Getting Comfortable with the E-word

Letter E

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by Susan Nienaber

For some pastors and lay people in mainline/established traditions, the word evangelism has become, if not a “dirty” word, an unpleasant one. Either the word never had much meaning, is not well understood, or has negative connotations. For some, evangelism has no place in their theological worldview. For others, the word conjures up negative images of bellowing TV evangelists or folks standing on street corners handing out religious tracts. It is often associated with a kind of exclusivism that feels disrespectful to those who participate in different spiritual practices. Unfortunately, some have even been injured by people who were quick to criticize and judge the beliefs and practices of others. I was uncomfortable with the word for many years—and sometimes I still am.

I think there are other reasons for discomfort. When you ask people why they love God or Jesus or follow their Higher Power, many don’t have an answer. In many progressive faith communities, we are not used to talking like that. However, if you ask folks why they love their congregation and what they would tell others about it, the answers fall into a couple of categories. A colleague of mine, Fred Vanderwerf, has described these two types of responses as social connection and social cause:

Folks love their own congregations because they have developed close friendships and have fun together. Many congregations describe themselves as a loving family: that’s social connection. Others love their congregations because they get to engage in activities that meet the needs of people on the margins of society. This provides a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives: this is social cause.

A related problem is that sometimes we use the word evangelism to mean any mission-outreach activity geared toward helping others; i.e., we are reaching new people when we help them and helping them is how we evangelize. I once consulted with a progressive church where I left thinking it was just another charitable organization that gives wealthy people an opportunity to help others by donating money. That’s not really a problem—the problem is that there are many places people can do good works and give money to worthy causes without having to deal with the baggage of organized religion.

Evangelism is not just church growth

Another source of confusion is that sometimes evangelism means the same thing as church growth. Some mistakenly believe evangelism means simply inviting people to come to church, not inviting them into a relationship that will transform their lives. Evangelism comes to mean inviting new people to help pay the light bill and keep the church doors open. Not an inspiring or compelling definition of evangelism!

Mark Teasdale in his new book titled, Evangelism for the Non-Evangelist: Sharing the Gospel Authentically talks about discomfort with evangelism:

Many evangelism texts and programs are focused on how we practice evangelism without asking why we do it. [Our] primary problem [with the notion of evangelism] has been too small of a starting point. Without a powerful metanarrative to guide people, they have been left with vague notions of God that are not sufficient to make sense of or give purpose to their lives.

So, how would we get more comfortable with the e-word? Teasdale suggests: “We must ground our starting point for evangelism in the character and activity of God.” For Teasdale, evangelism does not exist to further the practices of the church. Evangelism exists to invite people into the good news of God. Whoa! This last statement doesn’t necessarily make us more comfortable! In fact, telling others the good news of God makes some of us squirm.

Evangelism starts with story

For me, it doesn’t matter if you are Jewish, Christian or Unitarian. I believe in grace and that God is constantly reaching out to us, wherever we are in our journey, initiating a relationship with us. The ultimate questions that need to ground our notions of evangelism are: Why do I believe what I believe? How do I understand God’s (or my Higher Power’s) character and God’s ultimate purpose? What is the story I have to tell?

For me, evangelism starts with my own story of faith. This is the only way to tell the story of transformation in a way that avoids the pitfalls of confusing the meaning of the word or becoming judgmental. Here’s the short version of my story:

My spiritual journey began with my mother’s death. I was only 13 years old when she died of colon cancer. I had been in confirmation class that last year of her life and was confirmed one month before she died. I really didn’t understand much of what was shared in confirmation class. Like most kids, I didn’t want to be there. I was expected to be there. But, later, the language that I heard in confirmation class did provide a framework for me to understand, in the midst of my great hopelessness and despair after my mother died, that there was a reason for me to go on living. Remembering this story gives me a starting point for evangelism—a starting point that is comfortable for me to talk about with others.

Lost stories, lost vocation

Unfortunately, we have folks in our mainline/established congregations who no longer have a story to tell or can’t even remember what first brought them to faith. Maybe congregational participation has just been expected throughout their lives. Maybe their experience of religious education or seminary deconstructed their beliefs to the point where they can make a great intellectual argument but can’t remember why they were called to be a follower or what difference their faith makes in their personal lives. Maybe they have been a part of too many dying congregations, have tried everything they can to revive these communities and have become too discouraged to remember the good news.

Bishop William H. Willimon, in Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, shares some provocative words:

Having lost a clear sense of our mission, we diffuse ourselves in inconsequential busyness. We allow congregational tranquility to become our sole desire, managing the present rather than leading into the future. Any pastor [or lay leader] who feels no discontent with a congregation’s unfaithfulness, who is too content with inherited forms of the church, is not just being a bad leader but has made a theological mistake of surrendering the joyful adventure of pastoral ministry to the theologically dubious office of ecclesiastical bureaucrat.

Ouch! The bishop’s words feel a little too close to home for me. Many of us have a long way to go to get comfortable with the E-word. I know it’s been a long journey for me. I think the work begins with clergy and lay leaders reclaiming their own stories. I believe that it will be essential for us to re-define, re-purpose and re-claim this word and our heritage, not for the survival of the institutional church but because there is a great spiritual hunger in our world and a great need for healthy faith communities in a time of cultural divides and societal polarization.

Susan Nienaber embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and occasionally consults with congregations on issues of conflict, dialogue, crisis, personnel, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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