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‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed’

Vital Congregations webinar on intentional, authentic evangelism focuses on being real even when in-person gatherings aren’t possible

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Ray Jones portrait

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III

LOUISVILLE — For a Zoom gathering of about 65 people ready to hear Wednesday about doing intentional, authentic evangelism in the time of a pandemic, the director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism, the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, looked to one of his favorite biblical texts in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

“I have been grieving,” Jones told the group convened by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Vital Congregations, which is putting on webinars at 3 p.m. Eastern Time each Wednesday through May 6 on each of the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality. “I am grieving this style of leadership,” he said to the group arranged in boxes reminiscent of the old television game show “Hollywood Squares.” “I am not a virtual person. I am so used to leading in person, it’s very difficult to lead in a different way.”

“I believe,” he said, “it’s OK to grieve what we’ve lost.”

However, he said, there’s “no better time to get reacquainted with intentional, authentic evangelism.” He said evangelism “was never meant to be the manipulative process it has become, trying to get people to be like us so they can get a ticket to go to heaven. It’s about sharing our stories, sharing our lives together.”

Put simply, evangelism is “sharing the good news. We all have good news to share in our lives. When we share it, it is intentional and it is with people with whom we have relationships.”

Then Jones, joined by three webinar hosts in the Vital Congregations office — the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, the Rev. Carlton Johnson and Monique Rhodes — asked participants this question: Why is it important to share the good news in such a time as this?

Responses included, “The good news provides hope and strength through this pandemic. There is comfort and hope in community as many people are fearful and in need of a comforting word.”

“I feel like declaring the ‘good news’ that exists around us is the core of evangelism. Yes, physical and economic despair prevail, and yes, we are grieving the death of systems that will never be the same. But there is also news of people being the hands and feet of Christ, and there is incredible creativity connecting younger people in new ways. Our call as Christians should be to find the good all around us and amplify it.”

Jones said better-than-anticipated experiences he’s had with virtual worship have him thinking about new ways of sharing the good news. He’s mulling meeting virtually with people over coffee to study Acts.

“It is time to be authentic,” he said. “This is a bad situation. There’s no way to cover that up.” Being authentic can look like this, he said: “We can say, ‘I’m not sure I have any answers right now, or at least not an answer for this context.’ I find I have to keep adjusting to this context.”

“If we are not about the mission of restoration and reconciliation, our words are hollow,” Jones said. “Every time I gather for worship,” whether it’s virtual or in-person as in before the pandemic was declared, “I get this sense of the beautiful life God has given us. We can help others see that in themselves, because that’s what we’re called to do when we gather.”

He said Presbyterians must be bolder helping others to “see themselves in this beautiful life,” a task that’s “absolutely difficult now for those with no home or no job or who can’t meet with their loved ones who are dying.”

“How are we making a difference in our communities? If it’s not the gospel, not the expansive love of God in Jesus, I don’t think we need to be together,” he said. “That has been a grounding force for me lately.”

One webinar participant, a chaplain in an Ohio senior housing facility, said she’s seen examples of “tremendous heroism” during the crisis. While she feels safe on the job, she talks to many older residents who are fearful, she said.

“I talk to them about what they have seen in their lifetime,” she told the group. “God got you through those things, and you were just as concerned then as you are now. You didn’t know the outcome then, and we don’t know it now, but our Lord is with us.”

“Thanks for being on the call and for being partners in this work,” Jones said at the close of the hour-long webinar. “Without you the work would be even more difficult.”


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