The PC(USA)’s Evangelism Conference looks at churches’ ‘beautiful lies and ugly truths’

Conference keynoter the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard does not shrink from suggesting what evangelism requires of the faithful

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard

LOUISVILLE — Fresh off being announced Monday as the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s new director of Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries, the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard delivered the first two of three keynote addresses at the Evangelism Conference being held through Tuesday at Montreat Conference Center and online. The conference theme is “Addressing Harm, Embracing Hope.”

During Monday’s first keynote, Leonard identified what they called “beautiful lies and ugly truths” about churches.

Among the beautiful lies and the ugly truths suggested by Leonard:

  • Justice is automatically a part of the life of the church. The truth is that “many are leaving the church because we have been silent on issues or have been in opposition to matters important to many, especially marginalized people,” Leonard said.
  • If we build it, they will come. The thinking here is that “if the sanctuary is bright and beautiful, our parking lot is accessible and we’ve got the good choir, people will come,” Leonard said. The ugly truth is that few people “are beating down our doors. Too often we have relegated ourselves to the confines of our safe buildings … We have the good news that must be taken outside the walls of comfort into a world that so desperately needs the love of God shown more than told.”
  • Another of the beautiful lies many people tell is “We are all one in Christ.” But “my Black queer self ain’t never felt this” except maybe once, Leonard said. “We other people daily,” Leonard said, then asked: How do we treat people whose first language isn’t English? Whose economic status is not our own?

So, Leonard asked, who are we, how did we get here, and how do we not end up here again?

“We got here because of a history that’s difficult and a present that’s emerging from difficulty,” Leonard said. “We have to deal with who we are right now. … We have to be honest, y’all, about who we are.”

The good news, they said, is “if we are purposeful and careful, it does not have to be our future. People in this room know what it’s like to be ostracized in some way. Why would you perpetuate that harm on someone else?

“We don’t have time,” Leonard said, “to do church as usual.”

During their Monday afternoon keynote, Leonard addressed this question: What the hell is evangelism, really?

“You can tolerate me all day long, but to be included is a different ballgame,” Leonard said. Tolerant churches might celebrate Black History Month “or even have some Black History snacks after church,” they said. “We may do some of our songs in Spanish and Korean. That’s tolerance.” Inclusion is having diverse people among the church’s leadership — especially when making decisions about how money will be spent. “I don’t want to be tolerated,” Leonard said. “I want to be included.”

Many Presbyterians expect they’ll be evangelizing people while on mission trips. Leonard talked about three they’d been on — one to Mexico, another to the Dominican Republic and a third to Senegal. During the second trip, organizers asked Leonard and fellow seminarians to build a retaining wall at a local school.

“When I want something constructed — especially something important like a retaining wall — I don’t go to seminary students,” Leonard said. “What I was bringing wasn’t evangelism at all. It was performative — something I could put on my resumé, that I’ve done international ministry. I’m pretty sure those students aren’t saying, ‘Thank God Shanea came and built that wall!’”

Instead, what if we defined evangelism as “the process of just being — not pressing my views of life, but embodying the love, grace, vulnerability, justice and inclusivity that Jesus embodies?” Leonard asked.

Conference participants, both in person and online, frequently interacted with what Leonard was saying.

“I don’t know that people are looking at us and saying, ‘They have access to a deeper peace.’ It’s part of the truth I think we need to face in ourselves,” one participant said.

Leonard suggested four things evangelism requires of us:

  • We must decrease so God may increase.
  • We must confront who we are and who we aren’t.
  • Discomfort is the point. “It’s like putting your size 9 foot into a size 7 shoe,” Leonard said.
  • We must know where the needs are and how we can be of service.

“We signed up for this, y’all,” Leonard reminded those in attendance. “Who would I be without God? I don’t even want to think about it.”

Here’s the question Leonard concluded with for participants to ponder until Tuesday’s third and final keynote address: In what areas of my life, ministry and church am I not yet yielding to the Spirit of God?”

In addition to Leonard’s final keynote and more workshop offerings, the Rev. Gregory Bentley, Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) and pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, will preach Tuesday during the conference’s closing worship.

On Wednesday and Thursday, The Immersion, a conference sponsored by the Office of Vital Congregations, will be held at Montreat Conference Center and online. More information on The Immersion can be found here.

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