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Rethinking evangelism

Rethink evangelism? Why? Isn’t Peter’s great sermon in Acts 2 all we need to know? “And it shall be that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Yet it goes without saying that much has changed since that remarkable Pentecost. At Luther Seminary in St. Paul a conference July 22-24 will seek ways to do what the apostle Peter did in Jerusalem — but here and now.

God speaks to people in their particular circumstances, notes Rolf Jacobson, who will convene the conference. And, he adds in an email interview, “The world around the church has changed dramatically and quickly.

“The church’s entire mission is to speak God’s Word to the world,” notes Jacobson, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary. “But the church is not doing particularly well at this mission right now, probably because we are stuck in old patterns of witness that used to work really well and now are not working as well.”

Dwight Zscheile

“It never would have occurred to me that church might be an answer to my struggle for meaning, purpose, community, and hope.”

Pastors and lay leaders who attend shouldn’t expect just to take notes. Attendees will be encouraged to voice their own ideas on proclaiming the Gospel. “I have as much and more to learn about evangelism as anyone else,” adds Jacobson.

“The goal of the conference is not for the presenters to have done the rethinking in advance and then just deliver the new information, but for the presenters to convene a conversation where everyone present will do some rethinking together.”

The new Pentecost?

Many congregations find themselves amid almost as many tongues as did Peter in Jerusalem on that great day. At the same time, ever-evolving cultural differences and a swirl of change in societal norms encircle churches. Pastors and lay people may no longer know how to approach neighbors — among them people little interested in church, or even openly hostile.

Immigrants worried about their lives here as well as about families back home? Young people seeking jobs to pay off staggering college debt? Midlifers struggling to hold it all together? Seniors pondering the end?

Who can blame you if you don’t know where to start? For many congregations, according to Dwight Zscheile, “evangelism is one of the most difficult dimensions of the Christian life.”

Christians nowadays “don’t want to engage in the kind of aggressive, judgmental proselytizing that has alienated many people,” writes Zscheile in an email interview. He teaches congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary and will be a conference speaker.

Zscheile believes that church programs and marketing don’t always work. “The practice of evangelism needs re-envisioning in a holistic way,” he says — including “the Bible and tradition and the world we live in today.”

What is it that faithful Christians don’t understand about evangelism? “Often, they are unfamiliar with the breadth and depth of how the Bible and Christian tradition speak to themes of witness and service in different contexts,” Zscheile explains. “There are a lot of neglected resources that can be brought to bear.”

Going to hell

Zscheile himself was unchurched as a youth, and “it never would have occurred to me that church might be an answer to my struggle for meaning, purpose, community, and hope,” he recalls.

“Church had to come to me, where I was in the neighborhood, and thankfully some Christians were courageous enough to reach out.

“Evangelism today is less about inviting people to join in the established life of our churches,” Zscheile adds, “and more about joining up with God in the neighborhood as witnesses to the cross and resurrection in relationships of mutuality and sharing.”

Rolf Jacobson

“What does the church have to say to people who are dying from spiritual meaninglessness or relational emptiness?”

Reasons for going to church have changed. Conference convener Jacobson thinks fewer people struggle with guilt over their sin and fear of hell. “Our evangelism has often focused on announcing forgiveness of sins and assuring people that God loves them freely,” he adds.

“But what if the spiritual problems that people are wrestling with are different today? What does the church have to say to people who are dying from spiritual meaninglessness or relational emptiness?”

So it’s complicated out there, and we all knew that. Peter’s great sermon still applies and always will — but the crowd that may be prepared to listen is much, much different.

For more information …

More information about Luther Seminary’s conference July 22-24 is available at www.luthersem.edu/rethinking, which says the conference “invites you to leave all your preconceived notions of evangelism at the door.” The site includes sound files from David Lose, director of Luther Seminary’s Center for Biblical Preaching, and Rolf Jacobson, associate professor of Old Testament and moderator at this year’s event.
The cost is $225 per attendee or $175 per attendee when two or more from a congregation register together. The program is designed for lay-clergy teams.

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