After the service I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some salmon to grill for dinner. The woman at the fish counter, when she saw the smudge on my forehead, exclaimed, “Oh, you must be a Christian.”
The sad thing is, that I have been shopping at that store for years. Only now had she discovered that I am a follower of Jesus. This kind of experience might be true for many ELCA members, so I share with you my thoughts about evangelism.
“Evangel” is a New Testament word which is translated “gospel” in old English and “good news” today. For ELCA members, the “evangel,” Good News, is first and foremost Jesus.
Next, the good news is about Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And finally, the good news is that this victory, won by Christ, is graciously given to us by God, received in faith. We don’t earn it, nor do we deserve it. God gives us this gift because God loves us.
Why should we share Jesus?
The sharing of the good news is called evangelism or evangelization. Now the question might be asked, why should we go to the bother of sharing Jesus with others?
The short answer is: God asks us to do so. There are many places in the Bible where we read about God’s command to share the good news about Jesus. Perhaps the most frequently quoted comes from Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all.”
We also share this with others, because we have good news, and the world is longing for what we have. Watch the evening news and you will quickly see what I mean. The world is longing for good news, for Jesus.
How should we share Jesus?
Now the big question is, how do we share this good news?
Do we share it by doing actions of mercy and justice? Yes!
Do we share the good news by witnessing to our faith in terms of what Jesus means to us? Yes!
Do we share the good news by using media and social networking to get the message out? Yes!
Do we share the good news by being peacemakers and bridge builders in our communities? Yes!
Jesus made invitations
But the process for sharing the good news that I am encouraging is called “invitational evangelism.” It is what Jesus himself did: “Come and see” and “Follow me.” Jesus made invitations.
Invitational evangelism is based upon community, hospitality, discipleship and vocations. God has graciously given us everything we need to be faithful in this ministry of invitation.
So, our first task in evangelization is to invite people to come to church where the word is preached, the sacraments are administered and where the community of believers gather. It is in this context, the church, where we meet Jesus and learn to follow him.
Whom should we invite? We could invite all first-time visitors who attend worship to come back again next Sunday. We could invite all new residents in the community to attend worship or a church function. We could invite friends, family, neighbors, fellow workers and classmates to come to worship.
We could invite the inactive members to come back. We could invite those who are served by our congregation, but are not members, such as the preschool families and Boy Scouts, to come to worship.
After we invite, we must pay attention to the matter of hospitality. What if a visitor actually shows up?
I suggest that when you are out of town on vacation and attending worship, take notes as to how you were made to feel as a visitor. What made you feel uncomfortable, and what made you feel welcome? Implement these observations in your home congregation.
Evangelism includes discipleship
But it doesn’t stop with someone just showing up. Evangelism is about both breadth and depth. The depth is called discipleship.
God has given us spiritual disciplines to assist us in our walk of discipleship, some of these are: prayer, service, giving, worship, encouragement, Scripture and witness/invite. It is important that congregations provide lots of opportunities to engage in these faith-deepening disciplines.
Members of the ELCA like to talk about vocations. When we are more intentional about witnessing to Christ in our vocations — daily rounds of job, school, family, community, home and grocery store — then we will become, as St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us”(5:20).
The work of evangelism is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. So let us pray urgently and constantly that God would renew God’s people, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by making disciples of all.
Gary M. Wollersheim is bishop of the Northern Illinois Synod, Rockford, and has served in that role since 1998. Wollersheim has served as pastor of three congregations and is passionate about evangelism. He enjoys fishing, hiking and reading in his spare time.