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‘We don’t own God or the gospel’

Panel discussion on evangelism focuses on building curiosity about people outside our churches to discover what God is up to in the world

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Colin Kerr

LOUISVILLE — What is Intentional Authentic Evangelism? How is it being practiced in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?  And how has your understanding of evangelism changed during your time in ministry?

These were the main questions posed to four PC(USA) leaders this week during a Vital Conversations panel discussion on one of the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations (see section two).

The Rev. Colin Kerr, founding pastor of Parkside Church in Charleston, South Carolina, began the conversation saying that often, “the words ‘intentional’ and ‘authenticity’ don’t go together with evangelism.”

“I’m threading a needle here,” he said, “but in the more evangelical circles evangelism is certainly intentional because it’s strategic.  But often it feels inauthentic.”

Recently Kerr witnessed a baptism at Parkside of a woman who had grown up in the Seattle area. Raised by agnostic parents, she moved to Charleston just before the pandemic hit. New to the area, and looking for connections, she came to the Parkside community.

“She had tension about faith,” Kerr said, “but she was given love and friendship, with no strings attached.”

Yet for Kerr, there was a beautiful intentionality about it. He and others in the community checked in with her to find out where she was spiritually.  “The gospel is important enough to do that,” he said. “We’re not just a social club.”

After a year and few months this woman, still filled with her questions and doubts, accepted Christ, which Kerr said is very good, and the fruit of a community practicing intentional authentic evangelism.

Dr. Tom Bagley, Jr.

For years Dr. Tom Bagley, Jr.,  who pastors a small PC(USA) congregation in Normandy, Tennessee, while also coaching and consulting in the areas of church revitalization, thought that evangelism was a way to grow the church.

“As a Christian person, I had the good news of Jesus Christ, and I was to take it to a disconnected, unbelieving world,” he said.

And then the culture stopped responding, which created a crisis for Bagley.  He spent time evaluating his personal views of evangelism, which over time had begun to evolve. Yet many churches, including the one he serves, held on to the traditional view of evangelism. The more the culture didn’t respond, the more inward focused they became. But like an explosion, the pandemic forced the small church he served to begin to look outward.  As they did, the congregation of 25, began to see people outside the church — and God doing amazing things in their lives.

When Normandy Presbyterian Church moved to a digital worship service format, a person who lives a block from the church but has never been inside participated in the online service — and has been doing so every single Sunday since.

“Nobody in our church knew the person was hungry spiritually,” Bagley said. “Nobody knew because we hadn’t been out there. Our job is to help people be curious about those outside of church. People are checking us out: who are they?”

The Rev. Katy Steinberg

As she listened to the evolving conversation,  the Rev. Katy Steinberg, pastor of Missing Peace, a new worshiping community in Ormond Beach, Florida, felt compelled to describe her experience as a leader of a nomadic community. Prior to the pandemic, they met weekly wherever appropriate depending on their worship together, which focused on the spiritual, the cerebral, the physical and service.

As they went to various places week to week — the library, the beach, the museum, the park and the homeless shelter — Steinberg noticed each place becoming like a sanctuary.

“It wasn’t just a building anymore,” she said. “We were having profound experiences of who God is and what God is up to in the world.”

For Steinberg, evangelism is meeting people where they are, listening to their experiences, and asking, “Where do you feel connected to the divine?”

“We don’t own God or the gospel, to put it in a box and offer it to other people,” she said. “God is everywhere. Missing Peace interacts with people who feel alienated and separated — and kept out of our churches.”

Dr. Ralph C. Watkins

Dr. Ralph C. Watkins, professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, said that during the pandemic it became clearer to him that evangelism is about intentional acts of love that make people want to do life together in community. In this time of COVID-19, he’s seen people in his community caring for and watching out for each other.

“As we’ve been in lockdown, I’ve seen the real love of Christ, in [something as simple as] sharing a glass of wine and food,” he said. “It’s about love and community in a real place, in real time. People are yearning to be in community and deep relationships, but we’ve allowed the politics and our culture to become a substitute for living the gospel of Christ.”

Watch the entire conversation on “Intentional Authentic Evangelism” here on the Vital Congregations Facebook page.

 Sponsored by Vital Congregations in partnership with 1001 New Worshiping Communities, these panel discussions — Vital Conversations on the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations (see section 2)  — occur every Wednesday at 2 p.m. Eastern Time.     

 Tom Bagley, Jr. and Ralph Watkins were part of a diverse group of PC(USA) leaders who provided lessons and details for a new resource, 8 Habits of Evangelism.

They and others will participate in the digital REvangelism Conference from Montreat Conference Center November 1-3.

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