by Derek Olsen
Episcopalians can do a lot of things well. Historically, evangelism was one of them. Anglican mission societies brought the faith to wherever British and Americans traveled; the breadth of the Anglican Communion is a signal of that success. But for modern Episcopalians, evangelism is not something that we’re known for. Indeed, not being “Evangelical” in a way yoked to the American political Right, not being missionally coercive in the way that some groups are, is one of the ways that we distinguish ourselves from other groups in the American religious marketplace.
And yet—we are called to proclaim the Gospel. “Evangelical” does have a long and proud history in Anglican circles, and we forget our heritage if we seek to cut it out of who we are. At the end of the day, a church that doesn’t want to share itself with others needs to take a long hard look at itself and consider what Good News it really has to share.
Now, I’m not pointing fingers here—I recognize that I’m part of the problem. We need to be thinking and talking about how we do evangelism. Maybe one of the ways to start is to drop the potentially contentious label and to think of it in a more basic way: how do I tell people the story of my life and do it in such a way that lets them know my God, my faith, my church, are an important part of how and why I do what I do? I’ve heard that in some churches, evangelism classes and faith-sharing workshops help ordinary people gain a sense of how to do this. I have no idea—I’ve never been to such a thing—but it’s probably not a bad idea for us to talk about how we talk and relate and share the good news of what God has done for us and is doing with us.
I offer here mission notes—nothing more. A few choice interactions that I had the other night that made me think about my story and how I tell it, about how I interact with people in relation to my faith. There’s no big pay-off at the end, there are no mass conversions—I’m just opening space to wonder aloud about what we say and how we say. It’s a starting place, not an ending place.
About a year ago, my neighbor across the street bought the old carriage house behind where we live. The fenced-in outside area became a set of lucrative parking spots on days when the Baltimore Ravens play at M & T Bank Stadium which stands at the foot of our street; the weathered brick interior has become a neighborhood hangout complete with pot-bellied wood stove, couches, a big TV, and a polished wood bar with brass footrails that a local drinking establishment was throwing away. On Ravens game days we hang out to grill hotdogs and drink beer, my girls play with the neighborhood boys, and several families gather to chat about their lives. In short—it’s a place where community and communion occur.
Since I work from home, this is an important site of my interactions with live people not connected to church or my girls’ school. As a result, in a de facto kind of way, it’s my “mission field.” It’s not a place to pressure people or force them to believe something, it’s not a place to spin high promises about what God will do for you if you invite him into your heart. No, this is simply the place to share my life with my friends and neighbors—and to express that God and my faith have an important place in my life. These people are not my “project” with some kind of conversion goal—they’re my friends! Not only that, I’m fully conscious that my witness here isn’t just in words alone. These are the people who see me dragging the garbage cans out in my pajamas, who hear what I say to my kids as we rush off to school or activities: it’s one thing to spout sanctimonious words in a religious discussion, it’s another say words you mean and then live like you mean them.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we gathered to give real thanks at Fake Thanksgiving. A few weeks ago we cooked up the crazy idea of a full-on Thanksgiving dinner before the actual date to test out and share our recipes, and to hang out together before we dispersed to the winds and our families of origin. It’s just like Thanksgiving—just without all the family drama. Too, it was a chance to provide a Thanksgiving for some in the community who wouldn’t get one otherwise, like the elderly widow—alone save for her dog—and the young underemployed guy rehabbing a house across the alley.
The girls and I went over first—I’d just finished cooking my green beans with bacon; M was filling her pumpkin pie and putting it in the oven. We met the usual suspects around the turkey fryer in the outside lot and I was introduced briefly to some new additions, a family who lived next to the house in rehab—young, with a new baby, whose names and accents revealed them to be recent immigrants but I couldn’t pin down from where—and a man who’d lived in the neighborhood for a while before moving down to Annapolis.
In a short time, all three turkeys were out of the fryer, the other food was warming away in chafing dishes, and the people were gathered. Dinner was about to commence! One of the hosts glanced over at us and said, “Derek or M, would one of you give us a blessing?” M nudged me and said, “Public spontaneous prayer is your thing—go for it…”
All right—there I was. Time for a “religion moment.” I feel like these sorts of things have to be managed well—something needs to be said, the intent of a “religion moment” needs to be honored, and it sets the tone for interactions with the people who don’t know me. I know that one of the families is mostly lapsed Catholic, another is not part of a faith tradition, and I had no idea of the tradition of the host who’s just asked me to pray. Something Protestant, I’d guess. The young immigrant couple? They could be Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, or nothing at all—and how would my prayer impact how they saw this group and whether it was a safe place for them?
In this kind of situation, I think there are two good approaches. The first is to claim your tradition and allow others to claim theirs too. In that case I’d say something like, “I know that we come from all sorts of faith traditions and maybe no tradition at all. We’re Episcopalians, and when Episcopalians get together for this kind of thing, this is a prayer that we use…” This allows me to pull out a nice classic prayer that mentions Jesus and the Trinity without feeling that I’m imposing my beliefs on others. At the same time, it recognizes that not everybody has to be on-board with Jesus and the Trinity to be included. Of course, I prefer this approach when I’ve got a good Anglican collect in mind! Not having one, I went for Plan B and punted.
The second approach is to pray a prayer that’s both open and sincere. For it to be open means being general enough that everybody can get behind it, whether they’re theists, non-theists, or atheists. That way they can choose to interpret it as they like and plug in their beliefs as fits. Hopefully, nobody feels compelled or coerced to sign on to something they don’t believe in. The trick is keeping such a prayer sincere—using it to actually say something, ask something, bless something while still remaining open. This is the direction I chose to go and came out with something like this: “We are so thankful for what we have here—thankful for family, for friends, for this community gathered here and for this food that we have brought. May we be blessed in sharing this food together, and may we be blessed by it so that we in turn may be a blessing for those who do not have family, friends, and food. Amen.” Not perfect, but it seemed to do the trick.
At dinner I found myself next to the fellow I didn’t know. We introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about where he lived. The discussion from across the table turned to the Arab Spring and to the tension between a democratic process and the rise of Islamicist political parties. The neighbor across the table asked me what I thought about all of it, and I began pontificating about the Enlightenment and the rise of Humanism as an important part of the process that prepared the West for a non-theocratic democratic process, the religious processes involved, and the degree to which that has or hasn’t happened in the Muslim world. I got an unusual look from the guy next to me and he said, “What is it that you do?” I replied that I worked with computers but that I had some degrees in religion and my wife was an Episcopal priest. The neighbor across the table said that I was a medievalist too and that talking religion with me was interesting because I was informed on things.
It was a moment. It was an opportunity to be available for someone with questions. Then my timer went off—I had to run around the corner to our house and check the progress of M’s pumpkin pie. I dutifully excused myself and the moment passed. When I came back something else was being discussed and religion didn’t come up again.
Was the interaction a waste? No—I don’t think so. I’ve decided that when I talk about my faith, the goal isn’t a conversion or full agreement or for the other person to embrace my convictions. Rather, it’s an opportunity to (hopefully) show that regular, normal people are also people of faith—that the tendency to stereotype or caricature “believers” isn’t true to reality. Too, I never know if it might provide an opportunity for a thoughtful discussion with him at some other time—or for him to have a similar discussion with some other person. If the goal is a “result” then I fear that we skew the process, moving towards a premature result, and push for something we don’t need. If the goal is share ourselves, than that happens much more easily and naturally.
Later in the evening, a few of us guys were standing around with drinks. I have no idea how we got into it, but P, my mostly lapsed Catholic neighbor, brought up the novena to St. Jude (patron saint of desperate and lost causes). “It works—it really works!” he insisted. “In the few times that I’ve really needed something, and I’ve gone and done it, it did happen!” A, the immigrant father, asked if he went to church a lot. P replied that he’d been some recently but that mostly it had just been funerals and weddings before. A said that he had also been raised Catholic but didn’t attend any more.
P said, “My dad wasn’t religious either until he was in the war. Like they say—there are no atheists in foxholes. He made a deal with God in the Argonne forest that if he got out of there, he’d go to church every Sunday. I wouldn’t say he was a religious person, but he was in church every Sunday. And he made all 7 of us come along with him. I went for a while but, you know—I like Bill Maher and saw Religulous, and a lot of it does just seem like superstition. But, you know…” C, the underemployed rehabber, was nodding along at the “superstition” part.
A chimed in that he didn’t go much but found that it sometimes helped him cope with things.
I felt that I had to say something—but what?
I said, “Well, yeah, there’s no doubt that there’s sometimes superstition mixed into religion. I see it as a continuum, though. There’s superstition, and there’s magic, and there’s religion. And sometimes they shade into one another. I think that anytime that we get too focused on God as the big vending machine in the sky, then we’re kind of heading towards the superstition direction. And yet, I still think that there’s religion for religion’s sake that’s different from superstition.”
P looked at me with curiosity: “I’m not really sure I know what you mean… What is that, religion for religion’s sake?” A and C looked at me expectantly.
Here it was—my moment. Time to refute Bill Maher and the New Atheists and to repair decades of off-putting religious experience with a coherent thirty-second sound bite… No pressure.
“Umm…” I eloquently began. Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God flashed into my head. There’s an argument Bernard makes in there about how we grow to love God for God’s sake—rather than for the vending machine model—that I thought needed to be a part of my response. Something that communicated that there was a deeper and more profound way of understanding faith and being religious than asking for stuff then going along with it if the stuff was forthcoming. Then Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism flashed in. I admire the way that she opens that book. She makes a totally non-theistic argument about reality and about how as humans we are disconnected from it and that the point of mysticism and earnest religious practice is to reconnect with reality. Of course, she ultimately finds it in the Triune God, but she is able to present her argument in such a way that leaves her work open and accessible to seekers no matter what their faith stance. That was followed by James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
“Well,” I finally said, “I’d say that religion for religion’s sake is about getting connected in to Ultimate Reality. It’s about plugging into something that’s bigger and deeper than myself and my own ideas and wants, and engaging with what’s really real. And that you know that you’ve gotten to it when that connection with Ultimate Reality makes you starting caring more about other people—that plugging into it makes you see the needs around you and help out.”
P slowly nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. Like sometimes when I’m at the novena to St. Jude and I look around and see people who really are desperate and I say to myself, ‘I’m getting all worked up about my pilot’s license or my reputation? Really? These people are dealing with something way bigger than that—it makes my problems seem kind of petty…’”
I then told a story about M’s day—their food bank had given away over one hundred turkey dinners for Thanksgiving on Monday, but when M arrived at the parish there had been a line of people waiting to see if anything was left. She’d had to turn them away because the whole food pantry had been wiped out. One person in particular was there—a fellow who was a regular recipient who had seven mouths to feed, had just gotten out of the hospital, and whose car had recently broken down. Having the relationship, knowing his story, M knew that the parish was his only hope for a Thanksgiving at all. With a couple of phone calls, parishioners arrived fresh from the grocery store with arms full of supplies. “Now that’s religion for religion’s sake,” I said, “Something that really makes a difference.”
I wanted to say something about how we come into the world with nothing and we go back out with nothing and that what really matters is how we treat people along the way—but I couldn’t figure out how to word it right.
At that point, the discussion turned somewhere else. Was my answer satisfactory? Was it good enough? I’ll never know. But what I hope I did was to give them something to think about. For me, being religious isn’t about voting a party line, or about believing six impossible things before breakfast, or about judging people who don’t spend Sunday morning the way I do. And I hope I shared a sense of that.
I don’t believe in one-encounter evangelism. I just don’t think it works that way. Maybe sometimes—rarely—but I feel it’s more important to take a longer term approach. I hang out with my friends and neighbors. I call it like I see it. And if my faith makes me see something a certain way, I’ll let that be known. And if that leads me to an opportunity to invite them to church with me, I’ll take it. For me, that’s authentic Episcopal evangelism. It’s not coercive, it’s not manipulative, it’s a way of inviting people to experience something that I’ve found helpful and important in my life.
Now—what about you?
I know that there are better answers than the ones I gave. I know that there are common situations that we find ourselves in. How do you answer? What do you do? How do you share yourself and your story that will help people give the Gospel, the faith, the Episcopal Church, a second look?
Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as the Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede’s Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc