At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ begins with a messenger. In the verses that follow we learn more about this messenger, John the Baptist. Throughout his ministry, Jesus would be confused for John the Baptist. Even since the early days of the Jesus movement, followers have confused the Message and the messenger.

There is a lot of talk about evangelism in the Episcopal church now, but I have questions. What is evangelism? How does one do evangelism?

When I ask people these questions, I tend to hear the following: Evangelism is inviting people to church. Evangelism is done through marketing … it might also be done by starting a Facebook page.

I would argue that these answers betray a confusion between the Message and the messenger.

If inviting people to church, direct mail, or Facebook pages have anything to do with evangelism, we must first get clear about what evangelism is. In doing so, we might be able to make good use of such actions and tools.

The word “evangelism” shares linguistic origins with the word, “gospel” which means “good news.” The text book definition for “evangelism” is the announcement of good news. What, then, is this good news? In some Christian circles, “the gospel” is framed as a set of doctrines, but as Vincent J. Donovan wrote, “The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.”[1] In other words, the good news we are announcing is a story. Specifically, it is the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It may then be more appropriate to say that evangelism is telling the story in which Christ is at the center. As Eucharistic Prayer C beautifully summarizes:

Again and again, you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds, we are healed.
(BCP, p. 370)

This story that God is telling, then, does not look only to the past. Verna J. Dozier reminded us that Jesus’ story is the story by which God’s dream for the world is made known, and it is a story still unfolding.[2] The reconciliation and the healing we experience in Christ demonstrates that the Spirit of God is still at work in the world. As Samuel Wells has written, the words “God is with us” poignantly demonstrate the heart of the gospel; we are not alone, our Maker has not abandoned us[3]—through the work of Jesus, God’s dream of reconciliation and healing, freedom and peace continues to progress.

Like John the Baptist, we are invited to participate in the announcement of this good news of God’s dream. Yet, we cannot tell a story we do not know or have not experienced. Evangelism is not only telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth; it’s telling the story of Jesus at work in our world. This aspect of evangelism challenges Episcopalians. Either we’re not sure where Jesus has been at work in our lives or telling that story requires more vulnerability than we can bear. It’d be easier if we could just invite people to church next Sunday—not that we’re all too good at that either.

To understand how God’s good news impacts our own lives, it might be helpful to consider what Walter Brueggemann has written about evangelism. Brueggemann says that God’s story—whether in Scripture, Jesus’ narrative, or experienced today—has three “scenes.”[4] The first scene is one of struggle. Whether emotional, physical or existential, each of us has experienced moments in our lives where our trajectory was in direct conflict with God’s dream. In the second scene, the story of this struggle and how one is reconciled to God is told. In the third scene, the one hearing this story is invited to respond. Three scenes. Three actors: God, you and the other. That is to say, in order to participate in the work of evangelism, we have to first reflect on how God has been at work in our lives, reconciling us, healing us. The second important aspect for Brueggemann is that evangelism does not happen unless there is a “hearer.” Someone that we are telling the stories of God-in-us to. The telling of the evangelism story is never complete unless there is an outsider, someone who is invited to participate in God’s dream.

Faithful Episcopalians will likely have very little opposition to this line of thinking about evangelism. It strikes at the center of what we re-affirm every week. Yet, I recognize that this does not make that act of evangelism easy. Understood this way, sharing the story of God-in-us puts us in a vulnerable position. While other traditions may have demonstrated evangelism as doctrinal coercion, this understanding of evangelism assumes a relationship between the announcer and hearer. The interplay between she who announces God’s good news and he who hears this announcement cannot be overstated. We who tell the story of God need to be in relationship with the other for us to continually reaffirm our stories of salvation. We cannot participate faithfully in the work of evangelism without fully involving our own lives.

Understanding the cosmic nature of what Jesus was coming to do, John the Baptist went to extreme lengths to prepare hearts and share the good news using whatever methods he had available to him. In part two of this article, I’ll examine the tools for evangelism you and I have available to us these days.

A word of warning: the future of the Church will not rest on how much cash we can divert into buying up these tools for evangelism.  The future of the Church depends on baptized Christians being fully immersed in the story of Jesus working through the Spirit in the world today and using their God-given capacity for relationship to tell that story through word and deed.

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003), 24.

[2] Verna J. Dozier, The Dream of God (New York: Seabury Books, 2006), 2.

[3] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 7-9.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 16-19.

Posted by Eileen O'Brien