Fear is a powerful and paralyzing force in the lives of many Christians, not least when it comes to evangelism. Here Judy Paulsen discusses how that fear can be dispelled.
Each year at Wycliffe I teach a course called the Ministry of Evangelism. It’s a required course for all students wanting to earn a Master of Divinity degree. As they enter the first class there are strips of paper in two piles on a desk, labelled ‘evangelist’ and ‘evangelee’, with an accompanying instruction to ‘take one’. Almost without fail students choose an ‘evangelee’ card, nervous that they’ll be asked to role-play as an evangelist. This year (surprisingly) I had one student who chose an ‘evangelist’ card. When I asked her why, she reported that the previous student got the last one from the other pile! In that same class the previous year, during a word association exercise, another student said the word ‘evangelist’ left him speechless, but made him feel a little sick. Yes, these are generally my students on week one.
Clearing the Stones
Much like a farmer clearing stones to get a field ready for planting, I spend the first three weeks of the course clearing away stones. The majority of students arrive already having a rather frightening view of what evangelism is and how it works; mechanistic, offensive, requiring gifts and knowledge they lack, and driven by duty and guilt. In short, evangelism is seen as something you wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy, let alone do to their best friend. Yes, my work is cut out for me.
By half way through the course we’ve dealt with the stones, and some healthy new shoots are starting to take root. They’ve learned that authentic evangelism is respectful, invitational, and most often a process based in relationship. They’ve learned that it involves as much listening as talking, and that it is always rooted in God’s own activity (often long before any part we play). They’ve considered evangelism as a corporate activity of the church, both as the gathered and dispersed community of faith. We’ve begun to explore the ecclesial practices that serve as tools for developing healthy evangelism. They’ve also all started to relax and smile more.
My favorite class though comes at week 8, when we discuss one of the class projects. For this project each student chooses three encounters Jesus has with people in the gospels. They then invite someone they know, who doesn’t belong to a church, to discuss these stories with them. Their written papers explain why they chose the passages they did, how the conversations went, and what they learned about evangelism through their interaction. You might say it’s a sort of lab assignment in evangelism. (I will always be grateful to John Bowen for initiating this project when he taught the course.)
Keep in mind that these students are the same ones many of whom at week one expressed outright fear at having to engage in evangelism. But, now, at week eight, they have the most amazing things to report in their projects. Their conversations about Jesus took place in many settings: over a pint with a good friend, over dinner with a new neighbor, in a coffee shop, on the phone, over Skype. Sometimes with a cousin, sometimes a social acquaintance, brother-in-law, or colleague. In one case, the project was conducted with a complete stranger who first wandered into Wycliffe to write an undergraduate exam.
What the student learned
The students themselves are surprised that none of these conversations felt forced or awkward. In fact, they quite enjoyed them! And what were their primary learnings? God seemed to already be at work in the lives of the people they talked with. Although unchurched, these people had genuine and often deep reflections on theological questions. They were quite happy to discuss this person Jesus. They even had some unique perspectives on Jesus’ interactions that the students themselves hadn’t thought of. In almost every case the person they had talked to was open to further discussions. In many cases friendships had begun or deepened.
My favorite learning the students reported this year was this: they didn’t need to be afraid. Evangelism didn’t need to be mechanistic or offensive. It didn’t require a brilliant giftedness or a particularly deep theoretical knowledge. It didn’t need to be conducted out of guilt or shame. And finally, it involved trusting that God would use their faithful sharing of their faith, in His good time. They were given the privilege to share God’s invitation with others, in a respectful, authentic manner. God would continue His good work in many different and surprising ways from there.
Hope for the future of the church
And what has been my learning, as a relatively new professor of evangelism? I’ve learned that evangelism CAN be taught. Well, on second thought, perhaps ‘cultivated’ is a better word. I think the gardening analogy I started with is a good one. Evangelism itself often begins with clearing stones and then involves tilling soil, planting seeds, watering, weeding, watering some more, and yes, waiting. In the same way the teaching of evangelism involves all these things too. But what a delight it’s been to witness the first green shoots sprouting, and to see healthy plants beginning to grow tall. It gives me hope for the future of the Church. If God can take a group of slightly terrified divinity students and turn them into people who can share naturally about their faith, then He can also use them to cultivate the same in the churches they will lead.
The only question that remains in my mind is this: In the midst of so many other demands being placed upon them, as leaders in often stressed and struggling churches, will they retain the intentionality it will take to actually do this work of cultivation? In a context in which the vast majority of Canadians are unchurched, the importance of growing churches that are vibrant evangelizing communities has never been more important. But they will need to remember the importance of such work. This professor of evangelism is hoping and praying that this might be so. I hope all you who read this will join in this endeavour.