Rural Evangelism: Not a Program, but a Way of Life
by Mary Leigh Boyd Hovland (January / February 2005 — Volume 21, Number 1)
All Christians are evangelists, and opportunities for making Christ known surround us constantly in daily life. On Sunday mornings, every member’s hospitality toward a newcomer or visitor counts.
God calls some to be apostles, some teachers, and some evangelists, and gives gifts for ministry. One might say, “God didn’t give me gifts to be an evangelist. God gave me gifts for teaching instead. ”God does not let any of us forget that we are to share Christ’s love and salvation as God commands us to “Go and make disciples of all nations. ”All of us.
Often I announce in church that a new family has moved into the area and that I have visited them. I ask the congregation to visit this new family also. After hearing this announcement, one woman said, “Surely she can’t mean all of us. ”Another replied, “I think she does. ”And I did. It is up to each one of us to welcome and invite newcomers into fellowship with Jesus.
One excuse I heard for not visiting a newcomer was, “I heard they aren’t Lutheran.” We are not about making Lutherans. God calls us to welcome all people so that one day everyone will bow down praising the Lord.
Lessons in Hospitality
When a new family arrives in our community, I visit bringing a church newsletter and a loaf of bread. I don’t plan to stay or go inside their home. I greet them, introduce myself, and invite them to worship. I call to make arrangements for a second visit. All are welcome to participate in any of the activities at our parish. We expect visitors.
A seminary friend from India showed this kind of hospitality when I stayed with her one evening when the weather did not allow me to return to my home. She shared all she had. From friends she borrowed blankets to make me a soft bed on the floor. In the morning she made me a cup of hot lemonade in her only cup. Only after I finished using the cup did she make a cup of hot lemonade for herself. We spoke of this wonderful hospitality, and I learned that in her Indian home an extra place was always set at the table for the possible visitor.
In the same way our congregations must be ready to welcome anyone who comes in. This welcome begins outside the church and continues throughout the service. Before a preacher ever opens his or her mouth, the visitor has already decided whether or not she will return. Every person’s hospitality is important.
Let the Children Come
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” Likewise, we are to welcome children. 1 Peter tells us to use every opportunity to share the hope that is within us, the hope of life with Jesus Christ.
Children often play around our church parking lot. They get thirsty and enter our building for a drink of water. Sometimes people get anxious about children coming into church. I try to remember what Peter said about using every opportunity to tell of Jesus.
Each fall we invite and welcome the children to Sunday school. It is my opportunity to dress as a clown, have a great time, and give the children a welcome they do not easily forget. I visit the homes of children who are new to Sunday school, bringing balloons and invitations to Rally Day.
One might think in our small community there might not be many homes to visit. One year after I completed my visiting, people asked, “Did you visit my neighbor?” I visited an additional seven families. In smaller communities older people move from their homes and younger families often move into town. Others commute to neighboring towns for work.
Planting and Nurturing
Rural communities respond to the rhythm of planting and harvesting. Church activities follow a similar model. Rural Americans know about planting and nurturing young plants. In the same way, we are to sow seeds of love. Jesus calls us to sow seeds everywhere, not only in neat little rows, and to nurture the young seedlings helping them grow in faith. We are called not to make everyone just like us but to allow for growth as the Spirit of God moves in and around our lives. Every occasion is a God-guided opportunity for ministry. Ministry happens daily at the post office, the gas station, and the local cafe as well as at church on Sunday mornings.
Funerals and prayer services are wonderful opportunities for sharing the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone. People come to funerals out of respect for friends or relatives. Many individuals attend funerals when they would not attend a Sunday service. How important it is to show our hospitality, walk with the bereaved, and preach Jesus’ message clearly so that they may know of Jesus’ love through their pain and grief. During life-changing events, people are more receptive to hearing God’s word.
After a prayer service, a young man in his twenties said, “You really believe what you say, don’t you.” God promises that the word will never return empty. We are called to plant and nurture. The Holy Spirit transforms hearts making Jesus known.
What opportunities do you have today to make Christ known?
ELCA Rural Ministries Web site at www.elca.org/rural
Jung, L. Shannon. Rural Ministry: The Shape of the Renewal to Come (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).
Making Christ Known: A Guide to Evangelism for Congregations (Augsburg Fortress, 1996, $9.95). This resource combines a theological foundation for evangelism, practical implementation and evaluation ideas, and a resource listing for building an effective outreach program. To order, call (800) 328-4648. Order no. 0806633344.
Renewed: “Reinventing Rural Ministry” and “Renewing Rural Ministry.” Two interactive video workshops presented by the Division for Congregational Ministries, ELCA, 1995, $34.95 (order no. 6000051409). To order, call Augsburg Fortress at (800) 328-4648.
Speakers Bureau: ELCA Partners in Evangelism network. Names listed on the Evangelism page of the ELCA Web site at www.elca.org/dcm/evangelism/evanpartnet.html
Mary Leigh Boyd Hovland is pastor of the Maynard-Wang Lutheran Parish. She lives in Maynard, Minnesota.