This column is aimed at Episcopalians, but I suspect changing a word here or there might make it about most other mainline and Catholic Churches as well. It begins with a question. How much Jesus are Christians supposed to take with them into the market place? Episcopalians are a little nervous about that, even when motivated by Christ to do good. They make it too difficult to talk about religion, much less Jesus. It’s not that hard.
The congregation from which I retired had, and still has, a long established practice of social outreach through generous gifts and parishioner engagement in the life of the community. For years I sat contented that this was good. It’s what doing God’s work looks like. On the other side of the table sat Jack Ellis. Jack, now deceased, was a professor of social work, and the chair of the outreach committee. He wanted to know where Jesus was in all that we did? How was Jesus made known? How were others to make a connection between our faith and what we did? If they couldn’t make the connection, how were we different from any other group doing good works? It took me a long time to understand what he was talking about.
Maybe it was because the town’s conservative evangelical churches had other ideas about how Jesus was to be made known. It was to save souls, with a string attached to every deed and every gift. Crudely put, it went something like this: Jesus loves you, but if you don’t accept him as your personal savior, you’re going to hell. Accepting Jesus came with conditions imprinted on a long menu of social issues: homosexuals are bad; poverty is the poor’s own fault; Jesus will cure your bad habits; women are subordinate to men; if things aren’t going your way, your faith isn’t strong enough; Satan has seduced the nation with secular humanism. All of it delivered with a toothy smile. It wasn’t disingenuous, they believed it all, and delivered it with bible thumping enthusiasm, giving them ownership of the Christian brand, according to popular opinion. And why not? Weren’t all the mainline churches in decline? Either they had abandoned God, or God had abandoned them.
Not wanting to have our Christian faith painted with that brush, we were content to be St. Whosit Church that could be counted on, along with Rotary and the Lions, to do good things for those in need. Members, faithful followers of Jesus, were committed to civic involvement, serving on boards, volunteering at social agencies, belonging to Rotary and Lions, all of it inspired by their faith, but without eagerness to bring the name of Jesus into it.
I was wrong. Jack was right. But what’s the right way to help others understand the connection between our shared faith as followers of Jesus and way we live into it through what we do in the community? It turns out that there are quite a few ways, all of them simple, and all Episcopalian friendly.
One is to honestly admit that not everyone knows who we are. The general public has no idea about what we believe or how we worship. Most couldn’t find us on a city map. They can’t pronounce Episcopalian, much less spell it. A local church leader once told me that everyone in town knew his church so there was no need to elaborate. I tested it by stopping at a few gas stations and stores to ask if they knew where St. Whosit was and what kind of church it might be. Most had no idea, never heard of it. Those who had were unsure if it was Christian, or maybe something else, Catholic possibly. It takes little effort to send a gift or crew of volunteers along with a letter or pamphlet explaining that the work they’re doing, the gift they’re giving, is in the name of Jesus Christ, and a little about what that means.
Hosting free meals in the parish hall? It’s become a popular thing to do, and much needed. How hard is it to put tent cards at every table saying it’s a gift from Jesus, a few prayer cards to take away, and a warm invitation to spend some time in the church. How about offering an early evening lunch group bible study? Who knows what might happen?
Be alert to opportunities. Sooner or later someone will ask you whether you believe in God, what you believe about God. It happens more often than you think, but most of us aren’t paying attention. It can happen anywhere at anytime. This afternoon my wife and I took a stroll up and down the main drag on Nantucket, where we’re visiting for a few days. I was sitting on a sidewalk bench soaking up the sun when John from New Jersey sat down nearby. We said hello. John’s 86, just hanging around waiting on his family as they stopped in the shops. He asked what I would think about being 20 again. Not on my bucket list, that’s for sure, but he wondered about having another sixty years ahead of him instead of just staring at the end of things. Depends on your theology, I said, some of us don’t believe it’s the end, and the conversation took off. No, I never told him I was a priest, but I did say he might want to look into the Episcopal Church because it’s open to questions and doubt. And, by the way, Nantucket’s St. Paul’s Church is right around the corner. I’ll be there at 10, you come too. Will he? Probably not. That’s not the point.
Look behind the veil. Questions or statements about evolution, global warming, fundamentalism, atheism, and the good old days, are often invitations to a conversation about God from people who are curious about Christianity and don’t want to be thumped on the head by a bible. Or maybe from people whose experience with conservative evangelicalism has them wondering if there is another way of knowing Jesus.
Share your weekend. Who hasn’t had someone ask what they did over the weekend? Why not throw in church? It won’t hurt. Interesting things can happen.
Got a suit coat of some kind? Put an Episcopal Church or diocesan lapel pin on it. Now and then someone will ask about it. After all, it’s not the usual Rotary or American flag pin. Nothing complicated about it, just cocktail conversation, but it’s cocktail conversation about Jesus without pounding a bible or threatening hell.
Episcopalians make it too difficult. It’s not that hard.