Sunday, June 05, 2011

Transdermal Evangelism

While one might debate whether it's just another example of making virtue out of necessity, given the sharply declining percentage of the U.S. population that defines itself as Christian (especially among young adults), the subject of evangelism (or, as the Roman Catholics call it--aptly, I think--evangelization) has a certain currency across denominational and ideological lines these days. There are lots of different methods, lots of different "schools" of evangelism. I'm not an academic expert on the subject, or any kind of expert, for that matter. So what I say here is not intended to be an exhaustive tome.

My working definition of evangelism: The presentation of the good news of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ in a manner intended to draw people to repentance, faith, baptism, and discipleship in the communion of the Church.

In the ecclesiastical orbit in which I move--namely, Episcopalian--the evangelistic technique that I have heard mentioned most frequently over the last 35 years is, without a close second, "Invite your friends to come to church with you." At some level, I suspect, this has been voiced by well-meaning clergy who are trying to relieve their parishioners of the morbid dread they experience when they contemplate the possibility of actually talking to somebody about God. Don't even worry about it; just invite them to come to church, and maybe they'll see or hear something they like, and want to come back. Before you know it, they'll be on the Altar Guild rota, and you won't even have had to engage them at the level of their spiritual needs.

There's a certain admirable logic and consistency to this approach. After all, did Andrew talk to his brother Simon about Jesus all night? No, he simply brought Simon to Jesus, made the introduction, and let Jesus take it from there. We could do worse than to follow such an example. After all, as sacramental and liturgical Christians, do we not believe that Jesus is uniquely present in the eucharistic action? Do we not say that it is Jesus' own Body and Blood that lie on the altar as the congregation utters the Great Amen? What better thing could we do for those we care about than to invite them into such a Presence?

Here's where I think the logic breaks down: the Eucharist was never meant for the uninitiated. Our pre-Constantinian forebears (remember them? we're going to be getting to know them much, much better in the coming years) would be utterly gobsmacked by today's debate over whether the unbaptized should be invited to receive Holy Communion, because in their world, it was unthinkable for an unbaptized person to even be present in the same room while the Eucharist was being celebrated. The catechumens joined the faithful for the Liturgy of the Word, and then were dismissed following the sermon--dismissed with their catechists to further unpack the mysterium fidei as it slowly became clearer leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter at which they were baptized.

Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s (yes, when I was a kid): The default presumption was that everyone in America was some brand of Christian, unless you were in a place like New York, where the circle of expectations was expanded to include Jews. To be sure, some were more active than others, but everybody wore a label of one sort or another. (When I was rector of an old parish named St John's, I used to hear a lot of "I don't go to church, but St John's is the church I don't go to".) So if one of your friends or neighbors was inactive or unhappy, he or she was fair game for "Why don't you come to church with me this Sunday?"

Well, they still are, I would say. But it's a much, much shallower pond than it used to be, and continuing to dry up. Instead, we're looking at a cultural center-of-gravity that is astonishingly uninformed (or worse, misinformed) about even the most basic concepts of Christian belief and practice. Some are overtly hostile, but more are just benignly unconcerned; we're simply not on their radar. And inviting them to just come to church with us is like inviting a Harley-riding biker to come to a quilt show. It's not that the biker lacks the potential to appreciate the fine points of quilting, but there need to be a bunch of intermediate steps getting to that point.

The so-called "worship wars", but the way, are largely a consequence of this effort to make the Sunday Eucharist bear freight it was never intended to bear. Some souls readily intuit what's happening in the liturgy, but most do not. So there's contant pressure to tinker with the liturgy (usually fiddling with its music) to make it more accessible to those who know nothing about it, those who innocently impose their own cultural assumptions on the experience, and come away disappointed because the cat they just met meowed instead of barking.

Is there a "more excellent way"?

I believe there is, but it requires first having the courage to set aside the habit of thought that makes what we do in church on Sunday morning our show window to the world, the place where the Church's "product" is "merchandised" to potential "customers." And that's a lot more easily said than done, because it's a very, very, very deeply ingrained habit of thought.

If not through the "front door" of Sunday worship, then, where is the effective entry portal into the Christian community for someone who is beginning to experience spiritual hunger, but doesn't yet have the ability to name that as such, who doesn't yet have the vocabulary or the mental hooks by which to interpret what they're experiencing?

I suspect that what we need to find is a working side door. Or, to use a slightly different image, we need to configure our efforts at evangelization such that we create transdermal patches. A transdermal patch is a drug delivery system, but it doesn't use the main roads of oral ingestion or hypodermic injection. Instead, it makes a gentle and non-traumatic entry into the system, subtly infiltrating through the skin. An evangelistic transdermal patch probably looks like a social network--including cybernetic social networks, certainly, but, more importantly, human social networks with face to face interaction. Interaction, that is, probably not around concerns that would be immediately identifiable as spiritual or religious. Just real people being real to other real people.

Of course, this is already the context in which most effective evangelization already takes place. My point is that we need to become much more organized and intentional about it. The current generation of young adults may not know the difference between Easter and Groundhog Day (obviously, many do, but astonishingly many do not). But they are not immune to alienation, loneliness, cycnism, grief, despair, or just garden-variety boredom. We're probably not going to get them out of bed on a Sunday morning in time for a 10am Mass, wherein they might hear some pertinent homiletical words on those deep subjects. And if we did succeed in doing that, and if we're doing liturgy the way it should be done, we might just scare them off. But there are well-discipled Christians who are interested in mountain biking, or film noire,or fair trade coffee, or any one of a zillion things that people are interested in, and who can form relationships centered around those things.

I'm not talking about doing anything deceptive, surreptitious, or manipulative. If I want to start an organic gardening group (which I don't actually want to do, but hypothetically), I don't have to hide the fact that it's sponsored by St Swithun's Church. Most of them won't care, so long as no one makes them pray or sing or attend a bible study before they can harvest tomatoes. But when the teachable moment comes--and it does sooner or later for everybody, usually associated with adversity or tragedy--they will remember the bond they felt with the gardening group at St Swithun's, and that's when someone can explain about how Jesus walked out of his tomb and cared not a whit about whether he saw his shadow or not.

Then they can be enrolled as catechumens, and we can gradually show them that there is, in fact, a front door to the Church, and there's no way to avoid getting a little wet going through it.

4 comments:

George said...

Dan I think a key point in your post was about the person/s in question exhibiting some sort of 'seeking' for answers, truth, meaning, god, God whatever. I liken it to being at the beach where lifeguards are present, they don't really register on the consciousness level till we realise we are drowning. Having someone point them out on a calm day can come across as somewhat melodramatic?

Rob Eaton+ said...

There was something of a movement several years ago among "non-denominational" congregations (a local Calvary Chapel was involved in this, although it is hard not to identify them as not a denomination), where the Sunday morning worship was clearly earmarked as the open portal to the world, and the mid-week evening service was the service for the members. Part of their thinking was exactly that seekers also have ingrained in them that "Church" is on Sunday morning, so that is the default time frame they would be looking for.
I haven't heard much about that switcheroo over the last couple of years. Perhaps they ran into the grain of their own members.
Also missing was some correlation between such a switch, and the establishment of small groups, which would fit your bill. And small groups will once again be the premier strategy for the open door, once the megas begin to measurably dwindle due to lack of causal intimacy for fellowship.
One conclusion, then, is that no matter when the Christians decide to gather, there need to be planned opportunities for "seekers" and "invitees" to meet with other Christians in an informal, non-liturgical, yet potentially profound (ministry moments being expected and watched-for) venues.
And each of those venues must be prepared - even if by only of the Christians there - to receive and answer the question(s), "Who is Jesus, and why is that important to me?"

Tony Bleything said...

Great thoughts Bishop. There are some great conversations going on in the 'missional' circles of evangelicalism about a 'go-and-tell' vs. a 'come and see' mentality of outreach.
Mission must become how we live and not something we do.

Kelso said...

I haven't invited anyone to church in over 30 years. We used to be friendly and dignified but now we are friendly and familiar.

The 1979 BCP is an embarrassment to what used to be "The Church of Beauty".