Spread the Word: Evangelism in Translation
By Katie Runde
After decades of dodging fundamentalists speaking in tongues over me for the salvation of my Anglo-Catholic soul, praying for me in their prayer groups as one of the lost, demanding of me whether or not I had accepted Jesus as my personal savior, it was to my utmost surprise that I realized that I, my shy self, was an evangelist and had been for most of my adult life.
I had never meant to evangelize—It can be difficult to reclaim the word ‘evangelism’ from its associations of belligerence and colonialism in the past, and perhaps even more so to disentangle it from its current connotations of Bible-thumping, rock concert-style megachurch saving of souls from deadly wrong belief. I used to bicker for hours on the phone with my Pentecostal best friend as a teenager over how he was missing God for obsessing over Jesus (who was pointing us towards God in the first place) and even more so over Satan. And how could he be so certain that people who acted more Christian than most Christians I knew, i.e. Gandhi, were doomed to rot in a physical Hell for their lack of belief in a (loving) Christ? It gave me the willies that he and his church would shake down strangers with this aggressive theology as if to threaten them into compliance through fear of Hell.
It is time to reclaim evangelism for our own: a practice not of judgment but of inviting people into the great conversation of the deep places…
Evangelism has been a word that reeked of judgment, sanctimony, and blind coercion. None of these qualities relate to the Christ most of us have come to know. And so we Episcopalians have shied away not only from the word evangelism but from its practice out of deference, out of respect. After all, who are we to judge when Jesus so clearly told us not to do so? It is time to reclaim evangelism for our own: a practice not of judgment but of inviting people into the great conversation of the deep places, the mysterium tremendum, awe and wonder, the inexorable love of God.
My accidental career as an evangelist began while I was studying folklore as an undergraduate at University College Cork in Ireland. Through my degree, I funded myself and my book-buying habit by playing saxophone in a soul band. As I had no car abroad, I would often get a call to go sit in with some unknown band at some wedding somewhere I’d never been and wind up in a car for hours with a stranger. It was on these long drives that I developed the habit of babbling about religion. I was on a ritual theory and shamanism study bender for awhile and began to notice that shamanism was the perfect back door through which to get into a conversation about religion that would not be shut down by a young, reactionary anti-Catholic allergic to monotheism. And without fail, I found my carpool-mates desperate to engage about the Divine, about wonder and mystery. Even the most militant atheists could not let it go, that conundrum of meaning.
Nor have I been able to let it go. I took my masters in religious studies, moved to Vermont as a Waldorf teacher, and found myself expounding to parents in my very first parents’ meeting why I would not take the religious words and elements out of the Waldorf curriculum: Religion is a language with which we can not only articulate our depths, but explore them, receive wisdom transmitted to us from centuries of practice, and ask our deepest questions. Religious language is that of wonder and awe in the face of mystery. Even the militant atheist parents had to agree that it could impoverish their children’s education to limit exposure to that.
Now I find myself expounding on the Fall of Man on dates, epistemological uncertainty at the New England Aquarium, the slippery nature of power while unloading the band gear from the truck before a gig. And it remains rare for anyone to shrink away from one of these topics. More often than not, conversation about God opens the floodgates in my conversation partner, and out pour thoughts and questions and ideas and doubts that have been kept stuffed under the rug of propriety and social norms for far too long.
People are starving for religious dialogue. Spirituality is so often just an amorphous feeling with no cohesive language – and the many who deem themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ still need the structure of language to express and explore, like a jazz musician needs chord changes to craft a solo. We as Christians have extraordinary language to feed them with, that of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – God above us, God beside us, and God within us. We have stories to tell from our experiences of God’s loving presence in our own lives, stories of hope, comfort, and the transformative nature of love.
I am not suggesting that we go forth and try to convert anyone to anything, merely that we are called to feed the hungry. I do not even feel comfortable throwing around the buzzwords of Christianity – you know, the Good News, savior, saved, born again. Even some of the most precious words at the core of our faith (Christ, Jesus, God) are so freighted that they make people uncomfortable enough to shut down on first hearing. We are here to listen to and love people where they are, not where we want them to be, whether that be in the pews or in our home doctrines.
As spiritual beings in an overwhelmingly materialist Zeitgeist, we all have a fundamental need for the Divine. Countless people, churched and unchurched, have these needs go egregiously unmet to the point where they do not even know how to begin to address them! We can draw upon our rich spiritual and religious grounding in the Church to meet them there and guide them into the great conversation.
Religion is a language, but in the same way art, music, and poetry are – it speaks truths obliquely so that we may begin to grasp their enormity.
Yes, religion is a language, but in the same way art, music, and poetry are – it speaks truths obliquely so that we may begin to grasp their enormity. Yet we must remember that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are infinitely bigger than the words. Therefore, the words we use as we reach out need to be sensitive to context in order to be palatable, let alone nurturing.
In this sense, one of the primary tasks of a conscientious, loving evangelism is translation. We must listen for what people need and meet them where they are with the words of the language they already speak. If I begin expostulating here about my ’59 Martin tenor with an Otto Link Super Tone 7* with V16 4s, this, great though I personally find it, means nothing to anyone who does not also play saxophone. Furthermore, it can be intimidating to a saxophone student still learning how to make notes come out. Likewise, if we throw the freighted words of insider Christianity into the faces of people who just need words of love, hope, and the potential to transcend the fear, anger, and scarcity we see all around us on a daily basis, we risk pushing them away altogether. We must listen and discern a language that will be mutually intelligible. In so doing, we have the opportunity to bring church to the people. Eventually we can disambiguate the freighted words of our Christian world, but when invited, when ready. Meanwhile, we can trust the Spirit to inform us on our way.
One of my dearest friends and I carpool to almost all of our gigs – sometimes several in a weekend – to the extent that he now calls his car his church. No matter what mundane subjects also need attending to, our conversations always wend back to, in essence, what it means to live and love as a child of God. Would he feel comfortable using that terminology? I doubt it. Will he ever come to my church? Certainly not now, not even if I am preaching the sermon he helped me tighten up on the way home from rehearsal, though he knows he is welcome. Meanwhile, I bring church to him from my roots in my own practice and faith community. Our car time has become a mutual ministry, and that car a sacred space. And, though I speak of Christ constantly, sometimes I even mention Jesus by name.
After all, when the disciples spoke in the fiery inspiration of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they conversed not in glossolalia, but in the tongues of those to whom they preached their message of joy and God’s overwhelming love in Christ. If we begin the conversation at all and begin with love, we are making way for the Spirit to speak, to surprise us, to take the reins, and to minister the language of spirit to a material world.
Katie Runde, a freelance musician and contemporary realist painter, is a parishioner at Christ Church, Bethel, and a member of Green Mountain Witness, the evangelism team of the Diocese of Vermont. She holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School.