'Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.' I am guessing most Christians have heard this at one time or another, and most have heard that it is a quote from St. Francis of Assisi. Yet there is no evidence that St. Francis ever said it, and plenty of evidence that he preached, with words, all the time. In fact, one of the reasons he talked to animals seems to come not merely from the love of them, but from the fact that he had exhausted everyone else with his preaching! I hear this 'use words if necessary' phrase quite a bit, mostly when I ask congregations how they share the Christian faith outside of the doors of the church. 'We have a bingo night,' they tell me, or 'we pack backpacks for hungry kids', or 'we participate in a walk to raise needed funds or awareness.' These are obviously wonderful things, but when I press them to explain what people learn about Jesus from these encounters, it gets a little more difficult (and the 'St. Francis' quote comes out!). People often insist that, to quote a Roman Catholic hymn, 'they will know we are Christian by our love'. Yet often, upon reflection, many simply say this is really difficult, and often for three major reasons:
1. We feel uncomfortable talking about religion, and about making anyone else feel uncomfortable talking about religion.
2. We do not feel connected enough to our own Christian faith to articulate it clearly, and/or are unsure how much we ourselves believe it.
3. We do not feel that we know the Christian story, especially Scripture, well enough to defend it under scrutiny from others.
And yet, I believe that it is as important now as it has ever been, maybe even more so, that individual Christians speak of their faith, and that churches foster strong formation for doing exactly this. Church attendance and participation is declining precipitously in this country. Whole generations of people are now growing up without knowing even the most basic aspects of Christianity such as what Easter is, the life and ministry of Jesus, what is in the Bible. When people do have questions about Christianity, they are not wandering into churches to find the answers, because they have never been there, even for weddings or funerals, and have no idea what to expect. Instead, they are Googling 'Christianity', and what they find there is so often not what they would find at most mainstream Christian churches. The ever-growing number of our neighbors who do not attend church (and who see no need to) will know nothing of the Good News of following Jesus unless we tell them.
Of course this is hard and scary. It is also the mission of every Christian, the very last words that Jesus left us with after his resurrection: 'go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.' This is a properly attributed quote, and one that should guide us as we consider our lives of faith. But often I am asked, 'how do we do this without seeming obnoxious, judgmental or awkward?' Some thoughts...
Get comfortable with our own faith. I am amazed how easy it is to be a church-going Christian and yet not have the opportunity or space every week to think about our own faith formation. How often do we take the time, in our everyday lives, to ask ourselves what we believe and how we are engaging our faith: What do we think happens when we die? When we suffer? Where is God in a situation at work or home? What are we praying for and why? How are we growing (or stagnating) in our faith? I have encountered extremely few congregations where this kind of personal formation for everyone is discussed, much less made part of regular community life.
Get comfortable with the basics of Christianity. Likewise, I often feel like the Christian faith is presumed when I visit a church. If you already know the basics of the Bible, the sacraments, and the tradition, it makes sense. If you have never been introduced to them, or it has been a long time, it can feel intimidating to ask questions. When I ask church members how many questions they think they could answer on topics like Bible stories, why we do certain things in worship, and what the seasons of the year mean, they usually laugh and say, 'not many' (even when they are wrong!). What could be different if every Sunday were used as an opportunity to learn something new about the Christian faith and why it is important?
Make church a place where we really share the Gospel with each other. My experience of most mainstream congregations I visit is that time and energy are almost exclusively spent on four things: worship; maintenance of structure (physical and organizational, including money); fellowship/socializing; and outreach. Very little time is spent on faith formation and/or sharing our experience as disciples. Most churches have some kind of Sunday school or adult forum, but these are often not-well attended and/or focused on social concerns more than sharing the faith. I wonder more and more what Sunday morning would look like if we banished everything except worshiping God and talking about our lives with Jesus.
Know the difference between 'I believe' and 'You should believe.' If we begin by transforming our lives in religious community, I think that sharing our stories as Christians automatically becomes easier, with a solid base of support and encouragement. And with this comes more of an ease in sharing who we are with others. Often people assume 'evangelism' means me telling you what is right and wrong, and why you should believe what I believe. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus mostly shows up as who he is, saying and doing things that point to God's Kingdom, and people want to know more. The first disciples were filled with excitement, yet their goal was positive: come hear what we know about the love of God that transformed our lives. When our own lives feel transformed, we can't help but share in similar ways.
Get comfortable with real differences. And yet, out there in the world, there is a persistent belief that seems to say: 'we all believe in some sort of God and as long as we are good people and get along, that is the most important thing.' It is exemplified in a popular bumper sticker with various religious symbols which spell out 'coexist'. However, this actually implies that our understanding of 'getting along' is of a higher moral value than anything that any religious tradition proclaims (which is actually kind of an oppressive thought). In reality, different faiths are quite different. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Obviously, those who are not Christian do not believe this, and this is quite the contradiction in our world views. It doesn't mean we have to fight about it. It does mean we have to acknowledge it. Otherwise, we are basically proclaiming, with our silence, that it doesn't really matter very much. And then we wonder why our churches are emptying.
Start with those we know. 'Evangelism', of course, stereotypically brings images of streetcorner shouters or persistent people in suits who knock on our doors. Yet this is not the only way of doing it, of course. I wonder how often we talk at our dinner tables about our walk with Jesus today, or engage a piece of Scripture with our spouse, or tell a co-worker we have been praying for them, or speak of our faith on Facebook and Twitter. There are so many moments where it seems natural to articulate our beliefs, if we just look for them and take them. Of course it is scary. Important moments often are. All we have to do is preach the Gospel. With words.