The other day I read a post on “Episcopalians on Facebook” that really got me thinking. I have tried to find the original posting with no luck but it’s my recollection that the author asked something like: “Am I a bad Christian if I don’t want to convert others?” She also defined that a bit more by adding the word “force” to the posting. First off, I had visions of street corner evangelists thumping their Bibles and shouting “Repent.” Then, I imagined altar calls at some churches I had visited back in the ‘70s and popular televangelists asking for contributions to support their rather extravagant lifestyle in the wealth and prosperity gospel. I’m sure we are all more than aware of the abuses of questionable evangelism. And, I want to be clear right from the start, I have no intention of implying that this writer is a “bad” Christian.
What surprised me more than her question, were the responses. The vast majority of responses were “no” and then went on to discuss all their negative experiences with people intent on saving their souls through whatever means possible. This is on an Episcopal Facebook page though I know that there are many from different expressions of faith who occasionally share their comments. So I got to wondering. Could this lack of interest in sharing our faith be a contributing factor to the declining numbers in our churches? We’re all aware of many church closings and dwindling congregations in our own diocese. Is our own comfort and evangelism awkwardness getting in the way of our willingness to share our faith with others? We certainly don’t want to be known as those who preach an either “my way or the highway” kind of Gospel. And yet, if God’s love through Jesus has transformed my life and my relationship with Jesus makes my heart sing, why would I not want to tell others?
Many people responded to that post saying, as St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” There are a couple of problems with this: first, there are no accurate sources that attribute this to St. Francis and next, if we are merely living good lives and doing good deeds, how will anyone know that it is because of our love for the Lord who gave himself for us that we do those things unless we are willing to tell our stories? If the apostles had just waved goodbye to Jesus and gone back to their lives as fishermen or tax collectors, where would we be?
We promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” every time we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant. We need both! You’ll recall that one of Jesus’ last directions to this followers was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19, 20).
As a church, we are blessed to have as our Presiding Bishop one who takes evangelism seriously. I recall at his election at General Convention in 2015, Bishop Curry said that he sees himself as the Chief Evangelism Officer rather than the typical Chief Executive Officer! We see that in his dedication to reminding us that we are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. The royal wedding a few weeks ago has given Bishop Curry an even larger audience making guest appearances on many national TV shows. The news even gave significant time to the Reclaiming Jesus worship service, procession and vigil in Washington DC just a few days after the wedding. After all the press, an article that appeared in Episcopal News Service (ENS) on June 1st, asked the question: “What’s next?” to which Bishop Curry replied:
Part of evangelism is helping the church to be more visible, just as a practical matter, and the other part of it is the church having a message that is worthy of the hearing. And this has nothing to do with Michael Curry. Jesus figured this out. Jesus was right. This way of love is the only way of life. That’s it.
The ENS article mentioned blogger, the Rev. Michael Michie, Staff Officer for Church Planting for the Episcopal Church, who wrote in his blog on May 21st:
The sermon is a call for us to go to the people, not for the people to come to us. Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up happy, hopeful posts Saturday— “let’s track how many more people come to church!”, “people will Google ‘Episcopal’ find us, and come!”, “we better print more bulletins!” Love ya, but wrong. That God gave our good Bishop this incredible platform is not a license for us to remain in our pews, necks craned wistfully at the front door….
The days that we should expect the world to Google us and come are gone. May this weekend be the final demonstration of this fact and set us free! Our task is not to be a branch in the Curry movement — where we passively (and enthusiastically) receive his fans. He’d be the first to tell us that we are to be branches in the Jesus movement — leaving our four walls, trying new things and birthing new ministries. The old way is not the way. While it worked, arguably, for generations past, it’s just not going to work any longer. The new way is the way of love. Watch the sermon again and ask, what is Jesus asking me to change? to start? Who is Jesus asking me to reach? how can I do that? Because, you see, “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room — plenty good room — for all of God’s children.”
On Saturday, I went to the Ordination of Krsitin Bowen and Hamil Shukair at the Cathedral. The Rev. Deon Johnson from St Paul’s, Brighton, preached a great sermon, very appropriate for the new priests and also quite relevant for all of us there. He had seen a road sign in a construction zone on his way there that read “Work Ahead.” Just as there is work ahead for the new priests, there is, indeed, work ahead for all of us if we want to take our Baptismal Covenant seriously. Deon also quoted his grandmother’s good advice: “Get up. Dress up. Show up.” If we’re going to join Bishop Curry’s good work, this is our charge. It’s time to move from our comfy pews and see where the people are who need to hear God’s love story of Jesus for all.
In contrast to the post on “Episcopalians on Facebook”, there’s another new group on Facebook that I am now following: “Episcopal Evangelists.” This group describes itself as:
Partners with the Episcopal Evangelism Team launched this page so Episcopalians who want to share our faith with others know WE ARE NOT ALONE! You have brothers and sisters in the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement who also want to share our faith stories with a world thirsty for them.
WELCOME TO AN ONLINE COMMUNITY WHERE YOU CAN ASK ABOUT, SHARE ABOUT AND ENCOURAGE OTHERS ABOUT EPISCOPAL EVANGELISM.
Post about an idea, an event, a prayer, a website, a story that lets the wider church learn about where you see — or pray to see in the future — joyful and faithful evangelism. How are you seeking, naming and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence and inviting other folks to discover that goodness for themselves? Tell us HERE!
Episcopalians are coming to understand ourselves not only as members of The Episcopal Church but as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. Jesus gathered people to serve the dream of God and form Beloved Communities that live not for themselves but for love of the world. Today, we’re part of the ongoing movement of people who center their lives on Jesus and form loving, liberating, life-giving relationship with God, with each other, and with creation.
Jesus launched this movement when he welcomed the first disciples to follow his loving, liberating, life-giving Way. Today, we participate in his movement with our whole lives: our prayer, worship, teaching, preaching, gathering, healing, action, family, work, play and rest. In all things, we seek to be loving, liberating and life-giving—just like the God who formed all things in love; liberates us all from prisons of mind, body and spirit; and gives life so we can participate in the resurrection and healing of God’s world.
The work of this group is all about sharing God’s love and letting others know what Jesus means to each of us. It’s about telling the story of Jesus’ transformative work in our lives. Just as we delight to tell others about special gifts we receive from family or friends, evangelism is about proclaiming the gift of the Holy Spirit we each have been given. This is proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, not the gospel of the Episcopal Church. It is not about saying that we are right and different expressions of faith are wrong. It’s not about us; it’s all about God.
I hope that in the future should someone ask if it is okay to keep the Good News to ourselves, many answers would be a resounding “No.” Maybe this is a scary suggestion for some of us so let’s work together to go out to God’s people and share the joy that is within us!
Let us pray –
Gracious and Loving God, we are so grateful that you have shown your love to us in sending your Son Jesus to be incarnate for us. Then, in your mercy and grace, you continued to pour out your love by sending the Holy Spirit to live within us. Give us determination and courage, Lord, to share this amazing love with others. Help us to speak of the joy that is ours that others may know of your love for them; we pray in the precious name of your Son, Jesus our Lord. Amen.
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council