At a church council meeting a couple of years ago, we found ourselves discussing friends and neighbors of our city church and their prospects for eventual membership. One neighbor in particular seemed like he should really be coming to church because, as someone observed, his brother is a Lutheran pastor. I spoke up to suggest that we shouldn’t make too much of that fact. “I have a brother, too,” I reminded the council.
During three years at Wicker Park Lutheran Church I was uniquely positioned to do the kinds of evangelism we are frequently encouraged to do. I had a number of good friends of long standing living in the neighborhood, all of whom had at least a glancing relationship with church in the past and who had a genuine, if intermittent, curiosity about religious matters. And they had friends with similar dispositions who knew me at least slightly and knew I was a pastor. As an evangelist I had relationships to build on and social networks to move in. I didn’t view any of these people as “targets” for evangelism, of course – I wanted their friendship more than I wanted their church attendance – but I was not without hope that my pastoral role in their neighborhood would draw them to church at least from time to time.
Needless to say, that’s not quite how things worked out. People came, once or twice or for a special event, but my unfailingly low-pressure invitations largely went unanswered. While it’s tempting to diagnose a failure in what I’ll call “near evangelism” in terms of something like service timing, liturgical style, or programmatic relevance, that seems to miss the point. Having a robust personal connection to someone is supposed to obviate those barriers. And being genuinely free of anxiety over whether someone chooses to accept your invitation to participate in a community of faith should help, too. People usually know when their wallet, their volunteer time, or their immortal soul is being sniffed at underneath some idealistic message or other. The kind of invitation that we issue simply by virtue of being who we are and doing what we do avoids that pitfall.
That this didn’t happen as I expected didn’t, in the end, cause me any disappointment. What pastor, after all, wants to hear about church council decisions from the people he watches football with? But it’s left me with some observations on evangelism that may be relevant more generally.
First, there may not be any reliable way to overcome the lack of a felt need for church participation. Thinking back on it, I relied on all of my friends at one time or another for their particular expertise in the world, and they did the same with me. I dispensed plenty of advice, provided information on this or that matter of concern or curiosity, and helped with some wonderful weddings. But just as my friends’ legal advice didn’t tempt me to enroll in law school (well, not successfully anyway), my own status as a religious professional didn’t in itself make anyone feel that what his or her life needed was an hour of church each week.
Second, and relatedly, it may be more difficult than many of us imagine to develop a habit of churchgoing, even once a month. For most of us, church has been woven into our lives for a long time, and a week without it feels very unusual. Perhaps we’ve been faithful worshippers since we were children. I came to church in college, when it was a refreshing alternative to the social reclusiveness of the University of Chicago. We may not even remember what it was like to begin to accommodate our lives to this peculiar practice of public worship. I find it very difficult to add anything to my life, whether it’s twenty minutes of jogging a few times a week or even a new hour-long television show. Whatever else we can and should claim for church participation, it’s something for which room has to be made.
Third, people seem more willing to take on large ad-hoc tasks than small ongoing practices. When I needed an accordionist, an actor, a graphic designer, or referrals for a defense attorney, I never lacked for help. I’m too passive and Lutheran to impose much on anyone, but I never hesitated to ask for something I needed, and I typically got it. People are quite capable and even eager to put their talents to work when asked (and this is certainly true for me: while I haven’t started watching a new television show in two years, I will after little persuasion spend a lot of unplanned time on periodic writing tasks).
And yet as I consider the difficulties presented here, I think of all the chance relationships that ended up helping people come into the church: someone who got in touch and came to church because of something I wrote for a secular magazine, or someone who happened to come to church on the only Sunday when the congregation worships at another location, and got an individual tour and conversation. God has not lost a taste for serendipity, which humbles the proud and programmatic.
Moreover, I wonder why it should be that so many friends came to my internship site in Englewood, many miles from where any of them lived or, in some cases, had even visited, to hear me preach at our gospel services. Perhaps the power of God to call people through the church resides not in familiarity, or comfort, or the safety of an extended prior relationship. Perhaps it comes through an encounter with something new, surprising, even a little scary. It’s much easier to describe how an evangelistic effort has succeeded or not in the past than it is to predict its effects. This is a distinction we are often tempted to overlook. I don’t know much about evangelism as a particular charism or ministry, but I know that for good or for ill, it often happens by accident — at least as far as our own wayward efforts and our own mixed motives are concerned.
Messiah Lutheran Church