by Kim Reisman
(Editor’s note: This is the 6th of a 9-post series on non-negotiables for authentically leading a church towards being more evangelistic.)
“A long obedience in the same direction.” Given Friedrich Neitzsche’s love of irony, he might have chuckled at the thought that his famous phrase has become a summation for me of the evangelistic task. But that it has.
A long obedience in the same direction. Walking with people in love, day after day, as they search (sometimes without even knowing it) for the God who has been seeking them from the beginning.
As we think about some of the non-negotiables in creating a culture of evangelism, this would be one of them for me: the willingness to walk with people, with love – for however long it may take. As leaders, it is what we need to be modeling for our congregations, and as individual Christ-followers, it is what we need to be modeling for the world.
The goal of evangelism is to see people firmly rooted and grounded in faith. That means evangelism is a process. Although a sprout may emerge quite quickly (sometimes it may even seem to happen instantaneously), roots are a different story. Roots take a bit more time. And roots are necessary for evangelism to be complete.
Eugene Peterson describes the Bible as the story of, “God entering into personalized and complex relationships with us, helping and blessing us, teaching and training us, correcting and disciplining us, loving and saving us. This is not an escape from reality but a plunge into more reality – a sacrificial but altogether better life all the way.”1
Peterson is spot on. That’s why evangelism is a long obedience in the same direction. That’s why it can never be viewed as a one-time thing, or be limited to a special event. It takes time for people to grasp this personalized and complex relationship God is offering. It takes time to become reoriented to the “more reality” we experience when we begin to recognize God’s activity in our life and world.
Leading in ways that instill this understanding is not always easy. It’s much easier for congregations to view evangelism as something they bring a specialist in to do. It’s much easier to bow to that understanding and put our energies into generating excitement for a special event. Although there is a place for special events, they can never take the place of the commitment of the individuals in our congregations to patiently cultivate relationships, to be willing to walk with others, listen to their questions and search with them for answers. Without our people’s willingness to walk with others for the long haul, in organizing special events we will be like the farmer who scattered his seed on the rock where the soil was shallow. Plants may grow, but they will soon wither because they were not able to develop strong roots.
This long obedience in the same direction can at times be unnerving for us as leaders. It requires that we let go of a good deal of our control. That’s because when our congregations truly understand evangelism as a process in which they are intimately involved, we are likely not going to be present when it is taking place. It will happen within the unique sphere of influence of each of the people we lead – over coffee with a co-worker or on the sidelines of a kid’s sporting event. Regular people sharing their lives, their struggles, their joys.
Years ago, a pastor friend of mine shared a story of a phone call she received from a stranger asking for directions to the church because he wanted to join. This confused my friend so she asked him how he knew he wanted to join the church if he had never visited before. His answer was telling. He said he had a friend who was a member. They had spent time over the years talking about life and faith, and then his friend encountered some major life struggles. They continued to talk and question and he saw how his friend faced these difficulties, and how willing he was to continue to be honest about them. He said the willingness of his friend to share with him, even in the midst of his own struggles and questioning, made him realize that he wanted the kind of faith his friend had.
A long obedience in the same direction. It requires that we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the process rather than ourselves to orchestrate it. Yet when we do, others are given the space and time to recognize God entering into personalized and complex relationships with them, helping and blessing them, teaching and training them, correcting and disciplining them, loving and saving them.
1. Eugene Peterson, The Message 100: The Story of God in Sequencem NavPress, 2015, pA11
Kimberly Reisman (@KimsNextStep) is executive director of World Methodist Evangelism, a ministry that brings the global Methodist/Wesleyan family of Christians together around the work of multiplying witnesses for Jesus Christ. An author, pastor, teacher, and theologian, Kim is a frequent speaker, focusing on evangelism, spiritual formation, women’s ministries, leadership development, and the intersection between faith and culture. She is an elder in the United Methodist Church and has written numerous books. She has a PhD in theology from Durham University in the United Kingdom. Kim lives with her husband, John, in West Lafayette, Indiana. They have three adult children, Nathan, Maggie, and Hannah.