Going Beyond: Owning Being an Evangelical
An evangelical church in St. Louis held a conference at the end of February that was looking to the future. More than 200 other church leaders participated from 19 states, all of whom were there to focus on evangelism. The evangelical host church is United Methodist, and for the past few years, it has been the largest and fastest-growing church in the Missouri Conference. It is also very upfront about being inclusive, as were the other participants in the conference.
The Gathering started 16 ½ years ago, with evangelism and inclusiveness being part of its ethos from the beginning. Rev. Matt Miofsky, the founding pastor, said the church scene in the city at that time was that if you were a young family with children in the city, you were going to choose between a growing church with exciting worship that was very conservative, or a mainline protestant church that was struggling and most likely lacking in worship.
“We looked at that and said people shouldn’t have to make that choice,” Miofsky said. “We wanted to start a church that believes in the Bible, believes in Jesus, and believes we should be passionately sharing Christ. We long for a church that grows in breadth and depth.”
To Miofsky and the rest of the founders of The Gathering, that also means interpreting the Gospel as one that lifts women in leadership, welcomes LGBTQ people at all levels of leadership, and sees racial justice as a church issue, not just a social justice issue.
“When we started, there weren’t a lot of churches like that,” Miofsky said. “We’re having this conference to focus on the hopeful future to reach new people and catch a glimpse of what the future looks like. Churches that are both evangelical and progressive can grow. There is hope for the future.”
As a board member of Eden Seminary, Miofsky recently questioned at a meeting that if they are really a seminary for all people, why are they in decline? He said progressive churches need to ask the same question.
“If we’re about welcoming more people, then we should have more people,” he said. “It’s a question we should have to grapple with.”
Miofsky likes to define evangelism as hospitality to people who aren’t there yet. It needs to be happening to everyone, and at a personal level.
“I think we’ve largely abandoned our tasks about talking about and sharing our faith,” Miofsky said.
The two key components of his version of evangelism are having something you are excited about and having friends to invite. An invitation is easy when someone is excited about something. It’s like recommending a new restaurant, song or movie to a friend. When you are lifted up by an experience, you want to share it.
He believes people should be offering invitations, and he defines an invitation as something you have to say yes or no to, as in, “I go to this church. Would you be interested in coming with me this weekend?” Surveys have shown that about 80 percent of people are willing to try a church if someone they know invites them.
Beyond invitation, evangelism has to lead to discipleship. Anyone who has been part of a church for years should be fine with being asked to pray out loud in a group.
For new people, there shouldn’t be any expectations.
“It’s funny that we expect people who come to church to be Christians already,” Miofsky said.
The ultimate goal is making disciples of Jesus Christ – a transformation. Sometimes welcoming churches fall short of bringing home the message of where and how lives need to change.
“It can’t just be personal transformation. People ought to see the church as a transformative force in the world,” he said. “Do you see changed lives in your congregation? Are you lifting up stories of transformation?”
Miofsky acknowledged that many people in churches see faith as a personal and private thing. Getting them to understand it is a public thing is a hard sell. But it certainly is one filled with opportunity.
“The harvest is so plentiful all around us,” he said. “That is what gives us hope. People all around your church are wrestling with deeply spiritual questions. Most of them are doing it without any guidance outside of themselves.”
Miofsky’s opening comments were followed by a presentation by Dr. Amy Oden, author of God’s Welcome. She talked about invitation in relation to the story of the prodigal son.
“If someone just shows up at your church, chances are they just had a major life event,” she said. “It’s not that they need another organization to belong to. They need a place of belonging where they can ask difficult questions. They are hungry to share life, not just to be greeted. We need to get over aspects of hospitality that are just focused on marketing.”
Following Oden, Dr. Kevin Young shared how he had grown up as a strict fundamentalist, was later rejected by his family when he became a Southern Baptist, worked on his Ph.D. with Leonard Sweet and became a pastor of a progressive church in Florida. He’s now part of an online ministry. He believes all churches are going to have to consider a broader definition of what a church is.
“Begin to consider the idea of defocusing on Sundays in order to refocus elsewhere,” he said. “Consider your church a subscription service for spreading love and spiritual growth.”
Brian McLaren, author of Faith After Doubt, is also a resident of Florida, and he shares Young’s journey from a fundamentalist upbringing to becoming a progressive theologian. He presented on the second day of the Beyond Conference, going into detail about the four stages of faith: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and solidarity/harmony.
“Doubt is what happens when you move from one stage to the other,” McLaren said. “When moving from stage two to three, everything is in doubt. Doubt is not the enemy of faith. It is the enemy of authoritarianism.
More people are moving into stages three and four, and churches are doubling down on stage one. People are looking for leaders who understand their stage and have something to offer them in it.”