Just like may folks who went to seminary, I have a shelf full of books on evangelism. Sadly most of them are not very good. They are not very good because, for the most part, they treat evangelism as an add on project of the church. Evangelism is a program we place on our “to do” list and then check off when it is accomplished. Or more commonly in my experience, we let it slide to the bottom of our list and then drop off the edge of the page.
This month I read another book on evangelism for mainline Protestant churches. To be completely honest, I didn’t want to. The members of a committee I am a part of were asked to read this book. Being a good committee member I read the book, but I wasn’t expecting much from it.
It turns out, however, that a good book about evangelism does exist. Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reece is a very good book about evangelism. There is a surprising wealth of insight, practical and spiritual, for a 200 page book.Best of all, this book does not offer a program for us to follow but rather asks us to think and pray about what evangelism is and the ways we resist it and the ways we might embrace it. There are two main ideas I would like to highlight today, our mainline “problem” with evangelism and how we might begin to rethink what evangelism is.
Part of what makes this a good book about evangelism is the author’s honesty about why we mainline Protestants don’t “do” evangelism. Most of us get more than a little uncomfortable talking about evangelism, in part because many of us have been on the receiving end of some aggressive and poorly done evangelism. Our other problem is we think evangelism means we have to talk about our faith in a way that risks alienating our friends or involves approaching strangers and forcing a discussion about salvation. These are real perceptions and many of us who avoid “doing” evangelism these are our reasons why.
The book however confronts us with a deeper truth. Many of us in mainline churches haven’t thought deeply or seriously about why our faith is important. People who grew up in the church may take their faith and their church for granted. Sometimes our failure to tell others about our faith is because we don’t think we have much to offer. For some of us, we simply don’t know how to put our faith into words. We need to practice talking about our faith. We need to spend some time thinking deeply with others about our faith and our relationship with God. For others of us, we can’t tell someone about the good news because we’re not quiet sure what it is or why it matters.
To be sure, there are many people in mainline churches who have a deep, rich faith. Sometimes they are hard to notice because they don’t draw attention to themselves. They share their faith by what they say and what they do. They bring other people to faith in personal and quiet and life changing ways.
These are the people who understand evangelism as Martha Grace Reese defines it, “…[E]vangelism is anything you do to help another person move closer to a relationship with God, or into Christian community.” I like this definition. I can do this. I might even have done this.
Evangelism as she describes it, is not a program to follow, but a way of life. Individuals and congregations who are growing in faith naturally share it. This sort of evangelism starts with our own life and in our own families and congregations and then moves into neighborhoods and communities. It is an organic sort of evangelism that begins with personal spiritual growth and then grows to embrace the people around us.
The thing that delighted me most about this book was Martha Grace Reese’s insistance that prayer, as individuals, in small groups, and as a congregation is essential. In fact she advises that before “doing” anything else the people involved in church leadership and evangelism spend months in prayer together. She has practical advise on helping our churches be welcoming places for people but it is all rooted in listening and discerning God’s will in the life of the people and of the congregation.
As people and congregations pray and grow they will have an authentic faith to share and they will, guided by the Spirit, recognize appropriate and natural situations in which to share their faith.
I’d like to know what do you think?