Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reclaiming Evangelism (Rick O'Brien, Feb. 9, 2014)

Father Barry recently asked me if I would work with the parish growth committee in an effort to bring more people into our church.  As the newest member of the staff, this was a great opportunity to do some good and I was quite flattered that he would ask me to do something so worthwhile.  So of course, I told him no.  That’s right, I said no.

He looked at me a bit funny.  I could just hear the thoughts in his head, “Not counting today, how long have you served at Christ Church Father Rick?”  So I hastily added, “But I would be glad to work with the parish evangelism ministry instead”.  Father Barry smiled as he immediately understood what I was saying.

You see, I am not interested in working on parish growth, because putting it in those terms makes it about us and our needs.  Growth implies that we have needs to fill and the way to fill those needs is to bring in people to fill them.  We need more lectors, or more Sunday school teachers; we need more pledges or more young families or more people to engage in pastoral care.  We need, we need, we need.  Growth implies that the focus is on US and OUR Needs. 

Evangelism however, changes the focus entirely.  Instead of thinking about what WE need, evangelism is about what others need and how we can fill THEIR needs.  When I joined the church several decades ago, I can assure you that I never once worried about how I could fill the church’s needs.  I was interested instead in what the church could do for me.  I suspect the same is true for many of you.

Now, about 3 minutes into my sermon, I have already gone into difficult waters and brought up a somewhat taboo subject.  I have a friend who once told me that the quickest way to empty an Episcopal church is to preach about stewardship or evangelism.  And here I am doing just that.  But I don’t buy into his premise.  Yes, I fully understand that we Episcopalians are uncomfortable with the idea of evangelism.  But I think we have been sold a bill of goods and have let others take from us something that is fundamental to our belief system.  I don’t usually title my sermons, but this one is titled “Reclaiming Evangelism”.

I say reclaiming evangelism because the word simply means the preaching of the gospel.  That is what we do every day.  By the way we live our lives, by our witness to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, by the acts of compassion that we do in His name, we preach the gospel to the world every single day.  That is what we do, because that is what we are called to do.  At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commands us to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded of you”.  This is the great commission, and as Father Barry has been reminding us, we are a great commission church.  Jesus calls all of us to preach his gospel to all nations.  That, my friends, is evangelism.  Jesus calls us to be evangelists because he calls us to preach the gospel and to make disciples.  Even in today’s gospel, Jesus calls us to evangelism.  “You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

So why then are we so uncomfortable with the word evangelism?  I think it is because the meaning of the word has been changed.  When we think of evangelism today, we don’t think about dedicated Christians spreading the word of God as we are called to do.  Instead, we think of the person on the street corner yelling at passersby, telling them that they are all doomed to hell for their sins.  We think of the guy with the megaphone yelling about wrath and eternal damnation.  We think of the people who go door to door asking if we have accepted Christ as our personal savior.  These images of intrusive, pushy, and sometimes even hurtful interactions have co-opted the idea of evangelism for some of us. 

That is a sad thing, but we have been somewhat complicit in this ourselves.  By standing in the background and allowing these people to claim title to the word evangelism, we have given tacit approval to their ideas and their methods.  It is time for us to end that.  We need to reclaim the word and the deed.  For evangelism is far too important to be abandoned to the street corner screamers.  As mature Christians, it is our right and our duty to reclaim evangelism.  Not for ourselves, but for God.  Because the message of God is too important to be left to amateurs.

So if we decide to move beyond our discomfort at the world’s clumsy attempts, how then do we reclaim evangelism?  We start by changing our mindset.  That is why I don’t want to be part of the parish growth committee.  Focusing on growth makes it about us.  Evangelism focuses on the needs of others, on their need to hear the gospel and to experience the loving power of God in their lives.  Each of us knows how wondrous it is to have God in our lives.  We draw our strength from God, from the comforting presence of the divine creator, to Jesus who knows our joys and pains, to the Spirit who breathes life into us in all that we do.  How could we NOT want to share that with others?  How could we keep that glorious love to ourselves? 

Focusing on the needs of others then begins with how we welcome people to our church home.  Each of us came here for the first time as a newcomer.  That is a critical part of evangelizing, by making the stranger feel at home.  We are diligent about this at Christ Church, but we can do better.  In March we will be hosting a seminar for ushers and greeters and anyone else who would like to participate in a conversation about welcome and hospitability.  Remember that we are welcoming people not to our house, but to God’s house.  The stakes are incredibly important.

We also need to do something very un-Episcopalian.  We need to talk to other people about our church.  We need to invite our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers to come to church with us.  This will be a challenge to us because talking about our faith is an uncomfortable concept for most of us.  But it is also vital to spreading the good news of Christ to the world.  A friend of a friend tells the story of having been invited to church by a neighbor 8 times before she finally went.  8 times!  That is evangelism.  Oh and by the way, the friend of a friend is now a deacon and serves on the staff of an Episcopal Bishop.  She has said that she wonders sometimes what would have happened if her friend had given up after the 7th invitation.

Let your light shine before others.  Go and make disciples of all nations.  Go into the world and proclaim the good news.  Our Lord Jesus calls us to be evangelists over and over again.  Let us come together without fear and reclaim that task.  Let us together be evangelists for the gospel.