This essay appeared first in the Dec. 11 issue of The Living Church.
It is not clear whether the organizers of Evangelism Matters scheduled the conference at the conclusion of the Church year so that participants would hear the Passion narrative the next weekend. This gospel bookends time to tell us that there is nothing before or after Jesus. As soon as we have spoken the final word, that Jesus is Lord, we turn again to our beginning and look for his coming. In all events, the timing was providential, putting into sharp focus both the promise and limitations of the conference.
The promise of Evangelism Matters is that it marked a step toward clarifying and enacting the Episcopal Church’s mission. Every speaker and panelist made the point that sharing the faith really is the Church’s mission, even in (gasp!) the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. The implication, which occasionally rose to an outright allusion, was that the Episcopal Church has for too long had a culture of squeamishness about evangelistic mission.
That this conversation could be had with such honesty — conference backpacks read Episcopal Evangelist and Not An Oxymoron — was an unequivocal good. The Episcopal Church, like other mainline denominations, is rapidly shrinking, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry made the legitimate point that evangelism is not a scheme for church growth. But it should also be acknowledged that the most obvious reason why the Episcopal Church is in decline is that we have failed to give people adequate reasons to join or remain with us.
At just this point of promise, on the cusp of serious theological self-examination, Evangelism Matters had some important limitations. With a few notable exceptions, the event was largely non-theological. Presenters alluded to an ecclesial culture that avoids evangelism and conceives of Church mission in non-evangelistic terms, but never quite came around to grappling with the roots of that culture. The tone of the conference was decidedly optimistic, which is no bad thing, unless such an attitude disallows conversation about real challenges. In my judgment, the challenge of an ecclesial culture that resists evangelism is a theological challenge, which raises the most fundamental questions about what we Christians believe, who we are, and what God intends for us.
The discourse at Evangelism Matters tended to avoid these questions or to assume that their answers are agreed upon and settled, dwelling primarily in the realm of best practices. For example, a frequent refrain was that it is essential for the work of evangelism that we Christians listen to what other people have to say; far less time and attention were devoted to what one might say after having listened. But surely it is obvious that a church that is not evangelizing is not speaking the Word that God has given it to speak. It is more than a little ironic that listening was such an explicit focus at a conference intended to convince people to start talking. Considering the non-evangelistic culture of liberal Protestantism, one can appropriately wonder if part of the problem is that we have been listening for so long that we can no longer differentiate the Church’s Word from that word spoken by the world.
The name of the conference, Evangelism Matters, primarily meant “[Concrete] Matters of Evangelism” and not “Evangelism Does Matter [Theologically].” I will not disparage the former, but I believe that it can never accomplish what it intends without attending to the latter. Moreover, theological depth is always more important; ecclesial practices and concerns will change with the contingencies of time, but it is the substance of our faith that alone will keep us on task. In my judgment, the long road ahead requires a form of Christian patience that refuses to let the urgency of the mission prevent us from thinking carefully about how we will pursue that mission.
A specifically theological discourse is needed. Such a discourse will raise difficult questions and spark debates, which is vital for our witness and work. I am not the only person to think this. Having spoken to some of the organizers and to Bishop Curry, there is no question that this conference was an initial step among many. All those with whom I spoke were aware of the conference’s limitations, and intend to address them in due course.
There should be no question that this event was worthwhile and deeply encouraging, and that Bishop Curry took it up as an opportunity to flesh out what he intends by the phrase “the Jesus Movement.” The Presiding Bishop intends nothing less than the work of proclaiming the love of God in Christ to the world in word and deed, drawing people into the infinite love of the persons of the Trinity as we strive to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The high point of the conference came in Bishop Curry’s Friday afternoon homiletical exegesis of the baptismal liturgy, making the unequivocal point that our work as a church is to bring people into the freedom and new life of the risen Christ.
I asked Bishop Curry what it is, after considering things like the Enlightenment or capitalism, that we ourselves have done or failed to do that accounts for our current situation of decline and aversion to evangelism. Rather than speaking in general terms about the Episcopal Church, the bishop told me about his own ministry years ago, saying that for too long he simply did not do an adequate job of making disciples of Jesus, of teaching and forming people in the Christian faith, but instead took knowledge of Jesus for granted. And then he added that there seems to have been a whole generation of clergy trained to minister in this way, and that it was just characteristic of the time. His work, he explained, is now to help focus our attention on this task of making disciples, which requires us to teach the faith, to proclaim the love of Jesus, and to attend to the work of reconciliation with one another. I could not agree more.
Our work after Evangelism Matters must take us not just out into the world but also deep into the riches, the challenges, and the opportunities presented to us by our tradition. Every invitation into the Church’s fellowship will raise the question of its boundaries, of what it means to be initiated, of what it is into which one is being initiated. Every sharing of the story of Jesus’ love in one’s own life will raise the question of who this Jesus is and why his love is so special. Every mention of Jesus’ presence will raise the question of what we believe about his resurrection, of how it is that a crucified man can be present at all. And every effort to make this world a better place will raise the question of where this world is going and of that for which we Christians in fact hope. Thanks be to God, we are not the first to face these questions, and by God’s grace we will not act as though we are the first to answer them. Our work after Evangelism Matters will drive us into the world to proclaim the good news of God in Christ as we root ourselves in our baptism, dwell in the mystery of the Eucharist, and are captured by the beauty of the Christian faith. The path of evangelism is our catechesis in the politics, metaphysics, and aesthetics of the Church’s Word: Jesus is Lord. He is our origin and our goal, we are his, and in him we have found life.