I sat in the small living room of the student residence hall. It was dark and dingy, smelling slightly like a paradoxical mix of locker rooms and A and F Cologne. I’d met a student athlete in the parking lot and we were now here in his room. I’d had the chance to explain the gospel to him, and he now sat at a moment of decision.
I’d seen quite a bit of “fruit” that year, having led several people to Jesus. I’d seen some miraculous healings. I had meetings where I’d give an invitation for people to raise their hands and come to the front of the meeting to signal their decision to accept Jesus.
But there was a problem. The numbers and the results looked good on paper (“200 people accepted Christ!”) But very few among the people I led to the Lord or who otherwise had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit were still following Jesus.
What was I doing wrong? The gospel was producing powerful short-term results. Could it not produce long-term results as well?
Back to the dingy dorm room…
As we sat there, I asked the student,
“Are you ready to begin your journey of following Jesus?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Ok, first I want you to commit to something. Just like you’re an athlete and you have coaches to help bring out your potential, I want to coach you to become a strong spiritual player. Will you commit to meet with me once a day for the next two weeks so we can build a relationship and I can teach you some things I know about following Jesus and influencing others?”
“Yes, I will.”
For a season, we met, or at least talked on the phone, every day. Though he’d never read a Bible before, he read it cover to cover over the next six months. I began to encourage him to share his story of encountering Jesus with his friends so they could, too (he didn’t need much prodding).
That relationship led to a small group of disciples forming. 2 disciples became 4, became 8 … and so on. 12 years later he’s impacted hundreds, if not thousands of people, still following Jesus, married with kids, and making other disciples.
I’ve come to believe this: There’s no true evangelism without discipleship. There’s no true discipleship without evangelism.
The transformational message of the gospel spreads primarily through discipling relationships.
The myth of the Revivalist?
Much of today’s fascination with revivalism is well intentioned but misinformed. Revivalism (as I’ve seen it colloquially used) is in some ways a bit like the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium. It goes something like this: Everything remains static and unchanged until some surprising environmental force suddenly causes massive change. If we can drum up enough prayer, enough worship, or enough passion, maybe God will send revival.
Each of these things are vital. But there’s a nice little slice of Christian history that sheds light on the contrast between two distinct styles of seeking to spread the gospel rapidly and bring transformation and reformation.
In late 18th century, two notable men sought to bring mass salvation to people not following Jesus in England and America. Both were devout Anglicans and saw the clear need for reaching people outside of conventional church methods.
George Whitefield was a uniquely gifted orator and evangelist. He preached in open air forums in public squares and fields. People would tremble under the power of God, convicted by the reality and truth of the gospel. He was among the first to publish written tracts and literature. He was a friend of Ben Franklin and other notable leaders. He preached thousands of sermons. His crowds would often swell beyond 10,000, his booming voice able to be heard up to five miles away — all without the aid of modern amplification systems. The impact of his ministry was without doubt, supernatural. However, there’s an even greater lesson to be learned by one of his contemporaries, John Wesley.
John Wesley shared many of the same qualities as Whitefield, and Whitefield undoubtedly influenced him. Though the story of Wesley’s significantly flawed values about marriage and family are another story, the example of Wesley in the area of following up new believers is perhaps the most powerful lesson we can learn from at this moment in Western church history.
“You’re so methodical.”
While in college, John and his brother Charles were criticized for being so “methodical” in their spiritual life. He took the insult as an honor and adopted the name as a description of the movement that would largely grow out of his life – Methodism. Wesley had a simple strategy for following up new believers and seekers immediately after introducing them to the gospel.
Wesley trained other lay people (meaning people who weren’t official Anglican clergy) to travel in circuits, usually by horseback, to spread the gospel to new towns and villages. He taught traveling “lay” preachers to use a simple methodology for forming new believers into groups (“societies”) for fellowship, worship, encouragement, and accountability. These “societies” later came to be known as Methodist churches. Such is the way of movements through history – new forms of church almost always accompany them. “New wine needs new wineskins.”
(Alas, such is also the way of history that great movements often become monuments. What was once a Holy Spirit empowered fiery movement in past generations can become a static shell in the next if we don’t stay flexible, humble, and Spirit-led … Reader beware 🙂 )
These circuit riders traveled along circuits, preaching the gospel in homes, forests, public squares, basements, meeting houses – any place people already did life together. They would form groups of new disciples, teach them how to continue growing as disciples, and then visit them again later in the year. They were “Methodists” – they used a method for following up new believers. They formed them into “classes” or “societies” where they would learn to walk with God.
His brother Charles was key for creating new expressions of worship, abandoning his “high church” musical training in order to create worship for the people who were far from church culture. He adapted pub songs and created simpler forms of worship that were easy for new converts to sing.
The result? Within seven generations, Methodism grew to over 45 million members with constituents in 90 countries.
What other keys can we learn from Wesley and these Circuit Riders?
Wesley and the other Methodists were unashamedly focused on forming new believers into new groups for what we would today call discipleship. It’s a little known fact that Wesley is never recorded as having invited people to accept Jesus during any of his extensive open-air preaching crusades. He would preach, then stick around to converse personally with people or invite them to a follow up meeting for those who desired to become a disciple and join a discipleship group (which he called a class).
Wesley later wrote:
“I was more convinced than ever that preaching like an apostle without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer.” (1)
In one of his journals, Wesley reflects on one area where there was a significant amount of preaching and traveling, but that it had little (actually a harmful) long-term effect because they weren’t immediately followed up and placed in discipleship cells:
“How much preaching has there been for these twenty years all over Pembrokeshire. But no regular societies [new discipleship groups that formed after preaching], no discipline, no order or connection; and the consequence is that nine in ten of the once awakened are now faster asleep than ever.” (2)
Wesley once was asked by someone he had trained:
“Is it advisable for us to preach in as many places as we can, without forming societies (new groups of converts)?”
“By no means. We have made the trial in various places; and that for a considerable time. But all the seed has fallen as by the highway side. There is scarce any fruit remaining.”
He goes on to say:
“Whenever any are awakened, you do well to join them together immediately. But I do not advise you to go on too fast. It is not expedient to break up more ground than you can keep; to preach at any more places than you or your brethren can constantly attend. To preach once in a place, and no more, very seldom does any good; it only alarms the devil and his children, and makes them more upon their guard against a first assault.” (3)
“Revival” or Discipleship?
So, should we seek miracles, mass crusades, and crowds – or a movement where we create new groups of disciples who can multiply?
How about both?
Here’s my main point: Don’t go about mass crusade or traveling ministry without a commitment to establish a relational network among the circuit you are traveling and without immediately forming new believers into groups (whenever possible) that you and other leaders continue to stay in relationship with. (I often call these simple churches, seed churches, etc).
Later in life, Whitefield reflected,
“My brother Wesley acted wisely; the souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in [discipleship cells] and thus preserved the fruits of his labours. This I neglected and my people are a rope of sand.” (4)
In contrast to other revivalist ministries of the time, the circuit riders weren’t characterized by “fly-through town” evangelism crusades. They were characterized by winning the lost and intentionally forming them into new groups for immediate discipleship and fellowship. Wesley was often criticized for emphasizing “quality over quantity.” For Wesley, they weren’t conflicting values. He knew that quality disciples who could make other disciples would, in the long run, produce more fruit. Indeed, in this regard, our brother Wesley acted wisely.
The story of Wesley is seriously applicable for anyone seeking true revival, spiritual awakening, and transformation. You must be willing to form people into new groups where they learn how to be disciples together. Train your followers not just to make converts and cool supernatural testimonies – teach them to make disciples who can make other disciples. The fruit that comes from the simple and unashamed adoption of this strategy will yield lasting fruit for years to come.
P.S. Get my book “Disciple”. It’s a great tool for following up new believers and teaching them to make other disciples!
(1) Wesley, a Journal entry, 1763. Hunter, George: Wesley’s Approach to Evangelism and Church Growth, 1982; pg. 70
(2) George Hunter, 70; Wesley’s Approach to Evangelism and Church Growth, 1982
(3) George Hunter, 71; Wesley’s Approach to Evangelism and Church Growth, 1982
(4) George Hunter, 72; Wesley’s Approach to Evangelism and Church Growth, 1982