By John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Yesterday morning I was teaching and preaching about evangelism for a couple of vibrant small churches in the Presbytery of the James. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t even check the news beforehand, because I had no idea what had happened in Orlando earlier in the morning. (Since no one else mentioned it, I wonder if this was true for all of us gathered for church yesterday.)
During the education hour before worship I launched into some of my standard evangelism talking points. A lot of what I was doing didn’t seem to be resonating with this particular group. I had the growing sense that they were perfectly happy with their congregations and ministries and weren’t really interested in growing larger (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) or developing new outreach strategies. So I changed my approach and asked a series of questions I have adapted from Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel. (In a recent blog post for NEXT Church I suggested that Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants need to ask better questions when it comes to cultivating a culture of evangelism.)
“What difference does following Jesus make in your life?”
This generated several good, though mostly individualistic, responses.
“Does it matter to you if other people follow Jesus?”
There was less enthusiasm about this question, and many common mainline Protestant reservations about evangelism surfaced. Some believed that other people’s faith is their own business. Many people didn’t want to come across as pushy, judgmental, intrusive, arrogant, or offensive. Some felt that all religions are valid. Only one person really expressed a strong desire for others to follow Jesus.
I ask questions like this because I don’t think mainline Protestants always have a good sense or clear articulation of why the gospel matters. Back in my Southern Baptist days it was crystal clear what was at stake in sharing the gospel: if people didn’t come to faith in Jesus Christ they would suffer for eternity in hell. Most mainline Protestants don’t take this approach—myself included—but it’s rarely clear to me what, if anything, is at stake in mainline understandings of the gospel.
Yesterday’s massacre in Orlando is why the gospel matters. It’s why evangelism—not just living the gospel but also talking about it—matters. This horrific tragedy is a stark reminder of what’s at stake in our world.
Regardless of what you think about guns; regardless of what you think about Islam; regardless of what you think about human sexuality and LGBTQI rights in church and society; regardless of your political orientation and your perspective on the polarizing rhetoric of the current presidential election—surely we can all agree that what happened yesterday is a manifestation of evil and the exact opposite of what God wants for the world. In his vision of the divine realm emerging in our world, Jesus taught, lived, and died for a very different way of being. Jesus’ way—loving God with our entire beings and loving our neighbors as ourselves—leads to a very different world than the senseless violence we witnessed yesterday.
This is why evangelism matters.
Do I think that believing in or following Jesus is a magic cure for the problems of the world? No.
Do I think that only followers of Jesus can help bring about the new creation he envisioned? No.
Do I wish that more people would follow the way of Jesus? Yes.
I follow Jesus’ way because I believe it to be true and good and just. I believe that Jesus’ way leads to a world of peace and wholeness. And because of this, I believe that if more people followed this way the world would be a better place, that divine light would in fact overcome the darkness of evil.
Following Jesus has made a big difference in my life. I believe that it can make a difference in the lives of others as well. I believe it can change the world.