Too often I hear people say, “The Church is dying.” I suppose what they mean to say is, “The number of active members in mainline churches in the United States is steadily declining.” In fact, the Church – even the Presbyterian Church – is growing rapidly elsewhere in the world. While traveling on a World Mission Initiative Spring Break trip this year, I had the privilege of meeting leaders of the exploding Presbyterian Church in Brazil. The Church in the United States has a great deal to learn from these brothers and sisters, who are passionately engaged in evangelism throughout their communities.
I’d hate to insolently generalize Presbyterians, so I’ll speak for myself: my efforts toward evangelism are timid, minimal, and ambivalent. I fear questions I cannot answer instead of embracing tension. I’m slow to inquire about others’ faith, and almost never invite people to church. While I believe all people need Jesus, my courage to “make disciples” has been co-opted by the individualist principle that warns me not to “force my beliefs” on others. I’d venture a guess that other Presbyterians may be in the same boat.
Brazilian Presbyterians make evangelism a huge priority. As a result, hundreds of new believers are “added to their number” each year. I initially begrudged the glamorizing numerical statistics the pastors shared with us. “Well, there’s no way to know if these crowds are ‘serious’ Christians,” I thought. “It’s a ‘narrow way’ after all.” “The numbers game is a dangerous enterprise.” Yet I soon realized that my skepticism about what the Spirit is doing in Brazil was little more than jealousy. No cleaver contention could alter the source of my incredulity: I simply wish God would bring new believers to my communities as well!
Presbyterian evangelism in Brazil doesn’t resemble the in-your-face, turn-or-burn Bible thumping street corner preacher. It doesn’t even look like an American evangelical crusade à la George Whitfield or Billy Graham. In fact, I saw many similarities with the evangelism methods I’ve seen American Presbyterians employ. The primary “strategy” is to engage relationships: If I get to know someone, I will have an opportunity to share the Gospel with him or her through friendship. Insofar as I have engaged in evangelism in my life, this has been the approach I’ve adopted.
Here’s the key difference I discovered: While I am quick to find an excuse not to share the Gospel “just yet,” the Brazilians I met actually talk about Jesus. I tend to worry about making a relationship awkward or causing people to feel as though I’ve only befriended them in order to “convert” them rather than telling them “how much the Lord has done for me.” I share with the Brazilian pastors the desire to share Christ through relationships, but while they are quick to follow through, I am slow to do so.
Our Presbyterian tradition affirms that it is the Spirit, not the disciple, who transforms those at enmity with Christ. With this theological foundation, I need not evangelize others as if their salvation depended on me, yet I can – I must! -intentionally and eagerly bear witness to the work of the Spirit in my life. Though it would be wrong to befriend others with the goal of making them Christians, I see nothing wrong with befriending others with the hope that Christ might break into their lives; surely this is the hope of evangelism! My time in Brazil brought this derelict hope to the surface of my heart, and I’m giving evangelism new consideration.
Perhaps our Presbyterian Church as a whole can come together and consider how we can approach evangelism with more passion and dynamism, not because we think the Church is dying, but because, as one Brazilian pastor put it, “You cannot do ministry if you do not love the souls of people.”
Brian Lays is a middler MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
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