Jesus started the process of “discipleship” with non-disciples. I was challenged by Bob Logan many years ago to recognize that disciplemaking starts with non-disciples (non-Christians). Often times when you think of someone who needs to “be discipled” – you think of a new believer. While it is true that new believers need to become fully devoted disciples, disciplemaking actually starts with unbelievers.

When Jesus sent His disciples to “make disciples” – He wasn’t telling them to find “baby Christians” and help establish them in their faith. He intended that they would engage with those in the culture around them who did not yet believe and proclaim the Good News of the cross!

My friend Phil Graf (missionary in Amsterdam with Christian Associates) recently shared these thoughts in an email:

Jesus invited some guys to follow him before they really understood who He was. In fact, after quitting their jobs and spending all of their time with him, for many months, they still didn’t realize Jesus was the Christ. They belonged before they ever believed…and it was still longer before they started being like Jesus!!!!!!

I think we need to recognize that there is often a process of discovering who Jesus really is that precedes committing oneself to trust in His finished work on the cross for salvation. I know that in my own life, I was blessed to belong in a family where I heard the gospel and saw what it meant to live by faith before I made that commitment myself. I think that happens in many Christian families. In fact, some Christians find it difficult to point to the moment of their conversion. They may be likely to say, “I’ve just always believed.” In the past, I’ve been taught to question the faith of someone who couldn’t point to a time and place they made a decision to become a Christian. Now I wonder if it’s that important to actually know some time in the past when you were “saved” – or if it’s more significant that you are actually trusting/believing in Jesus as your Lord and Savior this moment.

Louis DeLuca, one of the church planters that I am coaching, shared with me this week that a young man (who has been hanging out with their church) recently “crossed a line” of faith. However, he started belonging before believing – like the disciples hanging out with Jesus. He now feels that “everything I thought I knew before I have to relearn” and he’s discovering what it means to follow Jesus.

In The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter observes that more people come to faith gradually than suddenly.

In interviews, I usually ask new believers: “When did you feel like you really belonged, that you were wanted and welcomed and included in the fellowship of the church?” More and more converts, including a majority of “boomer” converts and a large majority of “buster” converts, comment that they felt like that before they believed, and before they officially joined. Indeed, many new believers report that the experience of the fellowship enabled them to believe and to commit. For many people the faith is about three-fourths caught and one-fourth taught. (p 54)

I have struggled with embracing this concept that you can belong before you believe. It doesn’t seem right. “You’ve got to believe before you can belong.” Yet my own conversion experience includes belonging before believing. When I’ve told my testimony over the years, I often explain that it was the most natural thing for me to believe because I grew up in a Christian family. It wasn’t until many years later that I truly understood what it mean to surrender my life to the Lordship of Jesus.

Hunter quotes a study by John Finney in Great Britain that reports…

  1. Most people experience the faith through relationships.
  2. They encounter the gospel through a community of faith
  3. Becoming a Christian involves a process that takes time

The chief finding in their study is summarized in four words: Belonging Comes Before Believing

My training in evangelism (including Campus Crusade and EE) has oriented me toward an approach where the gospel is presented, followed by an invitation to believe in Jesus and become a Christian, and then if they respond positively, they are welcomed into the family of faith and “discipled.”

However, the Celtic model for reaching people was quite different –

1) You first establish community with people, or bring them into the fellowship of your community of faith.
2) Within fellowship, you engage in conversation, ministry, prayer and worship.
3) In time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit.

In this approach, evangelism is about “helping people to belong so that they can believe.”

I have found that building relationships with non-Christians is critical to leading someone to faith in Christ. As it’s been said, “people need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.”

I remember when I was discipling several young college students years ago. We were studying through the Design for Discipleship series (Navigators) and each week we’d go witnessing together at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley. One day Greg challenged me that this confrontational witnessing on campus wasn’t working. My “real” goal was to train them to share their faith, so it didn’t matter if people weren’t responding in faith to the gospel message. The important thing was that we were faithfully proclaiming the gospel message.

Then Greg pointed out the verse that I had been having them learn – I Peter 3:15, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” I was emphasizing the need to “make a defense” for our faith as we witnessed on campus. Greg showed me that we were to respond to “everyone who asks.” I realized that we were making a defense to people who weren’t even asking. This convinced me that if people weren’t asking, then the issue was about me – was I living a life that demanded an explanation?

I’m still learning what “pre-conversion discipleship” looks like. I’m grateful for friends like Phil and Louis who are showing me that disciplemaking starts with non-disciples.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”