Monday, March 16, 2009

Evangelism as Hospitality and Witness

Always on the lookout for interesting and helpful resources on evangelism, I came across an insightful article by Dr. Scott Bader-Saye that critiques the tendency to reduce evangelism to a form of commodity exchange and examines the two-pronged nature of genuine evangelism as hospitality (inviting in) and witness (going out).

Evangelism as Hospitality and Witness
by Dr. Scott Bader-Saye

Diocesan Life
The Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, PA
Volume 16, No. 5
May 2005

In a recent online survey, 1042 Episcopalians answered the question, “What stands in the way of your engaging in evangelism? The top answer was: “I don’t want to look like a fundamentalist Bible thumper.”

Obviously, one of the obstacles that stands in the way of Episcopal evangelism is that we have seen it done so poorly.

We know we don’t want to do that (“that” meaning hard-sell apologetics and emotional manipulation), but we haven’t been able to imagine any real alternatives.

Part of the problem is that modern evangelism has offered Jesus and salvation as items in an economy of exchange. In a market economy anything can (and usually does) become a commodity, even Jesus.

Thus, Christian evangelism can come to look a lot like salesmanship. We offer salvation in the name of Jesus in exchange for some benefit that returns to us or our group: the belief, membership, or financial support of those we evangelize.

We have marketed Jesus, church, and salvation rather than offering them as the gifts they are. One of the things we must do, then, to recover evangelism in a new key, is to get beyond the economies of exchange and learn again what it means to bear Jesus to the world as gift and not commodity.

If bad evangelism is one of our primary obstacles to evangelizing, one of the motivators for evangelism would be the desire to draw others into a community life that we find so compelling that it must be shared.

Such a communal life could be compared to a dance, not the “dancing with myself” kind of dancing that is all too common today, or even ballroom dancing with a single partner, but rather the joyous, sometimes raucous communal folk dances such as square dancing and contra dancing. In these dances there is neither exclusive partnering nor self-absorbed posturing but rather a potentially endless openness to include more and more in the dance.

In such dances we recognize that the joy grows as the dance extends. Such a vision of the life of the church leads us to want to extend the dance, to cast wide the invitation so that more and more of us might be drawn out of our fragmented loneliness and into the dance of peaceful difference.

Evangelism’s two prongs: Hospitality and Witness
If we were to become motivated in this way, we might begin to think about evangelism as having two prongs: on the one hand hospitality (inviting in), and on the other hand witness (going out).

Inviting in
Hospitality means being attentive to the ways in which we welcome, or fail to welcome, those who risk worshiping with us. Along these lines, one of the questions we will have to ask is “Whom are we ready to welcome?”

Last summer I was talking with a Methodist pastor from Florida who told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had recently visited his church wanting to do a story about them.

Apparently the Journal reporter had heard that this was a “Goth” church (not gothic but “Goth”—black clothes, makeup, piercings, tattoos). But when asked, this pastor replied that they were not a Goth church, though there were Goth youth who attended. Well, asked the reporter, do you have a special Goth service? No, the pastor replied, we don’t.

What happened, the pastor said, was that the church had a band that played music in worship. As a gift to the community, the band decided to start playing at the soup kitchen as meals were being offered. Soon word got out about this band. Goth youth started showing up at the soup kitchen to hear the band. They learned over time that the band played also at a church, so many of them decided to come check it out.

Now, here’s the crucial part—when they showed up at the door they were welcomed. So they kept coming back.

This apparently wasn’t an interesting enough story for the Wall Street Journal. The reporter left in search of a church more easily labeled. There is certainly a story here, though, for those of us concerned to reach out to those most missing from our pews, those least likely to come to us. Part of that story is a story of welcome. Without parishioners ready to integrate the tattooed and pierced alongside the suit coats and dresses, there is no story.

Who is most missing?
If we are to evangelize well, we must be aware of who is most missing from our pews.

In the Episcopal Church, as in most mainlines, it is Gen X and Millennials (teenagers through early forties) whose attendance is most in decline. One thing that is coming to light about these generations (though it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to talk about shared generational qualities) is that they tend to be very interested in spiritual matters though not very interested in church. When they are interested in church, they tend to seek out those worship experiences and spiritual practices that draw them into something mysterious, something ancient, something transcendent.

So, it should not surprise us that some Episcopal churches are creating new Rite One services geared toward younger generations. Yet it is not just the ancient that draws these ambivalent pilgrims, it is the ancient combined with a lively engagement with today’s world, an authentic connection to everyday life, a willingness to be creative and experimental with the ancient treasures we have inherited; for example, Rite One liturgy with incense and icons coupled with contemporary music and video projectors. The new via media for Anglicanism may well be that between the ancient and the future.

Going out
Personally and Corporately
Alongside the task of hospitality, “inviting in,” is the call to witness, “going out.” It hardly needs to be said that the days are over when we could sit back and wait for people to come to us.

While there continues to be much talk about faith and spirituality, the cultural assumption that people will go to church no longer holds. In the Great Commission Jesus sends us out saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and in one of our post-communion prayers we ask God to “send us now into the world in peace.”

From the beginning the calling of the church has been to go out into the world, but for many years now we have been lulled by our status as keepers of the civil religion into thinking that we can wait for the world to come to us. With the days of cultural privilege behind us, we have to learn again to go forth. No matter how faithful and dynamic our parish might be, it will not draw others to Christ if no one sees what we’re doing.

Our going out can take a form that is both personal and corporate. First of all, each of us needs to become comfortable speaking of faith, telling our stories, creating spiritual friendships with the unchurched around us. This certainly does not mean that we prostitute friendship as a way to get someone “saved.” Rather, we determine not to hide the faith that gives us life.

Going out and bearing witness ought to have a corporate aspect as well. We need to find ways to be present in our communities as a body. In a world that is saturated with God talk (Walker Percy once said that when we say, “Jesus, Jesus” we might as well be saying, “Exxon, Exxon”) our most powerful witness might come through indirect means, through enacting parables of grace.

By this I mean, again, getting beyond the world’s economies of exchange and thus coming into the world as bearers of grace, pure gift.

For instance, there is a church in Minneapolis called House of Mercy that has a ministry to the community that they call the “Art Bus.” The church drives the Art Bus to public parks, unloads easels, canvases, paints, and brushes, and invites others to come make art. There is no charge and the church members, though present and engaged, do not use this as an opportunity to “sell” their church.

They simply believe that our world needs to encounter beauty that is neither selling something nor being sold. They believe that beauty is one means by which we encounter God. So, the parabolic gift of making art is offered not as a hook to get people in but as a gift that will do its own work through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Relative-Resistant Challenge
Our going out in witness will necessarily seek to be relevant to those we encounter but at the same time will be resistant to those aspects of culture that are stifling of spirit and ultimately death dealing.

Both conservative and liberal churches for the last forty years or so have sought a kind of cultural relevance through cultural compromise, making ourselves as much like the culture as possible in order to hold onto our cultural power.

Relevance should not be a passive compromise with the world but rather, as the etymology of the word suggests, should be an act of lifting up, in this case lifting up Christ to make him visible to the world. We might even think of the Eucharistic “elevation” as our act of greatest relevance and our relevance to the world as an attempt to reenact outside of the liturgy this liturgical moment.

Relevance begins with listening and taking seriously the hopes, dreams, and fears of the world around us, knowing that in part it has been the lack of vibrant spiritual practice in the church that has led others to seek spiritual connection outside of our communities.

Alongside such relevance, we need to remember that part of what makes us attractive is that we do not simply mimic the world but in fact enact a resistance to all that is demeaning, dehumanizing, and sinful.

The incredible outpouring that we all witnessed in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s death reveals, I think, the extent to which he was both resistant and relevant, never afraid to say “No” to the world but always showing forth a more powerful and determinative “Yes.”

A few months ago I was speaking with Sam Wells, an Anglican Priest and the new Dean of Duke Chapel, when he told me about a liturgical moment in his Cambridge, England, parish that profoundly embodied both relevance and resistance.

It was soon after 9/11 and England was preparing to join America in an invasion of Afghanistan. As his parishioners arrived on Sunday morning they found a large map of Afghanistan laid out on the floor of the worship space. Each person was given a picture of an Afghan man, woman, or child.

As worship began Sam announced that he was not sure whether they would celebrate eucharist; they would have to wait on the guidance of the Spirit. He then asked them to tell the story of the person whose image they were holding and to lay that image somewhere on the map of Afghanistan.

One by one the worshipers imagined a life for the person before them, and soon the map was filled with faces that represented the real lives of real people. The congregation then prayed for this country and its people.

When I asked Sam whether they celebrated eucharist he said, “I can’t really remember. I think we did.” What stood out that day was the exercise of humanizing and praying for the enemy. This practice was both relevant to a people who were preparing for war and resistant to any easy compromise with violence.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, “At any point in its history, the Church needs both the confidence that it has a gospel to preach, and the ability to see that it cannot readily specify in advance how it will find words for preaching in particular new circumstances.”

Our recovery of evangelism will require imagination to find the right words, actions, and practices to display the gospel in our circumstances, that is, to embody the hospitality that invites the non-Christian into an ancient-future church, and to engage in witness that parabolically enacts the relevant-resistant grace of God.

Dr. Scott Bader-Saye, a parishioner at the Church of the Epiphany, Clarks Summit, teaches theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton. He is the husband of diocesan youth missioner Demery Bader-Saye.

Scott received a Ph.D. from Duke University, an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and a B.A. from Davidson College. His teaching and research interests include political theology, economic ethics, providence and suffering, and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

His book, Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election, explores the politics of the Christian community seen through the lens of Israel's corporate election. He is currently working on a book project entitled Figuring Providence: A Theology of History, An Ethic of Risk. His articles have been published in journals such as Modern Theology, Studies in Christian Ethics, Pro Ecclesia, and Christian Century. He recently wrote the lead article for Christian Century, November 30, 2004, The Emergent Matrix: A new kind of church? He is actively involved in diocesan community ministry, plays guitar, and enjoys the music of U2.


Chris+ said...

Interesting. Thx for it. My experience is that we spend so much time saying what we are not, there is little time or inclination to articulate who we are...Hope you are well.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comment, Chris. I hope you are well, too!