In the summer of 2011, before we launched our church, I took my leadership team through an exercise that determined which aspects of church life they were most passionate about. Holistic community development and growth in discipleship were near the top of the list, while evangelism was toward the bottom. It seems that even among a church planting leadership team, evangelism has become a bit of a dirty word.
The reason that our church exists is to connect the Mission of God to the Bowery. The Missio Dei includes – foundationally – the desire to see people put their faith in Christ. We can participate in the renewal of a neighborhood, but our eyes are only truly opened to how to do so when we follow Jesus. The mission statement of our denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, puts it well: renewing lives and communities worldwide. People come to faith individually as we renew the wider community in Jesus’ name.
Last week I asked an NYU graduate student what she thought when she heard the term evangelical. “Oh, those are the Christians that bait and switch. They’re nice to your face, but they really just want to convert you.” With so many inside and outside of Dwell Church being burned by the church and skittish around evangelism, we’ve had to re-imagine how to approach it. But I don’t want to abandon the term, so evangelism remains one of our core values even as we pray and ask hard questions.
We have to identify a new way of evangelism that leaves behind old models and gets back to the oldest model: that of Jesus. What I see in Jesus and other biblical figures, especially in Acts, is the power of curiosity. Jesus asked questions. He often responded to a question with a question of his own. Whether it was with Nicodemus at night, the woman at the well or countless other interactions, Jesus teaches us the power of curiosity.
Many times I am tempted to know the right answers, to try and back my neighbors into an intellectual corner. But in the neighborhoods that surround the Bowery, we find great diversity. Even though we’ve seen many people come to faith, I am only beginning to learn the cultures and patterns behind the spiritual questions people are asking. I find the process goes well and the Holy Spirit provokes curiosity in my neighbors when I approach them with respect, love and curiosity. And, let’s be honest, starting a church in New York City does generate some strange looks and plenty of questions!
After two years of spending a lot of time with three families in my neighborhood and praying for them, all of them finally began asking questions about Christ and His church. One had heard about another church and wanted to find out more about it. One wanted their children to participate in our service projects in the neighborhood. The third wanted to visit Dwell Church.
The culture we live in tells us that we’re all on a spiritual journey, and that all journeys are equally valid. I believe that is only half true. People are on a spiritual journey, but we need to be able to show the distinctiveness of Jesus and His incredible grace. We can be apologetic for our evangelistic missteps, and worse for giving Jesus a bad name. But we should be unapologetic about the truth of the gospel to transform any culture.