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A new tool for evangelism

People are showing up for online worship in unexpected ways

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade has noticed an unexpected phenomenon emerging from the coronavirus pandemic: The pastors she mentors and the students she teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky are feeling something akin to relief.

“Wow!” they’ve told Schade, who was interviewed by the Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, Tuesday as part of the Festival of Homiletics, being held online this year. “They tell me, ‘I am getting some time now to do a little more reflecting. We’re doing Bible study online and conducting church business differently.”

And because their services are online, “They find people who aren’t members are listening to their sermons,” she said. “A student told me she has to rethink her preaching because it’s not just the congregation she knows.” A friend from high school was viewing her service each week.

“This is an opportunity for evangelism. It’s a way to reach people we never reached before,” Schade said. “I tell them, ‘Imagine someone who has never been to church before. How do you say what you are going to say to that person? That’s not hypothetical anymore.’”

It’s time for preachers either to build bridges or prepare bridges to include people who have a negative impression of the church or have been harmed by the church, Schade said.

“I’ve worked with secular environmentalists,” Schade said. “Many feel people of faith don’t care about science or environmental issues. They think that we think that Big Daddy in the Sky will take care of it and we will be fine.”

“When we know others are listening to our sermons, this is an opportunity to address issues of public concern in a theological and biblical way that says, ‘The church is addressing this.’”

Their response could well be, “I didn’t know the church was even interested in that sort of thing,” Schade said. While they might still be a bit suspicious, they’re grateful to see and hear about the faith community “stepping up and responding to these issues affecting communities … We are here because Jesus said to care for the least of these. This is part of our vocation. These are values we share in common. They are grateful and they are willing to partner with us.”

The church, she said, has “found itself in the public square because of COVID-19.”

“There is a viral quality here,” she said, the pun notwithstanding, “but in a very positive way.” Services for churches of 200 members are being viewed by 2,000 people, “and they can’t all be Christians,” Schade said.

People who read the Bible “are called to take cues” from certain biblical stories of “people of faith addressing issues that will affect the common good,” such as Jesus talking about paying taxes and Jethro telling Moses he needs help governing God’s people.

“We are compelled to address these issues,” Schade said, and it can be done while observing the separation between church and state, “making sure values, ethics and morals have a seat at the table.”

The author of books including “Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit” and “Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide,” Schade said one of her goals is to equip pastors with an ecological theology. “The mandate to till and to keep is foundational to who we are as human beings,” she said.

A few years back, she received 1,200 responses while surveying mainline pastors about how they were using their sermons to deal with controversial issues. She gave pastors 38 topics from which to choose. Among the top 10 mentioned were poverty, racial and ethnic tensions, food insecurity, homelessness and immigration.

At the bottom of the list were environmental issues, including climate change, clean energy, environmental racism and fossil fuel extraction. Forty-two percent of respondents said they avoided environmental topics from the pulpit.

“I try to help pastors think about talking about Creation in a way that’s not triggering” for those listening to the sermon, she said. In another survey, climate change ranked high on the “too hot to handle list,” while Creation was one of the least offensive terms.

“It becomes a matter of rhetorical strategies,” she said. “Can you talk about caring for God’s Creation so we frame that as part of our vocation as Christians?” She suggests preachers ask congregants questions like “What are the places n Creation where you feel God’s presence?”

“Jesus himself was in nature,” she said. “He preached to an agrarian people. There are ways we can help connect people in a way that does not have to be divisive but is instead invitational.”


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