Reclaiming evangelism in the Bible Belt

 

Vital Congregations initiative participant learns how to better articulate faith in Jesus Christ

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — At its most recent session meeting, McGregor Presbyterian Church elders and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Julie Walkup Bird, celebrated.

On the path of living into vitality, McGregor Presbyterian Church in Columbia is one of the churches in South Carolina’s Trinity Presbytery that participated in the two-year Vital Congregations initiative.

The Rev. Julie Walkup Bird, pastor of McGregor Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., invited church members to discuss their faith journey during worship this summer. (Contributed photo)

As part of the pilot program, McGregor studied together the seven marks of a Vital Congregation:

  • Lifelong discipleship
  • Intentional, authentic evangelism
  • Outward incarnational focus
  • Empower servant leadership
  • Spirit-inspired worship
  • Caring relationships
  • Ecclesial heath

(Learn more about each mark in section II of the Vital Congregations Immediate Toolkit)

According to Bird, the marks initially served as a reinforcement and framework for “how God has been leading us over the last decade.”  But as church members studied the marks together, the one that proved to be more of a challenge for the congregation stood out on the U.S. Congregational Life Survey: intentional authentic evangelism.

“It was our lowest-scoring mark,” Bird said of the survey, was administered to all churches participating in the pilot VC initiative.

Bird began talking with the session and with committee members about how they might help the congregation interpret what the gospel means while sharing their lives with non-Christians. Together, they began asking questions like, “How do we as Presbyterians articulate our story in Jesus Christ?”

Because the evangelistic language used by other Christian groups in the Bible Belt is sometimes heard as hurtful or exclusive, Bird said there was a hesitancy at McGregor to even talk about evangelism.

“People shared how they felt judged in conversations with other Christians and didn’t want to give that same impression as they articulated their faith,” Bird said. “We wanted to claim gospel words and actions that were welcoming and inclusive to others.”

McGregor parishioners decided they wanted to reclaim intentional authentic evangelism by empowering everyone to witness to a gospel message that was not so “in your face.” Bird created a 10-week series for summer worship entitled “Words from a Witness.”  As part of each worship service, she interviewed a member of the congregation about their faith journey.

During one of the first Sundays, a member shared how her role as a paramedic allowed her to embody the presence of Christ when people needed it the most. She described being a calming presence for those facing trauma as well as finding ways to remind the people she encountered that they are loved by God.   

Hearing others talking about their faith, other church members began to volunteer to be the next witnesses.  By the end of the summer, people of all ages, including youth, were sharing stories about their faith journey. And as they claimed the movement of God in their lives, they found new vocabulary to articulate their faith in Christ.

One woman recalled how God used a childhood experience as a foundation for her faith. As a child, she was given a poster in Sunday school with this message: “God is Love.” Through those words on a poster, which hung for years on her bedroom wall, she grew up to claim that simple affirmation of faith for herself.

Church elders celebrated when McGregor recapped where the church now stands in relationship to the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations. On the mark where they’d scored the lowest, there is now a sense of freshness and excitement as church leaders remember the laughter and tears they shared together around their faith stories.

“Vital Congregations has given us a renewed sense of energy, a new framework to build excitement about being the church of Jesus Christ,” Bird said. “As faithful witnesses to God’s grace and love, we want to joyfully proclaim and live out the gospel beyond the walls of our church.”

The Office of Vital Congregations is now accepting letters of interest from presbyteries interested in participating in the next wave of the VC initiative.  Applications are due November 1.

 Trinity Presbytery, where 10 churches and 11 pastors participated in a pilot VC initiative, has nine churches planning on going through the initiative’s second wave.   


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