Meeting people where they are is evangelism
The Rev. Dr. John Keeny believes evangelism is not a verbal action. It’s witnessing for Christ to others by the way life is lived and others treated.
“Evangelism is sharing the Word and the Spirit through your actions every day,” said Andy Shockney, Lay Leader at King Avenue United Methodist Church (UMC) in Columbus, where Keeny serves as lead pastor. “Putting it succinctly, it’s setting a good example.”
Keeny, who received the Harry Denman Award for Evangelism in June, said, “I think Harry Denman had a marvelous life witnessing to Christ. When I read the award, he said one has to be a package of love and a package of Christ that shows Christ as love in the world.”
Shockney agrees. “John gives such great sermons, does such great counseling with people, individually, for where they’re at in life.
“We’re all in a different place in our journey walking with Christ,” he said. “John’s ability to empower people has led them to their own work, to find ways to use their gifts to be involved in furthering the church in its mission, by becoming more involved, walking and growing with Jesus, so they can share that experience with others, too.”
“We are uniquely gifted, because we are unique,” Keeny said. “People realize the Christ in [themselves], and realize how Christ has gifted them for ministry. God hasn’t called us to be someone else. We express our gifts in different ways because we’re different people.”
Now starting his twelfth year at King Avenue UMC, Keeny said the church “is a reconciling and inclusive church, and it was when I got here.
“My evangelism is letting people know they are welcome, that they will be safe, that they will be included,” he said. “I try to extend the invitation to people be inclusive of everyone.”
Keeny said King Avenue UMC may attract 15 to 20 visitors on Sunday mornings. “At no time have our funerals outnumbered our baptisms. Some years, we’ll do almost 30 baptisms and two funerals.”
Many come to King Avenue UMC because they are gay, and their home church, their families rejected them, he said. Others from different denominations are looking for a new church home. Still others are families who want their children brought up in a diverse and inclusive atmosphere, he said.
“They come and they feel safe, where they can be what they are,” Keeny said.
Sometimes, people think bringing new people to church is the sole definition of evangelism, said Superintendent Linda Middelberg, Capitol Area North District. “Having the ability to work with new people when they come and help them develop discipleship is part of evangelism.”
Middelberg served with Keeny at King Avenue from 2006 to 2014. “Having the ability to empower people and find ways to help them use their gifts for the church and interests, both within the church and outside the church in the mission field, is a wonderful way to move people from an intellectual interest in religion to a lifestyle of living out their faith. John helps people find ways to use their gifts and their interests in both the church and the mission field.”
Keeny, she said, will be out in the community, “meeting unchurched people where they are. He builds relationships with people and will meet with them once a week, discuss books. He’ll do that over a long time until people are ready. All those things help him make contact with folks who might not be attracted to church in another way,” she said.
Fostering new congregation
The Rev. John Wooden served as an Associate Pastor at King Avenue UMC from 2006 through 2010 before being appointed to a newly forming congregation, Stone Village UMC, in Columbus.
It was while he was at King Avenue that work began on building the new congregation. Keeny, Wooden said, “was instrumental in helping to establish the vision for Stone Village, instrumental in bringing the King Avenue congregation to the call, to build an inclusive church in this setting.
“For myself personally, he was instrumental in being wisdom and grace and a supporting presence guiding me along,” Wooden said.
Wooden said Keeny’s response to the Gospel is life-giving to people. “He truly lives out the commandment to love your neighbor, to sit with the outcast, to heal the sick, feed the hungry. He is selfless. He meets people where they are and provides them a tangible means to experience the grace of God.
“It’s not about forcing someone to be other,” he said. “It’s about walking alongside someone and helping them, lifting them so they might have a deeper relationship with God and other people. It’s really about community, the intimate relationships and making sure all people are welcome at the table, making sure all people feel they are loved.”