Lifelong Presbyterian Sherrill Coutourier’s life has changed since attending the 2012 National Evangelism & Church Growth Conferences (ECG 2012) July 29–August 2. “I’m stronger now and less afraid,” says Coutourier, “to share my faith story with others.”
During the week, Coutourier kept reading and rereading Acts 8:26-40 (used in one of the conference presentations), which tells of Philip meeting the Ethiopian eunuch and explaining the Scriptures to him. She began to see her faith story, of God’s grace and mercy, in this Scripture story. “I’m not one that easily goes up to someone I don’t know,” says Coutourier. “I began to see that I was having a transformative experience, like Philip.”
Now she finds herself talking to more and more people—at the grocery store, at the mall. “It’s amazing how people are opening up to me,” says Coutourier. “They’ve been asking questions as I share some of my life story with them.”
One conversation stands out. One Sunday morning Coutourier stopped at Walmart. Seeing a panhandler, she tried to act like she always did—pretending she didn’t see him. “I figured he wanted money for alcohol,” she says. Moving quickly, she told the panhandler, “I don’t have any.”
But then something made her stop. He looked at her. She looked at him. “I said, ‘Everybody has to have something in their pocketbook. Hold this.’ ’’ Coutourier found herself giving the man her makeup case, then other contents of her purse. Digging to the bottom, she found 75 cents. “This is all I’ve got,” she said. “I’m hungry,” the panhandler told her. “I wanted a dollar so I could eat at McDonald’s.” “If I see you again, I will get you lunch,” she told him.
A couple of weeks went by. Then on another Sunday morning, she saw him from a distance. She went to McDonalds’ first, then approached him with a meal. “Why would you do this?” the man asked. “Part of the reason is because I experienced hunger growing up, but now I’m not hungry,” she told him. Coutourier says that was a powerful, powerful experience for her. “I realized I may not have everything I want, but I can always get something to eat. I no longer pass by people who want something to eat.”
Coutourier is a member of the evangelism prayer team from The Fellowship Place, in Charlotte, N.C. For the past year, on the third Saturday of every month, they’ve set up a prayer tent near an intersection in their neighborhood, to give away free hot dogs and clothing. “I was always the one who would stand at one of the corners and hold signs,” says Coutourier. “Gradually I began to greet people with hug. That was a major transformation. Holding a sign was safe.”
On the third Saturday of August (the first gathering since ECG 2012), as Coutourier began to greet and hug people, a woman began telling her that she had get out of the sun. This woman, a stranger, was on a certain kind of medication. Turned out Coutourier was taking the same medicine. Another piece of her life and faith story came tumbling out.
“We discovered we were both breast cancer survivors,” says Coutourier. “I told her, ‘God brought you here today; you are such a blessing to me.’ ” The woman confessed to Coutourier that, yes, it had been hard. As the two women prayed and hugged, Coutourier marveled, paying attention to God at work.
“I never want to be a drive-in Christian again,” says Coutourier. Living in the suburbs, she would drive in for church and drive back home and “that was it,” she says. “I always gave money, but never got to know the people who lived around the church.”
This is why ECG 2012 was so transformative for her. “Before, faith was always . . . like . . . we did something for people. Like on Evangelism Sunday, we’d create a program and give money away to people we didn’t know. But Dr. Ralph Watkins (a presenter at the Evangelism conference) told us evangelism isn’t a program. Rather, it is about an invitation to actively and intentionally share the love of Christ in our world.”
As a 62-year-old retired school teacher, Coutourier appreciates how connected ECG 2012 was to its theme taken from Acts 1:6–11—“What Are You Waiting for?” “From the morning sessions to the Bible studies to each of the presenters, everything was woven together and integrated,” she says. “It’s great to know the Presbyterian church is serious about evangelism and new church development, about reaching out beyond our church walls to people who are different from us.”
“The impact of ECG 2012 was immediate but is ongoing,” Coutourier says. “When Evangelism and Church Growth Director Eric Hoey welcomed us, he said his prayer was ‘that we would draw close to Jesus and discern how to act upon the thing we were going to experience there when we got back home.’ God continues to answer that prayer. I’ve been reenergized learning how powerful sharing one’s story can be."