If someone asked you when Peter became a Christian, what would you tell them?
Some say it happened when Jesus called him to fish for men on the rocky shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Others offer that it was at the end of Mark 8, when Peter answered Jesus’ pointed question, “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Christ.” Others point to when Jesus restored Peter after he had denied him three times. Some are convinced that it was not until after the resurrection, when he ran to the tomb and found it empty. Still others argue it happened at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended.
So what’s the answer? We don’t know for sure. But it seems clear that Jesus discipled his disciples long before they actually became Christians. (Additionally, the term Christian wasn’t even used until the end of Acts 11).
Can’t we have a similar discussion about getting married? When, exactly, does a couple officially become a married couple? Is it when they say “I do”? Or exchange rings and a kiss? Or is it when the minister officially pronounces them husband and wife? Is it when all parties sign the marriage license, or when they consummate the marriage? Or is it the entire process of the wedding throughout the weekend? We don’t know that either; it’s both an event and a process.
Some Christians can look back and recount a specific date on the calendar of their conversion. For me, it was August 18, 1985, when I walked down the aisle of a small Southern Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the ripe age of six. But other friends have shared with me that they came to trust Jesus over a period of a few years—and then looked back on their lives and realized, I’ve believed this stuff for a while; my life was surrendered to and shaped by Jesus. I guess that makes me a Christian. And maybe that’s just the point. Jesus engaged in discipleship and evangelism at the same time with the same people. It was an event and also a process.
It’s easy to trip and fall into a false dichotomy, believing that evangelism only occurs before conversion and discipleship only happens after it. It sounds all fine and good on the surface, but there’s one problem: we don’t see much evidence of that in the Gospels. It seems Jesus was discipling those who didn’t yet believe and also evangelizing those who already did.
The top question asked by any Bible-wielding, travel-weary evangelist is, “Where would you go if you were to die tonight?” This approach seeks to persuade people to repeat a carefully-worded prayer, sign on the divine dotted line, and rest assured that our ticket to heaven has been punched. But it’s not about getting our tickets punched and then riding it out until we flatline. It’s about doing something of utmost importance with our lives: following Jesus. Instead of asking, “Where would you go if you died tonight?” Dallas Willard posed another question: “If you don’t die tonight, what are you going to do tomorrow?” A committed disciple of Jesus would most likely respond something like this: “I will wake up and live as best I can in the full trust, grace, and guidance of Christ as I submit to God’s kingdom.”
In our North American context, most people have preconceived notions about God and Christians, and let’s be completely honest: often, these assumptions are not pretty. Author and kingdom practitioner Hugh Halter offers a great definition of evangelism, one I use frequently: Evangelism is changing people’s assumptions about God and his people (paraphrased). By Halter’s definition, evangelism occurs when people begin to acknowledge, Hey, maybe I can begin to trust this God of the Universe and maybe God’s people aren’t as strange/evil/awkward/judgmental/off-based/fill-in-the-blank as I originally thought.Evangelism, when properly understood, is the hope-filled, world-changing announcement where everyone, regardless of their past or present situation, is invited to come in and join the party of kingdom living. In dying to ourselves and submitting to the King—who is a gracious and loving Father—we experience life like never before.
Let’s just come out and admit it: When most of us think about evangelism, we are on the verge of breaking out in hives and feeling our tongues swell up. Maybe we’ve seen it done so poorly that we’re embarrassed. Ask most people under the age of thirty-five, and they’ll admit that evangelism makes them weak in the knees. In our postmodern culture, evangelism is tough sledding. Now, hear me out: I’m certainly not against evangelism. Not at all. It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of seeing people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, I am not exactly sure how many people would enter into a vibrant relationship with Jesus without someone, in some form or another, communicating to them the life-altering, grace-inducing message of the Risen Christ. As Christians, we don’t engage in it nearly as much as we should. But what I am advocating for is a proper understanding and holistic approach to evangelism.
Evangelism, as we’ve stated, is crucial to life in Christ. But why is it that we don’t view discipleship as equally crucial? One is not more important than the other. More often than not, our mental bowling ball ends up in one of two gutters: believing “being saved” is between me and Jesus in the present, or that it’s about going to be with God in the future. What about learning to live with Christ in an ever-growing, ever-deepening, ever-expanding reality in the here and now? There are Christians who care too much about life after death, accused of being too heavenly-minded to do any earthly good. This puts us at risk of never truly experiencing life. It is living with the awareness that it affects now and eternity. Eternity is in session, as Dallas Willard used to say. If we bisect evangelism and discipleship, we miss out on the rich dimensions of life available to us in the kingdom.
Evangelism, yes. Discipleship, yes. We need both. I like the portmanteau missional stategist and practitioner Alan Hirsch created: disciplism. Hirsch writes, “We need to reconceive discipleship as a process that includes pre-conversion discipleship and post-conversion discipleship.” (Alan Hirsch, Disciplism: Reimagining Evangelism Through the Lens of Discipleship [Exponential Resources, 2104], 27.) I’ve been a Christian for over three-and-a-half decades, and, truth be told, I still need others to evangelize me. I need to be told again and again about the saving message of Jesus, about my hopeless state before Christ and my hope-filled present and future with him. I need to be caught up again in the wonder of grace and the breathtaking vision of redemption and rescue. I need to be enamored again by the gospel—the good news, which is so good, I couldn’t make up such a story on my own if I tried. I have friends like Brian, who surrendered his life to Christ, tripped across the threshold of the kingdom, and fell into the lap of Jesus. We celebrated his decision by hiking in the woods of Pennsylvania near a river in the Lehigh Valley, where we sat down, dangled our feet over the side of an old steel train bridge, and took Communion together. I discipled Brian every week for two years as we read through the Book of Mark over coffee before he finally pulled the trigger.
If we get our evangelism wrong, we will most certainly get our discipleship wrong, too. If evangelism is just a check-the-box insurance policy paid for with the simple verbalization of a brief prayer, then calling those same people to costly, lifelong obedience in Christ in the days ahead will be a nearly impossible task. What you win people with is what you win them to. (J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016], 76–77.) If people receive a message of spiritual comfort baptized in consumerism, they will come to expect that moving forward. Orlando Costas knew it well and said it best: if we do not communicate a gospel which expects a complete abandonment of self, we will be tempted to believe in a conscience-soothing Jesus, with an unscandalous cross, an otherworldly kingdom, a private, inwardly limited spirit, a pocket God, a spiritualized Bible, and an escapist church. Its goal is a happy, comfortable, and successful life, obtainable through the forgiveness of an abstract sinfulness by faith in an unhistorical Christ (Orlando E. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982], 80.) The first half of Jesus’ message is come and see; the second half is pick up your cross and follow me.
When Jimmy Carter was president, a reporter allegedly chided him by saying he had been born again a few too many times. Yet maybe there’s more to this than we realize. Isn’t that the point of maturity and discipleship, to be born again and again—and again? I’m in need of being converted many times over. Aren’t we all?
I’m not stating that Jesus’ saving work is conditional or that we need to walk the aisle during an altar call every few weeks. What I am talking about is what the Methodists refer to frequently as the process of sanctification. This was Peter’s story in Acts 10–11. God used Peter to proclaim the good news to others so they might experience new life in Christ. Thousands experienced this conversion—and yet, in God’s great irony, Peter was also being converted in the process. The messenger of conversion was experiencing his own personal conversion at the same time.8 Maybe that was the moment Peter became a Christian.
If you’re asking questions about how to faithfully live in and reach a culture with the gospel, J.R. Briggs offers a helpful new resource. The widening of political, racial, generational, and religious differences often leads to an “us vs. them” mentality all too common today. In The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully, author J.R. Briggs communicates a refreshing vision that embraces tension and calls us to live in radical love and faithfulness between the extremes that isolate and divide people. Releases Fall 2020—pre-order from our store here.
This resource may be helpful for:
- Anyone struggling with the tension of faith and culture
- Church leaders and leadership teams
- Laypeople looking to faithfully engage their neighbors