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The Episcopal Church attempts to jump start Evangelism to reverse decline

The Episcopal Church attempts to jump start Evangelism to reverse decline

By David W. Virtue, DD
November 25, 2016

To ward off its inevitable demise, Episcopal Church leaders are rediscovering evangelism, a notion that has lain dormant for over two decades when the church was being run by a succession of liberal presiding bishops including Ed Browning, Frank Griswold and Jefferts Schori who felt little inclination to talk up the Good News about Jesus, but is now in the process of being reinvigorated by a new Presiding Bishop with his call for a new Jesus Movement.

An Evangelism Matters conference held in Dallas recently (an evangelical diocese) dealt with such weighty questions as, What is evangelism? And much more.

Frank Logue, a speaker gave a conference summary in the final session. Here is what he said. "We have spent this day and a half immersed in the love of God together with Episcopalians who want to share the joy of Jesus with others in a way that is both winsome and humble.

"In recent years, we have heard 'The church isn't dying. We are killing it.' And yet in this time and in this place we have heard that Anglicans are not allergic to Evangelism and we need not take Excedrin before saying the word. This is a call to go back to who we really are. Instead of saying "The 'E' word", we can claim Episcopal Evangelism not as an oxymoron. Evangelism is not about growing the church, but sharing the love we have experienced with a hurting world.

The Church's Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, Stephanie Spellers, said "We are The Jesus Movement: We are following Jesus and growing loving, liberating and life giving relationships with God, with each other, and with creation, alleluia! This is not a program, she reminded us, but a way of life."

Dallas Bishop George Sumner, reminded the gathering that sharing the Good News is not about church growth. "We might well in our Evangelism welcome people into our church, but what we are really about is getting people to join King Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. Ride on King Jesus."

Then there was Alberto Cutie, once one of the country's popular Roman Catholic priests. He hosted Spanish-language television and radio talk shows, was highly respected among parishioners in his community, and had even earned the nickname "Father Oprah." Then, a few photographs of him on a beach with a divorced woman changed everything. The former priest who had a hard time with celibacy quickly got picked up by Episcopal Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida and the rest is history.

At this conference he said many in society have given up on Jesus without having even been introduced because the people they do hear talking about Jesus are scary freaks. "So, our biggest challenge as church is what will we offer to help people want to connect with this Jesus we know and love?"

Marcus Halley said that in a society filled with fear and divisiveness, we need to trust in abundance; we have enough to do what God is asking us to do. "We need to overflow into our world letting people know that you are always welcome at this table, because there is always enough."

Mary Parmer quoted no less an authority than Wikipedia in a way she found moving as the entry on Evangelism says, "The New Testament urges believers to speak the Gospel clearly, fearlessly, graciously, and respectfully whenever an opportunity presents itself."

A participant from Mexico said that evangelism is walking with sisters and brothers and finding out that God has arrived first and then just being present.

We started to trend on Twitter with #evangelism16 as the panel continued. Carrie said, "We need people gossiping the Gospel." Alberto said, "Sheep make sheep. Shepherds do not make sheep. This is a biological fact." He was reminding us that work of making sheep is not for the clergy alone or even primarily. Marcus Halley said we need a church where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.

Bishop Curry then weighed in and said, "We may be taking part in a re- evangelization of the western world....evangelism is about going home and helping each other find our way home. We got the people and the brain power, he said, and we are working on the heart power."

Then he opened up a real challenge. "What if we became Episcopalians without borders? My mind was blown. We could use the money from closing churches to start new ones as we steward the money entrusted to us even across diocesan boundaries. What if every person being preparing for ordained ministry learned Evangelism as we have learned Clinical Pastoral Education? We would change the culture of the church and would change the world."

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry added, "I have no illusion of vast numbers of Episcopalians going out two by two with Forward Day by Day and The Living Church under their arms. But we have Episcopalians on Facebook. I know, I have seen your cats and your dogs!" To this I say, I have seen your cats and your dogs, but have your friends seen Jesus through your posts. Bishop Curry said, "This may be the new Roman highway. Facebook may be the way to help our brothers and sisters to find their way home to God and to each other."

So what was wrong with this conference and their understanding of evangelism?

Firstly, there was absolutely no mention of sin in any of the missives coming out of this conference. No one talked of the wrath of God against sin. No talk that we are unrighteous and need the righteousness of God to make us righteous. It was all about hope that Episcopalians had something to offer people and the world. But no one "comes home" apart from repentance, confession and faith in Christ. No one talked about the inevitability of judgement that comes to those who refuse to believe.

Secondly, this is pseudo evangelism. It is not the kind of evangelism you might encounter from a Billy Graham, John Stott, J. I. Packer, Michael Green or any other evangelical Anglican who know precisely what evangelism is. (The ACNA has a clear fix on evangelism and, as a result, is growing.)

Thirdly, to talk about evangelism without telling people that they are actually lost without a Savior is to minimize the reality of sin, the nature of their lostness and the cost of discipleship should they make a commitment to Christ.

Fourthly, not to mention vicarious or substitutionary atonement, however simply, is to truncate the message and sell people short on the consequences of unconfessed sin.

Fifthly, to talk of love and ignore the greatest act of love, namely the death of Christ on the cross (for our sins) is to preach a less than true or accurate understanding of the need for the cross for our salvation.

Sixthly there was no talk that "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" 1 Peter 3:18. Such language was not to be found at this "evangelical" gabfest.

Seventhly, to tie evangelism with racism or baptism is illegitimate. Racism is an issue for sure, so is abortion and homosexuality all of which are sins that need to be confessed. To attach any one sin to the gospel is to short change the message and invites the charge of works righteousness.

Eighthly, baptism does not in and of itself save us, it is an outward sign of an inward faith. If faith has not been exercised, then baptism is of little or no avail.

In baptism, if parents and their children who do not diligently attend the means of grace and have faith in Christ they will have only made things worse for themselves on the Day of Judgment, not better. Their lack of faith will be counted as spiritual adultery and disloyalty to a solemn covenant, and therefore judged more strictly than if they had never come into contact with the gospel at all. It is neither kind nor pastorally wise to allow someone to enter into such a covenant without making these things absolutely plain, writes theologian Lee Gatiss.

During the Eucharist, Bishop Curry took the Great Commission to go to all the world and make disciples and connected this to the Great Commandment "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all mind and love your neighbor as yourself." This is a false equivalency. The truth is the two are not connected. One has to do with telling the Good News to a lost world, the other is what believers are called to do and repeat each week at the Eucharistic table.

Baptism is about being immersed in the life of the Trinity, which is a life of love. In sharing this love we see that the Jesus Movement is not about bigger churches; it's about a better world. This connection to telling the love of Jesus means, "Evangelism isn't about Christian imperialism. It's about saturating the world in God's love," said Curry.

Making a "better world" is a by-product of making a redeemed people. Talk of "imperialism" is a fiction. It once meant that the United States and Britain used their colonial and commercial power to spread Christianity. Those days are long gone. The West is an actual spiritual decline while the Global South including China is on the rise. African evangelists are setting their sights on the West to evangelize it. Bishop Curry should get his facts right before making silly pronouncements like this.

Canon Stephanie Spellers said that what we need to get out there and tell a different kind of story. "We can begin this by noticing what God has done in our lives, seeing what God is doing in the lives of others and then letting people know how we see Christ in them." If she honestly believes that "we are to see Christ in them", then there isn't much point in telling them that they are sinners in need of salvation, a view made abundantly clear by former Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori!

Unless Curry is prepared to tell people that they are lost in their sin and need to die to self and be reborn by the Holy Spirit then his call to evangelism will fall flat and nothing will change. Perhaps Curry might recall a hymn sung regularly by black Christians in churches across America, "Oh happy day, oh happy day when Jesus washed my sins away". Now that's the beginning of genuine evangelism.


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