The two women who went to visit Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning are sometimes described as “the first evangelists.” Now they probably wouldn’t have thought of themselves as having a particular title like that, or being “the first” anything. They just had some really exciting news, so of course wanted to share it with their friends who would also be really excited about it: Verse 6 – “He is not here; he has been raised”; verse 8 – “they ran to tell the disciples.”
Picture yourself in their situation: wouldn’t you also want to run and tell the other people that loved Jesus that “he is not dead, he is alive”? (since you wouldn’t have your smart phone back then). The Marys would have just considered themselves to be two people who wanted to share great news with their friends.
They get called “evangelists” because that word comes from the word “evangel,” which means, literally, “good news.” And specifically, in Christian circles, the “good news” that Jesus is Lord, that he is alive, that we can know him, have a relationship with him—in short, the things they were saying to the disciples by telling them “he is risen!” They were the first to be able to share the good news that Jesus is alive, conqueror of death, proven Lord of all, and still accessible to us. So: “the first evangelists.”
When we put their story with the other parts of our Scripture lesson today – Jesus’ commission to the disciples at the end of Matthew, and Paul’s assertion to the church at Rome that the good news of the risen Lord needs to be shared – and with some other similar Bible passages, we get this pretty clear statement from Scripture: Part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ – part of responding to all that Jesus has done for us, in his life, death, and resurrection; part of being “Easter people,” like the two Marys – is to be willing to tell the story of Jesus to others. “Go make disciples of all nations,” or all peoples, teaching them what Jesus has taught us. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, but how can they call on” him unless they’ve been told about him?
You won’t find it in the Old Testament, because belief in the one true God then was still identified with being born Jewish, but throughout the New Testament, we find the message that spreading the news of Jesus Christ to other people is expected of Christians – because a knowledge of the one true God is now available to all people. Go and tell others what you have heard.
The instructions make perfect sense when we think about them just a moment: Love for our fellow human beings is a basic doctrine of Christianity. Doing things which shows our love is a basic doctrine. So how could we know the good news about Jesus Christ, and about how God can shape and order and improve one’s life, and about eternal life . . . and not share it with those we’re supposed to be loving? How could we be one of the Marys that first Easter morning, and not share the angel’s message with the other disciples? We tell others about the great new restaurant or recipe or CD or movie or video game secret we’ve found; how could we keep this most important and best news to ourselves? No wonder the Bible says “Go and tell.”
And yet we do resist going and telling the story of Jesus and Jesus’ love, don’t we? We have opportunity; a recent survey found that 38 percent of Americans could be classified as “unchurched” – about 77 million adults. The “mission field” is right here, right around us, as well as in other “nations.” But we are uncomfortable, many of us, with the idea of speaking the good news.
Arnold Lovell has tried to figure out the, quote, “ambivalence and discomfort that many Presbyterians feel about evangelism, or, the “E word.” He has found through his conversations that for many people, the discomfort comes from bad memories or bad experiences or bad images associated with the idea of evangelism, a (quote) “litany of personal and congregational experiences marked by evangelistic tactics based on fear, intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. As one person confessed, ‘I am convinced the church was seeking to speak a word of hope and good news, a word I needed to hear, but the style and arrogance it used got in the way. The message was lost because of the method’: chanting Hare Krishnas in airports, too-aggressive Jehovah’s Witnesses, shouting hell-fire preachers gasping for air and sweating in their white polyester leisure suits, Mormons on bicycles, scandals involving televangelists, and the apocalyptic visions of Jim Jones and David Koresh” – end of quote.
Perhaps it’s because of these negative associations that we’ve become pretty good at coming up with excuses. 62 percent in a survey of Presbyterians responded that “well, almost everybody from my community already belongs to a church,” or wouldn’t be interested in my church because they’re from a different cultural or ethnic group. 56 percent said most of their members liked their church the way it was, and didn’t want to grow too much and risk not knowing everyone, or the changes in worship style newcomers might want: New people might bring in new ideas, after all.
So while 90 percent in another survey of Presbyterians said that the church ought to be “preparing Presbyterians to be better able to communicate their faith to others,” only 29 percent of those church members—the same people!—said they would be interested in getting prepared themselves. 90% “we should”; 71% “but not me.” And when specific ideas about how to do evangelism were listed, from holding evangelism rallies to producing evangelistic radio commercials, every single idea had fewer than 50 percent saying they’d be willing to devote resources to that project.
We’re ready to endorse the concept of evangelism, but find a way to reject every suggestion that actually involves us in doing evangelism.
So maybe what we need to do is get some new images, some good ones, some that don’t scare us away, associated with evangelism. If we had some positive memories and positive experiences, maybe we wouldn’t look for excuses. Andrew Weeks, for example, a writer and conductor of evangelism conferences, challenges people to “remake” their image of the word. Go back to what it means, for one thing: all that the word “evangelism” literally means, as we have said, is “good news”; let’s try to strip away all our negative memories, and realize all we’re talking about is good news. Or picture the word with the middle letters capitalized – the A-N-G-E-L. Think of yourself as a quiet “angel,” bringing God’s message. “Many people have caught me at a subsequent coffee hour,” he writes, “and told me in a mock conspiratorial tone that while they will never be evangelists, they are ready to be angels.”
So we don’t have to wear leisure suits, or Hare Krishna robes, or go door-to-door – drop all those pictures, if they’re distasteful to you.
We also don’t have to go overseas and live in a tent in a jungle, like the picture of missionaries many of us still carry around in our heads; we’ve heard: there are plenty of people around us who are unchurched. And we don’t have to shout about hellfire and brimstone either, though I imagine you can try that if you want. Because study after study shows that 70 to 90 percent of new people attend or join churches because they were invited by a relative or friend. The reason 70 to 90 percent of new people attend or join a church is because they were invited by a relative or friend. That’s what it took; that’s what was most important – just an invitation.
We can do all the TV or radio advertising we want, design glossy brochures, have 12-week classes on how to do evangelism, put in a bigger parking lot; I can shape every single word of every sermon perfectly, so mine are like Laurie’s; we can conduct extensive market research. . . but 70 to 90 percent of new people attend or join a church because they were invited by a relative or friend. That’s the main thing it takes: inviting someone to come with you.
Lovell offers this definition of evangelism: “any form of communication which helps move or lead a person into faith in, or greater depth of relationship with, Jesus Christ.” No particular formula, no particular clothing, no particular words you have to use. Be yourself, and invite them to come with you. Andrew Weeks reinforces the point that this is something anyone can do; in fact, it’s more effective when a church member does it than when the pastor does. A newcomer greeted or welcomed by only a clergy person will return to a church less than twenty percent of the time, whereas eighty-five percent welcomed by a church member return. Invitations by clergy don’t impress them – “he has to do that; it’s his job.” It’s like being told a restaurant is great, Weeks says, by its owner. But when a member reaches out, a newcomer takes that as a sign of genuine and voluntary enthusiasm. Then, they want to give the place a try.
Now we also have a job to do here as a church; going out and inviting people isn’t all there is to it. We have to be ready when they come; we have to have quality worship and good programs and friendly people. We do have to work on what’s here, to be ready. But the main ingredient is the invitation.
There is one distinction we have to make, to be responsible in our discussion of evangelism today. That is: evangelism and church growth are not necessarily the same thing. Imagine that tomorrow, Monday, your next door neighbor, or co-worker at the office, confides in you that things aren’t going well lately, just don’t feel right—that there’s no joy in her life. She tells you she has noticed that you, on the other hand, seem to be pretty content, confident, and together – what’s your secret? You recognize that this is a perfect opportunity to tell her about the sense of peace and assurance that comes through your faith in Jesus. And by the power of God’s grace, she comes through your words to say “I want to be a Christian, too” –and then she tells you that next Sunday she’s going to start attending, with her mother, Otterbein Methodist Church, where her mother’s a member. “Mom will be so happy; she’s been trying to get me to come with her for years.”
Well congratulations! That’s good evangelism! Paris Presbyterian Church didn’t happen to grow in numbers that day, but you have shared good news, spread the Easter message, been an evangelism “angel.” You’ve done well.
Then on Tuesday, new people move in two doors away from you, you get to talking with them while the movers are carrying things in from the van, and they tell you “We just loved our Presbyterian Church where we lived in Kentucky, never missed a Sunday. Do you happen to know of a Presbyterian Church we could attend here?” And you say, “I certainly do; come to my church. We have a beautiful building and wonderful choir and great programs and . . . marginally-adequate preaching;” and they come, and they love it, and our membership grows—that’s “church growth” – but it isn’t really evangelism, because they already knew the “good news” about Jesus, and had a relationship with him. Growing one particular community isn’t the same thing as helping people hear for the first time the story of Jesus’ love. “Are you trying to fill empty pews,” Weeks asks, “or empty lives?”
Now often the two goals work together; often inviting someone to come to church with you is an effective way to get them started toward that relationship with Jesus – so we can certainly work on both at once.
Let’s “take back,” then, rescue, from all those negative images, the idea of evangelism. Forget the hypocritical TV preachers, the too-pushy Mormons, anything that makes you shudder when you think of evangelism. Rather: Be an angel. Be yourself. Be honest when someone asks you why you se
em to be a hopeful person; or what you did this weekend – tell them you went to church. Ask them if they’d like to come with you some time. Give them some “good news,” when the time is right. Let’s recover the real meaning of evangelism, do it our way and carry out what Jesus said.
Let’s pray: God as we continue to rejoice in the good news of Easter and think about our response to that news, remind us to include in that response taking advantage of any opportunity we have to share that good news with others; to invite them to come with us to this place of good news; to be joyful Easter people and “Easter angels.” Amen