given on March 18, 2012, part of the Lenten series on evangelism
Today I wanted to run away. The evangelism topic is still a scary one and I do not have all the answers. I cannot change the circumstances that surround the community or the history of the church. What I struggle to change is the understanding of evangelism in our particular setting. Do we understand the current status of the church? Do we truly know the surroundings? Do we honestly want to see a change?
I struggle to find some way to explain the situation of the church sitting right here at the corner of ……………. and …………….. (you can fill in the location yourself). No one church is identical to another. No one congregation is the same as another. No history or tradition is the same as any others. Yet, there are similarities that often are painful to discuss. That is why I wanted to run away—I could not provide an answer.
First, we must recognize that the numbers are dwindling. There is no way to make the attendance at church larger than it is. The honest truth is that since arriving four years ago, the average Sunday attendance has gone down. Maybe the drop is not significant, but when attendance is around 20, the loss of two or three is dramatic.
For myself, the pastor, this really leaps out to me. Yet analyzing the situation, the losses are all due to death. There is not one thing that any of us, including me, can do when a member dies. The role of the church is to help the living in the transition for that member. This we do beautifully and lovingly. Participating in the traditions and the ritual of sending off a close family member and friend is a genuine privilege, especially when we faithfully believe in the “call home” is going home.
Unfortunately, the loss of a member leaves an empty seat beside us in the church pew. There is no one ready and waiting to fill that seat. Yet, I try to envision someone there to sit beside us, to join in our worship, to pray with us, to care for us. It is uncomfortable to look out at the pews and see empty spaces and loneliness.
I do not need to continue painting the picture. You each have painted your own and know it personally. Yet, are we ready to really make a change in how we manage evangelism? Do we have the skills? Do we have the strength? Do we have a plan?
We have defined evangelism: the gospel, the good news.
We have clarified what the good news is: John 3:16–“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. (the MSG)
We have identified who God wants us to share the good news: family, friends, and strangers—anyone we might meet, including those who are unchurched or who need healing for any reason.
The topic is open to discussion, but are we ready to begin the work? Part of the answer is that we are never completely ready; sometimes we just have to dive in and try something. The other part is that we are not ready because we have no plan, no preparation, nor any goal.
Jesus worked for three years to prepare his disciples for the task of evangelism. Have we spent the time necessary to prepare? Do we need to prepare in a more direct method or not? Personally, I think it is time to dive in and do something; yet I know realistically success usually comes with organization, planning, and a goal. Personally, I need to come off the plateau and begin to climb the next mountain; but I need a peak to look toward.
The springboard for making a change is my COS class right now. I have no control over which class I am taking, but this one is all about evangelism. The four texts are all evangelism. The lecture is all evangelism. The work is, too. Yet the reading, the discussion and the thinking are pushing me forward. When I started the Lenten series, I had a vague understanding of my goal that I should encourage and increase our efforts of evangelism, even if that term was uncomfortable. The Big E had to become the Big Easy of my commission.
[Do you hear the echo of the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew
28:19-20: Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge:
“God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (the MSG) ]
Reading through the text, The Lord’s Harvest and the Rural Church I was interested in finding the chapter, “The Rural Rainbow.” Kent Hunter outlines ten different styles of rural churches. Not one completely identified our church, but for the most part we can classify the church as one with characteristics of others.
Norris: “The cornfield church. This is the classic stereotype of the rural church. . .a white frame building. . .located in a landscape of great expanses of land. . .surrounded by land that is sparsely populated. The cemetery is usually located nearby. . . .is part of a dual ministry, with the pastor serving another church. (pp.39-41)
Chilhowee: “The shrinking church. . . . as defined by its location. It is actually a shrinking community. This happens in some rural areas because farms are larger and farmers are fewer. . . .does not have a diversified economy based on diversified resources.” (pp. 48-50)
The conversation about the two styles of churches is just a small piece of the chapter, but there are a few statements that may help us identify our purpose and create our goal:
- “Theoretically, a church can grow, even if the population is declining. (p. 48)
- “The rural congregation of a shrinking church has . . . a ministry of hope that goes beyond depression, love that surpasses despair, and life that transcends death itself. (p.49)
- “The lasting value of the church is not the earthly membership roll or the stately building but the changing of lives, the making of disciples.” (ibid.)
Hunter does not stop with the two categories of churches, he includes another eight of them. Most do not fit the churches in the immediate area, but there are some critical points he identifies and addresses. They need to be heard and incorporated into our understanding:
- “When people move to a new house, they are more receptive to a new church than at other times in their lives.
- “The small town church that wants to grow will carefully discover the felt needs of the people around them. Are there needs for family counseling? Is there a desire for youth work? Does the town need a church with a strong program of Christian education? Are there people with physical needs? (p.42)
- “The solo church [must ask] how will the church serve the community now that it is God’s only representative Christian family present? . . . The solo church has an image that represents the visible presence of God to the entire community. Consequently, it will minister to many people beyond its membership—at least on an occasional basis. . .for physical help. . .counseling . . .church wedding or funeral. . . (p. 46)
- “The rural playground church has a real challenge. People escaping for rest and relaxation, fun and games, often are escaping from all their routines—including church. The church that reaches out and invites these people will have many visitors, especially during the peak play season. (p.47)
- The metro-satellite church. . . . located near a large metropolitan area. It is reached by traveling out from the city, through the suburbs, through some expanses of unpopulated land, into the area of a satellite community. . . . experiences enormous challenges of rubia—a rural area invaded by urban refugees. [Could that not be retirees, too?] (p. 50)h
Hunter adds four more church titles to his rural rainbow: the non-church church, the migrant church, the suburban fringe church, and the county seat church. Very little of these styles relate to that of our church. Still, communities change and the church must change, too, to meet the needs of the people and to spread the good news. As Hunter says,
“Churches are like seasons, they flourish and sometimes, for reasons beyond their control, they die. The Lord reaches people for eternity through people and churches that come and go. The lasting value of the church is not the earthly membership roll or the stately building but the changing of lives, the making of disciples.” (p. 49)
Are we ready to begin evangelizing in our immediate community, maybe even in our immediate family? The Big E is not easy yet, but it certainly no longer sends me into an anxious state. Evangelism becomes the Big Easy once we have made the first step. During your week, stop and think about the community and the church. Ask yourself if you are ready? What tools do you need? Who do you need to reach? Why have you not already begun? What can you share with someone else making evangelism easier for them?
Begin by reviewing the “101 Ways to Evangelize” included in the bulletin today. Then let your imagination dream. The Easter Egg Hunt follows the Halloween tradition. The taco supper and the Easter breakfast are their own stepping-stones to evangelism and ministry. We are going to meet the people where they are. We have to know them, establish a relationship with them before we can be comfortable enough to talk with them much less tell them how we experience God in our lives.
With the luck of the Irish behind us this day,
guide us in looking closely at the journey ahead of us.
We know that there are snakes lurking close by
scaring us away from the joy of new life.
Help to hear the bagpipes calling us into service.
Help us to know your guidance in evangelizing.
Help us to share the blessings of faith in our lives
so that others may experience your blessings, too.
Thank you for the gift of your son, Jesus Christ.
Thank you for the gift of your grace upon each of us.
Thank you for the strength given us so we might
share the good news in ways that others may believe.