Tell Your Story
September 30, 2012, John 1:3-46, Acts 17:16-34
Today is Evangelism Sunday in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. And I have to say that I have intentionally not promoted Evangelism Sunday this year, or for about the past ten years because the word "evangelism" makes so many members of this congregation very uncomfortable. I was walking up Main Street last week and passed a man in Fountain Square who was holding a big sign that said "Repent or Perish." He had something else written on the other side of his sign. I've seen him there before. I've seen other men there at other times. And they always make me nervous. I never know what to say if they get into my face, and confront me with my need for the salvation they are offering to me. Part of me wants to engage them in a theological argument, but a much bigger part of me wishes they would just go away and not bother me. When I first spotted this evangelist last week, I nearly did repent. Literally, repent means "turn around," or "make a U turn." I laughed to myself when I realized repenting in this case would be a win-win—I'd avoid this evangelist, and having repented, I would also not perish. I suspect that this was not the reaction this sign-holder wanted.
I read a book years ago in which an evangelist approached the main character on a busy sidewalk and asked him, "Sir, will you make a decision for Christ?" And the flustered response was, "Why? Can't he make his own decisions?"
Several years ago I identified our reluctance to talk about our faith as "theolinguaphobia," a made-up word that means "fear of talking about God." It is not only this congregation that struggles with theolinguaphobia. I think it's common in most Protestant churches in the United States. One statistic I heard, though I have not been able to verify it, is that the average Presbyterian invites someone to church once every 26 years!
There are lots of reasons why people like us are reluctant to invite people like us to church. First of all, for most of us our religion is very personal, very private. We do not stand in Fountain Square to share our faith, we do not go door-to-door with literature about our faith. We practice our faith, we are enriched by attending worship, but we hope that our actions will speak in ways that will mean we don't have to talk about faith in words. Isn't it better to live one sermon than preach ten? Don't actions speak louder than words? That all makes sense to me.
Another reason that some of us are reluctant to invite someone to worship is by extending an invitation we're sort of implying that the other person does not have a church home. That this other person needs religion, that the other person is inadequate or defective. Someone could get that impression, and no one wants to offend someone. It's easier not to invite someone to worship than risk offending them. And what if they already go to a church that is helping them grow in faith? You don't want to be embarrassed when they say, "I've already got a church home, thanks anyway."
I think one of the biggest reasons that people are reluctant to invite someone to church is that the person might ask questions that we can't answer. Suppose you say to someone, "I go to the Presbyterian church, would you like to come with me some time?" and they ask, "Do you subscribe to the Athanasian Creed or the Nicene Creed?" Or which version of the Bible do you use? What if they ask you a question and you don't know the answer? I have to admit, I hate that feeling. I hate being put on the spot and not being prepared. And yet it happens to me all the time.
Over the summer I got to talking with one of the clients of the Samaritan Center. She asked "Are you the pastor here?" Yes. "Tell me about your church. My family just started looking for a church." I was tongue-tied. I didn't know where to begin. What would be the most important thing to say in this situation? I told her we worship every Sunday, all year at 9:30 I the morning. And that in the summer usually we have between 80 and 100 people in worship. But what else could I say? I didn't know her faith background. Would it be meaningful if I said our service is "traditional"? That we sing hymns accompanied by an organ? That part of every worship service is an offering because we believe it is important to not just take, but also to respond by giving. Finally, after considering many, many thing I could say, that might be helpful, I said, "Come and see."
Suppose someone asked you to describe your family. You could give the names and ages of the other people who live in your house. You could tell what they look like, are they tall or short, old or young, what color are their hair and eyes. You could say what they do, what they like, what you all like to do together. You could describe your house and the neighborhood you live in. But your words would not be able to adequately describe your family, these people you love. These people who love you. I think that happen when we describe our church too.
Tuesday we looked at this morning's passages at Bible Exploration. I asked the group what they like about this church, and what they "get" out of coming to church, what keeps them coming back? And then I watched faces! It was a really beautiful thing to see people struggle to put into words what they like about this church and what keeps them coming back. One said, "It's hard to put into words." Another said, "I don't know how to explain it." It feels right, our sanctuary feels like "home." One person said, "It's not theological." And I think that means it's a feeling, not a concept or thought or idea. Coming to church fills us up. It's like getting a full tank of gas for your car at Kwik Trip. Only here we get filled up with unconditional love. Another person said that for her coming to church is being part of a dialogue, being challenged to act on faith, not to merely hear about it, and claim it. She comes expecting to be confronted and prodded to being different.
I asked this question hoping that each person would compose their "elevator speech" about church. An elevator speech is something you can say in about 90 seconds--the length of a typical elevator ride--that covers the most important points about a certain topic. If you've got an elevator speech ready about church, when an opportunity presents itself, you can make an invitation easily. But I found that for us, evangelism isn't really elevator speeches. For us, we're more like the first followers of Jesus in John's gospel. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," Philip answered. One translation said, "Come and see for yourself!" I think this is a great answer. It's faithful and it's respectful of the person you're inviting to church. You can talk a lot about what being here means to you, but can you ever know whether our community and our worship style will work for someone else?
I confess the word "evangelism" makes me nervous, but I found a definition years ago that I remembered as we talked about what we like about this congregation. Evangelism can be thought of as "profound caring." If you care about anotherperson and you think they can use what you receive from this church every week,inviting them to worship is not an intrusion or a potentially offensive risk. It's a sincere act of caring and sharing. If you're able to tell your story about what coming here and worshipping here means to you, your caring will come through. And be sure to remember that it's hard and even scary for some people to come to an unfamiliar church the first time. Offer to give them a ride, or meet them at the door—be sure you tell them which door!!—and sit with them. Do what you can to make them feel welcome and able to participate as much as they can. Visitors feel conspicuous and the best thing we can do is be welcoming and reassuring.
I'm sharing all of this today for two very, very good reasons. First, we are going to have an absolutely fabulous worship service next week! I really cannot think of another Sunday when we've ever had so many special things happening. We will be at our best, and if you've ever wanted to invite someone to worship here, next Sunday is a very, very good day! The Tailgaters will be here, that's the Dixieland group that has been here a few times before. And we're going to celebrate World Communion Sunday—we're taking part in a global party, and since we celebrate open communion, every Christian is invited to be a part of our celebration here next week. We're going to make a lot of noise with a Noisy Offering, 25% of which will go to the Day By Day Warming Shelter. We've got a local angle, a global angle, a lot of great music and it will be very festive. There's so much going on that it'll be easy to talk about next week's worship service to friends and neighbors. That's one very good reason.
The other is that we are facing a slowly emerging crisis in our congregation. Attendance has been pretty good this month, with Sunday school and confirmation starting. Still, for the last three weeks, more than 28% of the people who have attended worship have been older than 80 years! And about 2% of the people who have been in worship are between the ages of 20 and 40! These numbers are dramatic and in some ways frightening, when we look to the future of this congregation. But I am optimistic. I think we need to do what Paul did in Athens. He walked around. He observed what was happening. He listened to the conversations people were having, he contributed to conversations that people were having. In some ways I think of him as an anthropologist, studying a new culture. He understood the audience. To put it in the terms of Harold Hill from the Music Man, he got to know the territory.
Then, he spoke about his experience of the Risen Christ. He invited people on a journey. Some scoffed at him, laughed at him. Others were intrigued and wanted to hear more. Athens was a town whose main industry was ideas and the people loved nothing better than to hear about the latest intellectual novelty.
I think there are some similarities between first century Athens and the United States in the 21st century. Here's one similarity: Americans are becoming less religiously observant. Many of us say that we are "spiritual but not religious" or that we believe in God, but not "organized religion." In fact the fastest growing faith tradition in the United States in the last 20 years is "none." It is becoming less common for people to practice a religious faith, any religious faith, in the United States. Two generations ago, attending a weekly worship service was routine, even expected. Now, it's becoming exceptional, especially among the younger generations. We haven't changed, but the world has changed around us. We need to respond. We need to respond because the world needs the peace of Christ, the world needs to have places where we can be filled up with unconditional love. We need to respond because we have the precious message of grace, new life and forgiveness that the world desperately needs to hear. We need to respond because to share the faith is to extend profound caring from ourselves and from this place out in the world.
And to do that, to really tell our story, we've got to understand the people who are not here. We need to meet them, listen to them, talk to them. And next Sunday will be a very, very good day to share an invitation to a joyous, festive, celebrative worship experience.
When I say, "see you in church," it's an invitation, a wish and an opportunity!