"We are trying to reach the disaffected or disinterested who come from any religious background," she explained. "We think we have something wonderful to share, and, as your Rabbi teaches, 'why keep a light under a bushel'? So, we are, as you say, 'evangelizing'."
I remember that my initial reaction was to feel a distinct upset in my stomach. I remember looking at her quizzically and asking, rather weakly "Well, hmmm.....but....what about 'live and let live'?"
"Right," she said, "Tell that to the 'Jews for Jesus' movement."
I got her point. I don't like that movement very much, either. So, was this retaliation?
Actually, she was simply trying to do what I and many other pastors try to do: Build up a community of faith, bringing people closer to God and each other in order to make the world a better place.
Now, the "we've got the best product" approach may sell cars and soap and mayonnaise, but I've never seen it work well with religion. Indeed, I think it's the one reason why so many Christians - especially Episcopalians - will recoil in horror whenever the word 'evangelism' is uttered.
So, I asked the good Rabbi about methodology. How was she going to go about this business of 'evangelism'? Could I expect to see posters around town? Would there be Jews going out, two by two, knocking on doors with pamphlets like the Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses? Could I expect to see advertizements in the local newspapers or snappy, slick 20 second ads on TV?
Her response surprised and delighted me. She said that she had challenged every member in her congregation to have what she called "intentional, honest, gentle conversations" with five people they knew who were experiencing a "spiritual hunger". People who were not part of a community of faith. People who could appreciate the things in their community and want to be part of it.
She said she had a special affinity for Interfaith couples who, she said, had been "lost" to the Unitarians or worse, were floundering around, trying to find a faith base for their children but had found that, whether Jew or Christian, had been given such a "hard sell" that they had been "turned off" to religious expression of any kind.
However, she said, it wasn't just couples. And, it wasn't just Jew or Christian. She was more concerned with providing a people with what she thought was their best "product" - a vehicle through which to have a better relationship with God and each other so that the world might be a better place.
"Hmmm.....," I mused out loud, "I think I've heard another Rabbi say almost those very words."
We laughed together, but I think she had the last laugh. Three years later, her congregation had grown to such a point that her congregation moved from the rented space they had been using and bought their own Temple.
Here's the thing about that Temple that I personally found disarming: The sanctuary was built with a low wall surrounding it. Those who were Jews or who had converted were allowed to sit in the sanctuary. Those who were not stood around the wall and watched.
"That's not very welcoming to non-Jews or especially those families who are discerning their religious expression of faith," I said, as gently as I knew how.
Okay, so she had a point. Perhaps I do have some mushy edges to my progressive faith.
Which, I think, is an interesting point about her methodology of evangelism. I think it's the honesty and authenticity that are the real 'hook'.
Say what you want about Billy Graham, but was there ever any doubt that this was a man who preached and lived what he believed? I disagree with about 80% of what comes out of his mouth, but I can't deny that he believed it and lived it. There's something really compelling about that.
Say what you want about Jack Spong, but there is never a doubt that this is a man who preaches and lives what he believes. While I also disagree with about 80% of what comes out of his mouth, I know that he believes and lives what he says. Hundreds of thousands - perhaps even millions - of people find that really compelling. I know I do.
From personal experience, I can tell you that Jack Spong never insisted that I or anyone believe what he believes. Oh, he would often shake his head as something I said or gently chide me about being a "good Catholic girl" but he always hastened to add, "Elizabeth, if that's who you are, then I want you to be the best Catholic girl you can possibly be." And, he meant it.
When I was in Thailand and visiting the Wat every day, one of the first things the monks said to me was, "You are always welcome here to pray with us, but we do not expect you to become a Buddhist. We hope that you become a better Christian because of what you learn from the Buddha."
There's something really wonderfully freeing about that attitude. It's honest and it's authentic. And, I think that I am becoming a better Christian because of the teachings of Buddha. From all that I've read and am reading, I think The Buddha and Jesus walk hand in hand. And, they laugh. A lot.
Here's my point about evangelism: I think we need to get very, very clear about what we mean when we say the word or try to launch an evangelism campaign.
As one of my friends often reminds me, when we see a new person walk into the church, we often see a dollar sign rather than a cross.
What he means is that we approach evangelism from a point of desperation for profit - and not Jesus The Great Prophet and our High Priest and Messiah. We are playing the 'numbers game' in order to increase the membership of our congregation and, not coincidentally, the congregational budget.
I don't think we're fooling anyone with that - except, maybe ourselves. I think people can smell that sales pitch as clearly as they can smell snake oil and, after a while, they slowly, silently slip away. Or, just show up at Christmas and Easter.
Rather, I think that personal honesty and authenticity is so compelling that some - not all - will want at least some of what you have for themselves.
Yes, that includes folks who are nominally Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever if....if... IF (am I making it clear that there is a condition here?)... IF.....they are dissatisfied or disaffected and remain spiritually hungry.
Ideally, I think the conversation should be initiated by them and their curiosity about the faith of another person, but I think there is something to be said about having an honest, respectful conversation about your faith and how it sustains you through difficult times.
By respectful, I mean that you are respectful of their religious experience and background. Just talk about yourself. Your own journey in faith. Be willing to plant a seed and leave the tending and watering to the Spirit.
Evangelism is not a game or a contest to see how many people you can convert to your way of thinking and believing. Rather, it's a way of representing Jesus as the outward and visible sign of what you believe and how you live your life.
In fact, that's how the Episcopal Outline of Faith (or Catechism) defines ministry: "..... to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given to them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship and governance of the Church." (BCP 855).
There are, of course, other descriptions of the other orders of ministry - deacon, priest and bishop - with the specifics of each role, but each and every one of them begins the same way: "....to represent Christ and his Church.....".
That sounds easier than it is, actually. It means that you have done your own spiritual work and can represent that honestly and authentically and with clarity and passion and a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.
It doesn't mean that 'all you have to do' is 'invite a friend/neighbor to church' and - POOF! - magically they will 'get it' and join you. Oh, it is one way, but it won't work if you aren't clear, yourself, about your own faith and why you go to that particular church.
Saying, "We're such a warm, welcoming community" will only go so far. What do you do after you say, "Hello. Welcome to our warm, welcoming community"? How do you live what you believe? How is that evident to anyone on the outside looking in?
Evangelism doesn't mean that you are recruiting members for your 'club' or 'community'. That may be part of how you grow a church, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you are inviting others to grow in their belief in God through Christ Jesus.
|Each One Reach One|
Perhaps we need to listen again to my friend the Reconstructionist Rabbi who was more concerned with providing a people with what she thought was their best "product" - a vehicle through which to have a better relationship with God and each other so that the world might be a better place.
Evangelism is decidedly not for sissies. It takes a great deal of patience and spiritual and psychological maturity. And, work. And, dedication. And, commitment. And, clarity. And, honesty. And, authenticity.
Perhaps this is why we do it so badly.
It takes a lot of chutzpah (audacity) to represent Jesus.