Communications - Engaging with Evangelism

Engaging with Evangelism: by The Rev. Cn. Aaron Smith

Whenever I bring up the concept of Evangelism, at least one person will use the (probably falsely attributed) saying of St. Francis, "Go and spread the Gospel, and if you have to, use words." I like this saying. I even agree with it. At its heart, we, the Church, are the city on a Hill about which Jesus spoke. If you have been to the Sea of Galilee, you have looked at the village that he was referencing, and it does indeed stand out, which is what Jesus means for His Body.

As the City on a Hill, the Church, is seen as a countercultural institution and a counter-cultural people, where we, the ambassadors for Christ, are both doing the good work of the Kingdom, as well as making sure that we are not misled by the lies of the world (James 1:27). Those lies that tell us that our worth comes from what we own, or who we are in relationship with. The lies that tell us that we'll be satisfied, happy even, if we just buy that product, drive that car, date that person, have that job, or live in that part of town. The lies that tell us that those people are the problem, or that political group is the problem. Everything would be fine without them. The great curse that says we are the most important person to take care of, and that we know how to do that best ourselves. "If you will just eat that fruit, you will become like Him."

The by-product of this curse is that humanity ends up chasing gods that don't give back. Ask an addict and they'll help explain this concept.

The Church is different. A hodge-podge collection of individuals with otherwise very little common interest except Jesus Christ, gather and proclaim a different message, and different mode of salvation and life: A personal God who cares enough to intervene and participate in the lives of His creation. And to that end, the Church is the body that looks different because of this City on a Hill mission: "They will know you by your love towards each other" Jesus says. This is the love not found in Washington, or Wall Street, or even Main Street. It's not the love of selfish individualism. It's not in friendships, or marriages, unless, at their heart, Jesus Christ is at the center, the core, and the pursuit of these things. It's the love that is willing to include enemies, to lay down one's life on behalf of another, who gives more than receives. That love defines the City, the Church, and defines the preaching without words.

As I said, I like the saying, but, there's a problem with it that often undermines our very mission. What I mean by that is that the emphasis on the statement is always on the wrong part: "And if you have to, use words." It suggests words are optional, rather than connected to the acts that express our Love. Like the edict that some of us should sell all of our possessions and give them to the poor, when something, that probably should be more normative rather than exceptional, becomes optional, it usually doesn't happen. How many people do you know have actually sold their world goods, given them to the poor, and pursued Jesus' calling (Note: priestly vocation is not an example of this).

Now, how many people do you know who actually use words with non-Christians to explain what God is doing in their lives?

It was not this way from the beginning. The Acts of the Apostles shows a church alight living the both/and of being the City on a Hill and spreading the Good News of Jesus, rather than an either / or approach. Personal testimonies, or the willingness to share with others (even to our own detriment), are the bedrock of conversion. Evangelism is not really a tricky word, nor is it a tricky concept. For many of us, it's not that we don't understand it, it's that we're afraid of it.

May I suggest there are a few reasons for this fear, and anxiety surrounding the concept, and why we tend to prefer "no words" Evangelism (which is not really evangelism), and I'm also going to offer some help with how to get past these:

1.  We're not confident enough in our own Relationship with Christ.  The truth is, relationships take work. They take time. They take nurturing. The same is true with our life of faith and Spirit. The Gospels and Epistles are filled with examples of how we must nurture this life, particularly in the renewal of our mind, gathering for worship, prayer, but also in actions and learning how to trust our Lord. Faith in Jesus doesn't just mean believing that he is real and what he says is true, even the demons believe this, James says (James 2:19). Belief alone is not faith. Belief in action is faith, meaning that we are learning to actually trust Jesus in every aspect of our life. If we're reluctant to share with others, I usually discover that this is the biggest blockage: We have not yet fully discovered how he is capable of transforming our own lives. In most of the stories of healing that Jesus performs, the people can't help but share the good news. Why? Because it's good news and we want to share good news. The truth is, once you discover Jesus fully, you can't help but want to talk about Him. Once you discover the full life that he offers, you want to share that with others. This is not to insult anyone's confidence as all of us are ever working out this relationship. All of us are fallen. None of us are completely confident. Rather, this is to suggest the depths of Grace, which allows for this to not be true. Not sure who Jesus is? Ask him. Not sure you can trust him? Try it. Not sure what you really hear is of Him? Test it. Challenge your thoughts about faith, and learn to grow in it, and then, the excitement for sharing grows. Much like a person who joins a gym can often become addicted to the healthy life, so too, the life of faith is contagious, if we are challenging ourselves in it.

2.  We think it's by our effort alone.  Related to the first is the idea that we believe Evangelism is our job, and comes through our effort. I suppose this feeling can be both daunting, as well as depressing, kind of like reading the newspaper everyday and believing it's our job to solve all the world's problems. My parents had an expression for this when I was young: Messianic Complex. Evangelism is not your job - it is the job of the Holy Spirit. Changing the world is not our job - it is God's. In fact, the more effort we put into changing it for the better, the more we tend to blunder the whole enterprise. Rather, think of the time Phillip was walking down the road and saw the Ethiopian eunuch reading scripture (Acts 8). Phillip felt the nudge of the Spirit to go and talk to that man. Phillip did not go out of his way to manufacture that experience. The Apostles preached publically in the Temple square and the Spirit converted the people. The Apostles didn't set the music and the experience to artificially simulate conversion. There was no piano in the background during the altar call. The truth is that God puts people and circumstances in our life when we know we should speak or act. Most of us don't because we're uncomfortable, or it makes us squeamish, but this goes back to the first point. We don't have to walk with poster signs screaming damnation on the streets. We don't have to get on our soap boxes. The Spirit nudges us towards Evangelism in all areas of our life, the question is will we listen, trust, and respond.

3. Evangelism is not the job of the priest.  We are the priesthood of all believers, and, as such, all of us are Ambassadors for Christ. Vocationally, the priest plays a specific role within the aforementioned City on a Hill that is the worshipping community. He or she is not the chief evangelist that is the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit works through all God's people, using their unique talents and relationships to bring Christ (and wholeness) to the whole world. The very fact that many in the laity are uncomfortable talking about Jesus, is some of the best reason why they're the best for it, as God's power is made perfect in our weakness. His Grace is enough. Trust it.
4. We don't understand that Jesus is life for all and worry about offence.  Modern society, particularly pluralism, is difficult. How do we hold on to one idea of truth and respect, or honor another? Paul wrestles with this very idea in his Letter to the Romans towards his own people. A part of this may have to do with our own secular culture that argues that there can be little respect within disagreement, which does disservice to us all. Having lived in a variety of places, and met people with a variety of opinions, I've realized that intelligence and respect, has many facets. I'll save the long story, but I was asked to pray in an interfaith setting, but I was quickly told that using the name Jesus was offensive for non-Christians and that my prayer must be more general. The person who came to my aid was a devout, Orthodox Jew who argued that it does disservice to all faiths if we don't value stances and convictions and if we can't honor disagreement. Jesus is life. He is wholeness. He is redeeming all of Creation. That means, that when we give a glass of water to someone who is thirsty, we are in fact doing it for Him (Matt. 10:42) because anything and everything that is of Life, comes from Christ. I share the expression that when someone is dying of thirst in a desert, it is not the time to teach that person our Catechism. Evangelism starts small. Starts close. It happens in relationships that honor difference, and in conversations with those with whom we disagree. It begins in gestures, and encounters but ultimately, and finally, always ends by sharing Christ, the completion of its task. It is not manipulative in this way, like I'll give you some food if you'll come to worship, which is the mistake the church has made in the past. Rather, it's the natural progression of the life of faith. We want to share Christ, because He IS life, but that takes patience, and time. In fact, with one person, we may only get to offer a cup of water in love, while someone else, many years later, gets to complete the task and show them fully who Christ is. The Spirit is there to guide the work, to nurture the planting of the seed, and the growth in faith, but we all, the whole church, play a role in developing it in the relationships and the people we know.
5. We're afraid of the consequences.  One of the largest hindrances, giving us pause in sharing our own testimonies and the Gospel is the consequences. What will people think? Will I ruin that relationship? It's not polite dinner conversation (somehow, politics always seems to ignore this.) This is very real. Every marketer, every company in the United States realizes that if they want to sell you a product, they must make it more convenient, and more painless than that which you already have. We are a society that abhors suffering so much that we call something suffering, which much of the rest of the world lives with most of their lives. In fact, psychotherapy has taught us that the less stress we deal with in our lives, the less we become capable of dealing with stress, which is why the US is a stressed out people, and why people flock to stress relieving sports, places, and therapeutic religious practices, that demand little from us. C.S. Lewis once famously quipped that he always knew Christianity wouldn't make him happy. A nice bottle of port would do a much better job. Christianity is not about happiness. It has impact, it's hard, it might even cost us, our time, our money, our resources, even our lives. Jesus said, "If they do this to me, don't expect they won't do it to you (John 15:20)". The short answer is that if we're afraid of the consequences of Evangelism, there's not much to answer. Love compels us to act. Justice compels us to act. Our Lord leads us by example and shows what Love looks like. Who among us, if we had a child that was struggling, wouldn't go to any extreme to help save that child, even to the point of personal cost - time, money, emotional fatigue, even danger? We act, because we know love. And the more we come to know the great Love of our Lord, the greater the consequences of actions dwindle, until they do not matter. I heard this past week someone say that the greatest Christians always acted without fear, in part, because they knew that they had already died, in their baptism. And they were brought back to life. If this, the greatest consequence means nothing, what else can?

The world is in need. It needs the message of Jesus, and His life giving grace. We, as a people within this Diocese, are called, encouraged, given the strength to accomplish this task through His Spirit. May you find within this call, joy, peace, and purpose that comes from following His lead.


In Christ,

Aaron Smith