For some pastors and lay people in mainline/established traditions, the word evangelism has become, if not a “dirty” word, an unpleasant one. Either the word never had much meaning, is not well understood, or has negative connotations. For some, evangelism has no place in their theological worldview. For others, the word conjures up negative images of bellowing TV evangelists or folks standing on street corners handing out religious tracts. It is often associated with a kind of exclusivism that feels disrespectful to those who participate in different spiritual practices. Unfortunately, some have even been injured by people who were quick to criticize and judge the beliefs and practices of others. I was uncomfortable with the word for many years—and sometimes I still am.
I think there are other reasons for discomfort. When you ask people why they love God or Jesus, many don’t have an answer. In many progressive faith communities, we are not used to talking like that. However, if you ask folks why they love their congregation and what they would tell others about it, the answers fall into a couple of categories. Southern Prairie District Superintendent Fred Vanderwerf described these two types of responses in a previous blog post as social connection and social cause.
Folks love their own congregations because they have developed close friendships and have fun together. Many congregations describe themselves as a loving family: That’s social connection. Others love their congregations because they get to engage in activities that meet the needs of people on the margins of society. This provides a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives: This is social cause.
A related problem is that sometimes we use the word evangelism to mean any mission-outreach activity geared toward helping others; i.e., we are reaching new people when we help them and helping them is how we evangelize. I remember I once consulted with a progressive church where I left thinking it was just another charitable organization that gives wealthy people an opportunity to help others by donating money. That’s not really a problem—the problem is that there are many places people can do good works and give money to worthy causes without having to deal with the baggage of organized religion.
Another source of confusion is that sometimes evangelism means the same thing as church growth. Some mistakenly believe evangelism means simply inviting people to come to church, not inviting them into a relationship that will transform their lives. In this scenario, evangelism can mean inviting new people to help pay the light bill and keep the church doors open. Not an inspiring or compelling definition of evangelism!
Mark Teasdale, in his new book titled Evangelism for the Non-Evangelist: Sharing the Gospel Authentically, talks about discomfort with evangelism:
So, how would we get more comfortable with the E-word? Teasdale suggests: “We must ground our starting point for evangelism in the character and activity of God.” For Teasdale, evangelism does not exist to further the practices of the church. Evangelism exists to invite people into the good news of God. Whoa! This last statement doesn’t necessarily make us more comfortable! In fact, telling others the good news of Jesus Christ makes some of us squirm.
Many evangelism texts and programs are focused on how we practice evangelism without asking why we do it. [Our] primary problem [with the notion of evangelism] has been too small of a starting point. Without a powerful metanarrative to guide people, they have been left with vague notions of God that are not sufficient to make sense of or give purpose to their lives.
Ouch! Bishop Willimon’s words feel a little too close to home for me. Many of us have a long way to go to get comfortable with the E-word. I know it’s been a long journey for me. I think the work begins with clergy and lay leaders reclaiming their own stories and helping others in our congregations do the same. I believe that it will be essential for us to re-define, re-purpose, and re-claim this word and our heritage, not for the survival of the institutional church but because there is a great spiritual hunger in our world and a great need for healthy faith communities in a time of cultural divides and societal polarization.
Having lost a clear sense of our mission, we diffuse ourselves in inconsequential busyness. We allow congregational tranquility to become our sole desire, managing the present rather than leading into the future. Any pastor [or lay leader] who feels no discontent with a congregation's unfaithfulness, who is too content with inherited forms of the church, is not just being a bad leader but has made a theological mistake of surrendering the joyful adventure of pastoral ministry to the theologically dubious office of ecclesiastical bureaucrat.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church