By the Rev. Ruth Beresford
Does anyone else remember the 1989 movie with Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams? At the start of the movie, there was a voice in his head repeating, “If you build it, he will come.” When he hears the voice, Costner’s character, Ray, is grieving the death of his dad, with whom he had a complicated relationship, plus facing the potential loss of his farm and all the other big, scary realities
of adulthood. This voice draws him to a crazy idea — to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfields. Somewhere in the movie, one of the best voices in the world, belonging to the actor James Earl Jones, tells Ray that “They will come,” referring to the old-time baseball greats who were his father’s idols, or maybe to the crowds of people who would come to see this beautiful creation, built of love and sweat and hope and vision.
That quote from the movie became my definition of evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Build it and they will come. Have great programs for children and youth ministry, and they will come and bring their parents. Have meaningful learning programs for adults, and they will come and bring their children. Have Christmas bazaars, music concerts, and spaghetti dinners to raise
money for good causes, and they will come.
And it worked a little, for a time. With a lot of effort and intent, our congregations and our cousins in the mainline Protestant
congregations kept building programs to bring people into the church. Because we weren’t like the Roman Catholic parishes
that could be filled with big families and new immigrants from the old country, and we weren’t like the Evangelical churches that taught their members they needed to know the saving grace of Jesus and to save others by telling them about Jesus, we would just build beautiful sanctuaries, fill them with activity, and they would come. We would rally around social justice causes and attract people who shared our passion. We would ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” as we good Samaritans searched out people to serve, and we believed others would join us in that service.
We all know the changes in modern America that have influenced church attendance, especially outside the Bible Belt. Laws that protected Sunday morning for church disappeared, so now people can go to the mall or have a birthday party at Chuckie
Cheese on a Sunday morning. Physical health and wellness has become its own devotion, so getting exercise is a priority for weekends. And our congregations sometimes became fractured in conflict, or the values of the Gospel didn’t show up when the community gathered, so people left with a sour taste in their mouths. Like Ray, we have been grieving, facing loss and other big, scary realities. Congregations are aging, shrinking, and dying so that our beautiful buildings are worn out and the remaining members are weary creating all the programs and doing all the neighborly good deeds, hoping the voice still tells the truth: build it and they will come.
With our intent, our love, and hope, and sweat, and vision, it’s time to listen to a new voice and create another way for
evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Let’s start with the voice. The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry wants to be known not as the Chief Executive Officer, but the Chief Evangelism Officer. His voice is constantly calling us to a new vocation, a new understanding of our ministry as followers of Christ. That voice is telling us to get out of our churches and talk about faith with our neighbors, actually inviting them to join us in church as we love God in worship and love others in caring service.
Instead of doing the same old thing and expecting another outcome, at Christ Church, Christiana Hundred we are trying a new
approach to bring people all the way up our road into our beautiful sanctuary to join us in a life-giving relationship with Jesus. A year ago, we divided the vestry into two teams – one that would continue to maintain the congregation in ministry, and one that would focus on growth. Quickly, the growth team realized we don’t grow because of our effort, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Grounded in scripture, reflection, and prayer, they began with a personal commitment to invite people to church. This is when we stumbled upon Invite Welcome Connect. Visiting its website, we found some great ideas to change the ethos of evangelism at Christ Church, Christiana Hundred. We’ve revamped our bulletin so that it’s more helpful for newcomers, and we start the service with a word of welcome. We are more intentional about how someone new would
experience church with us. One of our vestry team brought a business strategy called Journey Mapping, and we applied it
Because we are hearing the voice of our presiding bishop, and because we know that the love of Jesus is worth sharing, we
wanted to bring Mary Parmer, the designer of Invite Welcome Connect, to teach us more, especially around that new practice of
invitation. Having such a resource could not be just for our parish though. And because we are listening to the voice of
our bishop also speaking the language of evangelism, we offered to serve as hosts for the diocese to come and learn about the
approach to evangelism found in Invite Welcome Connect.
Our church was never meant to stand still, and our faith was never meant to be kept private. We know the Episcopal Church changes as we follow Jesus into every age, and we know Christian faith is meant to be shared — that’s part of its beauty, that one’s faith serves others to build them up in love. As we all listen to a new voice calling for a new vision, we hope we shall see you in October so we can learn how you are changing your practice of evangelism in your congregation, and we can learn together from our guest, Mary Parmer. See you then!
The Rev. Ruth Beresford is the rector at Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington and instrumental in bringing Invite Welcome Connect to the Episcopal Church in Delaware. email@example.com