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Fall 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 2 · pp. 76–81 

Discipleship and Evangelism

Isaac Block

In this essay I will reflect on issues relating to discipleship and evangelism. I will also suggest correctives that Mennonite Brethren should consider so as to be more effective in leading people into a life of faithful discipleship and into an aggressive ministry of evangelism.

At the outset, it may be helpful to define the concepts of discipleship and evangelism as they were used to classify and interpret the data which was generated in this survey.


Discipleship is defined in Chapter 3 in the section dealing with “Views of Christianity.” In this section, three views of Christianity are identified. Each of these views seems to have its own definition. Those in the tradition of spiritualistic Christianity define discipleship as “a direct personal relationship with the Spirit of Christ.” For these people, discipleship is understood in subjective terms. It is also seen as a private experience. People in the tradition of sectarian Christianity focus their understanding of discipleship on the life “within the Christian community.” Obedience to Christ is the discipline that receives the highest priority. Within this tradition it seems appropriate to conceptualize discipleship in covenantal terms. Here Christianity is less subjective and less private than it is for Christians in the spiritualistic tradition. People in the tradition of commonwealth Christianity practice their Christianity in the community of the nation. Here there is a tendency to conceptualize discipleship in Kingdom of God terminology. {77}

In my view, each of these versions of discipleship is inadequate by itself. We should not be expected to live out only one of the three options. Instead, an attempt should be made to conceptualize discipleship in ways that would allow it to be private, covenantal, and global. When this approach is taken, it follows that disciples of Jesus will affirm their relationship with the Spirit of Jesus; they will affirm their relationship with other believers; and they will recognize their place in the global community.

Perhaps the teaching methods that we have used in teaching theology have serious defects. It may well be that we have not understood how to help members of our denomination conceptualize discipleship. Could it be that we have relegated discipleship to the realm of ideas when it would be understood better in the realm of experience in all three ways alluded to above?


The definitions of evangelism appear in the same section as the definitions of discipleship. Indeed, they seem to grow out of the definitions of discipleship.

According to the spiritualistic tradition the faithful witness of the church is the calling of individuals to conversion. It seems right to ask, what is meant by the faithful witness? One possible answer could be that it has to do with the sharing of our faith. By implication, if we are faithful in sharing our faith then we are faithful witnesses and/or evangelists. When this sharing is linked to a preoccupation with right dogma, whether orthodox or fundamentalist, then faithful witness implies passing on Biblical truths with conviction and in the form in which we have received them.

But perhaps witnessing as sharing the tenets of our faith is an inadequate definition and application of the concept of witnessing. It seems as though the intent of Jesus’ statement, “You shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts l: 8), has much more to do with ascribing our experiences to Christ than it has to do with proclaiming the tenets of our faith. The promise that Jesus made to the disciples was that after the Holy Ghost would come upon them, they would have power to do this. Statements of belief can be debated as to their rightness or wrongness. Our reflection, and the perceptions of our experiences, may be open to interpretation, but they remain ours to have and to hold. To be a faithful witness then means to be faithful in ascribing to Jesus {78} the spiritual dynamic that is operative within us. This witness is not private. Instead, it is public. It is confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord.

It also seems right to ask what is meant by calling individuals to conversion. For spiritualistic Christians it likely means inviting people who are unbelievers to become believers. The expectation is that when unbelievers do this they experience a moment of conversion which secures their eternal salvation, whether it is a dramatic experience like Paul’s (Acts 9) or a quiet experience like Lydia’s (Acts 17). For spiritualistic Christianity this “once for all” conversion can readily be privatized and understood in subjective terms.

According to the sectarian tradition, evangelism is related to the notion of associations. As mentioned earlier, for them Christianity is focused on the community of disciples. The mission of these disciples is to call people out of their immoral associations. Not only that, it is to invite them to associate themselves with the community of disciples. The parameters of this community are clearly defined. For Mennonite Brethren the Confession of Faith and the Church covenant would establish the parameters. Individuals would be assumed to have been successfully evangelized when they have joined the membership of the church through the confession of their faith, the ordinance of baptism, and general agreement with the Confession and the covenant.

For sectarian Christians, evangelism does not seem to carry with it the same sense of urgency as it does for spiritualistic Christians. Sectarian Christians tend to hold the view that it is their responsibility to preach the whole gospel. The results, or the responses to the gospel, are best left to individuals and to God. But there is “great rejoicing” when an individual is “added to the church.”

Commonwealth Christians tend to think of “mission” rather than “evangelism.” They tend to be concerned about social inequities that operate against individuals and groups. They hold a high view of the laws of God as expressed in the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than see these as descriptive statements that pertain to a future kingdom, they contend that they are instructive for us today. Commonwealth Christians have a prophetic mission. It is their responsibility to denounce systems of oppression and injustice and to work strenuously to create new structures that will result in greater equities and the liberation of those who are oppressed. In the pursuit of their {79} goals, they do not hesitate to band together with those of like concern. They tend to encourage ecumenicity within the church and full participation in the affairs of society. To evangelize, then, is to liberate the captives, to provide justice for the oppressed and, in general, to side with the disadvantaged and the poor. It is to participate in providing the answer to the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”

The three views of Christianity each has a distinct view of evangelism. Spiritualistic Christians call people to conversion; sectarian Christians call people into community; and common wealth Christians call people into mission. The question that we must ask here is this: Should we continue to stress one of these types of evangelism or should we become more synthetic? In my view, we should become more synthetic.


At this point it seems appropriate to make some observations about the findings of the survey. Taken together, the three views of Christianity had eighteen possible positive responses. In 1972 the total score was 5.54 and in 1982 it was 5.50. The first impression is that very little has changed in the Mennonite Brethren view of Christianity. Upon closer observation, this is not the case. Some interesting shifts have taken place. Spiritualistic Christianity shows a slight decline; commonwealth Christianity shows a significant decline; while sectarian Christianity shows a marked increase. There is at least a possibility that this results from our continued appreciation of orthodox and fundamentalistic beliefs. It is not clear to me that this shift indicates a deliberate attempt to take our discipleship more seriously and to be more aggressive in our evangelism. I am inclined to suspect something else. It is my interpretation that this is a defensive move. I think that it may well represent a fear that we may lose something that is special to us. Consequently, we have become more protective of our doctrinal turf. Often we are busy promoting our distinctives when we should be celebrating what we have in common with the larger Christian community.

Furthermore, it seems as though the Mennonite Brethren church has allowed itself to be swept along by the political and economic mood of our society. It is probably easier to protect vested interests when we are sectarian than when we are either spiritualistic or commonwealth Christians. Here are some questions {80} to ponder: Have we become more sectarian in our view of Christianity because it calls us to a more responsible form of discipleship and because it provides us with a more effective basis for evangelism? Or have we become more sectarian because we want to protect our own interests, be they doctrinal, economic, or the distinctives of our denomination? If these are seen as rhetorical questions, the second is the more accurate description of our situation.


It is one thing to identify problems; to offer correctives is quite another matter. At the risk of being misunderstood, I will make five suggestions.

First, new vitality must be injected into our Christian education programs. Or possibly, new programs of Christian education need to be pioneered. Somehow we have succeeded in remaining orthodox in our beliefs, but we have not succeeded in translating these beliefs into life styles that adequately reflect a synthetic understanding of discipleship. Nor have we succeeded in translating these beliefs into aggressive and effective evangelistic activity. The annual Conference Year Books demonstrate this latter weakness. There are two possible reasons for this dilemma. One is that fewer people are attending our Sunday schools. Throughout our history, the Sunday school has been the most significant Christian education program in our churches. If fewer people are being taught, then we should expect that gaps would begin to develop. The other possible reason is that our Christian education programs may have outlived their usefulness. Programs that were designed in the first instance to teach illiterate, undisciplined street boys may not be the best ones suited to teach children with sophisticated, technologically trained minds. Or, curricula developed in large urban centers with a view to marketing may well reflect orthodox and fundamentalist views, but they may not take sufficiently seriously local issues that pertain to discipleship and evangelism.

Second, we need to evaluate our church structures and our leadership styles. Both of these must grow out of our understanding of Christian theology rather than out of secular institutions and marketing practices. This exercise must include the decision to abandon the stereotypes which accompany any one type of Christianity. {81}

Third, we need to become more insistent that those who come into our churches take ownership of our historic doctrines and of the implications of these for daily living and evangelism. To say this is not a round-about way of advocating individualism. Instead, it is an appeal to help people internalize their beliefs and the reasons for their behaviors. We must help people surrender their lives to the Spirit of God so that He can help internalize beliefs and values and assist in the process of translating these into daily living.

Fourth, I want to suggest that we need to differentiate more clearly between taboos and sins. More careful attention might be given to issues like justice, exploitation, greed, oppression and unforgiving attitudes. This could be a threatening experience, but it would be worth the effort.

And, fifth, we may need to resort to a different method of doing theology. We may want to look for a theological method that makes a more serious attempt to connect right doctrine with right living. This could have immediate implications for the way we understand discipleship and the way in which we do the work of evangelism.


I fear that this essay may have a negative ring to it. That is not the intent. There is much that commends the Mennonite Brethren Church in its understanding of discipleship and evangelism. I have tried to deal with those aspects of the subject where there seems to be room for growth. To do this is congruent with my own concept of discipleship and evangelism.

Isaak Block is a faculty member of Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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