During July—when many congregations are quieter due to the heat and too many parishioners out of town on vacation, six individuals from 4 different congregations gathered weekly to study the art of evangelism.
The Mainline Church Evangelism Project was a national Lilly Endowment-funded research project led by Martha Grace Reese in ten denominations. Respondents to Reese’s study used words such as “pushy,” “embarrassing,” “uncomfortable,” “awkward,” “pressuring,” and more to describe evangelism. During the same period this perspective grew, mainline churches have experienced the greatest decline. For example, the collective average Sunday attendance (ASA) for the Diocese of San Diego documented in the 2019 parochial report was 4,825. In the 2021 report, that number was 2,617. Clearly, in 2021, attendance was still impacted by Covid closures and the reluctance of many people to re-enter crowded spaces, and many of our congregations have rebounded in attendance since then. Some are booming with new members and crowded worship services. But others have not yet recovered their pre-pandemic attendance numbers.
Could there be a connection between our understanding of evangelism and decline? As we creep closer to 2024, we can no longer blame this trend on the pandemic. The trend never related to the pandemic alone. Episcopal Church participation had been in decline long before Covid came along. We haven’t shared the good news of Christ in a way that helps people hear and respond to it with joy.
While detrimental to the Church’s vitality, an allergic reaction to evangelism is not without merit. The descriptive words described in Reese’s study demonstrate poor evangelism tactics that conscientious Episcopalians do not want to emulate. Responses to Reese’s study may demonstrate that participating Episcopalians were allergic to “evangelism” out of their affection for those in their relationship networks but outside of the Church—which would seem to be a faithful response to Jesus’s command to love our neighbors. This tells me that if Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor and commissioned us to evangelize, we might misunderstand evangelism.
“Evangelism” often connotes fanaticism and spectacle for Episcopalians. I cannot disagree with a distaste for such traits, but abandoning evangelism is not the answer. When someone uses a hammer wrong, you don’t avoid hammers or ward off ever using a hammer again. Rather, you show the person how to use the hammer correctly. Like a hammer, evangelism is a tool—a practice. You might call it a spiritual practice. There is a better way to do evangelism. In the class referenced above, we discussed a different kind of evangelism over a month, one that is non-anxious and fits Episcopalians.
Evangelism is an announcement, a declaration, or a proclamation of observable good news. For a Christian, the penultimate good news is of Jesus Christ and what his life, death, and resurrection made possible. To share good news means we must first experience it ourselves. Sri Lankan pastor D.T. Niles wrote, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread.” Our class started by exploring our spiritual journeys, understanding where we each had experienced Christ’s good news.
With a deeper awareness of how God has been at work in our lives, we began to look outward for signs of God’s good news breaking forth in the places we live, work, and play and in the lives of those around us. We learned the importance of listening before announcing good news to share in a way others understand and relate to.
Once we began to hone our skills of sharing Christ’s good news, we explored the art of invitation—learning how to prepare ourselves and our congregations to invite our neighbors, loved ones, and colleagues to come and hear the good news announced just as it is every week during worship in our churches.
“I faced this class with some trepidation, having been to too many long, boring classes and meetings,” one student wrote, “Good job! It was enlightening, interesting, and productive.” Another shared that this class was “Great, on point, and very helpful!” Each student who completes the course has the requisite training to be nominated for licensing as a lay evangelist. They are also ready to share the good news of what God has done in their lives and invite others to hear the gospel proclaimed in your church.
For certain, the pandemic impacted attendance across the diocese, but this does not change the importance of opportunities to reach out to others and make every attempt to grow our congregations. In fact, it may make evangelism more important than ever. Not for the sake of growth but for the conviction that Christ’s gospel remains good news and that our congregations are wonderful communities to learn what this means for each of us and our neighbors. When your congregation is ready to take advantage of evangelism practices, visit edsd.org/evangelism and contact me at email@example.com.
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