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The E Word

September 25, 2017

“The E Word” Isaiah 55:1-13, Acts 8:26-40, Matthew 4:12-22 © 9.24.17 (PC[USA] Evangelism Sunday) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A one-panel comic I once saw pictured a man with his eyes bulging out and his hands over his ears as if he had heard something obscene and terribly offensive, like a profanity uttered in the presence of children. His mouth was wide open as he screamed: “Oh, no! Not evangelism!”

How many of us, upon hearing the word “evangelism,” react as the cartoon character did or nearly so? We want to close our ears, gasp in shock, order the speaker to hush. The “E word,” “the E bomb,” like some of those others we refer to only their initials, is not something to be used in polite company, especially in the formerly mainline, now offline, church.

Odd, isn’t it, that we regard almost as vulgar a word that means simply “telling good news”? How did the best news in the world, a message of peace, love, and justice, get to be something so perverted and mean, and telling it the equivalent of uttering nasty words? Perhaps it’s because we don’t typically define “evangelism” in a positive way, and we leave it to others to fill it with content. For example, we may think of evangelism as the ranting of some huckster tent preacher followed by an endless altar call to the strains of “Just As I Am,” played over and over. Or maybe it’s the sort of thing I engaged in at the University of Georgia with a para-church group whose name you would recognize. I would cold call an unsuspecting fellow college student, claiming I wanted to come by and conduct a survey. But what I actually intended to do was read him a little booklet of four spiritual principles, which the group called “laws,” and invite him to accept Jesus. In business, that’s called “bait and switch” or less kindly, a “scam.” There wasn’t really a survey, and the results were never going to be published. It could be that evangelism feels too much like invading somebody’s else’s privacy. Religion is personal, and none of us, we say, has any right to impose our viewpoint on another. Finally, we may be afraid of being painted with the same brush as Christians who are not particularly sensitive and loving when they preach and share what they regard as the gospel. We don’t want to be lumped in with “those” believers. Too late! Our inaction and silence in the traditional churches has allowed fundamentalists to step in, take over, and convince the culture that all Christians are as objectionable, intolerant, and hypocritical as they are routinely perceived to be by the very people they are trying to reach.

Can we please take back that good word “evangelism”? It’s not some perverse or hateful practice. Evangelism is simply sharing our story with Jesus Christ with someone asking and looking for answers. It’s listening seriously to concerns and needs instead of foisting our agenda. It’s telling another who asks how we found resources for coping even with life’s most desperate moments. Evangelism is being alert to an opportunity to help another solve or at least deal with a puzzling problem. It’s communicating excitement about being part of a vibrant church and inviting a friend to worship. It’s being a person of character and conscience in these days when lying, stealing, killing, and generally acting with disregard for one’s neighbor are so common. Evangelism is serving those in need at the Food Pantry or with Meals on Wheels. It’s giving care to God’s creatures, blessing them in a service or loving them at home. Evangelism is both word and deed. As St. Francis said: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” We may not even mention the name of Jesus, but we act, we speak, as his people.

Evangelism at root is not about strategies for growth or cool music or what a pastor does. It isn’t about getting new church members so they can prop up a declining institution’s self-image and budget. Instead, it’s about what’s in our hearts.

What’s in our hearts, first of all, toward Jesus Christ. Is Jesus Lord of all your life and mine? Is he more important than anyone or anything? Can we say with the songwriter “I love him more than anyone I know?” Are we as excited about our relationship with Jesus as we are about our favorite ball team or reality TV show? Does it feel as if we will burst if we can’t tell someone about the love of Jesus? Is faith really no big deal, a “may-omit” part of life? Or is our faith in Christ an essential, what pulls us through the tough times and makes the glad times even sweeter? Then we have a witness to bear, a word to share. Like Philip in the desert, we need to trust the Spirit to lead and empower us to speak to someone who is struggling to understand, who is seeking the Way. We need to listen to the voice of our Lord summoning each of us to go into all the world, starting right where we live, as he did in Galilee, when he called disciples by the seashore. We cry out with the prophet: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Seek the Lord while he may be found.”

If evangelism is about what’s in our hearts toward Jesus, it’s also about what’s in our hearts toward our neighbors. In a word, hospitality. We build relationships with people in our circle of influence and earn respect and trust, so that when we sense the time is right to share our faith with someone and ask about theirs, the conversation is welcome, rather than seen as an intrusion or confrontation.

That’s personal evangelism and hospitality. If we’re talking about the welcome of a community of faith, then evangelism is greeting all who come to God’s house as warmly as we would visitors to our own. It’s seeing to their needs, respecting their viewpoints, catering to their tastes, doing whatever we can to assure that they feel important and cared for. Think of a restaurant you would stand in line for. Why would you do that? When you answer that question, then you know the kind of hospitality and service a congregation needs to provide to attract people and keep them coming back.

Practicing evangelistic hospitality might mean listening even to those who criticize and challenge our personal beliefs as well as the church, both from without and within. A number of years ago, a religion reporter in Owensboro, KY showed deep hospitality in an article titled “Wiccans have a few things they could teach Christians.” Wiccans, you know, are pagans, whose religion is nature-based. One paragraph especially struck me as I read the article. It concerned a now-pagan girl who got kicked out of church for “‘asking why God had to have a curly silver beard…Why couldn’t he have been a she?’” Imagine. Kicked out for asking a question. The writer observed: “Perhaps the girl phrased her question in a smart aleck way. Still, you have to wonder: Would her life be different today if someone had taken her questions seriously?”

In the same issue of the paper there was a piece about Methodist youth attending the General Conference. You could have changed the denomination name and had a description of youth in any mainline church. One kid said: “The church will die if it doesn’t start paying attention to the youth.” Said the reporter: “The young delegates, much like their non-Methodist peers, are searching for a church that is relevant to their lives, speaks to their needs and is open to discussion on hard questions. Whatever the issue, these delegates say they just want to be heard.” In other words, they wanted to be treated with gracious hospitality.

More recently, in 2011, at C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, leaders began to pray and read scripture together. They enlisted hundreds of volunteers to work with Impact Charlotte, a service ministry that included a one-stop shop where the homeless could get a shave, a haircut, and free clothing. One man told a barber: “You have allowed me to go home with dignity.” That year, 94 people made professions of faith in Christ at C.N. Jenkins; 63 became new members.

Much closer to home, Aberdeen Presbyterian sponsors a Biker’s Sunday, inspired by the fact that their stated supply is a motorcycle enthusiast. They’ve recently begun including bicycles along with Harleys. Over in Tuscaloosa, First Presbyterian has just opened a coffee shop called “UPerk,” which of course is a play on the campus ministry brand name “UKirk.” Reporting on the new outreach for Presbyterians Today, Sue Washburn says it’s “a welcoming place for students regardless of their beliefs. The shop hosts weekly worship services and a portion of their proceeds goes to support local mission work.” About worship, she notes: “The service is low-key and the music is laid-back. Sermons are more like conversations than prepared speeches as the participants seek to share their lives together.”

One student intern, a senior at Alabama, says: “‘UPerk offers a community space for people to explore their beliefs …. Someone could just be having a coffee on a Tuesday night and see UKirk worshiping and decide to come over and join us. It offers an intentional, authentic environment that allows us to engage with the community in many different ways.’” Another says: “‘My hope is that UPerk will become known as a place that is welcoming to all. Ideally, we’ll become a classic coffee house in Tuscaloosa that’s known for adding a special something to the community—and one that honors God and God’s mission for the city and the University of Alabama’” (

Evangelism is about what’s in our hearts. Toward Jesus as we find in him our focus, our center, our reason for living. As we experience the excitement and power of a faith that must be shared. Evangelism is about what’s in our hearts. Toward our neighbors as we show deep hospitality in listening and in caring.

Evangelism is not a dirty word or a crooked, dishonest practice. It’s your calling and mine. All of us are to be evangelists. Our Book of Order lays it out pretty clearly for Presbyterians. Our standards say that a faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace in a number of ways, but the first is “proclaiming the good news.” Another is “demonstrating a new quality of life” (G-1.0304). Still another way of witness is “serving others.” The Directory for Worship, at the center of our Book of Order, tells us that “God sends the Church” out in mission to the world, which includes efforts to “bear witness to God’s reign through the proclamation of the gospel, acts of compassion, work for justice and peace, and the care of creation….” We’re told that “God sends the Church to proclaim the gospel in the world: announcing the good news of God’s liberating love; calling all people to repent and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; baptizing, teaching, and making disciples in Jesus’ name; and offering the promise of eternal and abundant life in Christ.”

The Directory calls for invitations to receive and live out baptism to be a regular part of our worship. It even provides for special services for evangelism to be authorized by the session. Imagine: a Presbyterian revival meeting! (See W-5.0301 and 5.0302). As the Rev. Gradye Parsons, former General Assembly stated clerk, once exclaimed in an article: “Presbyterians can be evangelists!” (Presbyterians Today, 9/09: 26).

But let’s be clear as we contemplate our call: our reasons for sharing the good news cannot be that we are afraid the church won’t survive or because we want to create clones of an earlier generation or because we need more money or more bodies to do the work of the church or because another church has a building program and a strong youth and young adult ministry. We’re tempted in those directions in a day when the PC(USA) is losing members. According to a report published online last May, “total membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continued a slow but steady decline in 2016 that dates back to 1965.” The best that can be said is that the losses slowed somewhat last year. I cite 2016, by the way, because it’s the latest year for which figures are available.

Here are some statistics. And I apologize in advance for the barrage of numbers. “Total PC(USA) membership at the end of the year stood at 1,482,767, a loss of 89,893 members from 2015. The denomination experienced an all-time low in total member losses, but also an all-time low in total member gains.

“Every category of both gains…and losses…declined in 2016. And, once again, ‘back door’ losses—members simply removed from the rolls of congregations (75,064)—were greater than transfers and deaths combined (70,095).

“The number of child baptisms declined by 1,516 in 2016—to 13,427—but the number of adult baptisms increased by 606 to 4,775….

“The number of PC(USA) congregations declined by 191 to 9,451, but the number of congregations dismissed to other denominations declined to 99—the fewest dismissals since 2011. Those 99 churches accounted for 29,970 dismissed members.”

Finally, “[t]he racial composition of PC(USA) congregations remains virtually unchanged. PC(USA) membership is 90.93 percent White; 3.46 percent Black/African American; 2.94 percent Asian; 1.4 percent Hispanic; .57 percent African; and less than one-third of one percent each Middle Eastern, Native American, and ‘other.’ Those numbers do not reflect participation in new worshipping communities and other fellowships, which are not formal PC(USA) congregations.” (

So, our membership does not match the population of the US racially and ethnically. Nor does it match in age. According to Wikipedia, citing census data, “[p]eople under 21 years of age made up over a quarter of the U.S. population (27.1%), and people age 65 and over made up one-seventh (14.5%). The national median age was 37.8 years in 2015” ( By contrast, most people worshipping in our churches are over 55 ( And according to one respected survey, the median age of our members, whether they come to worship or not, is 59 (

Scary stuff or at least of great concern. But I’m convinced that trying to grow the church because we’re afraid for our survival will be judged and defeated by God. No, we share because people need to hear good news. They need to know the ever-present love of God. They want to experience grace in a graceless and mean-spirited age. They want and need new life. They want and need to give their lives to something worthwhile and useful.

The key to being an evangelist is building relationships and sharing an experience of faith, hope, and love at the right time. Surely we know people at work, from our leisure activities, from clubs and organizations who simply want someone to listen to them, to take their questions seriously. People whom we trust and who trust us. Evangelism is conversation about faith with people in our circle when they face questions, concerns, and issues that beg for a faith answer. It’s caring enough for them to tell a story about ourselves and our experience with Jesus when we faced a similar situation. We don’t theologize or argue or use big words, but simply witness to what we have seen and heard and touched. It could be as simple as sharing a comforting Bible verse or a hymn or relating briefly what faith in Jesus has done for us; then inviting a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor to consider renewing his or her faith or embracing Christ for the first time.

Yes, Presbyterians can and ought to be evangelists. We need not run from the E word as if it were dirty or makes us cringe to hear it. We do not share good news because we’re concerned about institutional survival. We are evangelists because that’s who we are, because our Lord calls us as disciples to make disciples, because when our hearts are filled with faith, hope, and love, we can’t help but tell everyone we know.


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