When I was a teenager in the Churches of Christ, I remember being trained on door-knocking. Most people are familiar with this method of evangelism, though most often it is simply described dismissively as a joke, rarely seen as a faithful way of bringing the gospel to people. However, for the tradition in which I was raised was raised, as well as for others, it is an essential way of casting your evangelistic seed wide, like the parable of the sower.
So there I was, a teenaged, passionate, evangelical Christian, knocking on doors to try and talk to people about their salvation. Most people were remarkably polite, more so than you might expect. But there was an oddity of the neighborhood we had not anticipated.
In the Churches of Christ, one of the fundamental tenets is the necessity of baptism for salvation. Baptism is how you receive the grace of God, it is what incorporates you into the Body of Christ. But, because of the curiosities of American religious history and geography, our tradition was used to arguing with Baptists and other evangelical groups about baptism. Most believed instead in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” while the Churches of Christ insisted that baptism was the Biblical way of becoming a Christian. I grew up thinking we were the only group that believed in baptism.
So, the entire dialogue we were trained for in door-knocking was one predicated on convincing people that baptism was essential for salvation… which made for some interesting conversations in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood I was dropped off in.
Because everyone agreed with me. I’d go through the whole litany of questions, ready to jump in and prove my point at any moment, only to have these Roman Catholics look at me with rather bemused expressions, telling me that yes, they had been baptized. Yes, they do believe that was what made them a part of the church.
“Well, bother, what do I say now?” I wondered to myself back then.
I’ve been involved in the Episcopal Church for almost ten years now, five of those years as a priest. I now understand much better than I did as an adolescent the theology behind the Christian tradition of baptism. I know now that since the publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry over thirty years ago, the current ecumenical consensus on baptism is actually rather profound. Indeed, the theology of baptism with which I was raised led rather naturally to the baptismal emphasis of the Episcopal Church, particularly since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
But if there is something I am increasingly aware is missing ever since I came to be in this Anglican tradition, it is this—a sense of the role evangelism plays in the church.
Because sometimes it seems as though Episcopalians believe in baptism, but we don’t really believe in evangelism.
A part of this is our, if I may be so bold, tendency towards a bit of ecclesial snobbery. On our best days, we are often described as “denominationally non-competitive.” That is, we don’t think every Christian needs to practice their faith in our tradition to be faithful. However, we also have a deep streak of turning up our noses, “tut tutting” other church’s practices, like an ecclesial dowager countess.
And when we do that, we begin to let our catholicity slip away.
Because to be a truly catholic tradition means we are not afraid of truth no matter where it is found. Most importantly, it means that we recognize that other parts of the Body of Christ bear witness to our God in ways we have not yet comprehended. We seek to learn from them, to grow from them, to see how another part of the body can help us be more faithful.
Some people say that evangelism is just not something we do in the Episcopal Church. And that may have worked in the era of Christendom, when people were baptized into the church at birth, raised in it as an essential part of society, and expected to participate in it regularly if they wanted a significant role in the community, but those days are long past.
The idea that evangelism is just not something we do simply will not work any longer.
We need to look more carefully at our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions, particularly those who have practiced evangelism well. We need to look at those who we think may not practice it well, asking ourselves if our reluctance comes from true disagreement on theology and Christian praxis, of it is just snobbery or cowardice. And if we disagree with the way another group does it, we need to do more—we need to come up with a way of doing it more faithfully. We need to begin once more (or perhaps for the first time!) to train our members about how you talk to someone about your faith and how you invite people into the faith.
I come from a line of people in my family who have been deeply gifted as what my former tradition called “personal evangelists.” These are people who have a calling and the training to spend time one-on-one with people who are searching, even people who may not realize they are searching. They guide people through the journey of learning about the faith, leading them to the opportunity to make a decision for the faith.
Surely, in the Episcopal Church, we can do this in more spiritually nuanced ways. We won’t fall into the all-too-common trap in some traditions of mistaking sheep-stealing for evangelism (though if the sheep of another tradition have wound up bruised and disconnected, we can faithfully welcome them to our flock). We can train people to recognize that we don’t bring God to people, we talk with people to help them discover a God who is already present in their lives. We can resist forms of emotional manipulation, encouraging decisions for Christ that are also a part of a life-long journey into the divine.
We can do all of these things. We must do all of these things.
But no longer can we say that evangelism is not something we do because it seems beneath our cultivated sense of Christianity.
And, to be honest, as we prepare in my own overwhelmingly anglo parish, in one of the most segregated areas in the entire country, to create a ministry to reach out to Latinos who live just outside of our segregated invisible walls, inviting them to be a part of us, to grow with us, to help us break down the segregation that exists in Northwest Ottawa County, to help us see more clearly the breadth and width of God in this world and in the church… as we prepare for all that, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we might even wind up knocking on some doors.
The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is a founding member of the Society, currently serving as Communications Director. His reflections on life and ministry can be found at his blog: Care with the Cure of Souls.