For some, the word “evangelism” evokes visions of a street preacher condemning passersby to hell if they don’t repent and turn to God, right then and there. These preachers try to scare people into believing in God.
While this “turn or burn” method of evangelism, which starts with fear, might work for some, it’s far more effective to do what Jesus did – which was to start with love, to accept people as they are, where they are, and by word and action show how much God loves them.
For it is knowing we are loved deeply, despite our failure, our sin, that motivates us in gratitude to turn to God, receiving forgiveness and committing our lives to God, seeking to follow Jesus.
At a recent online conference put on by my denomination, we considered the many facets of evangelism – a good word because at its root is the word “evangel,” which means “good news.” God’s love is indeed so amazing that when we receive it and know it in the depth of our being, we can’t help but share it with others. Evangelism is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
Contrary to what we might think, “…the task of evangelism is the business of every disciple of Jesus Christ … a collective responsibility of the Church as a special community: the body of Christ. Essential to the formation of a community is establishing and fostering authentic relationships, and in life everything is about relationships. The way we relate to others is a practice of evangelism.” (From “8 Habits of Evangelism,” Presbyterian Church U.S.A.)
How we live together and welcome others is evangelism because these actions bear witness to the authenticity of the faith we profess. Our relationships can attract others to discover God’s love for themselves, or turn them off.
In one seminar, the leaders listed practices that don’t foster “welcome.”
There’s the “fireworks welcome,” in which people are effusive with their attention to visitors, but it quickly dissipates as members return to paying attention only to their old friends.
Second is “pew entitlement,” in which newcomers are given the evil eye or actually asked to move out of someone’s favorite pew. It’s hard to believe it happens, but it does!
Third is “coffee hour murmuration,” which is gossip around the coffee counter, or in the parking lot, said within ear shot of visitors. People have stopped visiting a church for that reason alone.
Fourth is showing preferential welcome of the rich over the poor.
Lastly, is to claim to welcome all when in fact that isn’t true – e.g., when churches say they want young families, but then complain when children are noisy.
The challenge I see for churches, beyond being sure not to fall into these practices, is for members to go beyond being “friendly” to newcomers, to actually inviting them into their lives. For it is when we begin to share our burdens and our joys and the challenges of living like Jesus, that authentic relationships develop, and we are encouraged for the journey of faith.
Where these relationships are flourishing, welcome of all and evangelism will become as natural as breathing. And that will be more attractive than slick ads, impressive buildings, and programs every time.
Rev. Christine Herrin is the senior pastor at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton.