Want to make a Presbyterian squirm? Just say the word “evangelism.”
Evangelism has some negative connotations, bringing to mind slick television preachers, street-corner pamphleteers and door-to-door missionaries. And yet, "evangelism" is a perfectly good word. It comes from a Greek term meaning “bringing good news.” The earliest evangelists were Jesus’ friends and followers, who gladly told others about his life and teachings.
Evangelism is nothing more than telling how God is at work in our lives and in the world. Sharing that story can be done many ways — by lifestyle, words, attitudes and actions. We share God’s love through our love for others by showing compassion, feeling empathy, putting others first, building relationships and seeking justice.
We also use words. We tell our stories.
The Rev. Patrick Heery of Westminster Presbyterian Church says this: “That’s how the Christian church began — by telling a story on Pentecost. A story of a God whose heart ached so much for us that God became one of us, suffered with us, stood up for the hurting and the oppressed, showed us a different way to live, to love, and then conquered death for us, conquered everything that separates the divine and the human, till there is only God only love, only Christ resurrected. To be a witness is to tell this story. Not just as it is written in the Bible, but as we have experienced it.”
Patrick goes on to give examples of his own story, how a shy little boy with a speech impediment found his voice because church members believed in him when few others did, how the Westminster family rallied when he and his wife lost twin babies last year, how he experiences God in nature and leads monthly contemplative hikes with others who find God there as well.
Others are sharing their stories, too. Westminster member Paul Dungey, speaking to the congregation last month about what evangelism means to him, quoted a paraphrase of Matthew 5:14-16 from The Message: “You are the light of the world. You’re here to be the light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on the hill… By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.” Paul encouraged everyone to take the light of Christ out with them at the end of worship, and “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” as the children’s song says.
Member Rich Newman also spoke to the congregation about his understanding of evangelism. Rich remembered “learning religion” from his father, a Depression-era farmer who taught his son that it is important to help others, make the world a better place and be good stewards of the earth, plants and animals. As Rich became involved with churches, he learned that they are not the end point, but rather the vehicle to make the world a better place. He spent over 20 years as a youth group leader, guiding teenagers into a life of service to others with Jesus as the model. Kids from other churches and other religions, and even non-church youth joined the group because they saw it made a difference. This is how Rich sees evangelism.
What is my story? You might be surprised to know that even though I write this column, I find it hard to talk about my faith, probably because it is a work in progress. One of the reasons I love my church is that it encourages questions, doubt, different opinions and struggling with hard questions. There are no pat answers to the difficult questions that arise on our individual spiritual journeys. At Westminster, I am allowed to use my head as well as my heart to experience God.
Evangelism should include an invitation, so here is mine: Give church a chance. Churches are full of people like you who wonder about the meaning of life, what happens after we die, who or what is God, and how they can make the world a better place. Visit several churches to find one where you feel welcome. If you’d like to give Westminster a try, come any Sunday at 9:30 a.m. or visit us on “Rally Sunday” on Sept. 9, when we kick off our program year with a special service and an all-church picnic.
There. That wasn’t so hard.