“Can I be baptized here?” a newcomer asked on visiting Beatrice (NE) Mennonite Church (BMC) for the first time. Her question was an act of wondering as she imagined herself becoming part of this faith community. Pastor Tim Amor has been leading BMC in a process of asking questions and developing a culture of outreach, and Western District’s Year of Evangelism has been fuel for the fire. It’s a chance to break out of old ruts and try something new.
Pastor Tim is not alone. After inspiring talks by Heidi Rolland Unruh and Marvin Lorenzana at the Year of Evangelism launch at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, Goessel, KS in January, congregations and leaders have sought to jump start a culture of evangelism and mission. The first question many leaders have faced is one of definitions: What does evangelism—spreading the good news about Jesus—sound like in an Anabaptist register? And how can we practice evangelism in our distinct contexts in a way that’s authentic to who we are?
“At Rainbow you won’t hear the word ‘evangelism’ too often,” writes Pastor Ruth Harder of Rainbow Mennonite in Kansas City. “Many of us are trying to recover from evangelism-gone-wrong-experiences where we felt emotionally manipulated and/or damned/shamed.” And yet, Harder says, “I want to be someone who invites people to enter a conversation, a way of life that is true and beautiful.” Pastor Terry Rediger in Turpin, OK, writes that evangelism in his congregation’s context is more of a “show people love than a tell about God’s love.” Turpin Mennonite supports the local food bank and provides Christmas food baskets and Christmas gifts for folk on the margins in their community. At Hoffnungsau Mennonite in rural Inman, KS, Pastor Lynn Schlosser describes her congregation’s thinking on attractional evangelism. “How do we use our place, our space, and create there a body of believers that will attract the people who are living in the country right around our church?” asks Schlosser. To that end, the rural congregation cast an invitation to folks in the multiple communities Hoffnungsau connects with and hosted a series of outdoor movie nights and cookouts. They intentionally avoided showing “churchy” movies, choosing instead The Greatest Showman and Inside Out. Schlosser describes these efforts as part of a broader movement in her congregation to grow more comfortable in sharing “Christ’s hopeful view of the world.”
Francis of Assisi famously (didn’t) say, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Within Western District, many of us have adopted this misquoted slogan for our own and then gone on to forget the “use words” part. We get mission, but when it comes to evangelism we aren’t so sure—in part because we don’t know how to faithfully and fruitfully enter into a conversation about the hope we have in Jesus. What do you say? Pastor Willmar Harder of Buhler Mennonite (KS) speaks of moving people forward by “nudges” to reclaim a more comfortable and daring capacity for evangelism. “Evangelism isn’t just ordaining someone to go hand out pamphlets somewhere and hope someone comes to Christ,” says Harder. It’s about taking stock of your circles of relationships and engaging people in conversations about the good news of Jesus. “For me it’s cattle,” says Harder. Raising cattle allows him to connect naturally with local cow-culture families. “We eat together. We help each other out. We even burn pastures together.” And that life together is a door into deeper conversations about struggles and relationships—and Jesus.
Sharing the good news of Jesus out of life shared together rose to the top as the main evangelistic approach adopted by Western District congregations. Sandra Montes Martinez, pastor of the Monte Horeb congregation in Dallas, TX, describes their practice of being “church outside the walls.” “Sometimes it feels like I have two congregations, one that meets in church on Sunday morning, and another that meets in homes,” says Montes Martinez. Every three weeks, a group of around 25 women plus children meet in a home to talk about life and Jesus. They share their struggles, help each other, study the Bible, and pray for one another. Pastor Sandra speaks of ministering to the whole person. “The word (of God) is having its impact, and not just in the pulpit,” she says. Using a Mustard Seed grant offered through the Year of Evangelism, her congregation purchased a diagnostic machine to test blood sugar levels. With the guidance of a member who is a newly minted doctor specializing in preventative medicine, the congregation has deployed the machine to test for diabetes and open conversations about healthy diet and lifestyle. “The church is to do more than just preach from the pulpit and say ‘God bless you,’” says Montes Martinez. The church has to go where the needs are. “I think that’s what Jesus did,” she says.
Also in Dallas, Pastor Juan Limones’ Luz del Evangelio congregation spends most Saturday mornings preparing breakfast burritos and coffee to feed some 200-300 homeless folks downtown. They’ve experienced God’s miraculous provision in having enough burritos for everyone who is hungry. The congregation also celebrates a fall Harvest Sunday where they invite neighbors and newcomers to join them in giving thanks to God., and the congregation is planning a spring neighborhood carnival with bouncy houses, music, preaching, prayer, and food. Limones is currently leading a process to equip families to host Bible study fellowships in their own homes. The idea is that people can invite friends and neighbors—folks who might not be ready to set foot in church—to join them for coffee and a Bible study. It’s a new idea for the congregation, and one that was not immediately embraced by all. And yet, the congregation is moving forward to give it a try. “We have to do something different, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, because what we’re doing now isn’t working anyway,” says Limones. “The worst thing is stagnation and conformity.” Limones goes on to say: “Jesus is calling us to do something. He did his part, and he has left to us the responsibility of continuing His work.”
Brad Roth is the pastor of the West Zin Mennonite Church in Moundridge, KS and author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press). He blogs at DoxologyProject.com.