As someone with the title, “director of Evangelism,” I might be biased, but I believe that evangelism should be central to all our ministry, sharing and embodying the good news of Jesus Christ that, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15, CEB).
And what is this good news? It’s embodied through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus unpacks its implications in Luke 4, where the poor are blessed, the prisoners are freed, the blind can see, and the oppressed are liberated. Jesus’ models of ministry and commission to his disciples were holistic, addressing the status and welfare of the whole person, as well as the systems that prevented people from living into whom God created them to be.
Wesley had the same holistic focus in his ministry and with the early Methodist movement. He went to where the people were and shared the gospel. If they wanted to know more, he invited them to join a smaller group where they would learn the scripture and spiritual disciplines. After formally making a commitment to be a disciple of Jesus (which sometimes took up to 18 months), they did not graduate from growing in their love of God and neighbor. Instead, the people called Methodists actively lived out their faith, regularly ministered with and spoke out on behalf of those whom Jesus named in Luke 4.
If this holistic approach to discipleship and learning and sharing the good news in all our life was the example and model that Jesus and John Wesley gave us, why is evangelism often seen as simply another church program or ignored altogether?
I think there are two contributing factors to the current state of evangelism in many of churches. The first is, for many years, we thought we didn’t have to do it. Culture encouraged church attendance, and if we opened our doors and ran decent programs, people came. In much of the United States, however, that approach no longer works, and in the communities where it still does, I’m afraid to tell you that your time is limited.
The second factor is overcoming the perception and experiences of evangelism. Maybe it involved someone screaming at or pressuring people into making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe it didn’t acknowledge the dignity and image of God already present in the other person. Maybe it felt inauthentic and transactional, and wasn’t grounded in mutuality and genuine care.
If any of these examples speak to your experience and understanding of evangelism, I have good news for you. If we look back to Jesus’ and Wesley’s models, this does not embody the spirit or content of Jesus’ commission to his disciples. Evangelism always begins with God’s goodness.
As United Methodists, our mission statement is based on the Great Commission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” While serving as a pastor, I struggled to help each of my three very different appointments fulfill this mission, as they each had a different theological understanding of what it means to be Christian and Church, and were located in very different communities.
Because I felt so ill-equipped to lead the last congregation I served out of survival mode and engage their rapidly changing community, I went back to school to get some help. Through the application of my course work, we were able to make some changes and the opportunity arose for me to join the staff of Discipleship Ministries.
In my work with congregations around the country, I realized that my struggles mirrored what many of our other leaders face. As a result, I conducted a research project that asked what practices of evangelism and discipleship are needed for congregations to live out our combined mission.
These were my findings from studying six congregations of various size and contexts in 2015 (that were deemed vital), and as I share them around the denomination, they still ring true for many today:
- The overwhelming majority of the participants were unable to articulate why Jesus is important in their lives and how offering Christ to another person would benefit their life.
- Five of the congregations did not create intentional space for people to practice sharing their faith or foster an environment of authenticity where members felt they could be vulnerable and express struggles.
- The majority of participants could not differentiate good works done by the church from those of a civic organization or non-Christian.
- The majority of participants indicated that their congregations were not known in their community, and that mission opportunities were developed based on member preferences instead of community needs.
These findings continue to guide and shape my work of reclaiming holistic evangelism as central to our work as local churches and individual disciples.
Ultimately, the transformation of the world is not the responsibility of the pastor, or a congregation as disciples. God is the only one who can bring about transformation in the lives of individuals or in a community. To be faithful means providing opportunities and alternatives for people to experience the kingdom and goodness of God in significant ways. To be faithful means being open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and how God can use us to partner in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, working in the places where life is diminished.
I believe most congregations can have a future with hope when their communities see that their church is a place that truly cares about them out of a response to the grace and love that they acknowledge and experience through relationship with God.
—The Rev. Heather Heinzman Lear is director of Evangelism Ministries at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Many Voices, One Faith” is a forum for sharing theological perspectives on topics of interest in The United Methodist Church. The forum is designed to put the voices of the church in conversation with one another and build understanding of what it means to be United Methodist today. Read more commentaries.