Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Evangelism and Vibrant Congregations

As someone who has been passionately committed to Evangelism in the Episcopal Church for almost 40 years, I am very pleased with our Presiding Bishop’s emphasis on The Jesus Movement and the need for more Evangelism in our community.  Many of our leadership signing on to this Jesus Movement idea, however, are quick to say that this is not about building churches or adding to our membership.  For them it is about proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom of Justice, equality, and inclusiveness of all people.  While I understand some of these comments, I want to underscore the important of healthy and vibrant congregations to the Jesus Movement and the work of Evangelism.

Put the Movement First

First, let me assert that I am 100% in agreement with the statement by Bishop Curry that we are the Episcopal/Anglican expression of the Jesus Movement.  I think it is extremely important to acknowledge that Christianity has and always will be about Jesus and it is a movement much more than an organization or institution.  The Church is essentially the Community of Christ, and Christianity is a transactional experience where one or more follows of Jesus communicate through the power of the Holy Spirit who the Resurrected Jesus is, what he has done, and what he is doing in our lives and in our world. 

As Richard Chartres the now retired Bishop of London said recently, “Christianity is first and foremost a way of life.”  To be a Christian is not just to hold to a set of theological positions and truths.  We have truth and we have theological beliefs – the content of the faith once received and passed on by the Apostles - but at the heart of Christianity is the way of life that Jesus has modeled for us and given to us by his Spirit.  This is why the Church talks about “formation” and not just teaching people.  As Paul insisted, Christ is in us and the fullness of Christ is being formed in us.  This is true both for individual Christians and for the Christian Community which we affirm is the living body of Christ.  To affirm these things is in no way to denigrate the place and role of the Church for Christians, it is merely to put first things first. 

We Have Thought About This Before 

Now the relationship between Evangelism and the Church is something that TEC has given serious consideration in the past. While many current leaders tend to speak negatively about the Decade of Evangelism, It is important to remember that one accomplishment of the emphasis on Evangelism during that time was the careful thought given by TEC to what evangelism is and what it is not.  Unfortunately, much of this work has been forgotten.  However, two things came out of that Decade. 

First was a thoughtful and comprehensive Episcopal definition of Evangelism that is still the official definition of our Church.  Building on Archbishop Temples’ definition, the official definition remains “Evangelism is the presentation of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that others are led to receive him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of His Church.”  Some, especially English Evangelicals, seriously objected to the “within the fellowship of His Church” statement.  They contended that Evangelism is primarily about proclamation and had little to do with bringing people to the Church.  I sense that some of our Progressive leaders have come to this same conclusion when they state that “Evangelism is not about numbers or building churches.”  For example, the Rev. Michael Hunn speaking of current efforts toward evangelism said recently “The fundamental goal is to spread the good news, not to bring people into the church.”  While this may sound good, it really makes little sense in practice.  People do not just hear the good news and end up formed in Christ.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it no doubt takes a community to form a new soul in Christ. 

Second, during the Decade of Evangelism, we grew and expanded TEC.  In the last five years of the Decade of Evangelism, 1995 to 2000, we were the only mainline denomination in the United States that had increases in the number of baptisms, attendance, and membership.  It is important to recognize that this was the result of intentional efforts at Evangelism and intentional efforts at expanding membership in congregations.  Of course, other things have happened since then.  There were difficult and controversial decisions that divided the Church and led to losses in membership, but there was a time when the work of Evangelism was being done and was bearing fruit.  It is still being done in 15 to 20% of our congregations and they are still bearing fruit.  That fruit is new believers brought into Christ’s Church. 

And this is still being done in congregations despite the growing secularization of our society, the death of many out dated institutional structure of the church, and a huge number of congregations (dare I say even Dioceses) that are focused on institutional survival.  Let me say this even more plainly.  In many of the declining congregations that I have known and many I have tried to help, the current membership is singularly fixed on what the current members like and do not like.  They focus on what members want without ever asking the missional question of what the community around them and the people in these communities need.  So, numbers for numbers sake?  Many of these declining churches would love to have more people giving more money, but their inward focus makes getting new folks almost impossible. 

People Will Be Drawn by Our Good Works 

Lastly, I need to say something about another issue that is implied by many of our current leadership.  It goes something like this.  If our churches do right, just, and fully inclusive things, people will be drawn to our communities.  Of course, some of us remember the famous statement by one of our Bishops that “affirming homosexual persons and agreeing to marriage equality would lead to hundreds of thousands of new members joining our churches.”  Such hyperbole is misleading and worse, said often enough, people who say it come to believe it. 

In commenting on the potential that we have as a church, one leader said that if the Church were to take on human trafficking or sexual exploitation of Children that this would be an incredible opportunity for Evangelism.  People would see our work for justice and helping the marginalized and flock to our communities.  There are two reasons why this is mistaken.

First, churches in the U.S. already do an incredible among of work for both justice and on behalf of marginalized people.  We do this because it is part of that whole “following him” perspective that we carry.  I have known a few folks over the years that were attracted to Episcopal churches because of such good work, but this has never been the primary thing that has drawn people to Christ and his Church. What draws most people is well, how should I say this without being offensive, something spiritual.

Second, who are all these people who are going to flock to us because we are taking on these important and worthwhile causes?  You see for people to want these issues corrected and are willing to labor, give, pray, and sacrifice to have them happen would in itself take a conversion. The problem is not that we have all these good people who want to join churches that are doing good and just things.  It is that we have huge numbers of self-centered, self-indulgent, and indifferent sinful people who do not care about these issues and the people caught up in them.  For them to care, would take quite frankly a transformation and conversion to another set of values.  In other words, we have this formula backwards. 

Evangelism and the Converted Life 

The Church’s own history teaches us this truth. Take Francis of Assisi’s conversion from smug and indulgent dandy, to Christ-centered revolutionary.  Contrast this to the babble on TMZ and the superficial folks they hold constantly before us.  Or take John Newton’s conversion from slave trader to evangelical preacher and reformer of English society.  Take Paul’s conversion from self-righteous persecutor of the early Christians to Apostle to the Gentiles.  Take John Wesley’s conversion from Anglican moralist to radical conversionary.  Take Simon Weil’s conversion from comfortable middle class bureaucrat to radical witness to Christian solidarity with Jews during the holocaust.  The list goes on and on.  In most of the Church’s history, radical justice and good works are the fruit of conversion to Christ; they are not the magnet that draws the indifferent human heart.  If you believe that most people are well intentioned and just looking for a Church making a difference in our world, you are either naive or diluted.  Our world needs what Jesus has given us, the compelling icon of self-sacrificial love and compassion. 

If our community wants to do Evangelism, it must move deeper and more closely to the Christ who is the good news for our broken world.  His cross is both a judgement on this world and its values and the cure to heal the human soul and society.  People who have discovered this truth have formed a Movement that has been converting, reforming, and healing our world for 2000 years.  We find these people in the Church, the Body of Christ, the Household of God, the Fellowship of the King, and the communion of the saints. 

If you think we can do Evangelism without such local vibrant communities, you will be sorely disappointed.  We cannot have vibrant Churches without Evangelism, and we cannot have Evangelism without vibrant congregations.