Pastor Joe Skogmo
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN
Epiphany 2 | 01.19.2020 | John 1:29-42
Today, based on our passage from John, we are compelled to reflect upon a potentially scary word – evangelism. Yes, you humble, reserved, rural Minnesota people…we are going to talk about evangelism today.
But, first, many of you might not know what that word means. Evangelism comes from the Greek word, εὐαγγέλιον (eu-ang-el-ion), which means “good news.” Therefore, to participate in evangelism means to share the good news of Jesus with other people: to invite people to come to church, and to share in community.
That is evangelism…and Lutherans, especially Midwestern Lutherans, are notoriously terrible at evangelism. There are multiple reasons why that is the case. One general historical reason why we are bad at evangelism is that we’ve never really had to evangelize.
A) Because we began and grew as an immigrant church.
B) Then we had Lutheran babies.
On being an immigrant church:
Remember, Lutheranism began and settled in northern Europe in the 1500s and 1600s. So, logically, for Lutheranism to begin in America, it had to do so through migration. Beginning in the 1730s the first wave “of Lutheran immigration flowed” and settled mainly in Pennsylvania and New York, and developed with early “colonial growth.”
Then, from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, the Lutheran church in America would grow with additional waves of immigration, settling mainly in the Midwest.
Enormous inflows of Lutherans would arrive from Germany and Scandinavia. “By 1860 more than a million and a half Germans had arrived…and by 1900 the total reached over five million…Many of these Germans were Lutheran.” “No Protestant [church] was so thoroughly transformed by the later nineteenth-century immigration as was the Lutheran”—5 million Germans, 1.75 million Scandinavians, and tens of thousands of Fins, Icelanders, and Austro-Hungarians. For the record, our congregation, St. Paul’s (established in 1874), was a direct result of this migration.
Lutheranism in America would quintuple during that era, making the Lutheran church at the time a purely immigrant church. This is all to say: no need to evangelize when they’re all coming here.
Then…throughout the 20th century…we had babies. From the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers, our church membership nation-wide was fundamentally sustained by major population booms born into the church who, more or less, stayed in the church. Again, no need to evangelize.
But, now, here we are. This is the era of challenge and opportunity. For 150 years, we haven’t really needed to evangelize, but, today, we are a denomination, nation-wide, in decline (to be sure, nearly every denomination is in decline in America). Here we are, very few ready-made Lutheran immigrants in sight, fewer and fewer people born into the church are staying in the church. Here we are, and we must evangelize. We must invite people to share in Jesus’ community.
This might not always be comfortable, but given the trends, we must do it, and we can do it.
Of course, evangelism is not comfortable. Jesus rarely calls us to anything comfortable. It takes some social risk. We have to talk to people. We have to be proactive and perceptive, and our sharing of Jesus’ good news and his church might not be readily and warmly received! Culturally speaking, evangelism is a challenge, and it’s okay to name that! It makes me think of the comedian, Jim Gaffigan, and this bit where he says:
…It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, does anything make you feel more uncomfortable than some stranger goin’, ‘I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.’? Yeah, I’d like you not to. You could say that to the Pope, ‘I wanna to talk to you about Jesus.’ He’d be like, ‘Easy freak. I keep work at work…’
So, yeah, from ours and other peoples’ perspectives, evangelism can be uncomfortable!
But, we must evangelize. We must evangelize for a number of reasons, namely, because according to the Bible, this is not a PRIVATE RELIGION. Christianity is a community faith, and a movement that seeks to share God’s life-giving love “to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). We have the message of Jesus’ love and a community founded on that love. It needs to be shared!
This needs to be shared because God’s love is for everyone. This needs to be shared because too many people are lacking authentic community in their lives, and the love of God and the communities that are formed on that love meet that need.
We must evangelize because the church is declining. The Lutheran church in America started as an immigrant church that then had a bunch of babies. Well, that pipeline has stopped, and to sustain the church we must share and invite.
We must evangelize, not for the sake of salvation (which Christ already secured), but because God calls us to join in his work for the world like he called those first disciples in today’s gospel.
We also must evangelize, not to earn our way to heaven (Jesus has already made a place for us), but because we are called to serve our neighbor and our neighbors are yearning for community, for purpose, and for the love of God.
Finally, sisters and brothers…we can do this. Evangelism can be basic and simple. Look at the way Jesus did it in today’s reading!—all he said was, “Come and see” (John 1:39)! Evangelism can be basic invitation. We can do that! In fact, many of you are already doing it, and we are seeing its spiritual fruits come to bear. The growth we have seen here at SPLC is in large part due to the fact that many of you have simply invited people to ‘come and see.’
Out of curiosity, how many of you have shown up here for worship, or joined the church, or have shown up for a church function simply because someone invited you to check it out? (*roughly half the hands went up*)
SEE!! The growth we have seen here at SPLC is proof that invitation works! It won’t always work, but it can work!
Clearly it worked for John the Baptist 2,000 years ago. It says in our passage today: “[John] exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus” (1:36-37).
So, we don’t have to be out on the corner of 114 and 55 screaming and holding signs that say “Have you found Jesus?” We don’t have to crudely shame people into coming. We don’t have baptize people with fire-hoses. All we have to do and be is sharing and inviting:
Hey…God’s love is really big, come and see.
Hey, you might feel at home at St. Paul’s. Come and see.
We’ve got a really neat fellowship event. Come and see.
Your kids might really enjoy our Sunday School program or youth ministries. Come and see.
Come and see not what you have to do for God, but what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.
Sisters and brothers, the relief is that we’re not here to save souls. Jesus already did that. We’re here to share that message, to invite, to love, and to join God in purposeful work in the world. We can do that. Amen.