Fear and Risks in Evangelization

Today (Acts 14:5-18) we find Paul and Barnabas on mission in Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe. And they’ve been on quite a streak. They were in the Lycaonian region because of an attempt to stone them after their most recent preaching of the Gospel in Iconium. And they’d gone to Iconium because those angered by their preaching of Jesus Christ in Antioch of Pisidia stirred up a riotous persecution against them (Acts 13).

Now, Paul and Barnabas probably expected persecution–but what would happen in Lystra was well beyond what they might have imagined! After Paul heals a man, the crowds in Lystra begin to worship Paul and Barnabas, thinking the men are Hermes and Zeus in physical form! A local priest even tried to offer animal sacrifice to these “Greek gods” in human form. Talk about an unintended consequence of ministry!

It’s okay to get a good laugh out of the Bible, and for me, this part of Paul and Barnabas’ ministry always brings a smile to my face. I can imagine the frustration and shock they must have felt.

But here’s the important thing–Paul and Barnabas keep on spreading the Gospel. This is only their first mission trip. Even though they encountered an unintended consequence, they don’t stop taking actions and speaking words to proclaim Jesus as Lord. They don’t let fear or caution about a bad outcome (because what happened in Lystra could happen again in another Greek city!) stop them from taking risks for a good outcome–the ultimate, most important good outcome–helping others come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Resisting the temptation to make decisions out of fear is easier said than done. Sometimes it seems that if we simply avoid taking risks, nothing really bad will happen.

For example, I once participated in a meeting about parish hospitality. Some insisted that adding greeters to the doors at our weekend Masses was a bad idea because some people might not want to talk or would be offended, and stop coming to Mass. Since there were presently no complaints to add greeters, why do it?

We were making our decision out of fear about what unintended consequences or complaints might happen, rather than keeping our eyes on the potential for good, the most important good outcome–helping others come to know Jesus as Lord.

The choice between fearing the unexpected and pursuing the good comes up all the time in parish life. A longtime pastor and Director of Religious Education might have prayerfully discerned that offering First Communion or Confirmation across a range of ages/grades, rather than as a “requirement” of religious education at a certain age would help promote a discipleship, rather than cultural model of these sacraments. But they might never act on their insight due to fear about what the parish reaction would be, or “what if parents decide not to even send their kids anymore?”

A parish might choose not to advertise a weeknight mission speaker to the wider community, for fear about attracting the “wrong type” of people. Think about your own experiences in ministry–have you ever (or been close to) making a decision out of the fear of unexpected consequences rather than the ultimate good of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ? It happens all the time.

As Christians we’re not called to simply “maintain what we’ve got” with regards to the Good News that Jesus saves. We’re called to keep expanding the circle so that no one is outside the fold.

This requires taking risks to step out, just as Paul and Barnabas did–even when faced with negative results. It challenges us to face our fears of what could happen and prudently go forth because there’s a greater good we must aim for and pursue as evangelists.

This post also appeared at newevangelizers.com

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