It’s an age-old question: Should your youth ministry focus more on evangelism or discipleship?
The biblical answer is a simple one: Yes.
Not only are the two equally important, but they’re intertwined so closely that it’s nearly impossible to successfully have one without the other—think clownfish and anemone, bees and plants, hippos and birdies.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
Tyree Sterling, a longtime youth leader who now coaches other youth pastors, says youth ministries often struggle because they try to separate the two.
“When I do workshops with youth workers, the top two areas they inevitably say they struggle the most in are evangelism and discipleship,” Sterling says. “I think that’s because they think [they’re] not the same thing—it’s either/or.” But that’s not how it works—the two go hand in hand, he explains.
Jesus laid this principle out clearly in the Great Commission, the final instructions He gave to His disciples before He ascended back into Heaven:
‘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.’Matthew 28:19-20
To “go and make disciples,” we must share the Gospel with others and introduce them to Jesus (evangelism). But Jesus also calls us to teach them to obey everything He commanded (discipleship).
His commands include loving God and getting to know Him better, loving others, abiding in Jesus, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, spiritual disciplines, and all other practices we usually think of when we hear the word discipleship. But He also commands that we spread the Gospel (Mark 16:15)—which means that to fulfill the Great Commission, we should be making disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, who in turn—well, you get the idea.
Evangelism is arguably the best way to jump-start discipleship—and keep it humming. Here’s why:
- It helps students understand what they believe and why, and learn to articulate it clearly.
- It exposes them to questions about Christianity and gives them a reason to search out the answers.
- It teaches them to rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
- It gives them a front-row seat to watch God transform lives—and what’s more faith-building than that?!
If you pour milk into a sponge and it just sits there, the milk will soon spoil. But if you pour milk into a sponge and immediately wring the sponge out, it will be ready to absorb more milk. In the same way, if we pour the ‘milk’ of God’s Word (1 Peter 2:2) into young souls and they never wring it out to others through evangelism, then they too will spoil.
WHAT DO THE STATS SAY?
This truth isn’t just theoretical—the statistics back it up. In 2021, research group Barna and ministry organization Alpha USA teamed up to release a report called Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation. In it, they say this about Gen Z believers:
Overall, discipleship and evangelism go hand in hand. Data show that faith conversations strengthen young Christians’ beliefs and encourage them to seek out more moments to share them. Among Christian Gen Z who have had at least one spiritual conversation in the past year, 85 percent share that they felt more confident in their own faith as a result of the interaction. Two-thirds (65%) say they became more eager to have a conversation about their faith again. … Not only is empowering Christian youth an effective way to share the Gospel with other youth, it’s also a crucial part of the spiritual formation of what Barna calls ‘resilient disciples.’Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation, p. 42, 5–6
This phenomenon has been observed in successful, thriving ministries all over the globe, which is why relational evangelism (students sharing their faith) and disciple multiplication (discipling students and teaching them to in turn make disciples who share their faith) are two of the essential 7 Values of a Gospel Advancing ministry.
As Greg Stier likes to put it: “If you want them to grow, you’ve got to get them to go”—so get them going today!
Need help training your students in how to share the Gospel? Download Takeoff to Touchdown: How to navigate a Gospel conversation, a free, four-week curriculum that equips them to skillfully spread the Good News to their peers—or anyone they encounter.
For help in developing a discipleship plan that encourages evangelism, check out 4 Chair Discipling from our friends at Sonlife.
To learn more about the 7 Values of a Gospel Advancing ministry, check out Gospelize Your Youth Ministry—available in hard copy, audiobook, and digital (e-book or PDF; both free).