Evangelism that is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic

By Tricia Lyons

For the past few decades, in the face of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “disenchanted” souls and minds in our pews and walking on the street past our red doors, I believe we have largely failed in our evangelism efforts to meet the walls of doubt with waves of enchanted experiences, apostolic practices, credal convictions, or sacramental testimonies. More than ever I see individuals and communities in our church exploring and experimenting with evangelism techniques. But there is a difference between techniques and spiritual practices rooted in theological conviction.

In the Episcopal Church, as the parochial report numbers whisper everywhere and wail in certain regions, we have often aped the secularization of our age, withholding or wandering away from testimonies about the real presence of Christ in the sacraments, saints, angels, miracles, or core doctrines like the Second Coming. Our tradition assumes and celebrates that humans are designed by God with sacramental longing for sacramental life. Not all Christians share these convictions about the human person, but they are the building blocks of our vision of life in Christ. Our prayer book makes little sense and much ado about nothing if we ignore or banish the brick of Anglican theological anthropology from our edifice of theological understanding and living.

Thomas Jefferson published a version of the Bible with all the embarrassing miracles and other supernatural testimonies taken out. It did not succeed because it did not feed the sacramental imagination of any human created in the image of God. We are not made only to think or to reason about God, though reason has its place in our tradition. Aquinas taught that faith brings us beyond reason, not below it. We are wonderfully made to know God and to live in the triune life that enters us at baptism and revives us in every Eucharist. No other life but the sacramental life fulfills the human person, no matter how controversial that conviction may appear in a world of increasingly religious and philosophical pluralism. I rejoice that the Anglican tradition holds this outrageous conviction throughout our prayers and prayer books.

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When we pull a Jefferson in our evangelism and try to soften the outrageous claims of the Scriptures and our books of common prayer that unique and saving grace enters the world and the heart through the sacraments, it can be hard to fashion compelling reasons to both members and seekers as to why they should join or sacrifice for a church while so many other voluntary associations vie for their time and treasure.

The sacred geography of our radically diverse sanctuaries is constructed with the universal grammar of the Anglican tradition: font and altar, statue and stained glass, text and tapestry, candle and beckoned natural light. Despite the vast diversity of sacred spaces in our faith communities, I have never been in an Episcopal worship space that does not herald (think cathedrals) or at least hint (think the youth room in the church basement) at the real presence of Christ, the power of the saints, the hope in the miraculous, and the trust in the incarnate God to love and lead his Church to glory. I have experienced our Church’s myriad materiality as an eloquent evangelist for the depth and breadth and beauty of our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic tradition.

But often the people in these spaces have taken up the terms and tones of a more secular imagination. While light stained in color bathes a sanctuary through windows depicting the communion of saints, the actual words preached or prayed in liturgies too often say little of the saints whose bodies shape the colored light and whose wonders earn them the Church’s name. And when Episcopalians enter the public square, despite passionate and personal storytelling about Jesus or the Bible or “church,” I rarely hear testimonies of the sacramental life as the essence of the Christian life. I have visited parishes where the sacraments are practiced but not explored; where worship is planned preciously but not trusted or even expected to transform humanity in every liturgy, which is the vision of our books of common prayer going back to Cranmer.

We speak often of marches but rarely of miracles. We have church cultures of committees but, according to our own data, rarely do we actually baptize or confirm adults during the year. When is the last time you heard a sermon or read a post heralding the chance to be baptized or confirmed or to receive the Eucharist? As a denomination, our social justice commitments are strong (as they should be) and have earned the Episcopal Church a seat at many interfaith or secular tables where the common good is being defined and defended. We are, as they say, “showing up” for the marches, the public meetings, the trials, the elections, the bail hearings, the border facilities, and the healthcare clinics. In our social justice work I hear constant clarion calls for the ends of such work: reparation, reconciliation, beloved community, equality, safety, justice, redemption. But what about the means to journey to these holy ends? How do we feed ourselves for the journey from where we are to where God is leading the world? The sacramental life is our means of grace and refraining from talking about means while constantly talking about ends is a recipe for moral and spiritual exhaustion, for individuals and denominations.

If Jesus had intended his followers to establish a religion that is simply a moral enterprise, then in some limited ways, perhaps we are getting better and better. We have the book clubs to prove it. As it is, though, Christianity is not a moral enterprise. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “The call to follow Christ is the call to come and die.” He reminds us that following Jesus leads us to die to ourselves in the font so that we might rise from the tomb with the Lamb of God who feeds us with the Bread of Life, realities we receive in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Many of our churches are very busy but shrinking and looking to ministries of evangelism to enliven their communities. Screwtape loves this busy anxious state and these fear-based reasons to learn about evangelism. Meanwhile, our Lord saves us in the font and feeds us at the altar and makes us one in his body. This is our story, this is our song.

The pandemic experience has only intensified the Episcopal Church’s interest in evangelism. But I worry that a trend I saw before COVID-19 might continue with greater force as we try to “bring people back” to church or to invite new people. The trend is to simplify our faith into a kind of “mere Christianity” in which we speak of God, Jesus, or the Bible in the simplest and most non-sacramental terms possible. The more we “keep it simple” in our evangelism and leave out an explicit defense of and passionate invitation to the sacramental life, the more we make our own materiality — bodies and buildings alike — irrelevant or distracting.

What is amazing and tragic is how rare it is to enter an Episcopal Church and be bathed by a palpable, forceful, transformative metabolism of supernatural life and imagination. I have entered many churches as a researcher or mystery guest and asked a member, “So what goes on here?” Before the internet, the person would point to the bulletin board (nearly every church has one or a few), a surface usually exploding with paper and pictures and plans for events. In this digital age, I am now sent to “the website” or to their preferred (though usually rarely updated) social media platform. Mind you, these veteran tour guides will usually point you to a bulletin board or website while standing within feet of the font or the altar but make no reference to them. I don’t say this to judge but simply as an observation. I dream of a church (I have been blessed to see a handful in my life) that when a visitor says, “What’s happening here?” the greeter points toward the font and the altar and then starts telling stories of the sacramental power of God, of the presence of Christ in that community through the sacraments, of the Holy Spirit’s power making all things new that come near to Christ.

Of course I want to hear about the ministries and the marches that show doers and not just hearers of the Word. But these activities are not more important or a better testimony to Christ’s presence in his body of the Church than the sacramental life of that community where the Lord himself enters our life and limbs. We are the body of Christ who know our shepherd’s voice because we know him in the breaking of the bread, not because we are a loving people. We could meet and minister and march without Christ’s abundant life in ours; many civic organizations do, and thank God. But our story, our testimony as sacramental Christians, as Anglicans and Episcopalians, is that we go forth not only with thoughts of Christ or beliefs inspired by the teachings of Christ in our minds and hearts. We go forth redeemed in water and fed with the Bread of Life.

The sacraments bring a bolder reality than convictions: through water, oil, bread, and wine, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. The life we live in the body we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. The waters of baptism bathe and save our bodies and souls, and the Bread of Life feeds us now as it will at the Feast of the Lamb forever. I know this because I read our prayer book. I trust this because it is the eschatology of the New Testament. These views are not a faction or caucus in the Episcopal Church. All of them are included in “An Outline of the Faith” in the BCP. These views are not just so-called “orthodox” or “Anglo-Catholic” or “Evangelical.” Redemption and salvation in Baptism and new and abundant life in Christ’s arrival in every Eucharist are our core Anglican understandings of the Bible and are the spine of any Book of Common Prayer worth the paper upon which it is written.

Why is the church in a numbers decline? There are many reasons within and without organized religion, but I believe it is in part because our evangelism contains less and less of our sacramental life and imagination. Perhaps decline, at least in part, is not because people are no longer listening to church leaders but because people are listening to the explicit and implicit messages of our leaders who have simplified the Anglican tradition so much that there is no logic — no real Logos — offered for our buildings or in our midst. Turning stuff into idols is clearly ungodly. But turning our sacramental convictions and practices into minor or side issues unmoors the gospel from so much of our inherited tradition. We are disenchanting our Church.

Sacraments are a central part of how we respond to our Lord’s invitation to come and see, taste and see, leave the tree, leave the well, leave the crowd, leave the temple, leave the mat, leave the meal, leave the sword, leave the room to share his abundant life. Screwtape can do nothing to stop the siren of our Lord’s invitation across time and space, but he can convince us that we need no aqueducts, no irrigation system, to collect and share the rain of Incarnation’s grace. I worry the devil is winning at this. Of course God does not need any human aqueduct to shower creation with redemption. But our free will is helped and healed by the structure of the sacraments that give us ways to receive the gifts God freely gives. Our tradition teaches and has made martyrs on the conviction that sacraments are the metronome of metanoia.

In the next part of this series, we will consider the importance of re-centering the sacramental in our evangelism.

The Rev. Dr. Tricia Lyons is Senior Advisor to the Dean for Evangelism Initiatives at Virginia Theological Seminary, where she also teaches evangelism. She is author of What is Evangelism? (Church Publishing 2019).

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Rev. Robert Carroll Walters

Thank you, Dr. Lyons, for bringing forward the place of the sacraments in our worship and lives. When I celebrate the Sunday Eucharist in my parish, my intent is to make a place for people to sense the numinous, the mystery that underlies our faith. It is important to note
that making a place for the mystery in worship is not dependent on how much or little ceremonial is used. From this mysterium some members have been moved to undertake works they had not thought they could do.

Patricia Lyons

Thank you for this thoughtful comment. Mysterium indeed! There is much research about ‘seekers’ these days that demonstrates the longing people have for mystery, music, silence, across cultures and social classes. It may sound simple but leaving room for the Holy Spirit to speak, move, heal, inspire, resurrect is essential. Thank you for your faith and ministry!