Let’s face it. We Reformed folk pretty much stink at evangelism. We sort of admire our fundamentalist sisters and brothers for their boldness.
Whether they are distributing tracts, knocking on doors, or producing scary rapture movies, you have to admit they’re pretty darn good at what they do. And they are highly motivated because, well, people are heading for hell.
My colleague recalls a childhood pastor who urged his congregants to patronize unchurched hair stylists. After you secured a decision for Christ, you moved on to a new stylist. The minister was on his sixth barber.
We have tried to get in on the action too—in our own way, because we can’t quite swallow the Four Spiritual Laws. But the five points of Calvinism—TULIP for short—doesn’t seem to be a great conversation starter, as the church elder in the film Hardcore learned.
So we began inviting neighbors to Billy Graham crusades in the hope that something might “take.” Then we threw into gear James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion method (“If you were to die tonight . . .”). We’ve tried vacation Bible school follow-ups, men’s and ladies’ groups, backyard Bible clubs, and a plethora of other programs. Today it’s all about latching onto the latest and hottest church model.
In some Reformed circles, travelers knew we were supposed to engage our fellow airplane passengers in spiritual conversations before landing—which put the pressure on.
The conversations were a bit contrived when it came to making our move. Most memorable was a chat I enjoyed with a Jewish gentleman. He put me on to Constantine’s Sword, an intriguing book about the church’s miserable history with Jewish evangelism.
Chasing down decisions for Christ just doesn’t seem to be in our DNA. But so far none of our homegrown methods have spiked the evangelism charts either.
The fact is that the Reformed confessions do speak of evangelism. The Canons of Dort state that the gospel “ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people” (2:5). I like the old translation better: promiscuously. However, that explains to whom it should go but doesn’t get at how the gospel should go out to bring in those not yet being blessed by the preaching and sacraments.
The Heidelberg Catechism moves us forward with a mention of the method. Speaking explicitly about winning “our neighbors” for Christ (Q&A 86), it tells us that doing so is not about forcing spiritual laws down their throats, cornering them with trick questions, or finding a slick angle to slip in a good word for Jesus.
The Heidelberg’s evangelism style is simply to live authentically, compassionately—and let the chips fall where they may. We will win some neighbors for Christ as they see our good works—fruit-bearing—out of gratitude for what Jesus did for the world, including us.
The Contemporary Testimony (41-54) and the Belhar Confession (4) follow the Heidelberg’s trajectory. Our “good works,” far from wringing decisions for Christ out of folks, are lifting up the poor, defending the weak, empowering the hopeless, seeking justice for the oppressed, and everything else Jesus commanded us.
Sure, we can—and should—invite folks to events in our church or community, as long as it is out of friendship and not a bait-and-switch. Spiritual chats are great, unless unsolicited. But don’t lose sleep over your neighbors’ eternal destiny—God’s got that pretty much figured out.
The Reformed confessional urgency of missions is to live a life that shows how God’s world becomes a better place as we extend his unconditional love to all, promiscuously, especially the least of these.
Maybe we Reformed folk don’t stink at evangelism after all. Maybe the Heidelberg Catechism simply intended us to live as an aroma of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15), loving deeply, instructing when requested, and leaving the rest to his irresistible attraction.
1. Do you buy Schuringa’s observation that “Reformed folk pretty much stink at evangelism”? Why or why not? What might be some reasons that folks from other churches might be better at it?
2. List as many traditional methods for evangelism as you can think of? Which of these are effective? Which are not?
3. Should we be more open about sharing our faith with others? How might we learn to do that?
4. Summarize Schuringa’s description of how the Reformed confessions give us a good understanding of how we should be engaged in evangelism. Do you agree with that approach? Is it sufficient?
5. How should word and deed be linked in our efforts at evangelism?
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