By Charles Hoffacker
Jerusalem Greer, staff officer for evangelism of the Episcopal Church, is an advocate of pie theology.
At a recent conference she spoke of how people visiting you at home will rarely ask for a slice of the pie you just baked, but will often accept one if you offer it. In the same way, evangelism involves invitation. “Taste and see.” The Baptismal Covenant supplies many of the ingredients that comprise “the Jesus pie.” For example, would you like to have bottomless forgiveness? Don’t decide for others whether they want pie; ask them.
Greer led her audience in small-group engagement involving personal memories of a moment in your life you often share with others: a truly memorable meal, an invitation that affected your life, and when story becomes testimony.
She emphasized that stories are essential to evangelism, not only the Jesus story, but how it connects to our stories and the stories of all other human beings. We don’t have to have all the answers (and we don’t). People want something else: relationship, community, a story that includes them, all creation, and God’s love.
Greer’s presentation was a highlight of Unlocking God’s Grace and Hope: An Episcopal Conference on Evangelism held September 24-26 at St. Mary’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Vermont. Leaders from across the Episcopal Church provided other valuable takeaways:
- Participants were reminded of the Episcopal Church’s understanding of evangelism: “Evangelism is a spiritual practice of seeking, naming and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in the lives of others — and then inviting them to more.”
- Evangelism is a spiritual practice, not a way to fill pews and increase giving. It is not a marketing plan, but belongs to our Baptismal Covenant.
- One size does not fit all. Evangelism takes a unique form in every church community.
- Episcopalians have a strong history of evangelism, but have become out of practice in the past half-century. We are taking up this central practice anew, and in many places it is bearing fruit.
- Our efforts will not always succeed. We must grant ourselves freedom to fail, and freedom to learn from our failures and try again. No one becomes a concert pianist overnight. The classic virtue of humility can be repackaged as willingness to be embarrassed. One thing is certain: if we are not risking in the area of evangelism, then we are just religious consumers.
- Episcopal churches find themselves in places where loneliness is a massive problem that is on the rise. Generation Z (ages 18-22) is said to be the loneliest generation. The church exists to eradicate loneliness, to gently offer the alternative of community with God and other people. The Jesus story is full of instances when he invites people into communities where they can flourish rather than fade. John Henry Newman titled one of his sermons “The Church, a Home for the Lonely.”
- Welcome — as in “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” — is essential but not sufficient. We cannot wait until people discover us in our lovely liturgical spaces — if they ever do. We must go forth and meet other people where they are, both geographically and in the circumstances of their lives.
- Yes, evangelism includes action. But words are essential also. The Rev. Canon Titus Presler observed that “Episcopalians glory in deluge of eloquence in liturgy, so on what basis are we wordy within church walls but silent beyond them?”
- We can locate and use music from a wide variety of sources that will speak to spiritual yearnings. Faith messages can be discovered in the music that fills the hearts of people waiting to connect their story with the story of Jesus.
- Ministry with youth and young adults can flourish when clergy and other leaders let go of control so that the rising generation can minister among themselves and beyond. As the Rev. Paul Carling reported, the current fruitfulness of the Episcopal Church at Yale is an example of this, even though Yale is a strongly secular place.
Episcopalians from several states gathered virtually and in person for this event.
About half the participants came in person and half attended through Zoom. About 75 percent were laity, 25 percent clergy. Most were from New England. Sponsors of the event included the host parish, the Diocese of Vermont, and the H. Boone Porter and Violet M. Porter Charitable Foundation. (The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990.)
It’s time for Episcopalians to hold conferences like this across the country.
The Episcopal Church’s Evangelism Office offers many online resources and can help linkages with people ready to support evangelism ministries in a wide variety of circumstances.
None of the three partners responsible for Unlocking God’s Grace and Hope — a parish, a diocese, and a foundation — is heavily resourced. Yet these three partners came together and brought in a variety of presenters. Together they offered a needed event that testified to God’s grace and hope at work now and in days to come, not in perfect places, but in the troubled locations where all of us find ourselves. Other impromptu coalitions can do this also, each in its own way.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.