I really didn't want to go. The breakfast started at 7:00 am and that meant leaving my hotel by 6:30 in order to get there on time. But I had signed up and bought a ticket, so I forced myself to get up early.
Over the past six years, I've had the pleasure and honor to work with folks serving in the PCUSA's Office of Evangelism and Church Growth. That's the office that provided New Beginnings and the Engage curriculum, and oversees Triennium and 1001 New Worshiping Communities. Now it's under the umbrella of Theology, Worship and Formation, and newly named the Office of Vital Congregations.
This morning, I saw old friends from that office: Ray Jones, David Loleng, and Ann Philbrick. It almost made up for getting out of bed so early.
What really made the effort worthwhile was what I heard, even through my somewhat sleepy state. As a denomination, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of a resolution related to evangelism called "Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ's Way." The resolution has been newly printed for the church and is available as a odd (click the title to go to that website), with the hope that it will be another resource for our congregations in their efforts to change the lives of their neighbors.
That was fine and laudable, but my ears really picked up when I heard Ray Jones begin to talk about how the PCUSA approaches evangelism, especially in the 21st century. I'm sure I didn't get the quotes just right, but this is essentially what was shared:
"Sharing our faith and doing justice are authentic outcomes of being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. If evangelism isn't connected to discipleship, it's either going to be a weird and wacky thing that hurts people, or it's only going to focus on growing churches, and that's not the purpose of evangelism. The purpose is not to get them into eternity or to get them into our churches, but to love people where they are."
I don't remember ever hearing the need to pursue justice tied directly to evangelism and discipleship, or that the main purpose of evangelism is to be loving people in active ways that include efforts to make their lives today better. Maybe that doesn't make a difference for you, but for me it finally framed the work of evangelism and discipleship in a way that felt Biblical, authentic, and Presbyterian.
So what might that look like in our neighborhoods? If evangelism and discipleship meant extending love and pursuing justice because of the faith we profess, how would that play out in action?
Tonight, Burns Stanfield, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Boston, received an award recognizing him for his ecumenical and interreligious work. For me, this is a legacy of ministry that I can point to as evidence of the kind of evangelism described so early this morning. Feeding children in the neighborhood, regardless of their faith or lack-there-of, proving day camp and summer activities, creative outlets and encouragement, all are evidence of working for justice, loving neighbors, and sharing the faith we have received through our actions and words. The work Burns and others do through the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) is another example of this kind of evangelism, where the goal is to love our neighbor as ourselves and work for the reconciliation of the world, pursuing justice in the name of the God who calls us to work for the building up of the place where we find ourselves.
The final quote that summed it up for me was this, "We are called to share our faith and do justice in the most humble way possible." That's an understanding of evangelism I can wholeheartedly support.