The following was written by my friend and mentor, Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath, McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. I asked her to comment on my Ramadan experience, and she graciously responded with this article:
This fall marks the beginning of my eighth year as the evangelism professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Every semester I teach a course that United Methodist students are required to take if they plan to be ordained. It is known by the anxiety-inducing name, “Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Evangelism.” For the first three weeks or so I must focus on deconstructing the bad theology that has hijacked the practice of sharing the love of God with our neighbors in the American church. Most of my students begin the semester dreading the thought that I might assign them homework that involves forcing something down someone’s throat.
It takes time to track down the origins of this pernicious theology in an ecclesiology shaped by exploitation, domination, and violence. Once we unpack the roots of bad evangelism we are ready to move into the theory and practice of the most wonderful adventure of the Christian life—becoming a people who love so well and so consistently, that others are drawn to a transformative relationship with God by their relationships with us. And, as we engage those who are “other” in any way, we ourselves undergo conversion at deeper levels, for we must repent of bigotry and exclusion that now surfaces in our hearts. We must, like Peter in the vision of the sheet, look at the “other” and see someone whom God has declared “clean.”
As students gradually awaken to the real meaning of evangelism, the ones who are most resistant at the beginning of the class are usually the most passionate evangelists by the end. This is because they learn to share the good news with every kind of neighbor by becoming a life-giving presence to those neighbors. They discover how to live in a contemplative stance, one in which they show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome.
Drawing from the wisdom of the great Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich, I urge them to love with abandon regardless of whether their neighbor ever professes faith in Christ. Because that is how God loves. No one is ever brought into genuine Christian faith by being hated, I tell them. No one is freed from bondage by being labeled, shamed, rejected, scapegoated, humiliated, tortured, excluded, or damned. Only love can set people free.
The truly evangelistic life is one that is grounded in three practices: deep prayer, deep hospitality, and deep justice. These practices are gifts given lavishly to every neighbor whether she is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, gay, straight, educated, mentally ill, is a child, or an old man. We become actively available and engaged in prayer, in hospitality, and in justice for our neighbors. This is what it means to become good news. The outcome of this self-giving is God’s business. We release the outcome to God.
Should we use words to tell our neighbors about our faith in God? Yes, if it is natural and the Holy Spirit lets us know the time is right. Yes, if we can do so without coercion, violence, manipulation, or exploitation. But we should speak of God to others only if our lives are credible witnesses to the words we speak.
This is where Wes Magruder comes in. I met Wes four years ago, not long after forming the first New Day community in Dallas. Today there are two New Day communities in Dallas and one in a rural area outside of Mabank, Texas. New Day is a network of missional, new monastic communities located in multi-cultural and economically depressed neighborhoods. They are house churches with a strongly missional focus, led by a team of mostly lay people who follow a disciplined life of prayer, hospitality, and justice. I started New Day communities almost five years ago in order to develop an alternative model of church that is deeply faithful to our Wesleyan heritage and that provides ordinary Christians with a place to serve in potent, transformative, disciple-making ministry. Wes Magruder came alongside and is now coordinating the Dallas New Day ministries and their emerging outreach with refugees. In the large apartment complex where we meet weekly for a community meal and worship, and where we engage in many forms of outreach and supportive friendship, I see lives changed daily by the love of God.
When Wes told me he was going to fast with Muslim friends during Ramadan, I was excited. I knew that Wes would experience a deeper conversion to his own Christian faith in the process, and that Muslim friends near and far would experience a healthy Christian leader who knows how to show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome. They would experience Christian love and solidarity from a pastor who does not coerce, manipulate, exploit, or use violence to try to get other people to agree to loving Jesus.
May the rest of us learn from and follow Wes’s example in New Day ministries, and may we trust God with and release the outcome.