Dropping the E-Bomb: How the Word Evangelism has become a Swear Word
James Wheeler is Pastor of Community Impact at Southview Church in Calgary
For those who are firmly ensconced within the walls of church life the word Evangelism is seen as merely descriptive of the activity of telling an outsider the stories of Jesus and how he can take care of the sin problem. However, outside the hallowed halls of churches, Evangelism has become a dirty word today. Why is this? Let me give you three reasons.
Residential schools. One of the searing images in Canada has been the growing public awareness of what happened to Indigenous children in residential schools. These schools and their horrendous treatment of innocent children were run by the government and the church to “civilize” Indigenous peoples. The stories about what happened to the children in these institutions is heart breaking and fills one with despair. The impact on churches and their perceived role in society is staggering. It is clear the church partnered in a cultural genocide. You might recoil from these words and think I am being hyperbolic. I do not think so. But in one way, it does not matter what you and I think. It is a fact that the church of the past was cruel and mistreated innocent children. This exposes the church as an institution with strong colonial instincts. Therefore a “winsome” Evangelism message from a group of people called Church, which is composed of some who deny the facts or degree of impact that the residential schools had, and continue to have, on the First Peoples, is ineffectual at best and grossly myopic at worst. Is God great and glorious? I have no doubt of this. But it rings hollow to those observing the church’s sometimes limp or anemic response to the on-going suffering of Indigenous communities.
Homophobia. Another strange feature of many churches is the lack of presence of the LGBTQ+ community within its ranks. Some denominations have been radically inclusive and others silent. Why the silence or the unwillingness to address homophobia? Is this not a prominent issue to address? Why the lack of conversation amongst attendees or leadership about the absence of this group in our communities? The LGBTQ+ community face a challenging journey of self-knowledge and self-acceptance and need support. The Christian tradition has fantastic resources to help guide one through difficult personal journeys and to full acceptance and blessing in Christ through his love on the cross. We see it in the stories of the desert Mothers and Fathers, Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross or someone more contemporary like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yet, there is an odd silence when it comes to the negligible LGBTQ+ participation in communities of faith.
Access. Lack of access to your building, and all parts of it, to those with mobility issues sends a clear message. The message is: You are not welcome. I think particularly of church stages. Can a person in a wheelchair access your church stage? Does that say something? Does it communicate a message about who can teach or lead worship? It might be subtle or catch us unawares, but it is reflective of the fact that we often do not think of how our physical structure itself can be unfriendly and alienating.
I think we could round this all up under the painful topic of hypocrisy. I say painful, because when we know Jesus as our savior and see his radical inclusion of outsiders into his band of disciples, one can only marvel at the radical inclusion he practiced. I mean, he accepted us, didn’t He? It strikes one as jarring, when the verbal message is “we are a loving community” yet these above barriers remain firmly in place. Do we dare consider those who do not experience acceptance and love in our communities?
Just to be clear, neither am I thinking of the church as a utopia of inclusion, which I believe is a gross misunderstanding of how Jesus’ ethics operate in Christian community. However, I think we who want to share the vital and life-giving beauty of the life and death of Jesus are required in these days to cultivate a holy discontent with the current state of things. We could undertake a critical examination of our ecclesiology. Do we want to do this? This is the narrow and difficult road of discipleship in our time. The wide road is to continue to ignore the marginalized, holding them safely at arm's length. But how can we share the beauty and wonder of Jesus with our world when parts of that world are functionally excluded?
What We Are Reading
Leadership for Flourishing in Educational Contexts
Benjamin Kutsyuruba, Sabre Cherkowski, Keith D. Walker
I am not sure how many others have a table next to their "reading chair:" I do (sorry, I am assuming the chair). Still finishing off Madeleine L’Engle's Bright Evening Star from holidays, slow read of Howard Thurman's Meditations of the Heart, second time through Carlos Cipolla's short book - The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, and occasional "use of" Michale Gabriel's The Pieta Prayer Book and pick and choose pieces of Reinhold Niebuhr's Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. My wife's oft-spoken words to me "pick a lane Keith!" are ringing as I write. I expect others may have a variety of such books on their equivalent of a reading chair table - some books left from holidays - some have been there for months and some quite recent. I think there is such value in the multi-laned approach to reading and genre of reading. Sometimes variety comes packaged in one book, at other times it is piled up on a table.
This week I had the pleasure of having a rather long-awaited edited book arrive and find its way to my reading table. Unusually, I had actually read through and edited every element of this book at least half a dozen times before it made its published form onto my own table (from computer to printed version).
Two colleagues and research partners of mine, Benjamin Kutsyuruba (Queens University) and Sabre Cherkowski (UBC) and I brought together about 42 practitioners and academics to contribute to a 17-chapter volume with a focus on flourishing: "Leadership for Flourishing in Educational Contexts." We were interested in the stories local-level, personal-professional-level, and at outcomes and impact-levels of the ways that leaders create space or host flourishing.
As I now re-read through this book, I see that it is full of the stories of the difference that "leadership" (not person or position but created condition and capacity) had on the momentum towards positive action and thriving. These authors check many of the geographic, ethnic, context and diversity categories and there are themes that are altogether relevant for and in common with flourishing congregations, who we know are no less diverse in context and no less educational in function than the situated practices and narratives expounded by the tellings of these authors. You can't bottle "it," formulate "it" (mass x velocity) or even explain "it" (reminded here of Craig Groeschel's terrific book "It: How Churches and Leaders Get It and Keep It"). The well-described and even mysterious maturity and occasions of sustained momentum towards flourishing are exciting to hear about. Along with this there are themes of recurrent obstacles, opposition, and progress quenching insertions. These are very well described, together with leader agency, wrestling with hard stuff and the disciplines of wisdom in action - all merit our attention.
The so-called "view from the balcony" - looking into another context from a distance will often yield insight into our own circumstances. Observing the wrestling, the ebbs and flows entailed in narratives of coming alive and igniting passion, purpose, presence, and play are evident in these pages. Stories are so powerful to our practice.
So many worthwhile books to encourage, exhort and enlighten personal, interpersonal, and community life.
Buy the Book
Dr. Keith Walker, Professor of Leadership and Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan
Are you a Church Leader wrestling with increased polarization in your community?
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