by Jon White
I’m sure it’s apocryphal, but I once heard that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 27 years. Though that line usually elicits a few laughs, I think it does capture something true about our relationship with evangelism. For the most part, Episcopalians aren’t very good at it. I’ve even met people who were opposed to doing evangelism altogether!
Yet, the biblical witness and Jesus’ own words make it clear that inviting an ever-increasing number of people to follow Jesus and to live by his precepts is an essential and fundamental part of Christ’s mission (and God’s plan for ultimate salvation).
I suspect many of us associate evangelism with uncomfortable or awkward encounters with zealous door-to-door Jesus marketers. Their techniques more akin to high-pressure sales than anything Jesus ever did and their disturbing fascination with Hell can be pretty off-putting to most people in the Episcopal church.
I’ve also found that, for many Episcopalians, their faith is something deeply personal; where opening up that part of themselves to others makes them feel very vulnerable.
But evangelism doesn’t have to be knocking on the doors of strangers nor does it require opening up a most cherished part of ourselves to potentially hostile (or worse, indifferent) strangers.
And evangelism definitely isn’t convincing someone to believe in God, or Jesus, or to accept the whole weight of the doctrines of the faith (or fill out a pledge card). Simply put, evangelism is the opportunity to invite someone to check out something that’s important to you that you think they might enjoy or derive benefit from.
In the beginning of John’s gospel John tells of how followers of John the Baptist encountered Jesus and when they asked him where he was staying, he replied “come and see.” And then later, when Philip told Nathanael that they had met the Messiah and Nathanael responded with skepticism, Philip said to him in turn, “come and see.”
Come and see. That’s it – that’s evangelism; “come and see this thing that I’ve found.” And it shouldn’t be any harder than inviting someone to read a book you liked or see a movie you enjoyed or even to come with you to that great new café, coffee shop, bookstore, or bar that you love.
The movement that Nathanael undergoes, from skeptic to disciple to apostle is the same one that we are invited to take. It’s the same one that the whole world is invited to take, but someone still has to be Philip, someone has to be the one to say “come and see.”
The Church, the ekklesia of Christ, the whole people of God, are called into Jesus’ mission and ministry. But the institution that we call “church” has a narrower purpose; it exists primarily to form, nurture and sustain followers of Jesus. As critics of the church might say, Jesus started a movement and not a religion, which is true, as far as it goes. The movement though, needs the impetus of the organization, the power of the institution to continually reinvigorate itself. And evangelism is the necessary first step in inviting people to have that life changing encounter with Jesus.
Jesus invites every living person in every generation to take up his ministry and continue his mission; bringing healing, reconciliation, and peace to a broken and hurting world. When we talk about being the body of Christ, this is what we are aiming at; we’re the hands and feet of Christ – in fact the only hands and feet that Jesus has in this world.
By the same token, the only lips Jesus has, the only words he speaks to the spiritually curious, the skeptic, or the hurting stranger, are our words; our invitation to “come and see.”
Jon white is the rector of St Luke’s in Camillus, NY and was formerly chair of the diocesan evangelism committee in West Virginia. As an adult convert to christianity, evangelism and formation are particular passions.