When we think of evangelism, many Christians feel some guilt. We know it is something we ought to be doing, but it makes us uncomfortable.
In this episode, we talk to Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison, author of Models of Evangelism and professor and Dean at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. In this conversation, she helps us better understand what evangelism looks like in real life (in contrast to the caricatures) and encourages us to explore ways to share the Good News with others more naturally and comfortably.
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Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison
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Popular related items on UMC.org
- Rethinking what we mean when we talk about evangelism
- The Wesleyan Means of Grace
- Life experience creates the best witness of faith
- Read about the historic Methodist evangelism of camp meetings
- Spiritual Gifts: Evangelism
- An earlier GYSIS episode Priscilla's husband Jack
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This episode posted on April 16, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is Priscilla Pope-Levison, professor and Dean at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. She is also the author of a new book titled Models of Evangelism. In this conversation, we talk about ways you and I can become more natural and more comfortable in sharing our faith with others.
Joe: Welcome, Priscilla.
Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Joe: Today we’re going to talk about evangelism. We’ve done 90 episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape which is a podcast about discipleship, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before—let’s talk about evangelism because there’s a lot of baggage that comes along with that term.
So, I want to start with the basics: When you talk about evangelism, what do you mean by that? And what don’t you mean by that?
Priscilla: Let’s start with the negative. because, you’re right, the caricatures of people showing up at your door on a Sunday afternoon, or street corner preaching, and I think some of that is overblown. I don’t know how many of us have really had a negative encounter with someone who’s overly powerful about evangelism. But it certainly is in the American psyche. I think for those of us who were alive in the ‘80s and ‘90s when so many televangelists fell from grace, that’s so much a part of our history.
But then you think about Sinclair Lewis’ book in the 1920s—Elmer Gantry—where he wrote about kind of the sleazy car salesman revival preacher who traveled from town to town. I mean, that caricature is so strong. I acknowledge that, but I don’t spend a lot of time with it.
Jack, my spouse, who’s been a guest on your show, and I were talking about how to start this book. I’m a historian, particularly of American evangelism. I know a lot of the little-known evangelists, particularly women evangelists. So, he said, ‘Why don’t you work out of your strengths?’
So, I start the book with just little vignettes about evangelists—one who opened her home for teaching in the late 1700s, and the town basically came into her kitchen. Much like Susanna Wesley. And just all sorts of people—men, women, black, white, Asian, children, older people—just to get the sense from the beginning that there’s not one size fit all of who is an evangelist.
I would say the same about what evangelism is. I have definitions that I like, and there are certain attributes that I like to think about in evangelism, but when we boil it down, evangelism is ‘good news.’ That’s what it means in Greek—euangelion. That’s what the word gospel means, which is also a translation of euangelion.
If we can think of evangelism just simply as good news, that we are good news people, that it takes away a lot of the worry and concern and fear and baggage.
That’s simplistic, but I think boiling it down to its essence—that is what I would say, evangelism is good news. Aand are we good news people by what we say, by what we do, by the integrity that we show in our life, by our hospitality? All of that to me is absolutely vital to evangelism.
Joe: Several of the things you mentioned there, are not the first things that come to mind when we talk about evangelism—the gifts of hospitality or the things that we do. A lot of times, at least in American culture (or maybe just in my mind) it’s all about what we say. It’s all about trying to convince someone. But I noticed in the beginning of the book you talk about more categories than just talking. Can you say more about that? When you talk about evangelism in kind of a broader spectrum.
Priscilla: One of my favorite definitions begins, ‘Evangelism is being, doing and telling.’ I think that really gets at it holistically. We are evangelists. People look at us if we say we are Christian, if we show up at church on Sunday. Particularly where we used to live in Seattle, the Pacific Northwest, the ‘none’ zone. Not so much here in Dallas, Texas. But there were very few cars on a Sunday morning in Seattle where people went to church.
If you say you’re a Christian or you belong to a church, so much of who you are…people watch. Just like people watch the church right now and to see what they’re doing politically, economically, socially. And it is doing certainly actions and telling.
I know people shy away, particularly, I think, United Methodists and mainline Protestants, ,shy away from the telling, but we are admonished in Scripture to have a message, to have a response, an answer for people who ask us about that. But I like to see that holistically. It is who we are. It’s what we do and it’s what we say. All of those work together.
I don’t think one can be separated out from the others because one of the concerns about Christians is that we are hypocrites. We say one thing and then we do another.
That really bothered our daughter when she was in college. She went to a Christian college and she was so discouraged by people—what they said Monday thru Friday in the classrooms and then what they did on the weekend. Now she was no saint. But that inconsistency, that hypocrisy, I think, is something we need to shore up and be very clear that we are Christians, we have a good news message, and we have good news activities as well.
Joe: So it’s more than an activity. Part of what you’re describing is a lifestyle. Right? It’s something that we do every moment every day.
Priscilla: It is. There was a phrase that I borrowed in the book called ‘Lifestyle Evangelism.’ It’s from a book written by Joseph Aldridge in the 1970s. It’s also been called ‘everyday evangelist’ or that kind of idea. But I like the word ‘lifestyle’ because that encompasses, our choices, how we spend our money, what we do with our time, all of that.
If people are worried or concerned or fearful about evangelism, that’s a great way to start. Just begin with your lifestyle and take a thorough look and say, ‘Am I being a witness to the good news in my lifestyle?’ How I live every day. I think that even before you say or do anything evangelistic, that’s a good place to start.
Joe: I get the sense that you see this not as something somebody else should be doing, but as a spiritual practice that all of us should be about. How do you see it as a spiritual discipline or as what Wesley, I think would call a means of grace?
Priscilla: That’s a good question. For me, how we are grounded spiritually certainly provides a wellspring of faith, of joy, of love, of all of these virtues that we cultivate. I think those also well up and are exhibited in our outward persona. It’s inner work that we do, but it’s also work that flows out.
I appreciate your bringing up Wesley’s means of grace because evangelism, I think, is one of those that straddles both—the works of piety and the works of mercy. I know you said ‘means of grace,’ but I guess I was triggered toward the works of mercy and the works of piety, which is one of my favorite ideas that Wesley brings forward. So I try to fit it in wherever I can.
Joe: I often do, too.
Priscilla: Talk about an evangelist…. I mean, Wesley, yes he was a preacher. But you think about all the ways he found…and his early followers…to spread…to be good news people by the way they cared for the poor and the way they set up education for children who couldn’t afford it, and then visiting the sick, all the while that they’re learning Scripture, they’re testifying, they’re writing letters of conversion. It’s all of a piece. And I like that holistic approach.
I think it would be hard to argue that the early Methodist Church was not evangelistic.
Joe: Oh, yeah. And the way you talked about that, there were bunches of entry points in there. It wasn’t everybody was doing the same thing. Some were feeding the poor and some were educators, but all using their gifts together to spread scriptural holiness across the land.
Priscilla: That brings up a good point that one of the best means of evangelism, so to speak, were the class meetings—one of the models that I look at in the book is small group.
All you needed to join a class meeting was a desire to flee from the wrath to come. So there was an initial interest. But for those who were familiar with Christianity but didn’t know the gospel, that was a perfect entrée where you’re immediately in community with people, some of whom were very devout and longtime Christians, others who were seekers as well.
I know there’s been a lot of work to try to resurrect class meetings and all of that. And I think that’s really something that the Wesleyan tradition really has to offer to evangelism.
Joe: But do you think it has to be programmatic? Is that something for the church to do or is that something I can do in my home?
Priscilla: Both. Absolutely. As I said, the second model is small group evangelism. It can be as simple as you joining with a partner to open your home for 4-6 weeks to people that you know who have yet to make a commitment to Christ. The purpose of this is to help them discuss, ask questions, learn in this community in a dedicated time that hopefully, by the time the group is done—this is not supposed to last forever—there’s the sense of, ‘I want to go forward with this’ or, ‘I need more time.’ But at least you’ve built that relationship. So yeah, it could…you know, Joe, you could open your home for that…
Joe: Outside these little four walls that I spend way too many hours in these days. Yeah.
Priscilla: This could also take place online.
I’m in a lectio small group that I’ve been doing it since we were in Seattle. We do it once a month.
I was the one who Zoomed in with them when they would meet at someone’s house. But now, with this pandemic, we’re all meeting from our separate homes. Now this is not an evangelistic small group. But we have this amazing group meeting virtually. And so, you know, you could even do it online. See? No excuses.
Joe: Exactly. One of the things I hear you saying is there’s relationship built into this. Paul was knocked off the horse and had this conversion experience, but that’s not everyone’s journey. Some of this evangelism is a longer game, for lack of a better word.
Priscilla: I would say most of it is. The revival was really the way that Christianity spread across this country. It was the way that it went westward. The revival is still alive and well. I devote a chapter to it in the book. But I would say for most of the churches that people listening to this podcast would be a part of, I mean, I’ve never been to a revival, and I was born into the United Methodist Church.
The revival really put the emphasis on the moment of conversion. It was often dramatic. There are lots of testimonies to that dramatic moment. I think that time is not gone, but it’s certainly been eclipsed by a sense of ‘I want to sit with this for a while. I want to see. I want to learn more. I want to watch people.’
So, you’re right. It really is developing a relationship with someone who would not call themselves a Christian will involve you, I would imagine, for a while. There’s gonna be stops and starts in a way, but I think if individuals or the church are willing to take that time and build that relationship, keep trying to answer their questions, keep listening. What a beautiful time that could be, just a fruitful conversation.
[My husband] Jack—one of his dearest friends who grew up in Jewish faith. They’ve had spiritual conversations for the last decade or more. There’s no result from it, but that’s not really the point, is it? Jack is being faithful and it’s just a rich conversation.
Joe: I like that idea of the result because when I was in youth ministry I used to talk to the youth about that quite a bit. You do evangelism but you may not be the one who necessarily sees the result. But that doesn’t mean what you’ve done hasn’t been fruitful. You may say something now, that may click with somebody 5 years down the line when they’re talking to somebody else. It’s our work to do but we may not see the results.
Priscilla: The Scripture that’s coming to me is the idea that someone planted the seed, someone watered and it’s God that gives the growth. As Wesleyans, we believe in prevenient grace, so we are not coming to this person without God. God has been at work in their lives long before we meet them.
That speaks so much to, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ or ‘What are they going to think?’
You know, it’s not all about us. In fact, maybe we’re not even that…. I don’t want to say we’re not integral to the process because then people are gonna say, okay, I don’t have anything to do. But I do think we never know.
I hear from students that I had 20 years ago, “You said this in class and I still think about this,” or whatever. And I think it’s the same thing when we are our authentic selves and we seek to be in relationship with people to point them to Christ. But it really is the Holy Spirit that works in the heart, in the mind to bring this conversation, this relationship, to fruition. And it may be something that happens long after this conversation is over.
Joe: I am so with you on that.
I want to go back to the idea of prevenient grace a little bit. You mentioned that a bit in passing. And what we’re talking about God’s presence in people’s lives even before they know it.
I heard this definition one time that I kind of like and I’m just gonna bounce it off of you. Evangelism can be thought of sometimes as serving as a tour guide or a docent in a museum. You are pointing out things that people might not see. It’s not like you’re bringing God into the situation, but you are saying, ‘Hey, look over there. That was God.’ How’s that sound?
Priscilla: I like that a lot actually. Getting back to the fear: people are worried that Christians are going to approach them very heavily, put the big sell on them and pressure them. That to me gets into proselytism where there’s a power dynamic.
What I like about what you’re saying is that a docent comes alongside to enhance the experience. They have knowledge that maybe the person viewing the picture doesn’t have. So, there is a telling element to that. There’s maybe a teaching…you know I’m a teacher, there’s maybe a teaching element to that. Pointing out…I like that. But then it’s up to the person to experience and to appreciate the painting in their own way. Right?
So I actually like that because I think the idea of accompanying, walking alongside, pointing out, as you said, helping…discerning where God might be working in this person’s life and suggesting that, not telling them but suggesting. Oh, have you thought that maybe that’s something that God wants you to think about or hear or see, or whatever. I actually like that a lot. Good job, Joe.
Joe: It’s not mine. I’m borrowing it from another source but I can’t remember who it is. It just popped into my head when you were talking about prevenient grace.
You made a distinction there between evangelism and proselyting. Can you expand on that?
Priscilla: The World Council of Churches—and I don’t have the exact definition—but basically they bring in the idea of power in evangelism. Their concern is when the western church comes to a country and has the financial resources, sets up the hospitals, the schools and have all these resources for people and there’s a sense of feeling that they have to respond to the Christian message in order to receive these goods.
One of the most famous definitions of evangelism was spoken by D. T. Niles, who was one of the early ecumenical leaders from what is now Sri Lanka. He was actually one of the few non-Western ecumenical leaders. And he talked about evangelism as one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. That’s so famous. I actually posted this on Facebook last week. The rest of that quote…. In fact, I have it here. …is…. He says: “The evangelistic relation is to be alongside of, not over against. Over against is more proselytism; alongside of is evangelism.”
That’s probably the best way to think about the difference between proselytism and evangelism.
Joe: As a United Methodist who’s a member of a congregation, I know this is something that I should be doing, but I’m intimidated by it. What are some of the first steps that you would advise someone to take?
Priscilla: I’m happy to say that during COVID, I wrote a grant proposal for a million dollar Lily grant. And we received it. So I’m super excited. I’m getting started on it right now. It’s called Testimony as Community Engagement.
So community I’m using both ways—both within the church community and in the community outside the church walls. What I saw during COVID, particularly during the initial months is that there was more testimony. There was more willingness to talk about how God was active in my life or how God was active in the world.
Certainly, in our church, they started adding testimony times. I mean, that’s an old word that we don’t use a lot anymore. Testimony is story. Right? It’s storytelling. It’s telling stories about how we perceive God, where we’ve experienced God.
I think one way is to think about just a simple story—doesn’t have to be about your conversion—but where during this COVID time have you seen God active in someone else’s life? Have you perceived God to be doing something in your own life? Can you tell a simple paragraph story about it? Again, getting back to basics, telling each other stories.
I was so moved during an online worship service when a nurse in the COVID unit in a Dallas hospital talked about how she was the hands and feet of God to her patients. Now this was at the time, particularly at the beginning, when family members weren’t allowed into the COVID unit and people were literally alone except for the nurses and doctors and people who attended to them. She was probably our daughter’s age, being such a beacon of God. Even now I find that so profound.
That to me is an amazing starting point for evangelism. It could be the story of your conversion or how you first became aware of God. Again, we like to hear each other’s stories. We gossip about each other’s stories, why don’t we gossip about Jesus? I think I could write a book about that—Gossiping about Jesus.
Joe: There’s something about that, that disarms a bit of my defensiveness about wanting to be an evangelist. We often hear people say, ‘I can’t do that because…what if they ask me a question I can’t answer?’ Or, ‘I don’t have all of the answers.’ But you’re not talking about telling THE story; it’s telling MY story, my experience. That you’re the expert in.
Priscilla: I think that’s absolutely a place to start. I think we need to evolve beyond that. I think eventually we do need to tell THE story. But I wouldn’t start there.
If someone is reluctant or scared or whatever about evangelism I would never say, ‘Well, memorize the four spiritual laws’ or, ‘Diagram the bridge, the chasm thing,’ or, ‘Memorize the Roman’s Road.’ Those are really helpful—I would teach from the Apostles’ Creed—but absolutely not. If they’re already worried, why would you add this, and it feels so detached.
Every evangelism book except for mine opens with a story on an airplane where someone sat down next to me, I didn’t want to talk, but they started talking about Jesus and I led them to Christ. Well, I mean, that’s not most people’s story. I’ve traveled a lot and that’s never happened to me.
But I can say, I grew up in the church, but it wasn’t until I was a college student and I had to confront this divine relationship on my own. However you say it. But I do think this COVID time has, I believe, has opened up a time for testimony to recapture our imagination.
Joe: I am thoroughly enjoying this conversation, but we’re running out of time. I want to ask you the final question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. What do you do to keep your spirit in shape?
Priscilla: Well, I will be happy to tell you because I’m very regular. I’m very rhythmic. But I do eclectic. Jack and I fix a cup of tea and we sit down and listen first to a podcast called Pray as you Go. It’s done by the British Jesuits and it’s kind of a lectio with some music and so forth.
I do, as I said, I meet with a group from Seattle. There are seven of us who meet once a month for lectio. Lectio is a really important part of my spiritual practice. In Seattle, I was an associate at a Benedictine Priory. I played the piano every Sunday for a Taizé service. So I’m a quasi-contemplative, even though I’m an extrovert. A friend of mine has started once a month a Saturday online silent retreat. And it’s been amazing. So I do sort of different things.
I also journal a lot. And I’m married to a biblical scholar. So if there’s anything I don’t understand I just, “Jack!”
So I have to say it’s pretty fun to be married to Jack. But it’s the daily routine. And most nights I also listen this same Pray as You Go, for the Examen. I end my day with an Examen. So I begin and end with the Jesuits, as a good Methodist.
Joe: I don’t know what that connection is between Methodists and Jesuits, but there seems to be something there.
Priscilla: I would say I’m very Methodist in the rhythm and the regularity of my spiritual practice. And that’s something that has sustained me for many years.
Joe: Priscilla Pope-Levison, thank you so much for this time, and this conversation about evangelism and ways that we can grow in this area of our spiritual journeys.
Priscilla: Well, it’s been a delight. Thank you.
Joe: That was Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison, professor and Dean at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and the author of a new book called Models of Evangelism. To learn more about her and her book, go to UMC.org/podcasts. We’ve put some helpful links and a transcript on the notes page for this episode.
Thank you so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.