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Fishbowls

I work at an Episcopal Church in Richmond VA.  The Rector is actually quite cool.   He’s funny, well read, very smart, loves Bob Dylan and is taking electric guitar lessons.  I’m lucky.

He’s also committed to evangelism.  Hard to believe in an Episcopal clergy person, eh?!

At our Annual Meeting in February (these generally dull meetings are required by canon) he talked about evangelism.  Here is some of what he said:

“I am talking, of course, about the dreaded word….evangelism.  It comes from a Greek word simply meaning “good news.”  The old English for it is “Godspell”.  So think about it that way if you will…we are called to spell out, to tell, to show God and the good news, to be a Godspeller.

fishbowl-oceanThe problem is that for too long the Episcopal idea of evangelism has been “fishbowl evangelism”. Put the bowl by the sea shore and hope some fish jump in.  But Jesus said to his disciples – go fishing!”

What does “go fishing” look like?  I believe it is two things:  invitation and relationships.

Invitation.  Inviting someone to church.  The statistics at the church where I work are that 85% of our visitors/newcomers have come because someone personally invited them. This is in line with studies from churches across the country.  A recent study that I read (which didn’t site a source) said that 1% of people visit a church because of a newspaper or TV ad.  Big difference. Jesus invited.  Follow me. Come and see.

Michael Harvey, an Anglican clergy person and evangelist, says that the invitation is a simple 11 word question:  Would you like to come to church with me on Sunday? And here’s what he adds:  that success is not measured by how many say yes.  Success is measured by our extending the invitation.  We are called to be faithful.  “Go into all the world,” says Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel.  We invite. Growth is God’s job.

Second, I think evangelism is relationships.  We build relationships by engaging people in telling their story, listening to it, and our telling God’s story and the story of our own lives.  Where these overlap – and they will – we will find connections and relationships.  And relationships build community.  Community builds commitment.

Don’t put your fish bowl by the sea shore.  Go into the all the world.  It’s full of fish.

New Models

Bad habit: I read the last few pages of Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Christianity After Religion, recently while sitting in a bookstore.  Good news:  it was good so I’ll read the rest.

Just from my brief reading, I was reminded of the Celtic model of evangelism that I outlined in an earlier post. That model for evangelism was:

  • Fellowship,
  • Ministry and Conversations
  • Belief & Invitation to Commitment.

Butler Bass talks about a new model for the church of “belonging, behaving and believing.”  Which, I believe, corresponds to the Celtic model above:

  • Belonging=Fellowship
  • Behaving=Ministry and Conversations
  • Believing=Belief and Invitation to Commitment.

What might this  model look like in a local congregation?  This is what we do at the Episcopal church where I work so I’ll describe that for you.  We work hard to engage visitors/newcomers in on-going conversation about who we are and who they are. Storytelling.  Clergy and staff follow up with phone calls and emails; we take them out for coffee or lunch; other parishioners visit them; we are intentional about talking to them on Sunday morning; we ask them to help in small ways with programs and events.  We invite, engage, share.

Behaving or ministry and conversations as Butler Bass terms it is just more of the same.  We’re more intentional about inviting and involvement; we pair them with a mentor in the parish; we connect them with small groups and get them involved. If they have children, we work to incorporate the children into events, programs and classes.

As a last step, or sometimes in the midst of the first two steps depending on the person, we ask if they are interested in formal membership.  Many say “yes”; some say “not yet”.  I haven’t kept any hard data, but I find that the more involved the person was with a church in  the past, the longer it takes them to make a formal commitment of membership to our church.  It is hard to let go of the past often.  That’s okay.    But in the transition  time, we consider them members of our church.  And we respect them enough to expect something of them.    We expect them to be involved in worship and programs and give of their time and talents, and we expect them to give financially.  When I say to these folks that we have expectations of them just as they have of us, I have never had anyone get angry or refuse.  Isn’t that kind of amazing?  Why?  I think it is because they are by then part of the community – they have become connected to us just as we have to them. They have become connected to our story – the Christian story as well as the story of who we are at that particular church.

St. Patrick  might have said that he and his missionaries were learning about the culture and the lives of the people before asking for a commitment.  I would say that today we should be doing the same – engaging people in worship, fellowship and ministries all while telling the story of who we are as Christians and helping them to find where they can fit into that.  And out of that we all walk into greater commitment to God, the church and each other.

Evangelism:  it’s radical hospitality.  Inviting, engaging and incorporating.