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.

Promulgation and Zeal

Rachel ErbRachel Erb is a first year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Evangelism is a word from which many in my mostly mainline Protestant context are quick to shy away. I include myself in that statement. There is something about our prevailing, postmodern, cultural and societal version of evangelism that at a knee-jerk level makes me cringe. The word evangelism and the accompanying act of sharing the gospel has been coopted by others who, to put it nicely, don’t share our views, and to put it more strongly, are often insulting, abusive, and ignorant in their presentation of “the only true faith.”

I don’t think it’s the differing viewpoints that lead to our hesitancy with the word evangelism; I know many faithful people who rather than running for the hills at the first sign of a disagreement are instead challenged to think more deeply about their own faith, and appreciate that challenge. It’s my opinion that it is the belligerent, accusatory presentation of those differing views, a presentation that is now equated in our culture with evangelism itself, that leads to our desire to separate ourselves from it. 

A quick search on reveals that the definition of evangelism is “the preaching or promulgation of the gospel; the work of an evangelist” or “missionary zeal, purpose, or activity.” At its baseline, this version of evangelism leads to nothing but agreement from me—and an appreciation for the underutilized words promulgation and zeal. We are to share the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, who was sent to redeem the world from sin through his death and resurrection. We are to share this gift we receive with zeal, a gift given not in response to our own worthiness, but through God’s grace. In fact, they are the statements of Jesus himself in the book of Matthew in what has come to be called “The Great Commission,” when he charges the apostles after his resurrection with going and making disciples, sharing the good news with people, teaching them how to follow him. 

So, there’s the rub—for me, at least. Evangelism as it has been sculpted in our society? Sharing what is supposed to be good news in a way that is not good at all, that makes people feel less than, that makes people feel unworthy and cowed in order for you to make your point? No, thank you. You can keep that to yourself. I want no part of that. But sharing with others in this broken world the glimpses of wholeness that I believe come from my walk with God, and inviting them into a relationship, a way of life, that for me has been life-giving, life-affirming, soul-renewing? I can, and do, sign on to this definition of evangelism wholeheartedly.

Make disciples—not because you are told to, but because you can’t help but share what is so central to your life and identity. Together, with others, figure out how to be followers of Christ in a world that isn’t always receptive to what you’re sharing, and invite others to be a part of it. Yes, of course! Keep that version of evangelism coming. I’ll take a heaping serving of that. It’s how we get from the accusatory self-assertion of the first approach to the overflowing invitation of the second that is my question.

Actually Talking about Our Faith

Caitlin HahnCaitlin Hahn is a first year MDiv/MACE student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

To me, evangelism means showing and telling people about God and God’s remarkable love for us.  For some people, the word evangelism has a negative connotation because, when they imagine evangelism, they imagine rather aggressive and, to some, abrasive acts such as going door-to-door or shouting God’s love from a megaphone.  But when I think about evangelism in my own life, I’m thinking of just talking to my friends about my faith and inviting them to church related things I’m involved in.

Some people think we shouldn’t have to even talk about our faith but rather people will know we believe in something bigger by how we live.  People have told me that if I live out my faith, people will notice something different about me and ask me about it and THEN I will tell them that I act how I act because of God.  But that’s never happened to me.  (Also, one of the kindest, most loving, most amazing people I know does not believe in God, so I’m not so sure people will ACTUALLY know we are Christians by our love like the song says.)

I’m sure it happens like that sometimes, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with actually TALKING about our faith.  I don’t think evangelism should be pushy or express judgment towards those that don’t believe – I believe it should just express what we believe and people can decide for themselves what they think is true.  I think that not judging is the key to evangelism that makes people feel loved rather than attacked.

For people who have grown up exposed to Christianity, it’s easy for us to think that everyone knows about God and Jesus.  I know for me, it was a shocking and very important realization when one of my high school friends didn’t have a clue what communion was or what baptism was.  It’s easy for us to take this knowledge for granted but some people have never even heard these words.  People aren’t born with the knowledge that there’s this God who loves us and died for us but rather people who already know and believe this need to TELL them what we believe.  Then they can take this information and make their own decision about what they believe.  But most importantly, whatever they decide that they believe, we need to love them just the same as we always have.

Jesus’ Story + Me = Testimony

Trent HoldenTrent Holden is a first year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

When I think of Evangelism my mind goes straight to Jesus’ last message he gave his disciples before he left them for heaven, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Matthew 28:16-20. You can take the iniative and look it up if you aren’t familiar with the rest of the verse. Evangelism at its core is a charge from Jesus to “proclaim the good news” as Mark’s Gospel puts it  (Mark 16:15.) This good news being the story of Jesus from his teaching to his death and ressurrection. So I guess I am saying that evangelism is the making of disciples.

That’s too basic. Evangelism is the making of disciples, but I think that HOW you ‘make’ those disciples is just as important. What I mean is, Evangelism is not getting people to come to church, to be faithful to the organization, to tithe, to say the right confessions, to volunteer, to serve, or anthing else that a disciple may do. Evangelism is when someone hears Jesus’ story and is so overwhelmed with its life changing truth that they not only believe in Jesus, but want everyone they know to believe in him as well, and, as much as they do. This makes me think of Jesus himself making disciples in John 4. In this part of Jesus’ story he begins a conversation with a Samaritan woman and ends with the woman and many people in her town believing in Jesus as the messiah. John 4:39 says “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the Woman’s testimony…” This is evangelism.

Jesus’ Story + Me = Testimony

And when I tie my testimony back to the story of Jesus it becomes a beacon for others to see (understand) and believe. But it doesn’t stop there, these new people who have heard my testimony have the opportunity to invite Jesus to stay with them, wich is exactly what the Samaritans did (v40) and verse 42 says: “They said to the woman, “it is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Evangelism, then, is an opportunity for us to tell others about what Jesus has done in our own lives and then saying: come see for yourself!

Gospel Density

"Dense" by Kevin Dooley
“Dense” by Kevin Dooley

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

Seth Godin is one of my favorite thinkers and I read his blog every day. Yesterday his post was about length and density in communication. Consider this:

As we’ve moved from books to posts to tweets to thumbs up, we keep making messages shorter. In a world with infinite choice, where there’s always something better and more urgent a click away, it’s tempting to go for shorter.

In fact, if you seek to make a difference (as opposed to gather a temporary crowd), shorter isn’t what’s important: Dense is.

Density is difficult to create. It’s about boiling out all the surplus, getting to the heart of it, creating impact. Too much and you’re boring. Not enough and you’re boring.

The formula is simple to describe: make it compelling, then deliver impact. Repeat. Your speech can be two hours long if you can keep this up.

And if you can’t, make it shorter!

Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.

This resonates with what we’ve been doing in the Introduction to Evangelism class at Union. I’ve asked students to do two final projects: 1) a presentation of no more than 15 minutes that articulates and communicates their understanding of the gospel and 2) a practical theology paper that develops their working definition of evangelism. On more than one occasion I also have asked them to define the gospel in two or three sentences, an exercise I also do when I lead workshops on evangelism. Mainline Protestants are not good at this. We tend to overcomplicate the gospel and have trouble boiling it down to something simple and straightforward.

This is where Seth’s reflection on length and density comes in. Presbyterians (and many other mainline Protestants) are infatuated with words. Our worship services are mostly words. We are uncomfortable with silence. We are people of “the Book” and many other books as well. We love words, yet we struggle to articulate the gospel in two or three sentences. We need to boil out all the surplus, get to the heart of it, and make it compelling and impactful.

This doesn’t mean superficial. Simple is not the same thing as simplistic. Rather, Seth calls for density.

This is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey to my students. When I ask them to articulate the gospel in fifteen minutes or three sentences, I’m not asking them to dumb it down. To the contrary, my assumption is that this kind of gospel communication should be dense in the sense that a whole bunch of other theology is baked into these efficient articulations.

This is not exhaustive by any means, but throughout our course of study I’ve been making a list of questions that shape our understanding of evangelism. Our articulations of the gospel and our working definitions of evangelism imply answers to questions like these:

  • Is evangelism possible without absolute truth?
  • What is the goal of evangelism?
  • Is belief in hell necessary for evangelism?
  • What’s at stake?
  • Free will or predestination?
  • What is the relationship between evangelism and social justice?
  • What is the relationship between evangelism and discipleship?
  • What is salvation?
  • What is the nature of belief?
  • What is the context of evangelism?
  • What is the fundamental human need addressed by the gospel?
  • What is the relationship between Christ and culture?

This class does not have any prerequisites so it’s open to students at all stages of study. However, it occurs to me that a class like this would make a perfect capstone to an MDiv program. After three years of studying Bible, theology, and history, how do we take all of that knowledge and condense it down to an efficient and compelling articulation of the gospel? Grounded in a lifetime of education and faith formation, how do we share with others why the gospel matters to us on a personal level?

That’s gospel density.

Why Do You Believe in Jesus?

Melissa MillerMelissa Miller is a second year MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

As a Christian, and especially as a seminarian, I feel people are often looking for my response to the question, “Why do you believe in Jesus?” Sometimes they are bold and ask it out loud but more often they ask in roundabout ways. Once people identify me as Christian, I think they start watching for characteristics that display me as Christian and they compare the things they see with their own definition of being Christian. Whether or not they have read the Bible or believe the Bible to be valid are of lesser concern to the mental ideas of Christianity they hold to be “real”.

I feel they ask, in one way or another, why I believe in Jesus because we have a human curiosity to know the reasons behind someone’s actions or beliefs. My response to their question hinges on my definition of evangelism.

My classmates and I were asked in a Christian Ethics class to describe the word evangelism because the professor was trying to enable us to assign definitions to words we often throw around too casually. We were asked to define it using a what, why and how. I said the following:

Evangelism is
WHAT: an act
HOW: of sharing the Gospel with others
WHY: in order to bring about in them a belief and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Redeemer.

Evangelism is an act or expression of the belief and trust one has in Jesus Christ to others. This is seen in everything we do. Every decision we, as Christ-followers, make influences others’ perceptions or beliefs in the Gospel. Sometimes this is actually sharing a testimony of faith with a non-believer (a more traditional definition of evangelism). But evangelism is also my wearing a bracelet with a cross on it to a secular meeting or choosing not to watch certain shows or movies because of the images or messages they portray. Evangelism is holding the door for someone coming in from the rain or telling a stranger who shared a difficult part of their life with you that you would pray for peace in their situation.

All the actions we take along the life path we walk are part of our living definition of evangelism. It’s not about conversions—that is the job of the Holy Spirit—and it’s not about church members—that’s incidental. It’s about showing those around us the most genuine reflection of the Gospel we can show and relying on the grace of God to reveal to us how to do that better tomorrow.