by Natalie LaValley

When I was sixteen, I went to a summer camp program that trained twelve to eighteen-year-olds to share the Gospel with kids around my city. The training mostly consisted of being quizzed on our ability to state the gospel in five short and simple points. The same evening we arrived, we were sent out in vans to public parks, where we offered kids popsicles in exchange for letting us tell them “a story,” followed by an invitation. When we returned, each team reported how many converts they’d gotten. One team reported over eighty saved, and the director encouraged the rest of us slackers to be like that team.

For the rest of the summer, we went into daycares, apartment complexes, and homeless shelters leading week-long programs to teach the kids Bible stories, songs, and games. Getting to interact with kids in these places was eye-opening. But like so many mission trips, I’m not certain that the benefit was greater for those kids than it was for me. While we were with each group, we tried to lay out the Gospel to them in clear, logical terms. When kids raised their hands for the invitation, we quizzed them to make sure they “got” the gospel straight and then explained the “ABC” of salvation. Then we moved on, happy to have made more converts. We left the kids with handouts with an acronym that explained how to “G.R.O.W.” in Christ with a phone number for a church somewhere in the city. By the end of the summer, we’d tallied up hundreds and hundreds of young converts. I haven’t heard from any one of those children since.

Was that really an effective way to obey the Great Commision? Yes, the Bible does say that some plant and some water (1 Cor. 3:8). But even within that metaphor, “planting” seeds indicates more care and intentionality than “scattering” seeds. Paul says, “I planted the seed” and “Apollos watered it” (3:6). This means Paul had a relationship with the person who would come after him to water what he had planted, and clearly he continued his relationship with the Corinthians even after leaving them with Apollos, because he is writing a letter to them. In other words, evangelism as modeled in the New Testament leads directly into discipleship. In the framework that Ascending Leaders uses, evangelism and discipleship are not even separate activities. Rather, salvation is considered the first of four “stages” of discipleship. This framework helps to redefine success in our mission work. The danger is that getting large numbers of people to raise their hands at invitations feels much more exciting and successful than the long, relational process of discipleship. When you are only evangelizing, you can count up the numbers and feel satisfied with them. When, however, evangelism is considered only the first step of a lifelong process of discipleship, “success” means something different–it means that people have close relationships with other believers who are discipling them, helping to meet their needs, and walking with them through the lows, the highs, and the walls of life. This kind of success is harder to quantify or broadcast to cheering audiences.

My experience at the summer camp program pointed to another problem: we, the evangelizers, weren’t being discipled. The entire program was managed by one person, who, of course, didn’t have time to talk to each person. We gathered for mandatory worship, but it didn’t get much deeper than that. Looking back, I’m not even sure that all the teenagers evangelizing were walking with God seriously or fully grasped what they were teaching. One guy told me he was a Christian because at a youth rally, all his friends went forward to be baptized, and he felt awkward being the only one to stay behind. Sometimes he and the other teenagers would teach the kids off-the-wall things about God that apparently came from their impression of Christianity but certainly not from the Bible. The camp’s sole leader wasn’t around enough to notice these problems.

Moreover, that camped marked a major low in my own walk with God. I became miserable trying to please God. I was shy and hated forcing myself on strangers, but at the same time, I felt extremely guilty if I passed a stranger without telling them the Gospel. If the camp had had more leaders involved with discipling us, one of them might have noticed that my diligence in sharing the Gospel was developing into unhealthy anxiety.

All this is not to say that evangelism is ineffective or that encouraging people to share the Gospel is bad. For all I know, God might have used even my fear-motivated efforts to impact a child. However, healthy and holistic evangelism looks at conversion not as a finish line, but as the first step in discipleship. It brings people into a relationship both with God and with other believers who can teach them more and more as they mature. After all, the Great Commision does not tell us “Go and make converts” but “Go and make disciples.”

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