“The “E” Word”
- Matthew 28:16-20 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When I announced my plans to attend seminary and seek ordained ministry, I was met with a lot of confusion. “When did you…become…Christian?”, friends would ask. One friend asked me if I was also changing my political positions, or renouncing my work for progressive politicians. Many questioned if I had always been super religious, or if this was a recent change in me.
Such a reaction shocked me at first – I’ve been a Christian my entire life! I was baptized and confirmed in the United Methodist church, and my Christian faith has always been foundational in my life. I chose to go into politics because of my faith, not despite it! I go to church, I believe in God, I claim Jesus as my savior. And yet, very few people seemed to know this about me!
So, I began to pay attention to how I talked about my Christian faith. Immediately, I noticed my hesitancy to even call myself a Christian aloud for fear of the impression it would give. The dominant picture of a Christian, even to me, is not a positive one – it has somehow become a synonym for the religious right, a group I – at least on the surface level – have very little in common with. I hate to admit it, but I was embarrassed by what me claiming my Christian faith may signify to others. I realized that I often backtracked when I talked about my future plans in order to not offend others – “I’m going to seminary! But don’t worry – I’m not that Christian” or “I’m seeking ordination! But it’s not that big of deal in my life”
You can probably guess that this isn’t the BEST mindset for someone entering a four-year seminary degree program and a lifetime of Christian service. Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to confront this attitude head on and begin to figure out how to claim my faith and feel comfortable expressing it. A lot of this growth happened in a class required for ordination, one I took to ‘get out of the way’ – because of course! It is always those classes that mean the most to us. That class was evangelism.
Evangelism has been an important part of Christianity since the days of Jesus. In today’s text, Jesus sent forth his disciples to evangelize; to make disciples of all nations. This practice was fundamental to the growth of the early church – we probably wouldn’t be here today without evangelistic practices.
Somehow, in the past 2,000 years, evangelism has become a dirty word for many Christians. The term carries a lot of baggage – it evokes state mandated Christianity in the time of Constantine, colonialism and forced conversion of the Global South, and the ‘religious right’ of today. Evangelism often is equated with church growth and wrapped in western, white cultural practices. We are right to find the word scary – a lot of damage and oppression has been done in the name of evangelism.
I am interested in exploring what happens when we, as a Christian community, shy away from evangelism. What happens when we separate the message from the messenger? Often, we view our Christianity as merely a system of ethics – easily replaced by whatever else is popular in the day.
For example, look at our church. I am constantly blown away by all this congregation does to serve our community, both close to home and across oceans. Lake Harriet does some pretty incredible work; which hundreds benefit from. And the really great news is that there are a lot of congregations like ours – a lot of churches are doing some really important work, living out Jesus’s call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-40).
It’s easy to connect our church life, especially our service activities with the life and actions of Christ. However, I’d like to suggest that perhaps we need to go a step further. What if we weren’t engaged in social justice for social justice’s sake, but instead actively claimed Jesus and Christianity as our motivating force? At its core, Christianity is both counter-cultural and subversive; a different way of living. What if we, as Christians, lived into that, and broke from our current North American way of life? What would happen if we not only claimed Christianity proudly, but also truly lived it? In my eyes, that is evangelism.
My favorite definition of evangelism comes from my school’s Dean of Student Affairs and Professor of Evangelism, Bryan Stone: “Evangelism is bearing faithful witness to the peaceable reign of God, which is known to us through Jesus”. In my evangelism course, we talked about what exactly this means – what IS the peaceable reign of God? How do we bear faithful witness to it?
My professor, Dr. Hickman Maynard encouraged us to first figure out WHAT we are offering and WHY – If the Gospel is good news, what does good mean? What about news? Does good news always appear good? For example, vegetables don’t always seem like good news, but they are! Theologian James Cone, as well as other liberation theologians, states that the Christian story is a Gospel of freedom from oppression and a journey towards salvation. To me – this is good news! It may not be easy news however – to proclaim and live this Gospel most likely requires a radical shift in how we live our life.
Stone claims that “Any evangelistic strategy designed to make the rich and powerful comfortable can find no home in the story of the people of God and in a world where wealth and poverty do not exist in a vacuum but are related to one another as cause and effect” (217). There are ethical implication to being a Christ follower, and I believe we should seek to live into them as much as possible. We can, and should, be a living testimony to this loving reign of God.
This does not mean diving into the practice of evangelism without forethought or planning. We cannot forget the difficult history of evangelism – we MUST allow others the opportunity to responsibly reject what we are offering. The leader of my recent Travel Seminar to South India described evangelism as “bragging and recommending. It is bragging about your tradition and then recommending it. Evangelism is never done by force.” Good news cannot be mandatory.
Evangelism is hard to define and comprehend, which makes it difficult to measure. How do you measure success when the goal is to ‘bear faithful witness’? I believe that many saints and martyrs were the most successful evangelists, because they so clearly and truly lived out their faith in a way that was truthful to both the message – the Gospel – and the messenger – Christ. What if we measured our success not by the souls saved, but by what we do for the least of these. If we are less concerned about how effective our message is, and more concerned of what sort of witness we are bearing, then, maybe, we can call ourselves successful evangelists.
I challenge you to claim you Christianity. Wear it on your sleeve, let it be the reason for all the good that you do. No one owns the term ‘evangelical’ – it does not have to be a dirty word. You too can go and make disciples of all the nations. Have the courage to bear faithful witness to the loving reign of God. It may be scary, but as Jesus reminds us, He is with us until the end of the ages.