Friday, March 4, 2016

What a Cable Company Taught Me About Evangelism and Nonviolent Communication

When I am on the phone with customer service for both cable or cell-phone providers, I frequently become the worst of myself. 

My complaints laced in rage are rooted in what I believe to be an injustice to my personal finances. But I have done this to myself. I have willingly complied with a culture that says cable television is a necessity versus perk of the privileged. 

So when my return fight from the NEXT Church Conference in Atlanta was re-routed to Pittsburgh, it was ironic who struck up conversation with a friend and me as we taxied on the tarmac. 

“What were you doing in Atlanta?” the young woman seated next to us asked. 

The unveiling of my vocation can be rather delicate, but I responded, “We were attending a conference for pastors and church leaders related to ministry innovation and leadership. What about you?"

“I work for [popular cable television network].” 

Aware I was one of their customers, I jokingly asked, “Do you work for customer service?"

We all laughed. Then I realized, she was the personification (read: manager) of those who may have been on the receiving end of some of my rants of rage. And in that moment, my raw observation of cable company employees shifted to a more humanized evaluation, i.e. from jerks to people with stories and a shared desire to get home to their families in Philadelphia.

Love your customer service agent as you love yourself.  

But what was even more intriguing about this in-flight conversation was what I learned about evangelism. In the midst of sharing marketing, media, and creative communication strategies pertinent for both corporation and congregation, she shared about a recent shift in terminology for some of their employees.  In light of how customer service is (poorly) perceived by the public, executive leadership adopted the term “social evangelists” for those on the front lines of product promotion. 

I cringed. The word evangelist has become like sour grapes or cheap wine, bitter beer and expired milk. What was once good turned bad and needed to be tossed. But what the church has considered throwing away, this mega-corporation has only recently claimed. 

I asked for the rationale. 

“We believe social evangelists will better enable our employees and customers to be educated, informed, and empowered as we humanize one another."

Evangelism and humanizing the other in the same sentence?! The very conflict of terms was at least in the top three reasons why many are abandoning the words “evangelism” and “evangelists."

The conversation took off from there [pun intended], as we discussed what the church and this cable company can learn from one another. In solidarity, we shared about the need to heal from real and false perceptions, even turn away from (I so desperately wanted to say “repent") our missteps frequently rooted in the treatment of persons as means to and end versus fellow neighbor. 

Let me be clear, I am not naive about new corporate strategies of public concern for people still being rooted in a primary concern for the bottom line. Actually, I am deeply skeptical of altruism in the corporate world. When it comes down to it, they have a product to sell. In this sense, their evangelism is just as problematic. Nevertheless, this conversation confronted me with a reminder that the church must not abandon the words evangelism and evangelists altogether. Instead, our evangelism needs to be reframed and renewed as a concern for our neighbors and faith-based efforts that educate, inform, and empower others so frequently marginalized and exploited as less than human, a mere means to a greater end.

So moving forward, what does it look for God’s people to reclaim and reform what it means to be social evangelists? 

How can evangelism be about education as we learn from our communities what good news looks like in contexts of poverty, pervasive violence, institutions bent towards the privileged, questions about racism, immigration, and growing refugee crisis, corruption in public schools and prison systems, and hate speech that has dominated public and political rhetoric?

How can evangelism inform our most vulnerable neighbors about the good news that God is on their side, even when the rest of the world has turned against them? How can we, as evangelists, be informed by the questions raised to us about where and how we have missed the mark and participated in sinful systems? 

How can evangelism empower our neighbors, many who are skeptical about the church and its work in the world, to contribute to our ministries, collaborate in advocacy efforts, and participate in revitalized extensions of welcome as we embody the love of Christ to others. 

How can we be about evangelism without hidden agendas or primary concerns for the bottom line? 

When evangelism becomes the church’s work of affirming and advocating for the humanity of us all, customer service agents included, this sacred activity truly bears witness to good news still worth sharing. We become agents of God’s grace, even on late-night flights re-routed from Philly to Pittsburgh. 

So just maybe we do not need to run from evangelism after all...