*This is a paper that I prepared for the class on Evangelism with Dr. Elaine A. Heath at Perkins School of Theology in SMU. The following are developing thoughts from my personal experiences in ministry and my learning from Dr. Heath’s class. She was a mentor and her work an inspiration to reflect on this topic.
As we look at the world today, we see that more than ever before we need healing. Whether we look at ourselves, TV or the news, people’s lives are falling into ruin. Society as a whole is struggling to survive. In a world of continuous suffering caused by poverty, oppressive and abusive social conditions, institutionalized violence, and systems of power that crush human beings, the mission of the church becomes more relevant. There is an urgent need for healing and mutual social responsibility for each other. Jesus’ witness exemplifies perfectly how this might look like, and he has commissioned the church to be precisely disciples that follow on his footsteps.
This commission is evangelism, and what this means to Christians is that their mission is to bring peace, hope, joy, peace and healing to a world that suffers and struggles to survive without God and each other. Jesus came to bring us back to God and to each other. The challenge of the church is not so much about how to share the faith as to wanting to share it and wanting to be connected with God and neighbor. The more valuable the faith is to the body of believers, the more they would want to share it. Sara Miles says “[Jesus’] human body was God’s language, as much as his human speech.”“What he said, and what he did were the same thing.” Faith is not just something we confess; it is also how we live. There cannot be an honest and responsible conversation of evangelism if faithful discipleship is not addressed at the same time. Evangelism is about bringing God’s heart to the communities, and this happens through discipleship.
Evangelism starts with the understanding of what is the church called to be and to do. Too often church is treated like a human invention, more like a club, and it fails to experience and share the miracle of God with us. Having a vivid relationship with God is what defines discipleship, and that is the heart of real evangelism. Evangelism happens when people see the way the church loves, for example. In this regard, evangelism is being in love with God, loving the church and caring for the world. Thus, it is not just about how one can relate to God, but how one relates to others because he or she relates to God.
Evangelism is not about talking people into beliefs. It is not about scaring them with horror stories of Hell, but is people sharing with others their personal understanding that life is better, richer, fuller and truer in Christ. It is about giving witness of God’s Kingdom in Christ that is established to give us life in its fullness. Brian McLaren states that the Good News are about God’s faithful solidarity with humanity, and that is not so much about avoiding Hell but about reconciliation, a new life and becoming citizens of God’s Kingdom. In this regard, evangelism is an act of compassion, not an act of judgment; it is an act of love, not an act of hate.
In my assessment of our present condition as a church in regards significant evangelism, I find that the challenges that the church faces in reaching out to new people are not because it is “harder” to do it now days, but because we deviated from what we were constituted to be, a healing and reconciling body of grace lead and guided by the compelling and transforming Story of Jesus. The challenges and shortcomings that I have identified are as follow.
1. Membership as oppose to Discipleship.
Many churches seem to exist to make members and not disciples. It is not a general rule, but it is general enough to affect the church in a negative way. When the focus is on making members and not on growing disciples, the outcome that the church experiences is people becoming passive and dependent, expecting to be cared for by others. Their mentality as “members” seems to be that their needs are not their responsibility but someone else’s, and that the community to which they belong to and in which they paid their “dues”, is their job to care and serve them.
2. Self-centered vs. God-centered.
I have seen and experienced that our problems as a church begin when we become self-centered and not God’s centered. Self-centered churches focus on promoting what they are doing, while churches that centered on God testify of what God is doing. Self-centered congregations speak about the difference they are making for people, while congregations centered on God give testimony of the difference God is making in their lives and through them. In short, self-centered churches promote and market themselves and see success as a trophy as in “we did good!” God-centered churches give testimony of Christ and share his Story.
As history will show, when churches become self-centered they may last for a generation, but when they are God’s centered they never cease to exist. While there are some conditions that may impede a congregation to exist as a location, their legacy as disciples continues.
3. Messy is bad… or is it?
A lot churches fail to be effective in reaching out to new people because their focus is not on the need of those whom they are trying to reach but on them trying to be the “best church.” This attitude in congregations is focus on making everything run smooth by aiming for neatness, having as their measure of success the offering of the best resources to people as in programs, services, goods. They see their mission as providing a neat, clean and edgy product. Churches that are effective in sharing the Gospel and experience growth through multiplication offer relationships and embrace the messiness and imperfection of people and of their own, and are always suspicious of “perfection.”
In this regard, evangelism is messy because is risky and Spirit lead. Any time we take a chance asking God to use us and our churches, we do it hoping for the best but you don’t really know what’s going to happen and how it is going to happen; and many times we failed to proceed with God’s plans because it gets “messy” and out of our comfort zone.
4. A constrained imagination.
Imagine! Everything changes constantly; the world around us is constantly changing and we too. Technology, culture, language, nature, everything changes. The effectiveness of the church in evangelizing depends on its imagination and capacity to believe God and be faithful to the Story of Jesus, even if it doesn’t make any sense to our logic and reason. In this regard, to imagine means to open ourselves for the move of the Holy Spirit and the changes that comes with it. In my experience, following the lead of the Holy Spirit and coping with the change that takes place often means imagining the unimaginable and taking a chance for it. But change is not something that we master or do it once, rather is a constant practice of our ability to use our imagination and remain faithful; and the greater the imagination, the greater the change and the harder the practice. To evangelize and make disciples in a changing world requires the ability to keep practicing and using imagination as we are led by the Holy Spirit to accomplish the mission of make disciples of Jesus Christ.
5. Missing identity.
As the Body of Christ, has the church lost track of what was constituted to be? More often than not, churches are kept together by agreements, policy and bureaucracy. While these are necessary and serve an important and vital purpose in the sustainability of the church, it shouldn’t be the reason why the church “sticks” together. If it is, it will hardly see itself motivated to evangelize and make disciples, lacking of relevance and growth. What the church needs to reclaim and focus on is on understanding its connection based on identity and shared purpose; an organic, purposeful and living identity that maintains the Story alive, the Jesus’ Story. This kind of understanding of identity of the Body of Christ is not self-serving or self-centered, but is willing to act against self-interests and self-needs, where the disciples are not expecting to always be cared for and served, but willing to live in a state of “Kenosis.” This identity of “Kenosis” is the willingness of emptying oneself for the wellbeing of the other, watching after other’s needs. That’s the Story of Jesus and it makes sense to be ours too if we are disciples on his likeness.
As a pastor of a transitioning church that is striving to be relevant to its local mission field and to recover its identity and purpose, I have been engage in this sort of conversations and reflections with the leaders of the congregation. Thus far, we have used these insights to reshape the church to model the Story of Jesus as in Kenosis, and to refocus and realign everything we have, believe, and know in order to be faithful to our calling and mission. This church is Oak Cliff United Methodist Church.
OAK CLIFF UMC
Oak Cliff UMC has the basic understanding that evangelism is an action and an attitude of healing and reconciliation. God calls the church to share and teach the Good News that Jesus Christ came to give us, and this good news include the understanding of the church as a body of healing and reconciliation. This reflection about the meaning of the good news for this church comes through the realization that there are many evil forces acting against the world, and the church has been charged by God to defeat them by bringing good news of healing and reconciliation.
In this regard, evangelization starts by addressing the struggles of people and the good news are visibly demonstrated and credibly announced as a message of liberation, love, justice, and peace. This church believes that when the Gospel makes “somebody” out of the “nobodies” of society by restoring self-worth, facilitating the acquiring of hope, joy and peace, then it is truly fulfilling its mission of bringing good news of life to all people.
This realization of purpose began to constitute Oak Cliff UMC as a redeemed community that not only teaches the Bible, but invites, accepts and embraces all people with compassion and love of God. Thus, evangelism is more than talking about God’s love, it has to do also with serving those who are in need. The church in this sense understands evangelism as its calling to be a servant community of healing and reconciliation by going to all people and including all people.
The New Testament includes stories of Jesus announcing the good news of God’s reign to all people, turning the world by giving to people what they needed not what they thought they deserved. The kingdom of God announced by Jesus removed everything that prevented human beings from grasping the reality of God’s will to share love and grace with all people. The good news of Jesus Christ would not make sense in any other context, but this; this is what defines them as good news, that is, its inclusive invitation for healing, reconciliation and regeneration.
This assessment of inclusiveness is what has shaped and lead Oak Cliff UMC to have as one of its core values to be a body of healing and reconciliation through relationships that are shared with one another as they are shared with God. The poet Robert Frost once said: “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”Christian congregations are often called “families of faith,” suggesting that the church is that family’s home. That is a good picture of the church if this home is built in God’s grace. If the church is to be the Body of Christ, then it also must be a dwelling place for grace. Healing and reconciliation cannot take place apart from the community because it is in and through the community of faith that springs up. Thus, healing and reconciliation can only be experienced in communion with God and each other.
Oak Cliff UMC believes that any ministry with no grace is not a ministry at all. Evangelism is the fruit of God’s grace already at work in the one who evangelizes and the one who receives the good news. Wesley referred to the fellowship of the church as “one loving heart setting another heart on fire.” In this sense, evangelism must be so grace-filled that people experience redemptive, healing and reconciliatory power in relationships in a way through which everyone is set “on fire” for God and one another.
Oak Cliff UMC affirms that grace-filled evangelism is what distinguishes a church as a home of grace, a home for all. The way the church encounters and invites the community to God speaks more about love and grace than a thousand sermons preached inside the building. This theological reflection is what has constituted Oak Cliff UMC as a grace-filled community of healing and reconciliation. A generous welcoming smile does not suffice; it is necessary to co-suffer and co-rejoice with our neighbor.
The community in which the church is located is diverse, young and very family oriented. Statistics show that what this community wants from the church is Bible study/discussion and prayer groups, recovery programs such as Twelve Steps, food and clothing resources, divorce recovery and parenting support groups. The church has used this information and listened to the community needs. As a result, it has developed practices and ministries geared towards the local community. We believe that to be God-centered means to be community-centered. Wasn’t Jesus doing ministry on the streets? We believe that to still be true. Using these reflections, the church began to offer ministries that will not only tell the Story verbally, but also with actions. These are some of the ministries the church offers:
Project Transformation. This is a program engages young adults in purposeful leadership and ministry, supports underserved children and families, and connects the church to community needs.
Theological discussion and discipleship groups. These groups are informal gathering where inductive study of the Bible is shared, fellowship is central, and prayer is edifying. These gatherings take place throughout the week in different places that include homes, church and parks.
Youth and children church. Wednesday night and Sunday mornings the church offers ministry opportunities for children and youth. The focus is to teach the Gospel and help develop critical thinking about God, life, family and church.
Methodist Children’s Home. This program offers outpatient counseling, in-home services, parent training, employment counseling, and assistance with community resources, aftercare and limited financial assistance when other sources are unavailable.
Community programs and services such as Karate Classes and Food Pantry. The church partners with the North Texas Food Bank and serves over 3000 people every month with groceries. The karate classes are offered for free to children, youth and adults and are led by a couple members of the church.
Mission Work in West Dallas at Nueva Esperanza community. This ministry is led by the laity, and primarily consists on doing ministry with youth and children that live in limited conditions.
Overcomers. This is a confidential support group for those facing daily battles of habits that we have developed over the years such as alcohol and drugs that have led to anger, depression and brokenness.
At a glance, it seems that the church is doing good work in reaching out and connecting with the community. What we have learned is that one of the challenges that the church faced for many years amidst the positive programing and ministries, is the development of significant and lasting relationships with the people that serves. The church faced for many years apathy from the community. People would come and use the ministries and services but would not be willing to connect with the church at a relational level. It was then that the church learned that giving stuff away and offering “neat” programing was not enough to connect with the community, but that they needed to be intentional about listening, engaging and connecting at a personal level with the people they were serving. In the last few years this has improved as the church started to gained trust and credibility in the community by reclaiming its identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and not as a good provider.
In this regard, the practices of evangelism in this church have a solid foundation when it comes to programing and ministries, but they need to continue being developed and addressed to make sure that is the people reaching out to people and not programs reaching out to people. I believe this to be a challenge for many churches that struggle with lack of growth; they try to reinvent themselves by changing strategies and adding more programing. Although they are noble intentions and serve a purpose, unless the church people commit personally to evangelism and make disciples of Jesus Christ, the church will not be able to connect with the community. There it needs to be a process, a` personal engagement and commitment of making disciples; we don’t hire someone to do it or expect programs and services to accomplish it, it takes disciples to make disciples.
Oak Cliff UMC has also learned that evangelism is a two-way transforming relationship. This is what Adeney calls reflexive evangelism. She points that evangelism needs to be both a reaching out and a receiving from others. This is particular relevant now days as the church is seen with reservation and suspicion. Many called Christians have used the Gospel for personal gain in an abusive and oppressive way that people in the world see the church as a hypocrite institution because too often the church has been a field for injury and division.
Unless the church is willing to listen and not just to preach, it will continue to be seen as a self-preserving institution and not as the community of healing and reconciliation that is based in grace-filled relationships, and it will not get too far in its evangelistic efforts. If the church truly learns to listen more than talking, it will become much more effective in reaching out to unchurch people that come from different experiences and that see the world, not black or white, but gray. Therefore, evangelism does not happen through or with a formula, but develops from an act of discernment of listening both God and people’s needs and stories.
This two-way transformation is one in which the mission of the church has a principal task to seek to reflect God’s loving concern for all people, for the principle of love requires that human beings be concerned not just to listen and to love God, but to listen and to love their neighbor. It is in this listening that the opportunity to share the Story of Jesus takes place. The struggles that the church currently faces in reaching out to new people are not for lack of professionalism, resources and strategies to reach out, but because it became self-focus and deaf. Any great idea, program, new tool, methods or strategies don’t have the power to truly evangelize. While these “tools” may be good and necessary to support ministries to certain extent, they can’t heal and reconcile people with God. Jesus’ Story does. His, is the Story of grace. Evangelism is not about converting non-Christians, but about becoming messengers of the Story, ambassadors of reconciliation and healing.
To evangelize is to let the Story do its work by the church becoming an “angel of good news.”
 Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 2
 Elaine A. Heath, class notes: Evangelism and Ecclesial Practices.
 Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: a Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 132 “Numbers, buildings, revenue, honors, being called the Reverend Doctor, being known as the Tall Steeple Church…”
 Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 230
 Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, Reprint ed. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 139
 Recinos, Harold J., Good News from the Barrio. (WJK Press 2006) 102, 104
 Frost, Robert. The Death of the Hired Man, The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward C. Lathem, 38
 Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 28