by Michael Redmond.
When the Holy Spirit moves, this can surprise us, as when the Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown unexpectedly asked all present to close the diocese’s evangelism conference with an impromptu singing of Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. The attendees – more than 300 brothers and sisters representing every parish of the Episcopal Church in Delaware, including more than 50 clergy – responded as one voice, simply, unsupported by choir or organ.
The message of the hymn – “God’s unchanging love” – summed up the October 20th conference’s underlying theme, and it reflected Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry’s churchwide initiative, The Way of Love, a rule of life for walking with Christ. That’s the walk the conference helped us draw others to take with us.
Hosted by Christ Church, Christiana Hundred, sponsored and presented by the Episcopal Church in Delaware, Invite*Welcome*Connect (IWC) brought Mary Foster Parmer to Delaware for a day-long program of exhortation, orientation, how-to advice, small-group sessions, and fellowship.
Parmer began her lay ministry as evangelism director with her Texas parish. The program she developed there became a pilot project of the Diocese of Texas in 2010, and it has since gone national to more than 40 dioceses, as well as to seminaries and college groups. Last year IWC became a program of the Beecken Center at The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South.
IWC describes itself as “a transformational ministry that equips and empowers congregations and individuals to cultivate intentional practices of evangelism, hospitality, and connectedness rooted in the gospel imperative to, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28:19).”
Following an overflow attendance at Morning Prayer in Christ Church’s Chapel of the Christ Child, the conference got under way in Christ Church itself with greetings by the Rev. Ruth Beresford, parish rector, and Bishop Brown. Then it was Mary Parmer’s show, all day long.
Warm, funny, and conversational, Parmer made an important point without saying a word. When participants settled down in Christ Church, the large video screen they were facing showed icons and addresses for IWC’s digital platforms – web, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The message: 21st century evangelism must take advantage of 21st century communications.
The conference’s plenary sessions were structured in three parts. Invite, focusing on evangelism. Welcome, focusing on hospitality. Connect, focusing on belonging. The program outlined a seamless and dynamic transition from how to get people to attend a service, how to receive those who do show up, whether by invitation or spontaneously, and how to incorporate newcomers into the parish community. She reminded listeners that some people are “EGRs” (Extra Grace Required).
Parmer enlivened her presentations with personal anecdotes and short, often humorous videos. A taste of Mary Parmer’s style: Speaking about her Southern Baptist upbringing, she confessed that “there was a drug problem in my family. We were drug to church.”
On the serious level, “my passion is to help each and every church articulate its uniqueness,” said Parmer, who emphasized that IWC does not believe that one size fits all – that IWC encourages parishes to adapt its ideas to their particular character, size, and resources.
“We need to put aside the theology of ‘no.’ We need to change from a culture of maintenance to a culture of mission. We need to make change by adhering to certain core values – that we be prayerful, intentional, relational, and accountable. The No. 1 challenge is complacency.”
Parmer cited a Pew Research Center survey finding that out of 86 percent of respondents who said they had not attended church in a year, three out of four would go if they were invited.
The conference’s program book provided specific questions for attendees to ask themselves, exploring each of the three categories, plus parish assessment check lists, and extensive lists of “ideas and resources,” again, keyed to each of the three categories.
The small-group sessions brought together parish members to go over the IWC check lists as a team and generate suggestions and observations. Individual members wrote down their thoughts on sticky notes. The field of comment was wide open to all – everything from minor changes to ground-breaking initiatives. At the end of the day, one parish, for instance, had several dozen stickies. These would be taken back home, compiled, and provide the basis for discussion and action.
Conference attendees had arrived in Greenville that morning in what some folks refer to as a “soft” day – gray, overcast, and drizzly. Having sung Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, they emerged from Christ Church into a gorgeous autumn afternoon. There could be no more fitting symbolism.
Michael Redmond is a regular contributor to the Delaware Communion magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org