50 ways to preach the Gospel

By Heidi Shott

One summer afternoon in the mid-seventies, while waiting in the car for my mom to return from a errand, I reached a heightened pitch of boredom that only a 13 year-old girl can achieve. Fumbling around for something to read, I opened the glove compartment and found a pocket New Testament. That would have to do. That or the owner’s manual for a 1971 Buick Riviera.

My mom and I had recently started taking God a lot more seriously due to the influence of my brother’s girlfriend, Diane. Mom was raised Swedish Covenant in Chicago (now known as the Evangelical Covenant Church) but she backslid something fierce after serving as an army nurse in World War II and marrying the handsome, unchurched brother of one of her patients. My siblings and I were Protestant simply because we weren’t Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim or anything else.

But Diane’s changed all that when she entered my brother’s life and ours. Her Baptist ideas about accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior reminded my mother of her childhood roots and they suddenly took hold in an alarming way. My poor father never knew what hit him. For me, as a young girl who had thought a lot about God but not much about church, the journey toward coming to know myself as a Christian was more gradual.

Still, by the time I sat in the hot Riviera, my opinions about faith had begun to solidify along fairly strict Evangelical lines. What I read when I flipped to Philippians 1 figured as the first real challenge to my faith.

“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.”

But here’s the verse that got me. And 33 years later, it still gets me.

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (v. 15-18)

How can that be possible? Doesn’t intent count? I sat in the sticky bucket seat marveling at such a radical idea. Sleazy TV preachers are okay?

What does it mean for Christ to be proclaimed in every way? As a lay person, without theological training, I lack the vocabulary to speak with authority but it seems that Paul was pointing to the transformative power that the proclamation of the Gospel has when set loose in the world – a power that is set apart from the proclaimer.

I love the scene in the film A Christmas Story when the narrator says of his father’s battles with their uncooperative furnace, “My father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

Is the proclaimed Gospel a little like that? Does it hang in space despite of the flawed person who proclaimed it? Does it hang there waiting for the Holy Spirit to blow in the right direction at the right time? Does it matter how Christ is preached, or why, or simply that he is?

Another summer, several years later, my college boyfriend, Scott, joined me at our family farm. Our intent was to scrape and paint the barn which, while an enormous task, left plenty of time to play badminton and stay up late watching old movies. My 15 year-old nephew Rob was enthralled with Scott and spent a lot of time with us. One week while I went to be a counselor on a trip with my old youth group, Scott took Rob with him to his own youth group Bible camp in West Virginia. After ten days away, Rob came back with a southern accent and Jesus in his heart. His parents never knew what hit them.

In the fullness of time, Scott and I became Episcopalians, and Rob became an Assemblies of God pastor. Though there is a lot we don’t agree on, we still agree on the fundamentals of the faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Perhaps the nut of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Philippians is that to reach every person, we have to proclaim the Gospel in every way possible even if it is barely recognizable as our Gospel. It’s Rob’s business to proclaim the Gospel and I know he does it out of love, but the fact is that Rob reaches people who will never be reached by the Episcopal Church. And the Episcopal Church reaches people who will never be drawn by the vibe of an Assemblies of God congregation. What a boring, uncreative world this would be if there was only the First Congregational Church of Stepford.

One thing I’ve loved about our Church is the stretchiness of the fabric that binds us. In 1981, as a college freshman, I walked into a conservative Episcopal church and instantly felt I’d found my home. At that time, if I had walked into a more progressive church where I’d feel at home today, I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond the gulf. I would have walked out, despite my admiration for the language of the prayer book and the power of the liturgy. I couldn’t have made the jump. Just as my coming to know myself as a Christian was gradual, my coming to know myself as an Episcopalian has been gradual as well. The beauty is that I’ve been able to remain an Episcopalian all the while. While our Church has the capacity to be big enough for many, our manner of proclaiming the Gospel will never speak to everyone. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a true thing. There are other proclaimers out there, and, though we may not agree with them on all matters of faith and readings of scripture, they have their work to do. The journeys of those who respond may eventually lead them to our door and we need to be ready to receive them.

The fabric that holds the Episcopal Church, and ultimately all of Christendom, is as stretchy as ever, but we humans are somehow becoming more brittle. It’s not the Gospel that is so exacting over how or why or to what audience it’s proclaimed, it’s we the proclaimers who are so particular. Like Paul, I want to rejoice that the Gospel is proclaimed in every way, so that each person, no matter how his or her ear is tuned, might hear.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice for the Diocese of Maine.

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