A brief theology of mission and evangelism for our context.
by Bill Carroll
Greetings, Episcopal Café community. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It’s been a while sense I wrote anything for the Café, and I thought I’d begin by sharing some thoughts about the mission of the Church. Originally, I brought this together in something like its present form for an Advent program at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City. But it has earlier roots in many sermons preached and classes taught since 2006, when I first began to serve as a parish priest.
The Advent program was originally a Power Point presentation and quite specific to the context of one particular Cathedral congregation. It began with a whirlwind tour of Scripture, mostly the New Testament with a couple of nods along the way to the Second Vatican Council and Presiding Bishop Curry, as well as the universal mission of Israel in Genesis and the latter portions of Isaiah.
What I propose to do here is to start by summarizing the biblical witness and then move on to describing the approach to mission that I advocate and why I think it is especially helpful for our contemporary context.
Here is the list of biblical themes I discussed. I don’t pretend it’s exhaustive, but I do believe it captures many central emphases of the New Testament.
- Discipleship and Obedience: Following Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20)
- Being Sent: Continuing the Ministry of Jesus (John 20:21-23)
- Fishing for People (Mark 1:17)
- Reconciliation: Breaking Down Divisions (2Corinthians 5:20, Ephesians 2:13-16)
- Proclaiming the Good News (Jesus and the Kingdom) (Matthew 10:7-8)
- Teaching the Faith
- Healing, Exorcism, Resurrection (Matthew 10:7-8)
- Jubilee: Forgiveness (of Debts and Sins, see Luke 4:16-20)
- Liberation and Justice (Also Luke 4:16-20)
- Works of Mercy (Matthew 25, traditional lists of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy)
When it came to integrating the diversity of the New Testament into a single point of view (trying not to lose anything important in the process), I turned to the Baptismal Covenant. I was clear that the Baptismal Covenant includes the Apostles’ Creed as an important part and then continues with five promises about how we intend to live our lives.
As Episcopalians we uphold the ancient Faith as described in the Creeds, without obsessive heresy hunting or policing our boundaries too tightly. We dare to trust that, over time and in fellowship with each other, the Holy Spirit will lead us to Jesus together. Some of us bring more pointed questions to the Faith as received than others. I see myself in the tradition of Charles Gore and Lux Mundi, orthodox in faith but open to genuine engagement with others and to truth wherever it may be found. In our evangelism, which we don’t always do particularly well, Episcopalians are typically motivated more by gratitude for the gift of Jesus and new life as his followers, than by anxiety for the salvation of others. We tend to believe in the “wideness of God’s mercy,” and are willing to collaborate with those who profess other faiths or no particular faith, as we share the Good News and pursue the common good.
Two promises of our Baptismal Covenant spoke to me in particular as I looked for what is most important about the mission we share. First, we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Second, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. (I take the final baptismal vow about striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being to be a reminder that the other vows have social implications, and certainly want to move beyond one-on-one charity to the social implications of the Gospel, as will become apparent below.)
With regard to proclaiming by word and example, this includes both verbal testimony and how we live. Many Episcopalians are more comfortable with the latter. We need to get better at sharing our stories of meeting Jesus and having him change our lives. But we also need to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel by following the example of Jesus. This means consistent love, mercy, truth, and justice. It means becoming “people for others” (as both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Society of Jesus stress when they talk about Jesus). It means paying attention to how Jesus was with other people, especially immigrants and strangers, and those considered sinners or otherwise unclean.
The witness of our example is necessary if we are to have any credibility when we bear witness to Jesus with our words. Many people, especially young people, aren’t necessarily interested in Church but are drawn to Jesus. They might be willing to join a church that actually tried to follow him. St. Francis of Assisi almost certainly didn’t say what’s often attributed to him, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.” But the power of Franciscan witness to the Gospel has to do precisely with the connection between word and example in the life of the Saint and his brothers and sisters, central to all the early lives and rules.
With regard to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, the seeking is ACTIVE. We don’t wait for other people to come to us. We go out and look for Jesus and expect to find him in other people. We go out and look for Jesus in our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, as well as in the streets. We expect to find Jesus in all the places where we work, study, and play, all the places where we live our lives. We are sent out, as Jesus himself told us in John 20:21-23, to continue his mission in the power of the Holy Spirit. That mission is defined, above all, by the teaching and example of Jesus. And the most important word in the whole Baptismal Covenant is that one little word “all.” ALL really does mean ALL. It doesn’t mean some. It doesn’t mean a chosen few. ALL means ALL.
The two baptismal vows I’ve been talking about come together in the instructions Jesus gave some of his first disciples, who literally were catching fish for a living at the time. “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17 and parallels)
This precisely is what we need to do in a society like that of the contemporary United States and perhaps many others. In addition to such perennial problems as greed, exploitation, and self-centered behavior, in our society, we face increasing isolation and lack of face-to-face relationships. We don’t know our neighbors the way we once did, not even in small towns. (I live in a town of roughly 25,000.) We are not connected, in many cases, to our extended family. Many of us have few close friends to whom we could turn in a crisis. Increasingly, we do not work (if we are lucky enough to have work) the same job or even the same occupation for a lifetime. We move from place to place and do not invest with the same degree in the people around us. When we do form communities with other people, these are often pseudo-communities of the like-minded, with very little civility to outsiders and no shared vision of the common good. (It’s not that there was a golden age. Tighter community bonds often went hand-in-hand with various forms of oppression, but we have not replaced the good things we have lost, as we have become less rooted in place and more isolated and divided from each other.)
When we add to this the stagnation of real income and the relative lack of good jobs that can support us and our families, it is a recipe for despair. We see the fruits all around us—shootings in churches, schools, and nightclubs. Pervasive anxiety and fear. A climate of viciousness. Internet flame wars, and unspeakably violent discourse in the comments sections of various websites, where often under the cover of anonymity, people say horrible things that we are rightly advised not to read. Certain policy changes might or might not help, but they really don’t get to the root of the problem: a lack of hope and connection with other people, as well as accountability to one another. Moreover, there are plenty of good people around who would help if they could, but themselves suffer from a lack of community, hope, and vision and are consequently too afraid to engage the problems.
That’s where fishing for people comes in. Fishing for people is the key to effective evangelism. Evangelism is all about creating relationships and community with other people, with Jesus and the Good News at the center. As my Sewanee colleague, the Rev. Dr. Robert D. Hughes, used to say, the Church is not an optional add on, but essential to the Gospel. In Scripture, God is always saving us by calling us into covenant community, giving us brothers and sisters, and sending us out on a shared mission. There is no purely private relationship with God. To paraphrase the First Letter of John: “We can’t love God whom we don’t even see, if we don’t love the brothers and sisters we do.” (1John 4:20) We are what the Presiding Bishop calls the “Jesus Movement,” not alone but together. Evangelism is about turning the hearts of people “divided and enslaved by sin” back to each other and back to God. (Collect for Christ the King, BCP, p. 236, and Luke 1:17)
Evangelism is holistic. The whole person, body and soul, is addressed as we befriend our neighbors and offer them fellowship with God and other people in Christ. Evangelism concerns this world and our social relationships at least as much as it does the world to come. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia, also rendered communion or in some cases partnership. In the most recent parish I served, we called it “holy friendship.” The word has to do with spiritual and material goods shared with others, as in family or among close friends.
The notion of fishing for people also helps us to see how evangelism and service are not very different. Indeed, properly done our ministries of service are always also forms of evangelism. (By this, I don’t mean to deny the importance of verbal witness, just to assert its synergy with the witness of example.) But real Christian service doesn’t mean that we make those we serve passive objects of our charity, handing them something and hoping they’ll go away. As with “evangelism,” we seek to create transformed relationships and genuine community, with Jesus and the Gospel at the center. Seeking and serving Christ in ALL persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, means that we desire fellowship, partnership, and a shared sense of community and agency. This brings us back to koinonia, fellowship, communion, and holy friendship.
Fundamental to our mission is outward focus. I think that’s why the Presiding Bishop keeps stressing the word “Go” in the Great Commission. It’s also why he encourages us, in more than one of his sermons, to go to where the fish are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Archbishop William Temple once said that “The Church is the only society that exists for the sake of those who are not its members.” As we actively seek and serve Christ in the places where we live our lives, we expect to meet him in the neighbors he gives us. They share Jesus with us, as much as we do with them. We are ourselves evangelized as we share the Good News. All the fishers are also fish, whom Jesus catches together in a single net of koinonia, at once worldwide and profoundly local. As in every Eucharist, we are gathered together, only so that God might scatter us to bear fruit for the Kingdom.
In conclusion, let me just say this. God has given us all the gifts we need to pursue the mission of Jesus in our context, whatever that may be. God does not send us into a Godless world, but into a world where the Holy Spirit is already at work, preparing the soil for the seed of the Gospel. The challenge is to get in on what GOD is already doing, rather than asking God to get in on what WE are doing. People need the Good News. Sometimes, they are already on the brink of despair. Into a world filled with isolation, exploitation, violence, and despair, Jesus sends us with a message of hope, solidarity, forgiveness, justice, and love. People today are longing for real community and face-to-face relationships with real brothers and sisters. We have been called by Jesus to share the Good News, transform communities, and change lives.
It all starts with fishing for people, especially those who are exploited, excluded, or who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Jesus sends us to fish for these people and for ALL people. We should follow him wherever he leads, and do whatever he tells us. That’s how we help him change the world.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.