Preaching and evangelism take many forms. Some imagine a fire-and-brimstone confrontation, while others call upon the example of St. Francis, using words only “when necessary.”
Here’s a passage that helps bring evangelism (and preaching) out of a narrow definition and allows me to see it as part of what I’ll call Jesus’ expansive mission:
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 9:35).
My first call as a parish pastor was in a small Northwestern Ohio town with a population of 786 souls. While serving there, I would dream about ways to proclaim the Good News of the crucified and risen Jesus in the community. Walking to the post office, and slowly sorting through the mail, proved a great opportunity for spiritual conversations. Eating lunch in the high school cafeteria once a month was a great place to listen and learn. Morning coffee with the farmers at the local restaurant always proved insightful. Storytime at the library helped me to connect with the children of the community.
What I learned during those early years was that my call was not to the congregation, but to the community. And a huge part of God’s call was to share the hopes, dreams, and fears of our community with the folks in the congregation. To expand the influence of the pulpit from the heart of our small sanctuary to the heart of our small village.
Practicing an expansive mission
Jesus practiced an expansive mission. Preaching and teaching in all the cities and villages and reaching out to bring healing to the sick and the suffering. Already in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is on the go, proclaiming the Good News, calling the first disciples, teaching in the synagogue, and healing the sick. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38). Jesus calls us out to love the congregation, the community, and the world. Jesus practiced an expansive mission.
And so did the early Church. In the Book of Acts, just prior to his Ascension, Jesus charges his followers with an expansive mission. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And as we read through the Book of Acts, we see this expansive mission unfold. Peter and Stephen preach the Good News in Jerusalem. Philip proclaims Jesus the Messiah in Samaria. Paul shares the Gospel in Rome. The expansive mission of the Crucified and Risen Jesus continues to make its way to the ends of the earth, even today.
So, what does this have to do with preaching and evangelism? And how might we expand the influence of the pulpit from the heart of our sanctuaries to the heart of our communities?
Expand your mindset
Whom are we called to serve? Of course, we are called to serve the dear folks of our congregations. Serve them and serve them well. But an expansive mission refuses to stop there. An expansive mission leaks from the heart of the preacher into the community. And if the folks in the congregation push back, just remind them of the promise they made during the Service of Installation (in my tradition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), when the presiding minister asked, “People of God, will you receive Daniel as a messenger of Jesus Christ sent to serve all people with the gospel of hope and salvation?” They all passionately responded, “We will, and we ask God to help us!” From day one, the pastor/deacon, and the people of God have prayerfully committed themselves to an expansive mission beyond the congregation and into the community and the world.
Expand your language in the pulpit and the world
Use words like whole, all, and every. Preach and teach about the expansive mission of Jesus, who crosses divides, breaks down barriers, and loves along the margins. Start using the word “parish” instead of congregation. I define the word parish as the sacred geography where God has called us to serve. The parish includes our congregation, but also includes those of other faith traditions, and all those who feel far from God. I would argue that it even includes the stream that winds its way through the sacred geography that we are called to serve. Use expansive words when preaching and teaching about God’s expansive mission.
Expand your circles of influence
Be present in the community, in order that you might love the community. One of the best ways to do this is to find a subculture that you are passionate about and become a part of it. I’m a runner. I love to run long miles, but I hate to do it alone. Twelve years ago, I became a part of the running community in Toledo, Ohio. This is my tribe, and after many years of building trusting relationships, conversations about Jesus and daily life flow in a natural and authentic way. Many of my running friends are intrigued by the expansive mission of Jesus and have all kinds of wonderful questions. I have also found that my public preaching has greatly helped my pulpit preaching. Find your tribe. Become a part of a subculture. Expand your circles of influence. Embrace the expansive mission of the crucified and risen Jesus.
Allow me to end with this prayer for you and for your community as you approach preaching and evangelism: “Sweet Jesus, thank you for this call to participate in your expansive mission and to proclaim your life-giving Gospel. Help us to expand our minds, our language, and our circles of influence. That the whole community and all the world may experience your love. Amen.”