In Search of Growth
By Kirk Petersen
A business that wants to grow can follow a number of different paths: innovation, brand extension, marketing, and strategic partnerships. For a church or denomination, however, the primary driver of growth can be summed up in one word: evangelism.
Evangelism is a word not often associated with the Episcopal Church, but Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is trying to change that. More than 400 Episcopalians and Anglicans attended an Evangelism Matters conference in Dallas in November 2016. The church is following up in 2017-18 with a series of Episcopal revivals in the dioceses of Georgia, Honduras, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, and West Missouri.
As part of our series on growth in the church, TLC interviewed Mary Parmer, a congregational development coach from Texas who created an evangelism program called Invite Welcome Connect. Parmer was a panelist at Evangelism Matters, and has led workshops in more than 40 dioceses.
“Invite Welcome Connect is something we as Episcopalians can do,” Bishop Curry has said. “It’s a way of evangelism that meets with who we are, that doesn’t have us trying to be somebody who we aren’t.”
The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up Southern Baptist, then became an Episcopalian.
My story is the primary reason that I’m so passionate about evangelism. I want to help other Episcopalians be able to reach out and invite someone to church, and be able to share their faith story.
So that’s something you think the Southern Baptists are better at doing than Episcopalians?
Not necessarily. We grew up learning Scripture, really deeply learning Scripture. I think they’re sort of known for that.
I was at a place where the Holy Spirit was moving in my life, I had a calling to ministry. It was a strong sense of calling, and I knew, deep in my soul, that it wasn’t going to be in the Baptist church, for various reasons. That was going on inside of me before I ever got the phone call [from an acquaintance] inviting me to an Episcopal church. That’s the powerful witness for me, this woman picked up the phone and called me. It was just an innocent invitation.
When I started working on Invite Welcome Connect, there was some skepticism that it would be accepted around the country. But I deliberately created it to fit any size congregation and any culture in any context. It has been accepted because of its one core value: it’s relational. Evangelism is first and foremost about a relationship that we have with Jesus, with God. It’s about not only inviting people into a relationship with you and your congregation, but into a relationship with God.
The New Testament urges believers to speak the gospel clearly, fearlessly, graciously, and respectfully, whenever an opportunity presents itself. That’s kind of the core, right there. My passion is to help Episcopalians be able to do that.
Invite Welcome Connect really stresses finding safe places where people can share their stories. Churches are full of those sorts of stories; horrible ones, where they’ve experienced God’s frozen chosen, but they’re also full of those stories where someone did reach out. It’s those stories that are really powerful for us to hear.
In the last five decades or so, the Southern Baptist church has grown hugely, while the Episcopal Church has been in decline in terms of membership. Is there anything that they’re doing that we’re not doing?
The gift for the Southern Baptists is that they grow up, in their Sunday school classes, being able to freely talk about their faith and about Scripture, but it wasn’t in a proselytizing way. I believe that in the Episcopal Church now, we’ve got to give people the meat of the gospel. I think it’s critical that we give Episcopalians a chance to deepen their faith and to deepen their walk with the Lord, and to study Scripture.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist home, where we would have devotionals and we would pray. I went through a very rebellious time because my father was so rigid that I was turned off. The preacher was a hellfire and damnation preacher, and he would preach for 45 minutes, pounding the pulpit, and I would tune him out, because I didn’t want to hear about that every single Sunday. My father wouldn’t let us go to dances, I didn’t go to the prom. I was very angry by the time I got to college.
I think as a Southern Baptist you learn early how to talk about faith, and how to talk about your journey with Jesus, how to talk about Scripture. I think that is the difference. In the Episcopal Church, like Bishop Curry has said, Episcopalians are gentle folk. We’re shy, we’re polite, we’re more introverted. With Invite Welcome Connect, I am trying to help Episcopalians be able to do what Southern Baptists grow up doing: being able to quote the Scripture, and share their faith story, and to share their heart with people.
I’ve never been to a Southern Baptist service, but Bishop Curry fits my picture of a Southern Baptist preacher, in terms of the energy and the colloquialism. Would you agree?
The Baptist preacher I was talking about, he talked about hell a lot, and not so much about love. It wasn’t about compassion and forgiveness, it was more about staying away from hell, and all the dos and don’ts. That’s the huge difference when you hear Bishop Curry preach.
When a church or a diocese asks you to do some work for them, what are they trying to accomplish, generally?
I think the whole Episcopal Church is concerned about decline and growth, so they’re looking to change the culture to a culture where we can be open to sharing our faith, and open to the ministry of hospitality.
One clergy person told me, “You’re all about numbers,” but I’m not. I don’t even talk about that. There are churches that are growing, using my materials. It’s a game-changer, when you really embrace this. Evangelism is an ethos. Complacency is our prevailing sin in the Episcopal Church.
Is growth even an appropriate goal for a Christian church?
There has to be spiritual growth before there is numerical growth: when we as Episcopalians can learn to share our faith story with others; when we step out with courage simply to invite someone to church. If we’re able to share our story, but we’re not able to listen to someone else’s story, we’re defeating our purpose. It’s listening to other people’s stories. I believe that changing the culture in our church means changing our spiritual insides. I think once we do that, we will see growth.
I believe the Episcopal Church is the best-kept secret. It’s a home for many wounded people from other traditions, for those people who feel rejected and scorned in other denominations. We have a great opportunity in the Episcopal Church, with the leadership that we have. It’s a matter of us being willing to step out of our comfort zones to embrace what Bishop Curry’s trying to get across to all of us. He says, “Evangelism is not what other people say it is. Evangelism is sharing the faith that is in you, and listening and learning from the faith that’s in someone else.”