Rethinking evangelism

Bill Tammeus

Because many people now think evangelism means fundamentalists shouting on street corners, lots of mainline Protestant churches have backed away not only from the word but, sadly, from any meaningful practice of it.

Charlene Han Powell, executive pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, says she’s finally come to terms with the word and now wants to resurrect it in a way that mainliners can accept — not grudgingly, but enthusiastically.

Powell spoke about this recently to my home congregation in Kansas City, Second Presbyterian Church. What she said then (and in correspondence with me later) makes so much sense that I want to share it with you, especially if you, too, have been squeamish about even saying the word evangelism.

“Progressive evangelism,” she says, “is, first and foremost, listening to the Other, seeing the Other, honoring the Other. More important than being ‘right,’ progressive evangelism seeks to put the needs and narratives of others before yourself. After all, Jesus would have it no other way.”

Simple, right? We wish.

But many of us aren’t good at listening. Powell experienced that at some of the sessions at which she spoke in Kansas City. She endured post-retirement white males (yes, that description fits me) mansplain church matters to her, a 30s-something Korean-American.

Lots of bad listeners in the pews need training in how to get outside the church and discover what the wounded people there are crying for, whether it’s food and shelter or something more complicated like fulfilling work, treatment for stress or education for the children whom many of our schools are failing.

But we won’t hear any of that if our immediate goal is to get people to enter our church buildings, join and make a financial pledge.

Instead, we must shut up and listen. Where? In restaurants, gyms, offices, soccer fields, concert halls, public buses, crowded streets.

As we rethink evangelism, we can debate whether it means getting people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior so they won’t go to hell or whether it means what Jesus seemed to mean by the gospel, which is that God’s reign starts now and you can live in the kingdom today, experiencing mercy, joy, forgiveness and love.

Bypassing that unproductive fight, Powell suggests we ask this question: “What could possibly be good news to a person in need?” Beyond that, she argues, “When the gospel isn’t good news for everyone, it isn’t the gospel.”

The decline of mainline churches is a story at least half a century old by now. But that story can mislead people into thinking the broader church is dying. In fact, there are many examples of thriving congregations — especially those overseen by and for new immigrants.

Why? One reason is that they are better at paying attention to the needs of the community around them and to listening first before proposing old solutions.

I’ve told myself over and over throughout my life that change is hard. But only recently have I acknowledged how hard it really is and why. It’s so difficult because we often don’t first pay attention to the reality around us. We see things primarily through the tired eyes of experience, but those eyes miss a great deal of the experiences of others who haven’t shared ours but have histories of other ways of being, thinking, doing.

So, if Powell is right – and I think she is – our first task as evangelists is to use our ears and hearts, not our mouths. If we do that, we’ll have a better chance of helping others see how the gospel of Christ can meet their needs with compassion and love when we are able to share that with them.

When we speak first instead of listening, we’re not giving Jesus – whose hands, feet and ears we are – a chance.