Come journey with me towards an unknown future. Do what the poem bids: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” (“The Gate of the Year,” or “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins) Follow the star to a Bethlehem stable … and beyond. Since moving to the Boston area approximately a decade year ago our son Nathan has been actively involved in a local church. (For the record, it is not United Methodist but for the purposes of this blog could just as easily have been so.) He has served on their version of the Administrative Council and been church treasurer for two terms. He’s sung in the choir and engaged in education, stewardship and missions. He loves his local church but on marrying about a 1 ½ years ago, Nathan and Abigail (our daughter-in-law, who likewise was active in her local church) decided to find a new church home together that was closer to their new home. As my son was finishing his term of leadership, the church’s beloved pastor of many years announced that he was leaving to accept a new assignment in Florida. Additionally the church was hit with news of some potentially devastating financial consequences (structural damage on the building). Over the years the endowment had gradually been spent down as the congregation slowly declined in membership. Financially, the viability of the congregation has now been called into question. Their beloved church is now facing the real possibility of closure. For decades they have declined to engage in evangelism. Concepts of witness, conversion and faith-sharing simply weren’t a part of the church theology or culture. They were built as a congregation for Christendom. The general church culture of their area was expected to provide for the next generation. But, as we well know, in our post Christendom age, this simply is not happing. The unattractive dilemma they face is simple and straightforward:
- They have declined to the point where brining in new members is a matter of survival.
- Evangelism, sharing the good news of salvation in Christ and bringing in the next generation, is critical if all the good missional activities of love, justice and mercy are to continue.
- Their theology, while technically believing in evangelism and witness, doesn’t really encourage such activities and/or in principle doesn’t believe in evangelism, the need for conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, membership in His body, the church, and salvation.
- The Pastor, so excellent, wonderful and faithful in pastoral care, worship spiritual formation and mission outreach, does not know how to engage in evangelism and is allergic to even learning how to do so. [In fairness to the pastor, who really is a wonderful faithful Christian, he comes out of a Christian faith tradition that does not know how to share evangelism and is also allergic to doing so.]
- The laity share the same allergic response to evangelism.
- Questions abound about when persuasion becomes manipulation to such an extreme degree that any kind of persuasion is view as manipulation (however light and gentle!) and results in a conviction that attempts at conversion are unethical.
- Yet this church will not survive without strong evangelistic engagement! It either gets in the conversion business or dies (and their great good works of love, justice and mercy die with them)!
- Because of what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has done to redeem us;
- And, because others cared enough to share the good news and lead us (persuade us!) in the way of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.