Ask A Theologian: Evangelism

Written By Boston Avenue

Ask A Theologian

Advice from Boston Avenue's Theologian In Residence

I think that so many people, myself included, who come out of evangelicalism struggle with evangelism. I know that I feel incredibly conflicted about what to share and when. I do not want to manipulate people into thinking how I do. Honestly, I would rather not say anything at all. However, Jesus still invites us to share the good news. Likewise, I care deeply about Christianity as a whole. I love the story of Christ; I love Christianity. I love it far too much to leave it in the hands of those who would misrepresent the love of God to the world. So here is my question: How do we invite folks to experience the love of God without proselytizing to them? How do we do so humbly, with the understanding that we are trying to invite folks to ponder the great mystery of the universe, while also holding to the fact that there is room to grow, and we are not always right about everything. Ultimately, how do we evangelize in a way that is not evangelical?

Response:

I know there are many persons who share your background and perceptions regarding evangelization as proselytizing for the sake of “saving souls.” We who came to a liberal/progressive position decades ago often eschew both the word and the practice. Evangelization became something of a dirty word in my home conference (Northern Illinois).

We replaced the term and practice with “welcoming” and “hospitality.” Both of those words are great, and I’d much rather be in a church and with Christians who know how to welcome and offer hospitality than in a church that barks at strangers. But, we lose something critical when we give up on words and practices because they have been misused to scare people into heaven.

One could argue that the good news is about salvation from sin and being sealed in Christ for eternal life on the other side of death. That is the position taken by evangelicalism in both its Catholic and Protestant expressions. And, if that is what the good news is, one could act out of love for others when one invites them to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior. Within evangelical circles, “relationship evangelism” can be rooted in love. But many of us have experienced the “notch on a belt buckle” sort of hard-sell: repent or die!! But, one can also argue (and I’m in this camp) that the core of the good news is about living in God’s abundant gift of life now rather than holding out primarily for life on the other side.

I think you’ve already given a great start to answering your question: How do we do so humbly, with the understanding that we are trying to invite folks to ponder the great mystery of the universe, while also holding to the fact that there is room to grow, and we are not always right about everything.

There is the story of Phillip in John (1:45-46) who is so taken in by Jesus that he reaches out to his friends and says, “Come and see.” Phillip invites. I’d say: we are wrong when we strong-arm someone into taking our path. We are also wrong when we refuse to invite someone to “come and see” because we are embarrassed by or otherwise don’t want to be associated with “those evangelicals.”

There is capacious space in which to invite others to walk the way of Jesus, with humility, in love, with inquiring minds and sometimes mouths made mute by the mysteries of the universe and of our tiny-yet-significant-to-God lives. Actually, that may be the way I prefer to think about evangelism: invite others to accompany me/us on our walk with Jesus, following his teachings for how to live in eternal life NOW. The invitation is to come and see who and what you find on that walk we take as a community.

Our Theologian in Residence

Gary Peluso-Verdend is the President Emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since 1993, he served at Phillips as a program director, the dean, development executive, president, and founding director of the Center for Religion in Public Life. For five years (2000-2005), he was the director of church relations at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Gary retired from Phillips in February 2023.

Gary is a retired ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (Northern Illinois Conference). He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1991. He attends Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa where he teaches adult church school classes frequently.

Gary serves on the board of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and on working groups for the Braver Angels Alliance in OK and Compassionate Tulsa.

He and his wife live with their daughter in Tulsa, in the fourth (and last) house-in-need-of-updating they have owned. Gary’s three grown children and their families live in the Chicago area.

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