By Michael Redmond
Let’s be frank. Evangelism is a word that makes many Episcopalians uneasy. We associate it with the overheated rhetoric we sometimes come across on the car radio or cable TV, with a style of Christian witness that proposes to usher sinners into the kingdom of heaven by literally scaring the hell out of them. Episcopalians are wary of anything that seems to smack of emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, pushy tactics. That’s not what we hear in holy scripture.
Still, that same scripture — with the long history of the church, always and everywhere — makes crystal clear that, without exception, we are all called to be evangelists. Evangelism is, in fact, one of our most important responsibilities as disciples of Jesus Christ. We’re called to spread the Word. Does this mean we’re called to stick Bibles under our arms and go through the neighborhood, knocking on doors? No, it doesn’t, although, truth be told, this might be appropriate for some folks, sometimes, in some places. No, it means something much simpler, but not necessarily any easier.
Evangelize comes from a compound Greek word, eu, beautiful, good, healthy, and angellein, message, announcement. The word came into Old English as godspel, good telling, good news. In short, gospel. All of us are called to share the gospel – the good news that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
How do we tell people about this? Well, if you’re Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, and God has given you the position, the gifts, and the opportunity, you knock the socks off such a high and stately occasion as a royal wedding by telling an audience estimated at a billion people, “Someone once said that Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history. A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world. And a movement mandating people to live that love. And in so doing, to change not only their lives, but the very life of the world itself.”
Curry really lit ’em up, as some people would say. He became an instant media sensation, even fodder for goofy but good-natured satire on Saturday Night Live. Is something like this expected from you and me? No, most likely not. But we are called to do what we can, where we are.
“When you recommend a restaurant you like, you’re evangelizing,” explains Bishop Kevin S. Brown during a conversation at the Mission Support Office in Wilmington. “It doesn’t mean converting people, hitting them over the head. It’s telling people we’re not here to change you, to tell you you’re wrong and we’re right, but to give you good news. Evangelism isn’t the same as conversion. Conversion takes place between the person and the Holy Spirit. Evangelism is telling people the news about the love of God in Christ. You don’t have to go to seminary to talk about Jesus and what’s good about your parish.”
The challenge here is that, “A lot of Episcopalians have never been asked to talk about their faith,” Brown continues. “I would like to do something about that. As part of an agenda of initiatives coming up during this time of transition for the Episcopal Church in Delaware, with new things coming into being, and old things being renewed,” a major conference on evangelism will be taking place on October 19 and 20, hosted by Christ Church, Christiana Hundred, Wilmington. It’s called Invite Welcome Connect (IWC). It will offer practical training on how to invite people into church, how to welcome them when they come, and how to connect them to parish life. Every parish and Episcopal institution in the diocese will be invited to attend.
“We’re describing IWC as a conference, not a program, because primarily it introduces a way of thinking about being church,” Brown says. “It aims to give us a common language, a common basis, and a framework for doing evangelism. For this to work, it’s got to come from the bottom up. IWC provides resources — it’s not a recipe everybody has to follow. What works in Wilmington might not work in Bridgeville. So it offers plenty of creative freedom, and it recognizes that this is a long-term process.”
The conference will be led by Mary Parmer, who created IWC in the Diocese of Texas and now heads it as a ministry of the Beecken Center of the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. To date, IWC has been implemented in 43 dioceses, three seminaries, and three universities, and it has also been presented within the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Anglican Church in Canada.
The way of thinking that Brown refers to stems from The Jesus Movement that Bishop Curry is championing as CEO — chief evangelism officer, he calls it — of the national church. Brown, a priest of the Diocese of North Carolina while Curry was its shepherd, says Curry’s leadership there was “a real encouragement to be creative. Movement is mission language. We need to be moving outside our comfort zones, we can’t just be sitting still.”
In a 2015 interview with Yale University’s Reflections magazine, Curry had this to say: “I really do believe we need to see ourselves as a movement – a Jesus movement – rather than as an institution. That’s what Jesus was about. He inaugurated a movement to make God’s dream happen. To see ourselves this way changes everything. It means our institutional configurations must be designed to serve the movement and not the other way around. The movement serves life. There is no life in serving the institution.”
An evangelism task force of the Episcopal Church Foundation puts it this way:
“As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we exist to follow Jesus and help the whole world to grow loving, liberating, and life-giving relationships with God, with each other, and with creation. Evangelism is one of the most important ministries in the Movement – this is where we focus on accompanying our neighbors and communities as we all develop more loving, liberating, life-giving relationships with God on the journey.”
Now all of this may sound very clergy-like in some ways, but there is a real sense in which all of us share in priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), and all of us have gifts and ministries (1 Cor. 12). Bishop Curry gets to preach before royalty on worldwide media, but you and I get to have conversations over dinner with family and friends, we get to welcome strangers, we get to tell inactive parishioners “we miss you,” we get to assure people who may have been alienated from church by hurtful experiences that we welcome them as Jesus does – just as they are. We get to tell people that those angry and condemnatory voices they might be hearing do not speak for us.
“Evangelism is a spiritual practice. It’s not simply a tool we use to fill the pews.” (Episcopal Church Foundation, Vital Practices)
Brown remembers an Episcopalian evangelist in Charlotte, North Carolina, “Her name is Beth Hardin. She’s a person of humility, grace, and cheerfulness. When new folks come in, she makes a point of being a welcoming presence. She has been living life for decades as an inspiration and guide – she’s legendary for this, for her kindness.”
Now there’s a start.