, new converts become strong, faith-filled Christians, growing in their knowledge of the Word, and witnessing for the glory of the Lord. The time, effort, and energy put into new converts is well worth it as they become church leaders in the future and nurture others to become disciples of the Master.

1 A meeting of Adventist clergy and lay members from
throughout the world.

2 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,
“Evangelism and Church Growth—From Baptism to
Discipleship,” General Conference of Seventh-day
Adventists, http://www.adventist.org/worldchurch/
officialmeetings/2003annualcouncil/156G.html.

3 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the
New King James Version.

4 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1956).

5 See Mark A. Finley, Studying Together: A Ready-reference
Bible Handbook
(Fallbrook, CA: Hart Research Center, 1995);
for more information on Unsealing Daniel’s Mysteries, visit
www.itiswritten.com/store/products/unsealingdaniels
mysterieslessons

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Mark A. Finley is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, United States.

September 2009

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