19 Aug 2011

Reach out (I'll be there)

If I admit that I remember 1990 does that make me sound terribly old? Because I do remember 1990. I remember slightly before it too.

In 1988 and 1989 sections of the Church became very excited about the 1990s and declared them 'The Decade of Evangelism.' What actually happened around where I lived was that in 1990 there was lots of shuffling of feet and it was declared, 'Ah! actually officially the 1990s don't start until 1991,' and the subject was quickly dropped before 1991 happened, so there was no discernible difference in the Evangelistic efforts for this pre-millennial push to save the world.

In my experience Evangelism is a dirty word throughout most corners of the Church. In some sections because it's associated - wrongly - with just the Evangelical movement, and in the Evangelical movement because  our definition of Evangelism has become too narrow and so most people are unable to engage effectively in what is accepted as 'Evangelism'. Too often when we talk about Evangelism we mean the verbal declaration of the gospel message, either from the pulpit or on the streets, or for the majority of our congregation in their everyday lives. We insist that ALL believers MUST be involved in this work at all times taking every opportunity to talk to (aka preach at) those around them. Well I'm sorry if you believe that's how things should be done because I simply don't agree with you. I will endeavour to explain why.

Evangelism is a gift, a specific role, a calling. Paul says, "he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers." To be an Evangelist is not for all people in the same way that being a preacher isn't for all people (preaching isn't for all people who climb into the pulpit... but that's another story), but we somehow expect all people to do it. "But," you say, "Doesn't Paul also tell Timothy to 'Do the work of an Evangelist'?" Yes indeed he does, but he says 'Do the work' of an Evangelist, not 'Be an Evangelist'. The difference? It's down to our definition of what Evangelism is. Put aside your image of standing on street corners shouting at passers by who go out of their way to ignore you, cast aside your image of going door to door sampling doorbells and preventing people from eating their tea in peace, forget the idea of going to great expense and effort publicising an event in your Church and ending up preaching to only the regular congregation members. These things have their place in the spectrum of Evangelism but would be more effective if we took a wider view of what Evangelism is.

The bottom line is that we ARE all evangelists and we do all 'do the work of an evangelist.' As soon as people around us know that we are a Christian they watch us and watch how we act. They judge us - and God - by what they see of us. That can have a negative or positive effect. If we demonstrate God's Love in action we will have positive impact, but - I have to say it - my conversations with non-Christians would suggest that those Christians who take every opportunity (and even more-so those who manufacture opportunities) to preach at people get a negative impact, their Faith isn't respected and would more often than not appear to do more harm than good. Disagree with me if you will but there is a time and a place for everything and shoehorning anything into a space it doesn't belong is never going to yield positive results. And if we aren't gifted Evangelists that hardly improves things. I would much rather let my actions do the talking, make my efforts in living the Gospel every day. That way I know that those conversations I do have are genuine - the people who I am conversing with has raised the subject with me because they respect me and my Faith, which is a major part of who I am. Fewer conversations happen? Almost definitely, but it's quality not quantity.

Near where I live there is a parish which houses both an out-and-out Evangelical church and a more liberal one. If you attend the evangelical church you will hear a lot about the importance of Evangelism and the urgent need to proclaim the gospel. If you attend the more liberal church you won't. But if you look at what those 2 churches are doing, the evangelical's words don't get off the ground (they've hosted a couple of Alpha courses in the past, but I think that's it) and it's the liberal church which is actually putting those words into actions. Not particularly in a way that their neighbour recognises as 'Evangelism', but they are designing and hosting 'fresh expressions' type events specifically aimed at non-Church people, putting on events which you may call 'liberal discussions' or you may think of as a place where Church and non-church people can come to and ask questions about belief; they're trying to engage with people where they're at and introduce them to the Faith which they hold as precious. This is evangelism. In the narrow definition of evangelism maybe it wouldn't qualify, but if it's raising questions about God then for me it does. 

One final point.  
Throughout my Christian life there has been a dispute. The Evangelicals have stressed the importance of Evangelism (narrow definition) in bringing people into the Kingdom of God, for the Liberals it's been social justice that's been the important thing. Each side of the debate has criticised the other for not seeing things their way and not joining and supporting their projects. In truth both are equally important. You see, if we go out and shout from the rooftops, "God is Love!" the people who hear us will reply, "Prove it." They will see what we do and if there is nothing but words we have failed. If we want to be able to preach God's Love to the world, then there must be evidence of it in action coming from the Church. This is where the social action comes in. When non-Church people see that the Church is engaging in social care & social justice, when they see that we are willing to get our hands dirty to love the unloved, when they see us go the extra mile to help and speak out for the disadvantaged they then can see that God is indeed Love. Our words will have true meaning. BUT (there's a big but). But our community work must not simply be motivated by the desire to convert people, that's not love. It must be motivated by our desire to see them prosper and our hatred of injustice. It must seek what's best for them and ask for nothing in return. It must be motivated by Love. Only then have we earned the right to be heard.

Our Evangelism (broadest and narrowest definitions) must begin with a desire to not convert the masses, just to love them.

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