The question in the title of this issue of Let’s Talk is ironic. Yes, of course the Church should evangelize. We’re under a “great commission” from our Lord himself to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). In Matthew the commission is given to the eleven disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). But what is everyone’s business can end up being no one’s business. Not every follower of Jesus went into the whole world proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. In the first days of the Church the apostles went out evangelizing (spreading the gospel) and gathering assemblies (churches) around the word and the sacraments. What did the members of those assemblies do? They probably lived their lives and made a quiet witness to their neighbors at least by evident changes of lifestyle. A really overt form of witnessing was for the heroic. The Greek word for “witness” is martyria.
The fact is that not every Christian was engaged overtly in the work of evangelism. After the martyrs came the monks. We think of monks as retreating from the world. But actually the evangelization of Europe was accomplished by monks — Slavic and Celtic and Benedictine. Monastic communities would be planted in out-of-the-way places and towns grew up around them and parishes were established and pastors were called. In the Age of Discovery new religious orders were founded that took seriously the great commission and went to the ends of the earth, Franciscans and Jesuits among them. They evangelized Latin America and the coastal areas of Africa and India and China and Japan.
Meanwhile, the Protestants did little by way of evangelization until the Pietists came along in the late seventeenth century. Pastors who ministered to Lutheran settlers in North America were not sent so much by Churches as by mission centers, such as Francke’s Halle (from whence came Henry Melchior Muhlenberg) and later Loehe’s Neuendettelsau (from whence came pastors to the Midwest). This tradition continued in the great missionary societies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea of European state Churches and Anglo-American denominations sending missionaries is a relative late one in Christian history. Churches probably got into the missionary business in order to exert control over the missionary societies. Now the ELCA doesn’t even send missionaries to do the direct work of evangelism. We send missionaries to “accompany” the Churches in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
I rehearse this history to remind us that in Christian history there has not been an expectation that everyone is to personally do evangelism other than by being a quiet example to their families and neighbors. Oh, some evangelical and fundamentalist groups operate with the notion that the great commission applies to everyone and they send people door-to-door equipped with pamphlets, books, and arguments. Sometimes mainline Churches have imitated this approach, but usually in special circumstances such as a mission start-up or firing up a declining congregation in a changing neighborhood. If a congregation seems stable enough, there’s no great sense of urgency to begin ringing door bells. The problem is that fewer and fewer mainline congregations seem stable enough. Membership and financial resources are dwindling. There’s a sense of panic as one congregation after another closes its doors. Our synod now has an initiative to turn around all our congregations, presumably from not flourishing to flourishing.
The bottom line is that congregations are going to remain viable as long as something is drawing people to them and the members have enough sense and savvy for hospitality to welcome them. Here’s where the quiet witness works.
Rodney Stark provides an example of this in his book, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996). Stark is a sociologist and in this book he uses sociological research and models to explore and explain the dramatic rise of Christianity in the first three centuries AD. I have to say that I find many of his theories speculative and some of his claims tendentious. He’s on the firmest ground when he uses sociological analysis to explain established historical data (that’s the historian in me speaking). But one of his pieces of analysis is instructive and inspiring. Stark claims that two widespread and deadly epidemics, one in the mid-second century and the other in the mid-third century, played a significant role in the spread of Christianity for the following reasons:
- Christians cared for one another, leading to greater survival rates. This in turn led to an increased proportion of Christians in urban centers, which meant more people’s lives intersected with networks of Christians at a time when traditional social bonds were disrupted by the epidemics.
- Christians cared for non-Christians, bringing these non-believers into the sphere of Christian influence.
- Christians stayed to care for others while pagan elites fled the cities. Stark cites a number of pagan sources complaining about the good reputation Christians were gaining.
Here are three possibilities for congregations today. First, people in our mobile society are looking for community. Congregations offer great examples of community, in which people can network, be enriched, and have their needs met by pastors and fellow members. When asked what people like best about their congregation, they often talk about its warm embrace and support. This is something any congregation is able to provide, and any age group within a congregation. In fact, congregational fellowship is often inter-generational.
Second, congregations can care for the needs of non-members. They often do this by providing soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing closets, counseling opportunities, and even access to financial help (but we need to be careful here and have some pretty strict guidelines). The further issue is that members of congregations need to get acquainted with the people whom they help, listen to their stories, and invite them into the fellowship of the congregation. Marginal people also need community.
Third, these efforts of congregations need to be maintained even as governments are cutting their budgets and eliminating social services. These social services provided by faith communities may become even more critical to the most needy members of our society in the years to come.
Is this another form of “rice Christianity?” Perhaps. But that’s the way evangelism has worked throughout Christian history. The Church provides something people need in their everyday lives. That could be anything, from friendship to an opportunity for festivity. In the context of providing this “whatever”, the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed and the Christians who are providing the “whatever” demonstrate that this gospel is what motivates them. The witness is made; its impact cannot be avoided. We don’t even need a lot of Christians to do this work, just a few devoted ones whose piety will be the yeast to leaven the whole lump.
It may be that some congregations can’t be turned around. Local churches have flourished and waned all through Christian history and in every part of the world. But there’s also no reason most of our congregations cannot continue to flourish or to flourish again.
Immanuel Lutheran Church