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People attending the PC(USA)’s Evangelism Conference receive a Top 10 list to help them spread the good news

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard also leads a spirited discussion on white supremacy during their final keynote Tuesday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Kyle Glenn via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The Evangelism Conference, a three-day hybrid offering put on by Theology, Formation & Evangelism in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, concluded at Montreat Conference Center on Tuesday with a list of tips for evangelists and spirited and Spirit-filled closing worship led by the Rev. Gregory Bentley, Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) and pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.

A Top 10 list for evangelists

“These are 10 suggestions. It’s not an exhaustive list,” said conference keynoter the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, announced Monday as the new director of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries.

  • Evangelism is not linear. “There is no clear path for how to do it,” Leonard said.
  • Evangelism is messy. “Don’t wear your good Easter suit,” Leonard advised. “I have fun being a Christian, but it doesn’t mean it’s always good days and sunny rays.”
  • Evangelism must have a basis in justice. “There is no Jesus without justice,” Leonard said. “Jesus’ ministry is predicated on justice work, on evangelism work, on equity and intersectionality.”
  • Evangelism is radical welcome. “When we talk about radical, we are talking about thorough change,” Leonard said. “Welcome is a warm open invitation for someone to come alongside a community to exemplify what the love of Christ looks like.”
  • Evangelism requires community engagement. “Walk out those doors!” Leonard urged those attending both in person and online. “Get out into the community to see what the needs are!” They suggested not doing that as “the expert. You may need to sit down and shut up … We sometimes have a tendency to have a takeover spirit.” When Leonard was a pastor in Pittsburgh leading a worshiping community committed to social justice and change, a cadre of white allies “would always be in front of our group and around us, providing a line of safety because of the privilege they walked in.” Similarly, attorneys encouraged protesters to write a lawyer’s telephone number on their arms in case they were arrested. “Those are the needs we had at the time, Leonard said. “That’s the way people showed up and embodied justice.”
  • Evangelism cannot be based on white supremacy culture, which Leonard defined as “a way of being and doing that puts whiteness as superior over everything else. I’m clear it’s about whiteness, not white people. There’s a difference. We all suffer from white supremacy culture.” Several participants weighed in on this key topic, engaging Leonard’s point that “white supremacy and Christianity sometimes intermingle” and discussing, among other current events, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments Monday on the constitutionality of affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. During the discussion on white supremacy, a Spanish-speaking man rose to tell those gathered that “only the love of God can break this cultural supremacy. The more [people] hurt me, the more I love them.” Leonard thanked the man and then discussed for a bit the Matthew 25 work of dismantling structural racism. “It’s not an overnight process,” they said, “but it’s been started … I’m part of the group that’s chipping away at it. We’re starting to see some progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.” One sign of progress, Leonard said, is that “we’re having this conversation at an evangelism conference.”
  • Evangelism isn’t performative; it’s embodiment. “Don’t let it be a photo opportunity,” Leonard said. Instead, ask, “Does it come from the root of justice and kindness?”
  • Evangelism must offer the hope and good news of the gospel. Being authentic in your witness is a key, Leonard said.
  • Evangelism requires all of you, head and heart included. “Our entire being should be affected by our faith,” Leonard said.
  • Evangelism is the work of the Spirit, and not us. “Your job is to show up to be the vessel,” Leonard said.

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard

Leonard concluded with a final question: What can we do to further the kin-dom of God if fear wasn’t a factor?

“As you move forward, what does it look like every day to address harm and then embrace hope?” they asked, returning to the conference theme. “That’s what we take with us. Amen?”

“That’s all I’ve got,” Leonard said. “God bless you.”

Closing worship

Bentley preached on Luke 24:13-35, the account of Cleopas and his companions encountering but not immediately recognizing the risen Lord on their way to Emmaus. Bentley titled his sermon “Keep Hope Alive.”

He opened with Langston Hughes’ short poem “Dreams”:

“Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.”

“Hughes warns of the dangers of deferred and dashed dreams. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Bentley asked. “Hope is essential for faithful and fruitful discipleship.”

But sometimes we end up walking that same path that Cleopas and the others walked. “We had hoped he was the one, but they hounded and harassed him,” trying Jesus in a kangaroo court, “hanging him high and stretching him wide” until he died, and then laying him in a borrowed tomb. Like many of us, those on the road to Emmaus were thinking, “Our dreams have been dashed and our hopes have died,” Bentley said.

The Rev. Gregory J. Bentley (Contributed photo)

“Somebody here today is coming up the rough side of the mountain, crying from the depths of their soul: how long, O Lord? I’ve got some gospel for you this evening: Jesus specializes in showing up when all hope is seemingly lost and meets us right where we are.”

Not only that, “he tarries with us,” Bentley said. “He doesn’t just pop in and pop out. He makes the journey with us as we make our way through this barren land.”

And not only does Jesus tarry with us, he also makes the Scriptures plain, according to Bentley. That’s a good thing for folks including Presbyterians. “We try to be deep and erudite and profound,” Bentley said. “We do more confusing than clarifying.”

“In a world of ‘Make America Great Again,’ we need to make the Scriptures plain,” Bentley said, his voice rising as he built his case. “In a world where people would vote for anyone with breath and britches in order to hang onto their power, we need to make the Scriptures plain.”

“We can’t teach anybody we’re not willing to tarry with. The tarrying comes before the teaching,” Bentley said. “Tarrying tells people we are more than allies. We are accomplices and co-conspirators in the pursuit of love and justice.”

“Let us keep working together, walking together and worshiping together to keep hope alive,” Bentley said to applause.

Before taking Communion together, both in-person and online conference-goers had brief prayers they’d written two days before read out loud by worship leaders. The slips of paper had been slipped into a Sankofa bird rendered on corkboard, the creation of conference artist the Rev. Rachel Hood Vogado.

Conference musicians Phillip Morgan, the music director at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for Worship in the Office of Theology & Worship, lent their considerable talents during both opening and closing worship.

Next up for Theology, Formation & Evangelism is The Immersion, which starts Wednesday at Montreat Conference Center and online. Presbyterian News Service will report on that conference as well. It’s being brought to the PC(USA) by the Office of Vital Congregations.

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