Evangelism that is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

By Tricia Lyons

Part one of this series considered the disenchanted, non-sacramental character of so much Episcopal life. In this essay I consider the sacraments as an ingredient to growth.

An analogy I give in teaching evangelism is to think of a first date or an interview with a stranger whom you are considering as a potential roommate. Whether it’s a date or an interview to eventually share a living space and common life, there is a real question as to what topics absolutely need to be addressed in the first meeting in order that one or both parties do not feel confused or even betrayed when they discover essential truths left out later in the relationship. In your first date or roommate interview, do you need to say whether or not you graduated from high school? Personally, I don’t think so. Do you need to say that you are a chain-smoker? That you joyfully play your drum set daily? That you own a snake? This is essential to share on day one. Do you mention that you hate cheese? I think you can wait to share that tragedy until later in the relationship. Do you say you don’t drink alcohol? This is a gray area. Depending on what you need in terms of support from others, this might be essential for the first talk. But for others maybe it can wait.

When the church is visited by a seeker who wanders into a liturgy or coffee hour, or an Episcopalian strikes up a conversation with a skeptic on a train or bus, what is essential to say about Christianity in that first conversation? What things, if left unsaid in the first conversation, would be the equivalent of hiding one’s smoking habit or pet snake or beloved drum set?

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A core question for me in Episcopal evangelism is this: when do we use the word “sacrament” when we share our faith with someone, either a visitor to our church or Zoom church, or individually as we make our way in the secular public square? Is “sacrament” a first-date or first-interview word for you, or do you think it can wait until later in your relationship? I attend many workshops, conferences, conventions, and revivals in our church, and it is possible to attend such grace-full events but never hear the word “sacrament” at all. It is not that what we say about love or Jesus or prayer is not true or powerful. But when we don’t even mention, much less train our leaders to mention, that humans can meet and receive the real presence of Christ in every Eucharist, whose tradition are we sharing?

I was one of the original authors of the Way of Love and a member of the Presiding Bishop’s Strategic Cabinet for Evangelism that hatched that framework. I believe this adopted and celebrated rule of life for our denomination has been transformative in the last five years. But read any saint or martyr in the history of our church and I dare say that none of them thought their rule of life was more important or more transformative than the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist.

The Way of Love is a set of pillars of practice in the life of a disciple of Christ. All religions have practices. But the sacraments are the source of the power of any Christian practice. The Way of Love leads us to the risen Christ whom we meet in the Eucharist and then leads us from the altar into the world. In fact, the whole logic of spiritual practice is that we try daily to form our lives into the person of Christ who actually comes into us at baptism and actually feeds us in the Eucharist. Spiritual practice is our response to the presence of Jesus in us, not a wishful human performance of Jesus in the world.

Our faith is not a game of Simon Says in which we try to mirror or mimic the life of the Lord. We believe that it is Christ in us that is the only hope of glory. Indeed, apart from him we can do nothing. And where does our tradition say we find Christ’s actual life? Chiefly, but not exclusively, in the sacraments. Is a sacramental tradition a recipe for clericalism? It can be, and often does fall into the crime of clericalism which robs the baptized of their vocations. But the evil of clericalism is not the fact of having priests. The evil lies in a system that asks or rewards clerics to over-function and infantilize the baptized. The sacraments do not cause this structural sin. I believe they can heal it. Is it elitist to stress the need to form believers in the rich sacramental theology of our tradition? Would not the very definition of elitism be the assumption that any person of any race, education level or social class could not wonder or long for truth?

More and more I feel like our denomination has decided that the word or testimony of sacraments is no longer a first date or a first meeting topic. In the “mere Christianity” mode we are trying to stay accessible with “just Jesus” and the Bible and skip over the sacraments, the saints, angels, miracles, etc. I understand that for reasons of ecumenism or even efficiency in evangelism, we do not focus on baptism or Eucharist when we are talking about our faith in the public square. But when we pretend we are mere Christians, we are keeping the greatest truths in human life a secret. I spent years visiting churches for my book on evangelism and I say without a doubt that churches (of any liturgical custom or tradition) that have a vibrant sacramental life are churches that grow in faith and in size. Either the sacraments are an essential means by which we share the Triune life or they are not. If they are, we must testify to them. If our faith communities are not understanding or living into them, then the first act of evangelism is to begin within your faith community, evangelizing our sheep with the sacraments and their contemplation. Where there are sacramental testimonies, share them. Where there are few, form people for them.

I find when I share my faith and include my testimony of the power of the Eucharist and of baptism, of saints and angels, of prophetic witness and miracles, people’s disenchantment is shattered. This is not to say that they agree with me. But sharing testimonies of our Lord’s actual presence in our church’s sacramental life breaks through the secularity of our age that is strangling the sacramental imagination. Enchantment is like a spark that happens when one human hears another testifying to a “spiritually infused universe,” as Ian Markham describes in his book, “The New Apologetics.” Secularity is shattered at that moment and I have come to love the sight of the shatter when I see it in the eyes of a person who has just heard me speak of saints, of angels, and of the real presence of Christ in the breaking of bread.

Oh sure, my personal faith story is at times compelling as a narrative to share on a plane or train, but not always and frankly it has little staying power as the seeker walks away never to see me again in this life. I am not discounting the need to make personal what God has done in our lives. Inheriting and passing on a sacramental tradition does not need to be impersonal or joyless. Recently a person sought me out for the Rite of Reconciliation, hinting before our meeting the topic of the confession. After a peaceful but strict following of the Rite in the BCP, I then pulled out a kite and told the penitent that I had prayed about the topic and asked God for suggestions in penance that would lead to a real sense of freedom in body and soul. I said kite-flying was God’s answer to me. I then drove the penitent to a large park and watched them joyfully bound away into the field to feel Christ’s freedom in both life and limb. We can make the inheritance of a tradition our own without making it in our own image.

A lot of evangelism training seems to me to be training in talking, and in talking mostly about yourself and your experiences. At worst it is training not in evangelism but in extroversion, freezing a lot of our church in awkward feelings about evangelism because we are a denomination with more introverts than extroverts. Evangelism that is merely talking techniques is cruel to those not wired or gifted for talking. It is like telling left-handed people that evangelism means learning to write with their right hand, resulting in guilt, failure, and worst of all, lack of joy.

I understand and greatly appreciate that this trend in evangelism training comes out of a desire to correct centuries of impersonal establishment Christianity. But it is a false choice to believe that we are either speaking personally and authentically or we are speaking impersonally and sacramentally. The testimony that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic is the one where we find our words for our Lord’s actual life in ours. At the first Pentecost, it was from the utterly unique languages given to the disciples that flowed the universal story of the Paschal Mystery. Their tongues were given tales of truths not entirely their own.

We are not mere Christians; neither was C.S. Lewis who, after defining “Mere Christianity” for half his book of the same title, went on to say that Eucharist and baptism were essential components of the disciple’s new life. Our Eucharist is not like a Christmas pageant or recitation of the Passion on Palm Sunday. Sacraments are not just re-enactments of moments in Jesus’ life on earth. Screwtape and his minions have taken great care to strangle our church with debates about the mechanics of the real presence of Jesus. What the devil hopes we never agree on is the broad church conviction that our Lord’s actual, abundant, and risen life breaks into our Eucharist; that the Lord and the giver of life, the author of the story, the Creator of heaven and earth, arrives in our Eucharist and brings an actual second birth in our baptism.

There are Christians who believe in simply re-enacting or in memorializing the Last Supper by remembering it as an event in the past or seeing baptism as some kind of dedication or initiation to membership. Anglicans are not those Christians. Our inheritance calls us to herald the coming of the Lord’s real presence into our language, symbols, and gestures in every Eucharist and baptism. Despite hundreds of years of suggestions, the Anglican tradition has no fixed theory of precisely how Christ arrives in the Eucharist. But we share the conviction that Christ does.

I do not believe that the hesitancy around evangelism in the Episcopal Church is because people lack the skills to be evangelists. I find that the average American, introvert or extrovert, spends a part of nearly every day convincing someone to try a product or experience that they have discovered. My friends are full of pitches for their new diet, recipe, Netflix series, dog collar, audio book, digital device, new route to work, or new app. We suggest things. We share treasures we find. We want other people to experience our joys or share our frustrations. I find this to be true among genders, races, social classes or ages. The senior citizen who found a new fascinating television show, the five-year-old who dressed himself for the first time and swears by the sock and shoe combination he created, your workmate who would die for their latest exercise app — no one taught them how to beg you to join their joy.

In my experience of teaching evangelism, Episcopalians challenged to share their faith don’t have a problem with sharing but have reluctance about their faith. It is not shyness or fear that keep people from talking about their faith. It is, in many cases, integrity that holds them back. People know what they don’t know. They’ve met a knowledgeable rabbi or priest or lay person who can articulate faith and they know they are not that person. They see how thick the prayer book is, they have heard of historical seminaries with impressive libraries. They know what a learned person sounds like in any faith tradition. No one wants to be an imposter. And many Episcopalians have never been formed in their faith beyond attending Sunday church.

Rather than address the formation crisis in our denomination, I see us asking people more and more to learn skills in evangelism, as if the lack of those skills were the problem to explain church decline or faith-shy Episcopalians. I believe the church is declining for many reasons, but none of them includes poor skills in evangelism. It is integrity that leads folks to shyness, folks who will not pose as knowledgeable when they are not or claim to know Christ intimately throughout their lives if they do not. As leaders we have to own the fact that many people are reticent to talk about their faith and experience of God in the sacraments because we have failed to form their faith and sacramental imagination.

The failures of the Episcopal Church to teach the richness of the theology of the 1979 Prayer Book cannot be pushed onto the laity, passing our shame to them. That is not fair. And looking at the parochial reports, it is also causing those with integrity to go elsewhere.

St. Paul invites us to do what he did, to receive teachings given to him and carry them ourselves. I was a high school track coach for 20 years. Every long track meet, indoors or outdoors, ends with the relays. All individual events are done, and the edges of the track are usually crowded with athletes and families who gather to watch the fastest runners fill all the lanes and burn up the track in the last dramatic competitions of the day. The question in the crowd is: which team will win? The question of the coach is: will someone drop the baton?

Every coach hand-picks the four positions in a relay. You put a fast but perhaps fearful runner first, knowing their fears will fire them forward with competitors close by to draw out their training. You put your slowest runner second, knowing any damage they cause can perhaps be fixed by the next two runners. Your third runner must be brave and strong, in either keeping a lead or making up time. And your last runner is not only your fastest but also your hero who can endure more pain than any other runner you have. At best, they have a sense of epic power, able to ignore their body and believe, with sheer force of imagination, that anything is possible. There is not one kind of person on a relay team; this would be a weak team. The charisms of teams that win are diversity, complementarity, and devotion. Every hand that takes the baton is utterly unique and their differences fashion their team power. But the one unifying goal is that the baton must always be in someone’s hand. The moment it is not, all is lost.

Do we know what our baton is in this church? Our evangelism will ever be muddled, awkward, and hard to reconcile with our inherited tradition if we push this investigation off for a single generation more. We are not mere Christians. It is the deepest of Anglican convictions that we are not totally depraved but rather have been given both a sacramental imagination and a sacramental tradition for discipleship in Christ. I have found so much joy in sharing in words and deeds the sacramental life with others. I find that people are hungry for experiences of God, not just ideas about God. The modern mystic Evelyn Underhill said it best, when writing to an aloof Bishop: “We look to the Church to give us an experience of God, mystery, holiness and prayer which, though it may not solve the antinomies of the natural world, shall lift us to contact with the supernatural world and minister eternal life… God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God.”

Evangelism is nothing more and nothing less than the enchantment of the starved sacramental imagination in our secular age. Evangelism is handing the baton we receive to someone else so that they too can have the joy and redemption we have been given. Agreeing that the sacramental life is our testimony and our baton does not mean that we stop evolving as a tradition, passing on truths without adding our own multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural fingerprints to the tradition while we hold it and guard it and live it in whatever way is most true to our gifts. Every runner is utterly unique and so much more than a baton. The beauty and particularity of runners means that sometimes crowds forget about the baton. Until it drops. And then the world is reminded that it is the baton that holds the team.

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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I’m grateful to Dr. Lyons for these essays (and to the Covenant editors, too, for publishing them). What a wise, illuminating, and even original account of distinctively Episcopal evangelism! I’ll be ruminating on her writing for some time as I try to (re-)calibrate my ministry toward an invitation into the sacramental life.