Narrow Evangelism Contributes to Church Irrelevancy

The United Methodist Church is, like many organizations, trying to figure out how to connect with young and new people. The emphasis on evangelism is good, but evangelism has become narrow and that is problematic. I believe that the narrowing of evangelism contributes to church irrelevancy. 

Evangelism is a word that has taken a beating the past decade or so. Where I live, Evangelism is often associated with a particular type of American voter. However, Evangelism means Good News, and Good News is not bound to one political party. Over the years, the Church has used the word Evangelism to describe a narrow and set of practices, namely the spreading of the Gospel to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In my lived experience, spreading the Gospel means to make new disciples and thus grow the church. This is not bad, but it is a narrow understanding of what the Gospel is and, in turn, what Evangelism looks like. 

This is problematic because when we over focus on a narrow expression of evangelism, then we overlook the other vital practices of evangelism. If we are busy making new disciples then we will have less time to grieve with current disciples or even visit the home bound or fight for justice. While not all of these actions will make new disciples, they are all acts of evangelism. They are all acts of bringing Good News to the ends of the earth. Narrowing evangelism to focus on the new overlooks the current and the past. 

 Photo by  Tim Bish  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

Imagine you are a doctor in a hospital and the hospital has invested a lot of resources into birthing new babies. This is a wonderful task to be sure, however there are other forms of treatment and healing that fall within the mission of the hospital. Imagine that as a doctor you are gifted in burn victim recovery. Your gifts are also important and also needed, because people get burned. The problem, from the hospital's perspective, is that they are not set up too well for burn victims only baby delivery. In fact, it might even be seen as a waste of time and resources because burn victims take a long recovery and many of them are not fully recovered. The hospital has set up their funding model and their structure of leadership training and development is based upon how many new babies are born. Those gifted with treating burn victims get discouraged and leave the hospital. The hospital gets the reputation of having a narrow area of concern, new births, that people do not go to the hospital who need to.

At what point does the hospital cease being a hospital and is now a birthing unit?

The Church is called to make disciples to be certain, however becoming a new disciple is not the only Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Good News is as much for the non-disciple as it is for the disciple of Jesus. Doing the work of evangelism is not limited to making new disciples.

Like hospitals, churches have a charge to keep that is multifaceted. And just as we would not expect a hospital to narrowly understand health care, we ought not expect churches to narrowly understand evangelism. 

Thank God this Scripture is false

The final verse in the original ending of the gospel of Mark reads:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. - Mark 16:8

But we know this is false. the women said something to someone otherwise we would not know of this story at all. So this scripture is false. Thank God it is. 

 Photo by  Peter Forster  on  Unsplash

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

If my loved one was resurrected I bet that I would be shouting it from the mountain tops! There is a whole industry of books that exist that intrigue so many people. These books share stories of "near death experiences." You may not believe these books, but there is little denial that there is much fear around when people "come back from the dead." So why were these women afraid? 

Perhaps they were afraid because for the most part, stories of people coming back is bad news. The story of Zeus coming back and banishing Cronos is bad news. The Nero Redivivus Legend was the story of how emperor Nero (who had died around the time Mark wrote this gospel) was coming back. The movie depicts Harry Potter's return from the dead was one build on killing (he shot a fireball killing some Death Eaters) and revenge ("We have to kill the snake!").

It may be no wonder the women were fearful when they heard of Jesus' return/resurrection. These women were a part of the group that abandoned, disowned and betrayed Jesus. Maybe they thought he was coming back, like all others who come back from the dead, to bring death and revenge for the sake of "justice." I find it difficult to believe that it would be at this moment the followers of Jesus would have "gotten" his message, when they had yet to understand even while he was alive. I find it difficult to believe that they would have "gotten it" and believed Jesus' resurrection would be a peaceful one. I think they ran because they did not "get it" once more. 

Perhaps the reason the women did say something to someone so that we have this story, is because Jesus does not come back fro revenge or violence. His resurrection is of peace, forgiveness and love. This resurrection, unlike so many others told of old, was Good News. 

So yes, "they said nothing to anyone" is false. Thank God it is. Because if it was true that the women said nothing to anyone and we did not have this story, then Jesus' resurrection would not be Good News, but just more bad news of revenge and death having the final word. 

He is risen, indeed!

How Jesus Knew The Church Would Always Be

Jesus says in Matthew 26:11, "For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me." There is a lot of conversation about what this means and if Jesus was endorsing a social structure that keeps people poor. In the discussion I offer up the idea that Jesus said the poor will always be with you in the same spirit that he said, "Follow me." That is he said this as an invitation. 

As long as people are following Jesus and giving everything up, then there will always be 'the poor." In fact, being poor is one of the categories Jesus says is blessed in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. I confess that I am not the best at being poor in finances. Frankly, I am often embarrassed by what I do have, and tend to brag about the things I do not have. Even as a clergy person, I am not immune to Sin and in some ways. As a person with power, privilege and influence, I am often more in danger of the power of Sin. 

Jesus knew the church would always exist, even after his death, because there will always be people to take the invitation of let go and follow Jesus. There will always be people poor in spirit and poor in resources - these are the ones that Jesus blesses and even says he would be dressed as in the final judgement (Matthew 25). 

Disgust, Anger and Clothed In Pseudo-Righteousness

Recently, Abilene Christian University's Dr. Richard Beck spoke at the church where I serve as co-senior pastor and he said something about disgust and anger that is relevant to the current situation within the UMC.

First, when we experience disgust our reaction is to pull away. We see this in our daily lives to be sure, but we also see this in the stories of Jesus. When there was a person considered disgusting, such as a leaper or a bleeding woman, the crowd stepped or pushed away the one thought of as disgusting. This is natural and helpful as disgust is a safeguard toward contracting sickness. We tend to stay away from sick people and even disgusting places (hospitals, garbage, sewers, etc.)

Second, when we experience anger our reaction is to move toward. When we are angered by someone driving on the road we will often drive quickly pass them or even tailgate them. Angry people are more likely to strike another person or at least yell at them so that our voice even moves toward the other person. Anger drives us to protest and act in ways that can be healthy, such as the theological notion of righteous anger.

Within the UMC there are two different postures toward the issues of LGBTQ inclusion and I propose if it is helpful to think not in terms of conservative/liberal but the animating emotions of disgust/anger.

 Photo by  Andre Hunter  on  Unsplash

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

There is a direct and an indirect expression of disgust happening in the UMC. The direct expression are those who personally want to pull away or leave the denomination. This position cannot abide in a denomination that they are disgusted by. The indirect expression of disgust is when we make a way for others to leave. We are not the ones who are leaving, but when we make a direct way for people to leave then we still have our disgust action met – there is a separation.

The other animating action is that of anger. These are the ones who are fighting and protesting for their position. These individuals are on the left and right but the action is the same – to drive toward the other in an attempt to subdue, convince, and/or conquer the other. There is also a direct and indirect form of the anger expression. Those who are directly protesting and those who are using the rules of the system to ensure their position is safeguarded and even bolstered. Either way, there is a direct and active engagement with the Church that is driven by anger.

The reality is those experiencing disgust or anger within the UMC have much to teach us and still much to learn.

Disgust teaches us that boundaries are important and that violations of those boundaries for many people trigger disgust. This means that when boundaries are violated or moved then there are many who have a core reaction similar to drinking their own spit. While the spit is in their mouths it is easy to swallow, however when asked to spit into a cup then drink it, disgust sets in. The boundary of where spit resides was moved and thus becomes disgusting – even if the spit is only seconds out of the mouth. Boundaries help keep people safe and disgust alerts us to a boundary violation and asks us to pay attention to this violation, because it may be harmful.

Anger teaches us that it is important to engage with rather than back down from those injustices in the world. And like disgust, anger is triggered when there is a violation. Anger alerts us to these violations and asks us to pay attention to the violation because there may be harm happening.

For as much as those disgusted or angry have to teach us, they also have much to learn. Specifically the limits of disgust and anger. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus shows us where those limits are and also shows us that if disgust and anger move us beyond these limits then we need to abandon disgust and anger all together.

When Jesus is confronted with people considered disgusting of his time, Jesus understands. Perhaps Jesus even experienced a bit of disgust when he encountered a woman whom he would not move toward, but in fact insinuated she was a dog. When the woman responded that even dogs eat from the scraps of the master’s table, Jesus realized that his disgust too him too far – he called a woman a dog! At that point he abandoned his sense of disgust and boundary keeping and healed the woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).

When Jesus experiences anger he is quick to realize the damage anger can cause. For instance, as soon as Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” the very next line reads, “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:22-24). Notice the twist here, Jesus does not banish Peter but invites him to get behind, one might say follow, him. In this moment of anger, even Jesus invited the Satan to follow him. Meaning that even when angry, Jesus invites the one he is angry with to stay in the relationship. If you are choosing to remain in relationship with someone then anger has to give way to love.

The United Methodist Church has a conversation on her hands about how to include ministry with LGBTQ persons. Some are disgusted and others are angry at this discussion. Both disgust and anger are helpful – until they are not. We have reached a point where disgust and anger are no longer helpful.

Any plan that is brought forth that does not hold us together in unified relationship reflects not the unity of the body of Christ but the emotional needs to resolve our own disgust and/or anger.

As Jesus said, you will be known by your love for one another. Or perhaps when Paul said that we are one in the Body of Christ. Or perhaps Revelation’s image of the peaceable kingdom where the lion and lamb are together. The Biblical witness is continually calling humanity to set anger and disgust aside for the sake of being in loving relationship. May my beloved UMC confront the disgust and anger in our lives, repent of the temptation of the pseudo-righteousness on full display that is only there to mask addiction we have to disgust and anger. Come Lord Jesus!