posted by Amy on Apr 4
When I told my friend Janell that I was taking a class in evangelism, she said, “That’s a dirty word.” I said that I know it can seem that way, but it doesn’t have to be.
Janell and I were both brought up in the Methodist church. Although Methodism began as an evangelical movement, and swept through both England and the U.S. like wildfire, the suburban Methodist church of my childhood (and the rural church of hers) had become insular and static. Church was just something everybody did on Sundays.
For most of my life I associated “Evangelical” with those guys with pouffy hair on television claiming they could solve all your problems if you bought a holy hankie. Evangelism sounded like proselytizing, and that seemed impolite at best, disrespectful and even colonialist at worst.
These days, it seems that most Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants just quietly go about their business without feeling any urgency about Christian witness. But many of us have been watching our congregations shrinking. We worry about how to meet the budget. Catholics pray that young men will be called to the priesthood. United Methodists study “vital congregations” and talk about “metrics” and “accountability.” After several generations of taking for granted that things would just keep chugging along (and having that happen until birth rates started falling and the culture became more and more diverse and secular), organized religion now seems to be following a business model, complete with mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, “right-sizing,” and marketing strategies.
Here in the East, I’ve seen numerous United Methodist congregations of thirty or forty people meeting in sanctuaries that can seat 500 or more. I’ve seen little country churches (like the UCC church to which my friend Janell belongs) that are barely hanging on with a small core group of regular members but with not quite enough people to have a regular adult Sunday school class or a youth group. They see new people come and then go, and they don’t usually know why. We all have great ideas for showing the love of God to our neighbors, but we just don’t seem to have the resources to pull that off. We think it would be great if our congregations could grow–just a little bit.
But do we want people to join our churches because we can’t pay the light bill unless they do? Or do we have good news for them from God?
A lot of churches claim to cherish visitors, but fail to make them feel welcome. Maybe it’s hard for a newcomer to figure out what to do and when. Maybe the ritual seems alien (or silly, or annoying, or too loud, or too stuffy.) Maybe the “fellowship time” consists of little closed circles of people who know each other, with no one bothering to engage the newcomers.
It can seem as if pastors are really just trying to separate people from their money, and although they say it’s so they can do “God’s work,” it appears to have more to do with buying new carpet than saving either souls or bodies. A lot of churches concentrate on the entertainment value of their services, to the exclusion of anything that sets them apart from other options for Sunday morning.
What if I told you that, to me, Christianity is not about assent to certain truth claims but about a way of life as a member of God’s family? What if I told you that I’ve seen God work anyway, in some surprising ways, even (or maybe especially) with the congregations that seem to be most dysfunctional and off-track?
What if I admitted that I have no idea whether going to church is part of God’s plan for your life? I’m not that smart, or prescient. But I can tell you I didn’t think I needed or wanted it either. I didn’t even think I believed in God, but somehow God drew me in anyway. Slowly but inexorably everything changed after that: my self-understanding, my story, my mission in life.
It didn’t solve all my problems, by any means. In fact it completely messed up my life. I couldn’t keep serving only my own needs and desires. Well, I could, but I noticed how unsatisfying that was, what a dead end it was, and how bad I was at making things up as I went along.
I learned that it really is necessary to give up one’s life in order to find it. How does that sound to you? I really can’t explain it. You just have to come and see.
I always want to know what you think, but it’s especially urgent this time because I need your feedback for a class project. Say whatever comes to mind about evangelism, or answer some or all of these questions: If you do not belong to a faith community, what would it take for you to visit one once? To come back a second time?
If you have no intention of ever darkening the door of a Christian church, can you tell me why? Is Jesus the problem, or is it Christians? Have you been abused, shamed, betrayed? Do you think it’s just silly superstition?
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