Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it? How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Jerrod Lowry
On a beautiful spring day when the tulips are blooming, the wind is cold, and the sun is hot; on a smoldering summer day when desert winds leave everything parched and dry; even in the winter when snow has blanketed the mountains peaks and the valley floor, you can find Mormons doing evangelism. I would be shocked if there were just one day in the state of Utah that I did not see two men dressed in white shirts, black suits, and neck ties out and about doing the work of the LDS Church, evangelizing. If you don’t live in Utah, if you don’t know much about the LDS Church, if you don’t know who Joseph Smith was, if you don’t know about Maroni, chances are you will still know Mormon missionaries when you see them. Before moving to Utah, all I knew about Mormons was that they send out their young men to evangelize. So when I accepted the call to serve Community of Grace PC(USA), located in the backyard of the international headquarters for the LDS Church, I decided that I needed to prepare myself for what I imagined would be an onslaught of aggressive evangelism efforts from Mormon missionaries.
To say that evangelism is important to Mormons is a gross understatement. There are nearly 70,000 mormon missionaries doing evangelism all over the world. Most are young men. However, according to Joanna Brooks, blogger and author of “The Book of Mormon Girl,” nearly ⅓ of new Mormon missionaries are female. She credits the recent influx of young “well scrubbed, well dressed young Mormon women [missionaries]” to a rule change that allows women to do missionary service at age 19 instead of waiting until age 21. Mormons, young and old, married and single, volunteer for the chance to evangelize the world as Mormon missionaries because evangelism is important to the LDS Church.
Mormon missionaries can work for up to two years and are financed with funds raised by the missionary before leaving for service. When they return a crowd gathers at the airport with banners and balloons to welcome them home and the returning missionary’s name is placed on a plaque in their local ward (congregation). Mormons do not have to do a mission, but those who do are highly honored. Since moving to Utah, I’ve experienced elementary school children speak enchantingly about when the day arrives for them to “go on their mission.” I have had high school aged kids in my congregation say they wish that we offered a similar mission experience. I have even heard of young couples who have such high regard for their mission opportunity they plan their wedding date following a return from their Mormon mission. The missionary work of evangelism is a big deal to Mormons and because they are so dominant in this state, evangelism is a big deal in this state. Where else will you turn on the local evening news and hear, as the lead story, that some tragedy has befallen those doing evangelism while on their Mormon mission?
While I certainly disagree with much of the Mormon theology and doctrine, I applaud their zeal for making evangelism such a priority for their faith community. And when some Mormon missionaries knock on my door, I’ll welcome them and tell them how impressed I am with the commitment they have made. In contrast I think evangelism is prized from afar in Christian circles. In general, we think evangelism is important and someone should do it. I will confess that I have been guilty of thinking that I do not have enough knowledge to engage someone in a question about their faith. I believe, and my beliefs make great sense to me, but how do I convince someone else to believe as I do? Regarding Christian evangelism, some have shared that their hesitation is based on the idea that faith is as a personal and private matter. Evangelism for those who feel this way seems like intruding and prying into someone else’s deeply personal space. And there’s the apathetic approach to evangelism. “What business is it of mine to question your faith,” some may wonder.
However, I wonder if we are needlessly consumed with apprehension thinking about all it may take to convince someone to believe as I do. There is nothing wrong with approaching evangelism as a tool that grows the Kingdom of God or a particular congregation. Evangelism is often seen as the necessary work toward larger worship attendance or church membership. And if all of our exhaustive evangelism efforts lead to increased numbers, then we believe we have successfully done the work of evangelism.
But what if we reframed evangelism to simply be the invitation? What if evangelism is not about whether they accept the invitation, but simply defined as the offering of the invitation? What if evangelism is not about church membership, worship numbers, or making someone believe as I do? I wonder if it would be helpful to think about evangelism as just the invitation and not even the conversation that takes place after the invitation is offered. What if evangelism is simply the invitation to walk with me, talk with me, wrestle with me, join me on my journey of faith?
If evangelism is simply the extended invitation, then, I imagine the Samaritan woman at the well would be an excellent example of an evangelist. After her encounter with Jesus, she runs to her hometown with an invitation. “Come meet the man who has told me all about myself,” she says. She does not go into much detail. She does not tell them what this man has revealed to her about herself. She does not argue with people about why they should stop doing what they are doing to accept her invitation. She does not tell people they would be wrong if they did not accept her invitation. She does not say they have to believe as she does. She simply offers an invitation to “come and see.” Many accept her invitation and walk with her despite what they think about her. Nevertheless she extends an invitation that places her and the town’s people, who may think little of her, on a journey together. It’s no coincidence that Rev. Clinton Marsh, moderator of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) in 1973, would use this same story as the foundation for his book “Evangelism is…”. This Samaritan woman is a powerful and successful evangelist because she invites an entire town to journey with her.
If evangelism is the invitation, then we must also consider Jesus’ invitation to the disciples as evangelism. He invites them to drop their nets and follow him on a journey. Everything that happens after the invitation is extended could be considered faith formation or discipleship making, if evangelism is just the invitation. And we even have an example of Jesus’ efforts at evangelism being rebuffed by the “rich young ruler” who passes on the invitation. Nevertheless, the invitation was extended an evangelism success.
If evangelism is the invitation to join me on a journey, then we will surely experience acceptance and rejection as Jesus did. Reframing the definition of evangelism does not protect us from rejection. Reframing the definition of evangelism, however, means that success is solely in our hands as the ones extending the invitation. All I have to do is be bold enough to be vulnerable as I invite someone to walk with me, talk with me, wrestle with me, join me on my journey of faith. This also means I do not have to be as concerned with what I know or do not know. I am actually free to confess that I do not know everything. I am free to admit that I struggle to believe certain things and it may very well be that as we walk together and talk together that we both begin to understand and see clearly what I could not see before. If I am offering you an invitation, I do not have to be your teaching tour guide on this journey, we are cotravellers.
As I wrestle with this definition of evangelism, I invite you to join me. An altered definition of evangelism sounds like it would be more appealing to our modern selfish individualism. It could appeal to us as inviters but also empower those invited. It would also mean we need to redefine and be more intentional about how we walk together and wrestle over matters without being contentious. And I’ll admit there are things about this definition of evangelism that I do not like. Join me. Let’s talk about it. If evangelism is more than an invitation to walk together, it at least begins with this simple yet tricky step. And if evangelism is the invitation, then it coincides with the long held understanding that evangelism is our first intentional step on a lengthy faith journey. A journey, the African Ancestors remind us, we must walk together because we have far to go.
Jerrod B. Lowry, a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Utah, pastors Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy. He hails from Augusta, GA. Before coming to his current church, Jerrod was the pastor of Saint Paul Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, NC and the Associate for Specialized Ministries for the Presbytery of New Hope. Jerrod is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.