Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Does the bible ask us to make converts or disciples? This is an important question for the evangelist and the answer is both. However where do we place our emphasis? The gift and practice of evangelism is vital in this time but it is also important to put evangelism in context. Darrel Bock in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology points out that "although the term "conversion" is common in theological discussion today, it was a relatively rare term in the Bible."1
The word ‘conversion’ does occur in Acts 15:3. It says: “So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers."
Notice the sent-ness of Paul and Barnabas. Part of the churches role is to send people out with the good news. This word conversion in Greek is epistrepho which literally means to turn. This is the only time it is used in the New Testament. This language of turning is used by Peter in Acts 3:19 "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord."
A convert or conversion is someone responding to the good news of Jesus. In Luke 24:46-47, Jesus explained "The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem."
Conversion is the point in time of accepting Christ as Lord and Saviour. However, being a convert is only a step in the discipleship process, it is not the goal but part of the journey. If we focus on the conversion of individuals without them being discipled within a healthy community, we have missed the point and it will be relatively ineffective. Conversion without discipleship creates consumers.
This is where Hilda comes into the picture. She was baptised by Bishop Paulinus in 627 and became Abbess at Hartlepool Abbey before moving to Whitby to found the new abbey there in 657 AD. 2
The name Hilda means "struggle." Although born into a royal Saxon family she suffered tragedy, losing her father at an early age to poisoning. She became a refugee, fleeing from the tribal conflicts and war that ensued. She responded to tragedy by seeking the will of God. According to the historian Bede, Hilda is described as someone with deep insight and compassion. "Her wisdom was so great that not only ordinary people, but even kings and princes sometimes asked for and received her advice; she obliged those who were under her direction to devote so much time to the study of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice."4
According to Ray Simpson in his book Hilda of Whitby, her "great life work was accomplished at Whitby." 3 Hilda's focus was a spirituality of wholeness. She invested heavily in spiritual formation, calling followers of Jesus to adopt a Way of Life. She made disciples who went on to make disciples. This is a very effective form of evangelism. The good news is multiplied through mature people.
Hilda established a double monastery (both men and women lived there) at Whitby in the Celtic style, she had been called by Aidan to do this, which meant it was deeply influenced by the Iona monastery. Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She planted a number of double monasteries. Bede (who was actually ordained by a disciple of Hilda) wrote "All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace." Five men who were discipled by Hilda went on to become bishops. Not only did she form disciples, she helped raise spiritual leaders. Here are words attributed to Hilda:
"Trade with the gifts that God has given you,
Bend your mind to holy learning that you may escape the fretting moth of littleness of mind that would wear your souls out,
Brace your wills to action that they may not be the spoils of weak desires,
Train your heart and lips to sing which gives courage to the soul,
Being buffeted by winds, learn to laugh,
Being reproved, give thanks,
Having failed, determine to succeed." 5
If we are going to be effective evangelists we need to focus on making disciples. It means being part of a team, a community who know how to make mature and fruitful christians. Hilda was a foster mother, she was recognised by Aidan as such and recruited to help him develop monastic centres of mission.
If evangelists are going to be able to do more than make converts, we must creates centres of discipleship as per the Celtic Way of Mission. Teams that include foster mothers like Hilda are able to produce stable and strong environments to raise and release others into the harvest field.
This is not a time for individualism but community. We will need each other to fulfil the Great Commission. This is the way of Jesus, take twelve disciples and mature them to the point they are sent out to the nations.
Where are the Hilda's today? Has the church discouraged the practice of foster mothers? Can we encourage the rise of Aidan's who recognise the power and wisdom of those like Hilda? I suspect we need a culture shift in a number of areas to make this happen. First, let's make disciples as a priority. Second, lets create centres of mission that have mature teams who release the evangelists. Third, keep evangelists closely connected to the wider team, giving account of their activities just like Paul and Barnabas did in the Book of Acts.
If you are an evangelist, get connected into a team. Find a mature person you can learn from. Add converts into a discipleship process so that they can grow, mature and reproduce. If you are not an evangelist, find one to bring into a centre of mission team. When all five of the APEST gifts (Ephesians 4:11) are functioning well the result is the full expression of Christ which is a highly fruitful environment just like the Whitby Abbey led by Hilda.
Ray Simpson, Hilda of Whitby, BRF publishing, 2014, p58.
Celtic Daily Prayer, Book 2, p1561