I sometimes hear murmurings in the Church about how the kind of work that I do isn’t “evangelistic” enough to really count. There is a certain clique within Christianity that believes that any work that doesn’t include leading a person in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” or having and altar call at the end of every service, isn’t really Christian enough. Because chaplains are often called upon to work in interfaith settings, or to do things that don’t lead to a “decision for Christ,” our work is often portrayed as being outside the scope of the work of the Body of Christ.
To this, I simply say, “Hogwash.”
Chaplaincy is evangelism, not in spite of taking place in interfaith settings, but because of it. I get the chance on a regular basis to show people of other faiths what Christianity is really about, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That is a chance that I very rarely had when I was serving in a local church, because I was then so often immersed in the minutiae of running the business of the congregation that I didn’t have much time left over to interact with people who weren’t already part of the choir. Just because my work doesn’t result in more people “walking the sawdust trail,” it doesn’t mean it’s any less part of what the Church ought to be about in the world.
It’s only been since I became a chaplain that I finally gave up on the notion that I personally have to be responsible for someone’s decision of faith in order for my ministry to be considered part of telling the Good News. In my former ministries, I always felt like I was putting on a character whenever I was called upon to preach evangelistically, and it was usually awkward when I was asked to be one of the pastors at a youth event who was expected to “lead someone to Christ” when they came down the aisle during the crying portion of a service. I never developed the knack of getting someone to recognize their sinful nature and dependence on the grace of God to save them from hell.
I did have a few rare moments in my ministry when I was able to humbly witness the work of the Holy Spirit moving in someone’s life, calling them closer to God. I was able to be present a few times when someone truly felt a change in their life because of a profound experience of God’s presence. And I even had a couple of times when I was used by the Holy Spirit to speak some words into a person’s life that they needed to hear in that moment. Other than that, I always felt inadequate when it came to the whole “lead them to Christ” part of my job.
Now that I am in chaplaincy, I have been able to re-imagine what “telling the Good News” means in my life and work. For instance, here are a few examples of non-traditional moments when I felt that God was using me to preach the Good News, even though they might not look like it from the outside:
- When I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a Jewish staff member and a Muslim professor over a series of events known as “Scriptural Reasoning,” where we each talked about important topics (prayer, fasting, peace, hospitality) from our different perspectives. I was “telling the Good News” by sharing with other people about how my faith in Christ informs my ethical and spiritual life.
- When I was tasked with helping our Muslim community on campus to find a new place where they could pray when their former prayer location was being torn down as part of a campus improvement plan, I was “telling the Good News” by being the kind of neighbor Christ asked me to be–one who would “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
- When I spoke at a meeting of Open Doors, our LGBTQIA+ group on campus, I was “telling the Good News” by showing them that not all Christians were going to tell them they were going to hell because of their gender or sexual orientation, and in fact that there was theological reasoning behind my position on this.
- When I brought together four students to model civil conversation between Christians on issues of LGBTQIA+ inclusion, I was “telling the Good News” by showing our campus that Christians can disagree and still be kind to one another, and still find that they believe in the same God and the same Christ.
- When I met with an atheist to help them reorient their beliefs when they came to a philosophical crisis, I was “telling the Good News” by showing them that they needn’t change who they are in order to be helped by me, and that I wasn’t going to tell them they were wrong and going to hell because they have different beliefs.
You see, I would rather no one “pray the sinner’s prayer” under my leadership than have that become the only standard by which my ministry is judged. I would rather spend more time working with people who are different from me than spend all of my time focusing on the inner workings of the Church and our crazy issues. I would rather a person come away from an encounter with me having a better opinion of Christians than ever see a person become the kind of Christian who would judge people while not recognizing the plank in their own eye.
Chaplaincy is evangelism, because even though I may not be adding to the number of butts in the pews, I am still “telling the Good News” through what I do and what I say every damn day. And I feel more like an evangelist in this sense than I ever felt when I was in ministry in the local church.
Evangelism takes many forms, and the Church is big enough to accept all of them, and God is certainly big enough to contain them all as well. I’m glad I’m not one of those who are called to “lead people to Christ,” because I’m pretty sure I would be a failure at it. But I am glad that living my life in Christ might have a positive effect on the world, or at least my small part of it, and that’s enough for me.