The word εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) is the Greek word for gospel or good news from which we get the word “evangelism”. I don’t know that my chosen title is the best title for what this post is intending to say. I also mulled over using, “Why do church people talk to people who don’t go to their church?” But that’s clunky and the chosen title plays on the tension between sharing a good news and evangelizing. In reality the two should be the same, to evangelize literally means sharing the good news, but evangelizing is often expressed in a much different way in practice.
So below are some of the reasons I most often hear as the reason church people should talk to non-church people or evangelize.
- Bring people in. I hear this one quite often, which makes sense considering the declining numbers and subsequent aging of most congregations. Another way I hear this one put is “church growth” of which a whole cottage industry has developed around. At any rate, getting better at bringing people in means that people will be around to hear the message you’d like them to hear.
- Reach a population group. From the places where I’ve worshipped and served, I’ve mostly heard the desire to reach young families or college students. Probably because I am that demographic and have been around places concerned about them, after all they don’t hang around religion as much as they used to. Clearly they need to be reached, but this sentiment holds for any target demographic.
- (Because we should) Win people to the gospel. I’ve put these two together in part because the obligation is often tied to the gospel – we should want people to know this gospel, thus we should share it. Such an obligatory stance is dour, but it happens.
Of course the sharing doesn’t always feel like an obligation, plenty of people want to convert people to the faith so that others can know Christ and make him known. I’ve seen even more fervor when this effort is connected to victory and war against certain powers that are seen to stand against the cause of Christ.
On their face all of these reasons sound good. It’s why they are heard all the time. But I’m not a fan of any of them because they all run the risk of using the work of Christ as a cover for our own purposes. …I feel like I’m about to come off as a a nit-picking curmudgeon here (which would be appropriate for a blog or Twitter).
I will say I think it’s noble and honorable for congregations to actually make an effort to have a place that welcomes and includes those who aren’t already there. I think the same of congregations that see communities of people that need to be engaged. And while anyone can argue the gospel, if truly believed, shouldn’t feel obligatory, those of evangelical fervor fighting for people’s hearts and minds are not guilty of that.
I readily admit the goodness of these reasons. However, like many good things, they run the risk of corruption and these are no exception.
Truth is we often wrap our wants with the gospel.
In spite of our best intentions this happens. We become short sighted, to the point we can’t see past the end of our nose and our ambitions get corrupted.
So when it comes to bringing people in, we get caught up on the in. After all, we want people in our churches, especially when those churches are declining in number. And though many may worry what might take the place of the church’s ministry in the community, I think many of those same people are concerned about what happens to me, my grave or the fruit of my years of work if the church closes. The focus is less about the gospel and more about the institution that one has placed their identity within.
The same is true when it comes to reaching a population group, we get caught up on the group. Certainly plenty of people truly are concerned about specific demographics, especially their children and grand children’s demographics who aren’t in church nearly as much as they were growing up. There might even be a bit of guilt over how their past priorities led to this and want to see the next generations find the same fulfillment they’ve found. But again, I think paralleling that is a concern about more what might happen to the church. They reach out to young families because they want to be able to pass the work on and keep their church going so it won’t close. Again, the focus is less about the gospel and more about the institution that one has placed their identity within.
When it comes to winning people to the gospel, we get caught up on the win. You’re going to hear me play the same record here. Certainly people want to see people experience the wonder of God’s mercy and love. Having been here I know that along with this is a deep seated need to have people agree with and join them. It’s why we have such a disgusting excess of manipulative and abusive evangelism and church leadership tactics. It’s human to fear what it might mean if someone disagrees with your deeply held faith or theology and doctrine, but it’s downright sinful and wrong to let that fear develop into abusive and manipulative practices and systems. And again, the focus on winning is less about the gospel and more about the ideas and institutions that one has placed their identity within.
By wrapping our wants with the gospel, the gospel gets twisted into something that will struggle to serve the Kingdom as it we also want it to serve our specifics interests and wants. It all ends up becoming utilitarian in nature. The gospel, people, ministry, churches they all become things useful to us. We become the ultimate focus of our efforts.
What do we want to call people to: ourselves or our salvation?
Let’s be honest with ourselves, if we truly wanted people to know and experience our salvation, then that would be our sole concern. We’d know that the Kingdom and the Spirit, the work of the gospel can handle the loss of an organization. The body will live on to continue that work with or with out a specific church in a particular location.
If we were truly concerned about calling people to the salvation we know as our own, then we would know that the Kingdom and the work of the Spirit is a vastly incomprehensible thing that we cannot even begin to wrap our mind around. Meaning, that certainly people will join other churches, people will believe different doctrines and streams of theological thought or none at all and reject us. None of that means that the work of God will be hindered. I’m partial (understatement) to Wesleyan Methodism as I believe it is a theology that offers a compassionate and robust understanding of God, the Kingdom and Creation, that doesn’t suffer from the pitfalls of other streams of thought. Yet even in these other streams of thought I know that the Body is there and doing the Spirit’s work, which goes beyond and before us.
The only reason, to share an εὐαγγέλιον
- To know salvation. This can be the only reason. To do so for any other reason will only end up directing all things to ourselves. And directing all things to us will only lead us to objectifying all things, making them useful to us and our sense worth and personal fulfillment.
The reason we evangelize is because we want people to know and live into the same hope that has overcome us. The reason we evangelize is because we want people to know and live into the same peace that has overcome us. The reason we evangelize is because we want people to know and live into the same love the we find ourselves wrapped up in in all places.
There is no other reason that isn’t self-centered. We cannot serve two masters, seeking to both protect our ideas or institutions and love others without condition. Thus, we must be willing to slog the long hard road of dying churches, rejection, disagreement, being side-lined and otherwise powerlessness.
After all, our belief is in a new creation, not the one we presently like – and death is the way there. People regardless of where they are, regardless of what they believe, regardless of why they are or are not in church need hope, salvation. The Christian Gospel, the Christian methods, the call to Jesus is nothing more than a call to that. The reality that God lives, is among us and is working beyond our understanding making the world wonderfully.