“Prepare the way for the Lord,” cries out the messenger at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, “make straight paths for him.” Anyone living during the first century within the boundaries of the Roman Empire knew quite well who made pathways straight. Caesar did. Across the empire, the government took on a massive public works project to develop a highway system that would connect the entire domain. Valleys filled, hills lowered, roads made smooth and straight. In ReInvention, Anglican priest, Mark Whittall points out the Roman highway system of the first century was how mass communication happened.[1] Early Christians took full advantage of this communication tool.

The messenger in Mark’s announcement is John the Baptist. As John quotes the prophets, it’s as if he is saying, “This Jesus story is exactly what your highway system was made for, Caesar!” Bold words for a small minority group living in an occupied territory. Yet, one has only to read the book of Acts to discover that is exactly what early Christians did. As Justo Gonzalez has put it:

“The missionary task itself was undertaken, not only by Paul and others whose names are known—Barnabas, Mark et al. —but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. Both mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message.”[2]

Since the beginning of the Jesus movement, Christians have used the best communication technology available to them to tell our evangelistic story. When Thomas Cranmer hoped to communicate the Christian faith in the common vernacular of his day (the Book of Common Prayer), he used the printing press. It would make sense for twenty-first century Christians to consider “digital evangelism.” Yet, it is not enough to simply embrace the tools available in the digital age. We must ask ourselves how might these tools “prepare the way for the Lord”?

Equity v. Scarcity

After communion is shared, many congregations regularly pray these words,

“… you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage …”

In this soul-nourishing act, everyone participates equally—all participate receive the same bread and the same cup. We are then commissioned to courageously take God’s message of peace to the world. There are those that argue that for the church to communicate this message with the world around us is costly. It requires a budget and it requires staff. I disagree. What it requires is a culture, a community that is compelled by this spirit-enriching work conducted during worship to lives out an evangelism story. Without this story, we can buy tools and pay people to do the work for us, but when the staff resigns and the money runs out, a congregation’s position in it’s neighborhood will remain unchanged. What we need more than budgets and tools are Christians bold enough to tell their stories and invite others to respond. Tools are available to us that reflect the equity of the Table; everyone has equal access. We walk out of our red doors each week as many voices sharing one dream for what the world is intended to be. If most of us have a phone, a camera, and an Internet connection, how are we commissioned to use these tools as we are sent into the world? How are we prepared to use them? I would argue that we are prepared by understanding that we are commissioned to tell a story, not spread ideas. Inviting people into community, not buildings. All the while, recognizing that the tools we have to do this work are ever-changing.

Story v. Dogma

In part one of this article, I offered my summary of what evangelism is. It is a story of redemption and healing—freedom and peace, a grand story incited by and seen most distinctly in Jesus’ story. The act of evangelism carries with it a certain set of ideas—or doctrine—but these ideas are communicated through narrative; Jesus and ours. Throughout the history of the church, through art, song and story-telling the Church has told repeatedly the transformative work of Christ upon our lives, our community and our world. Now more than ever, the tools to share the images, the melodies and tales of transformation are available to us.

Have you ever had one of those conversations with a young child that includes the endless succession of “Why?” after each of your responses? Even as adults we are much more interested in “why” then “how”. You are neighbors are much more interested in knowing the story that has brought you to your convictions, beliefs, and principles.

Will we use social media to invite those that agree with your beliefs into a building or invite all of your neighbors into a narrative?

Table v. Pulpit

This narrative I am writing about is not one the rests upon a personal relationship between me and my Savior alone. The God-in-us story is not a solitary endeavor. It is a story that is told within a particular community. In his book Evangelism after Christendom, theologian Bryan Stone points out that the ecclesia, the gathered Christian community is itself intended to be a demonstration of what God’s dream looks like.[3] Those in the neighborhoods and communities surrounding our churches ought to look at our congregations and get a glimpse of what God hopes for all creation. The liturgy of our tradition reflects this. The center point of our worship is the Table. Having been reared in other Christian traditions I can attest to the fact that the Table is not the center of all denominations. In many, it is the pulpit. This distinction is important when we consider what Episcopal evangelism looks like. Our focus is not idle attention upon one individual. Rather, ours is active participation by all, gathering around a Table, remembering Jesus’ story and how it has invaded our own lives—bringing reconciliation and healing, freedom and peace.

Do the tools available to us reflect a people shaped by the table or the pulpit? Do they create fans or a community?

Change v. Stability

The Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas is fond of pointing out that the buildings in which the early churches of first century met are mostly gone but the message has not disappeared with the tools used to promote that message. The good news of Jesus Christ has sustained even if methods of communicating this news have changed over the two millennia of the Church. Similarly, the digital tools made available to us through the Internet are changing fast. A congregation might prioritize starting a Facebook page to connect with a “younger generation.” Yet, there are now more grandmothers on Facebook than teenagers. The popular tools today will be gone tomorrow. N. T. Wright has written, “[This is] the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation. This is how we are to be the church, for the world.”[4] If we are to capitalize on these tools for the proclamation of the gospel, we must hold fast to our narrative and hold lightly to the tools we embrace, recognizing that tomorrow they may be obsolete.

What do we hold fast to? The message or the tools used for communicating that message?

Evangelism v. Marketing

Reflecting further on the words recited week after week at the ending our worship, it is important to recall that these words imply that we enter a world not yet fully healed as God longs for—as we long for. As describe in the first part of this article, the telling of the evangelism story presumes that there is always a hearer; someone not yet participating in God’s dream for the world. If we are telling the evangelism story to those that have already heard the story it isn’t evangelism, it’s marketing. Marketing isn’t in and of itself bad. I happen to think our “brand” of Christianity is better than many others but telling the story in such a way isn’t evangelism. Nonetheless, the act of evangelism compels us to seek out those that have not, possibly will not, participate in what is popularly understood as western Christianity. Could it be that one of the reasons why the Church in the west experienced such decline is because we have perfected using insider jargon that only appeals to those familiar with it. In so doing, we have become little more than a brand name … I switch toothpaste brands all the time! One of the profoundly unique aspects of the early church, as theologian Larry Hurtado has demonstrated, was that these Christians authentically believed their one, true God crossed boundaries—the God in Christ was not a god for one tribe or people group but for all people.[5] This conviction stretched the early Christians, just as it did Peter in his vision of animals[6] and it shaped how the communicated with the other, just as Paul did on Mars Hill.[7] The early Christian story was not told to soothe its hearers. Rather, it was told to perplex and spark curiosity to those hearing its message.

Does our message soothe the convinced or perplex the curious?

Invitation v. Invitation

Most Episcopalians were elated to watch the publicity our Presiding Bishop has received in and following the royal wedding. Many appear to be clinging to this meme with a hope that there will be some sort of residual effect on church attendance due to all his publicity. Bishop Curry gained notoriety years before his installation when he declared, “We need some crazy Christians!”[8] Re-sharing our Bishop’s social media posts will not save us. Living out our faith as he does just might.

There is nothing wrong with inviting someone to church but it isn’t evangelism in and of itself. What’s missing is you. What is winsome and inviting about our Presiding Bishop’s public presence is his lived story. Just as his story in Christ matters, so does yours. The fact that a reconciling, healing God has been active in your life is good news that others long to hear. Before inviting someone to church consider why you are a part of a faith community. What in your life has been changed by participating in a community that is weekly reminded of how Jesus’ story has changed our stories? Tell those stories and then invite the listener, the hearer to join the Story.

[1] Mark Whittal, ReInvention (Kelowna: Wood Lake Publishing, 2015), 101.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity vol. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 25, 27.

[3] Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 175-221.

[4] N.T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” Vox Evangelica, 21 (1991): 7–32.

[5] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016).

[6] Acts 10:9-16

[7] Acts 17:22-31

[8] Michael B. Curry, Crazy Christians (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2013).

Posted by Eileen O'Brien