I wonder what comes to mind for you when you hear the word “evangelism”? Do you think about street corner preachers calling out phrases such as “repent and be saved”? Do you get a picture in your mind of the television evangelist in an expensive suit on the stage of a stadium-size church?
Do you think of yourself? After all, we are a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In truth, each of us are called to evangelism, to be evangelists – and yet there are many who would steer far from calling ourselves such a thing. Perhaps that is because we have witnessed many times evangelism done so poorly.
I think of a clear and cold winter day back in the mid-nineties. My car had broken down on a freeway in North Dakota and a man and his wife had stopped to pick me up and bring me to the nearest phone. I was thankful for their kindness and we chatted as we shared in that short time together. Inevitably, they asked me where I was from and what I did and at the time I was a student in seminary studying to be a pastor and I told them so. Their response was one that by then I had gotten used to as they then began to evangelize to me about how I was being misled, that it was sinful for a woman to presume she could be a pastor, that they would be praying for me that God would point me back on His path. I sighed and politely thanked them for the ride. I knew by then that they were just two of many, many people who interpreted scripture in such a way. There was nothing I was going to be able to say in such a short amount of time that would change their mind. Yet I wondered why they thought they could change my mind. Did they imagine that what they were saying (these entire strangers) was going to be entirely new information and by the end of the car ride I would abandon religious studies after years and years of pursuit and the calling placed on my heart since the age of fourteen, a calling that had been affirmed and nurtured within me by my home pastor and my home church and my family who loved me and brought me up in the faith and taught me not only a love of scripture but to understand and live in the life-giving faith and grace found in Jesus Christ – did they imagine their few words were going to strip away all of that?
What that couple tried to do that day, while I’m sure it was well-meaning, was hollow and only alienating. It took into account nothing about me or my journey or my understanding of who God was and is. They were trying to take their experience and their journey and impress it upon me, squish me into their idea of what a Christian really should be like in the time it took to travel over a few windswept Dakota miles. I resented it.
And that sort of thing, unfortunately, is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the word evangelism. I don’t like that because I know the heart of evangelism is much deeper and richer and far more meaningful than that – but I know well what our knee jerk reaction to that term “evangelical” can be – because I have felt it myself.
So what is being evangelical at its best really about? We can take some lessons from our gospel today as we think about that. First, there is John the Baptist who when he sees Jesus he can’t help but tell others about his experience, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.” So John can’t help but share this amazing thing that has happened and what he has witnessed to be true. And he’s doing just that one day, and John’s witness must have been very compelling because two of his disciples who hear him then follow after Jesus – they want to experience some of the wonder that John is feeling in knowing Jesus.
I think John the Baptist was a great evangelist because a synonym of the word evangelize is “Proclaim” – and he couldn’t help but proclaim who Jesus was and by doing so, he drew others to Jesus. Some are able to do that. Have you known people like that? Their love for the Lord is infectious, their thirst and hunger to know God and live for God and study God’s word is so beautiful and humbling and passionate that it makes you want to have a closer walk with God? That can be a beautiful form of evangelism, to be so in love with God and so devoted to learning as much as we can and serving as much as we can that we are consumed by love and we can’t help but share that joy we have found.
However, while there are some who can do this, and perhaps all of us can at certain times – the difficulty of trying to be this kind of evangelist is that very few of us are always spilling over with our passion for faith. It’s not because we don’t want that, I think all of us would want that, but the truth is that life is complex and there are dishes to be done and the cat needs to be taken to the vet and there are appointments to keep and the constant buzz and hum of things to do and think about can so easily overpower our inclination toward always having our thoughts turned toward God.
So for those of us who might fall into this second category, we can take comfort in knowing there is another, even more powerful way of being an evangelist. A way that draws us gently together and creates a space for the spirit of God to enter.
And it is all about relationships. Yet not in the ways we might initially think about relationships and evangelism. Oftentimes when we talk about relationships and evangelism in the church we think of them as a means to an end. You know what I’m talking about – we worry about our attendance and so we say “invite your friends to church” and we think that will help fill in some of the empty spaces; and we worry about our finances and so we say, “we need more people to come so then we will have more people giving.” Or perhaps that couple I met back on the road in North Dakota was worried because the ways God had called me to serve him challenged everything they had been taught about what was right and so they needed to try to point out my error of thinking and set me on the right path. Too often in the church when we think about evangelism and relationships we think of doing so as a means toward something else in the end. As it says in the book, “Relational Pastor” by Andrew Root, “We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of ministry, for the sake of initiatives. In other words, we have wanted people to be relationally connected so that they might come to what we are offering or believe what we are preaching or teaching.” I think it is human nature and we all fall into this way of thinking sometimes – sort of a selfish evangelism – one that focuses on a goal somewhere off in the distance, not simply on that person and that relationship right here and right now.
Yet how would it be to think of the relationship as our only goal? Not so that we can have them come to church someday and not so that we can get them to think about Jesus like we do someday and not so that their kids might come to youth group – no, just so that we can know another person and they can know us. What if that was our only goal? Could that possibly evangelism at its finest?
May I give you an example? I think of the first Bible camp counselor I ever had. Her name was Beth. I was a terribly shy kid, uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward, deeply uncool. She liked to tell us stories – sometimes about Jesus but sometimes just about life and every night she would hug each of us goodnight and as she did she would whisper to us that Jesus loved us. It was powerful and welcome – I would lie there in the dark and think about it. Jesus loves me – I’m so strange and unpopular, but yet Jesus loves me. Beth said so. And mom and dad say so. Grandma says so. And if these people who take time for me and care enough to journey along with me in life wanted me to know about this precious love of Jesus, then it must be really something. And so over time, the background noise that people kept telling me about Jesus’ love for me became a song, the dearest thing I had ever heard. It was not a sudden thing, it was not because of just a moment or a single person, and it was never because of anyone trying to win me over for a particular cause or goal other than they wanted to know me and for me to know them. And to know them was to know they loved Jesus. And because of them and their care and the witness of their very lives – I fell in love with him, too.
Being evangelical will only start to sound like a welcome thing when we realize what it really is. It is sharing faith, yet only sometimes with words. Sometimes it is sharing faith through a powerful and positive verbal witness to Jesus Christ but it is also sharing faith no less when you took time to bring over that food after he had the surgery, or to pause, even though you had so much to do, pause long enough to sit down and listen to the story when she was heartbroken. That’s sacred, folks – Someone who wants time with you, whether going on a walk down the road, or hearing someone say “come on over sometime” or sharing a cup of coffee. There’s a reason these things feel like they matter, because they do. It’s time shared, it’s life shared, it’s why when those disciples caught up to Jesus and they asked him where he was going, he didn’t just tell them, he said, “Come along and see for yourself.” Jesus was modeling evangelism for us right there.
In the church we might do well to focus less on what the fruit of building relationships might be and more on just being present with one another. At work, at home, at the grocery store, at the post office – being a gentle presence, being interested in others, listening without judgment, wanting to know the stories others bear and share ours with them and trust that in ways we don’t know and may never see, God will work through us to bring others to Christ.
So go on and be evangelical, church. Proclaim Jesus through your words and through your lives this week. Love and live in Jesus’ name. Amen.