Presiding Bishop leads wave of excitement for evangelism heading into General Convention

June 28, 2018
Bread & Roses in Charlottesville

Bread & Roses, a ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, has partnered with International Rescue Committee to hold cooking demonstrations at a city farmer’s market aimed at promoting nutritional cooking techniques and vegetables grown by refugees living in Charlottesville. Bread & Roses was backed by Mission Enterprise Zone grants. Photo: International Rescue Committee

[Episcopal News Service] The Most Rev. Michael Curry, in his three years as presiding bishop, has regularly described Episcopalians as being part of “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement,” underscoring the church’s call to evangelism.

The Episcopal Church’s push for greater evangelism is not new. Curry’s embrace of his self-proclaimed role of “chief evangelism officer” continues years of growth in the church’s organizational and financial support for such efforts.

“I believe that we had a move toward increasing our work in evangelism and church planting even before the election of Michael Curry as presiding bishop,” said the Rev. Frank Logue, an Executive Council member with a longtime focus on evangelism. Curry has further elevated those efforts since 2015, Logue said.

General Convention approved $1.8 million for church plants and Mission Enterprise Zones in the 2013-15 triennium, and $3.4 million was allocated for such ministries from 2016 to 2018. The Evangelism and Church Planting Committee, which Logue chairs, has been assigned a resolution (A005) that would approve $6.8 million in spending over the next three years to build on recent successes of these “holy experiments.”

Some students in Appleton Episcopal Ministries’ 2017 session of its Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School learn to play chess. The ministry benefited from a Mission Enterprise Zone grant. Photo: Appleton Episcopal Ministries

“I see there being a move within the church to invest within this area,” Logue said. And while church planting plays a major role – Episcopal News Services recently profiled several examples of successful grant recipients – the church is investing in innovation at all levels, including in established congregations and by dioceses.

Eight resolutions have been assigned to the Evangelism and Church Planting Committee so far, though more may be added by the July 6 filing deadline. Among them is a measure (A030) submitted by Executive Council to renew funding of a small evangelism grant program at $100,000.

Those grants are limited to $2,000 for congregations and up to $8,000 for dioceses or regional ministries, and typically they support one-time events rather than the ongoing work of church plants, Logue said. Like church plants, some of these smaller initiatives may provide models for new ministries churchwide.

“We’ve seen some good things happen with a small amount of money,” said Logue, who serves as canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Georgia.

Evangelism is one of three priorities that General Convention set for the current triennium, along with racial reconciliation and care of creation. The three will serve as focal points for separate joint sessions of General Convention in a new series of panel discussions called TEConversations.

The discussion of evangelism will be at 2:30 p.m. July 7, and the panel will feature the Rev. Lauren Winner, a priest and author; Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe, who led revivals at every congregation in his diocese last year, and the Rev. Daniel Velez-Rivera, a church planter in the Diocese of Virginia. The racial reconciliation discussion is July 6. Care of creation will be the topic July 10.

All three priorities inform the Episcopal Church’s mission, and they relate to each other, said California Bishop Marc Andrus, who is co-chair of an advisory body that submitted a resolution (A019) on the intersection of evangelism, church planting and care of creation. The Advisory Council on the Stewardship of Creation’s resolution calls for creation of a task force to study and encourage those connections.

“They’re not really separate things,” Andrus said, and while many church plants already approach their work by incorporating racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship into their evangelism, he hopes the proposed task force would provide the groundwork for making that approach commonplace.

“An integrated approach to planting churches and evangelism is a healthy way of doing evangelism,” he said. “It relates to the one spirit of Christ, who’s not divided. Christ doesn’t prefer one cause of justice over another.”

The Rev. Stephanie Johnson, the advisory council’s other co-chair, agrees.

“By recognizing that care of creation is central to our faith, we understand that reconciliation with all God’s creatures is part of who we are,” said Johnson, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Riverside, Connecticut.

This also might enhance the church’s outreach to younger generations, which was another consideration alluded to in the resolution submitted by the Advisory Council on the Stewardship of Creation.

“It’s important to them to know that the church cares about their future and the generations that come after them,” Johnson said.

Some resolutions assigned to the evangelism committee are intended to continue work already underway, such the budgetary resolution submitted by the Genesis Advisory Group on Church Planting and Executive Council’s resolution on small evangelism grants. Executive Council also submitted a resolution (A031) to affirm the creation of a new staff officer position to help administer the church planting network.

Another resolution submitted by the Genesis Group (A006) calls for the collection of demographic info about the church leaders behind new evangelism ministries, so that data can be compared with info on the communities they are trying to serve.

The resolution doesn’t call for any further action in response to that information, but Logue, who is the Executive Council liaison to the Genesis Group, said simply having that information may encourage ministers to think more about representation. A Latino outreach ministry, for example, would benefit from Latino leaders, just as it makes sense to have a young person taking the lead in a ministry that targets millennials.

Other resolutions ask General Convention to commend advisory bodies’ findings to the church. One of those is the Evangelism Charter (A029) drafted by Executive Council’s Local Ministry & Mission Committee to promote a common language for describing and carrying out the work of evangelism.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on the evening of Nov. 17 helps start the Diocese of San Joaquin’s three-day revival. The kickoff event was held on the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Curry has led the way in the past 16 months by presiding at large, public revivals in dioceses around the church, but despite the presiding bishop’s talk of being part of the “Jesus Movement,” many Episcopalians may not fully understand the call to evangelism underlying that term, Logue said. The Evangelism Charter, then, is a reference point for common action.

Logue, too, stressed it is important not to construe evangelism as suggesting the Episcopal Church or Episcopalians have all the answers. Evangelism “will also change us,” he said.

The Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism submitted a resolution (A081) asking General Convention to disseminate its white paper, “A Practical Theology of Episcopal Evangelism: Face-to-Face and in Cyberspace,” included in its Blue Book report.

The report takes a deep theological dive into what it means to promote evangelism in a contemporary world where much of our communication with other people happens online.

“Our call to share the Good News does not go away when we log on to Facebook or Instagram,” the white paper says. “We have the opportunity to follow the Holy Spirit’s invitation into a joyful, surprising adventure that changes us as much as it changes the people and communities we encounter.”

Much of the document’s advice will be useful for Episcopal evangelists working on any platform, from street corners to cyberspace. Walker Adams, the task force’s chair, said social media is a valuable tool for evangelism, but a digital evangelist still needs to ground that work in a personal faith journey.

“I think it would be best if we spent some time thinking about who we are, what we believe and how we articulate that,” said Adams, a Diocese of West Missouri member now working in admissions at Sewanee: The University of the South. “If we can’t come up with sort of the basic concepts of sharing your own story and your own relationship with Jesus, it doesn’t really matter how you put it online.”

General Convention called for creation of the task force in 2015, to develop a curriculum for digital evangelism.  At the same time, Adams said, Curry’s efforts as chief evangelism officer “really brought evangelism to the forefront,” including through the hiring of the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, and Jeremy Tackett, digital evangelist. Curry’s evangelism team created something called the Evangelism Toolkit, intended to train Episcopalians at all levels in new ways of sharing their faith.

Adams’ task force submitted a second resolution (A082) asking General Convention for $100,000 to follow through with such training. One option, he said, would be to identify a digital evangelism point person in each diocese who can work with congregations and parishioners. Rather than waiting for the presiding bishop’s staff to visit every congregation, it may be more effective to train more regional trainers.

“I think evangelism isn’t something that can wait,” Adams said. “The church is wrapped up I evangelism now. The church is excited.”

Spellers told ENS in an email that she, too, is excited about where the continuing conversation about evangelism will lead at General Convention.

“Walking into this General Convention, our church now has dozens of vibrant new ministries with the coaching and support and training Convention dreamed of,” Spellers said. “We’ve seen two Evangelism Matters summits and conferences and launched a network of Episcopal Evangelists. We’ve partnered with dioceses to organize six Episcopal Revivals and trained more than a thousand evangelists in those host communities. We’ve got a comprehensive, multilingual, online set of resources called the Evangelism Toolkit and a new Evangelism Grants program.

“If ‘Episcopal Evangelism’ was an oxymoron before, those days are over.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected]

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