I walked away from a conference on evangelism feeling encouraged. Frankly, that was unexpected. I tend to associate the subject with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Instead, ReNew, a pastors conference sponsored by the provincial arms of the Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada, provided the kind of refreshing the title implies on the theme of proclaiming the good news.
As expected, there was Bible exploration, an expert speaker (John Bowen, director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College) and inspiring stories. And as is often the case, the stories captured the imagination. These pastors from our midst spoke of sweat and tears alongside their joys and successes. We heard about extraordinary faithfulness on ordinary journeys with real people.
Take the rural pastor recently retired from a matured church plant in a growing bedroom community. The pastor has served on a variety of community boards and has polled leaders about what the church does that the town values. The community centre invited the church to hold a youth drop-in on their premises and even gave some funding. The small church holds a vacation Bible school where they have to cap the number of “mentors” allowed because all the aged-out children want to return to serve. Church members volunteer at a local golf tournament and offer “Operation Red Nose” service when the enthusiastic drinking draws to an end. Following the pastor’s lead, the congregation serves the community with open hearts, ready hands and words about the saving power of Jesus that makes it all possible.
Or a former missionary to West Africa who parlays her transcultural and interfaith experience into relationships among immigrant communities in a major Canadian city. The self-declared hyper-extrovert intentionally arranges the spheres of her life – from where she lives to how she commutes to where she gets involved – to intersect with many people from different backgrounds and to foster learning and understanding between them as she testifies to the Prince of Peace.
Or the community pastor in a core-area urban ministry that gathers people who don’t have a place to fit in. She doesn’t have power stories: her journey with people at risk of homelessness, living with addictions and persistent mental illness is slow, full of detours and obstacles. But she lives out her ministry’s key verse: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
And I wonder if that life-sharing isn’t what it means to share the gospel.
Eat, heal, tell. That’s how New Testament professor Sheila Klassen-Wiebe from Canadian Mennonite University encapsulates Jesus’s sending of the 12 and the 72 in Luke’s Gospel. Their mission – and ours – is to proclaim the news that the kingdom has come, and do it urgently (don’t stop on the road), but not so single-mindedly that we neglect to receive hospitality (eat). Not so quickly that we don’t observe how those we meet are in need of restoration (heal). As we share our lives with people, we begin to speak of the transformation we have seen and known (tell).
What’s remarkable, Klassen-Wiebe points out, is that the workers Jesus sends into the harvest aren’t experts. Beyond their decisive moments of choosing to follow Jesus, they have only begun to understand who he really is. As the 12 and 72 participate in proclaiming the Kingdom, they discover what the Kingdom is all about, and give God glory for it. They respond to the white fields with joy, and the necessary workers for the harvest emerge as each one responds with faithfulness to his or her call.
Much of the time, however, we are not harvesting. Very few of us are gifted evangelists, said Bowen (insert sigh of relief here), but we all have a role to play in the multifaceted tasks of the harvest.
Like the pastor/church planter who scatters seeds throughout his community with acts of service, like the missionary who deconstructs misunderstandings that stand in the way of bridge building, like the community pastor who walks through valleys and wrestles with the demons of her motley parish, God’s field hands have many tasks besides reaping.
A long period of preparation precedes our bringing in the sheaves; those who harvest know that work has gone before, and those who clear stones and sow and water don’t despair when they don’t see the harvest. We follow the Spirit’s leading in the places we find ourselves.
So I’m encouraged. As I have experienced God in my own life, I have things to tell as I go about eating and healing as the Spirit leads me to intersect with people around me.