Saturday, November 28, 2009

Detoxifying the 'E' word

John Smith writes in the Reading Eagle about the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori visited the Diocese of Bethlehem earlier this month.

One of the things our diocese did--which we found out after the fact was fairly unusual (good for us)--was that we spent the better part of four hours orienting her to our diocese. We shared with her the state of our diocese. We told her about what we do well and we were also honest about our greatest challenges. We shared both data and stories.

The Evangelism Commission shared our story, our process and our dreams as well as our accomplishments and our sometimes-successful-and-sometimes-not experiments. I thought that she engaged us the most when we began to talk about "effective communication of the Good News of Jesus Christ" to those outside the church. Bishop Katharine asked questions of us, wanted to know what worked, and was very interested to know about our work with Unbinding the Gospel. (Our gift to her was a copy of that book with a bookmark placed in Chapter Eight, which is where I think that every clergyperson should read first before going into the whole series.)

We were very cheered to hear talk about the things she learned about us when she preached and answered questions. She spoke of the joys and challenges of "telling what we have seen and heard" and we heard her talk directly about evangelism, putting it square into the context of mission. Her words and example went a long way towards "de-toxifying" the dreaded "E" word in the Diocese of Bethlehem.

For Episcopalians, de-toxifying the "E" word will mean doing more of what we are really good at--and communicating the 'why' behind what we do well--and less of trying to imitate what other traditions do a lot of. We can fall into our own version of toxic evangelism if we succumb to the temptation of believing that somehow the Gospel only resides in the Episcopal Church and everyone else is at least mildly deluded. What is important is that the way Episcopalians receive and live the Gospel does explicitly answer real human needs and points people to Christ. If the Gospel message brings life, then it is imperative that way we bring it be life-giving.

Here is what Mr. Smith wrote in the Reading Eagle:
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has a few words she doesn't care for. Evangelism isn't one of them.

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori highlighted "the dangerous 'E' word" in her message to members of the Diocese of Bethlehem in Lebanon earlier this month, admitting the word is toxic to most Episcopalians....

...Jefferts Schori offered a five-point message, doubled. She ticked off five marks of mission the church has adopted: proclaim the good news; teach, baptize and nurture its members; relieve human suffering; change the unjust structures of society; care for the Earth.

She also offered five different ways to implement the marks: to grow congregations in their ability to practice mission; identify and evangelize the community; emphasize education and formation for all ages; battle poverty and injustice in intentional ways; develop networks, partnerships and covenant relationships.

Regarding evangelism, the bishop said she hoped Episcopalians would feel as comfortable sharing the good news about Jesus as about a new restaurant they had discovered. On education, she suggested they use their brains, not just their ears....

...Other words could be problems and concerns. During the well-received Q-and-A session that followed, I asked what she considered her biggest one.

"The biggest challenge," the bishop replied, emphasizing the noun, "is growth." She said the church is losing 19,000 members a year, partly because "Anglos don't produce children." The overseas dioceses are growing, but the only four doing so last year nationally were Navajoland, Wyoming, North Dakota and Alabama. (Discounting Alabama, one might assume the church appeals to cowboys and Indians.)

That led to further evangelism talk. She called the church an attractive faith tradition for those of a Catholic background who don't want someone telling them what to do or have to worry about excommunication. "But we can't wait for them to come to us," she said. "We must be out in the community, sharing."
Read the rest here.