A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 8 ~ Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I was at a church conference once, and at the obligatory Q&A time one of the questioners asked a really deep and heartfelt ‘elephant in the room’ kind of question that perfectly summed up what every person at the conference was desperately trying to get to the heart of. The headline presenter – the one whose wisdom everyone had come to hear – paused thoughtfully, breathed deeply, looked out at the anticipating crowd, and said this, “That is exactly the right question, and there is a simple and obvious answer to it that will solve this problem once and for all – and ‘Jim’ over there is going to tell you what it is.” Of course, ‘Jim’ had no clue he was getting thrown under the bus. Everyone roared in laughter (yes, even ‘Jim’), because we all knew that the question was not simple and obvious to answer. It was complex, and nuanced, and no quick and easy ‘technical’ answer was going to get anywhere near addressing the issue. What was needed was a paradigm shift, an ‘adaptive’ approach that requires a whole culture change.
I tell that story because this is the conclusion of a 3-week sermon series on the topic of the E-word – evangelism – and I teased this week’s message as being about ‘how’ to do it. The first week was about what evangelism is and isn’t – last week was about the enormity of the challenge of our current context, and also the hope that there are cracks in everything and everyone out there where God’s light can get in – and that we’ll need to help. And this week is supposedly about how to do it. And just like that heartfelt question at the conference I spoke of, we all want to get to the heart of this. And just like that equally heartfelt non-answer, we know that there’s no easy answer, and that the ‘how to do it’ part will never be a simple technique that we can just learn and apply. No, it’ll require a whole culture change – and those take time. So let’s get started!
I told you that I’ve been using a great book as a resource for this evangelism sermon series. It’s called Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese. So to prepare for this last sermon I went to her website and saw a ‘download additional resources’ link. Great! I happily clicked it! It began with a checklist for pastors. Awesome.
Number 1, read the book and decide if it will be a good fit for your congregation. Check!
Number 2 – (In all capital letters) “PLEASE DON’T PREACH or do a newsletter article about Unbinding the Gospel.” (Oops!)
She continues, “It doesn’t help. It will create resistance. Preaching won’t help. A newsletter article won’t inspire. Be quiet. Operate by stealth. Let the group process and the Spirit start working with people. You’re trying to help a lay movement emerge, not give them more information.”
Ok, so I guess we’re done! Short sermon! What’s the next hymn?
No, I’m just kidding. I get why she said that stuff though. She’s anticipating pastors speaking cold into congregations who may not be ready to hear these ideas. Happily, that’s not my context. And she’s worried it’ll come across as information – which is not at all the same as transformation, or culture change. This will become really clear as I get into her core ‘how to’ ideas. Spoiler alert – they’re going to sound really familiar to you – because we’ve already been immersed in these things for years!
You see, this book that I’ve been referencing is actually just the first of 3 books that outline her whole 3-year long transformational concept. The second book is called Unbinding Your Church, and the third book is called Unbinding Your Heart. Perhaps you’ve figured out by now that we’re not actually talking about ‘how to’ do evangelism but about ‘how to’ transform your church and the people who comprise the community of faith.
In other words, the simple and obvious answer that will solve this problem once and for all is the same kind of answer that we already know deeply whenever we say, “Surely, God is in this place. Help me notice!” Several years ago now this congregation began that journey of opening ourselves to noticing God’s Sacred Presence everywhere and always – in everything and in everyone. And that noticing tunes us in to beauty, and compassion, and love wherever we are. And that kind of immersion in noticing God’s constant loving Presence fills us with love, and helps us perceive God’s kingdom – which, like fish in an ocean, we’re already swimming in. It moves us from a head-based intellectual approach to faith to an integrated and fuller head-and-heart-based approach. And the more we swim in that love the more we notice, and the more our hearts feel strangely warmed.
And now we’re back at our first definition of evangelism. A person with a strangely warmed heart, nurtured in a vibrant, and loving, and supportive community of faith, sharing that warmth and love, and the reasons for it, with people they’re in relationships with, so that those people might experience the depth of joy, and peace, and shalom, and flourishing, and love that we experience through our faith.
In the actual ‘how to’ part of her book, Martha Grace Reese basically says that the very first step, before you do any other thing, is that you should be praying. Praying as an individual follower of Jesus, and also praying as a church (in small groups or as a whole) that hearts may be warmed, people may be nourished and nurtured, and faith stories and experiences may be shared both within and beyond the church.
You know how I always say love, love, love?
Well, the key to evangelism is to pray, pray, pray.
Steep yourself and your church in prayer.
Have prayer not be an awkward thing you tag onto a meeting ‘cuz you’re supposed to, but the kind of thing that absolutely grounds and powers your meeting.
Have prayer be so ubiquitous that it actually feels wrong if you don’t pray.
Have prayer be so celebrated and shared that numerous people offer to offer prayers at every gathering. (This isn’t just a lay person thing. You oughta see the eyes glued to shoes when someone asks ‘would anyone like to pray us in?” for a clergy meeting.)
Pray, pray, pray.
Pray like you can, not like you can’t.
Start with mumbles and stumbles. But pray. Pray your heart out.
A church may attract a certain number of people by good deeds, or the charisma of a leader, but churches flourish and grow when the Spirit is felt to be moving – and the single greatest animator of Spirit has always been prayerfulness. Sing your prayers, speak your prayers, pray in silence – but pray, pray, pray.
This is why the author said not to preach about evangelism at first – because it’s gibberish to a church that isn’t a praying church – and it’s scary nonsense to people who aren’t praying people.
“Surely God is in this place. Help me notice!” The purpose of that phrase is to create in us a constant state of mindfulness and prayerfulness. If we’re looking for God everywhere and always – in everything and everyone – then we’re always praying. The heart of prayer is spending time in loving relationship with God – which you can’t do if you never notice God is present except on Sundays.
Prayer and relationships are what the ‘how to’ of evangelism look like.
So maybe to learn about the ‘how to’ of evangelism we ought to look at the greatest evangelist there ever was – Jesus.
Clearly, Jesus was a person who was immersed in prayerfulness. It’s a given that God is everywhere. It’s not a given that we’ll always notice. I’d reckon that Jesus always noticed! And I’d wager that Jesus’ heart was more strangely warmed than just about anyone’s. How did Jesus live? In a supportive and nurturing community of faith and mutuality made up of disciples (male and female) who travelled with him and served with him. So Jesus has a warmed heart, and a supportive community – what’s next? Sharing his warmed heart, his heart full of the love of God, with people he’s in relationship with.
Ah! And here’s where you might question my thesis. But stay with me for a minute.
Our scripture passage for today describes a couple of scenes where Jesus is out doing his sharing his heart thing with a crowd of people. After a while, Jesus and his crew needed to get away from the crowd, to rest, to regroup, to refuel.
Mark 6:33 Now many (people) saw (Jesus and his disciples) going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.
A little while later the scene repeats – suggesting that this was going on wherever they went. Again Jesus and the disciples tried to step away for a time and guess what happened?
Mark 6:54-55 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.
For me, the tie in to evangelism here hinges on the word ‘recognize’. In order for you to recognize someone you have to already know them. You can’t recognize a stranger. And remember – they didn’t have TV or YouTube, or newspapers back then, so it wasn’t like Jesus’ picture and story were being featured in videos that everyone had seen. No, the only way you could recognize Jesus is if you had already met him. And that is kinda the definition of a relationship – someone you’ve met and know and are acquainted with. The Greek word that gets translated as ‘recognize’ here refers to “experiential knowing, through direct relationship.”
Did the members of those crowds actually know Jesus, or just feel like they knew him? Either way, remember that they sought him out.
He didn’t go bothering people.
He didn’t knock on their doors, or try to impose himself on anyone.
He didn’t stand on the corner on a soapbox and yell at passersby.
He and his strangely warmed heart, supported by his community of faithful friends, immersed and grounded in a life of prayerfulness, just lived out and loved out their worldview. And the big thing – the thing that made it evangelism – was that they were ready – ready at any given moment to say ‘why’. Ready to add to the conversation the reason why they were living and loving like they were. The reason why their faces were aglow, and their demeanor was generous and kind.
Every person who Jesus reached out to, and ministered to (and evangelized), had a relationship with him. They may not have been coffee buddies at Tim Horton’s, but they were in a relationship – at least acquainted, or warm to connection on some level.
I think this is one of the great stumbling blocks to any conversation about evangelism. There was a big discussion about this in a minister’s Facebook group that I frequent. Somebody made a suggestion that we need to be thinking more about evangelism. (No it wasn’t me, but I had mentioned it in another thread and this thread followed.) The comments were a curious mix of “yes, yes we do!” and some pushback about how evangelism feels like colonialism. But that’s that ineffective and offensive kind of evangelism that we rejected in our first discussion/sermon two weeks ago. That’s not Jesusy at all.
Warm-hearted, prayer-soaked folks ready to share why it is that their life feels better with faith and church than without them – sharing authentically and naturally with people they have some level of relationship with – gushing like a grandma with new grandkid pictures – that is exactly the opposite of colonialism. There’s no “you oughta or else” in that – there’s only “here’s my experience – it benefits me – maybe it might benefit you.”
So, what’s the how-to of evangelism?
Warm-hearts, church-nurtured, prayer-soaked, ready to simply share why you’re aglow – with people you’re in a relationship with – like Jesus was.
And how do you build any relationship? You invest time. You enter into it authentically – that means no hidden agendas. You desire the best for the other. And for people of faith there’s nothing better for a person than knowing they are God’s beloved.
In about half an hour I’m on holidays! The question I’ll leave with you to ponder over the summer is this. If a family member, or a person you’re acquainted with is having a conversation with you and asks you, “Why do you still go to church?” – How would you respond?
How would you describe your strangely-warmed heart?
How would you describe the support and mutuality you experience from this community of faith?
How would you describe the joy that acting in loving service brings you as you participate in church ministries and other outreach things?
Their question was the crack where the light comes in. Your authentic, honest sharing of how you feel about those things is all that evangelism is. And that, my friends, is the secret. The simple and obvious answer to the question of ‘how to’ do evangelism is just two words long: Be yourself.
Be yourself – and the love of God will shine through you.
And when you’re ready to say ‘why’, it’s evangelism.