In Christianity, the word evangelism has become deeply entangled with a branch of the faith that purposely calls itself evangelical. In turn, in our increasingly post-Christian American society, the term evangelical often carries with it the ideas of rigidity, of intolerance, of misogyny, of anti-LGBTQ feelings, of judgmentalism and on and on.
That's a problem for the branches of the faith that don't identify as evangelical because they, too, are obliged to engage in evangelism, which means sharing with others the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And that, of course, raises the question of what we mean by good news, which is what the word gospel means. This is way too broad a conclusion, but in some ways the good news among evangelical Christians means that believing in Jesus will save you from going to hell, while in non-evangelical branches the good news has more to do with the idea that God loves you and everyone else and that you can live a life of love, mercy, justice and compassion today, without waiting for the by-and-by of whatever heaven turns out to be.
So this past weekend, the Rev. Charlene Han Powell (pictured here), an associate pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, came to my congregation in Kansas City to talk about how to rescue the idea of evangelism and how to engage in evangelism today in a way that is welcoming, respectful and well-received.
The very idea of evangelism is difficult in a time when our nation is so divided and tribal: Republican-Democrat, rich-poor, black-white, straight-gay, urban-rural, male-female, religious-secular, Kavanaugh-Ford and on and on. These fault-lines are affecting the church and how it goes about its work, which includes inviting others to be part of that work.
In such a divided time, the question to ask, Powell insisted, is this: "What could possibly be good news to a person in need?" In other words, before Christians offer a prepared, snap, four-point answer about how best to live and who Jesus is, it's important to find out the needs of the people to whom we are speaking. Beyond that, she said, "When the gospel isn't good news for everyone, it isn't the gospel."
The problem for many Mainline Protestant churches, Powell said, is that "in our effort not to be evangelical, we've stopped talking about Jesus." One way to fix that, she suggested, is that when congregations do various ministries of social justice, they should name their work as being Christian "so that people will know that Christianity doesn't just look one way." Unless we tell people what is motivating us, she said, we can't expect people to know.
So telling people what moves us to care about the poor, the homeless, the hungry and others in need is what evangelism really is, she suggested.
I like her approach. It means being clear about who God is for us but it also means paying close attention to what breaks God's heart. For what breaks God's heart must surely break ours. And people should know why we work to repair the broken hearts of others.
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TARGETING PEOPLE OF FAITH
By now anyone paying even half attention knows that in the 2016 presidential race, about 80 percent white Christian evangelicals in the U.S. voted for Donald Trump for president. Lots of those folks still are in his camp. And there's a campaign on to keep them on the Republican side in the upcoming midterm elections. But, as this NPR story makes clear, it's also true that people who identify as progressive or liberal people of faith also are being targeted by politicians to get out and vote. I worry that faith communities may get further co-opted by political parties to focus largely on political goals and not on spiritual truths. And yet who was more political than Jesus? One of the main reasons the Romans executed him was because of the claim that "Jesus is Lord," a direct challenge to Caesar. But the politics of religious people always should be grounded in religious principles and values and not in the hunger for power. Power corrupts. And political power in the hands of deeply religious people may be especially dangerous.