The United Methodist Church is, like many organizations, trying to figure out how to connect with young and new people. The emphasis on evangelism is good, but evangelism has become narrow and that is problematic. I believe that the narrowing of evangelism contributes to church irrelevancy.
Evangelism is a word that has taken a beating the past decade or so. Where I live, Evangelism is often associated with a particular type of American voter. However, Evangelism means Good News, and Good News is not bound to one political party. Over the years, the Church has used the word Evangelism to describe a narrow and set of practices, namely the spreading of the Gospel to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In my lived experience, spreading the Gospel means to make new disciples and thus grow the church. This is not bad, but it is a narrow understanding of what the Gospel is and, in turn, what Evangelism looks like.
This is problematic because when we over focus on a narrow expression of evangelism, then we overlook the other vital practices of evangelism. If we are busy making new disciples then we will have less time to grieve with current disciples or even visit the home bound or fight for justice. While not all of these actions will make new disciples, they are all acts of evangelism. They are all acts of bringing Good News to the ends of the earth. Narrowing evangelism to focus on the new overlooks the current and the past.
Imagine you are a doctor in a hospital and the hospital has invested a lot of resources into birthing new babies. This is a wonderful task to be sure, however there are other forms of treatment and healing that fall within the mission of the hospital. Imagine that as a doctor you are gifted in burn victim recovery. Your gifts are also important and also needed, because people get burned. The problem, from the hospital’s perspective, is that they are not set up too well for burn victims only baby delivery. In fact, it might even be seen as a waste of time and resources because burn victims take a long recovery and many of them are not fully recovered. The hospital has set up their funding model and their structure of leadership training and development is based upon how many new babies are born. Those gifted with treating burn victims get discouraged and leave the hospital. The hospital gets the reputation of having a narrow area of concern, new births, that people do not go to the hospital who need to.
At what point does the hospital cease being a hospital and is now a birthing unit?
The Church is called to make disciples to be certain, however becoming a new disciple is not the only Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Good News is as much for the non-disciple as it is for the disciple of Jesus. Doing the work of evangelism is not limited to making new disciples.
Like hospitals, churches have a charge to keep that is multifaceted. And just as we would not expect a hospital to narrowly understand health care, we ought not expect churches to narrowly understand evangelism.