By Samuel Cripps 

Before entering parish ministry, I assumed the work of evangelism would be an “off-duty” job, or, at best, part of the outreach efforts of the church. Sharing the gospel with unbelievers would be relegated to Monday through Saturday, I figured. After all, Sundays aren’t for evangelism; they’re for discipleship.

It hasn’t taken me very long to realize I was all wrong. I’ve learned recently that, for preachers and priests, much of our mission work is to be done inside the house, and that makes me more nervous than chatting up strangers on the street about the gospel.

Here is my thinking: when you’re chatting somebody up in your clericals out on the street, you assume that your interlocutor isn’t going to be well-versed in the tenets of the Christian faith. To bridge this gap, you make certain assumptions about the person’s values and interests to bridge the conversation, to make things feel accessible.


Imagine that I start talking with a “crunchy” mom — complete with Birkenstocks, linen dress, and reusable grocery bags — in the little grocery store next to my parish. If I started the conversation, I might first bring up a new piece of local legislation affecting the park system. This is a small town, so I’m guessing she’s heard about it.

We start talking, sharing our indignation, and once this new relationship has warmed up a little, I’ve proven myself as “normal.” Dollars to donuts, she’s going to ask if I’m a priest, and I’ll say “Yes” and add that I’m right next door and that we’d love to have her and her kiddo join us, we do have a few kids, and that she is welcome anytime.

Now this isn’t a perfect evangelistic interaction, and there is no guarantee that “crunchy mom” is going to show herself in my pews next Sunday. But I believe this conversation might break down at least some of the “weirdness” barrier of coming to church, and she realizes that at least the priest is chill.

All of this is to say, when I’m talking to a stranger, I make a lot of assumptions about their values and interests. One thing I don’t assume is that an appeal to Scripture or the tradition is going to be a convincing evangelistic strategy.

The thing I’m learning is that that is also mostly true in our parishes as well. My generation of clergy and the generation ahead of mine are stepping into parishes populated by the uncatechized who are in dire need of discipleship and, in many cases, even a need for conversion. If we realize this fact, this deep need in our church, then we’ll realize that our assumptions, our strategy, and our language have to adapt to a new grammar for the future of the Christian church.

A mentor of mine during a parish internship in seminary once gave me the single best piece of advice I’ve heard for ordained ministry: “Major in the majors and minor in the minors.” This aphorism has been on my mind constantly as I think about converting Christians to Christianity. It’s St. Paul’s “Milk Before Meat” approach. I would love to teach a class about St. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, but this isn’t really the “milk” that a lot of our flock needs.

Our work in parish evangelism is to develop the grammar and faith needed to go deeper and to convert more fully. How can I, as a parish priest, appeal to the Scriptures if people don’t understand what the Scriptures are and what they do? How can I make an appeal to our tradition if there is no understanding of why it is important to be part of this tradition? It’s the bridge work of mission, not done in foreign mission fields or on urban street corners, but a mission of evangelism in our very parishes. It’s milk before meat, it’s building the foundations of faith so that more can be built upon it, it’s majoring in the majors. It’s hard work, almost insurmountable, more difficult than converting the unchurched, and can only be done through the Holy Spirit.

The challenge is convincing those who have been in the Christian Church for decades that they must continually deepen in their conversion, that there are always more steps to take in their faith. That yes, we actually believe in the miracles in the Bible; yes, we actually believe that Jesus Christ is God; yes, God is a very real being whose actions are supernatural. The challenge is taking the step from Christian “philosophy” to being part of the Christian religion.

It’s more difficult because people inside the house think that they already get it, that they already know what they need to know. “Men of Athens, I perceive you are very religious” is our example and a clarion call for this more difficult mission field. But once that foundation is built through the long road of trust and relationship, formation, and discipleship, then the house can be built upon it, the house of faith built in the hearts of Christ’s faithful people that can become a light for others as well.

Strangely enough, mission inside the church is cross-cultural mission work in many cases. It’s cross-cultural ministry because often there isn’t a common theological language between priest and congregation. Our job is to identify the common ground that exists in the parish, use that as our springboard, and from there move on to develop a common grammar of faith to be a foundation for more fulsome conversion into the Christian life.

Bishops, continue to equip our church with missionary priests to send out into these parish mission fields. Seminaries, continue to form clerics filled with the love of God and earnest zeal for his glory, that his “everliving Word may so dwell in their hearts that they may speak with that resistless energy of love which shall melt the hearts of sinners to the love of Him,” to quote the Nashotah House Prayer Everyone else, major in the majors, and leave plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to do his work.

Gird up your loins, because our people need Jesus.

The Rev. Samuel Cripps is the rector of The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Wausau, WI. Samuel received his MDiv from Nashotah House in 2022 and is beginning his PhD in Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University this fall. Samuel and his wife, Lauren live in Wausau with their dog, Tennessee Jed.

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