Evangelism or denominational self-preservation?

By Dan Webster
Posted Aug 7, 2012

The Rev. Canon Dan Webster

[Episcopal News Service] We Episcopalians don’t seem to have evangelism in our denominational DNA. General Convention evangelism resolutions have never quite gained traction. Still, the 77th General Convention resolution, A073 (Establish Diocesan Mission Enterprise Zones), may be the best opportunity for success in this domain.

A073 calls for “mission enterprise zones” and offers dioceses a matching grant of up to $40,000 to redevelop congregations with a special emphasis on groups traditionally underserved by the Episcopal Church.

This evangelism plan is different because it focuses on congregations – the only place where evangelism can truly be effective.

For nearly three years the Diocese of Maryland has included evangelism and proclamation in its five key goals.

We define evangelism as the effort to prepare every member of the church to tell her or his faith story. Proclamation involves increasing average Sunday attendance by 10 per cent. We aim to realize these goals by 2015.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. But it begs the question as to whether we’re focusing on spreading the gospel of Jesus or simply trying to preserve the Episcopal Church. I say we should hope to do both.

We live out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) whenever we support and encourage one another to talk about and publicly practice our faith. Certainly the Anglican/Episcopal expression of catholicism is a treasure worth sharing. We have held up the “via media” or middle way for nearly 500 years. Now it’s our turn to proclaim this unique way to live as the Body of Christ. And in a society paralyzed by polarity we have a gift and tradition that’s as desperately needed as it is being sought.

It has long been my hope that every congregation form a DREAM team made up those committed to Doing Real Evangelism Almost Mindlessly. DREAM team members would help fellow parishioners understand how living their Christianity is the best way to share their faith. Yes, people will listen to words but they want to see actions.

Here’s where A073 becomes noteworthy because this initiative could empower dioceses and congregations to combine stewardship and mission in their evangelism efforts.

And let’s be clear that stewardship is not fundraising. It’s definitely not about seeking new pledging units to ensure the financial viability of congregations. Stewardship is finding our place in God’s creation, discerning God’s mission in the world of God’s own making and redeeming and claiming our calling in the world.

Parishes must practice that same stewardship of God’s gifts and talents right where they are. Parish leaders must discern how their congregations can be relevant to their neighborhoods. The mission field begins just beyond the narthex.

Most Episcopalians I know are not aware that the official name of our church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Imagine congregations being the neighborhood and city missionary society. Imagine everyone in the neighborhood and city knowing exactly what the mission is of every congregation.

Could it be that then people will see a glimpse of the reign of God? That Episcopalians would then be living out the Great Commission by practicing the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-39), to love their neighbors as themselves?

This General Convention resolution may just help to make this happen.

— The Rev. Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland. He lives in Baltimore.


Comments (10)

  1. Marylin Day says:

    What a wonderful commentary, especially regarding how we are needed in this divisive world. Thank you.

  2. Dan Bammes says:

    A few thoughts from an outsider — a cultural Mormon — on what’s attractive in the Episcopal tradition.

    “Big Tent” freedom of conscience (in spite of recent struggles over gay clergy). You recite the Nicene Creed, but you don’t insist on conformity at the price of association.

    Holy Tradition – A continuity of worship going back through the centuries while not insisting on infallibility.

    Acknowledgement of Historical Error – Racism, nationalism, intolerance and persecution have all been part of the Anglican tradition through the centuries, but the modern church has not been afraid to face up to its past.

    Organization – You’re not making things up as you go along, not putting inexperienced people in leadership roles. Episcopalians aren’t “playing church.”

    Scholarship and Spiritual Maturity – There’s a depth to Episcopal teaching not found in many other denominations. Its leaders tend not to be narcissistic braggarts.

    And you have really nice churches. Don’t discount that influence.

    1. Tracy Carlson says:

      So much agree. I am an ex-Jehovahs Witness that ended up it Charismatic extremism for 10+ years before finding a place to grow and learn. Would love to know your ideas on how to get the word out about the Episcopal Church to other former members of high control groups.

  3. Doug Desper says:

    Fr. Webster noted, “We define evangelism as the effort to prepare every member of the church to tell her or his faith story”. While true, those faith stories should be grounded in our ability and willingness to “know Christ and make Him known”. Personal faith journeys alone should not be the main experience shared. We have the Great Commission from Jesus to “go…make disciples…teach…baptize”. We should prepare each member to tell His Story.

  4. Grace Burson says:

    Dan, thanks for that perspective!

    Doug, I think what people need to be prepared to tell is the story of how their story interacts with His Story. Let’s face it, the life and death of some guy 2000 years ago doesn’t seem very compelling, and his resurrection doesn’t seem very believable, unless you have some sense of how the person in front of you has been affected by being part of that story.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Good observation, Grace, and I agree with you. My only caution is that our cultural tendency is to mistake our experience for the definitive revelation. We should not be the starting and ending of the Story, but, as you say, evidence of people who have been shaken and moved as a part of His Story. Our journey is to Jesus Christ; not just to be spiritual. Baha’i or Unitarianism may be better suited for those who want to be on a religious quest that is not seeking Jesus Christ in all things.

  5. Thank you, Dan. Witness to each other, neighbors and the world at large is based on the integrity of each of our personal experiences and how we support each other in Eucharistic fellowship. To me that means a qualified and experienced leadership witness to point to something of where we are and to go and to be willing and able to take on the outward and visible evidence of a faithful life. So in regard to stewardship, in order to avoid nothing more than a general and obvious definitions (as you have written perfectly well), then leaders must make clear personal and corporate financial commitments. The standard in the Episcopal Church has been tithing by personal and legislative statements. In the case of leadership, money talks and therefore must walk into practical mission expenditure. In my experience, personally, as rector, staff officer for stewardship in the Diocese of PA and nationally over some decades, I can point empirically to the actual results in an increase of money and in creative self affirming social psychological realities at every level of our Episcopal Church as real witness to Christian mission. We have now for some decades forfeited such concrete leadership for spiritualized forms of it and stewardship detached from actual money talk about giving. While I am very glad there are national grants for evangelistic mission, unless individual and corporate leadership tells us what financial commitments they actually make with their own money and what real spiritual discipline they do and expect of their followers, the grant money will likely be spent on empty activity.

  6. Fr.Michael Neal says:

    Tell “your” story, people are longing for truth, Christ has that truth, take it to the world, fulfill the Great Commision…………….press on………………….God bless……………..

  7. Bruce Anderson says:

    I enjoyed Fr. Webster’s commentary on evangelism. His thoughts are right-on.

    Especially interesting was the title: “Evangelism or denominational self-preservation?” and the observation: “We Episcopalians don’t seem to have evangelism in our denominational DNA.”

    Coming from an evangelical background, this is one of the things I found distressing when coming into the Episcopal Church. Many times the subject was approached apologetically as the (forbidden?) ‘E-WORD’. Fr. W is correct, our denomination’s (and local churches,’ imho) self-preservation, may well depend on us ‘catching the vision’. BUT — not as the goal of evangelism (if that’s the goal, I think it would fail!). He said: “This General Convention resolution may just help to make this happen…’

    This is where I respectfully disagree. Resolutions, funding, and programs do not evangelism make! Catching the vision of evangelism demands a personal, spiritual mind change! As we used to say in Baptist circles:”A Hunger for souls” … for which I’ve been praying!

  8. Tracy Carlson says:

    Great article on Evangelism from unique perspective of survivor of religious abuse. I attended the ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) Conference: The Ethics of Evangelism in Montreal this past summer and thought this was yet another affirmation that I’m finally in a healthy Church and reflects what I saw locally that drew me to the Episcopal Church.

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