Jason: “Evangelism” is a word that polarizes, a lot like Donald Trump these days. Either you like the word or you find it repulsive. I would argue that, in the case of evangelism, this means that we misunderstand the term–both those that love it and those who hate it.
Too often evangelism is explained as an activity that is intended to produce something. Usually this means converts. This is why some think we should be doing evangelism. The more we tell people about Jesus, tell them to say a magic prayer, the more people will fill our pews. This logic is the exact same thing that drives some people crazy about Christians. It seems coercive and to have way more to do with church attendance and budgets than actual concern for someone’s spiritual well being. But what if evangelism was not so much about producing something as being something?
Mike: I think Jason is right, often in the church we conflate “Evangelism” with producing “Church Growth.” Episcopalians get nervous about that word I think partly because some of us have felt pressured in church environments. For many of us The Episcopal Church is a refuge from the anxieties of other religious organizations, and the word “Evangelism” is a packed term. But it didn’t originally mean what it has come to mean. Jason, can you talk about the original meaning of “Evangelism?”
Jason: The term “evangelism” means announcing good news. It has been borrowed by folks like Guy Kawasaki and others to explain the role of a promoter of a brand or product. But for Christians, the “good news” has its apex set in the Gospels. There, we read of this man Jesus of Nazareth announcing the “good news of the kingdom of God.” Michael Curry often interprets Jesus good news something like this: God has a dream for this world that is not the nightmare this world often is. God is at work achieving that dream. We are invited to participate in that.
Last week we talked about prayer. I mentioned that prayer is a practice that can attune us to what God is up to around us. I would add to this that whatever God is up to around us is part of God’s dream–Jesus’ good news, unfolding. Evangelism is a) being the kind of person that takes notice of the good news unfolding around us and b) responding to the good news, allowing it to change how we live our lives. For too long, evangelism has been a message that is intended to change others when first and foremost evangelism is a message that ought to change how I live. The Rev. Todd Hunter often says it this way, “More interesting than the question, ‘What would happen if you died tonight?’ is the question, ‘If God’s kingdom is real, what would happen if you wake up tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that …”
Mike: Jason and I were part of an experiment in Washington DC, that I’m now trying in St. Louis as well. We call it “Theology on Tap” (I described more about the program in this post). I bring up the program in a discussion about Evangelism because we intentionally talk about Theology on Tap as a “Low Pressure Environment.” In both St. Louis and DC I’ve had a surprising number of Episcopalians email me after they invited a non-churchy friend to Theology on Tap. They talk about how hard it was to invite their friend to church, but about how bringing them into a conversation in a bar was much easier. They even liked sharing their perspective on faith. The Episcopalian bias says, “Evangelism is bad.” But my lived experience is: “talking about your faith, sharing your faith, it’s not bad.” The Good News only gets out there when we share, but we have a lot of learning to do. I think we have a lot of work as members of communities of faith to figure out how to create more “low pressure” environments to talk about the good news.