I hadn’t intended to write two posts about evangelism… being so interested in what evangelism means is a new direction for me. However, it arises from my experience of the past three years, recognizing that people who call themselves “Spiritual But Not Religious” have deep and serious questions; and believing that the United Church is actually well positioned to respond to those questions – so what’s the disconnect? How do we in the church hear the questions of those “outside” the church differently? And how might we respond in an authentic way to those questions?
I’m big on stories… telling them and listening to them. I think stories are at the heart of evangelism. Biblical stories of real people’s encounters with God, and stories from ordinary, every-day people who talk about what their faith means, how it makes a difference in their lives, and how they have experienced God in their own day-to-day realities.
A few years ago, I was at a workshop given by Martha Reese, who has developed an evangelism resource for mainline denominations called Unbinding the Gospel. Although her context is American, what she reports feels eminently useful for the United Church.
When doing her research, Martha Reese realized that members of mainline congregations were uncomfortable with the whole idea of evangelism, and in fact, needed to spend the first year learning how to share their faith with each other, building a level of trust and spiritual depth among themselves, long before they thought about trying to share their faith with other people.
Reese started her workshop with a standard 20-minute presentation, but wanted us to actually experience what she was talking about, so for the rest of the time we were in groups of four, with instructions for each person to spend five minutes or so sharing a story about a moment when we had encountered God in our own lives. She gave further instructions about the process, such as pray first, before opening our mouths, and ask for a nudge from the Spirit about which story to share; hold to a promise of confidentiality; don’t interrupt when someone is sharing, just listen intently; have a minute of silent appreciation after each story, before responding; be sure to say thank you; etc.
Well, I was a little nervous sharing with three strangers – though perhaps it was almost easier that way, knowing that I would probably never see them again! What would I talk about, how personal and honest would I be? And what would they talk about, and was I open to hearing it?
But what emerged was real, deep, and important. There were conversations about marriage struggles, a call to ministry, illness and loss, walks along the beach, and sensing a presence. There was laughter and tears; vulnerability and kindness; thoughtfulness and heartache; and, throughout it all, a strong sense of the Spirit. So when we were invited to pray for each other, lifting up each person in turn, well, we were ready and eager.
And that was the end of the workshop. Martha Reese simply offered a benediction… and I realized that I had just experienced evangelism in a new way. Now, this is not a sales plug for a book or a program, but simply a recognition of how important it is to have opportunities for us to share stories of our faith journey. And so I invite you as fellow pilgrims to find opportunities at home, along the way, and at Corner Brook to do just that. I don’t know if we can redeem the word “evangelism,” but I am convinced that we need to re-discover the power of story, of sharing our own experience, and listening with our hearts to each other.
[Photo: Carlos Mota Jr., Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]