I Have Something to Say. About Evangelism.
Today I am going to get up on my soapbox, so just brace yourselves.
This is a ranty, possibly self-righteous screed with many iterations of phrases like, “And another thing!”
So strap in, and hold on.
Rant commences here: let me tell you something. I am sick and tired of Episcopalians acting like they’re too cool for evangelism.
We are grown men and women, and what’s more, we are grown men and women who have been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And we have an affirmative moral obligation to make the grace and mercy and peace we have been so richly anointed with available to people who have not encountered it.
I see three common attitudes with regard to evangelism in the Episcopal Church.
The first is elitism. “Evangelism is common and tacky and only the province of Bible thumpers and televangelists. We’re too good for evangelism.”
The second is smug apathy. “We’re so great people will just naturally want to come to our churches.”
And the third is simple cowardice. “We evangelize by example, not by word. People will learn about Jesus by what we do, not by what we say.”
Now, of course actions backing up our words are key in evangelism, and an invitation to encounter Jesus would ring pretty hollow if there weren’t at least some fruits of the Spirit in our lives to help make our case.
But most Episcopalians are not failing to evangelize out of scrupulous devotion to showing forth the gospel with their saintly deeds.
It’s a cop out, and it’s born out of fear.
Fear is what is driving all of our hesitations with regard to evangelism.
Some of us have been evangelized in grossly irresponsible, coercive manners by someone we could stereotype as a Bible thumper.
And no doubt it was a violating, thoroughly unpleasant experience that had nothing to do with grace and peace and hope, and everything to do with fear and shame and power.
But that’s not evangelism, being threatened with hell unless and until you say some magic words about receiving Jesus into your heart and oh, also making a small financial contribution to underwrite the costs of this ministry (we take cash, check, or charge!).
Evangelism is sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, emphasis on good news.
And the reason Episcopalians are terrified of it and won’t do it is that they don’t truly understand it.
Evangelism is not shaming people, or telling them they’re going to hell, or asking them invasive, leading questions about whether they have found Jesus.
It’s certainly not telling someone their own spiritual framework is rubbish and they must take up our creed and doctrine or else.
It’s not even really inviting someone to church, at least not as a first step.
The first step of evangelism is gratitude.
It does not begin with some rabid zeal for making disciples of all nations (a text so grossly misused that it has been mangled to justify things like colonialism and imperialism).
Evangelism begins with looking at all the amazing things God has done in our lives.
We look at our families, our friends, the roof over our heads, our job, our clothes, our food—the simplest things we take for granted every day–and realize, “These good things in my life are manifestations of God’s love.”
Then we look at the intangible blessing in our lives: laughter, the turning of the leaves, what it feels like to cry during a really good movie or book, things like optimism and joy and the way beauty can pierce your heart with bittersweet longing. And we know, “These good things in my life are manifestations of God’s love.”
Then we look at the hard times of our lives.
We remember the grief and the despair, the times when we knew we were going to run out of money before the end of the month, grindingly hopeless months at a sick bedside only to end in a funeral that feels hollow through our sheer exhaustion.
We see how somehow we kept breathing every minute of every terrible day of that time. We see how the sun rose and set, and our toddler laughed and made messes, and we somehow did not go insane but lived long enough to smile again ourselves.
And we realize, “These good in things in my life are manifestations of God’s love.”
When you stop and see the sheer richness of life God has entrusted to you and guided you through and supported you through, you are knocked down with awe at the love drenching you.
And then stop.
Stop and realize that there are people in this world who know nothing of any of this, can see none of it, feel none of it, cherish none of it.
There are people who do not know that God loves them.
Can you imagine that?
It would be like living without the ability to see color, and thinking that a black-and-white monochrome was all there is to life.
And here we sit with ability to teach someone and open someone and love someone into seeing in color, the riotous wonder of the red and golden fall leaves, the delicate purple and white of a butterfly, the rich midnight blue sky at the end of twilight–and we selfishly hide it out of fear.
Do you understand now the urgency of evangelism?
Someone taught us to open the eyes of our hearts and see the work of God in our lives, and we have a responsibility to open that door for other people. That’s all it is.
And it is a justice issue.
It’s like having a map to an oasis in a vast desert, and hiding it away from fellow travelers dying of thirst.
We can’t do that. We have to share.
It’s not enough to slake our own thirst.
We must never be satisfied to let anyone live without knowledge of God, without access to the beautiful Living Water that sustains us.
We know the path to the oasis, and we must share it at every available opportunity.
So how do we go about that?
If it’s not about coercion or awkward conversations, stilted invitations to church functions or grim predictions of hellfire and brimstone, what is life-giving evangelism, truly sharing the Good News?
Well, let me tell you something that might surprise you. Evangelism does not begin with your telling someone something about God.
Instead, it begins with a question, any question, about what is important in their lives.
And that question is not posed with any kind of agenda of conversion or church attendance.
It is a question meant to truly understand what matters to someone else, a question asked out of love and with a profound intention to listen and receive the answer with total openness.
What that first question is can be anything that starts to hint at true meaning. So we don’t ask, “What did you think about the Colts game this week?” like we always do.
We ask, “How did you get through it when your mother died?”
Or, “Why do you love hiking in the woods so much? What about that experience speaks to you?”
Or, “What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?”
Or, “What do you worry about when you can’t fall asleep at night?”
Do you see the difference? These are questions that can begin to open the doors of spiritual intimacy, and that’s what evangelism is really about.
The goal of evangelism is not for you to be on one side of a line of belief and doctrine, and to by hook or by crook drag the other person over to your side.
The goal of evangelism is to build a relationship of such common spiritual depth that together you and this person can talk about what really matters in life and hopefully, what God is doing in the midst of all of it.
It’s not for you to impart the wisdom of the ages to the poor ignorant target of your evangelism.
The goal is for you together to build such a climate of mutual trust that together you can sit at the feet of Jesus and both be taught.
Evangelism taken on as a healthy, mature, loving spiritual discipline is very simple: it is making sure you are not alone on your spiritual journey.
It is looking around and asking about other people’s journeys, and asking what it would be like to walk along for a bit together.
It is taking an interest in what other people have learned spiritually, and when the moment is right, sharing a bit of what you have learned in your spiritual life.
It is a pooling of our common knowledge and experience, often born out of pain and loss, to talk and think about those far edges of life where at last we are called and driven to come face to face with God.
This is the kind of relationship Paul had with Timothy, to whom he wrote in our epistle today.
Listen to his words and hear for yourself the spiritual intimacy they evoke: “I am grateful to God– whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did– when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
This is not a relationship of power or coercion, but one of common spiritual journey.
They have lived life together, with all its tears and joys, and together spoken many times of how God has been manifest in that common life. That is what evangelism is.
Not telling people what to do and how to think, but instead asking them what matters to them and being vulnerable and brave enough to share what matters to you.
As for me, I hope to be evangelized as much as I hope to evangelize.
I know I need to be converted to the gospel every single day, and I hope to live with openness to what other people can teach me.
We all have a piece of the truth, and it is only by trusting each other that we can begin to fit all those pieces together.
The “success” of your evangelism is not measured by “saving the lost” or increasing church attendance.
Your evangelism may in fact never result in a single person coming to your church or getting baptized or even becoming Christian.
That’s fine. That’s not the point.
You are evangelizing—sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ—if you are gently and lovingly and courageously seeking and building spiritual intimacy with people in your life.
So go deeper than talking about sports or the weather or politics.
Invite other people to share what really matters in their lives and receive it with care and tenderness.
And if one person on this planet knows a little deeper or more fully that God loves them with abandon and joy after having spent time with you, you are a messenger of the Good News.
You are an evangelist.
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