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Evangelism is not a bad word; it’s the best expression of our faith
The Great Commission is the number one job of the church
I posted this proverb from Circle of Hope on my Twitter feed the other week: We receive the “Great Commission” (Matt 28:18-20). Any believer, who is not doing their part in the “family business” of redeeming the world, is missing the point of their ongoing existence.
It’s a bold statement, but I believe it. I really do think the point of my life is to share the Gospel. I think it’s the best way to reveal the Kingdom of God and do our part in changing the world, reconciling it with Jesus. But I didn’t always believe it. I was telling the Seminarian’s Cohort the other night in our discussion about “insiders and outsiders,” that I never really made it into the Evangelical church. That even though I looked, swam, and quacked like an Evangelical, I never really got into the fold for a variety of reasons (not least of which was my brown skin in white-skinned Lebanon County, Pennsylvania). I’ve since grown disillusioned with the term, finding it less useful and often antithetical to evangelism itself (more here, and apparently people have been talking about this since the early 1900s), but until I learned to reclaim my faith in Circle of Hope, I didn’t know how to share a faith that rejected me. Even though I still held to my faith, I didn’t think I could or should share it, lest someone be hurt the same way I was.
I needed to reclaim my faith in order to learn how to share it, and I did in Circle of Hope. Circle of Hope gave me a grammar to express my faith and a community in which to enact it. Even though we’ve always kind of been at odds with some of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are dutifully following Jesus and sharing the Gospel, looking for people who are looking for us and our expression of Jesus.
Because of the way I’ve been impacted by my faith as it’s developed in Circle of Hope, I’m compelled to share it. I need to share, I want to tell the whole region about it. It’s an outpouring of my own passion; my wellspring fills up and I need to talk about Jesus. I want to make disciples of anyone who is willing to join. I want to reveal what God is doing in the world; I want to wake the world up to it. I want to turn on the lights and brighten the room so we can see clearly what’s going on. Put another way: we have dinner ready, and I want to invite to you.
This is about passion not coercion
I’m extending the table because I’m hungry and I’m excited about the food we’re making. If you’re not interested, that’s OK. It’s an invitation, it’s an opportunity; it’s not an obligation, it’s not coercion. Just because I am compelled by God’s love doesn’t mean I need to force you along the way. But I do need to make sure everyone who is interested hears about us. I know people are hungry for what we’re serving, so I want to share that without any shame.
It’s hard to get there, I think, because the church has been imperialistic too often with its approach to evangelism. The church has spread our faith through violence, but also through condemnation, fear, and shame. Those aren’t the tactics that Jesus used, but they are ones that many of us have a memory of. As we say in Circle of Hope, maybe applied sarcastically here: Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility. You might want to put some quotes around “precious,” because your experience very well may not be precious, just like mine wasn’t. But I want to die to it so I can move on and be free to share where I am now.
I want to emphasize the fact that true evangelism isn’t colonialistic or violent. That it is once again, an invitation to dinner, to a party, to a movement, to life in Christ expressed in community. We say: We are “world Christians,” members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love. And with that in mind, we don’t favor one culture over another, and we don’t just say that, we actually interrogate ourselves because we know the dominant culture can just take us by surprise. We know that we are more likely to move with the mainstream of dominant culture, and though we want to bring the Gospel to it with great flexibility, the contents of our flexible container can’t be adulterated by the domination system. So we also say: All cultures are fallen, yet Jesus reveals God in all of them. The church does not need to force people to leave all aspects of their culture in order to worship God through Jesus Christ.
So I think Christians do need to share what’s for dinner. The invitation is an expression of our passion and our love. We are sharing how we’ve been transformed. I think we hide it under a bushel because we think sharing our experience is judgmental. In fact, we’re supposed to not talk about the things that are most intimate to us. Maybe we don’t want to because doing so makes us vulnerable; and I admit, sharing my faith is vulnerable and dangerous because it is so dear to me. But Jesus also protects me and centers me, so I can be confident in my sharing. But I also think we’re told not to share our faith because we’re being presumptuous and judgmental. I think sharing the opportunity to engage in life with Christ is just what we’re doing; maybe your life is great without Jesus, it’s OK for you to move on.
When I feel hesitant to share the Good News of Jesus, but I’m ready to share the Good News of AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), I do have to pause and wonder why the latter is easier than the former. I guess because on my social media feed, posting about what AOC is doing is kinda like preaching to the choir ain’t it? I suspect the most aggressive Evangelical evangelists are doing the same thing; just preaching to people who already agree with them. I have to pray for the courage to share the Good News with people who may not have heard it yet, though, and face the risk of rejection and humiliation. Only when I am ready to suffer will I be ready to share.
We might not be for you
The truth is we will be rejected. And that’s OK. Maybe you just don’t wanna eat. There are plenty of reasons you might not want to dine with us. For one thing, you might have an upset stomach, so to speak, and you aren’t ready for faith or a faith community. That’s OK. I just want you to know where we are for when you get better. We’ll be here.
You might also not like what we’re serving. You might be a picky eater (we are particular in our own ways), so you might bump into something that you don’t like very much. Maybe you think our commitment to peace or anti-racism is off-putting. Or you don’t think women should be pastors. Or you think we’re too into the Bible (or not enough into it). Or we talk about sin too much (or we never talk about it). That we’re too political (or not political enough). It’s interesting, because we’ve actually been accused of all those things, but we are distinct enough to have contours you can see. So you decide you don’t like what we’re serving. Our food might be too flavorful or too rich.
We don’t want to put obstacles in your way of connecting. On the contrary, we want our doors to be wide-open; but our efforts to be inclusive are actually part of our character. So you might not want to eat with us if you don’t want to be an includer and reconciler yourself. If you aren’t ready to invite folks to dinner, or help out in the kitchen, or even clear the table, it might be hard for you to connect. We are in the family business of service. No one here is just a consumer or even just a worker. If you show, we’ll give you a share in the church, so to speak. You become an owner; we take you that seriously.
And I think that’s what making disciples is all about. We aren’t just looking for butts in seats; we want workers in the field with us. We don’t want to just meet arbitrary numeric goals to feel good about ourselves. We have the goals to stay on track and to keep fulfilling what I called the number one job of the church.
Don’t forget the “why”
It’s easy to lose sight of that: because of the hostility you may experience for being an evangelist, or the shame you might experience for not being as enthusiastic as you think a good Christian should be, or even the failure you experience when you share about Jesus or Circle of Hope and just get rejected. I think it’s easy to throw in the towel, lose heart, or lose interest. But when I feel like that, I remind myself of why we are interested in sharing the gospel.
I start with my own experience of being welcomed and included. Circle of Hope saved my faith and gave me an opportunity to help in redeeming the world. Evangelism, sharing the Good News, is the best way I know to change the world. It’s the best way I know to reveal the Kingdom of God to the world, to participate in the ongoing event of salvation.
When someone becomes a disciple of Jesus, their whole life changes. Changing lives goes hand-in-hand with changing the world. We need new hearts for the world to change. We need to be born again for the world to change. I not only think Jesus changes hearts, as he has mine, but it also changes how we act in the world, how we are convicted, how we treat one another. I share the Gospel because I think Jesus is the hope of the world. That’s the main course to the dinner. I love him so much, I’m gonna keep sharing it.