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Posts Tagged ‘evangelism’

The stained glass windows in many churches portray the Holy Spirit as a gentle dove but the ancient Celtic Christians named the Holy Spirit an Geadh-Glas: ‘the wild goose’. The name conveys the sense of unpredictability that Jesus talked about in his conversation with Nicodemus: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3: 7-8, The Message)

Alan Roxburgh, in an article entitled “Join the Wild Goose Chase” (no longer available online) wrote, “The wild goose is unpredictable (like the wind). Taking seriously this sense of God, Celtic missionaries went on wild goose chases, entering the spaces, towns, hamlets, and villages of the 7th century England in the conviction that the wild goose was out there ahead of them. They were open to being surprised by the wild goose, prayerfully asking what God was doing and joining there by naming the name of Jesus, dwelling among people and opening the story of God’s love and grace”.

The adventure on which the Spirit is leading us is taking the church past some familiar landmarks. Congregations are forming regional clusters where ordered ministry personnel function in ways similar to Methodist circuit riders. People are being formed as disciples in small groups, a format John Wesley used. Ancient Christian practices and disciplines are being adopted and adapted for new contexts. The sacraments of baptism and communion are being re-visited and taking on new significance. Congregations are recovering their identity as baptized and baptizing, Spirit-gifted communities.

From its beginnings, the Church understood that, when someone is baptized, that person is ordained into ministry by the call of God. Hands are laid upon the person being baptized to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for God’s mission. Baptism makes every Christian one of Christ’s representatives and witnesses in the world. It gives all Christians the gift and responsibility of functioning as priests to one another and as evangelists in the world.

Baptism is the entrance into a way of life that is all-embracing and life-changing. However, the significance of baptism as commissioning into a high and holy calling was largely lost in Christendom. When the majority of the people already considered themselves to be Christians, evangelism was reduced to a concern about ‘accepting Christ as your personal Saviour so you can be sure you are going to heaven when you die’; mission became something done by specialized agencies and persons in distant places, financially supported by churches in North America; ministry, both pastoral and priestly, was something done by the paid professional minister to meet the needs of consumers of religious goods and services. Baptism became merely a cultural rite of passage, a one-time action that did not have a significant impact on the rest of one’s life.

Christendom churches may have been able to function with a majority of their members treating baptism as merely a cultural rite of passage. That is no longer adequate. In the dying days of Christendom, the church faces an indifferent and increasingly hostile culture. The mission field is no longer in distant places. It has moved into the neighbourhoods and workplaces and of every member. In the face of despair and brokenness, hurt and loneliness, people need evangelism to be something more than eternal life insurance. They need good news of authentic hope. Churches that are engaging the mission field around them need the active participation of every minister that the Holy Spirit has given them.

The way forward for congregations includes a recovery of baptism as a significant event that has ongoing effects on each Christian’s identity and practice of their faith.

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Many people in post-mainline churches have trouble talking about their faith in public. There are many reasons for this, but I began wondering about one of them the other day.

For many years, ‘faith’ was framed as something that was ‘private’. If it is ‘private’, then speaking about it to others involves risk — allowing oneself to be vulnerable. So, I wonder if one of the reasons people are reluctant to talk about faith is that they are afraid of being shamed.

For some people, the fear of being shamed comes because they do not believe all the things that they think they are supposed to believe. They have trouble with doctrines like the ‘virgin birth’ or the ‘resurrection of the dead’. They cannot believe that the miracles in the Bible really happened. Lots of people who follow Jesus also have trouble with some of the church’s doctrines. More accurately, lots of people have trouble subscribing to the popular conceptions about what those doctrines are saying. However, I have been surprised by the number of people who confess to me that they ‘don’t believe all those things’ as if such an admission might make me think less of them and their faithfulness. When I am looking at church websites I am amused by the study groups that have named themselves as ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’, when the focus of their group is nothing more daring than reading books that question some beliefs that are supposedly commonly held. Obviously, in some segments of the Church, there is still a mindset that considers being truthful about your doubts a risky thing. Some people are ‘rebellious’ enough to gather with others, admit their questions, and enter into conversation about them. Others keep their doubts to themselves and so do not talk about their faith in public.

On the other hand, I wonder if some people are reluctant to talk about their faith in public because they DO believe certain things and they are afraid that, in a culture of skepticism, others will make fun of them for that or will think less of them. Will they be mocked because they do believe that miracles happen? Will they be considered foolish if they admit that they have had an experience of Christ’s presence? ? Will people dismiss their answers to their prayers as a misinterpretation of the facts?

Churches could go a long way in helping people to speak about their faith publicly by cultivating an environment where respectful, open and honest conversations happen. In such an atmosphere, it would be all right to question. It would also be all right to believe. People wouldn’t be labelled as either foolish or rebellious. People would not be mocked for either belief or doubt.

Then, perhaps, churches could move the conversation about faith away from ‘belief’ to ‘trust’ — which holds even more risk because it moves the conversation from the head to the heart and will and body.

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The Church, by its very nature, is missional: the Holy Spirit gathers people into the Church and then sends them out into the world with the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.The first gift that the Holy Spirit gave to the Church at Pentecost was the gift of speech. The early Church expected that every member would witness to the amazing work God does in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I can’t speak for other denominations but, in the United Church of Canada at least, it can be difficult to get people to witness to the work is God is doing in their lives. People might share some stories with their pastor but they resist telling others, especially in a public context.

There may be a number of reasons for this: many of the people in our congregations were raised in an era where faith was considered to be decidedly private; they may feel that they don’t have appropriate language to speak about their experiences; they don’t want to be associated with those aggressive, brash types who want to know, “Are you saved?” and have only one particular kind of answer that would be considered adequate. Some fear that, if they were to share their experiences, other people would make fun of them. They would dismiss their witness as delusional.

There was a time when people thought that words weren’t necessary in order to witness to one’s faith. The deeds you did would speak for themselves. A popular quotation (mistakenly attributed to St. Francis) was, “Preach the gospel often and, if necessary, use words.” That may have been appropriate in Christendom, when people assumed that ‘everybody’ was Christian and could easily attribute good deeds to an underlying Christian faith. However, we are no longer in Christendom. Most people do not associate Christianity with the doing of kind and good deeds. They also recognize that people who do good things are not necessarily Christian. Years ago, a friend who was a missionary in Nepal told me, “When I do something kind and good in Nepal, I cannot assume that people will realize I am doing it because I am a disciple of Jesus. They are more likely to assume that I am doing it because I sinned in a previous life and am now working to atone for my sins.” The situation is now similar in North America — people will attribute our actions to any number of motivations. Words have again become necessary.

People may want to share their faith but find it difficult to be comfortable in doing so. I have been wondering what a church could do to help. The impulse to speak about one’s faith arises from the love that the Spirit of Christ places in human hearts — love for those who need to hear the good news of God’s unwavering love, of the hope that Christ offers, of the Spirit’s liberating power. So, I am wondering if, for many of the people in our congregations, it is their love for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that could be a gateway for learning to speak about faith to others. They are puzzled and troubled by the fact that their children have so little to do with the life of the Church, even though they were brought to church activities all their lives. They are concerned that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are growing up without hearing the stories of Jesus. They long to pass the faith on to the next generation, knowing that it has been a source of strength and comfort and guidance throughout their own lives. Some of them faithfully bring their grandchildren to worship and to Sunday School, even though the parents don’t attend, hoping that the stories will be told there.

Christian faith is story-based. It is through stories that Jesus reveals to us what God is like and what the reign of God looks like. It is through stories that our lives are shaped and we develop the lens through which we see the world. If the faith is going to be passed along to the next generation, it will be important to get those stories deep into hearts and minds and souls.

So, I have been wondering: What if a congregation asked the adults, “What is your favourite Bible story? Why is it important to you? What is one Bible story you want your grandchildren to know? Why?” The stories could be gathered into a booklet or the adults could tell the story in a video. The artists in the congregation could illustrate the stories. The booklet (in whatever form it eventually took) could be given to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren as a gift, offering an opportunity to read or view it together. Perhaps a booklet/video could be produced for each season of the Christian year. Over time, these booklets or videos may be places to start a deeper conversation.

As I was thinking about these things, it occurred to me: Learning to talk about our faith takes practice. It is a critical practice for the church in this new context. However, it may be that what is more basic than that even is not our faith but the faith. What is more critical is learning to tell the Story, as a way of learning to find the words to tell our part in it.

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