Spiritual Reflections from Your Pastor, For Such a Time as This
Week of the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost 2020: “Doing the Work of an Evangelist”
Dear Friends in Christ:
Toward the conclusion of the second letter addressed to Timothy, this instruction is given: “do the work of an evangelist.” The wider exhortative context of the passage is this: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching…. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5) While there is a lot to explore in these brief exhortations, today I want to focus on doing the work of an evangelist.
It is common that many Lutherans are shy when it comes to doing the work of an evangelist. Many of us come from Lutheran traditions rooted in the state churches of northern Europe where evangelism was not much of an issue, where birth and baptism made for citizenship and church membership automatically. Certainly, missionary Lutheran pastors were active in planting the church here in North America, but for many Lutherans of northern European descent, the new churches on this continent relied on a steady stream of immigrants to expand the membership rolls of congregations. It is also true that these same churches were passionate about sending missionaries abroad to other countries to do the work of evangelism, of making disciples elsewhere. But for many Lutherans, little attention has been given to evangelistic efforts here at home, resulting in membership losses when streams of Lutheran immigrants from Europe stopped arriving on our shores. Thus, doing the work of an evangelist is not necessarily part of the spiritual DNA of many Lutherans.
It is also true that many Lutherans want to distinguish themselves from other Christian denominations for whom evangelism, even a kind of strident, aggressive proselytism, is central to their self-understandings. Think of people representing these traditions who shamelessly go door to door, or stand on street corners, proclaiming the message of Jesus, but a version of that message that often focuses on hellfire and damnation, biblical literalism, guilt trips, and often particularly conservative social agendas. Many Lutherans understandably may want to distance themselves from such Christian groups.
Meanwhile the apostolic exhortation persists: do the work of an evangelist. How do we do this work faithfully? What methods do we employ? How do we form shy Lutherans in such a way that they are more comfortable talking with others in sharing their faith stories? Once we are able to return to routines that allow us to meet again face to face and in person, I look forward to introducing you to uncomplicated, straightforward formats for holy conversation in the context of which you can grow in your capacities for and comfort levels with sharing stories of how God is present and active in your lives. But how do we engage in evangelistic effort now when we are apart from each other and our social contacts are limited?
To address these questions about evangelism, let us distill it all down to some basics. Doing the work of an evangelist ultimately centers on making a simple invitation, namely, to come and see. Here’s the essential biblical foundation for doing the work of an evangelist: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (John 1:45-46)
‘Come and see’ may involve inviting someone to church with you. But since we are not meeting in person, how can we do that? Actually, we have a great opportunity before us born of the crisis of not being able to assemble in person on Sundays. The need to worship at home has presented Resurrection Church with the opportunity to establish a more prominent digital footprint with our weekly Home Worship resources and accompanying videos which are crafted for each Sunday. We now have edited watch-through worship videos that generally last a bit over thirty minutes. We also have the individual video files of sermons and hymns and psalms. Likewise, there are the text format documents of the Home Worship order of service and my weekly sermons. Moreover, our local Synod and our ELCA churchwide organization both produce some compelling videographic resources. There are also occasions when our bishops and other ELCA leaders are interviewed in the national media and links are made available to us.
Each of these resources is a potential tool to help you do the work of an evangelist. In our current physically distanced circumstances, the invitation, ‘come and see,’ may mean sharing links to our weekly worship and other resources with friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members and more. It’s a perfect opportunity for shy Lutherans to become evangelists, for it’s as easy as sending an encouraging email with a link to our resources, a great way during the pandemic to make the classic evangelistic invitation, ‘Come and see.’ Some of our members have reported to me that they are sharing links to our resources which proclaim the gospel. If you are not one of those people, I urge you to go and do likewise – do the work of an evangelist!
It is interesting to note that some ELCA congregations are reporting increased levels of engagement and participation via their digital presence. In many ways, our website and our congregation’s presence on other digital formats have become the new front doors of our church. How do we make the most of these new realities in this time of pandemic-induced sheltering at home as we nonetheless endeavor together to bear witness to Christ? That’s the evangelistic question that presents itself for mission-centered opportunity in this challenging and difficult season of our life together. May God in Christ lead us in faithful and appropriate ways as we respond to the mission opportunities before us.
For Jesus’ sake and in Jesus’ name,
Pastor Jonathan Linman