Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The 'E' Word

Yesterday evening was the reorganization of our Evangelism Committee after what I believe is close to a 2-year layoff. I admit that evangelism is a growing edge for me due to its stigma and its uncomfortable nature. I've been jaded by evangelistic tactics I've seen used; how alienating and even injurious it can be. And being a Midwestern guy to begin with, my politeness runneth over.

In addition, the term 'Evangelical' has taken on a stigma with which many do not want to be associated. Nowadays it is identified with a particular theopolitical ideology. Say any variation of the word 'evangelism' in certain circles and either watch people clam up or get set to hear a rant on how 'they' are hijacking our country. I'm the last to defend 'them,' but my point is that the 'e' word has been given such a narrow definition in recent years that salvaging it at this point has already been deemed a pointless endeavor.

So I sat among a few congregants last night and attempted to present as best I could a definition of evangelism. 'Evangelism' comes from the Greek root evangelon, translated 'gospel,' or 'good news.' To evangelize is to share the good news.

Many churches link evangelism with membership recruitment. A popular concept of evangelism is to get more people in the door, and sometimes the good news gets sacrificed for appeal. But I've ranted about that before.

This past weekend I visited a church in inner city Cleveland. It was a UCC church, out of the Congregational heritage; a traditional mainline building that had seen better days. The sanctuary ceiling was suffering from severe water spots, some areas peeling and black. The pews were dusty, the carpet a shade of green probably popular in the 60s. You could tour the rest of the building on old hardwood floors, and view classroom upon classroom in various states of usage and populated by classic Sunday School furniture: worn couches, ugly plaid chairs, and rickety tables. The church's membership has dwindled and greyed over the years, and as I stood in the sanctuary I imagined a time when the room was almost overflowing, including the balcony. But the days in which good faithful WASP-Cleaver types filled this house of worship (like so many others) are gone. The neighborhood demographic has changed, along with views of mainline Protestantism. Some may pronounce this church 'dying,' or worse yet, 'dead.'

What sort of ways might the good news be shared by this inner city church now? Neighborhood missions. Breathing new life into their worship. Listening to the people around them who might look to the church as a beacon of hope in a run-down area. Everyone, upon walking through this church's doors, will have their own theory. But where they must begin is with the good news, and how best to embody it in their time and place. They don't have the luxury of building a large campus just outside the city limits where it's safe, and they don't have to. Instead, the good news is for their neighborhood, and they are bearers of it, just as small country churches are for local farmers and just as small town churches are for their villagers. But that entails trusting that it truly has power to transform.