Evangelism: More Questions than Answers. That’s the Point.

This is an article written by Stacy from December’s Broadcast, a monthly e-zine published by the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministries.  The rest of the e-zine (worth a read) can be found here.

Evangelism: More Questions than Answers. That’s the Point.

Over the past few months, I’ve been having many conversations about faith and spirituality with a Jewish student.  We have talked at length about prayer and spiritual struggles; he has attended Episcopal services and heard me preach; we have reflected on the challenges of inclusive liturgy and language.  At no point do I imagine that this student will convert and become a Christian, but I’m also convinced that what we are engaging in is evangelism.

Evangelism evokes for many images of shouting street preachers and earnest “friends” with tracts, experiences of being judged and condemned, being told you’re going to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior (as opposed, of course, to an impersonal Lord and Savior). Some of my students have argued that to try to convince another person to change his or her beliefs is an attempt to impose one’s own worldview on another and is profoundly disrespectful.

On the other hand, in some places the word evangelism has been so watered down that it simply means good parking spots and the newcomers committee at the local parish.  Not something I’d be willing to lay down my life for.

So, the questions seemed unresolved:  what is evangelism and is it appropriate for Christians to evangelize in a pluralistic society?

One of my personal missions is to rescue ill-treated concepts in Christian vocabulary, words like “sin,” “evangelism,” “salvation,” and “east-facing Eucharist” (the last one’s a story for another day).

Evangelism is the sharing of good news.  In Christian parlance, it is the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ.  What is that good news?  That should be an easy question to pin down.  But it’s not.  There are, at least, two ways of thinking about evangelism:  one based on creed and one based on action.

The credal version, based on the disciples’ and early Church’s experience of Jesus is:  God loves us so much as to become human in Jesus and to be executed as a traitor.   God raised him from death and somehow that life, death, and resurrection redeems us from sin.

The action version is based on the good news that Jesus preached and lived:  offering sight to the blind, liberation for the captives, freedom for the prisoners, dancing for the lame.

Neither of these versions of good news contradicts the other, and people may prefer one to another—and might offer very different visions of what each means in practical terms—but they are both essential pieces of our life and ministry as Christians.

Some understand evangelism as simply inviting people to church, which is limited, but a good starting point.  We invite others to church because it’s where we have found a community where we feel safe and supported and accepted and loved.  Often it’s a place where issues of justice and mercy are actively engaged.  These are the active views of evangelism.  But we need to be able give an account, as Paul says, for the commitments we make and lives we live. There are questions to be asked:  What is to be shared, i.e. who was/is Jesus, who is he for us and why? To what end do we share our faith: conversion, a happier life, a deeper sense of dignity?

In college people are asking deep questions.  They wrestle with the whys and wherefores and why bothers.  The beauty of our time is that people are used to diversity of identity, belief, and practice.  Answers seem less urgent than questions  Christians ought to be able to say why they are Christians, what is it about Jesus that they find compelling, what questions their faith raises and to what needs it responds.  We can talk with clarity and enthusiasm about that which give us life and meaning, why we work for justice, why hospitality is so important.  Sharing humbly and with integrity the good news as we have lived it (including our doubts and struggles) is an invitation to dialogue, a chance to learn from others, and sometimes exactly what an aching heart and weary spirit need to hear.

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