September 29, 2013 Luke 5: 1-11
Today's reading is what we refer to as a "Call Story."
It took me about a dozen years to finally listen to Godʼs call to ministry.
Once I made the decision, I was apprehensive about telling strangers what
I was doing. I would say "Iʼm moving out of the area".
"Where are you going?"
"What a great place to move to? What will you be doing?"
"Ahh...Iʼm going to grad school."
"Wow, youʼre going to Cal? Whatʼs your field?"
Then the long pause - "Iʼm going to Pacific School of Religion to become a
And out of that revelation would come the most incredible conversations -
like none Iʼd ever had before. People opened up and revealed their own
faith journeys and asked about mine. Sometimes they would pour their
hearts out about sick relatives and ask for prayers. I was doing pastoral
care without training! I witnessed a desire in people to have these deeper
conversations. I later realized I was doing evangelism and didnʼt know it.
When I was in seminary, I had to take these tests to see if I was "ordainable
material." After taking the first one I went to my mentor - this wonderful,
caring pastor of a nearby church - and told him, rather sheepishly, "Iʼm
going to rate a 0 on evangelism." - and I did, a big, fat 0. After a pregnant
pause, he said: "We need to talk about this - find out what it is about
evangelism that you have an aversion to. What does it mean to you? What
negative connotations does it conjure up?"
I wasn't the first - or the last, Iʼm sure - to score 0 on the big E word. Iʼve
been told by more than one of you that Eliot members have an aversion to
even talking about it.So letʼs try:
What do you think about when you hear the word Evangelism?
EVANGELISM! what do you think? (pass the mic) What words does the
term Evangelism bring to mind? The word makes many of us queasy.
It did me.
Iʼve read some poll numbers from a number of different sources that are
quite revealing - a little something for those who love statistics. 80% of
people come to church because someone invited them. I came to the UCC
because friends invited me - more than once. They tell us, in mega
churches with 2,000 plus members (that excludes most UCC churches)
87% of people attending had invited someone in the past year.
A different survey found that 55% of attendees of mostly mainline churches
(thatʼs us) had invited someone in that same time frame. 55% - 87% - does
that say something about why the big fundamentalist churches are growing
while the rest of us are lucky to maintain the status quo?
A long time member in my last church told me "Iʼve never invited anyone to
church and I probably never will. I donʼt want to impose my beliefs on
someone else. I told this to the head of the Alban Institute. They work with
churches on growth and renewal, and she said, "You know what to tell
her?" I knew what she would say. "Then your church will die." And they are,
in ever increasing numbers.
Now, you will say, but Eliot is a strong, vital, church. And yes it is. But
hereʼs a statistic I didn't want to hear. On your profile that was sent to me
when I was searching for a church, you listed your membership as 278 -
nice size. Weʼve been cleaning the rolls to determine how many members
we really have. We are now at 162 and shrinking. And they didn't all leave
after I arrived. This has been going on over a number of years.
I wondered how many of us in this church had invited someone in the past
year who showed up. How would we rate, percentage wise? I wonʼt put any
of you on the spot by asking for a show of hands, but I do want to know;
Yes, for most of us ʻevangelismʼ is a dirty word. Brian McLaren, who has
written books on the topic, defends the word; "Evangelism isnʼt a dirty
word!" - and then he warns us; "Unless Christian moderates and
progressives begin to share their faith and love and enthusiasm, Americaʼs
religious landscape will be populated by fundamentalists." Itʼs already
happening. Itʼs been happening for decades.
According to the Mainline Evangelism Project, if you look at membership as
a % of the population, mainline church membership decreased almost 50%
in the past 40 years. More and more children are being raised with no faith
at all. Each generation is less involved in religious life than the one before
it. Look around our church and you will see a living example of what they
are talking about.
Those in fundamentalist churches have a rather persuasive hook for
bringing in new members. Itʼs called hell. If you donʼt come to our church
and profess Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and believe what we tell you to,
thatʼs where youʼre going. Itʼs a great motivator - for some people. We donʼt
have that hook. In todays story Jesus didnʼt use one either. He used a net,
but Iʼll get to that later.
So, if you donʼt believe that becoming a Christian saves you from hell,
what reasons do you have to do evangelism?
The most frequent answer to that question is "So people will join our
church," so we can have more Sunday school teachers, more families,
more young people, more workers, more pledgers. This is all important,
donʼt get me wrong, but it shouldn't be our primary focus for doing
evangelism. If it is, people become bait.
What have we left out of the mix? God. Evangelism is first and foremost to
help draw people into a relationship with God, or in the case of Christians,
Jesus too. Itʼs about transforming lives - creating community. Last week I
read you part of a letter from Sue Dinn where she said: "Your O&A
welcome to me as a gay woman was life-changing and my years as part of
Eliot were incredibly rich years both spiritually and personally." Thatʼs why
we do evangelism.
In the story we read this morning, the lives of Peter, James and John were
transformed. This is a call story. They were called by Jesus and sent out to
call others. It starts with Jesus doing what he does all the time - teaches,
but he needed a little breathing room, so he asks Peter to row him out into
the shallow water while James and John continue to wash their nets.
Itʼs been a disappointing night of fishing, with nothing to show for it. After
Jesus finishes his lesson, he tells Peter to venture out into deeper waters
where he directs him to let down his net. After some skepticism Peter
obliges. Apparently words were not enough for Peter, Jesus had to engage
in a little show and tell, or more like tell, and then show.
"Iʼm here for you. Trust me and do as I say and youʼll reap great rewards."
Thatʼs not to say there wasn't some risk involved. The abundance of fish
almost sank the boat! They had to call in for help. Peter knew at that point
he might not be up to what Jesus was leading him into. "Go away from me
Lord, for I am a sinful man." But Jesus reassured him not to be afraid.
"From now on youʼll be catching people." And Peter, James and Johnʼs
lives were transformed from fishermen to disciples. Follow me and your
lives will be rich in ways you never imagined.
As the fishermenʼs nets physically envelope the fish, Jesus spiritually
envelopes the fishermen. Amidst the immobilizing fear of sinking, they are
called by Jesus to a new career path.
We scout the deep water when we venture out to share the Christian faith
with our neighbors - when weʼre willing to leave our comfort zone, take
risks, try new things, explore new territory. Thatʼs where the fish are - where
growth happens, not only in attendance numbers but in our relationships to
God, each other and those outside the church community.
Now, hear this, Iʼm not talking about going door to door proselytizing or
standing on a street corner with a "Jesus Saves" sign. The confirmation
class and mentors and Emilia and I did evangelism last Sunday when we
made sandwiches and fed the homeless on the Boston Common, and then
participated in their worship service. We were spreading the Word by living
it. We were sharing the love of God while following Jesusʼ example. Thatʼs
evangelism. I only wish we had had God is still speaking t-shirts and hats
with our church name on them.
Last Monday night over 200 people from our community met here for a
forum in support of Engine 6. I welcomed those in attendance and gave the
opening comments. Despite the fact that only three of us from Eliot were
present, our church was doing evangelism. We were letting the community
know who we were and how Jesus had taught us to live, by opening our
doors in support of those living on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
You may be thinking, ʻWow, thatʼs easy!" and it was, because most of you
didn't participate. Jesus didn't say it was going to be easy. Our church will
only reap the rewards of evangelism if we all are willing to go fishing.
Itʼs not easy to strike out in the deep, especially when our popular culture
offers such enticing invitations in other directions. Think of all the things
people could - and in many cases, are, doing with their Sunday mornings,
outside of church.
This leads to my last question, which has to do with sharing our faith, and
hear I mean actually talking about it. If your faith is really important to you,
and I hope that it is, then you should want to share it. If you go to a movie
you love, donʼt you tell your friends to see it. Then why do we become so
tongue tied when it comes to talking about our faith? I would propose that
we donʼt practice enough. Many of us donʼt know how to articulate it. Weʼre
reticent to even begin.
If we talk more often with each other about our faith, we will be able to
articulate it to strangers. We donʼt have to be well read or have a theology
degree to do this. We need to put it in simple, heartfelt language that even
an unchurched person can understand and respond to. Thatʼs where small
group sharing is so valuable.
This fall Iʼm going to introduce a series called "Saving Jesus Redux." Itʼs a
12 part study of different aspects of Jesus and his life. We watch a 30
minute video with clips of well known, progressive Jesus scholars and
theologians discussing an aspect of Jesus and his life, followed by
questions and discussion. Iʼve lead this before and it stimulates such
I hope to facilitate the first four classes during October and November. The
dates and time will be determined by those who sign up. I will have sign up
sheets during fellowship and we will show an introductory clip at the
beginning of Emiliaʼs forum today. Come to me with any questions.
Meanwhile, your assignment for the week: I suggest that we start with the
question "Why does it matter that I am a Christian?" Try answering this
question during this next week, for yourself, and then talk to someone
about it. If we know why it matters that we are Christians then we will know
why it could matter that others become Christians - or come back to their
faith after a time away. How is your life better, richer, more fulfilling living
within a faith community?
I spoke earlier about Jesus not using a hook, but a net. Try thinking about
evangelism this way: "The calling is not to hook people and drag them in. It
is rather to cast the net of Godʼs love all around...open to the world -- and
then wait with patience for the Spiritʼs work and see if any are caught by
Godʼs vision and grace." Ann Svennungen