Dear Working Preacher,
If you really want to understand why the church is declining in North America, you need to recognize how frightened most of our people are by the word “evangelism.” For some, it comes from being on the receiving end of someone else’s evangelism. Whether asked “Have you accepted Jesus?” by a domineering brother-in-law or “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” by a well-meaning but intense co-worker, too many folks have experienced evangelism as coercive, even threatening.
For others, the explanation isn’t nearly as sinister. It may be a conviction that religion isn’t something polite people talk about; or that one’s faith is private; or simply the desire not to be perceived as one of those people (you know, the kind we just described).
Whatever the reason, most of our people not only have little experience in evangelism but are downright frightened of it. And that, of course, cripples our ability to reach out with the good news. In light of this situation, John’s story of Jesus’ baptism might be the perfect reading to invite us not only to admit our dis-ease with evangelism but also begin to overcome it.
Except this isn’t exactly John’s account of Jesus’ baptism, at least not as told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each of those writers records Jesus coming to John the Baptism to be baptized, describes the descent of the dove, and shares the message of the heavenly voice. But the Fourth Evangelist is characteristically different. Here we get a second-hand account from the testimony of John the Baptist. But, quite interestingly, he doesn’t actually baptize Jesus in this gospel; instead he only shares what he sees.
And that may be the larger point of this story from the Fourth Gospel — that when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, our primary job is to see and share. Not threaten, not coerce, not intimidate, not woo or wheedle or plead, but simply to see and share.
John the Baptist does that here. He sees the dove descend upon Jesus and tells others what he sees. That’s it. Andrew later does the same. He tells his brother what he and John’s other disciples saw — the person they believe is the Messiah — and invites Peter to come along and see for himself.
Could it be that simple? At its heart, evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.
Why do I think that? Because this isn’t only what John the Baptist does, and it’s not only what Andrew does. It’s also what Jesus does. When Jesus notices some of John’s disciples following him, he asks them what they are looking for. They, in turn, ask where he is staying. He doesn’t give an answer. He doesn’t question further. All he does in response is make an invitation: “Come and see.”
Notice. Share. Invite. These are the three elements of evangelism, sharing the good news of what God has done and is still doing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us and all the world.
The challenge, of course, is that most of us have little experience in any of these activities. And so I would propose we begin to remedy that.
Notice. I have for some time wished that we would begin every church committee meeting, every session of the vestry or church council, every confirmation class — and why not include the parents dropping off the kids? — with five minutes of folks taking turns naming where they saw or felt the presence of God in the world and their lives. Or maybe, since at first that may be difficult, we just name those places we saw where God needed to be — places of tragedy or distress or hurt — and then over time we may get better at noticing where God actually is — in the first responders or relief workers or a caring neighbor or friend. Over time, we develop the capacity to see God in our lives and the world.
Share. Most of us are nervous about sharing our faith, either for the reasons listed above or simply because we’ve never done it. That means practice is probably the only solution to this problem. For this reason, when I’m teaching in congregations I often invite folks to turn to someone near them and share one reason they like this church, one reason they like to come. It’s intended to not be a big deal, and yet it sometimes is simply because we’re not used to doing this. But we can learn. The first time I tried this, an elderly man came up to me afterward. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as some folks definitely don’t like this kind of exercise at all. But he smiled, introduced me to his wife and said, “I want to thank you. You see, this gal and I have been going to church together for sixty years. And it turns out we’ve never known why the other comes!” Yes, we can learn.
Invite. This may at first seem the hardest of all. It can feel so intrusive, and of course it puts demands on us to follow through. And yet … think about it: we invite people to things all the time. To join a book club or play tennis, to go to an after-school event or to come over for dinner, to attend a sporting event or to go shopping. We’re actually quite good about inviting folks to come to things … just not to church. And, of course, we invite people to those things we really like, those things we’ve enjoyed and think others would, too. We need to ask ourselves first, what elements of our church life do we most value? That is, we’re not just going because we have to but because we enjoy it. (If we can’t identify any, then that’s another problem altogether!) Then, our task is simply to think about who might also enjoy this event or activity and invite them. Framed this way, it’s probably not as hard as it seems.
Okay, this is a lot, Working Preacher, and clearly one sermon can’t make everyone suddenly feel comfortable with evangelism or create confidence to share our faith. But one sermon can get the ball rolling. One sermon can introduce these practices and invite us into a season, or a year, or several years of thinking more intentionally — and practicing more regularly — the skills to notice, share, and invite.
Beyond all this, one more thing: think about how small these things are as they play out in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and yet also notice what huge results they have, reaching far beyond what the participants involved could ever have imagined. John the Baptist simply shares the wonder of what he saw, and Jesus gains his first disciples, people who will carry his message to the ends of the earth. Jesus invites them to come and see, and they leave their homes and families to embark upon God’s great adventure. Andrew tells his brother he really ought to meet Jesus, and the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church falls into faith.
From the beginning of creation until now, God delights in taking little things — things the world decides are nothing — and doing something wonderful through them. So also with our initial attempts to share faith, our tentative ventures into telling others what we’ve seen and felt. They may feel like very small efforts, yet the God who brought light from darkness and raises the dead to life wants to — and will! — do marvelous things through them. Thank you for your part in sharing this promise.
Blessings on your life, ministry, and proclamation, Working Preacher. What you do matters so much, and I am grateful for you.
Yours in Christ,