Published in Connections Magazine (January/February 2014)
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faith and family
Family and the “E” Word…
by Marcus J. Carlson
Nothing can strike fear in the hearts of Lutherans and Lutheran churches quite like the word evangelism. Letʼs be honest: most Lutheran churches are not only failing when it comes to evangelism, we are afraid of it, do not know what it means or ignore it completely. We often hide behind the word disciples in the Great Commission, believing somehow that evangelism and discipleship are not only separate, but that they are two different things all together.
Our definitions, theology and understandings of the term evangelism need to be addressed. For many churches, evangelism is something that is ignored. For others the term evangelism has come to mean “marketing.” Not only do both of these approaches fail, but they point us to perhaps the greatest reason our churches are in decline. It is in fact impossible to grow any church without reaching and sharing the Good News with the lost. Part of growing disciples is training, equipping and encouraging followers of Jesus to bring the Good News to their families, neighborhoods, larger communities and the world.
When I reflect on evangelism—in the church at large, in Biblical Lutheran churches, in my own church and in my own life—I find more questions, challenges and failures than answers. In thinking about the theme of evangelism for this issue of Connections, I also had to reflect on evangelism in the context of the family. Certainly—as someone who has given over a decade and a half to children, youth, young adult, parent and family ministry—I know that most evangelism happens to those under 20, and that much of church growth has and has to come from young families and those under 30. Itʼs the area where the larger church is lacking. This group is both the present and the future of the church, and quite frankly, our churches are aging at an alarming rate. Those under 40 are not connecting to the church or leaving the church in numbers that are undeniable and much more dramatic than in the past. While young people do seem to leave the church for a season, the generations under 40 are doing so in greater numbers, are not returning and are much larger in number than we realize. Pointing to the problem, the challenges and the failures of the church in this area are easy, but finding lasting, healthy, theologically and Biblically sound solutions is a much greater challenge.
Compounding this problem have been the unhealthy solutions that we have chased in our desperation to reach the younger generation. Our focus on attendance, entertain- ment and style instead of substance has not yielded the results we have wished. It has weakened our presentation of the Gospel and created an image of following Jesus that is far too consumeristic and shallow. Instead of looking at the challenges we face in terms of reaching younger generations (as well as evangelism with discernment and trust in the Holy Spirit), we have instead embraced fear. We have found ourselves either reacting to or ignoring evangelism, placing blame on circumstances rather than examining our own hearts as leaders and examining our priorities as the church. Needless to say, there is reason to be concerned and discouraged, yet this generation and this season also represent the greatest opportunity the church of Jesus Christ has had in a long time.
There is a greater need and desire for the authentic, Christ- centered, mission-oriented church of Jesus Christ now than in recent memory. As our culture becomes increasingly confused, chaotic, divided and broken, the need for Jesus and the church is only going to grow. The craving for authentic community, meaningful relationships, genuine discipleship and relevant/challenging truth among those under 40 is immense. The passion for relationship, service and meaning is monumental. There is not only great need, but great desire. The church already has all of the tools and answers needed to address the challenges the church faces: the needs of the world and the desires of those who want to experience authentic community.
Enter the family. While over 50% of children born to mothers under 30 are being born into single-parent situations, the family in its various imperfect forms represents the greatest tool for evangelism in our churches and culture today.
One of the things my mother always complained about (and still complains)—particularly during my high school and college years—was her lack of name. She was seldom Mrs. Carlson, Debby or Debby Carlson—she usually was known only as “Marcusʼs mother.” I shudder as I write and re-read that statement, knowing my own personality. Any of you who are or have been parents can resonate with this. I had always laughed when my mother complained—until I experienced it for myself for the first time. When I heard, “You must be Micahʼs dad,” I did not know how to react. I appreciated being recognized, yet I felt slighted for having my identity stripped from me. I was reminded of the great call and joy of being a father. I rejoiced that my son was known and valued. I was afraid, knowing that while my son was a great child, he is not perfect. I grew anxious about my own reputation as I recalled how much in fact is genetic. All this ran through my mind with this simple, innocuous and innocent comment.
Upon further theological reflection, I discovered something. Rather than fear, evaluate or attempt to control this new identity as Micahʼs dad or Abbyʼs father, I should not only embrace it but also consider how the Holy Spirit might desire to use it for the Kingdom. I should learn to trust God in a way that transforms me personally, as well as my family. We delight when our children make us look good and we mourn when they do things that embarrass us. While these feelings are normal, they are in fact selfish.
If we are to be the light of the world, this means we must all be the light of Christ—individuals, churches and families.
What if I were to look at my family differently? What if I not only looked at them as my primary ministry calling, but also as a ministry to the world? How would I function differently as a husband, father and pastor if I were to choose to help my family, as well as other families, become a vehicle for evangelism?
I am not talking about getting my kids to hand out tracts, or to hold signs at football games or on street corners. I am not suggesting our families spend our vacations going door to door to convert people or promote our churches. So often when people tell me how wonderful my children are, how lucky I am to be married to Jessica or what a great family I have, I think of that in two ways: the way God has blessed me, and in terms of my own self. Recently, I have come to realize that perhaps I should look at this as a Kingdom opportunity.
What if we were to view our families—our own, those we care about and the families in our church—as the vehicle for evangelism in our church, community and world? Instead offering the obligatory “thank you,” or blushing and patting myself on the back when I receive a compliment about my family, what if I looked at it as a moment of ministry?
So often I look to my own life and the ministry of the church as the only means of evangelism. While both are important means of evangelism, what would it look like if I also saw the relationships, life and operation of my family at home, in the church and in the world as a means of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ? What would I do, say and be to make that possible? The world is ripe for the Good News of Jesus Christ. Our families should experience and dispense this Good News—not just in our words, but in our actions and our very existence.
Marcus J. Carlson is an ordained pastor (LCMC & NALC), currently serving at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Auburn, IN. He is a spiritual director, professor, speaker, writer and consultant, with 15+ years experience in youth and family ministry. He and his wife, Jessica, have two children.