Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 10, 2019
Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Shortly after I arrived at my first call, one of my parishioners came up to me and said, “Pastor, you know, there are a lot of people around here who don’t go to church. And a lot of them are new to the area,” (by which he meant they’d only arrived sometime in the last thirty years). “So,” he said, “maybe you should go around and knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and invite them to church.” Well, I was just full of seminary-trained wisdom, and one of the things they teach us is what evangelism strategies tend to work and which ones don’t. There’s been a lot of research on the subject in the past several decades. And, as it turns out, having the pastor go out and knocking on the doors of strangers is one of the least effective things you can do. Once they’ve come to church at least once, then a pastor’s visit can be very effective; but some religious person they don’t know showing up out of the blue tends to turn people off. Think about it: when Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or whoever show up at your door, does it make you think you should join them, or does it make you roll your eyes in annoyance?
No, the research is quite clear. In almost 90% of cases, what brings someone through a church door for the first time is an invitation from a friend, someone they already have a positive relationship with and trust. In other words, not a relationship based on the churchgoer looking on them only as a potential convert, but one where there is mutual care and concern for all aspects of their life, not just the spiritual. A relationship where the Christian is open about their faith but not preachy or single-minded about it, so the non-Christian can see what a difference faith makes in the life of the believer, but doesn’t have it shoved down their throat. That trust, that mutual care, that openness, makes all the difference in the world. When you have that foundation, that’s when an invitation to come to church is most likely to be effective.
I explained all of that, and made a counter suggestion. How about, instead of me going out and visiting strangers (which almost never works), we did some classes on discipleship and spiritual formation, to help members of the congregation deepen their faith? And then some workshops on how to make friends and build community to help them get to know the “newcomers” who had lived in the area for decades but had never really been welcomed in? And then in the course of those new relationships, issues of faith and discipleship would naturally come up, and then they could invite their new friends to church with them. That’s something which has a very good track record! The community in the area would be strengthened, and the church would be strengthened as well. My parishioner listened to what I had to say, said “that’s interesting pastor, I never thought about it that way,” and wandered off. That was the last I heard about evangelism for a long time. I suspect it was because making friends with new people sounded scary and hard. There’s a reason Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid when he invited them to follow him and fish for people.
We have this idea of ministers being the professional Christians that the congregation pays to do all the ministry and churchy stuff like evangelism. We have this idea of the pastor being the one called by God. Well, hopefully pastors are called by God to their specific ministry, but then again, all Christians are called by God. In many and various ways. God has vocations for each and every one of us, and for all of us together. Some of those callings are about our relationships—parent, spouse, sibling, child, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend. Some of those callings are about our jobs—teacher, farmer, fisher, logger, mechanic, nurse, lawyer, or whatever it may be. And we are all called to ministry in various and different ways. And one of those ways that we are all called is that we are all called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls the Disciples to fish for people, but after the resurrection Jesus expanded that call to all Christians. Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We are all called to tell the story about how Christ died and rose from the dead and will come again, and what difference that makes in our lives. When we tell that story to ourselves and our fellow Christians, we reinforce and deepen our faith. When we tell that story to our friends and relatives, we open up the possibility for them to see God at work in their lives, as well. And that is how most non-Christians come to the faith. Through hearing the faith stories of people they know and trust, and then being invited in to the community of faith and to seeing God at work in their own lives.
In fact, that’s not just a modern phenomena. That’s the way the majority of evangelism has always worked. It’s true, the Bible tells us stories of mass conversions, thousands of people hearing the Word and being saved all at once. But such instances are recorded in scripture precisely because they were so rare and shocking. Most people came to faith from hearing their friends and neighbors, people they loved and trusted, talk about their faith. When you see and feel what God has done, the impact Jesus Christ has made in your life, and you tell your friends about it, and they see and hear what God has done in your life, sometimes they respond by looking to see if God is doing something for them, as well. It doesn’t happen every time with everyone, but it does happen some of the time with some people. It’s not large, it’s not dramatic, but it makes a difference. Historians ask the question, “how could the Jesus movement have grown from just a handful of people after Jesus died, to half the population of the Roman Empire just three centuries later?” We’re talking tens of millions of people! And it turns out that all you need is for each small worshipping community to have a new family join every few years. You don’t need mass conversions, you don’t need big showy revivals and expensive programs. You just need a handful of new people every few years. And you can get that just fine from the natural movement of Christians making friends with others in their community, and not shying away from talking about how they have experienced God’s love in their own life. That’s it. That’s all you need to have to go from “a tiny handful” to “a great multitude.” The slow and steady growth from natural relationships in which people share their experiences with the love of God.
Evangelism is not about having all the perfect arguments or knowing the right chapter and verse to quote. If it were, Jesus would not have chosen a bunch of uneducated fishermen to follow him and help him fish for people. Evangelism is not about backing people into a corner or scaring them with Hell. If it were, Jesus would have been forcing people to listen, instead of inviting them, and he would have talked about Hell a lot more than he did. Evangelism is about experiencing the grace and mercy of God in your own life, and letting the story of that grace and mercy overflow in you and in your relationships with others. Evangelism is about building relationships with people, relationships based on the love of God.
The first step is to learn to see God’s presence in your own life. You can’t tell others about things you don’t even notice. And it’s not hard. It just takes practice. All you have to do is keep your eyes open and looking. Before you go to bed each night, before you say your prayers, ask yourself where you saw God that day. Then, in your prayers, thank God for being there and helping you to see. If you do that, day after day, you will probably be amazed at all the things you never noticed before. And you will probably feel the urge to talk about it with your friends and family. And if you let yourself do that—if you put aside your fears and talk openly and honestly about what you have experienced—you will strengthen your own faith, and you will be fishing for people. May God give us the courage and the grace and the insight to see God’s work in our lives, and share it with those around us.