Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An Anglican Approach to Evangelism

I came across this article by the Rev. Dr. Neal Michell, Canon Missioner for Strategic Development with the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, a couple of years ago. Reading it again, this essay's main points strike me as both practical and theologically sound.


An Anglican Approach to Evangelism

by Canon Neal Michell

A fellow priest asked me the other day, "When are we going to get our parishioners to evangelize?" I responded, "When we help them to understand the Anglican approach to evangelism—and when we get our clergy to understand and live into it as well."

We have many folks in our churches who come to the Episcopal Church from other denominations. We often hear, "I left such-and-such church to get away from that kind of stuff." Although we may interpret those comments to say that people have come to the Episcopal Church to get away from evangelism, I believe that many of them left what they viewed as an unhealthy understanding of evangelism to a healthier Anglican approach to evangelism.

What did I mean? Here is my understanding of an Episcopal-style—best case scenario—approach to evangelism.

We need to understand what I believe is an Anglican approach to evangelism. Once we fully embrace this approach, we will reach many more people for Christ. Anglican evangelism has two foundational principles.

First, as Anglicans we believe that evangelism best takes place in the context of the gathered Christian community. That is, being a Christian and becoming a Christian is not an individualistic and a solitary event. I am not a Christian simply by myself. Rather, to be a Christian is to be a part of a Christian community. The Episcopalian would say, "So, you want to be a Christian? Come experience the Christian community and come be a part of us."

For example, that is why in our church the priest cannot celebrate Holy Communion by himself or herself. The Holy Eucharist is a community event, not a private act of personal piety.

Thus, put positively, when we speak of evangelism, we mean inviting people to encounter and experience Christian community, and having experienced Christian community, people will want to become a part of that community and become a Christian.

On the negative side, many Episcopalians defer to the church and to the clergy the responsibility to evangelize. The thinking goes like this, "I’m no expert in this church stuff and theology, so I’ll leave it to the experts, that is, to the church and her clergy." It is this kind of thinking that has produced the statistic that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 28 years.

A second principle of Anglican evangelism is that evangelism is more of a process than an event. Many Anglicans cannot tell you the exact moment that they became a Christian (although Good Friday or Easter is probably the best answer). "We grew up in the church and somehow it has taken hold."

The designers of the Alpha course understand this. Alpha is built upon the principle that people will join a community before they will make a cognitive decision to become a Christian. One of their promos features a man who said that he was terribly uncomfortable with what he was hearing. He didn’t like the prayer time, either. He said that he stayed away a couple of weeks but one evening found himself back in the group. Why? He replied, "Because I missed you lot." (Interpretation for Americans: "Because I missed all of you.")

He was drawn to community. Having embraced the community, he was put in a place where he could hear the claims of Christ, experience Christian community where he saw the Christian life lived out, and decided to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. The process can be expressed this way: community, then decision, then deeper community.

Given these two principles, how can we as Anglican Christians embrace evangelism in an Anglican way?

First, understand that when we invite our friends we are inviting them to experience Christian community. We might invite them to a worship service or a church picnic or a choral presentation or some such special event. Thus, helping them to connect relationally is crucial in their process of evangelism. Then, in the process of relationship, be aware of the openings you might have to share your faith.

Second, our clergy need to give people in our worship services the opportunity to respond to the claims of Christ. Although evangelism is a process, it is made up of discrete moments of surrender. Thus, in our preaching, we clergy need to give "mini invitations" to accept the challenge to follow Jesus Christ. We can use the baptismal covenant or moments of challenge or invitations to silent prayer, or invite people to be prayed for by our prayer teams if your church has them.

The most widely accepted definition of evangelism in the Anglican church first offered by William Temple (1881-1944), the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury: Evangelism is "the presentation of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in such ways that persons may be led to believe in him as Saviour, and follow Him as Lord with the fellowship of His Church."

Anglicanism is not about being a Lone Ranger Christian. Rather, as Anglicans we affirm our connection to the early Church; the apostolic succession and apostolic faith; the Ecumenical Councils; Roman, Orthodox, and Reformed expressions of the Faith; and connected in a worldwide communion through trust and common faith. To be a Christian is to be in community. Evangelism at its best, from our perspective, reflects our interconnectedness.

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