By Michael Redmond.
“ … in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15–16).
In his sermon during diocesan convention in January, the Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown noted that there has been a generational shift in the questions people ask about church. In the past, people would ask us what church we attended, the assumption being that everyone was attending one church or another, representing one denomination or another. Increasingly, the question today is “Why do you go to church?” Our answer to this question provides us with the foundation of our witness for Christ in the world.
In conversation one sunny afternoon, Brown returned once again to the theme that is underlying so much of the conversation today in the national church and our own diocese — evangelism. That is, as Paul said in his second letter to the Corinthians, telling the Good News that God is reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus.
“I’m a surprised evangelist,” Brown says, with a smile. “If you had told me in seminary I would be talking about this, I might not have believed you. In fact, I think I represent the great majority of our people. But what I’m trying to do is stir up the recognition that we need to make a change, that we have to talk about this — we have to do this work. And this is something everybody can do.”
What is this work we need to do? In our English-language Bible, the apostle Peter describes this work as making a defense of our faith, but one has to go back to the source for a fuller understanding of Peter’s meaning. The Greek word translated as defense is apologia, which we have in English as apology. We use this word to acknowledge some wrongdoing or mistake. That isn’t the Greek sense, not by a long shot. In Greek, apologia is a legal term that carries the fuller sense of appeal, explain, justify, even plead. It carries the sense of making your case.
Are we prepared to make our case for why we go to church? Are we prepared to make the case for our hope that others will join us there, that they will choose to accept our invitation to come and see what life in Christ is all about?
Brown describes his vision for the Episcopal Church in Delaware as centered around “…a culture change. We need to become a church that evangelizes, that gets into the habit of talking about Jesus. Evangelism should not be defined by negative stereotypes. It’s our mission as disciples of Christ. I’m mindful this culture change will take time, but we’re making a start.”
Brown tactfully alludes to a situation many of us face when talking with the unchurched. For them, church means the strident voices of intolerance, exclusion, and condemnation that they’re hearing in the public square. That’s what they’re bringing into the dialogue. It isn’t likely we will get far if we simply ignore the impact of these negative stereotypes. The Good News that we’re called to share is that we find a voice of love, justice, service, and peace in the Gospels, not that voice they have heard.
The Episcopal Church in Delaware made a start last year with a diocese-wide focus on Invite Welcome Connect, which Brown describes as a tool for the mission of lay evangelism. As we head into convention in January, he would like to open up “a deeper conversation and exploration of ideas put out at the last convention.” He is calling this initiative Growing the Kingdom. Its focus is resolutely forward-looking.
“Any organization, whether church or company, must continue to grow or else die. It’s not enough just to survive; we want to thrive,” Brown says. “We have not sown the seeds of growth for a very long time. Everybody gets the metaphor of a garden. We sow, we tend, and we share. We need
to start sowing into our garden again.”
Brown talks in broad terms about sparking a conversation regarding the hows and whys. He speaks of sowing seeds within the life of individual believers, at a personal level; within parishes across the state, as communities; within programs that parishes and the diocese are already committed to; and perhaps launching new initiatives. As he speaks, in front of him is a legal pad with lots of notes. He is preparing to fill in the blanks about Growing the Kingdom at convention.
“I see across the diocese that some folks are skeptical, because in the past they’ve seen other initiatives come and go, and I’ve seen folks who are all in,” he says.
“But everybody wants to know more. That encourages me. Evangelism has been neglected for so long. We need to start moving forward.”
Michael Redmond is a contributor to the Delaware Communion and a member of Trinity Parish. firstname.lastname@example.org