I like Buddhism because it starts with the obvious. The 1st Noble Truth is Suffering. It doesn’t say “life is suffering” or suffering is the foundation of anything. It just says there is suffering. We don’t have to look far to find it. If we check our own lives, we are apt to find some unhappiness. If we look at our friends and families, we will find some unhappiness. If we look around the world at the poverty, the sickness, the war, the crime, the prejudice, the injustice – the list goes on – we see suffering.
There is a Buddhist story about a woman whose little boy had died, so she rushed in desperation to the guru to ask him to resurrect her son. He said, “Yes, I can do this. You need to do only one thing. Bring me a cup of rice from a home that has not been touched by sorrow.” She rushed back to her village and went door to door. Everyone she met was ready and willing to give a cup of rice to save her son, but there was no home that had not been touched by sorrow. So she returned to the guru and told him she had learned the lesson he had meant to teach her. Suffering touches all of us.
I love Christianity because it has something helpful to say in response to Buddhism’s 1st Noble Truth – the gospel – the good news, the excellent news, the tears of joy news of God’s healing, liberating, transforming love signed, sealed, and delivered in the person of Jesus. An old gospel song says it straight out:
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me.
Sharing that good news with suffering people is The First Mark of Mission. To be clear, it is The First Mark Of Mission. To put a point on it, evangelism, sharing the good news of God’s love is the Episcopal Church’s Number One Reason To Exist. We get around to offering social services to the poor, advocating for justice, and saving the environment after that. First, first, we proclaim the gospel.
Yet, I often hear our people say they want no part of evangelism. They are in fact against it. And I believe them. The fact that our Church achieved a growth rate of zero (0) during a time when the population of our state doubled evidences how sincere we are about repudiating the First Mark Of Mission. One of our critics from another diocese compared our remarkable no-growth statistic to having “walked through a hurricane without getting wet.”
So that we can actually discuss the issue: let’s burn the straw man. No one is talking about offensive, arm-twisting sales pitches. No one is talking about manipulation and coercion. That is sales at its worst. It is not evangelism of any kind. We are talking about three simple steps:
Invitation --- Welcome --- Inclusion
Invitation is saying right out loud in an honest and attractive way: “we are here for you.” There are a lot of ways to do that. Here are a few key steps:
1. Engagement with the Community – that could be through service like Communities in Schools, advocacy like Nevadans for the Common Good, having a float in a parade, or participating in a community cleanup project. To be inviting, a congregation must be in the game of civic life. What we do says who we are. What we fail to do says we are irrelevant.
2. Secular Events At Church – the people who need Jesus most are the ones who aren’t going to come to Sunday worship. So host a concert, a poetry reading, a lecture, a square dance. Have something at the church that people who don’t come to church will attend. It’s your chance to make contact. Grace in the Desert has had great success with this. It isn’t as helpful to advertise the not-so-surprising news that we worship on Sunday as it is to advertise a special event that will attract the secular minded. The event just happens to be in our church because we are the kind of church that appreciates what they appreciate. Connection.
3. Offer programs that help people – we do a decent job with the homeless and the imprisoned. But there are a lot of other folks out there who need help. Take the divorced. The recently divorced are one of the most likely groups to start attending church. But, to my knowledge, not one of our churches offers a divorce recovery group. People entering recovery from addictions are also likely to begin attending church. Fortunately several of our churches host 12 step groups, through we sometimes keep them at arms length. Offering your community what it needs starts with asking your community what it needs. St. Catherine’s did that and formed a strong mentoring and supportive relationship with a local school and a low-income apartment complex. Asking what a community needs is different from offering what we feel like giving. It’s about them. That’s gospel.
4. Advertise – Is that a bad word? Think about Mother Joan’s ads for St. Mark’s, Tonopah. Go to our web site welcome page http://www.episcopalnevada.org/About%20Us/welcome.html, click the audio clips, and have a 2-minute listen. Have you seen the billboard in Ely with a picture of Fr. Red and a young family? We don’t advertise to get a pledge unit. We aren’t selling anything. We advertise to share some gospel with people who need some gospel. It’s a matter of spending a few dollars to show people who we are and that ought to be the Body of Christ in Nevada. It isn’t that they see or hear an ad and post haste rush to church next Sunday. The ad just tells them that we’re here so that if and when the time is right, they’ll remember us as an option.
5. Web sites and social media – If we intend to share a message with anyone under 60, this is where we do it. A congregation that is not actively using web sites and social media -- not for internal communications, but to say to outsiders “We Are Here For You” -- is effectively excluding young and even middle age adults. If you don’t have anyone in the congregation who knows how to do these things – that is the case for several of our congregations – call the diocesan office. We will get you the help you need.
Welcome is making people feel at home after they respond to the invitation. This is the most crucial step in evangelism. Even if we don’t invite people, the sheer force of suffering will drive some to our door. What will we do with them? We are not doing nearly as well as we think. This is the main weakness responsible for our zero-growth record. So what goes into welcome? Again, a lot goes into it. These are a few biggies:
1. Be an attractive community. When visitors see us, they need to see Jesus. They need to feel God’s love. Often they don’t because the congregation is either fragmented by conflict or fused in a clique. These are two opposite ways to achieve the same result – exclusion. Our fighting congregations know they are fighting. They may not be aware that innocent visitors are being spiritually wounded in the crossfire. Our fused congregations call themselves friendly “caring families.” Statistically, congregations that call themselves “caring families” are the least likely to grow and the most likely to decline. Those who visit caring family churches are often shut out and ignored. Neither a fragmented nor a fused congregation is capable of our number 1 mission. The most important step in evangelism is attending to the relationship patterns of the existing congregation. One way to do that is with a behavioral covenant. Canon Catherine led her Utah congregation in that process with great success. The outline for how to do it is in Behavioral Covenants In Congregations by Gilbert Rendle, but having someone from the outside facilitate the process helps a lot.
2. Greeters, Aids, & Lurkers – Having greeters, not just ushers handing out service bulletins, but someone trained to genuinely welcome people (not just visitors – welcome everyone “Good morning. Good to see you. I’m glad you’re here.”) is a game changer. St. John’s, Glenbrook took steps to become an attractive congregation, put together a welcome pamphlet, and assigned greeters. Today, St. John’s is a new place, a much happier place to walk into. Aids help new folks find their way through the liturgy. We can be hard to keep up with for folks who are not familiar with our liturgy. I have seen Harvard educated smart people walk out in frustration. The Greeter connects the Visitor with an Aid to help them find their way. A Lurker hangs out with the priest in the receiving line. If there is a Visitor, the Lurker gets their contact info so the priest and a layperson can follow up.
3. Follow up. The week after someone visits, they should receive a follow up. Ideally it should be a gift of some kind. My last congregation hand delivered homemade bread (we grew at the rate of 10% a year in a town that was declining in population and we were a decidedly minority denomination – but we grew 10% per year). Cookies would work. There ought to be at a minimum a phone call. The priest and a layperson both need to communicate that we were glad the person came, express the hope that they will come again, and offer to help if there is anything the person needs.
4. Focus on the visitor. This does not mean sell the visitor on how great we are. It does not mean tell the visitor all about ourselves. It absolutely does not mean recruit the visitor into anything. I have heard from new folks that people tried to put them on the altar guild their first Sunday visit!! “Focus on the visitor” means asking them about themselves, showing some interest in them, expressing hope for their well-being whether they join us or not. We need to show them that we are interested in them – not as marks but as people and that we wish them well. The heart of welcome is the spiritual practice of looking people in the eye, smiling, and of wishing them well.
Inclusion is making the new person a part of the group, easing their way from outside in. This takes time and may actually be subtler than Invitation and Welcome, but there are only two general steps.
1. Orientation Class. This is not the more substantial formation I hope we offer before Confirmation. It is a simple 30-minute intro to the Episcopal Church. We are different and people will not stick around to figure us out unless we give them a hint about who we are. In a small church, this may be a one on one with the priest. But in a larger congregation, it should be offered at least quarterly for newcomers. If only one or two come, that would be one or two. We fish. The angels count. Matthew 13: 47-50
2. Focus on the newcomer. This does not mean recruiting the newcomer into one of the jobs none of us wants to do. It means getting to know them, helping them find their own place in their own time. It takes longer for some than for others. Instead of cramming them into some pre-existing job, figure out what they are good at and pin a badge on them to authorize them to do it.
But why do any of this? One answer is: there are hurting people out there who will get to know Jesus through this soft form evangelism. I’ll be a witness. That’s how I met Jesus at St. Michael’s, Boise way back in the 80s.
But what’s in it for us? There seems to be a natural human tendency to close doors. I rarely see our church doors completely open. We usually keep them half-closed, which is telling. Something in us wants to keep our group to ourselves, our church building to ourselves, our pew to ourselves. But here’s the problem. None of that will ease our suffering. None of it will change our lives, give us a reason to get up in the morning, make us say, “YES” to the universe. Our friends and our church habits that we hoard are nice but they aren’t rocking our world. The love of Jesus will. It will rock our world like nothing else. The catch is: we can’t receive the love of Jesus without passing it on. We don’t get it until we share it. If we aren’t sharing the love of Jesus with the folks who need it, we can’t experience it ourselves. What’s in the First Mark Of Mission for us? Our happiness, our healing, our transformation, the meaning and value of our lives.
Less dramatically, but no less real, there’s another thing. For a few decades now, I have been welcoming into the Church people who need some gospel. Here’s the surprise. They always, always, without exception, bring some gospel with them – gospel I needed to hear or gospel other people in the congregation needed to hear. There are wanderers out there who will bless us more than we can bless them. All it takes is invitation, welcome, and inclusion to make our world a more interesting and gracious home.