Spread the Word: Exploring an Episcopal Understanding of Evangelism
By Titus Presler
The word “evangelism” stumbled into a conversation at a recent diocesan event. “Oh, evangelism,” said one participant, “that’s all about trying to get people to go to your church, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said, “it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with getting people to go to your church, or any church. It’s simply about sharing the joy of what it means to be in touch with God through Christ.”
In a different conversation, this one online among leaders of a church organization, people were debating whether to highlight evangelism as a conference theme. Some were in favor while others thought the word and the concept were too fraught to be useful.
The stereotypes evangelism evokes include “stuffing the gospel down people’s throats,” emotional tent meetings, attitudes of arrogance and condescension, wholesale dismissal of other religious paths, and just trying to fill church pews.
And yet Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls himself the Episcopal Church’s CEO, by which he means Chief Evangelism Officer, and he’s holding “revivals,” with one coming up this fall in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Periodic Evangelism Matters conferences are being held around the country by the Evangelism Initiative Team at the Episcopal Church Center.
How do the negative stereotypes square with this new emphasis on evangelism in the Episcopal Church? What can evangelism mean in Vermont, the least religiously affiliated state in the USA?
It’s helpful to look at just what the Episcopal Church means by evangelism. The understanding promoted by the Episcopal Church Center is this: “Evangelism is the spiritual practice of seeking, naming and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in everyone’s stories, and then inviting people to form or deepen their own relationship with God in Christ.”
This definition calls evangelism a spiritual practice, much like centering prayer, reading scripture, going to Eucharist and doing justice are all spiritual practices. So it’s not primarily a project, a task or an agenda item. Evangelism rather arises out of an orientation of our life toward God. What is that orientation? I would say that it’s an orientation of gratitude for our life in God, and from that gratitude springs openness and generosity toward other people.
Evangelism begins not with telling, still less with judging, but with listening to other people, listening for Jesus’ loving presence in their lives.
“Seeking, naming and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in everyone’s stories.” Evangelism thus begins not with telling, still less with judging, but with listening to other people, listening for Jesus’ loving presence in their lives, the presence of Jesus who is already there! Evangelism begins with discernment – listening, naming and celebrating.
If we are humble and honest in our discernment, we discover new things. Another person’s spiritual experience, no matter what it is, has something to teach us because it is a different window on what it is to be human, a different view on searching out and receiving the divine.
In that authentic encounter we have an opportunity to share our own experience of God in Christ Jesus and to invite another, in the words of the definition, “to form or deepen their own relationship with God in Christ.” Again, the motive is gratitude and generosity, and the tone is humility and honesty.
One day in the gazebo in the park behind St. Stephen’s Church in Middlebury, I asked a young man about his “Fighting Saints” sweatshirt from St. Joseph’s College in Rutland, and that moved us into a conversation that was both spiritual and religious. He wasn’t sure he was Catholic anymore and wondered whether all religion was pernicious, which got us talking about the role of religion in the conflicts of today’s world.
But the young man was also interested in Jesus and the Dalai Lama, and it was clear he had a longing that wouldn’t let him go. When I asked him, “Do you feel like you know Jesus?” the conversation went to a deeper place. He asked me to pray for him, and I did. I knew I’d never see him again, but our talk may have been a significant point on his journey.
Recently we all witnessed Episcopal evangelism at its best on a global scale: Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19. Commentators all over the world marveled at Curry’s ease and joy, his devotion and evangelical fervor. All alike said it was a highlight of the event.
“Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives,” Curry said. “There’s an old medieval poem that says: ‘Where true love is found, God himself is there.’” He quoted Jesus on love of God and love of neighbor. He talked about Jesus’ sacrificial love in dying “for the well being of the world” and thereby starting “the most revolutionary movement in human history.”
No one thought Michael Curry was “pushing” Jesus on them. Instead he was simply sharing the joy, the depth, the vision of what it is to be related to God through the love of Jesus Christ. He was inviting a global audience to explore that possibility. Without question, he was taking the opportunity to be true to his vocation as Chief Evangelism Officer. A vocal British atheist said he admired Curry for preaching that sermon, even though he could not share his faith, at least not yet!
Green Mountain Witness is the name of the evangelism initiative currently being prepared in the Episcopal Church in Vermont. A team of laypeople and clergy is being convened to help all of us explore what it might mean for Vermont Episcopalians to “seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in everyone’s stories,” and then to “invite people to form or deepen their relationship with God in Christ.”
The theme of Diocesan Convention in October will be “Go Tell It on the Mountains: Evangelism Vermont-Style,” with the keynote delivered by Stephanie Spellers, the Presiding Bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care. There will be discussions about witness in the mission districts before convention and workshops about evangelism at convention, followed by gatherings throughout the diocese.
No one knows exactly what “Evangelism Vermont-Style” is. We’ll discover it together.
The Rev. Canon Titus Presler, Th.D., priest-in-partnership at St. Matthew’s Church, Enosburg Falls, is a member of the Green Mountain Witness team.