Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

Beloved neighbor Fred Rogers was born on March 20. Some will celebrate it as Mister Rogers Day. Here is a sermon reflecting on Jesus’ way of being a neighbor. It’s a new version of a sermon I never got to preach when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020. Fred learned much of what he knew about neighboring from Jesus, and we can, too.

Mister Rogers’ shoes

A Sermon on John 4:1-42

In March of 2020 I had neighboring on my mind.  Several of us had just about finished reading the book Neighborhood Church together, and we were looking forward to talking more about what we and Morton Church could learn from its insights.  What’s more, Rebecca Ball and I had just watched the Tom Hanks movie about Mr. Rogers together, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  Fred Rogers was a good neighbor, and he had much to teach about neighboring.  I couldn’t wait to share with you all some of what Rebecca and I had seen.  And lo and behold, the lectionary scripture calendar for the third Sunday in Lent called us to look at the Samaritan woman at the well story in John 4, where Jesus is a neighbor, welcoming her and the townspeople as neighbors.  I was psyched.  I had that sermon all ready to go.

And then COVID invaded, and suddenly the best way to care for our neighbors was the stay away from them.  It was the only means we had to try to slow and stop the virus.  We canceled worship that Sunday, March 15, but the following Sunday we were all back together virtually on Zoom as we are today.  Faced with COVID lockdown, however, how could I preach that sermon about making contact with neighbors?  I sure couldn’t preach it the way it was written.  It seemed it would have to wait.  I hoped the way would be clear to preach it in the not too distant future, maybe a matter of weeks, after Easter, perhaps?

Well, here it is almost two years later, COVID is still a threat, and we still have big safety concerns about interacting with neighbors.  And because of all the ugly and UNneighborly behavior we have witnessed these last two years, not to mention in the years before, it seems like making neighborly connections is needed now more than ever.  The way of neighbor Jesus is needed now, more than ever.   Maybe that neighbor sermon shouldn’t wait any more.

But my spiritual GPS is not working well right now.  It’s being slow to boot up.  GPS is that thing that tells you the steps to take to get somewhere, with spiritual GPS being a sense of direction towards people and places needing the touch of Jesus.  Mine is sort of stuck right now, like that little circle going round and round on the computer screen.

Spiritual GPS told Jesus that he had to travel through Samaria, even though he could have geographically recalculated the route as just about everybody else did and go around it.  Jesus was interested in that neighborhood and those neighbors.

Tired and thirsty, Jesus sat down at a well outside a Samaritan town called Sychar. And while his disciples went into town to buy lunch, Jesus made a connection with a woman through his own simple human need for water.  She came to draw water, and he asked her to draw some up for him and let him drink from her jar.  She was astounded.  What was a Jewish man doing talking to a Samaritan woman and asking for a drink from her cup, a Samaritan cup?  Didn’t he think both she and her cup were unclean?

Well, actually, no.  Jesus saw her as a neighbor, and he saw that her soul was thirsty.  He saw that, like everybody, this woman had a story, and that her story was filled with pain.  Jesus could have commented on the weather, taken a drink and left it at that.  Instead, he soon had her reflecting on her experience, and on what living water is.

This nameless woman had been married five times, and was now in a relationship with a sixth man.  We should not be quick to conclude that she was damaged goods or trashy somehow.  Remember that in those days women were almost always dependent legally and economically on a man, either a husband or a male relative.  She could have been widowed, with few or even no relatives.  Or she could have been cast aside because men were free to divorce their wives at any time for almost any reason, while women had no right to initiate a divorce at all.  Here’s what I think is a big possibility: the story doesn’t mention any children, so perhaps this woman had not been able to conceive a child.  Infertility was thought to be a source of great shame for a woman, and a valid reason for a man to cast her aside.  Let’s assume that this woman was doing the best she could under the circumstances.

That’s what Jesus did.  There’s no condemnation in Jesus’ voice.  When he surmised her difficult history and brought it out into the open, the woman was not offended.  Her response was again amazement.  This stranger at the well must be a prophet, she thought, one who knows the deep things of God.  Jesus saw her, knew her, and wanted to keep talking with her.  The awareness of being seen, known as you are, and not rejected is pretty powerful.

In fact all human beings need someone to give them this gift, and when they don’t get it, distress and dysfunction result.  Fred Rogers spent a lifetime sharing this gift with children and adults, and he tried to show others how to do it.  The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows him doing it.  It’s a portrait of Mr. Rogers’ neighborliness, and a reflection of Jesus’ way with the woman at the well.

The movie is based on the story of a writer who interviewed Mr. Rogers for Esquire magazine back in the late 90s.  In the movie he is called Lloyd Vogel.  Lloyd was a cynical writer known for hard-hitting articles critical of people.  He also had a difficult family history and a lot of unresolved pain and anger.  It was hard for him to believe that Mr. Rogers really was kind and interested in people.  He thought it might just be an act.

It was quickly apparent that Fred Rogers was interested in him, and that he sensed that Lloyd had a pain-filled story to tell.  At their first meeting Fred slowed things down, posing questions to Lloyd, too, and what was supposed to be a twenty minute interview stretched out much longer.  Before Lloyd even realized it, a friendship was born.  Fred wasn’t pushy about it.  He just invited.  Once Fred simply said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your father,” realizing that the relationship was troubled.  And that simple sentence showing interest made a wall come down.  And like the woman at the well, Lloyd recognized that he was known, and here he was being welcomed into friendship.  Mr. Rogers wanted him for a neighbor.  It was real!

When there was a crisis in Lloyd’s family, he felt he could go to Fred. Once, in the midst of the family crisis, Fred takes Lloyd out for lunch.  Lloyd says, “You really do love people like me, people that are broken.”  Fred was well aware of Lloyd’s brokenness and of his own brokenness, the memory of which gave Fred great compassion for others.  Fred gives Lloyd a rather unexpected answer:  “I don’t think you are broken,” he says, meaning “I don’t see you as damaged goods.  That’s not what I am focused on.  I see your strength.”

It was reminiscent of an early scene in the movie when Fred was patiently trying to talk to a little boy who obviously had a lot of issues.  The child was on oxygen, so he had some kind of medical problem, but he also had problems interacting.  He was really hyper, and he had a plastic sword that he couldn’t stop waving around.  His parents were trying to get him to calm down.  Mr. Rogers said, “You have to be strong to handle that sword.  I know you’re strong on the inside, too.”  This was a child who was probably used to hearing adults telling him “no” and “stop that.”  Here Mr. Rogers was, focusing on him as someone who did have something to offer the world.  Somebody worth knowing.  The little boy realized Mr. Rogers saw him, understood him, wanted him as a neighbor.  He stopped and focused on Mr. Rogers, then let Mr. Rogers hold him.

I think that is what the woman at the well experienced with Jesus.  He respected her, knew and understood her, regarded her as a person with something to offer the world, and wanted her as a neighbor.  The conversation went on for much longer.  The woman became so intrigued that she left her water jar at the well and hurried back into town to invite other neighbors to come out and see and talk with Jesus.  They ended up joining the conversation, too.  

When Jesus’ disciples asked him about all this, he gestured at the surrounding neighborhood—Samaria of all places—and said, “Look around you! The fields are ripe for the harvest.”

And here Jesus is in the midst of COVID—wearing a mask, I’m sure—gesturing around at the neighborhood around Morton, and at all the neighborhoods we circulate in and saying, “Look around you!  The fields are ripe for the harvest.”  People empty of meaning and full of cares.  People with stories to tell. People who need somebody to see them through Jesus’ eyes and to listen to them through Jesus’ ears and heart. 

With COVID still a reality, and given that it’s still uncertain how we might need to operate if and when it becomes an ongoing presence like the flu, I don’t know specifically what forms contact with neighbors can take.  And I don’t know how knowing that so many people are on edge emotionally and other ways should shape our approach.  Perhaps one day we will end up meeting some of the families and children who will use the special needs gym that a family is planning to build across the road from our church building.  But meanwhile, now that they are living in that RV on the site, perhaps we can find ways to bless these neighbors and support them as they work towards their dream of blessing children.

I am sure about this:  Whatever forms it takes, neighboring has to do with seeing with Jesus’ eyes and listening with Jesus’ ears and heart.  It has to do with being kind and considering the needs of others, letting them know we think they are worth knowing, and that we want them as neighbors, something you are already so good at, Morton Church.  What good neighbors you are!  As we figure out how to move forward from here, as we struggle to follow spiritual GPS, we can take a page from Mr. Rogers’ playbook, seeing our neighbors as people with strengths and assets and stories to tell.  We can approach them with genuine wonder about all that, wondering about what they think, wondering what their challenges and hopes are.

Fear not.  This isn’t about arguing people into believing something.  It’s not about wowing people with some irresistible program.  It’s about encountering people at the well, where we find them in everyday life.  It’s about ordinary conversation in ordinary times and ordinary places.  It’s about simple acts of concern and welcoming.  And there Jesus is, in the middle of us, letting people know they are seen and heard and wanted as neighbors—and loved.  Won’t you be our neighbor?

Lord Jesus, dearest neighbor, please come and help us!  AMEN.


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Neighbors from Flickr via Wylio

Saying hello at the curb.

When we think about sharing Jesus’ love and inviting people to follow him as disciples, a big part of it is simply being neighborly.  I once wrote a sermon called Front Porch Church reflecting on recovering the kinds of neighborly interactions that front porch living facilitated.  Often we work outside the neighborhoods where we live, and when we are home, we hang out on back decks and in fenced back yards.

Here is a post from the Slow Church blog entitled “Three Shifts Towards Neighborliness.”   I recommend the whole post, but here is a quote that I really resonate with:

“We need to give ourselves permission to waste time with our neighbours. When we choose to be present—around dinner tables, on porches, and in local parks—we create space for life-giving relationships to be deepened, for collaborative opportunities to arise, for creativity to be co-inspired, and for the cultural idol of productivity to be subverted.”

For more thoughts on neighborhoods and neighborliness, see my post “You shall love your neighborhood.”

Photo Credit: “Neighbors”, © 2012 Tony Alter, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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In a challenging post entitled Why Many Welcoming Churches are Dying Churches, Joseph Yoo explains why churches cannot sit back and wait for people to come to us.  We can’t assume any more that people even in the near neighborhood know where we are, who we are, and what we are about.

He describes a tendency in congregations to think that sprucing up the building and grounds will entice people to stop in.  He writes, “Not only do we assume that a majority of our neighbors know about church, we also look at outreach through the lens of the question ‘How do we get people into our pews’ rather than actually being missional.”

He adds, “We can’t just wait and assume people are going to show up — because they won’t. We’re also going to encounter more and more folks who don’t know the things about our faith that we take for granted. And that’s okay.

“What’s not okay is for us to mistake the words of Jesus to ‘Go’ for ‘Stay and wait for people to come’ — no matter how welcoming we may be.”

We’re trying to figure out how to “go” at Jesus’ direction.  Click on the title to read the whole post.

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Here is a link to an old story that has been on my mind as I think about ways to share Jesus’ life-giving and lifesaving love in the world and in our neighborhood as it is today.



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'Pen and paper' photo (c) 2011, francois - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

‘Tis the season of New Year’s Resolutions, and I’ve been thinking about what congregational New Year’s Resolutions might look like.

Here’s one from Jan Edmiston’s post on the subject called New Year’s Resolutions: Church Edition:  “Remember that Jesus did not come to establish a a self-serving Christianity (e.g. I don’t like drums in church.  The color of the sanctuary carpet annoys me.  The church doesn’t have as many potlucks anymore and I love potlucks.)  Jesus established a movement so profound that it’s supposed to reflect heaven on earth. (e.g. Love your enemy.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Return violence with healing.  Share your stuff.)”

Here are some other possibilities, in no particular order:

  • Long-time members might resolve to spend time with one new person or new family and form a more-than-superficial friendship.  For example, couples that enjoy going out to eat together might invite a newer couple to join them.
  • Resolve to pray for the people and neighborhood around the church in a sustained way through the year.  Who knows what kind of community engagement this might lead to?
  • Go out in the neighborhood and do a random act of kindness as a group.
  • Resist the temptation to say, “This is how we’ve always done it.”  Resolve to try something new this year and not be afraid to fail.  God can used closed doors as well as open ones to guide us into the future.
  • Practice imagining how some aspect of your church’s life and practice comes across to a newcomer or a guest.
  • Think of the church building as a tool for ministry and find one new way to use it to bless others in the community.
  • Like Jesus talking with the woman at the well, take time to hang out with people who do not know Jesus, or who are unchurched.  Do something away from the building out in the community.
  • Take time to learn and sing at least one song or hymn that is cherished by a different generation in the church from your own, even if it isn’t your personal favorite.

What are some more possibilities?

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Slow Evangelism

'Sharing is Caring' photo (c) 2008, włodi - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Evangelism–sharing Jesus–is slow, painstaking work, like gardening and farming.  It takes time to make friends and cultivate relationships.

I came across this quote from Michael Frost, author of The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church:

“When we understand what it is to be truly missional – incarnated deeply within a local host community – we will find that evangelism is best done slowly, deliberately, in the context of a loving community. It takes time and multiple engagements.”

Frost notes that one thing that makes us shy away from evangelism is that we think we have to share the whole gospel with people in one encounter.  Sharing the gospel slowly, gradually over time in a relationship allows the deep beauty and breadth of the good news to be expressed.

Frost adds that people who don’t know Jesus yet need to experience hospitality and see how we embody the gospel in the life of our community.  They need to see how we practice love in our communal setting.

One thing that  Frost is getting at is that evangelism includes all the small, thoughtful things that we faithfully do over a long period of time.  May Christ open our eyes to the opportunities that come our way to do these small things in his name.  May Christ help us build new friendships even as we cherish the old.  And may Christ’s love fill us all!

You can read more here on the Sustainable Traditions blogsite.

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Flagon, ruby glass, silver-gilt mounts, stones...

Image via Wikipedia

In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Father Christmas gives Lucy a small bottle containing a healing cordial.    A few drops of this medicine can cure almost anything, and even bring people back from the brink of death.

Near the end of the book, after the battle against the White Witch, Lucy’s brother, Edmond lies near death.  The Great Lion Aslan, who is the Christ-figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, urges Lucy to act quickly with her cordial:

“Her hands trembled so much that she could hardly undo the stopper, but she managed it in the end and poured a few drops into her brother’s mouth.”

Notice what happens next:

“‘There are other people wounded,” said Aslan while she was still looking eagerly into Edmund’s pale face and wondering if the cordial would have any result.

“‘Yes, I know,’ said Lucy crossly.  ‘Wait a minute.’

“‘Daughter of Eve,’ said Aslan in a graver voice, ‘others also are at the point of death.'”

Lucy gets up and goes with Aslan to tend to other wounded folk.  When she is able to return to Edmund, she finds him “standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds by looking better than she had seen him look–oh, for ages…”

I thought about this scene recently when I was reflecting on Mark 1:38.  Jesus has been caring for many people at Peter’s home in Capernaum.  There is still much more work to be done there, but after a time of prayer,  Jesus insists on moving on to other villages: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

Jesus and the disciples move out in mission, traveling throughout Galilee.  Yet in Mark 2 and again still later in Mark, they return to Capernaum and resume work there.  Matthew 4 puts it this way:  Jesus made his home in Capernaum. Jesus goes out to reach people, but he also comes back home to those who already love him, and who still need him.  Jesus does both.  Jesus’ mission is a dual mission.

This gives me food for thought as we face a dual calling: caring for our dear  “home folks” who have long been in our congregations while simultaneously reaching out to others.  Yes, we are called to go into all the world.  But caring for people already in the church is also a holy calling.  Chaplaincy and evangelism are both holy callings.  The resources of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit are crucial as we seek to be faithful in both directions.

The grace and strength of the Lord Jesus Christ are sufficient for us all.  There is enough of the healing blood in his cup for us all.  Let’s practice our ministry as if we really believe that!

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Planting new churches has been an important outreach strategy in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in many others.  Who doesn’t rejoice at the birth of a new church?  But the way we have typically practiced church planting, at least in my neck of the woods, has long left me with a troubled sense of concern.

Typically a judicatory calls a pastor to plant a church, and the aim is to grow a congregation in numbers and resources as quickly as practicable.  The new church has succeeded when it is able to build a building and be a programmatic church that can support multiple staff.

I’ve always wondered: But what about poor people in poor and/or sparsely populated areas?  What about people who do not have the physical and financial resources to “do church” this way?  They need the gospel as much as anyone else, but it will be unlikely that they can “do church” they way affluent suburban churches do it.

Here is a bracing post entitled 9 Reasons NOT to Plant a Church in 2012 from a blogger named Andrew Jones.  I found this through Rachel Held Evans, who has one of the most helpful and enjoyable blogs that I read–highly recommended.

Jones outlines a number of important critiques of the way church planting is typically done, such as:

  • Focusing on numbers and momentum is too narrow and shallow a way to judge how a new church plant is doing.  It ignores signs of the Kingdom of God, such as transformation in people’s lives and in all the spheres of society.
  • The people who are most likely to join a new church plant already have some background with church.  What about people who are total outsiders?
  • Focus on people predisposed to favor church culture puts churches in competition with one another over potential members, and this can lead to “sheep stealing” and failure to reach people who have never been reached.
  • The typical model asks people to commit to church meetings and activities instead of making a commitment to the Kingdom of God.  It focuses on making church members instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  It encourages a consumer mindset.
  • And there’s this–echoing the concern I’ve long held: “Church planting normally thrives in wealthier areas or suburban areas but ignores the urban poor. Stuart Murray Williams addresses this weakness here. It also focuses on the functional people rather than the high-need people and so we end up with church that prioritizes the rich, something we are warned about in the Scriptures (see James).”

I would add that the poor aren’t only in urban areas.  Poverty is everywhere, and  sometimes it’s hidden amidst the beauty of our rural areas.  Poverty can also take many forms.

If the goal is to share the gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ, there are many possible models for forming congregations and “doing church” just as there are many ways to farm and to garden.  (See my earlier post on Seed Catalogs and Church Planting.)  That also means that there can be lots of different ways of being faithful small congregations.  Amend that: there are lots of ways to be faithful congregations, period.

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Image by dreamexplorer via Flickr

I love looking at the seed catalogs that fill my mailbox this time of year.  I especially enjoy the ones that offer unusual plants and varieties suited to particular conditions and locales, and heirloom seeds.   Heirloom varieties of vegetables are often the tastiest and most beautiful and interesting to look at.  They are a delight for small home gardeners and lovers of fresh produce.

Take tomatoes, for example.   Large-scale growers must depend on only a few varieties that have been hybridized to be able to withstand rough handling, long storage and long journeys across country.  Texture, and especially taste, are secondary.

Monoculture is the practice of growing huge quantities of a single crop or single species.  While this allows standardization and may lead to larger crops with minimal labor, it also causes problems.  If a disease strikes to which that species has no resistance, the entire crop can be lost.  Monoculture can also negatively impact the environment.  Polyculture is the alternative.  It involves techniques such as companion planting and–get this–the use of beneficial weeds.  Thank goodness there are people who are committed to preserving the genetic diversity of plants and animals, too.

heirlooms from baker creek

Image by tofutti break via Flickr

When it comes to planting and cultivating communities of faith, we can take some lessons from farmers and gardeners.

  • Test the soil.  Take local conditions into account and plan accordingly.  Develop a particular garden plan (new church model) for particular people in a particular context.  Consider the heirloom varieties, such as house churches and monastic communities.
  • Denominations should not rely on monoculture.  There are many possible models for communities of faith.  While it may appear that reproducing a particular model will lead to success, in the long run we may be able to produce a bigger, healthier, livelier crop (i.e. draw more people towards Jesus) if we practice polyculture.
  • Remember that there are lots of different methods for feeding and watering the plants.  Water cannons aren’t the only form of irrigation.  In some situations the most efficient and effective method is to bury a drip hose near the roots and administer a slow, steady drip.

And don’t forget what the Lord of the Harvest said:  Some seeds won’t produce, but others will–thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

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Want to hear a word of hope for the New Year?  Check out this hope-filled article from the December 2011 issue of Presbyterians Today about ministry with young adults.  It’s titled “If This Is Church, Bring It On.”

Author Mark Ray notes, “In many ways, young adults are looking for the same things as previous generations, including Spirit-filled worship, authentic community and meaningful service.”

No, it is not crucial to have a guitar and drums in your worship service.  What is needed is to be genuine and authentic and to do what you do well.   He quotes Roger Dermody, Executive Director for Mission of the PC(USA) General Assembly Mission Council: “Whether worship is traditional or contemporary, the goal is to avoid having it become “monotone or rote,” he says. “We want to infuse our rich traditions and forms of worship with meaning to touch the hearts and minds of the younger generation.”

Younger generations are looking for genuine, deep relationships, including relationships that cross generational lines.  In small congregations, this often comes naturally.  The article speaks of congregations doing this intentionally.  Call it the “Cheers factor.”  They want to be where “everybody knows your name.”

As for service, Ray advises finding out what ministries young people are passionate about and accompanying them in service.  What’s more, young people are looking for encouraging mentors.  Again, this is intergenerational.

Warm, Spirit-filled worship.  Deep caring relationships across generations.  Service that meets critical needs.  Small churches can do all this.  Mine does, and I’m so grateful.

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