by Rev. Dr. Robert Rosin
The fall quarter of teaching in St. Louis has come to a close. (We’ve squeezed in extra days to finish a bit early, and the students don’t mind–more time free for other papers and exams.) For me, the overseas work is about to begin–Germany, Czech Republic, and part of Asia on the schedule before Christmas. Reports on that will come in time. But now it’s worth taking a look at something that leaped out from my summer work in England, mid-Asia, Latvia, Russia, and Poland.
In Eurasia, cultures vary widely, as you can imagine, from England to far-flung places to the east. But no matter where, there is a common thread that runs through efforts to promote outreach and growth in the faith. Particulars differ, but the principle is the same: Relationships are important. You hear it formulated in different ways, but the bottom line is this: Relationships matter.
Of course, we look for different ways to make the message known, and we want to improve how we go about spreading the Gospel. Sometimes, we even hope that we’ll finally hit upon the best way, that we’ll find the perfect technique, the perfect evangelism plan. In fact, there never was, is, or will be a perfect one-size-fits-all approach. But there is an ingredient that is essential no matter what: relationships.
Earlier this year, Latvian pastors and their families gathered for a week-long retreat at Nirza, near the Russian border. They talked of the challenges they face in an economy that went from leading to trailing in Europe, from exploding to collapsing. Money is tight, to say the least. But when programs have to be trimmed or dropped, it is still possible to talk one person to another.
In Siberia, at another retreat for pastors and families in the district–congregations that stretch for roughly 2,500 miles–there were two Baptisms at the main service, a mother and child who came to faith through the witness of the husband/father in the household. And in Mragowo, Poland, in the northern lake country, where the Lutheran church holds an annual tent evangelism outreach week, there were contacts made–from children through older adults–as people were brought into contact with the Word shared and studied. In those cases, and more, really, in nearly every case–personal relationships were–and are–key.
Here, in the U.S., we like to think of going door-to-door, handing out literature and talking about our faith. People throughout Eurasia say that won’t work for them, and they’re right. In some places, “religion” is just not talked about in public, though the same people will say they live in lands marked by Christianity. Sects and cults go door to door, so the reception is frosty at best. And we ought to ask if it works that well in the U.S. anymore: No longer do most of us live in communities where sidewalks and front-porch living are a way of life, and stay-at-home families invite strangers in the front door. The Fuller Brush salesman is long gone.
Yet, there are other ways to get a genial, even evangelical, foot in the door: Relationships with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
Are relationships that important? In England, it is considered bad form to talk about religion in public. (After all, it’s a Christian country, right?) So congregations look for ways to strike up conversations in their neighborhoods. Opening up facilities for daycare is one example, getting people through the door to see the other, larger things going on in the parish.
In Poland, the pastor responsible for one of the tent evangelism groups in the north (where Lutheranism is small; the bigger numbers are in the south) told me they would have perhaps 150 registered for the event, but 250–300 would come. They are happy when the numbers are off like that. No one just walks in, the pastor told me. They come because one teenager has asked a couple of friends to join in, or one neighbor has invited another to come along and listen to the music or hear what others have to say. It’s nothing fancy, nothing theologically elaborate–just a simple “come and see.”
In Asian villages with house study groups, laypeople with no elaborate training do a simple thing. Almost all are adult converts. They first practice telling what their lives were like before they became Christian, how they came to faith, and what their lives are like now. The present is no bed of roses just because they believe. They have the same problems, but they also have joy now in Christ’s forgiveness and hope for the life to come. And then they tell a neighbor and invite them along: Come and see.
An American pastor friend starting a mission congregation with a handful of “starter families” from the last place “back up the road” did things simply: “Why are you a Christian?” he asked the core group. “Why do you find it valuable to be part of this congregation? What do you find spiritually important about believing in Christ? And do you know a half-dozen friends who are just like you who would benefit in the same way?”
Whether in a village halfway around the world or a U.S. suburb, the point is the same: Missions build off relationships. Nothing fancy. Just a simple willingness to say, “I find this important because … Why not come and see?”
Believers have been doing that since John 1, when Philip encountered Jesus and went to his brother, Nathaniel: “We have found the Christ,” he said. “Come and see.”
Relationships matter: Christ’s with us, ours with Him, and ours, then, with our family, friends, and neighbors. Seeds are planted, and the Word of the Lord grows.
About the Author: Rev. Dr. Robert Rosin is professor of historical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and LCMS World Mission coordinator for theological education in Eurasia.
Adapted with permission from his October “Eurasia Notes & News.” Copyright © 2010 by Robert Rosin. LCMS congregations may reprint for parish use. Credit The Lutheran Witness Online as the source. All other rights reserved. “