Personal Evangelism

By David Baumann

Bring-a-Friend Sunday is coming up. Many times, people here make comments about needing new members. I have some observations on this topic that I think we need to pay attention to if we’re serious about it. This is not about making our parish larger, keeping its doors open, or finding new pledgers. It’s not about us very much. The text for today’s sermon is only three words, the first three words of the epistle: “Remember Jesus Christ.”

These observations come after two and a half years here; from years of experience, including with a lot of young people; talking to other pastors in the Ministerial Alliance and observing how they work; and what our communities are like.

Our culture is different today from what it was when most of us were young. Mainline churches, the Episcopal Church especially, are in decline. Christianity is burgeoning incredibly in the Third World, especially Africa, but not in rich Western nations like ours. Christianity and churchgoing are no longer customary. In the history of the Church and Israel before, there were times of abundance and health, and times of decline and even destruction. It’s all part of God’s plan, according to the fidelity or disobedience of the people. Whenever there is decline, it prepares the field for future harvest, for only Jesus can satisfy. We are to be obedient to God regardless of what we think the results will be.

People rarely visit a church on their own. If they do, it’s because they are usually either needy or are called to share a gift, or both. To some degree, it’s because they are interested in Jesus, not a gathering of people who do social things together; if they want that, there are plenty of other places they can go that will do it better than we ever can. “Remember Jesus Christ.”

When they do come, they’d better find Jesus, or they won’t stay. A visitor may be a single mother with a toddler, someone in great financial or emotional or spiritual need, a need to find a caring community where they can be wanted and valued. A visitor may have been badly treated by a church and want to find a nostalgic connection with past memory and be healed.

When they do come, they bring a need to be met, and provide an opportunity for our parish to see ministry in a new way, or a gift to be exercised. Whatever their reason, there is a reason they’re coming. And they will likely only come once, unless that need is at least begun to be met.

Their visit is not about our parish — it is about them. If they stay, their presence will require us to change, expand, or share ministries that are already in place. Very rarely will a new person come who will simply fit in to what is already in place without changing anything. If our parish is not willing to change, expand, or share its existing ministries, potential new members will feel unwanted and will leave.

Visitors who come on their own will be rare. Mostly, they have to be invited. That means invited by you. There is immense need, and we need to be prepared to meet it. Hunger, hopelessness, child abuse, drug use are right here. These are the people who most need what we have to offer. Though anyone is welcome, our thoughts should not be on Roman Catholics who’ve been divorced or on lapsed Episcopalians. “Remember Jesus Christ.”

The most important age for conversion and creating lifelong commitment is 4-14. That means families with young children. They are, first, looking for something for their kids. They will stay at a church if the only thing they like about it is that their kids like Sunday school. Letting them know that children are an important, included, and considered part of church life will go a long way.

The model of children being taken out of church so parents can worship without distraction, didn’t work, and is not what most families today want. It didn’t work because having children and their teachers out of part of the Eucharist means they miss what they’re not attending; in particular, teachers miss the sermon.

Eventually that pattern leads to children being uninterested in church when they turn to confirmation age, and not staying. Welcoming children for the whole Eucharist keeps families together in a society that nearly always separates people by age; a sermon crafted with a part-child audience in mind is often helpful to the adult audience (just as children’s sermons are really for adults).

Liturgy is the “work of the whole people” — including the little ones, who will catch onto the repeated parts (the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer) sooner than we think, even if the sermon goes over their heads. We need to find ways to include children in the worship of the whole — through children’s sermons, and having kids serve as acolytes, and so forth. There are many possibilities. Infants in the back so parents can care for them, and children in the front where they can see.

Families with babies and toddlers just want their lives to be easier. It’s hard to bring little humans to church, so we need to make it easy for them. Babies may need a place to nurse. They need a place to go when they get too loud to stay in church, and a place to have their diaper changed, even if that’s just a clean floor. Don’t assume they want a nursery: most young families I’ve known for a number of years now prefer to keep their babies with them in church. A place for these little ones at coffee hour is also a good idea, and providing a few toys is nice. But the toys must be clean and safe, and standards today are different from what most of us are used to, and most mothers of infants know that.

Young single people want to be involved. They are idealists and they’re full of energy. The sooner they are involved in ministry, the happier they’re going to be. What they don’t want is older people who treat them as if they are their parents. If they show up at a church where everything is done by people their parents’ age and they feel there’s no place for them, they’ll leave.

More important, if they’re talked to by people their parents’ age as if they don’t know anything or have nothing to contribute, they’ll leave. They are adults; treat them like adults. These are the people who won’t go to an “old people’s church.” That means making room for them in leadership and ministerial positions.

If we expect them just to do what we’ve always done and discount them because they’re young and exclude them if they threaten “the way we’ve always done things,” then we won’t see them again, and this parish will stay as it, growing older and smaller. It’s not about our parish staying the same, or even about our parish surviving. “Remember Jesus Christ.”

Older children and teenagers can handle a lot more than we tend to give them credit for. As soon as we try to come down to their level or make things “relevant,” they feel patronized. Give them more than you think they can handle; it’s better to be a little over their heads, as a challenge, than to make them feel patronized or treated like children.

And they’ll only give you one chance before they tune out. If they’re treated as children, they will respond like children, and spend time in church coloring instead of participating at the level they could. Speaking of recognizing that children are full members, keep in mind that very often the best evangelists are teenagers; if they like their experience here, they will have no hesitation in inviting their friends to join them.

Realize that we Episcopalians have a rare thing. Larger churches are more successful than we are in many things, and we can’t compete at their level. But we have Anglican tradition in liturgy (which means lots of Bible and a history of good preaching) and a lot of really good music (from across the ages and almost all with really good theology). Episcopalians offer both a powerful place for the Bible read and preached and the Sacrament of Holy Communion in a powerful balance.

We offer worship, not entertainment. This means dignity and beauty in worship unlike any other church’s. It is both our strength and our weakness: strength because of its immense power to convert, educate, and produce spiritual growth and maturity; weakness because the first-time newcomer or visitor can feel completely confused and excluded for not knowing what’s happening. But if they stay, they’ll get used to it. It is like anything else worthwhile, like moving into a new neighborhood, school, or job. Expressing a welcome is always difficult; do too much and some will feel overwhelmed; too little and some will feel ignored. We can only do our best to be sensitive. And after they visit and continue, they will need to be accepted, taught, and shaped, which is a need for all members.

When people visit and try to become members, they want to learn. They will not be impressed if the longtime members are not committed to learning themselves. It’s time I stopped hearing that my sermons should be shorter, time you learned to listen better. Deepen your own commitment. Let that be part of your invitation. Anyone you invite and who comes must find us attractive enough to want to return and find a new life — not “nice, friendly people” but the life-changing gospel expressed through nice, friendly people. “Remember Jesus Christ.”

“If you build it, they will come.,” it’s said. The reality is: If you build it, they may come or they may not, but if you don’t build it, they won’t come. It is God who gives the increase, who is the first evangelist, who turns five loaves and two fish into food for thousands; but the little bit we offer must be offered.

Evangelism begins with you. If we want committed new members, we must deepen our own commitment. And God will provide the increase when and as he knows best.

The Rev. David Baumann is a retired priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.

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