Sunday, June 01, 2008

Listen in Love

Our previous discussion on evangelism was helpful to me. Thanks to all who contributed.

To expand that conversation a bit, I want to introduce a statement from the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission written in 1990 as the Episcopal Church launched "The Decade of Evangelism":

Statement on Decade of Evangelism - April 1990

We are alarmed by the call to a "Decade of Evangelism." We recognize that evangelization is a biblical imperative. We also recognize that there are contradictory understandings of what the word "evangelism" implies. But the term "evangelism," as currently used and heard, leads to confusion, misunderstanding, and anxiety.

We see evangelization in terms of unselfish spiritual awakening in which we proclaim the good news of God's love in Christ to a world greatly in need of reconciliation.

This call to evangelization is a frightening challenge for a church preoccupied with its own internal affairs. It will be less frightening if we can divest ourselves of false notions of what it means to be the church, and renounce the temptation to use the "Decade of Evangelism" simply to increase our numbers and income.

If we are to answer the call to evangelization, we need to become a people of humility and love, confident in our own standing in God's grace. This can happen if we become the church which the liturgy proclaims us to be: the people of the baptismal covenant, formed by word and sacrament.

We begin to evangelize when we listen in love to the stories of individual people and to the stories of the world. Only then can we discover how to proclaim the good news in ways that can be heard. We continue to evangelize as we proclaim Christ's death and rising in our worship together.

Our first calling is not to proselytize. Our first calling is to proclaim the reign of God in the world, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being, ready to give an account of the hope that is in us.
We begin evangelism by listening. And then we listen some more. It is only when we really hear the stories of others that we will know how to proclaim the good news in ways that can be heard.

The truth of the matter is that the way folks "did" evangelism 50 years ago simply does not work in most cases today.

I know those old methods quite well. When I was 12, I attended a week long Lay Institute for Evangelism. At the conclusion of the course, we were sent out onto the streets, equipped with a floppy bible and a handful of "The Four Spiritual Laws" tracts. We were instructed to win as many souls for Christ as possible in the next few hours, and then return to report on our mission at the end of the day. I found three elderly, unshaven and disheveled men in the city park who seemed so moved by my fiery rhetoric that they were quite eager to drop to their knees right there in the park and pray the sinner's prayer with me. Then, each of them asked me if I could spare a dollar, which I was more than happy to provide, now that I could report back that my mission had been a successful one.

The skills I learned in that course were to be helpful later on in life. By the time I was fifteen, I'd fallen from grace quite a bit, and was now a devotee of drugs, sex and rock and roll. I ended up as a ward of the court in juvenile hall, with no parent or guardian. Since there were no placement options, it looked like I might stay in detention indefinitely.

Then a friend who was incarcerated with me told me about this church group that got him placed in the Nicky Cruz Home for Boys in Fresno (Nicky Cruz was the main character in David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade and the author of Run, Baby, Run). So I asked if he could get that group to contact me. They showed up the next day. Immediately, they started in on trying to "save" me. I recognized the bible verses, the cliches, etc., and knew exactly what they wanted. And I gave it to them. Got very sad. Said the sinner's prayer. And then we all rejoiced; they for a sinner saved from the flames of hell, and me for being saved from the hell of juvenile hall.

Before telling you about Fresno, let me offer a word about "saving" people. The following story is told about Abp. William Temple. Apparently, he was known to be a bit abrupt at times with some people. One day he left the cathedral in "civvies" (no collar). As he was walking down the street, a woman approached him and asked, "Brother, are you saved?"

He turned to her and said, "Madam, I was saved as a wee lad when I was baptized, I am being saved right now, and I will be saved when my good Lord comes again. Now, leave me alone!"

That's a great response. It captures the centrality of our baptism to our identity as Christians, as well as drawing us to recognize that salvation is an ongoing process.

So, I got out of juvenile hall and was placed in the Nicky Cruz Home in Fresno. It was a very strange place. Every weekend, about eight boys would be loaded into a van and be taken to offer our "witness" at a church or youth group. If we didn't have a church gig lined up, we were taken downtown and given a stack of tracts to pass out on street corners. I lasted two months before hitting the road again.

I know those methods well. And I think that in today's society, they are a major turn off. Beating people over the head with the bible and telling them they have to turn or burn is the best way I know to turn most folks away from Christ. I can't recommend it.

So, what can we do? We meet people where they are in their spiritual life, and avoid the temptation to drag them to where we think they should be. And so, we begin by listening. We listen to the story of another person, and then share our story, always looking for the places where God's story touches them both.

There are those who will claim that such a deviation from the pattern that previous generations used to do evangelism is a watering down of the message of the Gospel. I disagree. The message of the Gospel, the healing power of God's redemptive love made know to us through Jesus Christ, remains the same. What has changed is the packaging of that message. And the most prominent new element of that packaging is a big dose of humility.

Those who study such things claim that a person hears the message of the Gospel on an average of 25 times before making any decision as to how to respond to the message. One of the biggest problems Christians face is that we all want to be that 25th person! Evangelism is not about getting another notch on our ecclesiastical belt. One plants, another waters, and God gives the growth.

Beyond that, I think we have to face up to the fact that the "turn or burn" message is probably one of the major causes for the fastest growing religious identity found in national polls is "no affiliation." People started getting turned off by the way the message was proclaimed in the 60s, when the cultural mores softened, and one would no longer lose their social status if they slept in on Sunday morning instead of getting up and going to church. Consequently, we now have at least three generations who have a limited knowledge of Christianity. They don't know the bible stories. They don't know church jargon. Their impression of Christianity is gleaned from the televangelists, who, for the most part, are still stuck in the 1950's mode of fire and brimstone proclamation.

It is not because our culture has become more decadent that the message of the Gospel struggles to be heard today. It is because of the Church's poor job of proclaiming that message. A dose of humility is long overdue.

In the previous discussion, quite a few folks mentioned the St. Francis quote, "Preach the Gospel; if you must, use words!" Others pointed out that can be seen as a cop-out. That's a good point, especially in regards to Episcopalians. Let's face it; we're uncomfortable with talking about our faith. We're the group that is sometimes described as the ones who imagine hell to be having to eat a four course meal with your salad fork. It just seems to be rude to talk about religion. Consequently, Francis' line is a handy excuse to guard our standards of proper etiquette.

But, not so fast. Remember that we have three generations that don't know much about the Gospel. At best, they are apathetic to the message. Some, however, are antagonistic to it, and possibly for good reasons. Bigotry, war and exploitation of our resources are sometimes justified by those claiming to represent the Christian faith. Our witness through our actions may be the only Gospel some of these folks may ever read.

Think about it. Someone considers the followers of Christ to be a joke, and the Church to be just another racket to haul in big bucks. But then they see Christian communities expending their resources on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and welcoming the outcast; reaching out to those who most likely will be able to give little back, and they take notice. It doesn't make any sense. It seems like a foolish investment. Unless, just maybe, they really mean all this stuff about love and redemption?

We've got a lot of work to do to rehabilitate our image in the world. We have a long history of unhelpful rhetoric working against us. It seems to me that the first step is to relearn the art of listening. Informed by what we hear, we can then engage in loving actions. Such actions will be the evidence necessary for some to reconsider the message we have to offer. Such actions will also put things back in perspective. Rather than striving to be that 25th person, we will be able to refocus on God's mission instead of our own, and then move with God, from glory to glory, transforming this world in the name of Christ.


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