Decisions vs Disciples: What Are You Counting?

Pastor and author Larry Osborne says we're missing the bull's-eye

Larry Osborne

Every great adventure starts with a decision.

Without a decision, nothing ever gets done.

It’s the same in the spiritual realm. The journey of discipleship always begins when someone makes a decision to follow Jesus. Without these decisions for Christ, there would be no followers of Christ. So decisions are important—incredibly important.

Yet getting someone to make a decision for Christ isn’t the bull’s-eye of evangelism. At least it isn’t supposed to be. The bull’s-eye is making disciples. That’s the target Jesus told us to aim for. Everything else is just part of the process.

Unfortunately, there has been a slow and subtle shift away from making disciples to getting decisions.

What’s The Difference?

A decision reflects my good intentions. It may or may not lead to actually following Jesus.

A disciple goes beyond good intentions to actually following Jesus.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with helping someone make a decision for Christ. Good intentions often lead to great actions. Discipleship always starts with a decision.

The problem isn’t helping people come to a decision to follow Christ. The problem comes when we equate a decision with a disciple. When we begin to count everyone who expresses a desire to follow Christ, says a prayer, or walks the aisle to be genuine converts, we walk away thinking that we’ve hit the evangelistic bull’s-eye even when very few of those decisions actually produce a disciple.

Unfortunately, it took me a while to understand the difference between a decision and a disciple. I came to Christ in an environment that equated evangelism with decisions. It’s what we aimed at and celebrated. So I picked up my Bible and went to work fulfilling what I thought the Great Commission called me to do.

How I Learned The Difference

I have to admit. When I first came to Jesus, I went a little bit overboard. Okay, a lot overboard. Maybe that’s why they called me a “Jesus Freak.”

The change in my life was so epic that I wanted to tell everyone. So I pretty much did. If we crossed paths, I considered it a divine appointment.

I helped lead a door-to-door evangelism program in our little Baptist church. Each week we would show up unannounced at the home of visitors and neighbors, knock on their door and ask a few leading questions. Every week we had people pray with us to receive Christ. Without fail. Upon returning to the church, we’d share stories and rejoice in the eternal consequences of all the decisions that had been made.

Around that same time, our youth pastor put together something we called The Beach Bus. We’d put a Christian on each seat and pick up hitchhikers. In exchange for a free trip to the beach, they had to listen to our sales pitch (err, the gospel).

And every week we saw folks make decisions for Christ.

Then a friend asked me a horrible question.

He wanted to know where were all the people I was supposedly leading to Jesus.

I told him I didn’t know or care. What was important was that they’d prayed to receive Christ. It was my job to share the gospel and introduce them to Jesus. It was the Spirit’s job to follow up, plug them into a church, and grow them to maturity.

Then he pulled out his Bible and asked me to carefully read the Great Commission. “Where,” he asked, “do you see Jesus breaking this assignment into two parts? And where do you find him giving you permission to focus solely on getting people to make a ‘decision’ to start following Him?”

His question haunted me. Later that week, I began to look more closely at the fruit of my evangelistic efforts and realized that I had lots of decisions to point to, but not one disciple.

That shook me.

I realized that I had changed the bull’s-eye so that I could hit it more easily. I’d become an expert at turning spiritual interest and good intentions into a prayer. But I was lousy at turning anyone into a disciple.

Moving Towards Realignment

To realign our evangelistic bull’s-eye with the target Jesus originally gave us in the Great Commission, we will need to change two things that are commonplace in our churches and ministries: !) what we celebrate and 2) what we report. Let me explain.

What Do We Celebrate?

Every organization gets what it celebrates and rewards. It’s a leadership axiom. That’s why the little Baptist church I was saved in had so many decisions for Jesus. It’s what we celebrated. We were so busy high-fiving and chest-bumping over our successful evangelistic efforts that no one seemed to notice that despite a constant stream of new decisions for Christ, the church hadn’t grown for years.

To counter the tendency to celebrate decisions instead of disciples, the church I serve focuses on celebrating stories of life change. Instead of pumping up our congregations with statistics indicating the large number of people who indicate they’ve stepped over the line to start following Jesus (and there are many), we pick out stories of those who started following Jesus in the recent past and have given evidence of great life change. Then in videos, email blasts and inter-staff communications we share those stories.

It keeps our focus and excitement on what matters. It helps us ensure that our evangelistic bull’s-eye doesn’t drift away from celebrating disciples to celebrating decisions. It keeps our eye on the target Jesus asked us to hit.

What Do We Report?

A close cousin of what we celebrate is what we report.

I’ve noticed over the years that whatever I publicly report, I’m internally driven to increase. I think that’s why an early ministry mentor encouraged me not to report the number of decisions for Christ that we were seeing in our church.

He told me to carefully count them, track them, and evaluate them. But he suggested that once I started posting the number in an annual report or any public forum, I would be tempted to start manipulating people to manipulate the numbers.

I think he was right. Once we start posting the numbers of anything, people expect us to maintain or exceed those numbers the next time. And if we don’t, it won’t be long until some folks are advocating for a change in leadership.

Again, at the church I serve, we track decisions. Carefully. But we only report them internally. The number isn’t a state secret. We give it out to anyone who asks. We just don’t report it or broadcast it to everyone.

Doing so has helped us avoid the drift toward decisions supplanting disciples. It has helped us keep our time, money, and energy focused on hitting the evangelistic bull’s-eye that Jesus gave us. It has enabled us to evaluate the ministries and methods we use to gather decisions in light of how many disciples they produce—and it has given us the ability to drop things that produce lots of decisions but few disciples.

I guarantee you. If we’d been reporting decisions on a regular basis, we could have never abandoned any of these high-decision, low-disciple programs or ministries. We would have been too driven to see the decision numbers go up and to the right.

This blog series is based on the new FREE eBook Mission Creep: The 5 Subtle Shifts That Sabotage Evangelism & Discipleship by Larry Osborne. Download it here to read about subtle shifts 2-5.

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Larry Osborne is one of the Senior and Teaching Pastors at North Coast Church in Vista, California. Under his leadership, weekend attendance has grown from 128 to over 10,000. Recognized nationally as one of the Ten Most Influential Churches in America and one of the most innovative, North Coast Church pioneered the use of Video Worship Venues and is one of the leaders in the Multi-Site movement with over 31 local worship options each weekend – each one targeted at a different missional demographic. Over 90% of North Coast’s average weekend attendance participates in weekly Sermon-Based Small Groups, a concept that is spreading across the nation as an alternative to traditional small group methodologies. Larry’s book’s include, Innovation’s Dirty Little SecretAccidental PhariseesSticky TeamsSticky ChurchThe Unity FactorA Contrarian’s Guide to Spirituality and 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe.