This is the first of a series of blogs about Evangelism. Many in the Church use this term, but my experience is that few Episcopal leaders have ever done evangelism beyond sharing the faith one on one on a few occasions. In the first blog, I am going to discuss why I believe in Evangelism and what I learned about doing evangelism.
In 1984, I became the Rector of St. Luke’s Church in Seattle. Then it was considered the “light house” church of charismatic renewal on the west coast. The previous Rector was the Rev. Dennis Bennett author of “9 O’clock in the Morning” and one of the most influential authors and teachers of the 20th Century. I say this with no hesitation because I learned how extensively his work touched thousands of Christians worldwide. Sad to say, today younger Episcopal clergy do not even know who he was. As his successor, I learned to love him, and he was of tremendous help to me as I attempted to follow in his very large footprints.
As to his influence, once while I was teaching at the College of Preachers, I sat across from the then Presiding Bishop. When he learned that I was Rector of St. Luke’s, he said, “That little congregation has had more effect in the Episcopal Church than and other congregation I’ve known.” To this he smiled and added, “And I am not sure I am really happy about that!” That was offset by an African Archbishop who told me that Dennis’ book was the single cause of a large evangelistic movement in his Church that had brought thousands to Christ.
I was astonished to be called to St. Luke’s. I was 38 years old. I had no national reputation, but it remains for me one of the greatest experiences of my nearly 50 years of ordained ministry. What I did not know when I accepted the call was that St. Luke’s had a weekly Wednesday night “Evangelistic Service” and I would spend the next six years of my life leading it!
I had never done such a service before, but the staff were quick to bring me on board with it. I should make it clear especially to Episcopal clergy that this was not a Eucharistic service, nor was it taken from the Prayer Book. It was simple in form which I will describe in a moment. It was advertised on a local Christian radio station as a time when Christians could bring non-Christians and seekers to hear a clear presentation of the Christian life and receive prayer. In the six years, we never had less than 5 people accept the invitation to accept Christ at the end of the service and often we would have over 20.
Here is what we would do:
First, we began with a welcome and a music group would lead the congregation in some simple Christian choruses.
Second, we would read a passage of scripture.
Third, I or one of our other clergy would give a 20-minute teaching on the scripture and on what it means to receive Christ and be empowered by the Holy Spirit. (We avoided church jargon and complex theology these are not helpful to non-Christians.)
Fourth, a lay member of the congregation would give a 10 minute “testimony” of how they had come to Christ. We were adamant about the 10 minutes and instructed our folks to present three things.
1st. What my life was like before I encounter Christ. 2nd. What happened when I encountered him. 3rd. How my life has changed since receiving him.
Finally, I would extend an invitation to those who would like to receive Christ and experience the Holy Spirit’s presence to come forward to our altar rail where team of lay leaders would pray from them. They were also invited to come forward for healing prayers if they needed them.
I would say that through this experience and being invited to speak in other churches, that I have led more people to a commitment to Christ than almost any other living Episcopal priest. I do know a small group who have done more, and I am delighted to have ministered with Carrie Headington, the Evangelism Officer of the Diocese of Dallas who continues this work.
Compare this with the typical “attempt” of evangelism in TEC. This is believing that if people attend our services, they will eventually figure this out. Or some places make some attempt to present this in baptismal or confirmation instruction although quite frankly most of the time we are explaining to people why they should be Episcopalians – the emphasis being on church membership.
One thing we learned when I led church planting in the Diocese of Texas was that when a new plant started with public services about half the congregation would be new to the church. Consequently, the clergy needed to start off by preaching a series on the basics of the Christian life and bypass the Lectionary. The truth is that the Lectionary jumps around too much to give a comprehensive view of this to new people. It worked in helping the Diocese become the fastest growing Diocese in the Episcopal Church for 7 years in BOTH percentages and actual numbers. I have heard many clergy say that TEC just doesn’t do evangelism. I try to share with them that the Anglican Communion does, and we did! In a future blog, I will discuss why I think we are so bad at the task of evangelism. In this one, I want people to know that we have done it. And I learned to do it. Furthermore, evangelistic teaching and preaching is like any other skill. It can be learned if there is a motivation to do so. I was motivated by my own Christ encounter, and I found mentors and teachers who helped me along the way.
During my time at St. Luke’s, the congregation became the largest it had ever been. This was because of two things. First, we learned that an increasing number of people coming to us had no church experience or community, so we learned we had to not only proclaim Christ but also form them in Christ. Second, we had a strong lay led small group ministry that was part of this formation. New Christians need follow up, formation, and often pastoral care. Small groups are a tremendous resource for this.
I cannot tell you the absolute joy that comes from leading people to Christ. New Christians are excited by their newfound life in Christ. They are not jaded about how church should be done. They are eager to learn. Most significantly, their friends are often not Christians either and they are excited about sharing their new faith with them.
Why don’t more Episcopal Churches do evangelistic ministry? I will explore this in future blogs, but I can start with this simple and painful truth; our seminaries do not value evangelism and do not teach students the foundations of evangelism and the practical things that work. As one of our former Deans remarked, “It’s hard to graft an evangelistic vine on a universalist tree!”
Lastly, we had a tremendous advantage in doing evangelism in the 80s at St. Luke’s. Seattle was the least Christian and churched city in America. Of course, today most of our society has moved toward secularism with Christian churches declining. Hence, most American cities today are more like Seattle in those days. Strangely, the larger the number of non-Christians, the poorer TEC’s ability to reach them.
Episcopal leaders today talk much about diversity and inclusion. Bishop Payne often observed that evangelism was the most inclusive and diverse ministry of the Church. He got that idea from the pages of the New Testament. The story is still there to read!
In my next blog, I will share what I believe is lacking in the Church’s ability to do the work of evangelism.