When the Church Leaves the Building

Evangelism has become an unfortunate word in the church and, frankly, I wish the term had never been coined. In far too many cases, it has reduced to a program of the church (as just one of many programs) what is in truth fundamental to our Christian faith and calling – sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. Too frequently evangelism has consisted of a laborious church program, only reluctantly entered into by cautious congregants, designed chiefly to bring people into the church. This doesn’t happen in your church. You’re fine. But it does in some churches. And the cost of that reductionism is lackluster faith sharing and declining churches. And the real losers are all those people who desperately need to hear good news.

And that’s another problem with evangelism. What the church presents is not, in far too many cases, good news. Think about that. In a recent conversation with a diverse group of young people they lamented that they could not find a faith community that was diverse. “I walk into a church on any given Sunday and most of the congregants all look the same. I don’t think that’s what the kingdom of heaven will look like. I want a taste of God’s kingdom when I worship God.” Another young person telling me why he doesn’t attend worship said, “I grew up in the church and I love the church but once I came out as a gay man, I feel less accepted and even condemned. I’m just not comfortable in church anymore as much as I miss it.” An older man who is marginally homeless told me, “I know I can’t bathe and stay as clean as I’d like to and I see the way people look at me and how they inch away if I sit next to them.” Yet another, a recovering alcoholic, told me that her church had asked her not to bring diet soda into the sanctuary and drink it throughout the service. “They told me it just wasn’t the right kind of message. At this stage in my sobriety, it’s what gets me through. But I won’t be going back to that church.”

What a contrast that is to Jesus’ way of proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus notoriously spent time at the local pub with prostitutes, and sinners. He went out of his way to cross over to be with Samaritans. He halted his travel to the home of a wealthy man to heal a woman with a debilitating illness. He chided his disciples for shooing away the children and brought them into the center of the assembly. He didn’t call it evangelism and yet he was inviting people into the kingdom already at hand. He was sharing and demonstrating the good news of God’s mercy, love, and grace.

What if the church’s “evangelism” looked more like that? Sharing and demonstrating the good news of God’s abundant mercy, love, and grace through relationship.

Junius Dotson from the Lewis Center for Christian Leadership lists three key components to evangelistic engagement. He writes, “I believe any outreach effort whose goal is simply inviting people to church or only providing ministry “for people” rather than “with people” without regard to building relationship is short-sighted. Missional (evangelistic) engagement entails the building of authentic, organic, and consistent relationships.” To illustrate this, consider the story of Bill, the pastor of a mid-sized church in a mid-sized town. His family decided to turn off their cable – in this case to save money. But this left him without a place to watch football on Sunday afternoons which he really loved to do. So he started going to a local bar to watch the games. Over the course of several weeks something unexpected happened. He became friends and developed relationships with many of the people he would see in the bar every week. Over time these encounters and conversations deepened and suddenly they were talking about faith and Jesus and some of the people began showing up at his church. Ultimately, those football sessions, being the ground for authentic, organic, and consistent engagement, led to several baptisms.

So whether it is in the message we communicate in our congregation’s practice of hospitality or the friendships we develop outside the church, may we take time to build authentic, organic, and consistent relationships. Like Jesus did. Then, like the woman who searched and searched and finally found her lost coin, God will rejoice!

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