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8 habits for spreading the Good News

Evangelism: Don’t make resolutions, create habits

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, sees teaching as an integral part of evangelism. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Mission Agency

The Rev. Edwin Gertz-Gonzales is reconstructing everything he has thought he knew about evangelism. As part of a group studying the first evangelism resource produced for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in more than a decade — “8 Habits of Evangelism” — he’s been having conversations with his congregation of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Sun City Center, Florida, about what he’s been discovering. After learning about what the church’s evangelism committee has done in the past five years to attract younger generations to church, Gertz-Gonzales told them he had some bad and good news.

“I told them I appreciated their efforts, but that what they were doing didn’t have anything to do with evangelism,” he said. “It was more about good American marketing.”

At first people started laughing, but the room quieted down when Gertz-Gonzales said evangelism is about living life in such a way that others see Jesus in you, and because of that, they want to follow Christ. “This ‘8 Habits’ resource is not another program or technique,” Gertz-Gonzalez said. “Even the evangelicals in our denomination are aware that we no longer know how to reach another generation.”

Written by diverse authors in the PC(USA), the eight habits of evangelism were identified by the Rev. Drs. Ray Jones and Kathryn Threadgill, respectively the director and associate director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology, Formation & Evangelism. They began praying about this new resource in November 2019. Within a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world began exposing the many inequalities of race and economy within the U.S.

As Jones and Threadgill listened to God, they began identifying the habits of evangelism. They came up with eight: radical welcome, worship, sacraments, prayer, justice, teaching, fellowship and generosity. They then identified which voices in the church might write about each one.

In his opening paragraph of the preamble to “8 Habits,” Jones describes the need for the resource: “When an essential ministry of the church is distorted by religious zealots and used to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the community of faith, the message of good news and glad tidings is turned into judgment and exclusion. To address this situation churches have developed evangelism committees and trained people in evangelism. These committees are formed and faith sharing training is sought after to grow and support declining churches, not to bear witness to good news.”

For Jones, the number one question for the church is: “How are we forming people who act, think and speak like Jesus?” He believes these habits provide a way for congregations to go deeper into their relationships with God, with their faith community and with people outside their faith community.

“It’s not a program that is going to take us into our future. It’s about how we show up in our neighborhoods with love and justice and hope,” Jones said. “It’s truly going to be in meeting the needs of people around us that we will find ourselves living into what it means to be the body of Christ.”

The habit of praying

The Rev. Dr. Tom Bagley, pastor of Normandy Presbyterian Church, a small congregation in Normandy, Tennessee, and a church revitalization and evangelism consultant/coach, wrote about prayer for the “8 Habits” resource. He believes prayer makes all the other habits possible because it nurtures one’s relationship with God. “It gives us access to God’s guidance and power so that we can live lives that are distinctive,” Bagley said. “People aren’t interested in words; they are interested in authentic living.”

When followers of Jesus develop habits that demonstrate a distinctive way of life and actually practice radical welcome, live generously and act justly, Bagley said, it invites curiosity from people outside of the church.

“People in the early church prayed personally, as if God were close to them,” said Bagley. “They prayed for wholeness in every aspect of life. And they prayed with confidence that God heard their prayers and answered them, as Jesus had taught.”

If we pray this way, Bagley is convinced the world would take note and be drawn to Jesus and the community that follows him.

The habit of radical welcome

When it comes to the habit of “radical welcome” and the church, the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard knows what it is to feel like an outsider looking in. Leonard also knows what it’s like to sit in a place of welcome and inclusion.

Leonard, who is the associate for gender and racial justice of the PC(USA), talks about the joy they felt when Heather, a young transgender adult, came to the church Leonard once pastored in Pittsburgh. Heather was struggling to understand if — and how — God could love her. She was suicidal about the notion that God had turned God’s back on her, especially given her religious upbringing. Leonard invited her to a conference the church was hosting. Heather eventually became a member and was even active in the church’s outreach to other transgender college students.

But if radical welcome is just on paper in a mission statement or it’s just talked about, Leonard believes this generation and generations to come will see right through it.

“They’re looking for the love of Christ to show up in their community in ways that are tangible and real,” Leonard said. “One of those ways that is tangible is how you welcome what may be a stranger in your context. So do your work, show up in your community, and be a presence to those you might consider a stranger.”

The habits of fellowship and generosity

In their lesson on fellowship, Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of PC(USA), and the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts, the former pastor of First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami, write that in life “everything is about relationship.”

“Establishing and fostering authentic relations are essential to the formation of community. The church, as the body of Christ, is called to be a community, not just for the sake of gathering, but also to be in relationship with God, each other and the world, to model the values Jesus lived and taught.”

Cintrón-Olivieri and Capella-Pratts say that how we fellowship — to create church communities that are loving, authentic, grace-filled, reconciling and just — is a practice of evangelism. “How we relate to God and our neighbors is how we build the kin-dom,” they said. “Fellowship as a practice of evangelism is a continual invitation to renew our commitment to embody Christ’s love and kindness in our daily lives.”

(Left) Dr. Leanne Van Dyk, (Center) the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, (Right) the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson

For Dr. Leanne Van Dyk, president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, writing about generosity helped her realize her own capacity for generosity could be nurtured and encouraged with practice, with intentionality and deep openness with others. “For generosity is spacious like a vast seabed,” Van Dyk said, “that encompasses virtues that nourish evangelism.” It encourages not only the selfless sharing of resources, but also hospitality, acceptance, love and welcome. “Generosity says, ‘Come on in and sit down.’ Surely that is the beginning of evangelism,” said Van Dyk.

The habit of justice

When Dr. Ralph B. Watkins, professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Theological Seminary, talks about the habit of justice, he almost always mentions his mother.

She taught him a valuable lesson when he was a young Sunday school student about the importance of hearing and then responding to the church’s clarion call to justice and equality.

In Sunday school, he was the star pupil of the class, but his classmate, Debra, was much smarter than he was. On Fridays they would do the lesson together. Come Sunday, though, Watkins did all the talking and sharing. One day his mother pulled him aside and asked, “Why is it that you won’t let Debra talk on Sunday?”

Eventually one Sunday, Watkins told his teacher that everything he knew was because Debra taught him. It’s the first time he remembers his mom saying she was “proud of him.”

“She taught me to see the injustice of sexism in the Black church,” Watkins said. “She showed me how it happened and that if you see something, you should say something.”

For Watkins, though, one must also do something for justice because Jesus showed us that justice is what love looks like publicly. In his writing about justice, Watkins says, people knew something was different about the ministry of Jesus and they responded.

They followed because, as trite as it sounds, Jesus was a person of his word. He didn’t just preach the Gospel; he brought good news in word and deed. Justice rights the wrongs, challenges systems of oppression, assaults systems of stratification and meets the needs of all. Jesus challenges the traditional order of things, the hierarchy and the staunchness of stale ministry that is locked in a building and rarely hits the streets.

The habits of worship, sacraments and teaching

For the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California, “staleness of ministry” sometimes comes when leaders expect people to bear with worship — rather than create and practice worship that has transformational power. In all that he does preparing for worship, which is the habit he wrote about, Reyes-Chow tries to be mindful of how God is working on him.

In worship, he wants a community and place where he can be rejuvenated, while being an entry point for people who are not part of a religious community. What is essential to the worship experience, Reyes-Chow says, is our story about the Gospel we believe in that focuses on justice, education and community. “The content is there,” he said, “but we’re just terrible at telling the story.”

For Reyes-Chow, the time we’re living in provides churches with a unique opportunity to share theologically grounded conversations about justice in the world. “The world is changed; we need to step into that space,” he said. “Disruption should be embraced and encouraged.”

During this time of pandemic, the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, reminds herself how beautiful the rich language and imagery of the Reformed tradition are around the sacraments.

She realized how much she missed the sacraments during an in-person worship service held in late September 2021, when a two-year-old was baptized. The little girl was all over the place: first by the font, then on the steps, putting one hand up to the Lord. “She was all in,” Brooks-Johnson said. “It was so exciting. It was like seeing, feeling and touching grace on display.”

Brooks-Johnson believes there is a need to reimagine what that grace on display experienced in the sacraments might look like in our daily lives so that we might be present to the mystery of the moments when the ordinary become extraordinary.

In her lesson on the sacraments being one of the habits of evangelism, she wrote: “Living sacramentally takes an intentional approach to daily practices of living and moves through them with prayer, thoughtfulness and eyes wide open, to the miracle-working power of God in small and subtle movements.”

For Brooks-Johnson, there is a rhythm to sacramental living that includes rest, reflection and rediscovery. As people discover a spirit-filled rhythm that allows them to be present and in tune to see grace on display, Brooks-Johnson hopes they can articulate it even when things get really hard. “It’s easy to get numb, to hunker down in your way of seeing the world, living in an us-versus-them, polarized reality,” she said. “We can’t do that if we’re going to proclaim the Gospel in its fullest.”

In thinking about proclaiming the Gospel through the habit of teaching, the Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, executive director of the De Pree Center Church Leadership Institute and associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, talks about the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20, which expressly charges the first apostles with teaching as part of the work of evangelizing.

“Discipleship is evangelism,” he said. “Preaching the Gospel is inextricably tied to making disciples. Teaching them to ‘obey’ is really about helping people who hear the Good News of God’s redemptive love, learn to live into and live out of that very same love. It is both being given the gift of new birth and learning to walk as that new creation.”

As Gertz-Gonzales gains these insights by going deeper into the evangelism habits, he says his “entire interior is being demolished.” As this happens for him, and then for his congregation, he believes this way of evangelism will be much more authentic.

What Jones keeps coming back to is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What might happen, he wonders, if the church took seriously that in Jesus’ life the powers of the world were crucified on the cross?

“It seems so simple, but I still believe the church is a Holy Spirit movement that leads us into our communities,” Jones said. “We tend to think about what’s good for the church in terms of how we’re going to make it or survive. But what it is about is how do we live and serve in our communities, so that all people can best engage their purpose and their life?”

Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

8 Habits of Evangelism

Here’s a look at the eight habits identified for evangelism today. Take time to pray and reflect on each area in terms of how the Good News is shared by your congregation.

  • Worship
  • Generosity
  • Justice
  • Radical welcome
  • Sacraments
  • Teaching
  • Prayer
  • Fellowship

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