Presbyterian panelists explore the role evangelism plays in Christian formation

‘The Scattered Church’ webinar highlights the importance of thoughtful and persistent invitation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Rod Long via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The role that evangelism plays in Christian formation and in other facets of Christian ministry was at the center Tuesday of a thoughtful and lively edition of The Scattered Church, offered periodically by the offices that make up the Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry area of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Stephanie Fritz, mission coordinator for Christian formation in TFE, hosted three guests who had plenty to say about the intersection of evangelism and formation:

“A lot of my role [at SMU UKirk] has been evangelism,” Light-Wells said. “Had you told me that at the beginning of my ministry here, I would have turned and run.” For Presbyterians, that often takes the form of “hearing people’s stories and trusting there’s mutuality there … It’s intentional relationship-building, showing up for whatever is already happening.”

“Evangelism is my jam!” Campbell said. Not only is it relational, it helps people to know they are “known by name and valued in story,” she said. “When we can connect congregants, it allows them to go deeper and draws them closer to the church. It’s really showing that we care for one another.”

The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Campbell

Really, she said, offering people welcome, hospitality and nurture at church is the same thing we do for people in our homes and in other venues. “Just do it at church,” Campbell suggested. “It’s a different house, but you’re doing the same thing. We’re supposed to serve as Christ’s hands and feet, so isn’t it important to show that in everything we do? You’re creating that, Jessie, by being open and affirming and allowing that space.”

Children and youth who come to Cedarkirk for a weekend or a week of camp are, in general, “more suspicious and a little more savvy today,” Shick said. “They are used to being marketed to, and when it comes to evangelism, they are on guard.” Their thinking, according to Shick: “I came for canoeing and the zipline. What are you trying to sell me?”

One way that Cedarkirk has found to help make evangelism more authentic — “to integrate that a little better” — is to talk about God on that canoe trip, or after the child has come down from that zipline tower.

“We are much more intentional about it being a week-long dialogue,” Shick said. One of the first things counselors learn in training is how to sit and listen effectively. “Kids will listen if you listen to them first,” he said. “It’s part of radical welcome. You are loved by everyone here and by God. We will hammer out the details later.”

In addition, Shick said, “We acknowledge any trauma people have experienced at the hands of the church.” Those efforts around evangelism and acknowledgement have been among “the most important things we did. It has paid incredible dividends.”

The Rev. Jessie Light-Wells

Light-Wells said students who are part of UKirk at Southern Methodist University also report “so much trauma and hurt at the hands of the church.” One tool UKirk has used in response is mutual direct communication. Light-Wells starts by telling students when they first meet that she’s a pastor. When she invites students to attend worship, “I am really specific about what we are inviting people into. We give them as much context as possible. That transparency piece is big.”

During the pandemic, churches called on Cedarkirk to perform services that Cedarkirk hadn’t tried before, including traveling to congregations to hold socially distanced mini retreats. “Without Covid, I would not have come up with that [idea] in a million years,” Shick said. “It highlighted the value of partnerships … Those community partnerships [Cedarkirk is a year-round facility owned by the presbyteries of Tampa Bay and Peace River] have been a tremendous blessing” and have included “churches we have never used before and denominations we have never talked to. It has been a true blessing to look for opportunities and capitalize on them.”

Early on in the pandemic, UKirk SMU turned immediately to online gatherings for students. Light-Wells quickly learned the importance of frequent check-ins.

“The lesson was, you can’t do evangelism haphazardly,” she said. “For most people, they need to be sought out. I think the silver lining of Covid was it gave me the chance to build systems during the hardest times of ministry … There have been moments of spontaneity, but what we’re talking about is effort, commitment and intention. That’s what evangelism is.”

UKirk SMU relies on a model known as circles of depth. A core group of leaders is given extra responsibility. Others are interested but have yet to find a foothold at UKirk SMU. “And some I know might be interested, so I’m keeping an eye on them,” Light-Wells said. “It’s an interesting way to view evangelism … It helps me to understand the community better as a web that is always shifting and changing. I think our churches are the same.”

Evangelism “requires us to extend persistent invitations, and I think we miss that a lot,” she said. “We often miss the fact that we need to risk facing rejection by making a personal invitation.”

Tune in here

Upcoming editions of The Scattered Church include:

  • 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, Oct. 20, with the Rev. Shanea Leonard, who will focus on justice as a habit of evangelism. The Zoom link is here.

A discussion on 1001 New Worshiping Communities and Vital Congregations is set for 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Another on Theology and Worship is scheduled for 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Still another, on Presbyterian Youth and Triennium, will occur at 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Nov. 15. The Zoom link for each of these three conversations is here.

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