Dear friends in Christ,
This time of year I am always thinking a lot about evangelism. Thousands of people move into our community for the first time, and thousands more are returning after a summer away. A significant number of those people are not connected to a community of faith. What an opportunity to share good news!
But how should we do that? What language and, perhaps more importantly, what actions best communicate to the particular people in this particular community? What are the needs they have that we can help meet? How are we strong in our witness but not coercive or overbearing in our interactions?
There are no perfect answers to these questions, but I do think we can begin to engage them by thinking about what it is that compels us about the good news. James Adams defines evangelism as “church members letting outsiders in on what they have found of value in Christianity.” At its heart, then, evangelism is about generosity. Presumably most of us are here because we find something at least worthwhile if not life-alteringly transformative about God and/or the church community. We hold that as a gift and we are presented with opportunities all the time to live generously out of that gift.
That’s why one of the things we do to welcome students is give stuff away for free. We don’t charge money, we don’t require assent to the church’s belief system, we don’t even ask for your email address. I continue to be shocked by how many students really cannot believe that a church is actually giving something away for free. Though I am consistently amazed by the
generosity of this congregation, I worry that the larger reputation of churches in general is not one of generosity.
Despite tons of warm and thankful comments as we handed out drinks and baked goods for the first day of classes at UMass, one comment that sticks with me was someone driving past who shouted at the top of his lungs, “God’s not real!!” My response, which he didn’t hear, was, “Ok,do you want a cupcake?” I think we at least strive in this community to make room for doubts and questions, for different understandings of what faith is about, but again there is a perception that somehow we “insiders” of the church have it all figured out and carry a certainty about who God is and an expectation that others buy in. As we continue to root ourselves in scripture and worship, how might we make it clear in our language and interactions that our starting place for relationship doesn’t have to be theological agreement? As we do that, what might those of us who are more insiders need to let go of in order to make space for others to explore their faith in our community?
One of the things I hear over and over again as a strength of our congregation is coming together around food – food to celebrate together and food to share with our neighbors in need(and very often both at the same time). So naturally food has become a part of our generously sharing our gifts (evangelism). In the evaluations from the Amherst College students who stayed overnight at church and ate a meal with us, many of them listed the dinner as the best part of their community engagement orientation trip, and some took the time to write that they wished they could spend more time with church members! In seven years of doing the dinner, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the students in church on Sunday morning, but it’s one of our best evangelism events of the year – we share our food and ourselves with others in a way that leaves them thinking that church is a place they can feel welcomed, a place where they can explore something new, a place of real people who have doubts, questions, and imperfections. We’ve shared something of the great gift we have been given through faith and participation in the church community. And whether they name it this way or not, they got to meet Jesus and so did we.
The unofficial theme I kept in mind this year for these events was “You are loved,” which we had printed on stress balls with our church name as a giveaway. That’s one of the gifts I find in church in general and in this congregation – the experience of being loved by God and by a community of people. I hope you experience that and more in this place, too, and that you are
surprised by the opportunities you have to share that incredible gift with others in the days ahead.