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Anglicans Online last updated 21 May 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

What Will It Take to Double Our Size?
Musings About Evangelism

The Revd Pierre W. Whalon

The 2000 General Convention passed an ambitious goal: to double the size of the Episcopal Church by 2020. The next several columns will ask what it will take to accomplish this so–called 20/20 Vision.

While it is obvious that planting new churches and recruiting a new generation of clerics are important to the realization of this goal, the first issue to mull over is evangelism. While many have labeled the “Decade of Evangelism” a failure, it did at least succeed in making the “e–word” part of Episcopalians’ vocabulary.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes us promise God, every time we baptize someone, to evangelize: to share by word and example the Good News of God in Christ (BCP 306). For a lot of reasons, doing that is very intimidating. First, there is presently a cultural taboo in America about mentioning that one is a church–goer. It is tantamount in many circles to admitting to some weird private fetish. So some people like to say that others can see Christ in the way they live their lives, and that is sufficient. Other Episcopalians will say that talk is cheap, and that their work in some good cause is enough to keep their baptismal promise. Still other Episcopalians, converts from certain other churches, are grateful for the relative silence about evangelism. They shudder to recall the manipulative threats of damnation that accompanied their birth church’s understanding and practice of evangelism.

Evangelism is not church growth, with which it is often confused. Church growth is about numbers, and there are many proven techniques to help churches grow, mostly by helping them do a better job of “marketing” themselves and welcoming newcomers. Evangelism on the other hand is about relationships—relationships among ourselves, people around us, and Jesus. Effective evangelism should result in increased numbers, to be sure. But if we charge into evangelism programs in order to double the Episcopal Church, we will fail. For evangelism is about fulfilling the baptismal covenant, a promise made to God about other people.

Archbishop William Temple, commenting on John 1:42, remarked that Andrew did the best thing anyone can do for another: he introduced someone, namely his brother Simon, to Jesus. That is evangelism, nothing more, nothing less. This implies a simple analogue of evangelism: introducing someone to your best friend.

If we began to conceive of evangelism as “introducing someone to our best friend,” it might seem less threatening. After all, we surely have at least one person in the world with whom we are very close: a best friend. This person could be a spouse, a member of the family, or someone else. He or she is someone with whom you speak regularly, whose company you look forward to enjoying, with whom you share a profound intimacy. As we get to know someone new, eventually it becomes natural to introduce that person to our best and closest friend. Indeed, if we are to make a new friend, that person eventually has to come to know about our relationship with our best friend.

Isn’t this a clear parallel to what Archbishop Temple described as the best thing one person can do for another? After all, we speak regularly with Jesus, sense the presence of the Trinity in our lives, and share our profoundest thoughts and feelings with God. Not to mention the intimacy of sharing the Holy Eucharist. Can we not say to ourselves that Jesus Christ is indeed our closest and best friend? It would follow, then, that we should, when appropriate, introduce him to other people.

This metaphor can help clarify what sound healthy evangelism looks and feels like. First of all, we do not immediately introduce new people in our lives to our best friend. There is a process of getting to know the new person in order to respect both the relationship with the best friend and the new person. When the time is right, we find a way to bring the two people together. Second, we do not try to manipulate the new person into becoming friends with our best friend, unless we are emotionally ill. Third, if the other two people do not hit it off, we still have a best friend, and perhaps a new friend.

What this it means is that we are not to attempt to convert others. There is to be no significant emotional payoff for bringing people to Jesus, other than the satisfaction of a promise kept. What if Simon Peter and Jesus had not hit it off? What would have been the result for Andrew? Can we see Andrew threatening his brother with damnation, or giving Jesus a “high five” for getting Simon Peter into the fold? Of course not.

Evangelism is not results–oriented. It is simply a matter of hoping to start new relationships. All healthy people make acquaintances, some of whom become friends. Then at some point, like introducing them to your best friend, we decide that it is appropriate to move forward. The best way is not to talk about church, but about our best friend and what that friendship means to us personally. People love to hear personal stories, if they know that their own stories will have a respectful listener in return. If they want to know more, then for it is probably time to invite them to church.

Of the approximately 100,000,000 Americans who are nominal Christians but have not darkened a church door for six months or more, only 25% will ever receive one or more invitations to attend a church, according to a recent study. Of these, only one in seven will accept. Going to a new church for these people is a nerve-wracking experience, even with a friend. Of those who finally do go, only one-half will return a second time. In a recent Episcopal News Service report about the February 2001 Executive Council meeting, Bishop Catherine Roskam is quoted as having said that Episcopalians invite another person to church every 38 years. For Episcopalians, it seems to be as nerve-wracking an experience to extend an invitation as it is for those who accept!

The best way to extend this invitation is probably not to propose attending a liturgy, but rather some other event or program. This should reduce the anxiety factor for both parties. In this writer’s parish, people can be invited to a monthly dinner party, a weekday dinner at church, a number of home study groups, lay-led classes, support groups, a Habitat for Humanity group, a soup kitchen, a mother’s day out program, a day school, classical and jazz concerts, a teen music and drama group, a youth group, and scouting, besides four weekly church services. Most congregations offer a variety of these entry points. One excellent resource among many is 'Church Growth and the Power of Evangelism', by Howard Hanchey (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1990). Hanchey emphasizes the importance of deep respectful listening to the other as part of every person’s evangelism.

Whether we really want to double the size of the Episcopal Church or not, then clearly evangelism training for every Episcopalian, as defined above, is a crucial part of Christian education for all ages. While increasing the number of visitors is critical both to new churches and existing parishes, effective evangelism will not focus on the numerical goal, but rather sharing Christ with no other agenda than the sheer joy of knowing him and making him known. This should increase our numbers, and it may well increase the numbers of other churches as well.

If an Episcopalian introduces someone to our Best Friend, and that person becomes, say, a committed Baptist, that Episcopalian has successfully kept the baptismal covenant.

The last point to make about this approach to evangelism is that it pre-supposes that we do in fact consider God in Christ to be like unto that closest, most intimate person in our lives. Each of us needs to ask ourselves deeply and honestly, “What do you think of the Christ?” When we have an answer to that question, then we are ready to make and keep the covenant of Baptism, including the imperative to evangelize.

[Next column in this series on evangelism: The travails of planting a new church.]

Fr Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at pwwhalon@aol.com.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.

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