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.

Jeremiah prophesied that God’s people would be in exile in Babylon for 70 years. That means a lot of Hebrews lived and died only in Babylon; they never spent a day of their life in the Promised Land. They never saw the temple or traversed the topography of Zion. They were born across the great river, and there they died. Exiles, through and through.

We hear a lot of talk these days about finding God’s best life for you. We talk a lot about destiny and calling, always with the thought in mind that we are meant for something great. God has a great plan for your life that will exceed all your wildest expectations. It sounds so breathtaking and exhilarating–the spiritual equivalent of climbing El Capitan every day for the rest of your life.

But what if you’re meant for only exile? What if you’re one of those people who are born and who die in Babylon? What if God isn’t that interested in making all of your wildest dreams come true? What if he doesn’t care about how satisfying your life is?

Jesus talked a lot about losing your life, and how losing your life for his sake is the only way to really find it. We’ve hijacked that statement, and we’ve dressed up all of our egotistical insecurities about significance and success and greatness and accomplishment into Jesus-clothes. We lay down certain delusions of grandeur only to take up certain others that have been spiritualized and “sanctified”. We become counselors and pastors and professors and public servants; we start non-profits and plant churches because we want our lives to have some kind of significance, and we claim that these vocations, and these tasks, are how we “find significance in Christ”.

But what if finding your life really means losing your life and abandoning all hope of ever finding it again? What if Jesus really meant it when he said that we have to lose our lives for his sake, or that the last shall be first, and the first last? What if following Jesus means never being significant, or successful, or great? What if it means that you will accomplish very little in this lifetime?

Maybe you were born for Babylon. Others may go to Jerusalem, and even call you to follow them there, singing the songs of Zion. But you’re meant for Babylon. You’re one of the folks who has to lose his life, hoping not in unveiled significance later on in this life, but in redemption and resurrection in the life to come. You’re the one who has to throw yourself completely on Jesus and live with him in Babylon. Can you accept it?

Perhaps you’ve seen the Planned Parenthood “sting” video on youtube. If you haven’t, you should watch it now. It’s horribly disturbing.

Abortion is quite a telling element of our society. Approximately a quarter of all American pregnancies are prematurely and willfully terminated in an abortion clinic. Pregnancy in America has become, in many ways, the most unwanted “side-effect” of sexual activity. Our own president, Barack Obama, once infamously said that he wouldn’t want his daughters “punished with a baby” for having premarital sex.

Clearly we live in a culture where we desperately want sex without pregnancy. We have even created sociological constructs about sexual orientation that define us, at our very core, based on who we most enjoy having sex with. In fact, I would argue that this concept of orientation has become the definitive measure of sex rather than the natural purpose of sex, which is to propagate the human race. For many Americans, sex is about pleasure (and possibly love), but not about procreation. This seems like a rather bizarre, even anti-scientific belief. But it is pervasive.

I wonder what other cultures might have to say about this. I wonder, even, how the women of the Bible would respond to our culture’s pregnancy-phobia. What would women like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah—all of whom knew intimately the heartbreak of barrenness—say to our 25% abortion rate? For so many today, pregnancy is a curse; it is a problem easily solved with a “medical procedure”. But these women considered themselves cursed because of their barrenness. We seek to avoid pregnancy at all costs, but they considered it their greatest joy and highest honor.

Perhaps these ancient women have something to teach us: That pregnancy is an honor and a privilege, not an unwanted side-effect of sexual pleasure or, Mr. President, a “punishment”. You may criticize me because I’m a man and have no right to speak about such things. Perhaps you’re right. But I’m trying to give voice to ancient women of great faith and hope in God, and I believe their voices are vital for today, not only to renew the soul of our culture, but also to save the lives of humans that might otherwise be discarded.

We’re good at giving excuses. Whether it’s the cliche, “The dog ate my homework,” or the more creative, “I have a psychosomatic impairment that literally prevents me from hearing the audio frequency on which your voice travels,” we know how to get out of stuff.

The book of Jeremiah opens with God telling this priest named Jeremiah that he has been ordained from before time began to be a prophet to the nations. Comfortable with his position as a small-town priest, Jeremiah immediately tries to dissuade God by offering up two excuses of his own. Here’s the exchange:

The word of the Lord came to me, saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

Here comes the Maker of the Universe to this young priest, telling him, “I knew you before you were even conceived; since before time began I set you apart as a prophet.” And how does Jeremiah respond? He says, “But I don’t know how to speak, and I’m way too young to be a prophet.” God paints this massive, cosmic picture of calling Jeremiah to be a prophet, and Jeremiah offers two excuses as to why God must be mistaken: I don’t have the ability, and I don’t have the experience.

It’s funny how God responded. He didn’t say, “Oh Jeremiah, c’mon, you’re an excellent speaker. And you’ve got plenty of experience to do this job. Stop being so modest, you silly goose.” No, God simply says, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young.'” He doesn’t coddle Jeremiah; he commissions him. “Don’t give me any excuses, Jeremiah. You’re going to go to the people I send you to, and you’re going to speak the words I give you.”

God doesn’t accept our excuses. Jeremiah lacked the ability and experience to be a prophet, but that didn’t stop God’s plan for him. Don’t let your excuses short circuit God’s call on your life. If he’s called you to something for which you feel unqualified, then he either made a mistake (which he didn’t) or he will make you qualified in some unexpected way.

This is how God qualified Jeremiah for the prophetic office: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” The simple truth is that Jeremiah wasn’t qualified to fulfill God’s call on his life, and neither are you. The only thing that makes God’s task possible is his presence with you. If you’re succeeding based on your ability and experience, then you’re not dreaming God’s dream or answering his call for your life. God’s call on your life will be so far beyond your ability that it will demand his presence to accomplish.

Don’t settle for anything less than God’s most difficult task for you. Be aware of your limitations, but don’t let those be an excuse to run and hide from his commissioning of you. Lean into him. If he has called you, then he will be with you.

The gospel is not just a message, it is a world re-creating event that continues to live on in the community of Jesus’ friends.

That thought struck me while I was praying for…something…the other day. Many of us, including myself, tend to think about the gospel as just a message, something along the lines of, “Jesus died for my sins so that I can go to heaven when I die.” While that statement is true, it doesn’t really do justice to the gospel.

The gospel is more than words; it’s something that happened. The gospel is the atoning death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus. That’s an event, a thing that really happened in history. But this event was so powerful and world-shattering that its effects can still be felt today, thousands of years and thousands of miles from where it occurred.

The death and resurrection of Jesus live on in the community of his friends because that event transforms us; in fact, we live it out each day. Every day we die to our old sinful patterns of thought and behavior, and every die we rise again to new life in Jesus.

The gospel was and is an event that re-creates the world, and it starts in the community of those who call themselves friends and followers of Jesus. More to the point, the gospel is an event that re-creates you. Paul called the gospel “the power of God for salvation.” I don’t know about you, but I need to be saved and re-created every day.

This is what the gospel says to us: 1) All my sins–past, present, and future–have been forgiven by God through the death of Jesus; and 2) Jesus rose again from the dead by the power of God, the same power that is now at work in me through the Holy Spirit. God has forgiven you through the blood of Jesus. God has given you resurrection power through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. God has given you everything you need to be re-created, to be the person that, deep in your heart, you truly want to be.

In Christ, you are not who you used to be. By the power of the Spirit, you can become the person God is re-creating you to be. Live the gospel today.