Probably the most common means of evangelization in the last hundred years has been through the medium of large crowds. Billy Graham, the king of mass evangelism, has preached to nearly 100 million people in his lifetime all over the world. Many of these crowds have numbered in the thousands or hundreds of thousands. Churches of Christ were once well known for hosting gospel meetings (and some still do). Hundreds of people gather, sometimes every night for a week, to listen to preachers present the gospel.
The logic behind such gatherings is that the gospel is preached to the most people possible; the more exposure people have to the gospel message, the more likely they are to respond and follow Jesus. People who do respond in faith are then assimilated into local congregations for follow-up and discipleship. So goes the logic.
The effect of these mass evangelistic events has not been unsuccessful in terms of initial conversion. If it were, I suppose the venue wouldn’t have lasted very long. Billy Graham’s son speaks at Crusades to this day. Undoubtedly, thousands have come to faith and decided to follow Jesus because of a Crusade or gospel meeting.
Yet I wonder if the gospel is done injustice when evangelization (and discipleship, for that matter) is truncated to an oral presentation or a set of propositions in which to believe. The gospel must be preached, of course. It includes propositions to believe, for sure. But on the whole, the gospel is a way of life. The gospel is about following a person — Jesus.
At the heart of the gospel is relationship. After all, Jesus spent the majority of his time not with the crowds, but with a handful of men and women. I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it: “Jesus, it must be remembered, restricted nine tenths of his ministry to twelve Jews, because it was the only way to reach all Americans.” The gospel spreads relationally.
This relational principle has revolutionized our perspective on ministry in the church we’ll start. In short, the heart of the church we begin will not be a large gathering (whether an evangelistic event or a worship assembly) but rather handfuls of people who journey together in the way of Jesus.
One way we envision expressing the relational principle is through gender-specific groups of three or four that meet regularly over a 6-9 month period for the sake of learning how to follow Jesus. Greg Ogden has been a great help to us in this area. He’s authored two books that have fleshed out what it looks like: Transforming Discipleship and Discipleship Essentials. The first is theological and practical rationale for such an approach. The second is a 24-lesson curriculum designed to help people learn to follow Jesus.
Three components form the foundation of these groups: Scripture, transparent relationships, and accountability. The best part is that after the groups conclude their curriculum, each group member commits to finding two other people to journey with through it. One group becomes three, which becomes nine, which becomes twenty-seven, and so on. The gospel spreads relationally.
I’ve been through Discipleship Essentials once with three other guys, and am now going through it with Ryan Porche, my staff partner. Our wives plan to go through it together soon. These two groups will soon become four and function as the grassroots beginning of this new church. The curriculum isn’t perfect, but the environment is the Holy Spirit’s laboratory for life change. It’s amazing the way I’ve seen transformation take place right before my eyes. And I think it’s at the center of what it means to be the church, to be on mission, and to engage in spiritual formation.