I am a person who cringes at the “E-word,” but not for the reasons you might think. I cringe when I hear some people claiming the term evangelism or calling themselves evangelical at the exclusion of other Christians. I believe that everyone and anyone who proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ is rightfully an evangelical – not just a certain section of the American political right. When I stand in the pulpit every week, my standard for everything I proclaim during worship is this: Am I proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ? If proclaiming the gospel to a room full of people gathered to hear that good news is not evangelism, then I don’t know what is!
Now you might say, rightly, that evangelism implies reaching beyond the fold and extending that good news to people who have not yet heard it. I also see that happening in our churches every week. I teach Sunday school to youth who are just learning what it means to be a Christian for the first time, many of whom did not grown up in the church. I watch our Sunday school teachers sing “Jesus Loves Me” with our toddler class — knowing that those words are permeating their little hearts to form the first building blocks of their faith. I look on as our ushers greet visitors and make them feel like a welcome part of God’s family.
Even churches like mine who would not be considered “evangelical” are quite good at evangelism. What we are not good at is being courageous and creative enough to take these practices of hospitality, compassion and faith-sharing outside of the walls of our church building.
Evangelism is not only about asking ourselves: How do we make sure the children in our pews know that God loves them? Evangelism is also asking ourselves: How do we make sure the children at the middle school across the street know that God loves them?
Evangelism is not only asking ourselves: How do we bring good news to our older members who can no longer drive to church? Evangelism is also involves asking: How to we bring the good news to all older people who cannot get out of their houses?
I believe evangelism is learning to color outside the lines. Evangelism is the practice of living out our faith everywhere we go, not just at church and not just among church people. We know the good news. We know how important it has been to us, and to our children, and to our parents. We even know how important it is to pass on that faith and share God’s love. Our final step towards fulfilling our call to be evangelists is to constantly challenge ourselves to wonder: Why do we so often hide the light of something so powerful and transformative under the bushel of the church instead of shining brightly for all to see?
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.