What is Evangelism . . . Really?

By March 4, 2019

Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2019 Lent Edition

CONNECT Magazine is your source for the stories of our FUMCFW Faith Community — and how each fits in with our Healthy Plate Discipleship. Pick up your copy in the Main Office and Welcome Center or read it online.
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Does the very word “evangelism” conjure images of shouting, sweating, highly-coiffed TV personalities trying to save your soul — and insisting that a healthy donation would accelerate the process? Or Ray Stevens’ iconic song, “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?” Or those sign-toting, brochure-wielding people you cross the street to avoid who threaten hellfire and damnation if you don’t “repent and be born again?” Or even well-intentioned friends who believe if they badger and shame you enough you’ll “see the light” in the context of their own faith experience?

None of that is what we’re talking about in the United Methodist context of evangelism. “True evangelism in its purest sense is a healthy and meaningful exchange that always includes two things,” says Rev. Lance Marshall, Senior Associate Pastor. “It’s first, sharing something you love, and second, an invitation. Healthy and meaningful evangelism never includes argument or shame.”

Lance, who has a particular affinity for the study of healthy evangelism, likes to tell the story of someone he used to work with who had a deeply profound — and completely unknown — evangelical influence on him. “He was a great guy who openly shared his life and his faith,” Lance remembers. “I never went to church with him, and to this day he has no idea of his successful evangelism with me. He never argued or shamed me, he simply shared something he was passionate about, saying that he found that Jesus’ way for living gave him hope, peace, assurance, and a sense of purpose. ‘It’s better than anything I’ve ever experienced before,’ he’d say. He invited me to go to church with him, but I didn’t ever take him up on it. He had no idea how the example he set shaped who I am today.” Lance adds. “I’m sure he’d be very surprised to learn what I’m doing today — and how his evangelism planted that seed.”

In his weekly service, The Gathering, Lance has often talked about how meaningful evangelism looks, feels, and works in others’ lives. One of his favorite exercises to demonstrate this truth is to invite his congregation to share with the person sitting next to them something they are really into right now — as well as the happiness, peace, and joy that thing brings them — and then invite the other person to try it. Maybe even offer a coupon or invite them to a place where that thing is available. “It doesn’t matter what the thing is,” Lance adds. “It can be something large or small. Pugs. TopoChico. A new barbeque grill.” Then Lance asks the listener to consider how it felt to hear someone tell them about something they love. “Did you feel put upon, angry or attacked in any way?” Lance asks at the end of the exercise. “True and meaningful evangelism should feel just like that.”

The bad connotation evangelism has acquired through the years has come at the hands of people with a specific agenda to tell others what they need, what they should do or be, and threaten them with what will happen to them if they don’t. “No one likes to be told how to live,” Lance adds, “particularly by a stranger or someone they don’t know very well.” And, he adds, “if you’ve ever experienced this you’ll have a natural aversion to ‘evangelism’ because it’s happened to you.”

The word, “evangelism” has been kidnapped from the mainline church and now evokes more negative images,” agrees Rev. Linda McDermott, Associate Pastor of Worship at FUMCFW. “It’s definitely time we recapture the true meaning of the word which is never about threat but essentially about blessing.”

So, when we say that evangelism is a key value to us as United Methodists — and in particular as it relates to our own faith community — how do we do meaningful evangelism in a world that has become so jaded to the concept? Dr. Tim Bruster, Senior Pastor, says that when it comes to reclaiming evangelism in a healthier context, the key is remembering that we’re simply expressing our genuine interest in someone else, asking them questions, really listening to what they say and, sometimes, even listening for what they don’t say about their faith.

Pointing to the well-known Methodist evangelist Harry Denman, a Methodist lay person was so good at this more genuine sort of evangelism that he was named to head up what was then called Board of Evangelism; now there are “Denman Awards” in many if not most United States Annual Conferences to recognize people who excel in evangelism. Dr. Bruster relates how Denman’s “secret” to evangelism shines a light for all who seek to restore its good name. “What did Denman do that was so different?” he asks, then shrugs. “It was very simple, really. He just talked to people as he went about his day-to-day business. He asked questions. He got to know them. He was genuinely interested in their lives — and they knew it. And he always invited people to go to church with him. He would first ask about their church — and if they had one. And if they didn’t, he’d invite them to his. Sometimes,” Bruster adds, “he’d just tell them he wanted them to know that God loves them.”

“When we ask people to evangelize and share faith, it’s extremely important to stick to ‘I’ statements,” Lance says. “You are the world’s leading expert on your own story. No one is ever upset to hear your story. Your story never leads to an argument or disagreement.” Lance pauses, thoughtful. “I think we cross the line when we say, “you need, everyone needs, this is what’s wrong and this is what will fix it,” he says. “Don’t ever tell someone what to do,” he adds. “Just tell them what you do.”

According to Lance and many others seeking to reclaim evangelism in its healthiest context, much of evangelism is how you live your life, the example you set by your actions. Another key to healthy evangelism is crystalizing your own faith story into something you can tell others, or, in the famous words of pastor, theologian, and noteworthy evangelist DT Niles, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

How To “Crystalize” Your Own Faith Story

Although every single one of us has a faith story, many of us, particularly if we grew up in the church, probably haven’t given it much thought — or considered how to boil it down into something easy and joyful to share with others. Here are a few questions to consider, with encouragement to do this on your own so that when the opportunity arises to share your faith story with someone else, you’ll be ready to do it!

  • What is your first experience of God?
  • When did you first experience faith?
  • Whose faith inspires you?
  • What has your faith helped you find?
  • How did that discovery change your life?

Consider the following moments in your life and the role your faith has played in times of:

Change  |  Strength  |  Healing  |  Purpose  |  Peace

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