Year A, Day of Pentecost
May 28, 2023
Year A: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39
Today, as we celebrate the joyous occasion of Pentecost, we are reminded of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. The Acts, Corinthians, and John readings direct our attention toward the essential need for evangelism in the 21st century.
In a world where mainstream denominations face declining membership and attendance challenges, it is natural for us to feel concerned. However, let us not be disheartened, for the Holy Spirit calls us to be bold and to share the gift of the Holy Spirit by preaching the Gospel.
I’ve said before we must reclaim the word evangelism, and I’ve included revival. I’ve got a couple of other words we need to reclaim, but as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, evangelism and revival are first and foremost.
Evangelism is not a task reserved for a select few denominations; instead, it is a calling entrusted to every believer. Evangelism is a proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, a sharing of God’s love, and an invitation to join the faith journey. It is an expression of our deep gratitude for the gift of salvation and our desire to share it with others.
In our context, evangelism must be understood as a compassionate response to the spiritual needs of our time. It requires a humble and listening heart, open to the diverse experiences and perspectives of those around us. Evangelism is a way of embodying the inclusive love of Christ, affirming the inherent dignity of all people, and engaging in authentic dialogue with those who may hold different beliefs.
The Holy Spirit, poured out upon the early disciples on that first Pentecost, continues to empower us today. In the Acts of the Apostles, we witness the transformation of ordinary individuals into bold evangelists, crossing boundaries and speaking in diverse tongues to share the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit equips us with spiritual gifts, guiding us to reach out to others with love, humility, and understanding.
I’m sure many of you, like I, sometimes worry about the future of our congregations. Church decline has been discussed in many spheres, especially in the United States and Canada. Yet, for all the vestiges of Christianity surrounding us, North America is undergoing a rapid and unprecedented decline in church membership, affiliation, and attendance. In 1972, 57% of Americans attended church monthly or more, and only 9% never participated. Fifty years later, a full third of Americans never attend worship, a third attend infrequently, and another third attend monthly or more.
It’s true even beyond what we consider the “mainline” denominations of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist. The Southern Baptist Church showed a 3.5% membership decline last year, the SBC’s largest ever.1
Do you want some interesting, maybe it’s good news? The Episcopal Church showed a 3.4% decline. That’s right; our decline was less than the Southern Baptist Church.
We can’t exactly rest on our laurels. The Southern Baptist Conference is about ten times bigger than the Episcopal Church.
Sometimes, we hear the narrative, ‘Don’t worry. Maybe the church will be smaller than it once was, but it will be more faithful, more genuinely committed to following Jesus.’
I’m not convinced of that, nor is Ben Crosby, an Episcopal priest from Massachusetts working on his Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal.
Crosby reminds us that we are given good news to share and that good news is not just for some people but good news for all people; that Jesus Christ invites us by Word and Sacrament through the power of the Holy Spirit into life in Christ for our good and God’s glory2. Crosby calls on the church to adopt and embrace a missionary identity: proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ by word and deed and inviting people to respond to faith.
What would it look like if we embrace a missionary identity, working to equip ourselves, clergy, and lay people to share the Good News with a culture that increasingly does not know it or knows a skewed, narrow version of the Good News?
What if every layperson, priest, bishop, and deacon was a missionary? What would it look like if we sought by the Spirit’s power to make our congregations evangelical in the best sense of the word: full of people who knew and believed and lived out the Good News of Jesus Christ and were empowered to share that Good News?
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Holy Spirit distributes various gifts among the faithful, uniting us in our diversity as the body of Christ. These gifts, such as wisdom, faith, healing, and prophecy, are not for our glory but are meant to serve the world. Therefore, recognizing and utilizing these gifts in our evangelistic efforts can open doors to connect with others, foster relationships, and inspire hope.
First and foremost, evangelism begins with building genuine relationships with those around us. It is through authentic connections that we can truly understand the needs, doubts, and questions of others. Listening attentively to their stories and experiences creates a safe space for spiritual exploration and offers the transformative message of Christ’s love.
Furthermore, sharing our personal faith journeys is a powerful means of evangelism. We each have a unique story of encountering God’s grace and love. Sharing our testimonies, struggles, and triumphs can inspire and encourage others. By being vulnerable and transparent, we break down barriers and create opportunities for others to witness the transformative power of faith.
We want to tell our story later this summer at the Shenandoah County Fair.
In this digital age, we have new avenues for evangelism. Social media, websites, podcasts, and online communities provide platforms to engage in conversations, share resources, and spread the Good News. By utilizing these tools thoughtfully and creatively, we can reach a wider audience and connect with individuals who may not physically enter our church doors.
In our inclusive tradition, inviting and welcoming others is at the heart of evangelism. Therefore, we need to emphasize the importance of hospitality, creating spaces where all feel valued and embraced.
By extending invitations to worship services, community, and social events, we create opportunities for people to encounter God’s transformative presence and experience this Christian community’s warmth.
Moreover, evangelism is not limited to words alone but is expressed through acts of service. By actively volunteering in our communities and advocating for justice, we become living witnesses to the love and compassion of Christ. Our actions speak louder than words and can spark curiosity, inspire others, and create opportunities for dialogue.
To do that, we must inspire a culture of discipleship within our congregation. Evangelism is not a one-time event but a lifelong commitment to nurturing and supporting the growth of disciples. So it’s really about becoming a missionary church. And I mean that in the historical sense of missionary.
I wish I had a tried and tested program to give you. I don’t. But mission work and evangelism will go hand in hand.
Think of missionary examples in history. For example, many of you watch “Call the Midwife.” Those Anglican sisters were missionaries.
Missionary work has been central to Protestant traditions since the Reformation in the 16th century. Protestant missionaries have been instrumental in carrying the Christian message to different parts of the world, establishing churches, schools, and hospitals, and engaging in various forms of humanitarian work.
The same is true in the United States’ early years when Roman Catholic nuns arrived from Europe to serve as educators and nurses. They opened schools to provide education, especially to immigrant communities and underserved populations. They also established hospitals and healthcare facilities to address the needs of the sick and the poor. The sister contributed to the growth and development of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries.
We’ve got the foundation. Our food pantry and grandparents’ group lay a strong foundation of service and love. It’s the start of a missionary church. So now, let us embark on a journey of evangelism. Let our actions and words spread the Good News. Amen.