The Dirty E-Word (Evangelism. Shhh!)

I have a confession. I really hate the word evangelism. It has baggage. It seems easier to avoid than to deal with. When I think of evangelism, I think of corny church signs (Example: Read the Bible: It will scare the Hell out of you), people going door-to-door handing out Bibles or tracts, and sermons employing a variety of scare tactics meant to drive people into a relationship with Jesus, willing or not. And I think of the ways that Christianity has used its power throughout history to demand conversion and assimilation from people, and has at times painted other faith traditions as “evil” or “fallen.” And frankly, all these associations make me paranoid about coming too close to anything that resembles evangelism.

I like mission, when it’s done in partnership with local leaders. I can even often get really exciting about visions for church planting. But evangelism is just a word that I have steered clear of.

So, when I read the article in the recent edition of The Mennonite about First Mennonite Church in Denver (a progressive congregation that I must confess I’ve had a bit of a “church crush” on for the past several years) talking about overcoming  an “evangelism allergy,” I was intrigued. Vern Rempel, pastor at First Mennonite, says, “For some reason, when it’s church, we have all these hesitations: ‘I don’t want to tell people; they’ll think I’m evangelizing them.’ But what occurred to me is that everybody needs good community in their lives. And I thought, I can invite people to community, where the goal would be not for me to tell them what I know they need to know but for us to meet each other and discover what the Holy Spirit has between us.”

Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder also discusses the idea of evangelism. In his book, The Priestly Kingdom, Yoder suggests that the word evangelism is composed of two parts: angellion or news and eu or good. According to Yoder, this sharing of beliefs is news because people may not know or understand it unless they hear it or it is somehow shared with them, and it is good because it is about a message of liberation and not alienation. But precisely because it is about freedom, evangelism always must include within it the possibility of rejection.

Both of these definitions frame evangelism in a new way. I think that often when we postmodern people enter into conversations with those who think differently than we do, it’s easy to think that we should just agree to disagree and to keep our own beliefs to ourselves, especially when it comes to faith. We don’t seem to have these same qualms about political viewpoints, but that’s a whole other blog post in and of itself. I am often highly conscious of my status as a white, middle-class, Christian female, and the power that all of those symbols bring with them, and I wonder if it is fair or right to engage in evangelism. I wonder whether anything I say can actually be completely non-coercive, or whether it always carries some systemic weight with it, whether I want it to or not.

But, if I do believe that something is true, and if these beliefs and communities have been helpful to me in making sense of the world, I should be willing to share them, right? And I think we can carefully do this even as we boldly celebrate the fact that diverse truths exist and are meaningful and valuable for individuals (hence the reason coercion can’t really factor into real evangelism). The example of First Mennonite in Denver is helpful here: they began a “Mennonite Pentecostal contemplative service,” that focused on bringing together talented musicians to provide a space for reflection with great live jazz and blues music to undergird it. The vision for this service grew out of Vern Rempel and other musicians’ desires to share their music in a church setting, and to provide a space for contemplation, and people have been drawn to this idea. Not because someone told them it represented ultimate truth, but because the music and the space filled a need that they were experiencing.

So, maybe I should be more comfortable inviting a friend to a church service, a potluck meal or perhaps the next relief sale to support Mennonite Central Committee’s development work around the world. In sharing these spaces with friends, I am not coercively suggesting that they believe like I do, but am instead making myself vulnerable, and sharing another key piece of who I am with them.

What are your thoughts on evangelism? As Mennonites and Christians, how are we called to participate in ministry?

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3 Comments

Filed under Mennonite Identity, Spirituality

3 responses to “The Dirty E-Word (Evangelism. Shhh!)

  1. I am married to someone who does not attend church with me. He did, while we were dating, but then the Lutheran minister who performed our wedding ceremony spent most of the wedding homily railing against divorce and “disposable marriages,” all while my husband’s divorced parents were sitting together, very amicably, in the front pew. That was the end of my husband’s churchgoing.

    Now, 25 years later, I belong to a Mennonite congregation in the midst of our small community. My husband has often said that our minister is the best example of a Christian he has ever met, and he asks me every week what we discussed in Sunday School or heard in the sermon. He has said on a couple of occasions that he would like to go to church, but he doesn’t like the idea of being swarmed by people who want to know about the state of his soul. He’s a very private person. It’s been hard for me to get that across to some of our members, who feel that welcoming visitors is best expressed by “smothering” them with love and inquiries into the state of their relationship with Jesus.

    I like that our minister has a vision similar to Vern Rempel’s–that of creating “good community.” Our minister says that our church should be a welcoming place to everyone who wants to know about Jesus (even those who don’t meet the “Mennonite” criteria). However, that has made some members uncomfortable because they prefer to have a line drawn in the sand about who is welcome and who isn’t.

  2. As an apathetic agnostic (who has previously identified both as a Mennonite Christian and an atheist), I, too, eye that e-word with wary distrust. I appreciate the point that you’ve made about evangelism including the possibility of rejection.

    I have a complicated relationship with the church of my youth (which, in full disclaimer mode, is the church of Hannah’s husband’s youth, too). When I needed adults to mentor and take an interest in me during my tumultuous teen years, my MYF sponsors were those people for me. When I began to question all I had learned at church, spurred by my friendships with other curious teens at my private Mennonite Christian high school (full disclaimer again: the same school from which Hannah and her husband graduated), there were problems.

    Many of those same adults who had nurtured me through some difficult times were suddenly disappointed in me. I knew, through everything I learned at church growing up, that my realization that I was/am not a Christian was not going to be okay with most of those mentors, but it was still a shock to have people question my decisions, my friends, and my character during what was a very liberating moment in my life. Strangely, I was still the same person—just much more at peace with myself and my convictions.

    I remember sitting in the back row during a church service in the summer following my high school graduation (my mandatory church attendance, despite my having come out as a non-Christian, was a sticking point with my grandparents during that last summer at home) and hearing a sermon that left me disgusted. The speaker, one of the three full-time pastors at the church, spoke about the need to have some—but not many—non-Christian friends, as a way to draw people into the church without being unduly influenced by non-Christians.

    I appreciate people of faith; my closest friends are people of faith. I would never try to convince them to leave the church, or that my way of looking at the world is the best for them and everyone else. Though I understand, logically, why so many Christians have difficulty respecting me and others in kind, in those moments when I am confronted with people genuinely concerned about the immortal soul I’m pretty sure I haven’t got, I always find myself baffled.

    That’s why I’m always happy to come across Christians like Hannah, who ask the hard questions about living faith in the real world.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Erin – Thanks for this thoughtful post. This makes me disappointed in the faith communities that we grew up within. Relationships with people should not be pursued for coercive purposes, so the idea that we would simply pursue friendships with “non-Christians” simply for evangelistic purposes is highly problematic I think. Faith is only one part or expression of our personhood. Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate your voice!

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