Back in 1975, my husband and I invited my high school best friend and her husband for dinner. We had only been married for a year and I was delighted that they lived close enough for a visit – and I was eager to show off our apartment and my cooking skills! Everything went really well until, between the main course and dessert, they decided to witness to their new found faith in Jesus as Lord by telling us we were going to hell if Jesus wasn’t our personal Lord and Savior. As practicing Roman Catholics, this approach didn’t sit very well with me. I was offended that my friend didn’t think my faith was good enough and I was offended that they came to eat our food and then tell us we were lost. I recall gathering up the entrée plates and taking them to the kitchen where I banged some pots and pans around washing up – something I never did while company was still present. I was annoyed. Yet, as I stood at the sink, I also recall vividly praying that, if this was what God wanted from me, it was also what I wanted. I don’t believe I told my friends about my prayer in the kitchen at that time but I know I did sometime later.
That picture of evangelism still makes me a bit uncomfortable. I realize that it can be very effective in drawing some folk to faith in Jesus but, too often, I’ve heard how it can push others away which is the last thing a disciple of Christ should want for the message of Jesus. I think The Episcopal Church (TEC) has developed some very good approaches for sharing the redemptive love of Jesus with the people around us.
The Whitaker Institute has recently been presenting the TEC program Embracing Evangelism virtually in our diocese. This program relies on our ability to share our stories of faith with friends and neighbors. It is relational, not pushy at all. The website describes the program as:
Embracing Evangelism: A six-part digital course exploring our call to seek, name, and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people – and then invite everyone to more.
As one of the facilitators of this diocesan opportunity, I have found that our participants are engaged and seem to be very positive about the experience – and are examining how it has changed their thoughts on sharing the Good News of Christ with others, too.
At the 2018 General Convention, both houses passed a resolution directed at our understanding of evangelism.
A081: An Episcopal Theology of Evangelism
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention commend to Provincial and Diocesan leadership the White Paper, “A Practical Theology of Episcopal Evangelism: Face-to-Face and in Cyberspace” written by the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.
Embracing Evangelism was born as a result of this resolution and White Paper:
Introducing a Practical Theology of Episcopal Evangelism
For Episcopalians today, evangelism is front and center. At General Convention 2015, Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry promised to serve as C.E.O. : the Chief Evangelism Officer. He shared a vision of a whole church freshly oriented toward the proclamation and embodiment of the good news of Jesus Christ.
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.
So what exactly is an Episcopal practice of evangelism? Scripture tells us it is rooted in the Greek word evangélion, meaning gospel, glad tidings or good news (see Mark 16:15). With the Great Commission, Jesus sent his followers to go make disciples everywhere, baptizing and teaching people to follow his commandments (Matthew 28:16-20). In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” and “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” (Book of Common Prayer, 305).
Here is a practical definition collectively crafted by members of the Presiding Bishop’s Evangelism Initiatives Team, the Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, and many more partners:
We seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people – then invite everyone to MORE. #EpiscopalEvangelism
Note it’s the length of a tweet. We think evangelism is best practiced utilizing modes real people use to communicate. But there’s lots more to share and learn, so let’s unpack each word:
We as a Church are starting to embrace the word “evangelism.” Episcopal evangelism is not some heavy-handed duty. It is not a tool, and not merely for use to get more people as converts, church members, or pledging units. At its heart, Episcopal evangelism is a spiritual practice. When we do it, we embody the very life and practice of Jesus in the world (active); and we are filled with the Spirit and formed ever more into the likeness of Christ (receptive). It’s a joyful sharing of what you know to be good news and deep truth, and a celebration of how you see God at work in others’ lives and in the world. It wells up from the experience of God’s love poured out for us and into us, so much love it can’t help but overflow from us in grateful story and celebration…
As Episcopalians, we promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.” To actively listen for God present in others is a bold statement of faith. We dare to go out like sleuths, genuinely curious and assuming we will find the presence of the Holy Spirit, and that God has gone before us into all places and is at work in every life.
Evangelism is the telling of God’s good news. It involves our words and all of our expressive powers. It can be so simple: “You know, I hear God working through you in your story of how you and your family handled that situation.” This is one of the great gifts of evangelism – announcing God’s goodness and presence in people’s lives, and holding up a mirror to let them know. If we do not name God as the one we see, people around us may never know.
When we seek and find Christ, we find ourselves encouraged, grateful, surprised and delighted, like the widow who finds her lost coin and goes out saying “Rejoice with me!” (Luke 15:8-10). Note, there is nothing naïve about this celebration. Ask people who have struggled for liberation, and they will tell you mature Christians celebrate every breath – not always by jumping up and down, but with a contagious surge that says “yes” to life and to God.
Jesus’ Loving Presence
We are Trinitarian Christians: the Father has created us in love, the Son has redeemed us in love, the Holy Spirit sustains us in love. Lots of us feel hesitant talking about Jesus, perhaps because we’re worried about negative stereotypes. We are Christ-ians, patterning our lives after the one who was and is God among us, revealing the truest and fullest incarnation of the Holy ever to grace the earth. In our evangelism, we invite people to discover more of life with him. Without Jesus, it’s not evangelism.
Stories of All People
At the heart of our Christian faith is the Great Story, the collection of stories of God’s creating, redeeming work in scripture, especially in the story of Jesus. We are all part of this Great Story – all made in God’s image, all moving through a world shot through with God – but we need to grow our capacity to seek, name and celebrate God at work in our own lives. Practice telling the stories of God’s goodness in your life – journal them and practice with others. Then, ask people for their stories. It is an amazing dance when we welcome others’ stories, share our own and link it all to the Great Story.
Invite Everyone to More
Evangelism is more than conversing, being a friend or even listening. Celebrating the good news of Jesus’ loving presence inspires us toward something MORE. We’re not turning people into projects or objects. Simply invite someone to more dialogue (“Could we meet again?”), more reflection (scripture, books, poems, videos or movies) or more Christian community (worship, outreach, study group, link to others with mutual interests). It could be the invitation to see more of God at work in themselves, in us, in the world.
Episcopal evangelists are not selling Jesus or the church, nor are we in charge of whether anyone follows Jesus. That movement belongs to the Holy Spirit. Still, the more we’re in tune with the loving presence of Jesus, the more we’re experiencing the fullness of a loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, it wants to overflow. That overflow is evangelism.
Adapted by David Gortner and Stephanie Spellers from “Good News Everywhere: A Practical Theology of Evangelism and Social Media,” a white paper by Steve Pankey, Andy Doyle, David Gortner, Nick Knisely and Stephanie Spellers, members of Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism. This adapted version was published in the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vestry Papers in May 2018.
We all have our stories to tell of our experience of the love of God. I’m delighted to recommend that we explore the opportunity we have to listen to one another’s stories with Embracing Evangelism. You might find that it’s just what you want for your congregation, deanery or small group. While my friends’ approach may have been effective with me, I’m sure this story-telling experience would have made our dinner together more pleasant and saved the noise that came from my loud and hasty dish-washing activity.
Let us pray –
Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you
through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him,
that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope
of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council