Spread the Word
Evangelism at Diocesan Convention: “Not a moment, but a movement!”
By Titus Presler
Thirty people came forward to be commissioned by Bishop Tom Ely as Evangelism Catalysts in the diocese during the Convention Eucharist held Saturday morning, Oct. 27, at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington.
“Let your love shine through their witness, so that the blind may see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead be raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them,” the Bishop prayed in the liturgy that was a high point of the convention theme, “Go, Tell It on the Mountains! Evangelism Vermont-Style.”
The thirty commissioned included twenty-three lay persons and clergy inspired to come forward beyond the seven Green Mountain Witness Team members who had been working since early this year to promote evangelism in the diocese, prepare for convention and plan followup into 2019 and beyond. The catalysts will be convened and oriented by the Green Mountain Witness Team to encourage evangelism through conversation and education in their congregations, mission districts and the diocese as a whole.
Episcopal evangelism is inherently curious…We don’t have to have all the answers. We start with wondering.
Joyful and compelling plenary addresses on Friday by the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Creation Care, stimulated the crest of enthusiasm that swept through convention as Vermont Episcopalians considered engaging evangelism as the “spiritual practice of seeking, naming and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in all people – and then inviting everyone to more.”
“We begin by seeking,” Spellers said. “Episcopal evangelism is inherently curious. We’re comfortable with ambiguity and mystery. God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we don’t begin with statements and formulas. We don’t have to have all the answers. We start with wondering.
“Stories are the heart of evangelism,” she continued. “Scripture is a story, and then there are people’s stories. When we see something good we celebrate it, so we celebrate Jesus’ loving presence. When we invite, it’s not just an invitation to church so that we can grow people in our pews. No, we invite people to more conversation, to share a book or a movie, to a community, to experience the healing we’ve experienced. God will reveal what that ‘more’ is. And then we let God do the rest.”
After hearing concerns that she invited attendees to call out in the session, Spellers addressed reservations Episcopalians often express about evangelism:
Can’t we use our actions, not words? to which Spellers responded, “In the Baptismal Covenant we promise to proclaim the Good News in word and deed. Words matter. We need to use words to go with our actions. If you’re a nice person, people will think you’re a nice person, not that you’re a God person. That’s why words count.”
Shouldn’t I leave it to the professionals and the clergy? “We were all baptized into this ministry, and God will give us what we need. Yes, some specialize, but this ministry belongs to all of us.”
How will I learn to do it? “The only way to get comfortable with a new practice is to practice! Use the Evangelism Toolkit [a resource available at www.episcopalchurch.org/evangelism]. Be prepared to try and fail and try again.”
What if people reject me when I talk about faith? “God is especially present with us in our vulnerability. If even one person hears that they are beloved by God, the risk of rejection is worth it.”
Isn’t evangelism disrespectful to non-Christians? “Yes, it’s disrespectful to impose your beliefs or disparage the beliefs of others. And yes, God must be up to something more in this world. Even Jesus said more would be revealed. You don’t have to say Christianity is the only way in order to be an effective evangelist. Speak with generosity and gratitude. Celebrate what the divine is doing in other people’s lives.”
“Evangelism is not just a moment in the life of the Episcopal Church,” declared Jeremy Tackett, Digital Evangelist for the church, “it’s a movement!” Spellers said the movement toward evangelism throughout the church is a cultural shift comparable to the cultural shift toward community outreach that occurred in the church after the mid-20th century.
The effervescent witness of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who says his role as CEO means being Chief Evangelism Officer, is a major factor in this cultural shift, Spellers said. His sermon about God’s way of love at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle last May gave his vision global visibility as many of the 2 billion watchers were struck by his forthright gospel proclamation. Experts at a world evangelism conference recently agreed that the most significant evangelistic event of 2018 was Bishop Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding.
Evangelism is not just a moment in the life of the Episcopal Church, it’s a movement!
Also energizing evangelism are the revivals Bishop Curry has been holding around the church over the past two years, including a stirring event at General Convention in July and one in October in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. “But you don’t have to have the Presiding Bishop to have a revival,” Spellers noted as she cited how the Diocese of Iowa – like Vermont, a diocese with many small rural congregations – held 34 parish revivals during 2017.
The Friday convention program included two sessions of seven workshops each on a number of topics: Telling My Story; Sharing My Faith; Evangelism for Shy People; Digital Evangelism; A Biblical Basis for Evangelism; Evangelism for the Younger Generations; Evangelism: Online and Incarnate; Contemplation and Discipleship: Foundations for Evangelism; Evangelism in Theological Perspective; and Evangelism through Healing.
Workshop leaders included members of the Green Mountain Witness Team: Robert Barton of St. Mark’s, Springfield; Jamison Dunne of Trinity, Shelburne, and St. Paul’s, Windsor; Lindsey Huddle of St. James, Essex; Kathleen Moore of St. James, Arlington; Jennifer Ogelby of St. James, Essex; Katie Runde of Christ Church Bethel; and the Rev. Dr. Titus Presler of St. Matthew’s, Enosburg Falls. Workshops were also led the Rev. Mark Preece of St. Martin’s, Fairlee; Jeremy Tackett; the Rev. Canon Winfred Vergara, Asiamerica Ministries Missioner for the Episcopal Church; and Diocese of Vermont Communications Minister Maurice Harris. (Team member Joe Fortner of St. Mary’s, Wilmington, was not able to be present at convention.) In addition to the Friday plenaries, Spellers spoke at the convention banquet Friday evening and preached at the Saturday Eucharist.
When the Green Mountain Witness Team addressed convention during the Saturday legislative session, Lindsey Huddle encouraged clergy and delegates not only to report on convention but to convene discussions of evangelism in their congregations. Jamison Dunne, a junior at the University of Vermont, said the Green Mountain Witness Team will be contacting congregations in the coming months to provide evangelism resources and offer workshops.
Green Mountain Witness was formed in response to Bishop Ely’s suggestion at the close of the 2017 Diocesan Convention that evangelism might be an appropriate theme for the 2018 Convention, and he encouraged many aspects of the endeavor, including nominating four members of the team. Five members, plus the Rev. Liam Muller of Trinity, Rutland, who was originally a member of the team, attended the churchwide Evangelism Matters conference in Cleveland in March.
The effort has been assisted by a $6,000 grant from the Evangelism Initiative of the Episcopal Church, in that cycle one of only two grants to be given to a diocese and the second-largest award made.
The Rev. Dr. Titus Presler is priest-in-partnership of St. Matthew’s Church in Enosburg Falls and convener of the Green Mountain Witness Team.
Featured photo: Individuals who came forward to be commissioned by Bishop Tom Ely as Evangelism Catalysts in the diocese during the Convention Eucharist. Watch the video: https://vimeo.com/298157487