Does Growth = Evangelism?

Evangelism is kind of a dirty word in the Episcopal Church.  We don’t use it much.  We don’t teach much about it and what it meant to Jesus and why it should mean something to us today. Evangelism is not politically correct.

But spreading the Good News is what Jesus set out to do and why He gathered around Him a group to multiply His efforts.

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Growing the church again after years of steady decline in membership, attendance and pledge support is a challenge facing every mainline denomination. For the Episcopal Church in the United States the decline has averaged -3.3% per year in the key metrics. For the Diocese of California, the implications of this are profound.

At that current rate of decline, the Episcopal Diocese of Caifornia will have one-half the pledge units (<5000) in 2022 than it had in 2000. Similar decline in membership and average Sunday attendance means the Episcopal Church faces an existential threat to its relevance let alone vitality.

The reasons for decline are varied ranging from changing demographics, changes in family religious traditions as secularization pushes faith out of the public square, our schools and other places. And there are the self-inflicted wounds of churches who still believe they have a monopoly on people’s religious faith experiences. Then there are the endless conflicts of church politics, religious strife and other bad press that make church seem less inviting, less safe, less home.

The church has a big problem, but the Holy Spirit is calling us to trust Him with these burdens and follow our own Great Commission to go out there and make disciples of all the nations—starting with our neighbors. This is not a message we hear very much in the Episcopal Church because we have not had a theological tradition of being evangelists.

What is it about evangelism that turns us off?

Maybe evangelism threatens our sense of safety?  We like it in our congregational silos where we go through the motions and feel comforted by the sameness of the ritual.  Most congregations I have belonged to have the same blinders on seeing themselves as unique and the idea of collaboration with others is something we assign to outreach performed safely from a distance.  We’d rather send money than roll up our sleeves and work in the vineyard ourselves.

Growing the church is about growing community—and being in communities that thrive on faith, and love and the joy of being the Body of Christ means doing His work in the vineyard we are given to tend. It is Jesus calling us to live into our own Great Commission as disciples inviting others to join us. To do God’s work we have to put aside some of the old ways of the church that divide us, separate us from our mission in the vineyard and remember that we are sisters and brothers of the body of Christ.

Matthew 10:40-42:

“Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ probably was not designed to mean shaking hands at the church door each Sunday and calling it quits for the week.  Could it be that the church is no longer growing because we are no longer growing as the true Body of Christ?  Are we guilty of just going through the motions?

Evangelism is not electrifying our sanctuary adding movie screens and professional bands like the Evangelicals have tried.  Oh it brought in a crowd alright, but they only stayed as long as you kept on entertaining them.  The current research suggests that the half-life of that approach to church growth may be short as the growth rate of the megachurches on average is now flat after years of big increases. Why?  Probably for a lot of the same reasons mainline churches has declined—we lost sight of the real reason we showed up in the first place.

1 Corinthians 14:26

“So here is what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.”

Get the message?

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