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?