Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Representing Jesus

I don't think I'll ever forget the conversation I once had with a Reconstructionist Rabbi about Evangelism. She was launching a campaign in her congregation to evangelize those who had no expression of their faith and belief in God. She was concerned, primarily, about "secular Jews" but was not limiting the campaign to Christians or Buddhists or Muslims in the same category.

"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.

She wasn't doing anything that Christians haven't done for centuries - and, not just to 'disaffected', formerly religious people. Some Christians have actively sought after practicing Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and even other Christians and tried to 'convert' them. They have done so primarily by saying, "We've got it right. You've got it wrong. Be a ('better') Christian."

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.

"Perhaps," she said, "but it does give a message about commitment. And, all religions expect some form of commitment, don't they? I mean, don't you ask people to 'give their lives to Jesus'? Isn't that what your baptism and confirmation is all about? Don't you require baptism before you feed anyone your communion? Isn't that the point of your 'evangelism' - to bring souls to Christ? Why is this any different?"

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.

I think, in order to be a good evangelist, you have to be honest about your own faith. And, I think you need to convey that faith with an authenticity that doesn't try, first and foremost, to 'convert' anyone.

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: " 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
Evangelism means that you are so clear about what you believe that you don't have to 'club' someone with 'The Truth' that only you and a few elect others possess.  It means that you have to let go of an understanding of evangelism as being a vehicle of your own ambition or your sense that 'converting' others bolsters your understanding of being 'right'. 

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.


SCG said...

I like this a lot, and I agree with what you're saying, especially with this:

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.

Yes to all of that! And yes, too, to your statements about Buddha and Jesus. The teachings are really not that different and can live side by side nicely... if we would all chillax. (Sorry: been through quite a storm with local clergy over the meaning of "interfaith").

I tell people that all of us who believe in something greater than ourselves and see the interconnectedness of humanity to the rest of creation are traveling along a highway toward what I call "God". We may be in different lanes, driving different types of vehicles, and sometimes we switch lanes and find that helps us pick up speed on the journey, or might slow us down and require another lane change. But we're all on the road.

Sadly, there seem to be too many "things" and too many medians that have blocked us from seeing each other. Or we believe we're the only ones on the road, and we won't yield to merging traffic.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

SCG - I couldn't agree with you more. As Ellie Weisell says, "Many paths, one way to God".

Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for this, Elizabeth. There is much to ponder here.
But as I listen to my fellow Episcopalians, I especially agree with this:
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.
I fear we confuse evangwlism with increasing our income. Lord, have mercy.

Matthew said...

I have always loved the Franciscan quote best, "proclaim the gospel at all times; use words, if necessary.". That pretty much sums it up for me.

There is another impediment though and that is sometimes our leaders would prefer we not share our faith because they feel threatened by what we actually say to newcomers. Or they undermine it later. The reconstructionist rabbi did not have this insecurity. Some of our views are simply too radical. They'd rather us cover ourselves with a bushel much like many wished Spong had done. And so I will conclude with a question about that. I am surprised that you disagreed with him so much. You'll have to blog about it some time. I agreed with him a lot which is perhaps why some wanted me silenced rather than doing evangelism.

They feared that some of us would lead more people out of the church than in.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I adore Jack AND I'm a lot more theologically conservative than he is. Actually it's not that I disagree so much as I'm not convinced. I so appreciate the fact that he makes me think about what I believe. It's a real gift.

Matthew said...

Thanks. I think for me, its that I'm not convinced either way -- too many nagging doubts all round. Which is why when I talk about my faith (to others), I frighten people, maybe because after all these years I'm still not really sure of any of it (heck, not just the resurrection, maybe even the incarnation, which you have said would not make it worth it). I have supposedly been a committed Anglican for decades including Sr. Warden, yada, yada, worship leader, and still after all these years, most days I still wake up not being sure if even Christianity is right for me, let alone Anglicanism. I had a conversation like this a few weeks ago with a visitor and I simply said, "Jesus helped and served people. I like that example. That is what I am trying to do. That's all I got." Several years ago a friend said to me, you know, you really are just a Unitarian but you feel more comfortable in an Episcopal Church. That stung. Probably because it was true.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I get it. I think the 'Fundgelicals" have so hijacked the understanding of what it means to be s Christian that it's hard not to be confused and to get down to the bare essentials.