Evangelism in the Ecumenical Context
At its root, the word ‘evangelism’, simply means spreading good news. For Christians, this usually means spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. In recent years, Google and other businesses have co-opted the word; for example, having employees called ‘Google evangelists’, whose job it is to spread the good news of Google!
However, for many in our mainline Protestant churches, the word evangelism doesn’t evoke thoughts of good tidings. On the contrary, discussion of evangelism often conjures negative images of overbearing, angry, argumentative, inauthentic, manipulative, and impersonal practices carried out by the so-called evangelist.
When I travel around the country, I often meet people in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who are surprised that we even have a national Office of Evangelism (We do, for the record! It’s located within the Presbyterian Mission Agency). I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard people ask, “Presbyterians don’t really believe in evangelism, do they?” I think people are even more surprised when they find out that I am part of an ecumenical group called Evangelism Connections that represents twelve North American mainline denominations.
Our ecumenical collaboration and cooperation flies in the face of the (mis)conception held by many that evangelism is all about trying to add members to our own denominational ranks.
We the members of Evangelism Connections are seeking to help our denominations rediscover and reclaim the importance of a holistic perspective of evangelism. A perspective that breaks down the traditional dichotomy between evangelism and justice that has long existed in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other mainline denominations. We are seeking to reclaim that perspective – a perspective of evangelism that is authentic, and honest and winsome. We seek to practice – and in turn help our denominations practice – an evangelism that is about proclamation and actions that witnesses to Jesus Christ and to God’s mission of healing, wholeness, justice, and redemption in our lives, our families, our communities, and our world. My involvement with Evangelism Connections has helped me in my own work in our denomination to help our churches/worshiping communities and those that are a part of them to rediscover and reclaim the importance of evangelism, disciple formation, and missional life.
Evangelism Connections began as the Evangelism Unit of the National Council of Churches. National staff representatives from a number of denominations who had evangelism in their in their portfolio with gathered around this table to help and support one another. In 1996, in consultation with the National Council of Churches, the members of this table decided to start an independent group, which was named Evangelism Connections. The members of this group include representatives from: the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the American Baptist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Church of the Brethren, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. The group meets twice a year for a number of days, alternating meeting places at the various national offices of the denominational members.
Our most recent Evangelism Connections meeting took place in Nashville in early November. Seven of us were able to be present: Michael Blair from the United Church in Canada; Peter Bush from the Presbyterian Church, Canada; Adele Halliday from the United Church of Canada; Bruce Laverman from the Reformed Church in America; Heather Lear from the United Methodist Church; Brenda Smith from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and myself, David Loleng, from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I took some time during our meeting to ask the other members present to reflect on the importance of the ecumenical connections that Evangelism Connections provides.
The original vision began by asking the question, “What can we do together that we can’t do by ourselves?”
Michael Blair with the United Church of Canada framed the importance of the ecumenical cooperation, collaboration, and support, stating, “The ecumenical movement has been driven by Jesus’ prayer that, ‘all may be one’. The mission that we have been called to is bigger than any one of us, and the impetus to engage God’s mission, even with our differences, helps us engage in a more wholesome way and strengthen each other like ‘iron sharpening iron.’”
Our ecumenical collaboration and cooperation flies in the face of the (mis)conception held by many that evangelism is all about trying to add members to our own denominational ranks – “sheep stealing” to use an often-invoked biblical image. Heather Lear with the United Methodist Church shared about her experience when she invited two other members of Evangelism Connections (Brenda Smith with the ELCA and Jonathan Shively with the Church of the Brethren) to talk to a seminary class she was teaching about their faith practices and perspectives on evangelism. Heather told us, “The relationship shared by the three of us modeled partnership for the students and demonstrated concrete ways to work with others in the communities where they will be serving…Our own ecumenical collaboration is setting an example that says it’s okay for us to use resources from other denominations and to wrestle with theological perspectives different than our own.”
The sharing of resources and experience is one of the most important aspects of the connection between the members of Evangelism Connections. As Bruce Laverman with the Reformed Church of America (the longest serving member of Evangelism Connections) remarked, “The original vision began by asking the question, ‘What can we do together that we can’t do by ourselves?’ Nobody can cover all of the bases, and we need to work cooperatively…one person might do a good piece on rural evangelism and another works really well in urban ministries etc. Ultimately, the idea is to broaden the use of resources that already exist beyond our own individual denominations.”
I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard people ask, “Presbyterians don’t really believe in evangelism, do they?”
This is especially important as trends of dwindling staff and financial resources continue in all the denominations involved. As Peter Bush with the Presbyterian Church in Canada says, “We couldn’t produce the resources by ourselves that we have through our connections with this group.” Sharing of experiences and ideas is also a valuable part of Evangelism Connections. As Adele Halliday with the United Church of Canada stated, “Our interactions and conversations with each other spark ideas, insights, and discussion that can help us to experiment and to implement what others are doing within our own context.”
Brenda Smith with the Evangelical Lutheran Church said that one of the benefits of being part of this group is that it provides a support system with others doing similar work. I would agree; in the past four years that I have been with the group, I have found that the relationships we have built go deeper than simply sharing what is happening in our denominational contexts but also sharing what is happening in our own lives. A couple of the members of Evangelism Connections mentioned their surprise at the level of trust and the depth of honesty and even vulnerability in the way we sharing with one another. A few members stated that they found this level of relationship and collegiality to be rare. They said that these relationships benefit not only us individually, but also our our respective denominations through the knowledge that each member has that there is a group that is praying for, supporting, and even cheering them along. One member even said that it was like being a member of a team instead of feeling like you are all alone in your work.
As a member of Evangelism Connections, it has helped to hear the similar challenges other denominations are experiencing. What has been a pleasant surprise is also hearing the ways in which denominations, churches, and individuals in those churches are engaging our ever-changing cultural landscape. Simply put, it’s a way for me to see God’s activity in the world. I consistently hear about how churches in different denominations are witnessing in word and action in their communities through ministries of compassion, advocacy, and bold proclamation of Christ. It is exciting for me to hear the stories of people outside of the church coming to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is uplifting to hear about how churches and people are addressing the core issues of poverty, homelessness, mental illness, racism, the environment – and a whole host of other issues.
The mission that we have been called to is bigger than any one of us…we strengthen each other like “iron sharpening iron.”
As I mentioned above, Evangelism Connections meets to share stories, updates, ideas, support, and denominational resources. We also work together to create and provide resources for those who are looking for help in the areas of evangelism or faith sharing, discipleship, and missional life and ministry. We continue to maintain a website, www.evangelismconnections.org, filled with links to resources, denominational events, and best practices. Part of this website is the “EvangeLectionary”, a weekly set of online reflections and worship helps that give insight into the lectionary texts from an evangelism perspective. We have also collaborated on a Joint Evangelism Round Table Video Discussion, asking “What Does Evangelism Look Like in a 21st Century Context?” In the future, we are planning on hosting regional ecumenical evangelism training events.
Evangelism Connections is only one example of the need for cooperation and collaboration among denominations rather than competition and isolation. After all, we are all working for the furthering of the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the transformation of lives and communities.
I am convinced that God is still at work and in fact is on a mission of healing, wholeness, justice, and redemption. What’s more, I believe that God is still calling us to be a part of that mission. Evangelism Connections has helped me to see beyond my own Presbyterian context and seek out new answers to the question, “What is God up to?”
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. David Loleng has over 20 years of ministry experience in Presbyterian Churches, most recently as a pastor in a large Presbyterian Church in Southern California for nearly 9 years. He was called to be the Associate for Evangelism for the PC(USA) Presbyterian Mission Agency in January of 2010. He is co-author of the Engage Resource, the Engage Curriculum and the Engage Online Training Course. Dave has presented at conferences, camps, synods, presbyteries, retreats, and churches nationally about evangelism, discipleship, missional life, and culture. Dave is married and has two young children. Dave’s hobbies include book collecting and taking long walks…to the refrigerator.