Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Evangelism and Inclusion

            Evangelism and Inclusiveness are complimentary values that when separated often produce a dysfunctional community.

            In recent years Episcopalians in conversations, publications, and on the internet in blogs and networks, the word “Inclusion” and its value of “a Church that is open to all people” has become dominant in our common life.  I would content has it has become one of the defining terms of our current identity.  Take the issue of “open communion,” or giving communion to non-baptized people.  Those who practice this justify it as an inclusive action. 

            At the same time, we hear less among Episcopalians about “Evangelism.”  One reason for this is that our community has never been too comfortable with the “E” word.  Despite the Decade of Evangelism and the 2020 Resolution, evangelism still does not seem to be much of an Episcopal thing.  Add to this, the defection of many Episcopalians who identify themselves as Evangelicals and we can see that the word seems, well, a bit alien for us.  As a result, the word inclusive seems to fit our temperament much better.  However, I would like to contend that inclusion and evangelism are not the same thing; that both belong as values of the Church, and that apart from one another, they can lead the Church to unhealthy and dysfunctional behavior.  In a healthy Christian community, evangelism and inclusiveness should be seen as complimentary values, the kind of values that enhance each other.

            There are many in TEC who have embraced the concept of inclusiveness and use it as a substitute for evangelism.  They argue that a truly inclusive church expresses what the early church meant by evangelism.  An inclusive church reaches out and accepts all people regardless of race, economic status, gender and, even for many, creed.  Isn’t the good news of the Gospel that God accepts and loves all people?  Yet, is inclusiveness enough to express what the church is called to do in evangelism?  Is the Great Commission, “Go therefore and be inclusive of all people?”  I would content that inclusiveness makes much more sense when it is related to the Great Commandment “to love one another” than “to make disciples.”

            Also, we should admit that for many in our church the word inclusiveness does not extend to everyone.  It is a code word related to gender inclusiveness.  An inclusive parish is one where GLTB folks are accepted and allowed to be open about there sexuality.  It is a community that champions same sex marriage, and is committed to advocate full rights for all such people in both society and the church.  This is certainly the way that Integrity uses the word.

 Further, the word inclusive can be used in another code way.  In this way, it means that we are an inclusive church that welcomes all inclusive people.  In other words, we are open and welcoming of those who see themselves as inclusive in the political, social, and intellectual landscape of America.  This seems to me to be the way our Presiding Bishop uses the term.  Not included and certainly not welcomed in such churches are people who are perceived to be non-inclusive. These two uses of the word are basically exclusionary.  However, I do not think this is what most Episcopalians want it to mean. We genuinely want to be a community that is open to all people.  “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” as our signs once said. 

            But if a church community such as ours is to be truly inclusive in the boarder sense, if we intend to be a diverse church made up of people across ethnic, racial and gender boundaries, then evangelism is central to this goal.  This is because the work of evangelism involves strategies to reach just such people.  Evangelism must be intentional, planned, and often strategic.  When the Church in Antioch decided to do the work of evangelism, this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and inclusive community prayed, set apart leaders (Paul and Barnabas who were good at reaching Gentiles) and sent them to advance the gospel among non-Jewish people.  As one Bishop has said, “Evangelism is the most anti-racist thing the church does.” 

            Let me give an example from the Cathedral Church in Dallas.  30 years ago, the Cathedral decided to reach out to the increasing number of Hispanic people who were immigrating into the Dallas area.  They set out a strategy that first involved starting a Spanish language service.  Next they hired a Hispanic missioner to give leadership to this fledgling group.  Today, over 60% of our worshipping community Sundays attend our Spanish service.  We strive hard to remind ourselves that we do not have two congregations, but are one church.  I would content our success in becoming a diverse and more inclusive church has been the direct result of evangelistic outreach. 

            Is it possible that evangelism can be a code word for “people like us?”  Of course it can.  In many larger evangelical communities in America, this is exactly what it means.  The congregations grow in numbers, but they grow by methods aimed at reaching more people from the same socio-economic class who share many of the same values before they ever arrive at their churches.  While there are outstanding counter examples of this among Evangelical churches, the stereo-type of the former exists because such churches exist.    But, as I hope the Cathedral illustrates, this does not have to be either the strategy in evangelism or its fruit.  True evangelism always makes the church more not less diverse.

            The important thing is to realize that evangelism and inclusiveness are complimentary values.  The two, existing together in creative tension, force us to evaluate our intentions and results, our methods and their consequences.  I have been an advocate for evangelism within this community for many years. I remain concerned about the decline of our denomination and its inability to do the work of evangelism effectively.  Yet, at the same time, I am also concerned about the fruit of our present behavior.  I see the word inclusive justified and used more and more in the exclusive sense, so that its meaning is becoming “people like us.”  I fear we are becoming an elitist community that looks with contempt or pity on those who are not as enlightened as we are. 

When I was a young priest, it was said of the Episcopal Church that we were the Republican Party at prayer.  More recently, it was said that we were NPR at prayer.  Now I fear we are becoming at prayer.  It is clear that we are not yet the kind of community that Christ has called us to be.  To become this, we must follow that path that leads to both evangelism and inclusiveness.