|This Article is from the Winter 1999 edition of good idea!, also available here in a fully formatted PDF file.
One of my first experiences with evangelism happened in a rather backwards fashion. I was an undergraduate at a party where I was to have my first conversation with my future husband. Tim came up to me and said, “I hear you go to church.” I was caught off-guard by this remark, especially considering the number of people who might have overheard what I considered a rather indiscreet and certainly embarrassing observation. “Oh, uh, well, yes I do. It’s an Anglican Church.” One thing led to another, and Tim and I are now married!
I like to think I have traveled at least some distance since that incident, because speaking publicly about my faith does not strike me with terror to the same extent any more.
The Decade of Evangelism will have affected each of us to a different degree. For some of us evangelism may no longer be the dreaded “E word”, but it may still not be something we feel equipped to engage in. For others of us, the Decade will have spurred us on to discover ways to share the gospel both within our personal relationships and through the Christian communities in which we serve. But what now? what next? As the Decade winds down, how are we to move forward with the ministry of evangelism?
Paul writes in Philippians 3:12-14 (NRSV):
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The goal that Paul is talking about is true Christian perfection—knowing and serving Christ perfectly. The frame of mind with which Paul approaches his ultimate goal is helpful as we think about “What next?”
The first thing I notice is that Paul sincerely loves Jesus Christ and wants to do all he can to serve Christ, including evangelism. Now this may pose a problem, because my guess is that not all of us are head over heels with the idea of evangelism. While we may desire to be faithful Christians, our private prayers may still be, “Lord, anything but evangelism.”
I have a friend who, queasy at the thought of evangelism, nonetheless made it a regular prayer to ask for a love of evangelism. Because she knew she did not yet have a burning love for the task as Paul so clearly did, she sensibly decided to ask for it.
Secondly, I find the refusal of Paul to live in the past very helpful: “Forgetting what lies behind.” Our pasts, both as individuals as a church, can have spectacular moments of failure and times of triumph, either of which can paralyze us. It is easy for me to convince myself that I am not really cut out for evangelism and that my gifts clearly must lie elsewhere by recalling the many times that I have dropped the ball, kept my mouth shut, or (even worse) blundered in with some inane comment. Churches can also use their memory of evangelistic blunders as a reason for blocking fresh attempts to spread the good news that do justice to who Jesus is.
But maybe even more dangerous is the possibility that some previous attempts at sharing our faith have actually been “successful.” Paul’s evangelistic ministry was astonishingly fruitful, and yet he realized that he had not attained the goal of Christian perfection. Forgetting what lies in the past also means not allowing ourselves to be trapped in pride or complacency, patting ourselves on the back over and over again about the same shining moment when we actually said and did just the right thing. Past successes can blind us to present opportunities.
With all the people Paul had helped to encounter the living God, we would probably think him justified in taking a well-earned break. But Paul does not seem about to take a holiday! Using language probably borrowed from the athletic world—“straining forward . . . I press on”– Paul describes himself as firmly focussed on the final goal, every muscle taut and every nerve ready for the race ahead.
As we come to the end of the Decade of Evangelism, we must not allow the past to trap us. Instead, the future is right in front of us, and Luther’s words resonate both for us as individuals and for our church:
“The nature of a Christian does not lie in what you have become but in what you are becoming.”
The Rev. Jenny Andison is the assistant curate at St. Timothy’s, Agincourt, Toronto.