What are your thoughts on evangelism? Evangelism is understood as the means through which we usher someone towards a belief in Jesus Christ and Christianity. The very word may provoke a knee-jerk resistance among many of us—for assorted reasons. It has for me, which I’ll go into here.
One of the many required courses for ordination within the United Methodist denomination is a course on evangelism. I put off this class throughout the entirety of seminary. Other courses such as Narrative Therapy or Black Theology beckoned me and were much more alluring than a course on evangelism. A part of me, as a progressive Christian who honors the different faith journeys people take beside the Christian one, was also resentful that we had to waste one of our precious, limited class slots on a subject that was so…backwards. Semester after semester, year after year, I put off this class until I graduated. It wasn’t until years after graduation, when I was applying for ordination, that I finally gave in and took it.
The class, surprisingly, ended up being illuminating. Not because I agreed with everything in it, but the opposite: It made me clarify my own thinking on the matter. If evangelism was a required course for United Methodist ordination, it was clearly a priority for this denomination I was ostensibly vowing allegiance to. As such, out of my own integrity as a future United Methodist minister, I figured I had to develop a theology of evangelism I genuinely subscribed to, or I would have to consider picking another denomination.
It might be helpful to begin with what I don’t like about the traditional understanding of evangelism. Then, I’ll move onto what I actually do like about evangelism and how I myself practice it. To do the first, I’ll begin with a story.
In college, I was part of a Christian fellowship group that heavily prioritized evangelism. All of us who were a part of the fellowship group were even trained on how to walk non-believers through the process of conversion. At the time, I had no misgivings about this priority or practice, partly because it was motivated by such earnestness and good intentions. I wholeheartedly believed in the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ and if I truly loved my friends, I was then obligated to share it with them! Not doing so felt like depriving them of a secret that could alter their fate; sending them to heaven or hell.
In my sophomore year of college, I took a psychology class and became really good friends with two of the students in the class. They were whip-smart and funny. I loved spending time with them. The problem was, they weren’t Christian. I reframed this problem to be a welcome challenge. Whenever possible, I would steer our conversations towards religion and spirituality and try to get them to ask me questions like, “Lydia, how is it that you seem so at peace with life? What’s your secret?” They never did ask me such questions but that never stopped me from answering those questions I wished they asked.
Our friendship eventually dissolved and looking back, the reason is glaringly obvious: Who wants to befriend somebody who’s always trying to change them? Healthy friendships, and in fact, any good relationship, can’t be built upon a desire to change the other person. When I reflect upon my college self, I’m exasperated by her efforts. I just want to say to her, “Girl, calm down. Enjoy the other person and get to really know them instead of see them as a means to an end. Your constant vigilance for evangelism opportunities is wearing you out. Here, have a beer. In fact, go enjoy a beer with those two friends.”
A different way of thinking about evangelism
Much has changed since college. I eventually discovered progressive Christianity, a thread of Christianity I didn’t know existed for most of my religious upbringing, and slowly stitched together a new understanding of God. This new understanding taught me to see prospective converts as individuals with their own rich life stories. They do not need to subscribe to mine in order to be more valuable or saved.
What then of sharing the “good news” then? If I truly believe in the salvific power of Jesus Christ, then why wouldn’t I share it with others? I do believe in the salvific power of Jesus Christ and I’ve witnessed it in my own life, time and time again.
I witnessed it when I was battling severe anxiety after college because I wasn’t able to find a job. This anxiety led to insomnia and during one of my many sleepless nights, I decided to pray instead of fret. During that prayer time, I felt the warm embrace of a mother holding me and soothing me like a baby.
I witnessed it when I encountered the gospel stories and wept because I was so taken aback by Jesus’ deep love for the most ostracized members of society, and consequently, the most unlovable parts of myself.
I witnessed it most powerfully during a week-long retreat in silence when I was in my mid-twenties. At the beginning of the week, the retreat leader asked us to consider what name we wanted to give Jesus. Just as Hagar gave God a new name in the book of Genesis, we were invited to give Jesus a new name that accurately reflected our unique relationship with him. I thought about this question for days. Eventually, I settled on friend. Jesus was one I felt comfortable sharing my deepest secrets with, without the fear of judgment. Jesus was one who accompanied me on my life journey without rushing me forward or pulling me from behind. On the last day of the retreat, I sat in a church and let the hymns wash over me, like a rainfall. As I sat, I heard more clearly than a voice on a megaphone but more quiet than a whisper, “As I am a friend to you, be a friend to others.”
Jesus’ words summoned me to a new kind of evangelism in every relationship I have: to walk alongside others, hear their stories, grieve with them when they’re hurting, never push them towards one direction or another, wholeheartedly listen to what is making them come alive. And most importantly, to let them offer the same for me.
The Rev. Lydia Sohn is an United Methodist ordained elder within the California Pacific Conference. She left her full-time church appointment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to blog, write a book, and be a stay-at-home mom for her two young kids. Follow along at www.revlydia.com.