Something Worth Sharing: Evangelism Reclaimed

“Most Episcopalians think they don’t like evangelism,” says the Rev. Whitney Rice, associate rector of St. Francis In-the-Fields in Zionsville. “And that’s because their image of evangelism is coercive, exploitative: ‘Bible-thumpers’ and televangelists.

“And no wonder they shy away from that,” she says. “Shying away from that is actually a really good spiritual instinct. And so, we’re trying to teach that evangelism is not what you think it is. All of those negative exploitative coercive practices are Christian malpractice, and not evangelism. Evangelism with integrity is about spiritual intimacy, it’s about going to the deep places of life with one another and sharing what God is doing in our lives in those places.”

Photo credit: Emily Scott

In early 2018, Rice and Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, the diocese’s canon to the ordinary for administration and evangelism, were awarded a $4,700 evangelism grant from the Episcopal Church for a project that will “comprehensively reimagine evangelism” in the diocese.

Local evangelism efforts received another boost when 12 members of the diocese, representing four parishes, attended Evangelism Matters: The Episcopal Evangelism Conference, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

“It is so nice to know that, as a diocese, we are building a nucleus of diocesan leaders who are invested in this work of evangelism,” says the Rev. Julia Whitworth, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, who attended the conference. “That’s powerful.  We have good news in this diocese – and part of that is our awesome new bishop — and I’m pleased that we’re taking that seriously.”

Rice, who is offering a teaching series for lay and clergy leaders across the diocese called “Evangelism with Integrity,” was happy to find people from across the church grappling with the same issues that she and her colleagues are facing in Indianapolis. “I found a lot of similar themes were rising to the top,” she says. “That was really encouraging, because for me, it feels like the Episcopal Church is finding a way to do evangelism that’s true to our identity and our culture, while still being a little risky and brave enough to go a little further than we have before.” The first “Evangelism with Integrity” workshop took place at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bloomington on May 9, with approximately 30 priests and deacons in attendance. Sessions for lay and clergy teams will be held around the diocese in the summer and fall.

In Cleveland Heights, Rice attended a workshop called, “Creating Third Spaces as Evangelistic Hubs.” “It was about turning the model of hospitality and welcoming on its head a little bit, because hospitality and welcoming still places the inviter in a place of power,” she says. “We discussed approaching evangelism less as ‘Come in here and let us talk to you’ and more as ‘Go out there and be with people and take risks,’” she says. “It was about getting less attached to our buildings, our familiar spaces, our familiar liturgies, our familiar everything, and asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing outside of what we already know?’ That’s really important, and it’s hard for anybody, and hard for Episcopalians.”

One theme that recurred frequently at the conference was the link between evangelism and discipleship. Workshop leaders said that helping Episcopalians to grow in their faith is essential in helping them to articulate that faith. The conference offered practical ideas for this kind of work that could be taken home and, in some cases, put to use immediately.

Leigh Ann Naas, a lay leader from Trinity, Indianapolis was driving home from the conference with Whitworth, her rector, when they learned that the speaker scheduled for their Sunday adult forum couldn’t make it. “So, we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we share what we learned?’” Naas says. “So we used the ‘share your story model’ that was presented during the Evangelism 101 training session.”

The exercise Naas and Whitworth used is called “Welcome to the Feast,” and starts by breaking the audience into pairs and asking them to share stories of memorable meals. This leads to deeper conversation about what is important to each person, and where they see God at work in these stories.

“It went really well,” Naas says. “We encouraged people to pair with those they didn’t know that well, so there were great little one-on-one conversations happening throughout our parish hall. And then we got done at 12:15, but many people stayed in their one-on-one conversation and continued chatting. No one was in a hurry to leave.”

Whitworth soon carried out a similar storytelling approach during a meeting with adult and youth confirmands. She asked each person to tell a story about something beautiful they encountered in the previous week. “And the most incredible stories came up,” Naas says. “I ended up using the same approach in my discipleship small group that Monday. It is sometimes hard to say, ‘How has God been active in your life this week?’ But when you hear a story about something beautiful that happened, and you can respond by saying, ‘I see God in that’—that becomes an easier entry into that conversation.”

The Rev. Suzanne Wille, rector of All Saints in Indianapolis, also put lessons from the conference to use right away. “I attended a workshop called ‘Knowing Our Story, So We Can Tell Our Story: Scripture Engagement in Your Congregation,’” Wille says.

During this workshop, the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, led a simple Bible study. Together, the group read a passage, summarized it, and then answered the questions, “What sticks out to you? And what questions do you have?” Gunn then asked, “Where do you see yourself in the story?”

The exercise took about 10 minutes and, as opposed to using the lectionary, Gunn suggested reading through a book of the Bible. “That way, there’s a sense of the arc of the whole — not just little bits and pieces,” Wille says. “That was a great session, and I immediately started that practice on Monday at my vestry meeting.  I said, ‘We’re doing this, and after Easter we’re going to read Acts together. However long it takes us, we will read the entire book of Acts as a vestry, because if you don’t place yourself in the story, you don’t have much to share.’ And they loved it!”

Some attendees said the conference was evidence of a shift in the Episcopal Church’s sense of itself. “We in the Episcopal Church have something that’s really worth sharing, and we believe in Jesus, we love Jesus and now, we’re going to talk about Jesus,” Wille says. “That feels major to me.

“There was a woman sitting next to me during one session, and she said she felt like she was being ‘unshackled’ by this conference. I said, ‘Wow, that’s really strong language. What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘It just felt like for years, we just weren’t allowed to talk about Jesus.’ What does that say about us? That we didn’t want to talk about Jesus for all these years?”

Rice, too, felt something significant happened in Cleveland Heights. “During the conference, we talked about how the words ‘evangelism’ and ‘angel’ share the same Greek root, and how the first thing angels or messengers say is ‘Do not be afraid,’” she says. “I felt like I was watching people lose fear. Their fear was being reduced. And I thought, ‘That is evangelism itself. Any practice or encounter or interaction that we do or participate in that reduces fear, that’s evangelism. And I felt like the whole conference did that. I saw people getting more confident. And I thought, ‘This is so much what I want for our clergy and lay leaders in this diocese.’”

© 2021 Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis