May 2017
Evangelism and Discipleship

Evangelism for the 21st Century

Even the jokes about using the words “Episcopal” and “evangelism” in the same sentence are getting old. Episcopalians have been vowing to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” for as long as we’ve had the “new” prayer book, and now, under the leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, there’s a groundswell of energy and interest around evangelism. Re-thinking how to share God’s love in the world is becoming normative for us, as is a fresh examination of that world through the lens of God’s love.

It’s hardly breaking news that our neighborhoods are full of people who wouldn’t darken the door of a traditional church. Perhaps they have sought, but never encountered the living God in a traditional church; perhaps they have come to feel unwelcome in the church of their roots and, by extension, in all established churches. Perhaps they believe the secular script that Christians are judgmental and hypocritical. Perhaps the habit of joining a faith community is more than a generation removed from their experience. Whatever the reason, they aren’t driving around looking for red doors. Yet Episcopalians, riding the groundswell of evangelism, believe that a world who knows God’s love, a world that interprets that love through the person of Jesus Christ, is a better world.

The Episcopal Evangelism Society (EES) has been awarding grants for innovative evangelism to seminarians and others in seminary communities for some time now, and it’s my privilege to execute that work. We get to meet, listen to and support some of the church’s most innovative practitioners while they are in formation for ministry leadership. I’m sharing the stories of some of the projects we’ve participated in, with the hope that these examples may inspire you to evaluate your existing ministries through the lens of evangelism, and seek opportunities for innovation.

Welcoming change

Perhaps the most visible work is the launching of new worship communities. One such congregation is the Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH. Founder and chaplain the Rev. Steve Blackmer describes their mission as deliberately trying to crack open what it means to be “church.” The community welcomes people of all faiths and traditions; anyone who longs for a place and community for communing with both God and nature is welcome at their Sunday services and other events. Blackmer’s story of call and conversion is unique, and he and his congregation stand for repentance of environmental destruction and reconciliation of all creation to God.

Another new community, one that looks very different from Church of the Woods but similarly welcomes those who aren’t interested in traditional congregations, is the ecumenical Slate Project in Baltimore, MD. An ELCA mission, Slate is staffed by a Lutheran pastor, a Presbyterian, and Episcopal priest -- the Rev. Sara Shisler Goff. Slate offers opportunities to connect both online, via live tweet discussions and other digital content on social media, and face-to-face, via Breaking Bread, a weekly dinner church. Slate recognizes that “racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia, colonialism, patriarchy, disrespect for other religions, and a bunch of other bad stuff have been a part of the structures of the church and the way we relate to one another” and vows to clean these things “off the slate."
Others have started worshipping communities in existing settings. The Rev. Teresa Wakeen is leading several services each week at the Crossroads Center, a social services outreach agency in Detroit. And the Rev. Stephen Lane is working to launch a 12-step based congregation within the HOPE Center in Western New York, a thriving recovery community.

Leaders who envision new communities are able to offer the stories and actions of Jesus in a setting that is clear of whatever barriers have previously kept people away. They are able to become church within the identity of their congregations. But innovative evangelism isn’t limited to starting new congregations, or to connecting with people who are outside of traditional parish settings. The opportunities for wiping the slate clean, for re-aligning all that we do in traditional parish settings so that we are formed to model God’s love, as shown to us in Jesus, are limited only by our willingness to do the careful work of evaluating and discernment.

Innovative evangelism

Christian formation, for adults, families and children, is a setting that is ripe for innovation. Are your parish formation leaders connected to Forma, the network of formation professionals? That’s a place where the difficult questions of how programs really form our congregations to reflect God’s love outwardly are regularly asked. It’s also a place where program innovations are tried, evaluated and shared.

Among the innovative parish programs we’ve supported recently is the Spirituality and Dementia work of Dr. Janice Hicks. Intended to equip the church to share the hope that is central to Christianity, Hicks leads workshops and offers resources to parishes to minister to persons with dementia, their caregivers and their families.

The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield and Emily Sutterfield have developed a parish curriculum called Church, Creation and the Common Good, intended to help parishes discover their identity in the face of climate change. Another environmentally-based curriculum is In the Beginning, which features videos of ordained scientists explaining how they understand creation, evolution and the Biblical basis for environmental care.

The Rev. Al Rodriguez has recognized the acculturation shifts represented by 2[1], 3[2] and 4[3] generation US-born Latinos, and the implications for churches in ministry with them. He’s working in partnership with Latino/Hispanic Ministries of the Episcopal Church and EES to develop American Latino Evangelism Outreach (ALEO), a program to empower congregations to reach out to them distinctly.

Perhaps the greatest opportunities for innovative evangelism may be found as church people join forces with non-church people, addressing issues of racism, immigration, affordable housing, and other social issues. Representing the church in these battles demonstrates that God’s love is grounded in compassion and justice. The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart has been a vocal spokesperson against police violence and the social structures that support it, and she envisions a church that is known for its interest in justice.

So, have any of these stories tickled your imagination? Do any of these examples suggest opportunities for discerning a mission of evangelism in your congregation? For example, your congregation may not be as connected to God through nature as is Church of the Woods. But where is the need for repentance and reconciliation incarnate in your community? You may be an established Anglo parish, red doors and all. But what are your opportunities to re-interpret the culture around you? What are the urgent personal and social needs of your congregation, and where does Gospel hope meet them? Living into these challenging questions may, with God’s help, show your congregation a life of love that so resembles the love of God in Christ that when people look at you, they see Jesus. That’s evangelism for the 21[4] century.


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This article is part of the May 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Evangelism and Discipleship