There are some aspects of this project that are worth noting:
On Tuesday, June 22, four members of the Evangelism Team of the Church of St. Simon the Cyrenian visited about 70 homes in the immediate neighborhood of the parish in the first installment of what is planned to be a regular door-to-door outreach.
Such outreach is not exactly common among Episcopal parishes, so people often ask, “Well, what do you say when you go door-to-door?” Each pair of visitors asked residents this particular question, “Is there something you would like us to pray for in church at St. Simon’s this Sunday?” People were home at about 20 of the residences. Seventeen prayer requests were received, and these will be offered up in this coming Sunday’s liturgy. Each of the responsive households will receive a follow-up letter from the parish.
Team members went with an invitational card, and with a copy of the previous week’s bulletin. These were given to respondents and left in the mailboxes of those not home. The visitors were three members of the parish’s Men’s Fellowship – Ardon Michaels, Herman Harvey, Cuthbert Barker – and myself as the interim pastor. We split into two pairs and moved down on opposites sides of each street, ringing doorbells as we went. Team members plan to share from their experience during this Sunday’s announcements.
In only several instances were those who answered the door unwelcoming. Responses from others ranged from mild interest to real appreciation to theological discussion. Among the highlights:
• One person came out of her home and sat on the front stoop to engage a team with lengthy and cordial conversation.
• One person said he was a Muslim and therefore not particularly interested in conversation, but he thanked us for visiting and referred us to two apartments upstairs that we might otherwise have missed.
• Several people expressed appreciation that we were going door to door and noted that they were not used to seeing that. One person said that she had never seen a pastor visiting the houses on her street and that she was reassured by the sight.
• Of the 17 responding households, probably about a dozen already had a church that they regularly attended. We told them that we rejoiced in that. We certainly were not urging any changes in membership. With other households we were quite frank in inviting them to visit St. Simon’s.
• People had prayer requests You that they wanted to share. Some of them were very general like “world peace” or “family.” Other prayer requests were a good deal more specific.
• We were struck by how far many people travel to go to church. New Rochelle is a city of about 75,000 people located northeast of New York City, about a half hour away by train. Some respondents traveled to the Bronx, Brooklyn, Bronxville or Times Square to get to church.
The team met on the previous Saturday for an orientation session that I conducted. The group took as its biblical foundation Jesus words to his disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). I defined mission as ministry in the dimension of difference, an understanding that I have been working on for some time and which is developed fairly fully in my forthcoming book, Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference. I defined evangelism as telling our story in the light of God story.
The evangelistic outreach of visiting homes in the neighborhood was related to St. Simon’s mission statement, which highlights an aspiration that the parish be a beacon for the community. I noted that St. Simon’s has a strong internal community but that last winter’s Vestry retreats had raised the question whether the parish was effective in having an impact on the wider community of New Rochelle and the neighboring towns.
The open-ended question – “Is there something you would like us to pray for in church this Sunday?” – is designed to catalyze conversation that has both the vertical dimension of relationship with God and the horizontal dimension of community care. It is a question that seeks to serve. It does not pry into people’s theological persuasion, nor is it aimed at buttressing church membership.
Evangelism is one aspect of the broader mission that the parish is organizing and which includes outreach to local colleges and service to major communities of need in the local area. For instance, last week a group of leaders from the parish met with the assistant to the city manager of New Rochelle in order to seek assistance in discerning how a congregation like St. Simon’s can best serve the wider community.
- motivation--The basis of the project was grounded in the congregation's understanding of mission and their role in the community as a "beacon for the community." Note how the parish undertook mission projects which involved going to city and civic leaders and listening to how the parish might serve the community more and in projects of direct outreach.
- listening--I was intrigued by the question asked by the visiting teams to people who answered their doors, "“Is there something you would like us to pray for in church at St. Simon’s this Sunday?” Clearly, the visitors are telling people about St. Simon's and certainly their hope is that some people would come to their church. But the content of their opening question asks what St. Simon's can do for the person, and it is framed in terms of what St. Simon's does best. It is also a question that requires the inquirer to stop and listen to whatever comes next. So to do this successfully, the visitors must be ready to accept whatever response they get and must go with an accepting attitude, rather than wanting to change a person's mind on the spot.
- story--I think a project like this is consistent with the work we in the Diocese of Bethlehem has been doing around evangelism, not only because the congregation chose a pro-active approach, but mainly because the approach St. Simon's chose is grounded both in mission and in the spiritual vitality of the congregation. Previously, the parish took their Palm Sunday procession which had previously been restricted to the church and parking lot out into the streets of their city. Folks who take part in the effort, must be aware of their own spiritual story, but also have the maturity and confidence to listen first, pray when needed, and the confidence to accept gracefully whatever response comes along.