Are Outreach and Discipleship Mutually Exclusive?

It’s no secret that Faith Church puts a significant amount of time, effort, and resources into outreach. We believe that the proclamation of the gospel–the good news about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the free gift of salvation available in Him–is at the very center of our mission.  After men and women trust Christ as Savior and Lord, we encourage them to learn to live out the implications of the gospel in everyday life.

Occasionally someone will suggest that we should reduce our efforts in outreach in order to focus more heavily on discipleship.  The notion seems to be that outreach and discipleship are mutually exclusive.  These persons are quite sincere in their belief, one that often flows out of a concern that we have men and women in our church family who are struggling to please God in their choices each day.

When done well, outreach and discipleship can actually be complimentary rather than competitive.

I appreciate the desire to focus on the quality of discipleship instead of the number of disciples.  I am all ears to any and all ideas about how to help the men and women in our church family grow deeper in their walk with Christ.  But I reject out of hand the idea that a church has to choose between one focus or the other.  When done well, outreach and discipleship can actually be complementary rather than competitive.  That is true for at least three reasons.

Passionate outreach motivates us to grow stronger.

One of the great evangelism passages in the Bible is 1 Peter 3:15, where we are told to “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”  It is important to understand this verse in the context in which it is written.  Peter first gives a series of practical areas in which Christians can and must allow the gospel to change their hearts and lives.  He speaks about a Christian’s duty to our government.  He teaches about the unique way Christians are to live and function in the workplace.  Then he gives an extended discussion about the way husbands and wives should relate to one another in love.  It is in that setting that he then commands Christians to be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks about our eternal hope.

The more you care about outreach, the more attention you will first give to your own sanctification.

The argument of the text is clear.  The reason anyone would ask about our hope is that they have first observed our changed and changing lifestyle.  Hypocrisy is one of the biggest turnoffs to evangelism, but godly authenticity is deliciously attractive.  The more you care about outreach, the more attention you will first give to your own sanctification.

Passionate outreach motivates us to go deeper.

You don’t have to labor long in most outreach opportunities before you realize that you are at the end of your own strength and wisdom.  But what’s wrong with that?  With the apostle Paul we say, “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).  That is a very healthy position in which to find oneself.

But we don’t stop there.  Such times of ministerial vulnerability lead us to strengthen our dependence on the Lord.  The witnessing opportunity becomes intensely vertical as we cry out to God for the ability to please and serve Him well.  That is why we can also say what Paul said later in the same passage; “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:4-5).

Passionate outreach produces fruit that must be cultivated.

The day a church isn’t filled with all sorts of people who have significant ways in which to grow is the day the church stops accomplishing its God-given mission.  New believers, and old believers too, bring all sorts of issues that have to be addressed.  But that is not bad news—it’s a sign of health and vitality.  When the nursery if full, spiritually speaking, the body is healthy.  Sure, resources need to be in place to help babies grow.  But that is what makes church ministry exciting, challenging, and truly worthy of the name “body of Christ.”

Steve Viars
Dr. Viars has served as a pastor and counselor at Faith since 1987. He is an author, national speaker, and Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.