When I say the word “evangelism” or “evangelist” what comes to mind for you? Perhaps it’s someone knocking on your door to tell you the “good news”. Or maybe it’s someone on a street corner shouting at passers-by about the coming wrath of God. Somehow, the idea that someone who wants to share their passion for God and God’s Kingdom, has become almost as bad as a four-letter word in our tradition. And when we think of being an evangelist, for some of us, that makes us sick to our stomachs…what will be required of us? Will we have to hand out pamphlets? Do we have to put up a booth in front of Wal-Mart?
The word “evangelism” at its core means “to proclaim”. However, over time, it has come to imply a winning over of souls…and somehow that’s become scary to us. So let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s start with “to proclaim”.
Last week, the Gospel lesson from Luke had Jesus reading the scripture from Isaiah to those gathered at the synagogue. In the passage Jesus read from, he proclaimed or evangelized, that he was sent to tell the good news, heal the blind, set free the captive and the oppressed, and to tell of the year of God’s favor. In reading that passage from Isaiah and then telling those gathered that day that “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, he is claiming his voice as an “evangelist”…someone who proclaims.
When in your life have you made a proclamation? Maybe for some of you, you took a stand on a particular social justice issue and protested, wrote a letter to your congressman or senator, or participated in a boycott. When we do these things, when we make a proclamation about our beliefs, we are being evangelists in the most basic sense of the word. And when we do these things because they are in line with our morals and ethics as Christians, then we are being evangelists of the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus claims his voice as an evangelist that day in the synagogue, he was met with unexpected results. While at first the people are amazed with his teaching, eventually people began to criticize him and they pushed him out of the synagogue, out of town, and to the edge of a cliff. So what went wrong for Jesus the evangelist?
The stories he told pointed to how God often uses the “outsider” to bring about the Kingdom. God used Elijah and Elisha to proclaim through word and action to a widow and a leper God’s grace and healing, and then they went on to make believers out of others from their own belief and transformation. God was doing something new through these people. They weren’t the local religious leaders and priests, but were people who had experienced transformation and love. And when Jesus tells this story in the synagogue, he is reminding the religious elite that this is how the Kingdom of God works…new things happen through the most unlikely people; not necessarily through appropriate temple sacrifices and public acts of piety. So of course the people get mad! Jesus is telling them that something new is about to happen, change is on the horizon! He’s proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God; he’s being an evangelist. This is scary stuff!
For years now the church has been wrestling with declining numbers. Theologians, scholars and religious leaders have been scratching their heads and trying to come up with solutions to the problem. Last fall, USA Today published an article titled “As Protestants decline, those with no religion gain”. In the article, the reporter stated that in the 1960’s, two out of three Americans claimed to be Protestant. In 2007, Protestants (both evangelical and mainline) made up 48% of Americans. At the time of this article, one in five Americans (19.6%) claimed no religious affiliation. They are known as the “Nones”. This group is now the second largest category of Americans only to Catholics, and they outnumber the Southern Baptists all together.
And so, with this information, we continue to operate as we always have…we open the church doors on Sunday and hope for the best. But this is not what Jesus modeled for us, and it’s not Biblical.
In the reading this morning from Jeremiah, we learn that God puts the words needed into Jeremiah’s mouth that would help to tear down old structures and old ways of being, and also build up and plant the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel, we see that Jesus has come to do the same, using the words of Scripture…to change the old ways of being and build up the Kingdom.
When I was in college, I remember going to the city to go dancing with my friends one Friday night. While we were waiting in line, a ragged looking man who was carrying a cross, passed by us, telling us how we were all condemned to Hell for our sins. My thought then and now is, while this may be his understanding of the Gospel, for me, it isn’t helping build up the Kingdom.
So what are we going to do about this word evangelism and the “nones” and our call to proclaim the Good News? I don’t know that there’s one answer to this question. I think it varies from church to church and location to location. My priest friends in Chicago stand out on the church corner on Ash Wednesday imposing ashes on those who pull up to the curb. This might sound crazy to us, but it’s meeting the changing need in their area…not everyone has a lunch break to come to church and receive ashes, but it’s still an important ritual to them. My priest friends in New York have served as chaplains to the Occupy Movement…not because they all support the movement, but because they wanted to be available to those who were seeking prayer and guidance. But these are big cities, not Hood River.. So what are we going to do?
Last week and in this month’s newsletter, I reviewed for you the “Five Marks of Mission”:
~ To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
~ To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
~ To respond to human need by loving service
~ To seek to transform unjust structures of society
~ To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
My evangelism, my proclaiming of the Good News has been focused particularly on these last three, which influence my ability to proclaim, teach, baptize and nurture. I am committed, as a Christian, to practice evangelism in terms of my work with the Warming Shelter and the Emergency Voucher Program. I am committed, as a Christian, to practice evangelism every time I sign a petition for better laws on domestic violence, marriage equality, and equal pay for women. I am committed, as a Christian, to practice evangelism every time I attend an Earth Care Summit, attend a Riverkeepers meeting, or support environmental stewardship efforts. I do these things, and offer my testimony on these issues, as a Christian because I feel that I have a moral and ethical responsibility, and a Biblical call to do so. Evangelism is not a bad word for me anymore. But I also realize that I may not be the most popular woman in the room when I practice my evangelism in this way.
So once again, I am inviting you to consider these “Five Marks of Mission” and the idea of evangelism. How do they call you to respond in our community? How might you be an evangelist?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.