When I was in seminary, a couple of young men from a Bible school knocked on my apartment door one day. They had only one question for me. “Do you know, beyond of the shadow of a doubt that if you died tonight, you would go to heaven?”
Of course, this is not how Jesus shared the good news. His opening line never built on fear, but rather a willingness to see God at work, for example, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6).
The ones whom Jesus warns of hellfire are the religious leaders who already believe in God, not “sinners.” I know I felt rather superior to these seminarians because they were doing it all wrong. I was proud of the fact that this is not how Lutherans talk about the gospel — as a ticket for avoiding hellfire and brimstone.
But beyond using scare-tactics, these young men did something else Lutherans rarely do. They were willing to talk to someone they didn’t already know about Jesus.
In the congregations I have served, evangelism committee meetings too often consisted of trying to figure out how to “get the word out” about our congregation — or how to welcome people who visit our church — rather than finding ways to get us out of the door to meet people!
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting everyone start “cold-calling,” knocking on doors. I am not sure this is what Jesus had in mind when he sent the disciples out two by two. In fact, Jesus assumes they will be staying awhile (Matthew 10:11). (And to be clear — I am not suggesting this, either!).
Evangelism outside the zone
What I am suggesting is that evangelism begins with a willingness to get outside of our comfort zones, to get to know people who don’t already go to church, your neighbors and the neighbors who live around your church.
Many of them have not heard the gospel or seen it in action. As members of Christ’s body, it is our calling to share the good news with all people.
It is a lot easier to come up with a marketing plan for your church or to learn how to better welcome people to your house of worship, than it is to venture out into the unknown and meet new people.
This is a scary idea for most of us, because of the fears we have that keep us from sharing the gospel with others: fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of being rejected, fear of sounding stupid or fear of being misunderstood.
If we are honest, the real fear factor keeping us inside the four walls of our congregations is not out there — as the reboot of the NBC show, “Fear Factor” suggests — but inside of us.
The theme for this summer’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly is “Freed in Christ to Serve.” In Galatians 5:13, Paul is clear what we have been freed for: We have been called to live in freedom — not freedom to satisfy our sinful nature, but freedom to serve one another in love.
The good news is that Christ frees us from the bondage to self and all of those things that keep us trapped in ourselves, including our fears.
As we prepare to celebrate the freedom our country enjoys as a sovereign nation this Fourth of July, let us remember the true freedom that grounds our lives as disciples of Christ: the freedom in Christ to serve others and share the good news, as well as the freedom from those things that keep us from doing so.
Thanks be to God!
Cheryl M. Peterson is associate professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary where she has taught since 2005. Prior to that, she served in parish ministry for 12 years. She is writing a book on ecclesiology.