Here’s a paradox for you. I believe (that doesn’t mean I opine, that I think this is probably right – it means this s a conviction on which I base my life, this the basket in which I place my existential chips) – I believe evangelism is the most important thing we are on this earth to do. But I don’t worry much about the church folks who are against evangelism, hate the word, and oppose all our efforts to do it. The reason I don’t mind them is that those folks are often the best evangelists; while the ones who claim to support evangelism are actually gatekeepers excluding people from the church.
I want to name the major obstacles to evangelism, the barriers to doing the first thing Jesus told his disciples to do, proclaim the good news. People opposed to evangelism are not the problem. We have far larger obstacles.
There are plenty of good methods for evangelism, effective, proven methods. But churches use them only a little if at all. They don’t use them because the congregations are not spiritually evangelistic. Even if the staff used the proven methods, they wouldn’t work unless the congregation is authentically evangelistic. So the barriers to evangelism are really spiritual issues inside each congregation. These barriers are killers for many congregations, but only minor problems in others. It’s a matter of degree and we can work on the degree.
THE WRONG MOTIVATION.
The biggest barrier to evangelism is the wrong motivation, which results in something that pretends to be evangelism but is actually just a sales pitch. It comes from this: “I just wish we could get some more people in the church.” “I wish we had more young families.” “What we need is more children in the church so we can have a Sunday School.”
Those natural and common attitudes – I hear those things said in our churches all the time! – are poison to evangelism. Why? Because they aspire to lasso poor innocent people who are minding their own business, reading the newspaper on Sunday morning while eating bagels and drinking coffee, and drag them into our churches to meet our needs. We need them to prop up our institution, which we are afraid is going to die out from under us. So we solicit people to join us to meet our needs. In other words, we want to use them for our own ends.
People are pretty smart. They don’t like being used. And they can smell manipulation. If we are after pledge units, a treasurer, or someone to chair building and grounds, then secular folks will run the other way and rightly so. That is not evangelism.
Evangelism is possible only if two things come together. And if they come together evangelism is inevitable. First, we have to have Jesus in our hearts. We symbolize that in the Eucharist when the people who will administer the sacrament receiving it first .We cannot give what we have not first received. If we don’t have a genuine relationship with God the Son who cares for us, redeems us, and shows us the path to joy, then we have nothing to offer anyone else. If we don’t have a relationship with Jesus that makes us want to share him with others, then we are dead in the water. So the starting point is our own spirituality, our own discovery of mercy and blessing.
Second, we have to have the other person in our hearts. If we don’t care about the well being of the other person, then we won’t share our spiritual treasure with them. We will be trying to get something from them instead. But when we have the other person in our hearts and we have Jesus in our hearts, they can’t help but meet.
I had the privilege of addressing the House of Bishops this month about several things going on in Nevada, including our stewardship and evangelism. This is part of what I said:
“A few years ago I was visiting congregations. I asked them, ‘What is the mission here?’ .The most common answer by far was ‘survival.’ That is a self-defeating mission if ever there was one. Jesus said, ‘He who seeks to save his life will lose it.’ That seemed to be true for congregations who were trying to survive.
There are other things we could be concerned about. Our suicide rate is double the national average. Our death rate from alcoholic liver disease is 1.7 times the national average. We lead the nation in women killed in domestic violence. Las Vegas has more sexually trafficked minors than Bangkok. Our high school graduation rate is the worst in the nation. Some of us have begun to wonder if perhaps Jesus cares about those things. And if Jesus cares, maybe it’s our business to care too. That would be a different sense of mission . . ..
The final piece of the shift that I am beginning to see is Evangelism. There are two challenges. One is our methodology. The other is our motivation. As long as Evangelism is about our survival or vitality, it is self-serving, not Christ-serving. We are working to take the focus off a nostalgic wish that we had more young families. Instead, we hope to ask who are our neighbors and what do they need? Why are they committing suicide, drinking themselves to death, killing their spouses, dropping out of middle school? And what can we do about it?
Jesus may not be all they need. But Jesus is the first thing they need.
We are hoping for an authentic Evangelism that shares the love of Jesus
mediated by an accepting supportive faith community.”
The motivation leads inexorably to the plan. We invite the people we care about into a community that will heal them with the love of Jesus. That will include one part God talk to nine parts godly action. But it will include both.
NOT OUR SORT DEAR
Episcopal congregations are not noted for being welcoming. There is a reason they call us “the frozen chosen.” But we actually do a decent job of welcoming, even inviting, people who are like us. “Like us” means different things in different congregations. But the dynamic is the same. If new people visiting a congregation are, in whatever way the congregation feels (often unconsciously) is important, the newcomers will feel welcome and “fit right in.” But newcomers who are different are not recognized.
One of our congregations has complained to me for years that they have no young adults. They are in fact an aging congregation. But I have never, not once, been to a service there that did not include young adults. I have generally not seen anyone acknowledge their presence. We sometimes seem to be downright blind and deaf to the presence of folks who are different. Congregations that claim to want children in general are sometimes hostile to families who actually dare to bring children to church – especially if the children are the wrong color.
It isn’t just the church. It’s human nature. They even have a term for it in marketing, “the congruity heuristic.” It means “birds of a feather flock together.” It is human nature. To do evangelism we have to overcome human nature with Christ nature. We have to drop the criteria that St. Paul would call “merely human” for another common criteria, our common brokenness and need for Jesus. In an AA meeting, there will be all sorts of people who differ in every way, but they all struggle with addiction. Christians all struggle with sin, mortality, and being cut off from others. We find forgiveness, life, and communion in Jesus mediated by a caring, supportive community.
This takes a constant intentionality. It takes alertness. Our limited efforts to publicize our churches tend to be aimed at people like ourselves. I even hear churches say they are focused on attracting people who are already Episcopalians. Episcopalians who are not in church probably don’t want to be. They have probably been effectively inoculated against the gospel. What about all those people who don’t know Jesus from Spiderman? Nevada is full of genuinely lost, alienated, lonely, despairing people – who just don’t fit our demographic. They are our mission field. They are the sheep of our pasture, the people God has placed in our hand. They are the ones who need what we have. And if we truly have it, we cannot help but share it. If we are not compelled to share it, then we don’t’ have it.
Obviously, we overcome these barriers often enough to celebrate. I have seen some real openness to others, some real sharing of Christ, and some willingness to see the congregational make up change in many of our parishes. I celebrate that. We all should celebrate it. But the obstacles are always there and always need to be remembered so we can keep our witness to the good news of God in Christ Jesus strong, authentic, and transformative.