By: Christa Meland
“Am I too late to get to know Jesus?”
Photo: Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Dakotas-Minnesota Area UMC delivers the episcopal addres to the 21st session of the Dakotas Annual Conference. Photo by Charity Kerr.
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Every one of our communities has individuals who are asking this question, Bishop Bruce R. Ough said in his episcopal address to members of the 21st session of the Dakotas Annual Conference. Everywhere we have United Methodist churches, there are people hungering for something or someone who will bring meaning and purpose to their lives. Every setting we are in, there are individuals who are calling out to be unleashed from sin and guilt, doubt and despair, addictions, and hang-ups.
The United States has more than 180 million unchurched people, making it the third-largest mission field in the English-speaking world and the fifth largest in the world. Nearly 1 million of these unchurched individuals live in the Dakotas, and that number is growing.
“Evangelism is showing and telling others of the new life and new hope we have found in our personal relationship with God in Christ,” Ough said. “Evangelism is telling others what a difference being a Christian makes in our lives. Evangelism is telling people that God loves the world, not simply those who show interest in God, but the world. Evangelism is sharing our God story with others.”
Ough said his generation and several others learned to avoid the “E” word and the vibrant, unabashed sharing of one’s faith in Christ—and he acknowledged that it took time for him to realize that “as an evangel of Jesus’ Gospel, my core mission is to … partner with God in transforming unbelievers to fully devoted disciples of Jesus to the glory of God and for the transformation of the world.”
A couple of years ago, a senior pastor at a church in Florida told Bishop Ough about one of the best evangelists in his congregation. She teaches GED classes as part of the congregation’s outreach ministry and always finds a way to work something about Jesus into every class. In one class, there was a young man who seemed particularly curious about what she said about Jesus. At the last class, she invited him to come to the church, and he assured her he would attend the very next Sunday.
But she kept watch for him on Sunday, and he didn’t show up. At the end of the service, she was kneeling and praying for him when suddenly he came running into the church, his shirt soaked in sweat because the bus schedule changes on weekends and he had to run the last two-and-a-half miles to the church. He saw his teacher and blurted out, “Am I too late to get to know Jesus?”
“God is calling us to re-evangelize the Dakotas,” to introduce more people to Jesus, said Bishop Ough. Referencing the theme of the 2014 annual conference session, he said the keys to unleashing fearless, Spirit-led churches are hearts that break for the poor, the lost, the forgotten, and the excluded—and a passion for turning the church inside-out to embrace the needs of those outside the church.
Jesus is the first and best among evangelists, says Bishop Ough, who recounted the story from Luke’s gospel about Zacchaeus, the despised head tax collector for Rome and a very rich man. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass by. When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” The crowd grew indignant and began to grumble about Jesus going to be the guest of a sinner. But Zacchaeus was transformed by the experience in his home and confessed: “Master, I give away half my possessions to the poor and if I cheated anyone, I repay them four times the damages.” Jesus celebrated Zacchaeus’ faith story and told the crowd, “The Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Bishop Ough told members of annual conference session: “My earnest desire and the focus of my prayers over the past several months is for each of you to leave this annual conference session as motivated, equipped, and confident evangelists ‘in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9b).”
The Dakotas Conference is blessed with many pastors, lay people, and unleashed congregations who are faithful and fruitful and fearless evangels of Jesus’ Gospel. “They are lovely feet bringing good news to the last, the lost, the least, the lonely, the left out,” says Ough. “They are a grand procession of witnesses telling all the good things of God! (Romans 10:15, The Message).”
Jesus demonstrated when he led Zacchaeus into a saving relationship with the living God.
Most importantly, “they know it is never too late to get to know Jesus!”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.