All posts by John Vest

This Is Why Evangelism Matters

By John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

loveYesterday 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.

Beyond the Congregation: Koinonia in a Networked World

beyond the screenBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Andrew Zirschky’s excellent book, Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation, was a perfect follow-up to our study of Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral in our Post-Congregational Evangelism class at UPSem. Though he ultimately ends up in a similar place as Anderson—technology and social media are important ways in which to nurture Christian community—he maintains a more critical stance toward digital culture than Anderson does—or I do, for that matter. (It’s worth reading Anderson’s review of Zirschky’s book here.) As such, this book provides some counterbalance to the thesis I have been advocating in this class: in a networked world and a culture in which fewer and fewer people are participating in traditional forms of congregational life, the church must find ways of existing in the social and cultural spaces in which people actually live. While I tend to run headlong into this new mission frontier, Zirschky takes a more cautious and critical approach.

First, especially as someone passionate about youth ministry, let me say that Beyond the Screen is a must read book for those who still think that the use of technology and social media among youth is always superficial and comes at the expense of more substantive in-person interactions. Zirschky deftly demonstrates that social media and mobile technologies enable teens to experience what they truly want and need in our fragmented world: authentic and meaningful relationships.

Zirschky and I differ a bit when it comes to our understandings of networked culture. Building on the work of Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman in Networked, Zirschky notes that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Though Rainie and Wellman mostly champion the positive aspects of this new way of relating to others, Zirschky offers a moral critique of this way of being in the world and argues that it is at odds with the biblical and theological concept of koinonia—a Greek word meaning “communion” or “fellowship”, understood as God’s ideal vision of human community. While he notes that it doesn’t make sense to abandon technology and digital culture in ministry, Zirschky is nonetheless wary of the dangers of networked individualism.

I think Zirschky’s points are all valid, but I see networked individualism differently. Instead of approaching it in terms of value judgements, I think of networked individualism in more structural terms. Neither right nor wrong, this is simply the way social connectivity has evolved in our present cultural context. In one form or another, the negative elements Zirschky describes existed in previous social operating systems as well. Some of them may be amplified in our networked culture, but they’ve always been there.

In the same way, koinonia can exist in networked culture as much as in any other social operating system. This, I would argue, is the goal of evangelism and ministry in today’s world—embodying koinonia in our personal and shared social networks. This can happen in traditional congregations, but it will increasingly happen in culture spaces beyond the congregation.

This is what I think. Follow the links below to read what my students had to say. As you will see, they are developing faithful and nuanced approaches to ministry in our rapidly changing world.

Spiritual Leadership “In Cathedral”

the digital cathedralBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

As we explore what it means to be spiritual leaders in a post-Christendom culture in my Post-Congregational Evangelism class, we read Keith Anderson’s fantastic book, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

People say this all the time, but this is the book I have wanted to write for the past few years. I would have approached it differently, of course, but I love how he stretches our notions of traditional church from a congregational model into a more expansive “cathedral” model that recognizes the necessity of ministry outside of our church walls. As a pastor in a brick-and-mortar church who very intentionally ventures out into public and digital spaces, Anderson himself demonstrates that this doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition—a both/and approach is possible for existing and new congregations.

My only real criticism of the book is its title. “The Digital Cathedral” (and its subtitle) makes this sound like a book primarily about using digital social media technology for ministry, which I fear will limit the audience for a book that needs to be read by everyone interested in what church can (and increasingly does) look like in today’s world. Digital culture is only one piece of the bigger picture Anderson paints. He regularly emphasizes the need for both local and digital ministry and understands that the network paradigm is not just about social media platforms but is increasingly the organizing principle of our entire social lives.

Building on the witty and evocative phrase coined by Elizabeth Drescher, which he employs throughout the book, I wish Anderson had called it In Cathedral. This generative metaphor for relational and incarnational ministry in a networked world opens up many possibilities for reimagining and reshaping church in the cultural spaces in which people actually live. Instead of setting apart certain spaces as sacred, living in cathedral recognizes God’s presence in everyday life. Spiritual leadership is helping people see this and live in the world accordingly.

Once again, I invite you to read the thoughtful reflections—and critiques—of the students in this class. They accept Anderson’s challenge to think differently and run with it.

Post-Christendom Reflections on Seth Godin’s Tribes

tribesBy John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

One of the assignments in my Post-Congregational Evangelism class this week was to read Seth Godin’s Tribes and then answer the following question: What does spiritual leadership look like in a post-Christendom environment of fewer congregations, shrinking memberships, and limited jobs in established churches?

Godin argues that in today’s world credentials and titles are less important than they used to be. Leadership is not given, it is asserted. Everyone has the potential to gather and lead a tribe. I think this is an important insight for future (and current) faith leaders who can no longer expect a traditional church job when they earn their degree and are ready to receive a call. Post-Christendom ministry requires the kind of visionary, entrepreneurial, and heretical leadership described by Godin.

My students have written fantastic essays in response to this prompt. I encourage you to read them all.


Post-Congregational Evangelism

Grouped-Social Network (with Caption)By John W. Vest, Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

This week I began a new course at UPSem called “Post-Congregational Evangelism.” It brings together much of the theory and practice I first explored as a youth pastor and have subsequently presented in a variety of workshops around the country. Here is the course description:

Are congregations based on anachronistic social capital models? Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman suggest that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Instead of focusing exclusively on attractional or program-based approaches to ministry that will have limited results in a post-Christendom cultural matrix that we cannot realistically hope to change, the church must also invest in the religious and spiritual lives that people are actively cultivating beyond congregations. This course will explore this new cultural reality and the practical implications of thinking about church as a social network. If people are no longer interested in going to church, the church must find ways of going to the people.

Here are the books we’re reading together, in the order we’re reading them:

Students will be writing reviews and reflections on these books throughout the course and I will be posting them on this blog. I hope to also make additional posts myself to provide some sense of the trajectory we are following. I am very excited about teaching this class.

If you would like to see the full syllabus, you can download it here.

Post-Congregational Evangelism in a Multi-Religious World

groundedWithout a class to teach this term, I’ve let this blog lie dormant for longer than I intended. I’ll work on getting it rolling again, because lots of good things have been happening in my work with students and in my work with Presbytery of the James congregations and pastors.

For today, though, I want to build on a stimulating week of public lectures here at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I had nothing to do with them, but two lectures this week dealt with topics that I will explore in my next two evangelism courses.

On Monday Peter Ochs delivered a fascinating presentation on his approach to ending religion-related conflicts and violence. He noted that the US government has failed in peacemaking efforts in these conflicts because diplomats do not take religion into account when working toward solutions. Ochs suggested that his Scriptural Reasoning method could provide a way for warring peoples from different religions to open up possibilities for flexibility and peacemaking. Ochs and Jerry White have created the Global Covenant of Religions to explore putting these strategies into practice in on-the-ground situations of conflict. (You can watch a video of the lecture here.)

I’d like to incorporate Scriptural Reasoning and Ochs work with religion-related conflict in the class I will be teaching in Fall 2016 called “Evangelism in a Multi-Religious World.” Here is the course description:

What does it mean to bear witness to the gospel in a pluralistic and multi-religious society? Does evangelism require Christians to insist that all other religions are false? Does God expect us to convert non-Christians? What does interreligious dialogue and partnership look like in today’s world? What are the ethical and political implications of public discourse about religion? To address these questions, our study of classic and contemporary theological texts will be supplemented by interactions with people from a variety of religious and nonreligious traditions.

On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass presented her new book Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. In very personal terms drawn from her own spiritual life, Bass describes what the spiritual awakening she talked about in Christianity After Religion actually looks like. (You can watch a video of the lecture here.)

Grounded is one of the books we’ll read in my upcoming May term class, “Post-Congregational Evangelism.” Here is the course description:

Are congregations based on anachronistic social capital models? Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman suggest that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Instead of focusing exclusively on attractional or program-based approaches to ministry that will have limited results in a post-Christendom cultural matrix that we cannot realistically hope to change, the church must also invest in the religious and spiritual lives that people are actively cultivating beyond congregations. This course will explore this new cultural reality and the practical implications of thinking about church as a social network. If people are no longer interested in going to church, the church must find ways of going to the people.

I’m excited about both of these upcoming courses and I’m grateful that they are intersecting with other experiences at the seminary.

John W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Incarnation 2.0

Carol FergusonCarol Ferguson is a fourth year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Evangelism is the sharing of good news. It is the human impulse to share what most gives us life. It is the open-hearted opposite of greed.

In the Christian context, that good news is that God chooses to hang out with us, even if we reject God, even if we kill God, so that one day we might choose to hang out with Her. It is the good news that in Christ, all those things that help us survive from day to day—hope, love, courage, strength—in Christ, they are made real and renewable and available. The good news is that we do not rely on our own fragile networks, with their broken lines and accidents of chance, to get us through this life. The good news—and this is good news that can grate—is that we are not free agents; we are beholden to the one that holds us, and to the world within our grasp.

Of course, there are a thousand other ways to articulate that good news. Evangelism is personal. There is no script. At its heart, evangelism is incarnation 2.0. It is God reaching out in a million different ways through us—yes, us—to let the world know it’s not time to throw in the towel just yet. And because evangelism is embodied, it looks as different as we do from person to person. Evangelism puts the gifts of the spirit to work. The hosts invite; the writers compose; the nerds fangirl for Jesus; the therapists heal; the scientists invite others to explore; the listeners hear needs. Christ’s story gets refracted in a million different ways, and the light shines out.

Practicing evangelism means turning ourselves inside out. It means letting our faith go around naked. It means deciding that God’s already-grace is more powerful than human’s potential scorn. It is vulnerable; it is dangerous; it is real. Evangelism makes a terrible shield, and is never a sword.

The theoanthropological implication of all this is that evangelism by its very nature says people are worthwhile. It affirms humanity’s power to do God’s work. Likewise, evangelism recognizes the human dignity of all people. It listens when someone says “no,” or “but,” or “have you thought about it this way?” The openness needed to let the good news out must also let good news in. Disciples are only disciples as long as they are learning. The gospel is not a product; evangelists are not its hawkers; there is no monopoly to be gained or market to be cornered here. The minute evangelism becomes transactional rather than relational, its time for Jesus to get his whip ready.

Evangelism is one of Christianity’s universal vocations. It is our common work—our common privilege. Evangelism is not an act of aggression, or guilt, or arrogance. It is love at its most basic—sharing what has rescued us so that all might find themselves on solid ground.

Evangelism Is Not a Buzzword

Joshua LewisJoshua Lewis is a second year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Evangelism is the spreading of the “Good News”, therefore, an evangelist is the individual bearing the responsibility of the presentation of the “Good News.” As Christians, this “Good News” continues to be as the Apostle Paul succinctly put in I Corinthians 15, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ! When considering the cause of, and responsibility for evangelism, it is important to stay rooted in the reality of the message that an evangelist is to present.

As a Christian from the Pentecostal tradition, the conception of evangelism is woven tightly into the preaching, genre of worship and overall Christian expression of the believer. Evangelism, the spreading of the “Good News”, the Gospel, is an expectation of every believer, a fruit of the indwelling Spirit of God. For Pentecostals, evangelism is not a buzzword, or a part of denominational culture, it is an expression of the Christian life and serves as a means to present hope to non-believers by inviting them into the Kingdom of God that is being fulfilled on Earth. To be a Christian in the Pentecostal tradition is to be engaged in the responsibility of evangelism. The reality of the expressed Spirit of God in Pentecostalism is a sign to believers that the Kingdom has come to humankind and is in the beginning of its eschatological consummation, therefore, a sense of responsibility and urgency is laid on their hearts to “reach” the world with the Gospel.

It is without question that this concentration of evangelism in the Pentecostal tradition has contributed to its remarkable and continued growth throughout the globe. However, it also has the potential to be spiritually hazardous in the individual and collective lives of Pentecostals. Language that is often used in Pentecostal churches such as “winning souls” or “soul-winner” echo the sentiment that somehow individual believers, empowered with the eschatological Spirit, have the capacity through their efforts to save non-believers and transition them into the Kingdom of God. This unintended consequence removes the concentration of the spreading the “Good News” to a focus on the number of souls that an individual feels personally responsible for “leading to Christ.” In order to correct this imbalance often found in Pentecostalism, Pentecostals must advocate for theological training amongst its clergy, not just Spirit empowerment.

It is important to note that Pentecostal scholarship is indeed an emerging field and will be a powerful tool for the Church by teaching, discipling and grounding believers in the faith in order to keep evangelism in the proper perspective. Christian discipleship and scholarship within Pentecostalism will also aid the global Church in expanding the scope of what evangelism can look like through the broad efforts of social justice and advocacy for the marginalized and voiceless in the world, areas which it traditionally has been weak. Broadening the definition of how one shares their faith will also broaden the Pentecostal influence globally.

In closing, Pentecostals have done well and must continue to advocate for the presentation of the Gospel in the world. They have taught that evangelism is not an exclusive responsibility of a few select individuals, but one which all must take seriously as followers of Christ. For Pentecostals, the coming of the Spirit of God, is an eschatological empowerment to partner with Christ in the expanding of the Kingdom of God in the world, and the Gospel continues to be for them, as it was for the Apostle Paul, “…the power of God unto salvation…” (Romans 1:16)

There Is Good News to Be Shared

Nate 1Nate Taylor is a second year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In college I got my first experiences with street evangelism.  Evangelists would occasionally come to VCU and stand on the wall next to the compass rose and shout from above the crowd as people walked to their class.  There is nothing more conducive to learning than having people shout at you—making sure you are aware that you are living in sin and will burn in hell.  Sometimes I would jump up there next to them and shout out to the crowd to not engage and to know that God loves them and other times I would just walk by in a rush to get to class.

I cannot stand that the word evangelism has been used to describe this type of behavior.  People who do nothing but point out the sins of others are not evangelists.  The word means a bringer of good news.  What good news is there from someone just yelling at other people about their sins?

Another group of evangelists brought large posters with blown up pictures of partial birth abortions as protest.  They failed to mention that partial birth abortion has been outlawed since 2003.  I never understood why they would disturb everyone that walked by with incredibly grotesque images as a form of evangelism.  What was their goal, to ruin the day of everyone that walked by?  They certainly made my day worse.

Is that the best that we can do to share what Christianity is on the streets of Richmond?  Are these the voices we want to be speaking to the public?  Are these the voices that we want to speak for all Christians to the youth of the nation?

Two years ago I moved back to Richmond for a job at a local church and in the first evangelism committee meeting all that was talked about was the welcome kits that we hand out on Sundays to visitors.  This particular church gave away a compact florescent light bulb and a small loaf of bread as a symbol that Jesus is the light of the world and the bread of life.  While I love the things they were doing to be welcoming and am constantly impressed by other things the church does, I was disappointed in the inward focus of the evangelism committee.  If evangelism in mainline denominations is only concerned with what we do once people walk through the doors, we aren’t getting our message outside our own walls.

There is good news to be shared to every corner of the world—good news that shares the love of God and the redemption of creation.  But what is the point of having good news to share if we don’t get out and actually share it?

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Photo by Thierry Gregorius
Photo by Thierry Gregorius
Maybe it was because the church I attended on Christmas Eve sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain” during the candle lighting (instead of “Silent Night” as I am accustomed to). Perhaps it was the preacher’s moving sermon, in which she reminded us that we have “glimpsed something we must share.” Maybe it’s just because I think about everything now through the lens of evangelism, but it occurs to me—in these final days of the Christmas season—that Christmas is our most evangelistic holiday.

Regardless of whether you think there is a “war on Christmas” in the United States—for the record, I do not think there is a war on Christmas or on Christians in our country—the fact remains that for a month or so millions of people greet each other with a joyous “Merry Christmas!” It may be so syncretized as to no longer resemble a purely religious season, but Christmas is by far the biggest holiday celebrated in the United States, and even the themes of our secularized Christmas reflect peace, love, generosity, and joy.

Yet for Christians, there is so much more to share: the radical love of God; the mystery of God-with-us; the challenge to the status quo of power and fear; the hope of transformation for individuals and for the world. This is good news that we need to hear.

People love to tell others about the birth of a baby.  It’s no wonder God enters the world this way.

Even though Christmas ends tonight, our work of sharing God’s love continues. So go tell it on the mountain—or wherever you may be.

John W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.