Sunday, February 4th: Practicing Evangelism

Matthew 28:16-20

I love music. There is no question that music is one of the things that gives me deep joy. I rarely go a full day without listening to music. I have a favorite band in particular. They are called Over the Rhine, named after a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. I love to tell the story of when I first discovered them—I was killing time in between classes at Kent State, spending some time in the student bookstore. Their most recent CD was set up at a listening booth, and I picked up the headphones at random. I listened to the first ten bars of the first song, and as the hair on the back of my neck stood up, I knew in an instant that I had discovered what would be my most favorite band for the rest of my life. I bought the CD—it wasn't even on sale, and I never buy anything that isn't on sale—and so far, my first impression has been true. I've seen them play nine times, I have accumulated every album they've released, and I could spend hours discussing their music and lyrics. In fact, I can get a little annoying when it comes to talking about Over the Rhine. Okay, I can get a lot annoying. But it's paid off. The weekend before I was ordained, I saw them play in Hollywood with a dozen or so friends from seminary, most of whom I'd introduced to the band. Even my parents, who generally don't care for pop music, have become fans.

You could say that I've been downright evangelical about Over the Rhine.

You could also say that I haven't been nearly as evangelical about my faith. I certainly have never invited a dozen folks to attend a worship service with me.

Why is it so easy to talk about some things, yet so hard to talk about our relationship with God? We talk up delicious recipes and pass along favorite books, but many Christians get their tongues tied up in a very tight knot when it comes to expressing what God has done in our lives.

It isn't that we aren't passionate about our faith. It isn't that we aren't interested in welcoming new members into the Body of Christ. We just tend to be very polite, and talking religion in mixed company doesn’t always make the etiquette cut.

But as followers of Christ, we are called to share the good news of what God has done—and continues to do—through Jesus Christ. If that calling makes you nervous, you're not alone. We live in a culture that is saturated with negative images of evangelists. Though many people—Christians and non Christians alike— have deep respect for Billy Graham, the same cannot be said for his colleagues. Whether or not the perception is true, evangelists are often seen as judgmental and pushy. And unfortunately, since Disciples and our brethren in the mainline Protestant traditions have been so quiet about our faith, there aren’t nearly as many public expressions of the Christian faith that reflect our witness and understanding of the gospel.

Now, I'm going to share a statistic with you. I've been waffling all week about whether or not I should include this statistic in the message today, because it's a humdinger. A study published this month contended that one half of one percent of mainline congregations are practicing effective evangelism. Ouch.

I don't share this statistic to make us feel badly. I think it helps to know that we aren't the only ones struggling to share our faith. But I also think it helps to get a wake-up call from time to time. I once heard someone say that mainline churches such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are greatest commandment churches. We do a good job of loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. But the other part of the observation was the criticism that mainline congregations tend not to be great commission churches. We get to the end of the book of Matthew, where Jesus tells the eleven to make disciples of all nations, and we quickly turn the page and change the subject. Forty or fifty years ago, mainline churches could get away with that. Churches certainly engaged in intentional practices of evangelism, but simply opening the doors on a Sunday morning meant that people would come. People would hear the gospel, and people would become disciples of Christ. Our world has changed—and so our understanding and practice of evangelism needs to change.

The pastor and writer Brian McClaren suggests this vision of responding to the Great Commission. “Good evangelists… are people who engage others in good conversation about important and profound topics such as faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death, and God. They do this not because they like to be experts and impose their views on others, but because they feel they are in fact sent by God to do so… Evangelists are people with a mission from God and a passion to love and serve their neighbors.” The portrait of an evangelist, according to Pastor McClaren, is less like a used-car salesman and more like a humble and loving spiritual friend.

It’s a powerful thing when people start talking about what really matters to them; sometimes sharing your story in a real and honest way offers a much-needed invitation for others to give voice to the depths of their own hearts. When you think about it, a whole lot of language is spent on things that aren’t about important and profound topics. Words are used to sell, to persuade, to pass the side dishes—but we can go days without telling our stories or expressing our spirits. Recently I was listening to NPR in the late afternoon, and it was one of those days where the news was just frustrating. Important issues were being politicized in a way that just amounted to a lot of empty spin doctoring. I was about to change the dial when the host announced the next segment: an installment of the ongoing NPR series “This I Believe.” If you haven’t heard it, the show “is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. In creating This I Believe, Murrow said the program sought "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization." For the next three minutes, I listened to a woman explain that she is the designated celebrator in her family, the one who makes sure everyone gets together for the holidays. She said, “I believe that in this world there is and always has been so much sadness and sorrow, so much uncertainty, that if we didn't set aside time for merriment, gifts, music and laughter with family and friends, we might just forget to celebrate all together. We'd just plod along in life.” As the woman explain her beliefs, I realized something I believe: We’d just plod along in life if all we talk about is work and weather. We need the language of grace. We need the language of confession. We need the language of discipleship, where our lives are shaped not by small talk but by the Word of God.

Evangelism can be scary and unpopular and impolite. But it can also be joyful and exciting and authentic. When we reveal our experience of God, sharing generously with our words and actions the grace that has been poured into our lives through Jesus Christ, we are a blessing. When we have the courage to start conversations with humility and respect, we are a blessing. When we provide the challenge and the care to assist the Holy Spirit in making disciples of all nations, we are a blessing. As the Catholic monk Thomas Merton says, “All the good you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.” May it be so. Amen.

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