Elizabeth Eason is a third year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
I grew up outside of Charleston, South Carolina. I was raised Presbyterian with plenty of influence from the Southern Baptists on my father’s side and the Episcopalians-turned-Presbyterians on my mother’s side. Even without the family connection, no one can escape the pervasiveness of the Southern Baptist tradition when you live in the South.
I remember learning as a young child that evangelism was something they did because they believed they had to “save” people. Even as a kid I could tell that the word evangelism scared people in the Presbyterian Church.
In high school or college I finally looked up the word “evangelism” and realized that we Presbyterians do it too. I had been attending and participating in service days and mission trips since 7th grade. We helped people who needed it and talked with them about our faith. It never felt forced—they knew we were Christian so it just always came up in the conversation. It seemed like the same thing to me. We just did not use words like “saving souls” or “born again”.
When I asked questions about evangelism, or was asked questions I could not answer by more conservative friends, I was taught that the differences were crucial because those others were wrong. But they were not, and neither were we for that matter.
Evangelism is spreading the Gospel, simple as that.
I think that this simplicity has bothered Christians throughout time so they keep trying to impose more requirements on it. It is simply sharing the good news of the redemptive work of Christ in our world with others. Sharing this good news, this redemptive work of Christ, only means to communicate the impact Christ has had on my life, and the role my faith in Christ plays in my life. (You could change all the possessive pronouns in that sentence to plural and it would still be true.)
It does not have to look any certain way, no special words have to be used, no words even have to be used at all. It does not require imposing beliefs or practices on others. It does not need a specific time, place, dress code, or education level to be the one evangelizing or the one listening.
When I was a kid, I could not articulate this, and I do not remember ever finding someone who could. There were many questions growing up that the church could not answer for me—I think that is part of the reason I am where I am today.
Yet, I am struck by the idea that the church lost something in not helping me articulate to my cousins and my friends of different traditions and faiths the fact that I was doing evangelism too—in many ways—without ever having to understand the meaning of the word. Evangelism could—and should—have brought us together rather than being a way we continued to be segregated.