So, if you think “discipleship” is a loaded word, how much more baggage does the word “evangelism” carry!?! Stereotypes abound… and few of them are appealing. And yet, the founding denominations of the United Church had rich understandings and traditions of evangelism. For many years we had a department at General Council called “Evangelism and Social Service,” with a belief that acting upon the gospel and speaking about good news were inextricably tied together. Then they became separated; and then evangelism was muted. And, in addition, we discovered how the desire to share the gospel can so easily get caught up with the promulgation of our cultural values, “Western ways” and with colonialism – witness the painful realities of our church’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples.
But this isn’t a blog about the history of evangelism in our church. You might want to check out the latest edition of Touchstone, which focusses on “Theology and Social Witness” – some very good articles about both our church’s commitment to the doing of justice and the sharing of good news.
So let me start by focussing on the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John.
Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is approached by a couple of “seekers,” but instead of offering the expected “Follow me!” he asks a question, “What are you looking for?” Not a bad place to begin when thinking about evangelism. When looking at the neighbourhood where you or your congregation are located, your context, do you know what people are looking for? Or when a stranger arrives to join you in a time of worship, do you stop and wonder what he or she might be looking for? Have you ever asked them? Not in an intrusive way, but because you care about them, and their questions; and you don’t make assumptions about what those might be.
When the “seekers” hesitate in the face of Jesus’ question, he responds, “Come and see.” I deeply appreciate this invitational model of evangelism – a simple, straightforward “Check it out; see for yourself.” Low key, and yet welcoming. I think this might be classic United Church!
The big question for me, though, is what will newcomers see if they were to come. Will they catch a glimpse of the Spirit that is undergirding, motivating, and energizing all that is happening in the community of faith? Will they discover a language of faith and worship that is intelligible, that makes sense, that draws on tradition and yet connects to realities of the 21st century? Especially for people who have no church background, who may have almost no “Christian memory,” will they truly feel welcomed?
“What are you looking for? Come and see.” That could take us long way towards reclaiming evangelism for the United Church.
Photo: Dean Ayres, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)