What is evangelism these days?

I’m tired of people talking about “the E-word”. I wish we Episcopalians would practice more evangelism, and I wish we’d get over our squeamishness. All those tired jokes about “E word” suggest that there’s no urgency and that it’s all a quaint relic of some bygone era. This Sunday’s Gospel should clear things up: the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. A few days ago, a funny video made the rounds. It’s satire, but it might be a verbatim conversation about inviting people to church, for all I know. We’ve come to a place in which we’re unwilling to share the Good News. And then we wonder why our churches are emptying out. Without the harvest, the grain rots and the barn sits empty. OK, so I’ve abused the metaphor. You get the point anyway, right?

Let’s start at the beginning. If church is just a “nice” place to spend time with like-minded do-gooders, we should just close up shop now. Any number of non-profits are already doing that, and they’ll do it better than we’ll ever manage. In the Episcopal Church, we’ve been saddled with two generations of preachers who have taught people that “God loves everyone” is the limit of the Good News. There’s not been much preaching about the need for redemption or about what salvation might look like. NEWS FLASH! Jesus is more than a teacher. Jesus is more than a Divine Super-Love Super-Guy. Jesus is our savior.

We Episcopalians quote a few bits of the Gospels that we like. Good Shepherd! Lost coins! Healing! Emmaus! The bits about sheep and goats are met with awkward silence, or we progressives imagine that Jesus was talking about Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney when he mentioned goats. All that stuff about leaving everything behind or actually, you know, changing your life is a downer. Far be it from us to imagine that God’s grace might be drawing us all into a life of costly discipleship. We’ve forgotten how to imagine that God’s grace might give us unimaginable joy.

I’ve recently discovered the Sacred Sandwich, a fantastically witty blog. Here’s Philippe, The Postmodern Evangelist:

Once there was a man named Philippe. He was a spiritual guide in an emerging community. One day he decided to go on a journey. So, he did. As he was walking along the road, focusing on the journey and not the destination, he found himself alongside the chariot of an African official. The man in the chariot was reading from a parchment scroll. He was reading aloud, so Philippe was able to overhear what the man read.

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

Philippe caught up to the chariot and said, “You read that text beautifully. It made me feel significant and connected to ancient traditions to hear you read it.”

“I just wish I could understand it,” the man replied.

“Understand it? You don’t need to understand it. Just to experience it.

And there it is. We talk about how welcoming and inclusive we are. A few parishes actually manage to pull this off, and when someone shows up, they are received warmly. But does it ever go further? Do we send laborers into the field for the harvest? Here’s a whacky question: do we confront people and challenge them to change? Or do we follow the standard Episcopal drill and preach about how great everyone is?

Sure, God loves us all. More than we can imagine. But Jesus asks us — all of us — to take up our cross and follow him. Back in the day, Anglicans used to be really good at this kind of preaching. We developed a whole system of belief and practice rooted in worship, poetry, music, and service, and that system pointed toward a holiness of living. All of this was rooted in a deeply sacramental worldview and in lovely worship. We savored the earthy reality of our Incarnate Lord and the implications for all of us. We taught that conversion takes a lifetime, not an instant. To be sure, we taught that conversion was necessary.

These days, many Episcopalians seem to view conversion as optional. We want to draw everyone in…to what? Our failure to evangelize begins to make sense. How can we share the Good News if the news isn’t all that great?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I think if we focus on Jesus Christ, our institutions, our inclusion, our evangelism, and all the rest will sort themselves out.

How about coming to church this Sunday and receiving the Eucharist as Christ himself, not as a stale piece of pseudo-bread? How about listening to the Bible readings as if they were from the most amazing story ever written?

Here’s an exercise: think of three ways Jesus has changed your life. Now how about sharing those things with three people?

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11 Responses

  1. Phil Snyder says:


    Great Article! I’m afraid that we have too many “members” (in the club sense) and not enough disciples.

    If you are a disciple, then you will want to spread the good news. It will be almost required of you by your own sense of joy at what God has done and is doing for you through Jesus Christ.

    Unfortunatley, we have too many people who are real sure what God has done or is doing for them. They just know that they are loved, but they don’t know by whom.

    You speak of Jesus as Savior, but he is also Lord. To too many people (clergy included) Jesus is neither savior nor Lord. Jesus is all to often “life coach” or “guru.” To acknowledge Jesus as Savior means to acknowledge that you need a savior and need to be saved. To acknowlege Jesus as Lord means that you give up being Captain of your own destiny.

    The problem with Jesus as Lord is that we are never sure where that will lead. It may lead to a complete reordering of our understandings and priorities in life.

    Phil Snyder

  2. Tim Schenck says:

    Excellent post, Scott. Your passion and inspiration come leaping off the computer screeen. Thanks, brother.

  3. Rich Bardusch says:

    I like it; I would like to truly be able to live into it. I guess that is the conversion that takes a lifetime. Thanks.

  4. Focusing on God, more than the particularity of Jesus Christ, seems important in our global, pluralistic world. For a view that complements much of your essay, see my blog post, “Is evangelism a dirty word?” at http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/2010/07/is-evangelism-dirty-word.html.

  5. Laura says:

    Here’s a whacky question: do we confront people and challenge them to change?

    Here’s another whacky question: do we ask people why they don’t come to church? Check out this fabulous article:


    It’s a total “Well, duh,” moment, but we don’t do it.

  6. Ethan Gafford says:

    There’s something in our failure to evangelize that I find even more disturbing than poor church attendance: without active evangelism, Christianity basically turns into a tribal religion, one that reproduces primarily by having children. The Christian doctrines of Heaven and hell make it totally abhorrent for Christianity to try to work that way. If we believe what we say about salvation, and we’re not evangelizing, so much woe to us is due that it boggles the mind.

    If we don’t believe it anymore, well and good, but we also don’t have much business being a Christian church, and would do better to outwardly proclaim ourselves “universalists”. If we do that, it would indeed be a good idea to “focus on God” to the exclusion of any specific doctrine; until then, we are bound to evangelize.

    (Now, there is a point well taken in George’s comment, which is that the story of the historical life of Jesus Christ is not the entry point into Christianity for everyone. An evangelist sculpts the message to the evangelee, and if that requires a slower, softer sell and a lot of listening, that’s fine. The fact that a good evangelist is all things to all people is nothing new, though, or any result of globalism or pluralism. Today and always, if our chief aim is not to tell that story, in thought, word, and deed, and so to impart its meaning, woe to us.)

  7. Laura says:

    Oh, I should also mention (in case you haven’t heard of it) Jim Henderson’s work at Off the Map. http://offthemap.com/ There was a great summary article about what he does in USA Today earlier this week.

    Key point: “Call it promotion by non-promotion, evangelism by attraction, goodwill mongering, or letting one’s life speak for itself, but this is what will best represent the faith among the many Americans who do not share the evangelical faith. Henderson and his fellow travelers are right in urging would-be evangelists simply to get to know people, become their friends and let the spiritual chips fall where they may.”


  8. Scott Gunn says:

    Laura, while I think “promotion by non-promotion, evangelism by attraction” and the like are essential parts of evangelism, we also need to be ready to tell the story — to share the Good News by word, not just deed. This doesn’t need to be a coercive attack, of course, but it might be a persuasive story. Oh, and I love to talk with people who don’t go to church about why they don’t come around. Their answers are not the ones we often hear attributed to them….

    George, I think the best way for Christians to live in a pluralistic society is to be authentic Christians. We should be willing to share who we are with others. There’s no good outcome from watering down our own faith in the idea that somehow that will help us get along with others. Closets and masks are never the answer. So, for me, I think we need to focus on God as uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ. That revelation is, I believe, a key to our salvation.

  9. Bob Chapman says:

    “So, for me, I think we need to focus on God as uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ. That revelation is, I believe, a key to our salvation.”

    Our salvation. Not another person’s salvation. Ours.

    I think you are saying that if we don’t live in our salvation, how will other people even be interested in experiencing it?

  10. Ethan Gafford says:

    “Our salvation” doesn’t mean either “mine” or “yours”; it encompasses both. This requires the local (convinced Christian) us to “live in our salvation”, certainly, but it also requires us to talk to the global (unconvinced) us, about our global salvation in Christ Jesus.

    One of the many ways in which Christianity is not easy (or socially acceptable in a pluralistic, global world,) is its inherent desire to grow. Christianity that doesn’t much care whether it reigns over every heart and nation is not “humble” Christianity; it’s either “timid” Christianity (which is understandable, if unfortunate,) or “unfathomably selfish” Christianity (tribalism and Christianity are not friends. See Gnostic heresies.)

    So I think Scott *is* actually saying that we should care about “another person’s salvation” as well as “ours”. I suspect, further, that Scott is saying something more subversive than “live your faith”; he seems to be saying “live your faith and talk about it.”

    In reading the Scripture, the door to salvation is often not an experience, or a feeling: it’s a belief, an intellectual assent to Christ’s sovereignty. Once our reason knows Christ is God, our wills can (often sluggishly) follow. Thus as Christians we are called to share His story in the most compassionate and clever way we can see to do so, and to think about how to better teach that truth all the time. We shouldn’t be pompous about it, and we should never go into a conversation about God with a script or any expectation of a specific response, but it’s hard to read the (whole) NT and escape the call to verbal witness. (And as a note, the world of the Roman empire in which the apostles operated was pretty “global” and “pluralistic” in matters of religion.)

    Phrased as two questions: If we do not know enough to teach Christ’s life compassionately, how can we imitate Him, and “live in our salvation”? If we know enough to teach Christ’s life compassionately, and if we imitate Him fully enough to love our neighbor, how can we not speak?

  11. What is an “authentic Christian”? An authentic Christian, in my opinion, is someone who intentionally attempts to walk the Jesus path (cf. my recent post http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/2010/07/people-can-change.html).

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