Reconciling Evangelism

Carrie Boren Headington, left, and Stephanie Spellers presented together during a session at Evangelism Matters. • Richard Hill photo

By Matthew Martin Nickoloff

The Lausanne Covenant, largely written by the late Anglican evangelist John Stott, states that “evangelism requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” During the Evangelism Matters conference in Dallas on Nov. 18-19, Episcopalians discussed their part in that task.

More than 400 conference participants and 75 volunteers converged on the Church of the Transfiguration to respond to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to create space for evangelism. Since his election, Curry has sometimes described himself as Chief Evangelism Officer of the Episcopal Church. The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers said that Evangelism Matters is meant to “inspire, equip, and send evangelists” and to “create life-giving, loving, liberating relationships with God, with each other, and with the whole world.”

Throughout the conference, speakers urged Episcopalians to embrace evangelism — jokingly referred to as “the E word” — claiming it was not new to the Anglican tradition. Recalling the Vatican’s lending of the crozier of St. Gregory the Great to the Anglican Communion’s Primates’ Meeting in January, Curry reminded the gathering that the pontiff sent evangelists like St. Augustine of Canterbury “not to have tea with the queen … but to tell of the love of Christ.” The only reason Episcopalians exist, he said, “was because someone was doing evangelism.”

The Whole Church

The fresh fruits of those ancient evangelistic roots showed in participants’ diversity. In addition to clergy and laity from across the country, the gathering included missionaries from Hawaii, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. Many spoke Spanish regularly in keynote sessions and worship.

“I’ve gone to so many conferences where I’m one of very few people of color in the room,” the Rev. Marcus Halley, a panelist from the Diocese of Western Missouri, told TLC. “Here, we have so many voices, people not even from the U.S. In a world spinning to the edges, we have a message that can unite and bring us back to each other.”

For Halley, this diversity included the spectrum of theological perspectives. “Speaking as a queer person, I’ve seen a tendency on all sides to label and dismiss,” he said. “One thing I’m hearing here is that we have to enter into deep relationships and hear the real concerns and hear God even in what is really hard to hear, including those voices we’ve taken for granted and don’t really want to hear. We’re better in this together.”

Participants heard how evangelism provides an opportunity for those often considered marginalized to find a voice of leadership in the church. “Since evangelism itself has for a long time been marginalized, the folks who have traditionally embraced it and feel comfortable with it are those who are willing to take risks, who know they can’t just sit, know that there’s something at stake,” Spellers said. “That urgency propels a lot of us.”

Spellers, a conference organizer and canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, spoke to the inextricability of these two tasks. She lamented progressives’ willingness in the last decade to dismiss other Christians.

“Here we are without a lot of folks who had [evangelism] as their bread and butter. If we had said, ‘We love you and we need you because Jesus is asking us to do something we don’t know how to do in the liberal mainline tradition, but you do,’” Spellers told TLC. “I wish we’d said that sooner.”

Efforts to reconcile these various perspectives were not lost on the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, who attended Evangelism Matters at Curry’s invitation.

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the sort of stories and experiences I have been hearing,” he said. “The general impression in the greater communion is that the Episcopal Church does nothing but discuss human sexuality, moving from one crisis to another. And I feel it is my responsibility as secretary general to share the good practice I find in the various parts of the communion.

“This is good practice. I think Africans need to hear this, Asians need to hear this, the English also need to hear this. I mean, 400-plus Episcopalians coming together to rub minds, to actually look at the content of what the gospel is,” Idowu-Fearon said. “It is great news, and I think people should hear.”

In an address to the gathering, he echoed another theme: that evangelism is the work of the whole Church. “This is the Jesus movement, not the Michael Curry movement,” he said, “and to make sure this outlives Michael Curry, we must plead with our bishops to become chief evangelism officers of their dioceses, priests of their parishes, and each member of their own families.”

The Rev. Eric McIntosh, a priest and church planter from Pittsburgh, was eager to accept the challenge. “What’s happening is, we have permission now,” he said. “We have it at the top, we have it at the bottom, and now it’s meeting in the middle. What’s happening is that now there’s this wave, and I’m getting excited.”

The Whole World

While differences remain, participants seemed united around the belief that the world needs what the Church has to offer, particularly in light of the deep divisions exposed by the presidential election. During the opening plenary conversation, congregational development consultant Mary Parmer expressed her hope that “we as Episcopalians can be a light — one of the least judgmental lights — in a broken world, if we can just learn to tell our stories.”

Halley agreed with her, adding: “The challenge and the opportunity are one and the same: the need to speak and act above all of the noise that we see all around us.

“So much of what passes for Christianity in our world is sort of lazy theological Pablum. We have to have a narrative that is able to speak above the noise, point us to a greater reality. If we can raise ourselves and our voices into that space, I think we will meet the Holy Spirit there.”

The Rev. Scott Gunn, conference co-organizer and executive director of Forward Movement, spoke to the discipleship the church can offer above such noise. “Too often in the Episcopal Church, our social teaching can appear to sound like the Democratic Party at prayer. But that can’t be what this is about. This is not a partisan thing. It is to ask, as disciples, what justice looks like,” he said. “And then we can say together, ‘In the name of Jesus I reject racism; in the name of Jesus, I reject sexism and xenophobia.’ Because the gospel is inherently liberating. If you follow it to its greatest conclusion, terrorists, Donald Trump, and Hillary [Clinton] are all made in God’s image. That’s not partisan. God in Jesus offers us hope that we just don’t get anywhere else.”

Speakers repeatedly stressed deep sharing and listening to one another’s stories as the primary tools of evangelism.

Asked about the role of evangelism in the charged aftermath of the elections, Bishop Curry turned to his roots in Buffalo. There, he said, steel mills and industry once reigned but are now gone and “it ain’t coming back.”

Racism may drive some groups, but the election was about more, he said. “There’s a deep-seated frustration and fear for the future.”

Curry said it may be “corny” to talk about sharing stories but that it is a part of the work of evangelizing. “The longer-term solutions are relational,” he said. “Like James Baldwin said in Nobody Knows My Name, as long as we don’t know each other’s name there will always be space for animosity. And the long-term goal of evangelism is really you being able to share your journey with me, and me with you.

“Racial reconciliation only really happens when I can share my life with you and you with me, and we can both find our way home.”

Whose Gospel?

Participants told TLC that much work remains to be done, particularly in ensuring that it is the whole gospel being brought by the whole Church to the whole world. The Rt. Rev. George Sumner, Bishop of Dallas, reminded participants that the original context of the word evangelism had to do with announcing a very particular message. “All evangelism,” he said, “must come back to the taproot, which is King Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, in whose wake you and I are walking.”

Evangelists need to understand the particularity of the Christian gospel. “In a world of diversity,” said the Rev. Robert Hendrickson of Arizona, “we have to have some faculty to say what is unique about us and the distinctive, decisive nature of Christian encounter with the cross.”

Carrie Boren Headington, missioner for evangelism in the Diocese of Dallas and co-organizer of the conference, agreed. “I think this has been an amazing conference, a phenomenal launch pad,” she told TLC. “Up until now, what we’ve needed more than methods is motivation. Here, the love of Jesus, the joy of Jesus, the joy of proclamation, the call to be ambassadors, has been emphasized, and for this first conference, that’s what we needed more than anything, to light the fire. And it’s lit.”

“But the next step is in the equipping,” she said. “We need to think through together what is the good news we are actually proclaiming, because what has emerged from this conference is that while there are lots of ways into sharing that good news, there is a central core — and that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In a room with many different understandings of that, we need to get clearer on soteriology, eschatology, and what the cross and resurrection actually mean. Above all, it is about the love of Jesus, but we need to get specific about the nuances of that love so people can articulate it.”

The encounter of diverse theological perspectives seemed to challenge and inspire new engagements along these lines. During a familiar homiletic set-piece on the Christian message of love, Curry, preaching at the opening Eucharist, added a striking theological twist by reminding listeners that baptism is an immersion in the life of Jesus. This, he said, is “really immersion in the fullness of the life of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” With a playful glance toward Bishop Sumner, listening from his seat a few feet away, he said: “And according to St. Augustine of Hippo — no flaming liberal, to be sure — the internal life of the Trinity is the life of love, cohering and giving itself life and pouring out and giving life to the world.”

Many speakers discussed the need for continued accountability and practice in becoming an evangelizing church. “We’ve hinted at it, but discipleship and evangelism are inseparable,” Gunn said. “Evangelism is simply a part of the practice of discipleship, and I hope we continue to focus on the importance of the latter. You can’t give what you don’t have. And if I don’t know Jesus deeply, it’s hard for me to share him with others.”

Spellers agreed. Regarding reconciling evangelism and doctrine, she emphasized the importance of becoming immersed not just in our story but in the story of Scripture. “You can’t make this stuff up, and you should not make this stuff up,” she told TLC. “If we are rooted in Scripture, learning and looking for the signs of Jesus we see in Scripture, then we’ll be able to find and bring real healing.”

The urge to feel good should not obscure the true nature of the cross — “real healing, real loving, life-giving, liberating relationships,” Spellers said. “Reconciling all this together is going to take hard work. But I’m not afraid of that hard work of discernment, and I don’t think any of us needs to be either.”

The message of Evangelism Matters was that despite this remaining work, evangelism indeed matters and is possible. Like Augustine of Canterbury and the countless Canterbury pilgrims who followed, and in the words of the Lausanne Covenant, evangelism is enlivened by the whole Church sharing stories and hopes and is compelled by the love of Christ, helping each other and the world find the way home.

“This is nothing new,” Spellers said. “And yet it’s a new day in the Episcopal Church.”

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