Friday, April 8, 2022

On Evangelism: Further Thoughts

 When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house.” If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

     When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

-Luke 10:5-9 (NIV)

Two weeks  ago, I wrote a post about evangelism. I wrote that I didn’t care for the word, or for the word evangelist. If you want to know the truth, I got a little pushback on it; polite pushback, but pushback all the same. Most of it seemed to come from concern that I was advocating casualness about sharing our faith, that I was underemphasizing the importance of going into the world and preaching the gospel. They rightly pointed out — as did I in the original post — that those two words I don’t care for both come from the word we translate “gospel” — good news. Some of them — politely, again — even wondered if maybe I wasn’t really interested in preaching the gospel. 

     Well, fair enough.

     I don’t feel the need to defend myself. It’s hard to be objective about that, anyway. I'll leave it to people who know me better to evaluate my commitment to the gospel. But they raise an interesting point — that, again, I also raised in the original post: “Still — we have that nagging sense, don’t we, that the gospel should be shared? We still believe that as Christians we should tell others about Jesus, even if we know more about how we don’t want to do it than how we should.”

     Here’s the thing about that, though; sometimes we can’t even agree what the gospel is.

    I often think of a Sunday school class when I was a teenager, where for a week or two the teacher led us in making notes in our Bibles that were supposed to help us in preaching the gospel to our friends or whatever. I still have the Bible — on the inside cover I’ve written the words, “start here,” with a reference. When I flip to that page, that verse is underlined, and in the margin beside it is written the next verse. And then the next, on through several  verses. By that time, I suppose, we would either be done preaching the gospel or our friend would have remembered suddenly that he had somewhere to be.

     Now, I’ve taught enough teen Bible classes to know better than to criticize someone who takes on that assignment without it being part of their job description! I don’t have a problem with the idea, and I doubt that whoever taught that class — I don’t recall — even came up with it all by himself. But the question that comes to my mind skipping through those notes is, “When did we decide it was OK to change Jesus’ definition of “gospel.” It’s right there, in Mark 1:14-15, plain as day:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe  the good news!” 

Twice in two verses, the message Jesus entered Galilee preaching is called “the good news” — evangellion. 

     The verses marked in my Bible, which are supposed to be about preaching the “good news,” are more about our response to the good news. Those verses describe a sequence that I’ve often heard in my life referred to as “the gospel” — that God will save us if we hear, believe, repent, confess, and are baptized. There are some variations that drop hear and put in be faithful at the end. It’s based on a sequence that a frontier preacher named Walter Scott taught children when he’d come to town for an evangelistic meeting, because it could be enumerated on five fingers — though his went "faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit.”

     For Scott, though, that wasn’t the gospel. It was how he hoped people would respond to the gospel.  The gospel, always, is what Jesus announced: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

     OK, right; that’s a little vague. But look at how Jesus “evangelized.” He didn’t try to talk people into anything, and he didn’t try to walk them into theological blind alleys and then pounce on them. One of the frustrations you might feel when you look to Jesus as an example for evangelism is how little of it he seemed to do, at least as we define the term. But that’s just because of our prejudices as to what evangelism is.

     Every time Jesus taught, he was preaching the good news. He introduced many of his parables, for instance, with the phrase, “the kingdom of God is like….” His evangelism was telling people, “Hey, here’s how life is different in the kingdom. Here’s what it’s about.” He wanted his hearers to understand what it meant that through him God was bringing his kingdom near and opening it to anyone who would come in.

     I’m not sure that most churches today can show — or even tell — the people who they want to bring to Jesus how life in God’s kingdom is different. Or why they should care that his kingdom has come near. We still think so exclusively of evangelism as information transfer that we’re blind to any other way. But preaching the good news isn’t solely about information transfer — as though people routinely synthesize new information and immediately change their lives!

     Look at the instructions Jesus gave to 72 of his disciples before he sent them out on a preaching tour. They were supposed to, in pairs, visit different places and depend entirely on the hospitality of the citizens for a place to stay and food to eat. They were to offer peace. They were to stay with the first townspeople who welcomed them, not move around. And  their mandate was to “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” 

     We tend to notice the part about healing, but I think that the emphasis on hospitality and remaining with those who first welcomed them shifts the focus to being present. They were to preach the nearness of the kingdom of God, but they were to do so while being near, being present, being in community, having their needs met and meeting the needs of those around them. 

     I think it’s easy to overlook this necessary part of evangelism. Gone are the days when people will listen to a stranger tell them about Jesus. And while it’s tempting to rush around telling as many people as we can as quickly as we can, maybe we’d be better off if we were just present, really present, with a few people. Someone can hear a stranger on the internet anytime they want to. What’s often missing is someone who will be there with them and offer them peace. Who’ll eat with them and talk with them and tell them about Jesus, yes — but also stay and help them heal. Many people in our world can’t think of too many people who they can depend on for that. And being present for the people around you, staying with them, giving to them and receiving from them — doesn’t that sound a lot like the way God’s kingdom came near to us anyway — through Jesus, who was present with us, who offered us peace?

     So who can you be present with? To whom can you offer peace? I bet you already have reciprocal relationships into which you can bring the good news of the kingdom and help someone heal. 

     May we be faithful.

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