A strange word—a new word to some in the UCC—has crept down from the pulpit. It scurries through the pews, startling parishioners and visitors alike. It can be overheard as one walks past the pastor's office and intercepted in folded notes passed discreetly in committee meetings. It evokes visions of sweaty, penitent TV preachers or knocks at wee hours of the morning with hell and damnation invitations to join up—NOW!—lest you go to hell.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the "e-word" evangelism, as "the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ." However you define it, more and more churches are determined to shake off the negative connotations and make evangelism alive in a whole new way.
"I think a lot of the history of evangelism has involved frightening people into thinking it's about certain kinds of strict conduct," says the Rev. Lucille Brady of St. Mark's UCC in Baltimore. "Christians certainly have a code of ethics, but I think there have been too many scare tactics used without any sensitivity to where people might be spiritually."
Brady's church is in the midst of a growth spurt, with membership jumping from 18 to 44 in less than a year, and growing exponentially. Evangelism works for St. Mark's, says Brady, because they are clear about who they are.
"We are not a club, we are not the Girls Scouts or the Masons," she says. "We are the UCC—the United Church of Christ—and we are here to live that out: by partnering and committing to our community, listening to each others' stories—standing in awe of them—and then sharing our story when we believe it is the appropriate time." When there are so many in need, churches have to be clear about their commitment and what they have to offer, says Brady.
What can we offer?
"That's important, I tell you," says the Rev. Nicolas Temple of Christ Evangelical UCC in Louisville, Ky. "So many churches wonder if they have anything to offer." Temple's voice is worn but hopeful, even as he has watched three of six UCC churches close, leaving three, he says, that "aren't very healthy."
"The congregations have to want people to come and stay in a welcoming way," he says, "and I don't see a lot of that happening." Parishioners seem content to stand by and watch as a church disintegrates, says Temple. The idea of saving or resurrecting the church isn't there. Temple's evangelism is not about getting members for the church or posing it as a remedial solution. Even in what looks to be dire straits, Temple is intentional about what evangelism means to him: spreading the Gospel.
"We're in a state of spiritual emergency," says Temple, "and my evangelism has to reach beyond the walls of the church. But I'm determined to spread the word to people in need, not as a band-aid solution to get people into the church." When someone comes to worship, there needs to be a reason there for them to come back and stay, he says. If they don't, what is it that we aren't doing?
"I think our church folk need a sense of why they are here in the first place and what their mission is," says the Rev. Nancy Nelson Elsenheimer of Local Church Ministries' Evangelism Ministry Team. "It's our responsibility to find out what people are hurting and hoping for, and how we can be a part of the healing."
"Most of us are not comfortable sharing who we are in Christ; it scares us," says the Rev. Vertie Powers of the Evangelical Ministry Team. "We're not comfortable talking that kind of talk. We have to step out of our comfort zone and admit that, step up to people from different age groups and backgrounds, and ask them to teach us how to speak." Then once people begin to teach, she says, they can also begin to listen.
"I don't think UCC folk are reluctant evangelists, "echoes the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, "but often we are inarticulate evangelists. We don't quite know what to say."
Even as denominations across the spectrum continue to experience decline, according to statistics, how can we ignore the very real need to have people in the pews? As the 'e-word' becomes more acceptable in conversations about our polity, we have yet to ask the critical question. We know what it means to the wider world, but what does evangelism mean in the UCC?
"I think for the UCC," says Powers, "it's about the re-emergence of what it has always meant: the sharing of your faith journey, about how God is speaking in your own life. It's not about ramming scripture down people's throats.
"If we use evangelism just to fill up the pews, then we have missed the point. We need to empower people to live life a different way, to speak life a different way."