JOY SYLVESTER-JOHNSON: My New Mission Field

Joy Sylvester Johnson

Mr. Doran used to say, “There’s so many of ‘em you can’t spit without hittin’ one.”

25% of Americans identify themselves as Evangelical Christians—I am one.

Increasingly, I find I have to qualify exactly what that means.

Today, for many hearers,  the words “Evangelical Christian” communicate more about one’s politics than it does one’s faith. I mourn this evolution of vocabulary.

Brought up in an Evangelical home, I learned I was a beloved child of God. This love, given freely to me, was not to be hoarded.

My parents taught me when the scripture says,“all” it really means “all.”

I was taught to not only read and memorize scripture, but to ponder it and, my personal favorite–talk about it. I believe the best preparation for preaching or teaching or living a God honoring life is to wrestle with the biblical text—until the text wins.

I was taught to pray.  I had a laundry list of “God bless so and so” and an even longer list of requests for desired outcomes during bedtime prayers. I thanked God at least three times a day for whatever my mother put on the table. Then I read the Lord’s prayer and realized all my prayers could be reduced to one sentence: “Thy will be done.” All the rest was me venting so I could eventually get to those three important words.

As a teenager, I hung out with other Evangelicals and carried “The Four Spiritual Laws” in my back pocket ready to “share”. I had not yet realized this kind of “drive by” evangelism usually leads to “still births.” If we are to evangelize it must be in relationships that take time and energy and sometimes get messy. Love demands that of us.

Eventually, I graduated with honor from both an evangelical college and an evangelical seminary, served two churches in nine years and spent the next 31 years working in the urban ministry my parents had started. Our mission statement was clear and concise: “helping hurting people in Jesus’ name.”

I learned, as I grew in faith, to trust God, to pray for God’s will in all situations. I learned to get quiet and listen for God’s voice. I learned to seek holiness in every opportunity. I learned authentic prayer always leads to restorative action.

One might say when it comes to Evangelical Christians, I was the real deal and I had the papers to prove it.

So how is it today I define my “mission field” as my own people—Evangelicals?

Anger was my first response when I saw what some Evangelical leaders were saying and doing.  Since I believe anger is the offspring of fear, I had to ask myself, “Why am I afraid?”

The answer that bubbled to the top was that I feared some of my brothers and sisters in the faith would, by their words, alliances and actions, be its death knell.

Then I remembered the future of faith was God’s business.

My anger morphed into sorrow (angers loving sister).

I knew I was being called to resist, but I wanted to do it God’s way.

I was responsible for being a living testimony.

Whenever the faithful get too cozy with power it morphs into something other than an authentic relationship with a living, loving God. The power of wealth, popular opinion and personality is seductive, but the kind of stewardship and servanthood Jesus demonstrated is what God expects.

God loves each of us uniquely, but God also embraces us corporately. Our Evangelical faith is not a Lone Ranger experience. We are called to love God and each other especially those marginalized.

Inspired, scripture has the ability to speak to every circumstance in every age. We, as evangelicals must take it seriously which means reading its ancient words literately, appreciating context and the nuance of language instead of looking for isolated, literal verses to be used as daggers to pin those with whom we disagree to the wall.

We must learn to love our enemies even as we resist their agendas.

This last one is the hardest of all. And yet we have it from the Lord himself—so there is no dodging it. My resistance cannot be mean spirited, but it must be truthful. I must always find ways to love the person whose ideology I am resisting.

I am still practicing this kind of resistance with some limited success and some painful failures. When I succumb to fear and go on the defensive, God gently reminds me what is mine to do and what is His.

So today I take my stand as a missionary to my own family. Lord help me to be a loving, respectful, resourceful resistor in Your name.

Joy Sylvester-Johnson