Western District Conference launches a Year of Evangelism

Jan 22, 2018 by and

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GOESSEL, Kan. — An evangelist is a “both/and” kind of person, speakers said Jan. 19-20 as Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA launched a Year of Evangelism.

“There is more than one way for people to say yes to Christ,” said keynote speaker Heidi Roland Unruh, and many invitational “scripts.”

Steve Schmidt leads a group from First Mennonite Church of Beatrice, Neb., and First Mennonite Church of Hutchinson, Kan., during a strategizing session at the Western District Conference Year of Evangelism kickoff. — Paul Schrag/MWR

Steve Schmidt leads a group from First Mennonite Church of Beatrice, Neb., and First Mennonite Church of Hutchinson, Kan., during a strategizing session at the Western District Conference Year of Evangelism kickoff. — Paul Schrag/MWR

About 130 people gathered at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church to get inspired to share their faith and overcome barriers that might discourage them from being evangelists.

“I’m here to get energized for myself as well as for the congregation and to pursue ways to reach out and be friends with people we normally wouldn’t,” said Debbie Nightengale, who came with a group from First Mennonite Church of Halstead.

Unruh — a consultant, trainer and writer who attends First Mennonite Church of Hutchinson — said Mennonites already know the basic “both/ and” concept that words and deeds go together. But there’s a step beyond that.

“There’s a movement now in the church to take both ‘do’ and ‘tell’ and add ‘dwell,’ ” Unruh said. “Our speech and our service together are inadequate. There’s a dimension of love that’s expressed only by . . . the intentional choice to link our lives with others beyond our faith community.”

In these relationships, we release the outcome to God, knowing we can’t control the outcome — or other people.

“Kingdom evangelism calls us to uncouple evangelism from our desire to fix or control others,” she said. “This is very hard to accept, because we want spiritual children who act like us.”

Unruh offered more “both/ and” examples:

  • “Evangelism is both human action and Spirit movement.”
  • “Coming to faith is both a decisive moment and a lifelong journey.”
  • “We are both helpless sheep and anointed laborers” (Matt. 9:36-38).
  • And most important: “Jesus said be passionate about loving God and loving people as you love yourself. Everything else is chaff.”

The second keynote speaker, Marvin Lorenzana — a church planter, discipleship coach and pastor from Harrisonburg, Va. — emphasized the “both/and” of evangelism and discipleship.

“Evangelism means presence, walking with people in a discipling mode,” he said.

It’s all about relationships, he said. Meals open a lot of doors.

“Churches don’t make disciples,” Lorenzana said. “Disciples of Jesus make disciples. . . . Evangelism is mostly about investing in people’s lives.”

Breakout sessions addressed topics such as “Rural Mission and Evangelism” and “Scripture as Testimony.” In “Sharing Your Faith Without Fear,” James Krabill, senior mission advocate with Mennonite Mission Network, talked about obstacles to evangelism that Mennonites need to overcome.

He said poor examples of evangelism have soured some of us on the concept.

“I’m allergic to many of the ways people do evangelism,” Krabill said. As a result, “we don’t like the term or the concept, and we’re not committed to figuring out an alternative other than criticizing the kinds we don’t like.”

A list of 13 congregational fears or obstacles included kinship (new people wouldn’t fit in), timidity (our people don’t feel comfortable sharing their faith), worship (new people might not like ours), and security (we don’t really want new people).

In congregational groups, participants cited some of these obstacles, too: We fear change that might come from people who are new to Christianity or have lower economic status, and “a lot of us like our church pretty well the way it is.”

Krabill said evangelism depends on desire, not technique.

“Without a passion for God’s reconciling plan in Jesus Christ, no gimmick will mobilize us for action,” he said. “And if you have this passion, any gimmick will do.”

After a time of prayer, participants gathered in groups that paired two congregations with a coach for a strategizing session.

Brad Roth, pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Mound­ridge and one of the event’s organizers, was pleased with the turnout, which “speaks to a hunger we have in our churches to be equipped in practical ways to share our faith in Jesus.”

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