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By Patrick Keyser
Evangelism is a loaded and difficult word for me. I was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, and evangelism was a major feature of my early life of faith. The evangelistic approach of my youth was focused on conversion. We had a message we wanted to share, and we weren’t afraid to do so. The methods by which we accomplished that goal, however, were often problematic.
I usually felt like I was trying to sell a product with the aim of saving souls. I never engaged in these activities because I wanted to do them or because they made me happy. I did them because someone else required me to do them. I have no memory of ever engaging in significant conversation or relationship building with anyone I attempted to evangelize. My aversion to this transactional approach to evangelism only grew with time and when I finally left behind the Christianity of my youth, I thought I left behind evangelism and everything I associated with it.
Many years later, I found my way to the Episcopal Church where, to my surprise, I encountered the opposite issue: People were often unwilling or frightened to speak about their faith at all. There was so much about the Episcopal Church that I loved. I wondered why Episcopalians didn’t want to tell others about the beauty of their tradition, and perhaps more worrying, why many seemed unwilling or frightened to talk about God. I frequently hear Episcopalians reference the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” It seems that too many Episcopalians take this idea to the absolute extreme. Why are we afraid to talk about God? Why do we struggle to share good news?
This General Convention has included a lot of talk about evangelism, as our Presiding Bishop has identified it along with racial reconciliation and creation care as one of his three key areas of focus. In his sermon at the opening Eucharist, Bishop Curry outlined a vision of evangelism as following in “The Way of Love” and adopting practices for a Jesus-centered life.
We were given a unique opportunity to experience this way of evangelism in Saturday evening’s revival service. While many eagerly anticipated the event, I had very mixed feelings as I remembered the guilt and emotional manipulation of the revivals of my childhood. While the revival was not the most comfortable experience for me, it was redemptive, for it testified again to a different way of doing evangelism. This revival was focused on love and deep, abiding joy, and the palpable sense of excitement was contagious. People were excited about the Gospel. They were joyful about the message of love revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
As I left the revival, I couldn’t help but wonder how we as Episcopalians could take the excitement from that place and bring it with us to our communities. It is easy to be excited about the Gospel when we are surrounded by so many others who share our perspective. The challenge is to continue to embody that excitement in a world that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to that message. It is the challenge set before us, and it demands our prayerful attention.
As I reflect on my own struggles with evangelism and try to envision a new way forward, I realize that, at its core, evangelism is about story telling. Though it is fundamentally about telling the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ, evangelism also requires us to cultivate and name our own stories of how we have come to know and experience the life-changing love of God in Jesus Christ. That is a good place to start. Evangelism is not about selling a product but about inviting others into the mystery and love of God. That is evangelism I can get behind. The invitation can be as simple as the one Philip offered to his friend, Nathanael, after he first encountered Jesus: “come and see” (John 1:46).
Patrick Keyser is a seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. During his time serving with the Episcopal Service Corps in Richmond, Va., he was awarded a grant to start a program that helps low-literacy adults who want to learn to read the Bible. He loves Italy more than most Italians.