From the Desk of Pastor Olsen
Many of the stories in our Bible are about people being sent to where they would rather not go. Moses did not want to go back to Egypt. Jonah did not want to be sent to Nineveh. The disciples did not want to be sent out into the world that had just crucified Jesus to spread the good news of his resurrection. Eight days after the resurrected Christ appeared to them and gave them this commission, they were still in the same room behind the same locked doors. They needed more encouragement to step outside. Who can blame them? It's a dangerous world out there!
In one respect, our task here at Trinity is easier than it was for the first disciples. We don't have to travel far to reach all nations. God has dropped "all nations" at our doorstep. We have in our neighborhood persons from all parts of Mexico and South America, Asia and the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. We don't need a plane ticket. All we have to do is step outside and start talking.
But that one step is hard to take for settled people like me. I would much prefer just to open the church door and wait for people to come in. Of course, you and I both know that I would be waiting a long time. Few people wander into unfamiliar buildings filled with people they don't know. The good news of Jesus Christ is not going to be heard unless we "take it to the streets." That is why I have made it a point over the last year to spend an hour or two a week out and about the neighborhood talking to people I meet, listening to their stories and, as the opportunity arises, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ happening among us.
I want to be clear that this sharing of the good news is not something I am particularly good at. There were no seminary courses in my day with nuts and bolts instructions for implementing the Great Commission. I have had to learn this as I go. Though hardly an expert, I have learned a few things. First, I have discovered how important non-judgmental listening is. When people recognize me as a pastor, they often have a lot to say about their experiences with the church. Many of those experiences are not happy ones. I have to resist the temptation to jump to the church's defense or the defense of God. I have to remind myself that God is quite capable of defending himself. My concern has to be for the person in front of me who, for whatever reason, is estranged from God and the people of God. I need to let them know that their stories matter to me and also to God.
Second, I stick to speaking of how I have experienced the love of Jesus in my own life and in the life of my church. I don't go off on all the wonderful things the church does, all the programs available through the church or what our church teaches about one thing or another. Never in my life have I been approached by anyone (including other Lutherans) wanting to know about church activities, programs or doctrines. But I have had plenty of people ask me why I go to church, what I get out of it and what difference it makes in my life. Though there are fewer people in church these days, most people are still looking for ways to engage the spiritual dimension in their lives. I look for opportunities to talk about how Jesus does that very thing for me.
Finally, I never try to convert people. Never. Jesus called his disciples to be witnesses, not prosecuting attorneys or public defenders. My job is to talk about all that Jesus is doing and invite my listeners to "come and see." I am not responsible for the reaction I get to that invitation. I have planted the seed. It will grow at God's own pace and bear fruit in God's own time.
To be honest, I still have to force myself out into the streets to do this work. It does not come naturally. I am forever looking for reasons not to go, work that I know I should be doing, tasks within the church on which I am behind, any excuse I can think of for skipping this week's stint in the neighborhood. But once I manage to get myself out the door, I am glad I made the effort. There is nothing more exciting, more fulfilling and just plain fun than being an ambassador for Jesus.