By Rev. Dr. Heather Lear, FFE Research and Teaching Fellow
During the last week in May, I had the opportunity to travel to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to visit and provide training for some of the 13 United Methodist churches in the country. Democracy is a relatively new form of government in Mongolia, as the country was closely aligned with the Soviet Union and operated under socialism and communism during most of the 20th Century. As a result, only about one percent of the three million Mongolians identify as Christian. My task was to offer an evening of evangelism training to the clergy and laity from the UMC churches and introduce a bible study resource I wrote a couple years ago that was recently translated into Mongolian.
I must admit, prior to arriving at the Chinggis Khaan International Airport, most of what I knew about Mongolia and the Mongolian culture came from online articles and YouTube videos. Because my training time was limited and needed to include an allowance for translation into Mongolian and sign language (one of the 13 congregations is explicitly for, and pastored by a member of, the deaf/mute community), I spent the first morning peppering our missionary hosts with questions that would help me fine-tune our time. There was no point in me offering training that was irrelevant and inapplicable to their context. That night I tweaked some of my material for the next day, but decided not to heed one piece of advice given, “Don’t waste your time in interactive exercises. They probably won’t engage and are just coming to learn from you.”
Over several years of leading workshops and training not only in the US, but in Africa, Asia, and Australia, I’ve learned that people need to internalize information and make connections with their own experience and story, especially with evangelism. So our second day in the country, I arrived at the church for my evening of training with my activities planned and pictures in hand. Because evangelism has quite a bit of baggage and negative connotations, I always begin by trying to re-frame evangelism as the goodness of God and ask people to select an image from the many offered that represents God’s goodness to them and in their lives. They are then asked to share their image and reasoning with a neighbor. In all the times I’ve led this exercise, I’ve never observed anything but joy in the sharing or anyone at a loss for words. This then sets the stage for us to connect their experience and story with God’s wider story in a way that’s authentic and compelling.
As I reflect on that night and the advice I had been given, I think the missionary had something else in mind when he cautioned me against “interactive exercises.” What I think he was really saying was, “Don’t put them on the spot by asking questions with prescribed answers or checking their biblical knowledge.” Now I know that to be good advice walking into any room to teach or lead training, not just in Mongolia. And unfortunately, that is how many view evangelism: knowing the “right” answers and quoting the “essential” bible passages. Not only is that not compelling, especially in a place that is 99 percent non-Christian, but it makes who God is and what God’s doing too small. It also misses the point of evangelism in the first place: to experience the love and grace of God that frees and transforms our hearts and minds to be more like Jesus, living lives of love and being who God created us to be. As Wesleyan Christians, we believe the Holy Spirit is active and at work in the lives of all people, even before they realize or acknowledge it. How are we helping people to see it, name it, and claim it for themselves? John Wesley referred to this as an awakening. In our polarized, broken world, the gospel offers a different narrative grounded in love, hope, and peace. This is what we want people to know and experience, and only then should we slowly dive into biblical teaching and theological reflection, using our own experiences to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to life.
After all, no one likes pop quizzes.
Dr. Heather Heinzman Lear is the Research and Teach Fellow for The Foundation for Evangelism. She is an ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC) where she served churches in the Raleigh-Durham and Rocky Mount areas. She worked for five years as the Director of Evangelism Ministries for UMC’s Discipleship Ministries.