Rediscovering evangelism in the 21st century
Written by Richard Peace
June - July 2009
The United Church of Christ has not been known for its evangelistic fervor, at least not within living memory. But I have come to believe that, as a denomination, we have turned the corner and are now hard at work seeking to recover the ministry of evangelism. One only has to look at the "God is still speaking" campaign to see what I mean. Here is a program that has been a very effective means of outreach.
One aspect of the Stillspeaking campaign that caught my attention recently was a series of evangelistic booklets it produces. My favorite is "16 Reasons I Love Jesus." This booklet is real, funny, deeply true and challenging.
I have given away a number of these and, without exception, they have been well received. Now, to be honest, most of these booklets have gone to friends from various churches who, after reading it, express amazement that "16 Reasons I Love Jesus" is being used by, of all denominations, the UCC.
Yes, I know the booklets are meant for those outside the church, but I enjoy the reaction of my church friends and see it as a sign that in the UCC, we are busy getting on with recovering this lost ministry of evangelism.
What happened to the ministry of evangelism in the UCC? I think that this is a complex question but, apart from anything else, the fundamentalists spooked us. Along with other mainline denominations, we seemed to have made a deal. The fundamentalist would do evangelism and we would get on with social justice.
In post-World War II America, the split between these two ministries was deep and non-negotiable. I remember my own amazement when I moved to Africa in the 1960s to discover that the African church apparently had not heard about this deal: They happily went along caring for the needs of others (like feeding the hungry and protesting apartheid) while simultaneously calling people to follow the way of Jesus (and so escape the power of evil spirits and find joy in life).
And, of course, the African church got it right. Both ministries are a central part of the church of Jesus Christ. It is a both/and not an either/or.
So in this 21st century climate of openness to the spiritual but suspicion of the religious, how do we recover the ministry of evangelism? How do we engage in outreach in ways that fit who we are as a denomination, as well as touching the real issues of those we seek to reach?
The first challenge in our churches is to deal with the "cringe factor" when we mention evangelism. Perhaps we do have to talk about outreach, faith sharing, being "good news" people, holy conversation or some other combination of words that get across the central idea that evangelism is all about sharing the amazing news about who Jesus is, what Jesus has done for us and our planet, and how we can experience new life (resurrection life) through Jesus.
So on one level, evangelism is an invitation into relationship. Relationship stands at the core of Christianity: relationship with God, relationship with Jesus, relationship with the community of those seeking to follow Jesus, relationship with those we are called to love, relationship with ourselves.
The idea behind invitation is that when others connect with our Christian community, they begin to discover what the community is all about and, in particular, what binds the community together. "Belonging before believing" is the phrase often used to capture this perspective.
Invitation to belong is one thing; invitation to believe is another. Evangelism is all about an invitation to believe the gospel. In the UCC, we are pretty good when it comes to discussing God but we need to learn what it means to talk about Jesus.
Conversion is another word that causes some discomfort in the UCC. But let us be clear: conversion is the goal of evangelism. Our longing is that people discover the Way of Jesus; that they decide to turn from their own way to this new Way; and that they start following Jesus by faith.
We do not need to be embarrassed by this call to conversion. Conversion to Jesus can and does bring new life out of a destructive lifestyle, even as it brings new purpose out of an aimless lifestyle.
I am convinced that evangelism is not primarily a matter of individual witness. I believe that evangelism is primarily the calling of the community. It takes a community, not only to raise a child, but to reach a person with the gospel. The church is the primary context for conversion.
One thing I have been talking about a lot these days is what I call "contemplative evangelism." The idea is pretty simple. If people are fascinated by spirituality, why not invite them to places and activities where they can explore the spiritual? Perhaps to a small group that is learning the art of spiritual journaling, then journaling together, and then talking about what they are journaling.
This isn’t just academic. Mainline churches have declined steadily for the past 40 years, losing 50 percent of their membership (members per capita). And nothing seems to abate this trend. The UCC is doing worse than most other denominations, losing 60 percent of our market share in this same time frame. The math is easy. If this keeps on there will be no such thing at the United Church of Christ by the year 2100.
Now I do not want to make evangelism into a membership drive. To do so undercuts the whole meaning of the gospel. But I do want to note that without active outreach, we will die as a denomination.
We share the gospel because it is good news and when we do share the gospel — by how we live, by what we say, and by what we do both as individuals and communities — others see new life, come to Jesus, and experience the beginning of transformation.
Conversion is like that. And so they join in our community.
We share not to prevent ourselves from going out of business. We share because this is our business and when we do, we thrive. No, evangelism is not an academic exercise; it is what the church is all about. And the Stillspeaking witness and welcome is what the UCC is all about.
The Rev. Richard Peace is a UCC pastor and the Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. This article is excerpted from the upcoming booklet, "Rediscovering Evangelism: Outreach in the United Church of Christ in the Twenty-first Century."