This past week I spent time at two separate conferences, one dealing with ideas for “best practices” to make use of in the Church, the other dealing with the concept of absolution and grace as it applies to real life. At each conference I was struck by two ideas that had the same sort of consequence: outreach with the Gospel and how it impacts the local congregation. At the first conference, I was attending a session on how social media can impact people “where they are” with the Gospel. After 30 minutes of presentation, one of the other pastors who was there asked the question that almost always comes up when talking about new approaches to sharing the message, “how many people came to church as a result?”
At the second conference, I attended a session which spoke about an outreach at two separate congregations whose aim is to begin a dialogue between Christians and the members of the community around the subject of the arts. At both of these places, no bait and switch is made. People come for a concert or an art show or a poetry jam, and that is all it is. There is no “sell” of the church at the end or invitation to services. The purpose is conversation between Christians of the parish and the people of the community, and the result is that people of all walks of life come to a safe place and in some cases, have begun to ask questions about who runs this. That is when the church comes into the conversation, and those of the community begin to see that Christians are not stuffy prudes, but are normal people who appreciate worldly things too, at least to an extent. As the conversation continued in the session, while it was never asked directly, the question was still there: how many came to church as a result?
This, of course, has been the point of evangelism ever since the early days of Billy Graham. Folks went door to door asking “if you were to die tonight, where would you end up? Heaven or hell?” The point was to get people talking about matters of salvation and eventually give the church a try. Evangelism was about getting people into church, and the result in the 50’s and 60’s was tremendous. The church saw growth like never before, and even our own LCMS grew to the point that Mr. Graham called us a “sleeping giant” ready to explode on the American religious scene. Needless to say that did not happen, but it sounds good whenever someone as cool as Billy Graham gives us a plug.
Nowadays, evangelism has taken on a different form in our very different world. Door to door is now one of the least effective ways to reach people, colorful mailings do not work, and signs and billboards never really get people fired up for church. Today it is about engaging the culture, establishing relationships with people, and helping them to hear the message of God’s amazing grace, which, if spoken about correctly, is something that is radically counter-cultural and to many a millennial today, very intriguing. Add to that change the reality that people are looking for a real sense of community, and you see the challenge that is before us all. Evangelism is no longer simply about numbers of people in the door – that is not a good indicator of effectiveness. What is important is bearing witness to God’s unending mercy and grace within a community of people who actually embody it in their life together, and their actions into the world. This is not an easy task, and you can see why many people complain that Christians are hypocrites. We struggle with grace too, and living out of it is not easy. That’s why we need forgiveness and restoration each week…that is, dare I say, why we come to church – to receive Jesus.
One of the greatest things ever said about the Church was uttered by an outsider, a man named Aristides. Emperor Hadrian had sent him to spy on these “Christians” and give a report back about them, presumably so he could see if they were a threat. Having seen the Christians in action, Aristides reported back something profound…he said, “Behold! How they love one another!” This man saw a true community of people, centered on the Gospel of grace, living that grace out with one another, loving each other. It was encouraging, and inviting.
Given all of this, I wonder if we might think differently about what it means to be the Church, and what it means to evangelize. Are we, in some way, really only looking for the church to grow so that we have more people, more numbers, more resources? Nowadays, people see right through that, and they are not interested. But, if our acts of mercy were simply about that – being merciful – that is something that people are interested in. If our life together is lived in love, and our life in the world filled with grace, that is something that is appealing to people.
My encouragement for you is to reach out to those you know who are un-churched, de-churched, or churchless, and simply love them. I am not asking that you see them as potential converts or even church members. See them as people whom God loves, and so you should too, not to “get them in” but to share the Gospel of grace of with. Consider inviting someone to something here at St. John’s that is non-threatening. We have a few concerts coming up this month; we have a golf outing this summer; we will have Fellowship Sunday the first weekend in June. I know a couple of families in our church who bring their neighbors every year for Fellowship Sunday who are not members of our church. But they come, and they have fun. A dialogue is started, and they see how we love one another. Will it ever lead to anything? Who knows, but that is not the point…they are seeing grace in practice. And finally, consider our community that we live in, not just in Sayville, but Long Island and New York. Are there needs that should be addressed, areas where mercy could be given? Might there be something where we could bring the Gospel in action to people in who need it, again, not for the sake of getting them to come to church, but just because they have need and we can supply them?
Think about these things…talk with me about it…let’s begin to consider more intently what God would have us doing, and then let us be diligent and faithful in all that God has given us the ability to do. When we are able to do these things, perhaps people may say of us “Behold! How they love one another!” as they are touched by grace. That, I believe, is what true evangelism is. Christ will work to turn hearts when the Gospel is proclaimed in word and deed, and where that happens, the Church will be there for them. But God so loved the world that he sent his Son, so we should not discriminate between potential members and not, but allow people the opportunity to see God’s love and enter into the conversation of grace, and then see what the Lord does with it!
Rise, shine, you people! Christ the Lord has entered
Our human story; God in Him is centered.
He comes to us, by death and sin surrounded,
With grace unbounded (LSB #825, st. 1).
~ Pastor Noack