Written by the Reverend Dr. Robert D. Flanagan
If you even casually read the news coming from The Episcopal Church, then you have seen evangelism mentioned more than once. Presiding Bishop Curry has made the word much more of an Episcopal term than any time in recent memory. But you may be wondering what evangelism and other related words mean. Here is what you need to know about three key terms.
Church Growth is about increasing numbers and about being open and open. If you drive past your church, at the posted speed limit, can you read the service times? Stand across the street from your church. Does the building look like it’s open for business? Is your webpage current? What about your social media footprint? If you answer no to any of these, new people won’t know you’re open. Also, does a newcomer know if your church is open to them? Of course, you welcome new people, but when and how? Is your invitation to join the congregation for a service more than a tagline? Seriously, how welcoming are you? The way a parish answers these types of questions greatly determines Church Growth.
Conversion is a more confusing term. One the one hand, giving one’s life over to Christ is conversion. The great evangelists of the last century would ask people to confess in their hearts and minds that they wanted Jesus to save them, and it would be so. But that is not the Episcopal way. Baptism is Conversion. Except for infant baptism, Episcopalians receive instruction, affirm their faith within the community, and receive the sacramental waters and chrism of salvation. The process of conversion in our tradition takes time. We want the conversion to stick. No backsliding allowed. Ours is a sincere faith, not a quick fix.
Evangelism is the most challenging term. Many Christians conflate it with church growth, conversion, and that is wrong. Evangelists are not converters but rather sharers of the good news. Thus, evangelism is about the evangelist. Many scholars in the field now recognize it as a spiritual discipline, an activity of high Christian formation. When you share your experiences of God with others, you relive the experience, and your faith grows. What could be better? Of course, what you say influences the person. But, at its core, evangelism moves the evangelist closer to God.
Conversion and church growth may result from the work of the evangelist but not necessarily. The evangelist shares an encounter with God or spiritual experience with others. They may be ready right then and there to turn to Christ or may not do so until many years later. If evangelism is simply about making Christians and growing churches, then evangelism quickly is about results, pressure, and coercion. That is dishonest and unethical. Evangelism duty-bound to conversion and church growth is folly and, frankly, sinful.
When evangelism is strictly about sharing the good news, those who evangelize are energized and grow in faith, hope, and love. Conversion remains the amazing grace of the Holy Spirit. Evangelists help conversions happen, even being the linchpin at times. Church Growth stays as the work of the congregation, inviting others to join the community and letting them grow as a new member.
Robert D. Flanagan is an adjunct professor of evangelism, Christian spirituality, and pastoral theology and ministry at General Theological Seminary and an interim priest in the Diocese of New York.