Thursday, July 9, 2015

Evangelism and the Episcopal Church

I will be writing in my next few blogs on the topic of Evangelism.  When I served on the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Dallas, I would ask those in the ordination process an important question related to evangelism.  First I would tell them that the question that I was about to ask was not a pass or fail one, but rather that I genuinely wanted to know their response.  Here is the question:
“As you know from your theological studies, there are several ways in which the Doctrine of the Atonement has been expressed.  Which one of these best expresses your own personal understanding?”
The reason I asked the question was because I believe there is a direct relationship between what an ordained person believes about the Atonement and how they would do the work of Evangelism.  Almost all the candidates gave a similar answer.  They would say that they believed that Jesus had on the cross paid the price for their sins and that they believed they were forgiven and saved by his death and resurrection.  This, of course, is a standard answer based on The Substitutionary Doctrine of the Atonement.  Now even though we were a conservative diocese, we had folks who had studied at a number of different seminaries.  A number of candidates went to Southwest Theological Seminary which is generally on the Progressive side of the theological spectrum, yet even these candidates gave similar answers.
One would have expect at least some of them to suggest that Jesus’ act of self-sacrificial love that he modeled on the cross showed us God’s love and that we who follow him are to live out a life of love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice for others particularly for the hurting, lost, and marginalized in our world.  This would be more consistent with a Progressive Theological view point.  I never heard it.  One very high church candidate who had gone to Nashotah said that he knew that he was a sinner and that Jesus’ death paid the price of his blood for his sins.  Most any American Evangelical would say the same.
With this the standard answers, one could expect that such people would be active advocates of people repenting of their sins, accepting Jesus’ death, and his blood as a covering for them.  Then they might ask others to make such a profession by repeating, say, “the sinner’s prayer” which is a standard tool among Substitutionary Atonement Evangelicals.  In my time, no rash of evangelical altar calls or invitations were taking place in the diocese, and neither were more Progressive calls for people to follow after the example of Jesus’ love; “his way, truth, and life” as a Christian.
What I found was a disconnect between what our clergy were professing and any behavior that would follow logically from such professions.  Indeed, I would observe around the wider church where Progressive Theology dominates, that there is no active recruiting of new Christians based on this view.  Episcopal Clergy on the Progressive side seem content to find those who wish an inclusive and non-judgmental denomination to join their churches.  If you notice, not very many are doing this, in fact, even less each year. 
There are clergy in our church of differing theological perspectives that are genuinely interested in the growth of their congregations especially with newer and younger members.  Some will even buy my books on congregational development seeking to be user-friendly and seeker sensitive.  However, they do not seem interested in actual evangelization.
Some clergy have told me that they are not interested in numbers and some rather strongly that they do not want to proselytize other people.  These folks seem to have moved so far out into the Universalist arena that they see no value in bringing others to Christ and the Church.  Personally, I believe that such people should be denied a pension, but perhaps I am too judgmental.
At the heart of all this is what I see as four dynamics that hinder our effectiveness in evangelism even when clergy think there is really something in this Atonement business that speaks to us personally.  Why?
1.      Episcopal clergy see ourselves as generous and accepting people who through our willingness want to show others Christ’s love and acceptance so that they will eventually come around to a Christian point of view. 

2.      There is a detachment between our liturgical and parish life from the acts and opportunities for evangelism.  For example, what better Sunday for an altar call or public decision than on Palm Sunday?  Yet clergy believe that having people observe the liturgy is enough.  “They will get it,” we rationalize.   

3.      In addition, many clergy would never interrupt the beauty of the service and its liturgical acts and symbols with such an action.  In summary, many clergy were taught and believe that participation in the Church’s liturgy will bring folks into a decided and deeper relationship with Christ.  They fail to hear the prophetic warning, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me!” 

4.      There is a lack of willingness of our clergy to create opportunities for evangelism.  Even at the end of confirmation instruction, few clergy actually ask people if they are ready to make a commitment or a more intentional commitment to follow after Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Many people believe that a confirmation they are merely joining the Church. 
Before I go on, let me remind my reader of the Episcopal definition of evangelism.  “To present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that people are led to believe in him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of his Church.”Ironically we fail to do such a presentation even though we ourselves admit to an experience, or event, or moment when we led to do so!
For six years, I was Rector of an Episcopal Church that had a weekly evangelistic service.  I led and have seen hundreds of individuals make a conscious and prayerful decision to accept Jesus as Savior and to follow him in the power of the Holy Spirit as Lord.  I am not bragging at this point, but stating a fact.  I would be the first to admit that I had never done such a thing regularly in a parish before I became the Rector of that Church.  What I want to say is this.  I learned to do it.  And I want to suggest the following to my fellow clergy and lay leaders who are interested.  I learned the following:
1.       Never assume that you know where a person is in her or his relationship with Christ until you hear it from them.  And NO ONE has a greater right or opportunity to inquire about a member’s spiritual life and relationship to Christ than the Rector. 

2.      There are many church members who love the Church, its liturgy, its parish life, its Anglican style, but who are not disciples of Jesus Christ.  I have had so called “life-long members” of the Episcopal Church say to me that they see no reason for them to ever have to make a decision to follow Christ: note that we teach that Confirmation is an adult affirmation of our Baptismal Vows to do just such a thing.   

3.      In our subtle way of presenting the Gospel, we fail to understand the importance of a conscious moment of commitment.  As a lay evangelist once told me, clergy in our church seem reluctant to “close the deal.”   

Here is what I think is both a pastoral and spiritually valid way of closing the deal.  “Have you come to a place where you are comfortable accepting Jesus as Savior and following him as Lord?  If not, why not?”
Notice that “No” is an acceptable answer to the question, and that a no answer allows up to speak to any objections the person may have.  What I find is that there is a real spiritual value in a person honestly admitting (even if a Church member) that he or she is not yet at a place where that person is comfortable with this.  I have had many people come back to me at a later time and say that NOW they are now ready to do it.   
I did not write this blog to make anyone feel bad especially my fellow clergy.  I had to learn how to do evangelism.  What I am suggesting is that clergy need to connect our view of the Atonement with a practical way of applying this.  This is the work of evangelization.  If you want to discuss this with me more directly, feel free to email me at  I would be happy to reply.
In my next blog, I want to suggest a fuller understanding of the Doctrine of the Atonement and how I apply this to our increasingly more secular world. 


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