'Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.' This is my annual contribution to the celebration of St. Francis Day, to consider the most famous quote that he probably never said. And to encourage us all to reconsider it. After all, Francis preached with words all the time. The reason he was talking to the birds might have been that he had worn out all the people around him with his preaching!
And in today's world, where fewer and fewer people are familiar with the Gospel, it is becoming more important every day that we follow Francis' example and use our words to share our faith, so that others may also know it. It's hard, I know. When I talk with people about evangelism, they usually say things like this:
We feel uncomfortable talking about religion, and about making others feel uncomfortable talking about religion.
We do not feel connected enough to our Christian faith to articulate it clearly, and/or are unsure how much we ourselves believe it.
We do not feel that we know the Christian story, especially Scripture, well enough to defend it under scrutiny from others.
Of course it 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.'
But often I am asked, 'how do we do this without seeming obnoxious, judgmental or awkward?' Some thoughts...
1. Get comfortable with our own faith. Take the time 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?
2. Get comfortable with the basics of Christianity. 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?
3. Make church a place where we really share the Gospel. Most church time is 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.
4. Know the difference between 'I believe' and 'You should believe.' 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.
5. Get comfortable with real differences. 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.' This actually implies that our understanding of 'getting along' is of a higher moral value than anything that any religious tradition proclaims. 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.
6. Start with those we know. 'Evangelism', of course, stereotypically brings images of streetcorner shouters or persistent people who knock on our doors. 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.