I will bear witness that the Lord is righteous; I will praise the Name of the LORD most high.
We hear the word evangelism and think automatically about someone telling somebody something so that they’ll change. But the truth is that evangelism is as much listening as it is sharing. It involves two people actually sharing their lives with each other. They share their stories and a new story gets written. That’s what evangelism is. It helps all of us find our way into a deeper relationship with God. And if there’s a deeper relationship with God, there’s going to be a deeper relationship with each other as well. That’s the bigger picture of evangelism. It’s more than just telling you how to get to heaven.
Mostly evangelism is not what we tell people, unless what we tell is totally consistent with who we are. It is who we are that is going to make the difference. It is who we are that is going to show the love that brought us all into being, that cares for us all, now, and forever. If we do not have love in our hearts, our words of love with have little meaning. If we do not truly enjoy our faith, nobody is going to catch the fire of enjoyment from us. If our lives are not totally centered on Christ, we will not be Christ-bearers for others, no matter how pious our words.
Calling all semi-evangelists
In the course of conversation with members of Episcopal congregations, I ran across a woman who had an interesting reaction when the topic of evangelism came up. You see, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talks a lot about evangelism these days, making it a priority for our church. This woman wasn’t sure what to make of all that. She confessed: “I don’t know why we’re talking so much about evangelism.’ She said “Everyone in town who ought to be Episcopalian already is.” In other words, we didn’t need any more folks, thank you very much.
Her comment got me thinking about evangelism: why we do it; whether we should do it; how we might do it well; how respectful we can be; how tasteful we need to be. I suspect we’ve all been on the receiving end of folks we meet on doorstep or airplane or dinner party, folks with religious devotion so deep they are convinced we must see things their way. I remember what Dave Barry asked: Why is it that people who want to tell you about their religion almost never want to hear about yours?
My musing about evangelism led me back to one of my theological guides, Charles Schulz. Charlie Brown approaches Rerun, asking what he’s doing. Rerun says: “I’m with Linus, who is across the street knocking on doors, telling people about the “Great Pumpkin.’ Rerun says; “I’m standing over here so no one will know I’m with him.” Charlie Brown asks: “What kind of evangelist are you?” Rerun replies: “I’m a semi-evangelist.”
I may claim that title for myself. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is that evangelism best begins with ourselves. I’m convinced that we also need to evangelize within our own churches, reminding people that the way of love is nothing but good news. Too often church folk are associated with bad news, practicing what one preacher called ‘teeth-gritting Christianity.” Gandhi once said “I would be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.” Too often church folk don’t really seem to believe the good news that love is unconditional, that all are welcome, that we respect the dignity of every human being, that Christ is present in all persons, that grace is true. On some days, when I look at the state of American Christendom, it’s enough to make this priest a none.
A friend told me about a radio interview he heard with a pastor of a mega- church, thousands in attendance. The interviewer wanted to know how over 20 years, the pastor had grown the church. The pastor responded: “It’s simple. I just make one convert each day.” The interviewer pressed him on how to do that. The pastor said; “I am that one convert. Each day, I need to be converted.” In other words, the best evangelism was to tend to one’s own journey, one’s own faith, one’s own spiritual growth, one’s own discipleship, one’s own love of God and neighbor.
As a semi-evangelist, I’ve been exploring different (maybe tepid) ways to be an evangelist. Recently, when walking through airports, I’ve been whistling familiar hymns. It has sparked a number of interesting conversations, even people telling me they needed to hear that. I’m learning from folks at the check out counter at grocery stores and restaurants. Often, in this neck of the woods, they will say, “Have a blessed day.” I’ve been trying to say that, too. Sometimes, I’ll get in a conversation with someone, and they’ll reveal a challenge, and I’ll say: “How can I pray for you?’ Other times, I’ll ask a question like “Where have you seen God at work?” I’m amazed how many people have a story about God in their lives. Those are my recent meager efforts as semi-evangelist. Any other suggestions?
So calling all evangelists, or semi-evangelists: What’s the good news that is part of the story of Jesus? Where do you hear that good news? How does it touch your heart? And then think of a way to share that good news, in word and action, to listen for that good news in the lives of others.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
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