Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Evangelism + Growth = Change
In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Jesus’ mother and Joseph brought the 40-day old Baby Jesus to the temple. The purpose for this trip was to allow Mary after childbirth … to go and make an offering at the temple (two turtle doves and two pigeons) for her own purification. The secondary purpose for the trip was so that Jesus the firstborn could be “redeemed, which was done by their father paying a priest five shekels.” (1a)
Although the family went to the temple for two ritual purposes, something else notable and profound happened on their visit. Two mature, aged, and wise people saw Jesus for the first time, and everything changed for them, and it changed for everyone with whom they came in contact thereafter. Simeon saw Jesus and said, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,” and adds, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon met Jesus and offered some advice and counsel to the young family and set them on the path that would change the world.
Then there was Anna, an 84-year-old widow who sees the child, and “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (1a) The interesting part of the story is not so much the purification rite or the redemption of the baby. What should capture our attention is how all the circumstances were just right for two mature and aged people to see the salvation of God in the flesh in front of them in the Baby Jesus, and then the felt compelled to share the experience with others.
Simeon and Anna did not hesitate, nor let the fear of change, the comfort of the temple community as it was, nor the uncertainty of God’s work in their lives, keep them from being evangelists. They rejected the fear of change, which always keeps the church from being a part of God’s mission; the work to reconcile all of creation to Godself, through the witness and growth of the community of God’s people. We are a people on a mission.
The Mission Field
You have heard me say that the mission field the church serves today is different from decades past. Nearly ¼ or 109 million Americans are no long going to church at all.
The Episcopal Church is changing as well. From 2008 to 2018, the Average Sunday Attendance in the Episcopal Church fell by 25% from 747,000 to 561,00. The number of baptized members fell by 17.5% from 2.2 million to 1.8 million. The median Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church fell from 60 to 53, and 74% of our parishes had less than 100 people in worship on Sunday. So, if we are to effectively continue God’s mission, we need to adapt. We need to take some risks, try new approaches, because we can no longer share the Good News, by merely offering hoping great worship, exceptional music, and a charismatic clergy leader to carry the day. To continue God’s mission, we have to be evangelists again.
We have to remember that there are always two doors in any institution. The door through which, new people come into the community, and door through which people leave the community. We will always lose people because of relocations, life changes, and when people who become angry, especially with changes or with the clergy, and decide to go somewhere else. Most people leave the community because we are mortal, of the natural process of aging. Did you know that 73% of Episcopal congregations report that half their members are 50+, and nearly 1/3 report that half of their members are 65 years old or older? The door out of the church is always open, and each one of us will at some point walk through that portal. So, with that door always open, we need to consider whether alternatively, the door of entry is wide open, and what are we doing to keep it wide open, and what steps are we taking intentionality to help people walk into the community.
Now, I am not merely talking about institutional sustainability here. God calls us to grow as a church not so we can keep the organization going for the sake of keeping it going. We are called to growth as a result of serving as faithful witnesses of the Good News of God in Christ, because we should be forever changed by that news. As followers of Jesus, we live so others may come to know Christ. Yes, I am talking about our Christian duty as evangelists, but before you tune me out, let’s take look at our call to this ministry in a new light; the light of Christ.
Evangelism + Growth = Change
The story of the Presentation heard in today’s gospel is an often-overlooked early evangelism moment for the first followers of Jesus, and it is a call for us to follow Anna and Simeon’s lead. Those statistics I gave you about the Episcopal Church’s membership and attendance woes, I believe is a result of the fact that Evangelism scares we Episcopalians for some reason. We get it confused with overt proselytizing, because we think we have to be like televangelists, or people knocking on our doors with gospel tracts, or people at rock concerts with bullhorns screaming, “Jesus saves.” Evangelism scares us, because it is a risk-taking action when we are sharing something as intimate as our faith with someone else. Evangelism requires us to take an often-unpopular stand in our culture, which is to acknowledge that we are a Christian and thus, evangelism opens us up to face rejection by our friends.
Evangelism also worries us because, when we do it well, it always results in change in the community. If we evangelize, then we will grow. If we grow, then new people will come to the church. If new people come into our community, then everything will change. New people will bring new ideas and change the status quo do and do things differently. We may think that new people will take away your share of leadership or influence. New people may even want to sit in your favorite seat on Saturday or Sunday. While on the Bishop’s staff, I sometimes worked with church leaders to encourage evangelism and growth. I often heard people say, “We do not want to grow too big now.” I was always concerned when I heard that said because, I knew people were forgetting that the future of the church is not in our hands, but in God’s. It is God’s mission and it is God’s church after all.
So, evangelism is not fancy marketing of Jesus, it is not serving as purveyors of religious goods and services, and it is definitely not proselytizing, or a plan for corporate institutional sustainability. So, what is it then? Evangelism is simply sharing the Good News of the life change our faith in Christ is making in us. This should not be a new concept for us though. I hear people all the time tout how much they love a particular restaurant, or a movie or show, or a local hair stylist or nail salon, and how much that experience changed their week. We are unimpaired to share the good news of an experience we have had commercially, so why then are we not equally motivated to share the most important experience of salvation that we have had spiritually.
You are an Evangelist
Simeon said upon meeting Jesus, “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” but his experience did not end there. Simeon absolutely knew what he needed to do next. However, we Christians say, “For my eyes have seen your salvation … Now, what must I do?” We need to be reminded that we are on a mission. All around us, “everyday people are presented to us, as strangers out of darkness.”(1) Many of your friends are struggling in spiritual obscurity every day, wrestling with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and uncertainty. Did you know that you have the light in you that will shine in their darkness? You have the hope in you that will change their day. You do not have to say to them, “I know you are in darkness today, now let me tell you about Jesus.” You are Good News by just listening to them, holding their hand, telling them you care and then, you go home and pray for them. Maybe at some point though they will ask you, “why do you have such hope,” and that will be your cue, it will be the right moment to tell them about your faith, or your church, your ministry, or maybe to offer to pray with them right there.
Real evangelism works best when the Holy Spirit brings together the right circumstances that allow a sincere conversation about faith to happen with a friend whom we trust and who trusts us. Evangelism works best when we are willing to be vulnerable and then, something amazing happens. In my book Misfits, Pioneers, and Mission, I wrote, “God acts in and through our openness when we are present with others, and I believe those everyday chats with the people we encounter, may be the best way we can share the Good News of God’s work in our lives.” (3) We must let these flowers of faith bloom.
A friend told me about some Marigolds she planted in a small pot , however they never seemed to get beyond a certain size. She constrained the growth of the plant in a pot, because she was afraid it might get too big, overtake the flower bed, and change her landscape. In that tiny container, the growth of the flower was hindered within the confines of her predetermined limits. My friend said one day she eliminated the barriers to the plants’ growth and put them in the flower bed beside her pool cage. Today, the Marigolds are abundant, beyond imagine in depth and size, and they have reached their full potential. She let go of her fears of change and now she can see the beauty of the flower garden she allowed to bloom.
If you have found Good News here in this place. If God has made a way for you to grow here, then that change should compel you share it with others. In my book I wrote, “I am convinced that it is only in community that we can engage in self-examination, investigate the hard questions of life, bear each other’s burdens together, and learn about God’s love. It is in community that we experience God’s grace, mercy, and reconciling love, because human beings are created for shared existence. We are not lone wolves, but we are pack creatures, who travel better when we traverse life together.” (3) It is only in community where the flowers of faith grow best. My sisters and brothers, you are evangelists called to allow the flowers of your faith, the light of gold and bloom, to blossom beyond any limits we might place on them. So, go plant some buds of faith this week.