That makes evangelism a rather different proposition than it is in communities where most people know the basic shape of the Christian story. If we are going to be effective in reaching out to those beyond our walls, we are going to have to learn new language and ways of telling our story.
I taught a World Religions course in a secular university for several years. The course required students to attend several worship services in traditions outside their own (if they had one).
They had to find the house of worship, join in as much as was possible and reasonable, and later write a reflection paper on their experiences. The students often told about their surprise when they were welcomed as human beings and their chagrin when they felt they only were being received as potential converts and/or possible monetary additions.
I know I certainly have heard vestries and others say, “We have to grow, if we’re going to balance our budget.” But when these students were welcomed with curiosity and a genuine interest in knowing them as persons and individuals, they responded with warmth, even if they had no intention of joining the community.
Part of our evangelical task is making our worshiping communities welcoming in a deep, human, relational sense. The gospel is about radical hospitality, after all, and that is what we are meant to model.
The other side of this challenge is how we might speak good news in language and forms that people uneducated in Christianity can understand and welcome. If our language engenders fear, it is likely to drive people away. If it welcomes and invites, the possibility can be quite different.
This may not be seen in many places in the Episcopal Church, but consider your own reaction to “If you don’t believe the way we do, you’re going to hell.” Not only does hell not have much reality for the unchurched, there is an arrogance in that approach that many find repellent.
There are more subtle forms of that message, however, that are rampant in this church. We use language that is understandable only by insiders – and not just the arcane terms of our liturgy and polity (and those words themselves won’t be understood by many!).
There is an underlying message in many faith communities that says, “The way we worship (or hold Sunday school or run our vestry meetings or …) is the only right way.” And the implication that is heard is, “There is no welcome here for you if you can’t do it our way.” There is an aspect of that message that is quite un-Anglican, if we really want to live up to our value of comprehensiveness.
But even more deeply, we have to figure out how to tell our story in language that a person who doesn’t know anything about Christianity can begin to understand. I’m going to suggest that our telling of that great story has to begin in listening. Not only does it say to the other person, “Your story is of great importance, and I recognize your equal dignity by listening,” but it also gives us an opportunity to discern where to help connect that story with the larger story of God’s love known in Jesus Christ.
Frederick Buechner famously said that ministry happens when a person’s great joys meet the deep hungers of the world. We cannot engage in ministry until we recognize where the hunger is.
I have had the remarkable gift and opportunity in recent months to speak to people who don’t know much at all about the Episcopal Church or Christianity. Those opportunities have come through the secular media. Those interviews intentionally have avoided the language of Christian insiders for the reasons above.
The unfortunate result in some places has been anger when Episcopalians don’t recognize their own familiar language. Let me suggest a challenging exercise: How would you tell the great truths of our faith without using overtly theological language? How would you tell a new neighbor that God loves him or her without measure, and invite him or her to learn more? If we are going to hear that person’s story with grace, we have to leave the door open for a while.