Commentary

Evangelism as friendly conversation

Sharing good news is less intimidating when we make it personal

During the 11 years my family has lived on south Minneapolis’ Longfellow Avenue, we have had four different families for neighbors in the house next door.

We also have four or five new neighbors on our side of the street and several across the street on our block.

We have a lovely neighborhood, where people look out for each other and watch out for children. The apartment houses behind us on Cedar Avenue have frequent mobility of tenants — and more and more of those neighbors are Spanish speaking.

I’m an ordained Lutheran pastor. You might think it’s easy for a person like me to invite new neighbors to visit our worship community. But it’s not any easier for me than it is for you. I have referred our most recent neighbors to a sister congregation only three doors from where they now live, but that relationship didn’t get any traction until after five years and a couple Easter egg hunts (their preschooler participated in such events at our congregation).

The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) spends a lot of time riding on airplanes and with cab drivers. Mark Hanson meets strangers all around the world, as he travels on behalf of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Feder-ation, which he now heads.

Whenever he has the opportunity, Bishop Hanson always talks with taxi drivers about their countries of origin, their family and their faith community. They are usually eager to talk about their faith.

Bishop Hanson described one such experience, just after he’d returned from the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, Florida. The Chicago cab driver in whose vehicle the bishop was riding said, “Tell me about Jesus and grace.” A few minutes later, the cabbie said, “[You’re describing] the Jesus I read about in your Bible, not the one I hear about on the radio, It dosn’t seem like Christians believe in this grace you are talking about.” A little later he said, “I like Lutherans … because I know you help refugees.”

Bishop Hanson wonders why it is difficult for us Lutherans to claim our identity in Christ as a central part of who we are. Our reticence stands in contrast to the enthusiasm of Muslim, Hindu and Christian cab drivers.

The bishop asks his fellow Lutherans to think about three things they would tell another person about themselves when first meeting. What might we include on our list? Would we include the fact that we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and marked with the cross of Christ forever in our public identity? Many of us have been trained to believe that our Christian faith is a private matter between ourselves and God. Consequently, we don’t want to risk offending anyone.

It is well-documented that the primary way people embrace a Christian congregation is through a relationship with a friend or family member who invites them and brings them to worship or a Bible study or a service and fellowship opportunity.

The key to connecting others to Christ and a faith community is a trusting relationship with that person. Usually we fear evangelism because we think of it as reaching out to strangers rather than inviting a good friend to share the gift of God’s love in community with us.

The Body of Christ recognizes no boundaries that would prevent us from welcoming any child of God into fellowship in Christ. Who among our family, friends and new or old neighbors is in need of an invitation to Christian worship and fellowship?

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Wheeler is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, south Minneapolis. This essay originally appeared in his congregation’s newsletter, Bethel Herald.