This article was recently published in the e-magazie Witness6.7 — click here for more.
Non-Proselytizing Evangelism…. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but in reality it is a highly effective, authentically Anglican, way to bring all sorts and conditions of people into the embrace of the love of Jesus Christ.
The idea that evangelism could take place without proselytizing began to take root in the minds of our church planting team as we prepared to launch a new mission congregation from the ashes of a previous mission, a somewhat conservative congregation that had disintegrated in conflict over ostensibly theological differences over human sexuality two years earlier, after demonstrating initial rapid growth. Because our core congregation contained some former members – though none of the founders – of the disbanded mission, we decided that we would learn from the failure of that previous effort rather than ignore it, as is so often the case.
We began a several month process of Biblical study and prayer about the basis of Christian unity and community. Unanimously, we reached the conclusion that Jesus had never intended to start a new religion. We also concluded that the Apostle Paul considered religion irrelevant (“neither Jew nor Gentile” – Gal 3:22) to relationship with Christ. Rather, he believed that being in the love of Christ was the key to re-creating humanity and the world. Paul never used the word “convert” to describe new Christ-followers, but instead used terms which, while we mistranslate them as convert, literally mean “new planting” (1 Tim 3:6) or “first fruit” (Rom 16:5).
We came to understand that the early Church was more a movement than an organized religion, and that its approach to evangelism was not proselytizing (convincing people to change religions) but planting the seeds of Christ’s love through radical hospitality. In fact, it would take several centuries and the merger of Church and State (in the form of the Roman Empire) for Paul’s vision of a fellowship founded in faith, hope, and the love of Christ to be displaced by an institutional church which substituted certainty for faith, security for hope, and the power to control its people for the love of Christ. With few exceptions, “convert or die” (or at least “convert or go to hell”) became the predominant evangelistic credo of the Church. One of the exceptions was the Celtic Christian forebears of the Anglican Church, who planted the seeds of radical Christian hospitality and harvested a robust Christian faith in most of Celtic Britain.
We came to realize that faith and hope are essentially the present and future forms of a kind of trust. Faith is trusting that Christ’s love is all-sufficient to us now. Hope is trusting that Christ’s love will be all-sufficient for us forever. Hence, we adopted the following affirmation as part of our parish vision: “We believe that the only sufficient basis for Christian community is Christ’s love for us.”
This understanding of the incarnational power of Christ’s love to create community out of chaos and unity in the midst of diversity has inspired our congregation. It has enabled us to transcend potentially divisive differences and transform potential US/THEM conflicts into healthy diversity, it has also helped us to become more comfortable and confident in communicating the good news of Christ’s love. Viewing even theological differences as healthy and conflict as transformable into a more complete understanding of God, we have come not only to tolerate diversity, but to actively welcome it. A parishioner put it this way: we are learning to trust Christ’s “fierce, transforming love” to both contain our differences and to use them to teach and shape us as individuals and as a congregation.
One way it shapes us is by turning our corporate life within the church walls into a training ground for sharing our individual experiences of the love of Christ to those beyond them. As we learn not to fear that our individual differences may by a sign of something wrong with us, it becomes easier for us to be ourselves with each other, freely sharing with each other what we honestly think and feel about our experience of Christ, which in turn makes it easier for us to share those thoughts and feelings with people outside our church who are important to us. As we learn that evangelism is not about “selling” people on switching religions, but simply introducing people to the love of Christ and allowing Christ’s love to transform us all, we lose the performance anxiety that comes with conversion-oriented proselytizing. We become natural evangelists, unconsciously sharing the good news of the love of Christ in all that we do, simply by “living Christ’s love out loud,” as one parishioner put it.
‘Non-proselytizing evangelism is not a technique, but a Way of Life. Sharing the love of Christ is not a means of evangelism but the end.’ The gift we offer the world is not the institution of Christianity but the opportunity to experience the love of Christ, which we may not make contingent on a decision to join our church. Even so, when we share the love of Christ without condition and no pressure to convert, many do make the decision to join with us in our community of faith, and join the larger faith community through baptism. Among our current and former parishioners are skeptics and fundamentalists, Jews and Muslims, Baptists and Buddhists, including one young Buddhist man who for many years proudly proclaimed himself to newcomers as our congregation’s “resident heathen.”
Does it always work this way? No. Are people uniformly drawn in by the love of Christ? Of course not. Are we perfect examples of how to pass on Christ’s love unconditionally? Far from it. Still, it is our intention and our heart’s desire. And even when we don’t get it totally right, somehow Christ’s love manages to overlay itself on that intention and desire, and people respond. They find themselves being drawn in, not by us, but by – and into – the love of Christ.
By Ken Howard
The Rev. Ken Howard is the author of Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), the founder and director of The Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity at St. Nicholas Church, and the rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland. St. Nicholas Church was the first successful church plant in its diocese in nearly forty years. Growing steadily since its start in 1995, it is in the top third of diocesan congregations in size and the top 5% in per capita giving. Ken’s blog, Paradoxical Thoughts may be found at PracticingParadoxy.com