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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.

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.

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.