Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Taking the Fear out of Evangelism" -- a sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord.

Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, January 8, 2012
Words that end in "ism" are often scary words: communism, nazism, fascism, racism…evangelism. But evangelism is scary only to Episcopalians, and members of a few other so-called "mainline" denominations, who believe that religion, like politics, should never be discussed in polite company. Actually, we may be more arrogant than scared. I used to have a cartoon taped to my office door that showed two ladies of a certain age and status saying to their priest, "We don't know why you're making such a fuss about evangelism. Everyone in this town who ought be an Episcopalian already is one." If there happen to be some who are not Episcopalians but ought to be, our approach to evangelizing them is similar to taking a beautiful, fully equipped, large aquarium down to the beach and wait for the fish to jump in.

Yet I still think we Episcopalians are more frightened by evangelism than arrogant about it. If you are anything like me, you are scared that someone will ask you to do the one on one, arm twisting persuasion that is the stereotype of evangelizing tactics. Most of us have encountered that stereotype in pushy people who ask us if we have been "saved." My late wife's quick answer to such people was, "Yes, 2000 years ago." But that usually did not satisfy them. They were not really interested in whether she had been saved. They were interested in whether she had been saved the "right way," which, of course, was the emotional way they had been saved. We Episcopalians are not so arrogant that we think we know the right way to be saved. Indeed, many of us have questions about what it means to be saved. So we aren't very motivated to persuade others to do it our way.

You will be glad to hear that most experts on evangelism do not endorse the pushy approach, not because it scares church members like you and me, but because it doesn't work very well. Less than two per cent of present church goers say they began to go to church because someone persuaded them that going to church was a good idea if they wanted to get saved. That isn't even as good as the aquarium by the seashore. Four per cent of current church members were first attracted to the church by the beauty of its buildings. Evangelist crusades, like Billy Graham’s, account for another four per cent. Six per cent come to church membership through satellite programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Day Care Centers that use church buildings.

That leaves something like 84% of all other church goers. Researchers tell us they started attending because they were invited by a member of the church. Many of them were probably invited the way I was. My parents "invited" me to attend Presbyterian Sunday School when I was about 5 years old. Nonetheless, being invited by a friend who goes to church is the way almost all adult non-church goers become adult church goers. That fact may explain why the Episcopal Church has not grown for more than five decades, and in fact, has lost a million members during that time. You see, it is estimated that the typical Episcopalian invites a friend to church about once every thirty years. It'll take a while to make up that million member loss if we keep up that blistering pace.

On the other hand, our fear of evangelism should be calmed if we know that the only thing we need to do to contribute to evangelism is invite our friends to church. To make our role even less anxious, we don't need to invite all our friends; just those whom we think might find in the church peace to allay anxiety, strength to bear adversity, a place to act on their idealism, or a way to find meaning for their life, claim their identity, and affirm their worth. When we invite friends to church we turn the evangelizing process over to the congregation. It's worship, teaching, and fellowship present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in such ways that the guests we invite are often led to believe in him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the context of the church. In the Episcopal Church you don't have to believe before you can belong. From the early days of the church the Celtic Christians, led by St. Patrick, taught us that belonging leads to belief. So today we welcome all seekers to belong to the church without requiring them to believe what the church teaches, knowing that in time many of them will come to trust their lives to the God revealed by Jesus and proclaimed by the Church.

If evangelism starts with belonging to a congregation, the congregation needs to be a place that welcomes new folks and makes them feel comfortable within its fellowship. Our congregation needs to practice an extravagant hospitality to newcomers and visitors, believing that anybody who joins us for worship in this place has come seeking the love of God in one way or another. The only way they can tangibly feel God’s love is from the way the members greet them and care for them. So we do have another role in evangelism. Each of us is called to extend the hospitality of God to all newcomers and visitors to this church. That means greeting them warmly during the passing of the peace and after the service concludes. We need to make an effort to engage in conversation with anybody we don't know or see here regularly, beginning with the words, "I don't believe I have met you. I'm John (or Joanne, or Alice, or Ted, or Chuck or whatever your name is)." We can let the conversation proceed naturally from there, but we need to remember that our purpose in talking with these folks is to let them see the love of God in action.

You may have been wondering why I have devoted this sermon to a prosaic lecture on evangelism instead of trying to inspire you with a message based on the scriptures for today. Full disclosure: I am a member of the GPS team—the "Getting People Started" team—that the Chapter established to help make our congregation better at evangelism. My purpose today was to teach how each of us, individually, can help Christ Church Cathedral fulfill its calling as an evangelizing fellowship. As for the scripture, today's gospel tells how a split in the heavens, a descending dove, and a reassuring voice revealed to Jesus who he really was. That is what we call an "epiphany"—an unmistakable revelation of God. God wants this Cathedral and all congregations of the church to be epiphanies to the world, revealing God’s love for all people. Taking our part in the evangelizing process is one of the ways we help our congregation make that epiphany.

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