Grading Evangelism and Discipleship

Back in September, the General Assembly Council (GAC) at Montreat graded Assembly programs based on their impact according to two established priorities -- evangelism and discipleship.

All this sounds innocent enough until one asks: How are these two defined and how does one then rate programs based on these predefined (and assumedly agreed upon) definitions? Is it any wonder that GAC members may have felt caught when asked to rate the activities of Presbyterian Church units/agencies/programs based on definitions latterly imposed by some church leaders?

Right off we must ask: Can we agree that these two “concepts” — evangelism and discipleship — are adequate to define the work of the church in 2000? Then, by what definition of each? It would be difficult without a great deal of hermeneutical sophistication to define the two narrowly and biblically.

Yes, “evangelism” is the sharing of the good news. One does not argue with that. Yet the church over the centuries has debated the focus of that sharing. We have no sure biblical definition for defining how the good news is shared nor how to translate it into the modern world.

As for “discipleship”: Do we know how Jesus defined discipleship? We may assume that “making fishers of men” becomes the definition of discipleship — one simply follows Jesus. Is there a prescribed manner in this following or is that left to the gift of each? Is there a fixed notion or limit to that “following”?

I do not seek to quibble about definitions but rather to point to the danger of limited definitions that may create unwittingly an inquisitorial context: “Either you conform to my (read GAC) definition, or you get a ‘low impact’ grade — and a diminished budget allocation.”

Then, supposing an agreed upon and open definition of evangelism and discipleship, by what criteria do we grade a program for high, medium or low impact? Does a body of some 50-plus people sitting for four hours at Montreat find itself endowed with sufficient wisdom (or evidence) to grade an entity or an activity into three equally divided categories — high, medium, low?

Many public school systems have introduced the grading of individual schools. As a result some schools, already weak, are impoverished by reduced budgets, while the schools that do well — well, the “rich get richer.”

Is that the pattern we want in our church: to reward those activities selected as “high impact”? Or to strengthen those graded as “low impact,” the ones that by any criteria need strengthening to reach a “high”? What objective criteria do we use to judge these actions? Is this just another mercantile application to church “business”? And finally can we grade one activity against another? Is peacemaking less discipleship than building new churches? Is activity in the United States of greater value than activity with partners in other places?

So while one could argue about these concepts and practices, I would remind those who advocate a two-step hop into eternity around evangelism/discipleship, that when James and John came to Jesus (Mark 10:35-45, authentically from Jesus!) Jesus reminded them that it was not his (hear this, GAC graders) to determine who would be on his right or his left hand.

Then Jesus reminds his “disciples” (hear that word) that they know not what they ask. If they would be true disciples, they would give up their lives and suffer. Will the GAC take on the mantle of suffering and even of giving up life?

Who defines and who fixes ratings? Who shall decide, then? And finally at what cost to the life of the church that seeks through many avenues — even those rated of “low impact” — to be faithful?

Our leaders say this is a “learning process.” I agree. Perhaps we may learn that abstract definitions introduce shallowness, and shades of grading obscure shared faith in action.

I suspect the proposed GAC grading process — based on questionable definitions — imposes just one more management procedure into our church that seeks to reach “unscaled” heights.


J. PAUL FRELICK is a retired pastor and seminary professor, now serving as a volunteer in mission at Warren Wilson College (N.C.)

Charles Hammond’s opinion: Why These Priorities?

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