I don’t normally write a post like this, critiquing the work of others, but I came across something yesterday that I thought deserved some commentary. Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, wrote a post called Fishers of Men, Not Keepers of the Aquarium on his blog that, I believe, creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship.
I should say, from the outset, that I have a lot of respect for Pastor Furtick. I’ve visited his church once and listened to him online several times, and I’ve been impressed and encouraged each time. The ministry of Elevation Church is fantastic, and the way they’re reaching people who are far from God is exemplary. But I think that drawing distinctions between being “fishers of men” and “keepers of the aquarium” is unhelpful and, perhaps, unbiblical.
We Evangelicals talk a lot about “being saved”. What we mean by this is that there is a point in time at which we believed the gospel, which means that we confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, repented of our sins, and received the forgiveness he offers at the cross. This moment in time actualizes God’s forgiveness in our lives, invites the Holy Spirit to fill us and empower us for service to God, and guarantees our place in heaven. This is how we understand salvation to work, and why we believe that “moment” is so vitally important, and why so much of our ministry efforts are exerted to bring people to that point of decision.
The trouble we have, and the trouble that I see Pastor Furtick leading his church into, is that this moment becomes all-important, to the detriment of the days and years which follow. It’s like a film director who pours all of his energy into the opening scene of his movie. Sure, that opening scene is great, but the rest of the movie is a sloppy snooze-fest. It’s no wonder people walk out before the end! This approach to ministry–the emphasis on the point of decision–creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship, inevitably elevating the former over the latter.
Evangelism literally means “Gospeling”; it is the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the living out of that Gospel–that is, walking as Jesus walked. The two go together; in fact, perhaps the best way to think of the relationship between the two is that evangelism is the means for which discipleship is the end.
When we look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), we see that Jesus’ final command was not to evangelize, but rather to “make disciples”.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
In other words, Jesus is saying, “While you’re going on your way, while you’re living this new life, do unto others as I have done unto you these past few years. As I have made you my disciples, so you must make them my disciples.” (Incidentally, the only imperative verb in this section is the one we translate “make disciples”.)
Part of Elevation Church’s code is “to be more focused on the people we’re trying to reach than on the people we’re trying to keep.” But the task of Christian ministry–of being an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd–is to keep everyone we reach and continually reach everyone we’ve kept. The Gospel is never done with you. Salvation is not a moment, it is a life. As Paul says in Philippians, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The Gospel is doing far more than saving individuals from hell or even announcing the forgiveness of sins. In the Gospel, God is making all things new. This is not a moment; it is a sweeping, unstoppable, wholly consistent movement of the Spirit of God that began at the cross of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and has now spread to every corner of the globe.
Pastor Furtick writes, “the people you’re trying to reach aren’t interested in the church that has been created by the people you’re trying to keep.” If that’s true, then you’ve utterly failed at living the Gospel and, in fact, being saved. The Gospel never stops working on you. You never stop being saved. There is no “in” here, there is only “getting there”. God is not out to make converts; he is out to make disciples. We must be careful to not confuse the two.