Greetings in the name of Christ,
To begin, I would like to thank you for your diligence and hard work in putting together this year's Synod Assembly. I know these events are fraught with all sorts of frustrations. I nearly lost several hand fulls of hair in simply helping to plan the main worship service at one of these things! Therefore, this letter is not intended to add to your misery even though it is highly possible it will.
My office manager received by mail a letter regarding the upcoming Synod Assembly and its focus on evangelism. Pastor Pedro concluded with these words, "Evangelism is a topic that might be uncomfortable or be fraught with misconceptions. We hope that you will use the enclosed bulletin insert to encourage your congregation to rethink evangelism and to encourage their participation in this year's Synod Assembly."
I had to chuckle a little bit after reading Pastor Pedro's assertion's about evangelism being fraught with misconceptions and then read the flyer which stated, "Evangelism can take many forms including social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement. Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."
I chuckled, and then I mourned. I chuckled because ten, five, even a year and a half ago, I would have unhesitatingly published this flyer in the church bulletin. I would have encouraged these exact words! But I mourned because I have changed, and as I read there was an obvious, at least to me, misconception. It has to do with, in my understanding, the nature of evangelism and the nature of the gospel.
First, evangelism. Most of us are familiar with the Greek root of the word. "Evangelion" is literally translated "good news." Evangelism is the spreading of the good news. Of course, we must ask then, "What is the good news?" For those of us who are Christians, this means, "What is the Gospel?"
That final question seems to be a bit tricky these days. I asked a pastor at the Theological Conference in New Braunfels how may different definitions of the Gospel we would get if we polled all the pastors in attendance, and she replied, "At least 200."
This poses a bit of a problem for if evangelism is the spread of the Gospel, and we have 200+ definitions of the Gospel, just what are we trying to spread?
That's just the first problem. The second problem I can see, comes from semantics. I think we can all agree that the root definition of Gospel is "good news." What do you do with news? Can you "live" news?
As Lutherans, in theory, our shared identity revolves around the fact that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the life we were supposed to live and died the death that we deserved to reconcile us unto God while we were still sinners. This is the Gospel of which St. Paul says, "There is no other Gospel!" How do you convey this without using words?
You simply cannot tell others what Jesus has accomplished for them by means of social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement. Proclaiming the Gospel requires, well, proclamation. We must declare what Jesus has done. If we are not focusing on the cross, then we are not doing evangelism. If we are not talking about God's action and are focused on our own actions (social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement), we are not doing evangelism. We are not telling good news. We are not getting people to Jesus.
It is my contention that in these days, we in the church spend an awful lot of time trying to get people to fall in love with us. We want people to fall in love with our congregations and join. We want to reverse the trend of membership decline by emphasizing our actions and our concern for the poor and oppressed and marginalized. While these things aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, they are misguided. We need to lead people to fall in love with Jesus; not our church; not our congregations; not ourselves. Anything that does not get to Jesus; anything that does not lead people to the cross; is not evangelism.
And as a result of people falling in love with Jesus? Well, there will be social justice. There will be radical hospitality. There will be community involvement. These are fruits of evangelism. They are not evangelism themselves.
I really and truly do not expect anyone to agree with the points in this letter. I realize that I am very much on the fringes when it comes to serving the ELCA in theology and in practice. Yet, I love this church for Jesus died for this church. I love her even when I vehemently disagree with her, and I willingly serve within her bounds though she and I are often at odds. I want the decline to cease just as much as I know you do. And I am absolutely convinced and clear that unless we put Jesus front and center of our evangelism and proclamation; unless we work to proclaim Jesus and His actions, the decline will continue.
Thank you for your consideration.
Pastor, St. John Lutheran Church
Cat Spring, TX