The Rev. Whitney Rice, associate rector of St. Francis In-the-Fields in Zionsville, is a 35-year-old cradle Episcopalian, and not once in her life has she ever heard anyone say, “Wow. Those Episcopalians are really great at evangelism.”
Rice aims to change that, and last week, she and Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, canon for evangelism and administration, were awarded a $4,700 evangelism grant from the Episcopal Church for a project that will “comprehensively reimagine evangelism” in the Diocese of Indianapolis.
“What we think of as evangelism is actually spiritual malpractice,” says Rice. “It’s a tool of colonialism and imperialism, and it’s all about telling people that we’re right and you’re wrong. That doesn’t square with the living God that we preach.”
Rice, a 2008 graduate of Yale Divinity School, had been teaching new evangelism practices at St. Francis since shortly after she arrived in the fall of 2016. Soon after O’Sullivan-Hale’s appointment as canon for evangelism was announced, she sought him out at diocesan convention.
He called her on the following Monday morning and said, “let’s talk.”
The result was a grant proposal to train clergy and laypeople in the Diocese of Indianapolis to practice evangelism as what Rice calls “spiritual intimacy.” Workshops for clergy will most likely take place this spring, she says, and workshops for laypeople will happen in the summer. The project will culminate at diocesan convention in November.
“The words ‘evangelism’ and ‘angel’ have the same root word,” says Rice. “That root word is ‘message,’ and the first thing angels say in every message they bring is ‘Do not be afraid.’ The point of evangelism is to decrease fear.”
“The primary tool of evangelism should be asking questions,” she says. “But too often, people try to evangelize by pretending that the person they’re talking to doesn’t already have a spiritual journey.”
She asks people to practice at coffee hour. “Last week, how many comments about the Colts or the weather did you hear, and how many about God, Jesus, and the Spirit? If we’re not talking about what Jesus is doing in our lives to each other at church, we’re not a church; we’re a club. We need to be with each other in the deep places in life.”
Start, she suggests, by asking someone what’s been on her mind recently. “Maybe she’ll say ‘My brother got laid off.’” That’s an invitation to an open-ended conversation, she says, and it offers the chance to mention God.
“You might say, ‘When I got laid off, I was really mad at God.’”
When evangelism heads out the church doors, Rice says, it shouldn’t have the goal of recruiting more church members or more pledges. “If it’s about institutional self-interest,” she says, “it’s not authentic spiritual practice and it’s not going to bear any fruit.
“It’s about listening that is deeply, deeply motivated by love.”