At the Synod Assembly last month I attended a workshop on evangelism by Pastor Michael Nel. This was quite possibly one of the most interesting, informative, and useful hours I have ever spent. Pastor Nel’s main point was that when churches do evangelism, it’s all about anxiety—and this is not a good thing.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Of course evangelism is about anxiety! What could cause more anxiety than telling me I have to go up to complete strangers and try to convince them to believe in Jesus?” And, while its true that talk of evangelism is enough to raise most Christians’ blood pressure—this isn’t the sort of anxiety that Pastor Nel was talking about (and this also isn’t the sort of evangelism he was talking about either).
Pastor Nel talked about anxiety not in individuals, but in a church as a whole. When things are going well, he said, most churches go through life quite happy to avoid evangelism. But when things start to look grim—worship attendance slips, offerings are down, it’s hard to find people for leadership positions—the church gets anxious. When this happens, someone is sure to pipe up with “You know what we need? An evangelism campaign!” And everyone agrees, more people, more money, and some new blood in leadership could do us wonders. And so a church sets out to spread the Good News and attract some new folks. This, says Nel, is exactly the WORST way to do evangelism, because we do it out of anxiety—and on top of that, it just plain doesn’t work.
Here’s why. When we do evangelism in this way, the message we are spreading is really not the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s something more along the lines of “We are really anxious that our church is having trouble. Wouldn’t you like to come join us, do some work, pay some money, and help us feel better about ourselves? Then our lives will be so much easier and we won’t have to worry about our church going under.” But who wants to come and be a part of a church that is so anxious that it’s out recruiting other people to solve its problems? No wonder “evangelism” as we usually conceive it is so terrifying—if we don’t recruit some more people to save us, our very survival is at stake. And in reality, this so-called evangelism has nearly nothing to do with God and everything to do with us, our needs and wants.
So what’s the alternative? Pastor Nel redefines evangelism away from “convince people to believe in Jesus” and even “convince (or attract) people to come join our church.” Instead, he says evangelism is “The process of defining oneself as a Christian to the world around one.” In other words, letting the world know you are a Christian—and telling the story of what God is up to in your life in public. What people do with this information is their own business. Of course, we hope and pray that God will stir up a desire for faith, perhaps even that they will want to come and see what’s going on at our church—but in reality the call to evangelize is not to “recruit” but simply to bear witness to what God is up to in our lives. It’s about planting seeds and trusting that God will nurture them into plants that bear fruit.
So then, what does this mean for us? This is an exciting time in the life of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Ministry is flourishing, the Holy Spirit is loose among us, Transformation is growing deep and spreading throughout our congregation, hope is alive and well, and people are daring to dream about the future of Bethlehem Lutheran in God’s mission in the world. On Pentecost Sunday we celebrated all the things that the Holy Spirit has been doing in our midst, ending with a list of miracles shouted out by the congregation (you can listen to the podcast on our website if you missed it). There is much to tell about what God has been up to among us!
And it would be easy to just sit back and soak it all in—to coast for a while thinking everything is OK. But now is exactly the time that we should be thinking about evangelism and about connecting what God has been doing among us to what God is up to in our neighborhood and beyond. So in the next several months don’t be surprised to be hearing more about how we can live into our guiding principle “We are called to work in God’s world” through Global Mission, through service locally, through reconnecting to our neighborhood and getting to know our neighbors—not so we can recruit them to bail us out, but so that we can share the hope, the joy, and the love of God we have experienced and also receive new gifts, new passions, and new challenges. God has done way too much at Bethlehem Lutheran for us to keep it for ourselves. We are called to share, to bear witness, to be messengers of God’s love for the sake of the world. And so, here we go…