Lay Lutherans and personal evangelism have a strained relationship.
First, we are tempted to think that only pastors should witness for Christ. If asked about it in a quiz, however, we are good enough test takers to know that is not the right answer. While only rightly called and ordained pastors should publicly preach and administer the Sacraments (Augsburg Confession, Article 14), every believer should “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15)
The zone covered by Peter’s saying is where we have the priesthood of all believers. Certainly, we lay people must stay in our own lane, so to speak. But too often we apply this as if we had no lane.
Second, we feel intimidated. We often say, “I don’t feel confident that I know what to say,” or “I don’t know how to do it,” or “We need a class to teach us how to do personal evangelism.” Yes, a class couldn’t hurt. But mainly it would be a refresher in the Small Catechism and in a few parts of a good explanation of the Small Catechism. For the lay person, personal evangelism is basically having the core of the faith in mind and ready when events, conversations, or questions invite or prompt us to share applicable pieces of it.
Realizing that knowledge of the Small Catechism is all we need, not only can we recognize opportunities for personal evangelism, but sometimes personal evangelism is unavoidable.
This happened to me recently. I had been delinquent in scheduling my medical checkup. I was overdue by a few months. The clinic kindly extended my prescription for medicine, but to get it extended for a whole year, I needed to quit procrastinating and make my appointment. An appointment was unavoidable.
When I finally go to the appointment, the clinic had implemented a new policy. All patients were being giving a survey. Apparently there is a campaign against depression, suicide, and so on. At least, that’s the way it seemed from the questions on the survey.
No. 6 on one page of the survey said, “Feeling bad about yourself – or that you’re a failure or have let yourself or your family down.” Check. That happens to me. I was to rate this on a scale of how many days per month I feel this.
On another page, I was asked whether anything on a list was a stressor in my life. The list included “Spiritual concerns.” Check. That happens to me.
The nurse came in and read my responses to the survey. Her eyes alerted on those questions and my responses. Her face took on an expression of concern. She cautiously and politely broached the question: Why had I given those answers?
What makes me feel bad about myself? What makes me feel like a failure? What makes me feel like I have let myself or my family down? What causes me spiritual concern?
Sin. Sin does that. Original sin and particular sin. Original sin is real sin, it is condeming sin, and it is my sin, not just Adams. I am described in Genesis 6:5, “Every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
So, when the nurse asked me, to give an answer was unavoidable, unless I would be dishonest. So I said, “Original sin grieves me, and causes me not love God or my neighbors as I should.” “What do you mean? What is original sin,” she asked. Being in medical clinic, I donned medical language and said, “Original sin is an inherited infection of the soul that causes me to wickedly worship myself, and not love God or my neighbors as I should. It is a disease that compels my evil thoughts and behavior.”
The poor woman. Her face took on an even more grave expression. Her eyebrows clenched together a little bit, and momentarily her eyes took on a look of confusion. She asked, “If it is as bad as that, why didn’t you rate the level of distress higher on the scale?” “Because our church has the Sacrament of the Altar at the Divine Service every Sunday,” I said. Still donning the language of the clinic, I continued, “That is my coping mechanism.” I somewhat regretted that last statement, because the phrase “coping mechanism” made the Sacrament sound trite in my ears. And yet, blurting it out turned out alright as she interpreted it, which illustrates that we don’t have to be perfect to personally evangelize.
“How does that help you cope,” she asked. “The wine is the true blood of Christ shed for the remission of sin, so Jesus giving it to me to drink consoles me that my sin is forgiven,” I said. Plainly, she was curious and wanted to know more, but this answer clinically cleared my case from being a suicide risk, so in her professional behavior, she stopped there.
Stopping there was good enough. We do not argue people into conversion. We sow the seed of the Word, which is Law and Gospel. The nurse heard the Law and the Gospel. The Holy Spirit uses the Word to grant repentance where and when it pleases him. So relax and sow.
You don’t have to talk the way I did. You don’t have to talk the way anyone else does. Speak as comes naturally to you. Just be honest and let the Catechism help you. If something you say sounds like it came out wrongly, like what happened to me, just explain a little bit what you meant. We do that routinely in ordinary conversations. We can do that in evangelism. After all, evangelism by vocation is evangelism by ordinary conversations.
Someone said, “Opportunity is what happens to people who prepare.” You can prepare very easily. The Small Catechism teaches the Six Chief Parts of Christian Doctrine. Read one part each day for six days of the week. Next week, start over. Truly, that is all there is to it, for “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)