Evangelism Matters, an evangelism conference sponsored by The Episcopal Church, was held November 18 and 19 in Dallas, Texas. The conference was designed for anyone who wanted to learn more about evangelism and available resources to share their faith. While some people might think an Episcopal evangelist is a rare breed, more than 400 evangelism veterans and fledgling practitioners spent this time being inspired, finding camaraderie, and learning new ways to live up to the slogan “Episcopal evangelist. It’s not an oxymoron.”
In recent years, we have heard: “The church isn’t dying. We are killing it.” Anglicans are not allergic to evangelism, and we need not take Excedrin before saying the word. This is a call to go back to our true identity. Evangelism is not about growing the church but sharing the love we have experienced with a hurting world.
Our Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, Stephanie Spellers, let us all know that we are the Jesus Movement: We are following Jesus and growing loving, liberating, and life-giving relationships with God, with each other, and with creation. Alleluia! “This is not a program,” she reminded us, “but a way of life.”
Bishop George Sumner reminded attendees that sharing the good news is not about church growth. He said we should welcome people into our church, but what we are really about is getting people to join King Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. Ride on, King Jesus.
In our opening panel discussion, Mary Parmer began a second thread woven through this conference, telling us that evangelism is helping people fall in love with Jesus. Carrie Headington said evangelism is an invitation to a feast that is out of this world. Marcus Halley told us the picture of evangelism is the cross, the nexus of God and man, where we see those things that were cast down being raised up.
Alberto Cutié said many in society have given up on Jesus without having even been introduced because the people they do hear talking about Jesus are scary freaks. So, our biggest challenge as a church is this: What will we offer to help people want to connect with the Jesus we know and love?
Halley told us that in a society filled with fear and divisiveness, we need to trust in abundance; we have enough to do what God is asking us to do. We need to overflow into our world, letting people know they are always welcome at this table because there is always enough.
Parmer shared a quote that said, “The New Testament urges believers to speak the gospel clearly, fearlessly, graciously, and respectfully whenever an opportunity presents itself.”
Then, when the panel discussion opened up to the nave, we were given eyes to see the larger vision with a perspective from the Dominican Republic about the global impact of this movement and how much it matters. Evangelism is work for the whole church toward the whole world. A participant from Mexico said evangelism is walking with sisters and brothers, finding out that God has arrived first, and then just being present.
After lunch, Bishop Curry launched into a great sermon, telling us we may be taking part in a re- evangelization of the Western world. He chose 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 as his text: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. “
“This is not about conquering the world for Christ,” he said. “It’s about saturating the world with love. Evangelism is about going home and helping each other find our way home. We have the people and the brainpower, and we are working on the heart-power.”
Then he opened up a real challenge.
“What if we became Episcopalians without borders? We could use the money from closing churches to start new ones as we steward the money entrusted to us even across diocesan boundaries. What if every person preparing for ordained ministry learned evangelism as we have learned clinical pastoral education? We would change the culture of the church and change the world.”
Bishop Curry added: “I have no illusion of vast numbers of Episcopalians going out two-by-two with Forward Day by Day and The Living Church under their arms. But we have Episcopalians on Facebook. I know. I have seen your cats and your dogs! This may be the new Roman highway. Facebook may be the way to help our brothers and sisters to find their way home to God and to each other.”
Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon spoke of the two legs of evangelism as proclamation and mission. Mission flows from first coming to experience the power of what Jesus did for us on the cross. He said if we really want to have a movement, we need to get each bishop to be the chief evangelism officer of his or her diocese, and then each priest to be the chief evangelism officer of his or her parish, and then each individual Christian to be the chief evangelism officer of his or her family. Then we would have a movement.
Baptism is about being immersed in the life of the trinity, which is a life of love. In sharing this love, we see that the Jesus Movement is not about bigger churches; it’s about a better world. This connection to telling the love of Jesus means “saturating the world in God’s love.”
We know evangelism is not about growing our churches. It’s about falling in love with Jesus and then sharing that love as naturally as we recommend a restaurant, book, or movie. Then when we really listen to others, when nudged by the Holy Spirit, we humbly and gently proclaim the difference that knowing our triune God has made in our lives.
Archbishop Josiah said if we really want this to be a movement, we must move beyond seeing our presiding bishop as the chief evangelism officer. As much as we love and admire Bishop Curry, he is not Jesus, and we should not leave him alone in the work of lighting a fire across our church and then the world.
Evangelism Matters was filled with passion, joy, and the hope of lives transformed by the loving, liberating, and life-giving power of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The bishops who attended need to go proclaim they are now chief evangelism officer of their diocese. The rectors and vicars need to proclaim that they are now chief evangelism officers in their parish. And all the baptized need to become chief evangelism officers in their families.
That is a movement. And that movement begins with changed behaviors and concrete next steps.
“This was a significant gathering. For the first time in decades a conference on evangelism was organized by The Episcopal Church, and the event was excellent.”
~ The Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, Bishop, Diocese of Central Florida