by Alexander Lenzo
My grandmother was an evangelist. Offering a piece of pie to any teenager or adult who came in her door (a Texan-Baptist, she always had freshly baked pie), within minutes she would be engaged in a lively discussion of faith. In public, she would move from placing her order with a waiter or paying for a hotel room to presenting the “plan of salvation” with seamless conversational grace.
I have something of my grandmother running through my veins. Conversations about life and faith exhilarate me and come naturally. In fact, others broach these topics with me, on flights and at school. But I am not a Southern Baptist as my grandmother was; I am an Episcopal priest. Episcopalians do “outreach,” not evangelism. We do social justice and good liturgy, not revivals and salvation tracts. We re-incorporate disenfranchised and disillusioned Christians into the church; we don’t call sinners to repentance. At our best we testify to God’s grace that “befriends” human flesh and doesn’t destroy it; uphold mystery in common prayer; and bear the marks of Christ’s reconciliation, of diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Yet, I cannot escape the feeling that we have lost some of the loving zeal so central to the early church’s identity, to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins…in [Jesus’s] name” (Luke 24:47).
How should we go about evangelism, today? In a world that celebrates diversity and cultivates division, a world flooded with knowledge but able to create only catch phrases? If we are to again take up the task of evangelism, we must do so in a way that honors both the infinitely diverse ways in which God saves individuals and communities, and also the biblical mandate to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.” The practice of spiritual direction may provide a framework for evangelism that accomplishes just that.
Spiritual direction is the art of sacred listening and guiding, in which the director assists the directee in discovering for herself God’s presence with her and in responding to that Presence. Analogously, evangelism can be seen as assisting the other to notice God’s grace in her life and to respond to that grace. The following are ways in which I see the analogy playing out.
- Evangelism, like spiritual direction, begins with faith, with the basic trust that God is already working out God’s will for the other person–long before you or I ever arrive. The Father is already running out ahead of us to meet the son. Perhaps all we must do is say, “Welcome home. I’ll prepare the fatted calf and put on the music.” Perhaps our only task is to ask, “Do you have any Family or Parent to go home to?” The Father runs ahead of us; to stay back is unbelief. To trust that the Father has seen His son on the horizon and to run with Him is faith.
- But once we wade into the deep waters of human hearts and minds, we will find how very ill equipped we are for the task. Thus, evangelism, like spiritual direction, proceeds with humility. One who is unwilling to open the joys and sorrows of her heart to a brother or sister, should think twice before delving into the heart and soul of another. One who is not seeking a deeper relationship with God will find herself unable to swim when another pulls her into the deep, dark waters of life. She will know only about butterflies and dandelions and a thousand clichés about God and faith–things of little use when flood waters are thrashing you about. Evangelism can only proceed if I am willing to come face to face with my own need to be evangelized, to again repent and return to the Lord. It can only proceed properly as we realize in the most concrete ways that we are graced sinners approaching other graced sinners.
- For evangelism, like spiritual direction, is fruitful only insofar as it touches the concrete, the particular, areas of life that God wants to redeem. There is no generic Repentance, no generic Faith, no generic Redemption. There is only repentance that cuts to the heart of what you desire most life; there is only faith that turns my particular ambition over to God’s will; there is only redemption that tenderly lifts this particular person or that particular community out of their particular nightmare and hell. Thus evangelism must begin by listening. What is the person experiencing and expressing to us? Where is God already at work, healing tearing down, building up, bringing back to life? It seeks out God’s grace in the unique story and situation of every person.
- Evangelism, like spiritual direction, directs the other to prayer. The goal of evangelism is to make prayer possible for another. Whether her response to God is Jobian anger or Psalmic praise, “sinner’s prayer” or silence, Creed or blasphemy, the evangelist’s goal is to make space for her to respond to God. To God–not to me. On God’s time–not mine. In ways that I cannot predict or measure, but only appreciate with awe and wonder. For the end of evangelism is a relationship, between the other and God, and such an end I cannot guess or predict or judge.
Thus, the evangelist takes on the role of guide into the depths of prayer. The other may not know how to pray, and you or I will have to take him by the hand and lead him. It will mean, at times, praying with–not just for–him. To pray with someone is to journey into repentance or faith with him, to walk the extra mile with him, and not merely point him in a direction. This is evangelism in its most powerful form. For when another allows you to enter into prayer with him, he is inviting you to accompany him to the Burning Bush. You are at that moment on very Holy Ground indeed. Those who pray with others too readily and casually are foolhardy. Those who never do so must ask why. Do we fear to pray with others because we do not believe that God will answer our prayers, and thus we risk being seen as foolish or having our personal faith called into doubt?
- Finally, like spiritual direction, evangelism is a practice. It is something to do over and over again, trusting that God is working something beautiful through it. It is never a perfected skill. If Episcopalians are going to recover the loving zeal of the early church to share the good news of Jesus Christ, we must begin to practice.
Evangelism, like spiritual direction, begins with faith, proceeds with humility, deals in particulars, and directs towards prayer. More important than any theory or tactic, however, are models–models of people who see clearly a sinful world shot through with God’s grace and lead others to respond to that grace. Such people are often not outwardly pious people. They are grandmothers and uncles, electricians and bus drivers, women and men. My grandmother was one of those people. May God grant us to follow in their footsteps.
Rev. Alexander Lenzo is a priest in the Diocese of the Rio Grande