Evangelism: The ABCs of the E Word (2011)

This is a compilation of five blog posts from Spring 2011

I am going to take a few days to see how many  people I can engage in thinking about evangelism with me – yes, that’s the E word.. The subject is really “a beggar telling another beggar where she got the bread.” But in this day of marketing and proliferation of media charlatans who have poisoned the idea of evangelism, it has become very difficult to talk about the E word, or, for most Christians, to even think about it.

The word “evangelism” does not occur in the Bible. The word “evangelist” occurs three times, once when Paul is exhorting his disciple, Timothy to take himself seriously: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” 2 Timothy 4:5. The root idea of the word evangelist is to be a “good newser.” “Evangelism” comes from a word in Greek rooted in the idea of a “good message.” The word “gospel” in English is just the same; the word comes from Old English “good” plus “spel” or story, message, word. Early on, the association with God changed the association with “good” to “God’s” word.

Christians have THE good story to tell — the one about the life and work of Jesus. And we have a lot of other good stories to tell — the ones about our ancestors in the faith, and our own stories about how we are living, Spirit to spirit, with God, through Jesus and like our ancestors. People tend to make evangelism very complicated, as if they were in charge of what God does and as if they need to be an expert in everything biblical and metaphysical before they open their mouths. I think it has got to be simpler than that, or none of us could do it. And I think, if you are a follower of Jesus, Paul’s admonition to Timothy basically applies to you, too: “Be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” We’ve got the call and God supplies the capacity.

1) The ABCs of the E Word — Ask

The work of evangelist includes asking.

Last night at Haddon and Fern I was trying to get people to see how they ARE the invitation, much more than they are merely asking people to come to meetings or asking them to do things. The Gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are stories about who Jesus is and what he does. They are not sales pitches for a product or comparative religion classes. They are telling about who Jesus is and about what happened when he showed up.

The A of evangelism first requires, showing up and being who we are in Christ. The love and truth we bring when we enter the room or enter a relationship is an “ask” in itself. Everyone is a story waiting to be told. Our story centers on Jesus. When we are ourselves in Christ, we are a good “ask.” So often we try to do evangelism right and we lose the most winsome thing we can do, which is tell our own story to someone who is interested in knowing us. Our story is a question in itself. When we tell it, it asks itself.

Some of us will be more aggressive because that is who we are. To be an evangelist is one way the Holy Spirit gifts people. Timothy was probably a gifted evangelist. But everyone who has received the Holy Spirit has some evangelist in them. If we are repressing the spiritual desire to ask people to listen, to come and see, to open up to the truth and love we have received, we are thwarting our true selves. I also think we are missing out on the adventure of being involved in what God is doing.

God, in Jesus, is certainly asking us to come back into love and truth. When we follow him in doing similar asking, the process is not without its pain, no less than it was for Jesus  – some of us are pained when we ask someone to go out to dinner with us for fear we might be told “No,” after all! But the asking is so generative! Simply showing up with Jesus, simply asking, “What do you think about my faith?” could unleash new life. How do we know what God is going to do? How can we know if we don’t ask?

2) The ABCs of the E Word — Blab

The following catchy phrase is attributed to a very famous evangelist, Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

Well…he didn’t really say that, as far as we know. It sure sounds like him, though. He did say this in his Rule of 1221 when he told the brothers not to preach without permission: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

So OK, Francis was misquoted. I suppose that means Jesus was misquoted and now we are lost in some postmodern morass of meaninglessness where words have been emptied of their meaning altogether. Spare me.

It is easy to point out the inexactitude of data from the past. You can also count the typos in this brief essay. While we’re at it, many of you are probably reading this rather than doing your data processing job, so you know, personally, that data from the present is probably faulty, too. But you cannot doubt that Jesus, Paul, the prophets and Francis of Assisi relied on words, whether someone recorded them with absolute accuracy or not. They were blabbers. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The B of the ABCs of evangelism is blab.

The evangelicals who dominate a lot of the religious airwaves in this country with endless preaching would be ashamed of me for saying Jesus “blabs.” (But they should at least congratulate me for going a..b..c.. about something). As far as a lot of believers are concerned, Jesus found various natural pulpits, like on a “mount,” and held forth like a good preacher — and we have only improved on his style by moving things in out of the weather. In a reaction to a lot of believers (particularly the pharisaical evangelicals people love to skewer on sitcoms), many people, Christian and otherwise, would like to pretend “holding forth” is about dead — even though, as someone said (probably misquoted here), “the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news.”

It is a message. We need to blab. Francis modeled his life on Jesus. But it wasn’t just about the Lord’s life of poverty, it was mostly about His life of preaching. Jesus blabbed. We have no instance of Jesus performing a miracle and not speaking a word of comfort or challenge afterwards. Paul articulated succinctly what Francis and Jesus felt in their souls: “How are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14).

To be sure, words used cheaply, thoughtlessly are worse than no words at all. Marilyn McEntyre says, “In an environment permeated with large-scale, well-funded deceptions, the business of telling the truth, and caring for the words we need for that purpose, is more challenging than ever before.”

I say B is for Blab because blabbing puts the idea of preaching back where it belongs: out of a “pulpit” and into normal conversation. We normal people can blab. Let the experts “preach,” there is room for them, too. But most of us are on a cell phone all day, not in a pulpit (and Circle of Hope doesn’t even HAVE a pulpit). We can even reduce our blab to a txt. We need to say a lot of things about Jesus.

So here is my exhortation.

1)     Talk about Jesus like you talk about your intimates. Maybe you don’t gossip as much as I do. But I often tell stories about my friends and family. They do great, interesting, moving things. I love them. They teach me things. I tell stories about them. Jesus fits into their circle quite naturally. Jesus is a very close friend of mine.

2)     Get over the idea that you are bringing up the “topic” of religion. Jesus is not a topic. He is not an ideology any more than you are. There is no clearer way for God to make it clear God is personal than to be revealed in Jesus. Talk about first things first: who Jesus is and who is he to you. Megan brought this up in her comment to my previous post. People are usually fine with what you think and feel; most of them are probably interested to meet an actual Christian who is not in a book or on TV.

3)     Also get over the idea that we are not supposed to be serious and intimate until we are having sex. When words began to be suspiciously meaningless to philosophers, the trickle-down effect was to make conversation perpetually “light” — as if when you revealed feelings or thoughts you were invading someone else’s privacy, or you were being intolerant. “Nice” people end up deferring all day to the audacious people who don’t understand this rule of “niceness.” Be yourself in Christ and say what you feel. Why should people be deprived of you? Why should your heart be an ungiven gift?

4)     Until you get used to blabbing good news, why don’t you come up with the “story of the week” and see how many times you can bring it up? We are always finding interesting things to post on Facebook or to tweet. Why not let your actual face have something to offer? I’m talking about your own story of faith, what you learned, what you experienced in a meeting, what happened in prayer – blab it. Or re-tell what you heard someone else talk about – their struggle, their joy, their interesting take on applying their faith. Obviously communication from the world will try to steer you toward talking about Chevys or the President’s birth certificate or the best chai. That’s all fine, but why should Jesus be excluded? Practice not excluding him.

Evangelism is all about blab. It is what normal followers do.

3) The ABCs of the E Word — connect

I love imagining Jesus walking through Jericho and spotting Zacchaeus in the tree. Unlike the popular children’s song, I don’t think the Lord wagged his finger at him and told him to, “Get yourself out of that tree shorty!” I’m not even sure Jesus knew Zacchaeus, personally, yet. But the Lord apparently at least knew his name, because he calls to him and tells him he’ll be at his house shortly!

So why did Zacchaeus immediately get down out of the tree and “receive him gladly” as it says? I suppose we’ll have to ask him in the age to come to know for sure. For now, I imagine it was because Jesus connected with him.

First, of course, Jesus showed up on the streets of Jericho; he didn’t just connect virtually, like you and I are doing. More importantly, Jesus looked Zacchaeus in the eye and they connected, heart to heart. I think people could tell Jesus loved them just by looking at him — because he did. Jesus was out seeking the lost and he connected with a person who was ready to be found.

The C of the ABCs of evangelism is Connect.

Nate had a great time connecting with a reporter the other day. Circle of Hope showed up in the county records because we are prospectively showing up on one of the crossroads of South Jersey when we take possession of that former firehouse. Here’s what he said about the interview:

I spent some significant time with a reporter…this morning. He frequently reads the law notices for the region, and found Pennsauken Twp’s approval of the firehouse for a church last week.  He thought that was a story in and of itself and called me because he’s convinced there’s not another church out there that has ever reclaimed a firehouse…

He just kept saying, “You are so interesting! This is so awesome! I can’t believe you exist!”  I described the ideas of reclamation, restoration, and redemption simply as us doing with a building what Jesus is doing in the world.  He couldn’t get over how loving it was for a church to use what’s there rather than build yet another building.  He couldn’t believe that we’d plant something new rather than outgrowing the firehouse.  He was amazed at the lack of “programs” and the strategy for relating face to face.  His admitted cynicism about the church in general combined with his extensive knowledge of the region were very encouraging.  He assured me of what we have long suspected…that our particular location (on Marlton Pike by the 130 corridor) is perfectly situated for us to be and do what I described to him.  He wasn’t interested in doing it…but he was interested in making us known.

I doubt that the reporter would have been so interested if Nate was not so interesting. More importantly, he wouldn’t have cared so much if Nate had not cared about him. The reporter asked, “Is it OK if we talk about things that have nothing to do with my article?” A fifteen-minute interview turned into over an hour.

To connect, we’ll be going some places where people don’t know us yet. More importantly, once we get there we will openly show whatever truth and love we are carrying and see who is interested. God was disconnected from her beloved creatures. He came as a person to reconnect — and to reconnect us. He walked through Jericho that day and made a person-to-person connection with Zacchaeus. That’s elemental to evangelism. Just like Jesus, we have no lack of opportunity to connect; we run across people every day unless we are hiding out. It is mainly a matter of showing up in love and spotting the people who are up a tree. Sometimes they are stuck, sometimes they are looking for someone; we need to keep the love in our hearts in our eyes so when they see us they connect with who they need.

First step – Go to some “lane” where people don’t know you so well. In our region, that should not be too hard, since there are about six million people nearby. Be there to connect in some way. It is OK to talk to people who are waiting in line with you for coffee. You can go to a block party and introduce yourself to everyone who is there. You can ask someone, “How’s it going?” when you are at the park and mean it. This will take some courage, so take the…

Preliminary step – Connect with God from your own perch up some tree so you have something of the Spirit that can be noticed.  Don’t worry that whatever small love you share with the Lord will be too small or uninformed.  Just let people connect with whatever faith you’ve got. Someone is likely to receive it gladly. I received it gladly when someone showed up and we connected — and then I connected to God.

4) The ABCs of the E Word — Devote

The D in the ABCs of evangelism is for devote. We can never face the task at hand and access the inner resources we need to do it unless we come to it from a place of deep devotion to prayer. Evangelism is first about prayer because it begins in God’s own heart.

There are two kinds of prayer that we can apply to our family business of redeeming the world and spreading the blessings of the kingdom of God.

The metaphor for the deepest kind is “as old as the hills:”

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion,
   which cannot be shaken but endures forever. Psalm 125:1

Martin Laird teaches about this deep devotion in his book Into the Silent Land. It is “mountain prayer”:

“Allow to arise whatever arises, without determining what is allowed to arise in awareness and what is not. Meet everything with a steady, silent gaze. What notices the mind game is free of the mind game.

A mountain does not determine what sort of weather is happening but witnesses all the weather that comes and goes. The weather is our thoughts, changing moods, feelings, impressions, reactions, our character plotted out for us by the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs. All of these have their place. But they are only patterns of weather. There is a deeper core that is utterly free and vast and silent, that no thought or feeling has ever entered, yet every thought and feeling appears and disappears in it.”

Evangelism brings up our deepest spiritual distress, probably because it is the most profound spiritual act in which we engage. I’ve been calling it the “E word” because many of us can’t even say it because it brings up so many distressing thoughts and feelings. These are the weather, but we are the mountain. For some of us, the thought of evangelism is spiritual stormy weather, but we are the mountain in Jesus, nonetheless.

Paul speaks very eloquently, I think, about “being the mountain” when he speaks about bringing the message of Jesus to people:

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” 1 Corinthians 2:4-8

I think, for many followers of Jesus, they mostly pray out of their weather and not as the mountain. We might still be practicing the prayer we learned as a child. Personally, I think God is fine with that. I think he loves children – I’m one of His.  Laird might call that level of devotion “surface,” in that it is more about our thoughts and feelings rather than about our deep spiritual awareness. He’s right, of course. But the more “surface” work of intercession, of pleading for people who need God is important work that everyone can do, even beginners in faith. I wouldn’t dismiss it as mere “weather.’

So to devote oneself to evangelism, try both weather prayer and mountain prayer.

Try to get through your own stormy weather.

Dare to talk to God about what troubles you about being part of his stubborn attempt to redeem creation. Let’s face it, a lot of us don’t like the assignment and don’t participate in it, even though we are very glad, ourselves, to have been welcomed into eternity. Some of us might not even like to pray because we might get a marching order and we don’t want to feel guilty for not obeying it.

If we can get through that cloudburst of resistance, we might want to concentrate on who it is we would like to see come to know Jesus. Make a list. Listing is a risky business, of course, because it implies that we will someday see someone crossed off the list — better to have not made a list at all than to bear the shame of not completing the task, right? But intercession is about what God is going to do, not us. The benefit to us is that interceding softens our heart and directs our attention to where we need to be devoted. Praying for others often opens up our heart and broadens our horizons so we become more loving and imaginative partners for God. Besides, God loves to give gifts to his children, why wouldn’t he answer us if he has decided to partner with us?

Better, I think to get to mountain prayer as soon as possible.

As the mountain we receive our rest and confidence in the silence. When our ambitions and fears do not control us with their incessant dialogue, we demonstrate the mystery Paul was talking about and our inner prayer becomes impact.

While contemplation is not, itself, purposeful, I think we carry people with us into our unshakeable Zion of the heart. The deepest intercession might be to let go of the many people we love and work for as we are being in Christ and see them held in the light of God’s love and truth.

5) The ABCs of the E Word — EU

The word evangelism comes from a collection of Greek words rooted in eu-angelos – good-news. The E in the ABCs of evangelism is EU –as in good, but also, as in YOU.

1. It is GOOD news.

What followers of Jesus have to share is not a painful confrontation. It is not like the news in our democratic/media culture, which is often just political wordplay. Christians have tried to enter that wordplay with their evangelism a bit, or at least the people I know are deathly afraid they will need to play if they open their mouths. They are scared that as soon as they talk about Jesus, they will need to have good answers for questions on sex, war, right to life, or any of the myriad “issues” that people think people should be talking about if they are being serious. They have come to think that serious news is, essentially, bad news — or it is at least it is about conflict and likely mayhem. But all we followers of Jesus are saying is that a new king is on the throne. It is good news. Things are going to change. There are some politics in that, of course, but it isn’t something we will be voting on. It is just good news. If one has ears to hear, listen.

2.  It is GOOD news because it is full of joy.

At least I am happy about being saved. Strangely enough, we followers of Jesus need to remind ourselves we are happy, sometimes, so we can keep the good in good news. I wake up in the middle of a conversation sometimes and tell myself, “Don’t let them steal your joy.” For some reason, I can feel obligated to be downhearted, because not being so would violate my friend’s sensibilities.  They think the world sucks, so I should, too. My “silly” words about Jesus aren’t making it for them, so I should adapt to their way of handling the mess they are in. I suppose what I am saying sounds like a simple choice to “don’t worry, be happy” but it is more complex than that. I need to skillfully deploy my joy; but whether I am skillfull or not, I sure need to hold on to it!

3. It is GOOD news because it is undermines the ungods.

My simple, persistent good newsing is one of the best things I can do, in my finitude, to stay in the fight against the anti-Jesus forces. It is being good. Jesus did not end the war with his resurrection, he began it. Humankind has a chance, now, against the forces bent on their destruction. I think we followers of Jesus think of ourselves as so miniscule, we don’t think that what we say means anything. In these postmodern days when philosophers doubt that words have any lasting value to communicate truth, we get a lot of encouragement to take ourselves lightly. But the way God sees it, we are very important to his cause. Our lives tell a story and we tell the story of our lives. It is a re-telling of THE story of life. The process opens up the possibility for more people to get in on what Jesus has done.

4. Which brings me to my main point: It is GOOD news because it is you.

You put the EU in good news. As soon as I wrote that, I got the feeling that someone was saying, “Oh brother.” But I am sticking with it. Thinking we are not good thwarts evangelism. You have to be saved to tell a salvation story, obviously. If we can’t confidently stand before God in his grace, knowing we have been forgiven, rescued, and welcomed into the kingdom, where we live, now – then that’s an issue. If, when we open our mouths to speak a good word for Jesus, we are worried about how good we are at it, if we don’t trust Jesus to take our capabilities and multiply them – that’s an issue, too.  But if we have faith as small as a mustard seed, that is enough faith, Jesus says. We are good enough, and Jesus is good in us.

I have been talking about the ABCs of evangelism in an attempt to normalize the E word a bit. I think we need to think about it more and figure out how we can practice it, in our own way. I was really motivated to speak up when I picked up Guy Kawasaki’s book and found out he called himself an “Apple evangelist.” What with the Christians scared to use the word and the marketers stealing it, I was afraid we would lose it altogether! No matter what words we use to describe it, our family business in Christ is still the redemption of the world. We need to at least learn our ABCs – all of us.

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