An Evangelizing Joy

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Much of the planning is already done. Advent has arrived. The music has been selected — an inviting blend of old familiar hymns and a variety of newer songs not yet old enough to be traditional. The candles are arranged in the front and the other Christmas décor will soon makes its way out of storage and into our sanctuary. Our art team’s contribution, a canvas tent and mini campsite, is decorated with pictures our congregation has taken from their home and work neighborhoods, an attempt on our part to visualize this year’s theme of Jesus “tenting” among us or, as Peterson described it, “moving into our neighborhood.” 

As all the details and plans have swirled around, mingling with the ongoing sermon preparation, I have also been making my way through Pope Francis’ first exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. This document is a call for Christians everywhere to reengage the biblical call of evangelization. While I recognize there is some controversy already about the Pope’s “attack on capitalism” within the document, his starting place, calling for personal renewal in relationship to Jesus, and his direction, a recommitment to being an evangelizing people, are quite encouraging

One paragraph in particular has caught my attention in the context of all our holiday worship preparations. In section I.24, Pope Francis describes an evangelizing community. There is much to appreciate in this paragraph. He ends that section with these words:    

Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates at every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.

Pope Francis has me wondering about what it might look like for us to be an evangelizing community like he’s describing here. At the moment, I find myself with several clusters of questions and would love to hear how these are working their way out in your communities.

First, “The evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always.” This time of year, we know how to celebrate. Many of us put together festive celebrations from seniors’ dinners to youth group Christmas parties to plays and concerts. And some of us go to extra lengths to decorate our sanctuary space and even to make the front of our building particularly warm and inviting. But what about the rest of the year? How do we show joy year-round? How might celebration become a way of life — an overflowing response of gratitude for God’s faithfulness among us?

Second, celebrating small victories of evangelization. I am reminded again as I read this piece of the need for us to tell stories constantly. We have a Friendship ministry Christmas service and a Candlelight service this Advent, both of which will tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Our Sunday worship gatherings will engage the story through the lens of John 1 this year. But you can still count on parts of Matthew 1 and Luke 2 making their way into our worship. Perhaps better than any other time of the year, our hymns and carols during Advent tell the story leading up to and celebrating Jesus’ birth. But I am left wondering where the space is to tell the ongoing impact of that story. How do can we make room in our gathering together to hear and tell the stories of evangelization? We know the big story of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but how are we making room to hear its echoes reverberating in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces? What might it look like to celebrate the ways in which The Story is filling the stories of our lives and transforming the lives of those around us? How are we creating room in our communities to celebrate “every small victory” of evangelization throughout the year?  

Third, perhaps the thought that is percolating most right now is the connection of this joyful character with beauty in the liturgy. While some of us will certainly look at the Roman Catholic liturgy with skepticism and doubt, I would encourage us not to miss the implication here. The idea that the beauty of communal worship can convey the joy of the gospel in a way that declares the good news of Jesus Christ is powerful. In our congregation, I find that we are more attentive to the spaces and sounds of joy in worship during this time of year. We are attentive to the movement of the grand story from a God has created everything good into a space of lament where we confess our sins and into hearing the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, through which we are sent by and with the Spirit as recipient-participants in God’s work of making all things new. That movement of God’s story in communal worship, whether in a more formal liturgical setting or in a more casual conversational approach, is frequently more joyful and more pronounced at this time of year. What might it look like to give space and room for the beauty of that liturgy to burst with joy throughout the year? How might our joy and delight overflow our worship gatherings throughout the year? How might our attitude and character shift if we found ourselves rediscovering the joy of the gospel through the beauty of a liturgy that tells the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ throughout the year? Would we become a people marked by an evangelizing joy?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions on how the joy we embrace during this season might be encouraged throughout the year. What does this look like in your context?

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The joy of the Gospel is expressed by the believer not so much by the choice of praise songs,music and liturgy but rather in gratitude for Christ's saving work through Calvary's cross. Pope Francis doesn't get it. The Church of Rome teaches a different gospel. I know. I am a former Catholic. So please, let's not set our gaze on Rome for spiritual guidance but our Reformed doctrine. 

It's unfortunate you used Pope F as an example.   I agree with Joe Serge that this is a poor example;   there are many better examples.   Going back to scripture, for example... the apostle Paul "I do/am all things in order to win others to Christ."  

Many thanks, Chris, for your perceptive application within the CRC context of the Pope's exhortation.  The Holy Spirit infusing our congregations with joy-filled community, an evangelistically sensitive liturgy, and stories of God's grace transforming us and our neighbors from 'dead to alive in Christ' will profoundly impact the future of the CRC.  It is sad that the two brothers previously posting choose to condemn rather than respectfully listening and learning from the church out of which we were born. 

"It is sad... that they chose to condemn" says you.  Are you  then condemning the poor Joe who was formerly a RCath and has knowledge of what he speaks?   Are you wiser than he, that gives you the right to condemn him, or to condemn his statement?   The RCath as an official whole, condemns protestants as heretics and members of false churches  who might make it to heaven, by the skin of their non-RC teeth.  Pope Francis, in one of the first statements he made, indicated that praying to Mary was his priority.  There are evangelists of all stripes, and God can use them all.   But given the name we bear as a denomination, "Reformed", it is ironic to use an example from someone who represents the antithesis for our  name.   We were not born from this church as much as carved out, cast out,  and then reshaped.  While it is true the RCath church is not what it was during the reformation, it is also true that Joe's statement should be respected and understood.  I know other former Catholics who would say the same as Joe.  Isn't it sad that you would condemn him?  

The only response I would make, John, to your passionate defense of 'poor Joe' is, I've served 25 years as an Air force chaplain and during that time I've served directly under and/or with numerous Catholic Priests.  I've gotten to know several of them well as friends and colleagues.  I am certain the priests I know do not believe in a different gospel.  Secondly, I would ask if you would demand to rebaptize someone who requested membership in the CRC knowing that their baptism was done by a priest in a Catholic Church?  Or, should their baptism be recognized as lawful in the eyes of Christ and the church? And finally, are you familiar with the Vatican II documents?  They can serve to update your views of what you mention as the official teachings of the Catholic Church.   

Participant

Thanks Chris,  I love the challenge for the church body as a community to be Christ among the world, in the neighborhood. The gospel story is OUR story encapsulating the true joy of the season.  I find that it is pure joy to take our congregation on a regular basis into the world we live to see people come alive as the gospel is proclaimed in its various forms.

Just as an aside, I believe God can speak truth to all of us even through the pope.  I also like what he said about capitalism. ;-)

Community Builder

John & Joe, I recognize that both of you are expressing concern about my reference to Pope Francis and his recent exhortation. Let me invite you, if you are willing, to give some thought to the questions that I am raising in this post rather than simply critiquing the source that I used as a springboard.

From your perspectives, what are some tangible ways that our Reformed communities can celebrate with joy throughout the year? Our tradition has had a tendency to be characterized more by our concerns for what is not yet right than by our attention to celebrating what God has already done in and through Jesus Christ. But in Advent and Christmas, we seem to pull out all the stops in order to celebrate the joy of our salvation through church gatherings, worship services, etc. Practically speaking, what might it look like for our churches to be joyful throughout the year? From where you sit, how might a more joyful character among our churches impact our evangelistic witness among our neighbors, cities, etc.? 

Chris, I thought I would check on CS Lewis perspective on joy.  For him, apparently joy was intense longing.   Perhaps that makes sense.   When we are really joyful, we have a longing for something better than we normally experience, which we sometimes see some glimpses in out-of-the-ordinary events.  Apparently, when he became a Christian, he no longer looked for joy, or it was no longer an issue for him, since his relationship with God replaced the feelings he had in looking for something he was missing. 

I think we need to distinguish between embracing joy, and rejoicing in Christ.  Embracing Christ.  Whether "joyful", pleasant, or unpleasant, Christ is Lord of our lives.   The joy He gives allows Paul and Silas to sing in prison, but, they were in prison.  The joy of God's grace allowed the reformers to publish bibles at the risk of their lives, and some paid with their lives.   Joy should not be our focus.   We could get joy from possessions, health, drugs, music, family.  Christ should be our focus.   That will give us the joy that lasts thru tinsel and terror, thru trial and error.  

Yes, we should celebrate Christ's victories through us by testifying and sharing.  We should rejoice in His victory in our singing,  in our prayers.  Even we should use some christian humor to highlight God's greatness contrasted to our not-greatness.  In our church, singing is a joyful event, usually.   Piano, violins, guitars, drums all add to the harmony of God's impact on our lives.  Potlucks, visiting, children's witness put smiles on our faces.   As Piper puts it, "God is most glorified in us when we are satisfied in Him."   Seek God's joy, and the rest will follow. 

Chris, I will add one after thought in terms of sharing throughout at least one event during the rest of the year.  When young people or older people make profession of faith, do not read the form in church.  Simply indicate that it was read in the council meeting, and that they agreed to it.  Instead, have each one give their personal testimony of why they chose at this time to publicly acknowledge their faith, and what their faith means to them, and what difference it will  make in their life.   This would add beauty, joy and grace to our communal worship in a way that we usually do not see. 

And for those not yet ready to make a formal "profession for membership", encourage some to make a personal testimony from time to time to share the growth in their knowledge and walk with God.  (using discretion)  From the heart.  This brings beauty and joy and witness in contrast to the stilted, formalized procedures and formalities, which leave doubt, a lack of edification,  or a lack of connection with the observers. 

Community Builder

John, I appreciate the idea of finding these celebration moments in worship that allow for testimony. We have a cultural context that thrives on storytelling, which creates a unique opportunity for us to celebrate the ways that our stories can tell part of God's story. Our elders and our youth discipleship team have been talking about "rites of passage" this year - where are those communal transition moments during which we can emphasize personal stories of God's grace at work among us. Profession of Faith would certainly be one of those. 

No matter how charitable and godly priests may seem to those unfamiliar with Catholic beliefs,  the fact remains that priests embrace and teaching a different gospel.  This includes the forgiveness of sins through the confessional booth, praying for the dead;  prayers to various long-dead saints and especially to Mary, the mother of Jesus, Catholics revere as Mother of God. Priests teach that  that no one may assume to be saved and that to carelessly skip Sunday mass is a mortal sin that, unless pardon is obtained, paves the way to hell. Such are the faith errors of the Church of Rome that by God’s awesome grace I was enabled to walk away from and join the CRC.