Last weekend, I attended an evangelism workshop.
You read that correctly. I. Attended. An. Evangelism. Workshop.
I did this willingly in advance of a revival that is happening in the diocese of Georgia in September.
Yes, you read all that correctly, too. This is still me writing, OK. And no--I have not forgotten my Northern roots or my sexual orientation and identity. Having established these facts, you can read on in confidence that I will 'xplain all of this. :-)
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is on a mission to inspire Episcopalians to be a little more assertive and bold about the Jesus we teach and preach about in our churches. Because that Jesus is not the one who puts an asterisk next to the word "all" or places limits on who is eligible to inherit the eternal life God promises to all. The Jesus we talk about is ever-expanding the banquet table and adding more chairs and heaping up more plates of food for anyone who is desiring and he won't even check to see if you'd been in the church last Sunday or not.
Our lead presenter, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, put before us the following definition of "Episcopal Evangelism":
"We seek, name and celebrate Jesus' loving presence in the stories of all people--then invite everyone to MORE."
I was so delighted to see this definition! Nowhere does it say, "Go out and convert those heathens and unchurched people," or "Go tell a stranger that they need to find JEEE-SUS to be SAVED!!!" Instead, this room of about 70 people were split into pairs, and we did some real simple exercises of listening to our partner tell their story and then sharing our own answer to whatever was the question before us. And in this sharing, strangers can become friends, and friends can hear in each other's words similar ideas, dreams, hurts, and anxieties. Where is Jesus in that? Right there in the middle. Because the Good News of God in Christ happens when we take time to get to listen and know each other without an agenda. As our Presiding Bishop says:
"Evangelism is about sharing the journey into a deeper relationship with God and with each other, and not about us controlling the end result. It's not about us increasing our market share, and it's not just propping up the institution. If we believe the relationship with a living God does matter, then evangelism and anything that helps us to come closer as human children of God matters."
I went into the workshop with skepticism and I left with a feeling of affirmation. Everything I was hearing was telling me that I have been doing evangelism, the Episcopal Way, this whole time beginning with this blog which I started in 2007 when I had my own awakening. For newcomers, you can see that first entry by clicking HERE.
So, is evangelism just listening and telling stories? No, not just. It's important, and it's a cornerstone, but the chief cornerstone begins with each of us first getting settled into our own skins. The starting point is--as it always is with the Episcopal Church--prayer. Prayer is not just our words offered up to God; it's our hearts and minds opening to receive "the peace of God which passes all understanding." In some traditions, there's a lot of calling on God, petitioning God. We do that, too. But I have found that sometimes the best prayer begins with taking some time to be silent and even as I pray aloud, I find that I often leave some space in between to give room for me and others to listen. Once I am settled, I'm ready to take that important next step of encountering another person or persons. My challenge...as an introvert...is how to initiate a conversation. I've been lucky enough to be an Education for Ministry mentor which gives me some practice in how to open a dialogue. But that is often very specific to whatever is happening within the group. I don't want to fall into "reporter mode" either because that can feel confrontational. So, instead of asking lots of "why" questions...the trainers suggest another approach that can illicit a story: ask "when" questions such as "when have you experienced community?" or "what" questions such as "what kind of a community do you dream of being part of?" And then...listen. In all likelihood, what I am likely to hear is a description of God. I have had this experience, many times, as I witness various communities that I move in within my city. And I have thought, "This is God at work in this person or people!" Now, my challenge is to acknowledge that out loud. For all I know, it may be the chance to hit the reset button for the other person's perception of what it means to believe in God in Jesus. That would be Good News.
This kind of acknowledgment and affirmation of the good others are doing is what I think Jesus meant when he expressed in Matthew's Gospel: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."