Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Evangelism, Church or to dechurch

(Editorial note: published before rereading and I was quite muddled at points, edited for clarity 8/13/2009 8:15 pm. LEK)
Last night, I went to a presentation at an Episcopal Church on Evangelism by the Episcopal priest who (along with Tripp) thought up the idea of an ecumenical congregation that became Reconciler, David Gortner. Essentially he said that evangelism is not a programmatic thing but a Spirit empowered and lead relational activity of Christians consisting in listening and conversation born out of joy and gratitude. As a spiritual director this sounded somewhat similar to spiritual direction, another spiritual director,who is also the priest of parish that held the seminary, made this observation during the discussion as well.

As a basis for his discussion of Evangelism we read the passage from Acts about Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the passage of Jesus with the Woman at the Well (St Photini). This is fairly standard in my experience in talking about Evangelism and I have seen these texts used to back up most approaches and methods of evangelism. It was pointed out that these stories of evangelism happen while traveling,(going out where people are) and that they are conversations in which much listening happens as well as naming the holy in the persons life or story. Lastly ordinary things, things that are at hand are used to convey meaning due to that ordinary things are already filled with meaning.

What has stuck with me the most was his he directing us to think about joy wonder and gratitude as the place out of which evangelism should take place. Commencted with this that David sees evangelism as a spiritual practice. The Spiritual practice of evangelism involves three steps:
1)Remembering joy wonder and gratitude, as those who have encountered God in Jesus Christ.
2) Speaking of this joy, wonder and Gratitude, with fellow Christians and those outside the church.
3)As we meet others and converse with them listening for the holy in their lives.

About the other half of the time dealt fear and dread that come with the idea of evangelism, the ways to address this and the state of the church and the Episcopal church in the US. I am now a bit fuzzy on this portion, in part because it was directed at an Episcopal audience and partly because it was not clear where exactly this all was going (admittedly we did not get to some role playing exrecises that might have clarified things). though, I also wonder if by addressing anxieties around evangelism and institutional barriers to evangelism lead to comparisons between the Episcopal church and other more conservative bodies that either seem better at evangelism and/or are seen as growing. This line of conversation was reinforced by David giving statistics about the decline of the number of Christians and religious.
In all this the seminar lost a bit of focus for me and seemed to be dominated by concerns of retention of members and why denominations are shrinking, and specifically what needed to be done. This was not entirely David's fault it was where people were at. I certainly understand this anxiety though where I am at with Reconciler it is more simply facing the fact that at least for the context the two passages shared since they end with the Ethiopian eunuch being Baptized and St Phontini spreading the news about Jesus in her town all in one sitting for both stories don't quite fit my context. I am involved in the sort of activity David sees as evangelism, and the case of St Photini is the most similar to my context but the conversation is something that is extended over much more than an hour conversation or even a day, more like months and maybe years.

The other thought I came away with that connects up with something David said as an aside about evangelism bringing about conversion in us as Christians as well as the one evangelized; the sense of evangelism as spiritual practice that David is advocating actually calls for the evangelism and conversion of most Christians. Part of that conversion seems to let go of denominational identity and stop trying to make Episcopalians, Methodists, Covenanters, Baptists etc, and focus on sharing Gospel as it has been handed on for 2 millennia. This means learning to become intimately familiar with the Tradition, and not just our own denominations, and certainly going deeper than the Reformation. And now I am sounding like the various essaysists in Remembering our Future: Explorations in Deep church.

Even if the ending of the seminar with David last night lost me a little over all it has got me thinking and got the Anglobaptis ruminating as well. But I also wonder at the insistence that evangelism is not institutional, and that institutions got us to where we fear evangelism or fit it into a narrow program. Now let me say that I agree with David that evangelism can't be a program, this has been a long held belief of mine. However, even as a relational organism the church is an institution, the basis of its worship was instituted: we speak of the institution of the Eucharist by Christ (though as with most things many dispute this assertion, but I don't hold with those). Baptism was instituted as the means of entrance to the church, most denominations and the Ecumenical convergence documents still hold to this. These things are not the reasons we have difficulty with evangelism. I think we need to be more nuanced in this ubiquitous tendency to blame institution for all our problems, and think that "organic community", whatever the hell that is, would solve all our problems. Now admittedly I obviously don't think the institution of denominationalism is a good expression of the institution of the church, though churchly things may happen in denominations, they are not the church. I'd say, this is the problem not the institutional per se. When Tripp speaks of "institutional loyalty", I think he actually means denominational loyalty, though he also as a Baptist may mean congregational loyalty. But The problem isn't necessarily loyalty but a loyalty in the place of Christ and the Body of Christ. For instance demanding Loyalty to the Evangelical Covenant Church even though one knows that the Covenant church isn't the Body of Christ in its fullness. I am not sure right off hand what all is actaully wrong in denominationalism beyond the problem of loyalty, but I am quite certain it isn't the institutions of the sacraments, nor is it anything that helps us hand on the Gospel, ie Tradition. But in the end I think David Tripp and I are in agreement, this way of thinking, seeing evangelism as spiritual practice, and a Spirit lead and filled activity of listening sharing and naming first requires we evangelize ourselves and our own conversion. This itself may be a long process, especially as we Christians seem hang on to our anxiety about our loss of significance in the cultural and societal landscape, and in someway trying to find our way back to that influence. Granted it is an unfortunate reality that some (possibly looking like many) of our parishes and congregations will find themselves unsustainable. This is painful for those Christians and their pastors, and it is a threat to the continuation of some denominations. It may not be so dire but that fact that we all seem to know something is wrong and yet don't really want to ask some very fundamental questions like "is denominationalism really a good thing?", don't leave me too sanguine for the larger picture. Except in the cases where Christians are actually looking beyond survival and asking what it means to be Christian. I may disagree with many peoples answers at the moment, and tend to look to those aspects of Christian faith that can show some continuity that goes deeper than 500 years ago. What I found helpful and clear in Davids seminar was where it asked us to reflect on what it meant to be a Christian in action and relationship in the world. The rest was fascinating statistics and distractions.

Ps. I'll post more on this but on the way to my "office hours" for Reconciler having been reflection on evangelism all day and remembering my joy gratitude and wonder, and looking for holiness in the world, had three people talk to me on the way to the coffee shop. Granted I was wearing a colar as I usualy do. All three were in some form of need and a bit off, and a challenge to in relating and conversing. It leads me to an other reason why many people avoid this sort of attitude towards Christian faith it lead you into some strange places and to find oneself out of one's depth.